The Short Definition of “Real Learning”

Real learning is the ability to adopt what you know and know-how to do and adapt it under an everchanging variety of circumstances.


No point beating around the pedagogical bush. I’ve been asked by a number of readers “How would you define real learning?” Real learning is the ability to adopt what you know and know-how to do and adapt it under an everchanging variety of circumstances. Learning is an ongoing process. That’s my definition and I’m sticking to it.

Real Learning Versus Rote Learning

Learning in a classroom, actual or online, involves the use of short-term memory. It is all about remembering – regurgitating – then forgetting. It is rote learning, the encumbered and inhibited kind we are mostly used to doing. You remember the lesson, and show that you remember through a variety of tests and then move on. Moving on is all about forgetting. With two interesting and notable exceptions. Art. Science. The reason is simple. Art and Science require an evolving degree of knowledge from basic to advanced. Think learning to play the tuba or building a car. It’s the kind of subject matter that was always learned by apprenticing or being tutored by a master. You need basic math to get to algebraic equations and then onto experimental astrophysics. If you don’t master the fingering you cannot play a decent scale let alone get to a Bach sonata.

By contrast, real learning is somewhat like sleeping. (Not the sleeping you do when a sage-on-the- stage drones on in that sonorous monotone and lulls you into dreamland.) You do not “fall” to sleep, you go through a process of sleeping, through stages. If you’re constantly interrupted you wake up the next morning feeling like you had a bad night sleep. Real learning requires stages as well, and you cannot skip over any of them.

Playing Golf: Spaghetti on the Putting Green

Even though I do not play the game, I use golf as an example to explain the process of real learning. Interestingly a recent number of neuroscience researchers have been doing the same. They talk about reaching a point during the adoption phase where you peak at the physical learning part of the game, and you move on to the strategic or mental part. Your body has practiced so much it has really learned what to do, and now it’s on to the rest of you to learn to find the spot where you want the ball to go. Feel the wind. Sense the way the green curves. Before you get to that stage you spend a lot of time looking all over the place. They followed the eye patterns of novice golfers on a green, lining up a putt, and when they illustrated their eye movements it looked like someone had thrown a plate of spaghetti on the green. Lines and loops going every which way. With the top golfers, the eye patterns were a only few lines, most of them moving directly towards the cup.

When you have learned to play well enough, the body part of the learning to play golf is done, and your mind is free to focus focus focus. You reached the point where you are in the zone. It’s like sleep where you managed to avoid being interrupted until you reach Phase 5 – dreaming.

Why Do We Continue to Fake It?

Rote learning is an incredible waste of time and money. So much of what we learn in school, and in companies that have copied the schoolplace model into the workplace, is forgotten. It does not build on itself from experience. Not just experience in the sense of doing but even experience of knowing more. Even though history, for example, should take you from the Year One up until Today, and then deeper into every era, most of what you learn about history you quickly test and rapidly excrete. That’s just the way the system measures and rewards the student. It has nothing to do with really learning about history. Or any other subject as well. And it certainly fails miserably at providing the 21st century skills we need for the emerging Knowledge Economy.

My Story About History and Herstory

Side note: An alternative example of real learning. I had the advantage of going to a school – at the time it was called “experimental” – where we spent two years moving through time. Going to school was like being in a time machine. For example, when we were learning about the period called the 16th century, we did not have just one short history lesson,  but learned everything 16th century. We were taught about their language, words, maps, arts, crafts, clothes, sciences, cultures, politics, music, poetry, literature, plays, travels, trade, religions, wars, weapons, you name it. We were immersed in the 16th century. It felt like we were in the 16th century. It’s just another model that while not perfect, teaches you more about history than the 3 weeks you get in most schools before jumping ahead from the 16th to the 17th century.

Back to real learning versus rote learning. There are two very surprising elements to real, uninhibited learning that the fake pale excuse of rote learning excludes, disables, and even prohibits.

The Critical Importance of Forgetting

The first is that real learning starts with forgetting – making room for the new. If you have a hard time forgetting the old you will have a difficult time starting to learn the new. If you had a hard time learning what you know, then you will also try and hold on to the old and not learn the new. And be honest we’ve all experienced it. That moment when they upgrade or change a process or procedure or tool you know how to use and you exclaim “Hey, I just learned how to use it, and they’re already changing it!” So, you need to be able to clear the mental cache to use a materialistic model of the brain.

It’s Not Failure if You Learn Something

The second big part – the really big part – of real learning is failure. Failure happens. When you are adapting what you learned from the last time you did it or thought it or spoke it or argued it or whatever, you will experience failure. Smart people who are real learners go “Oh I failed, okay what did I do wrong and how can I fix it so next time I do it right?” Einstein. Edison. Dyson. My Uncle Karl. Long list. So you need to accept and enable failure for the process of real learning to work. And if “failure is not an option” then you will fail and not learn anything.

If you are involved in any kind of learning, and forgetting and failure are not emphasized as part of the learning … leave. You will not really learn a thing. If forgetting what you know at the start (I love those movie scenes where the Sargent – Captain – Leader says “Okay you idiots for starters I want you to forget everything you ever learned!”) then real learning will not happen. By the way forgetting is a brain function as studied by neuroscience as remembering. Imagine what your life would be like if you could not forget what you learned the first (and last) time you learned it …

The “High Wire Training” Exception

Now there is what I call “High Wire Training” where failure leads to your or someone else’s death. Walking across the Grand Canyon. Going into battle in Afghanistan. Responding to a 911 emergency involving a mass shooting or horrible car accident. Let’s be honest. Most of what we learn is not in the High Wire Training category. If it was, this would be a very different blog with a focus on practice, practice and more practice. Repetition. Simulation. VR headsets and more … hmmm … maybe next time.

To sum it up. Learning is a natural brain process that occurs in stages. Real learning enables all the stages. Rote learning disables the stages and focuses on a small part of the process. I’m not sure what value rote learning has in today’s world. Then again, I’m not sure it ever had any real value. What’s the point of spending time and energy learning something only to forget it almost immediately after the test?

To review: Real learning is the ability to adopt what you know and know-how to do and adapt it under an everchanging variety of circumstances. It is one of the reasons my new book Minds at Work harps on the need for continuous learning in the Knowledge Economy where every day – using what you know and know-how to do – is more than ever under the pressure of constantly changing circumstances.

Minds at Work will be published this December 2017 by ATD Press and is available for preorder on Amazon.


Learning, art & science — and golf

Screen shot 2015-03-17 at 2.06.15 AM

This post was written by David Grebow and Susan Fry

When we talk about creating a learning culture, we’re defining learning as “the ability to adapt what you know and what you know how to do to an ever-changing variety of circumstances.”

To become a learning culture, an organization must understand that learning is not a discrete training event or even a series of them. Rather, learning is an ongoing process, one that occurs over time. Sharing and expanding knowledge in a culture is very different from the “rote learning” or classroom learning model that prevails in most organizations, and which rewards short-term memory.

By “rote learning,” we mean any brief, highly structured learning event that employs quizzes to provide a score intended to gauge how much the participant “learned.” The problem is that the goal of these “learning events” is  to ensure that, to be considered “successful” requires only that the attendees retain information long enough to get a passing score on a quiz or test (or multiple ones, scattered throughout the session.)

Ask yourself what the scores would be if the quiz was taken again, a few days after the “learning event” was over. A huge percentage of what was supposedly “learned” would already have been forgotten. (I’ll leave the cost-effectivemess of such training for another discussion.)

Interestingly, art and science have proved to be two areas where what we’ve just stated above do not apply.

This is because art and science require an evolving degree of knowledge from basic to advanced. Think about learning to play the tuba or conducting a chemistry experiment. This is subject matter that was always learned by apprenticing with or being tutored by a master, someone with a great deal more experience.

Would anyone consider handing a Bach score and a cello to someone who played a little guitar and expect him to master it after two hour-long seminars and a demonstration video?

Real learning is somewhat like sleeping. You do not go to sleep; rather, you go through the process of sleeping, which is completed in a number of stages. If you’re constantly interrupted, you wake up the next morning feeling like you had a bad nights’ sleep. Real learning requires stages as well and you cannot skip over any of them.

What neuroscience researchers have learned by studying golfers helps shed light on this.

They describe how learners reach a point during the adoption phase where they peak at the physical learning part of the game. After enough time has been spent “on the job” practicing the required physical movements, a point comes when it stops being necessary to consciously think about the movements.  When that happens, the brain is freed to focus on the parts of the game that require active mental thought and calculation. When you hear coaches use the phrase “muscle memory,” or tell athletes “get out of your mind” or “you’re over-thinking it,” this is what they mean.

When a golfer has mastered the essentials of the physical game, the mind becomes is table to focus on more complex issues.  And that focus is truly the key to transforming a good player into a great one. But it takes a very long time, and a lot of practice to get to this stage.

An analysis of the eye patterns of novice golfers on a green, lining up a putt, translated the players’ eye movements into graphics. What it showed looked like someone had thrown a plate of spaghetti on the green: there were lines and loops going every which way.When they graphed the eye movement of top golfers, the patterns were a few lines most of them moving directly towards the cup.

The reason why most classes offered by organizations are essentially a waste of time is because they do not include enough time to complete the learning process. The material presented is not reinforced and internalized through experience.  No time is allowed for the learner to practice the concepts or methods that have been presented and try them out in the “real world” or workplace, repeatedly, over time, until they become like “muscle memory.” Because of this, little is retained.

Now imagine what would happen if the organization provided continuous opportunities for learning, actively encouraged its members to be learning continuously, built in time for them to practice, and measured progress not by pop quiz scores, but increased productivity.

Now imagine that the organization is your organization.