Future of learning blog

Creative insights, learning transfer and the power of prompts

“Never meet your heroes”, or so the saying goes. Well I’m glad to report that Will Thalheimer is the exception. Whenever I meet him, he doesn’t disappoint.

Will is president of Work-Learning Research and has more than 30 years’ experience in learning and performance. He is a great advocate for using research to inform practice, and an inspiration to us here at Stellar Labs where evidence-based learning is at the heart of everything we do.  He’s just joined our learning research advisory board so we’re delighted.

So, what’s caught Will’s attention at the moment?

“Insight learning. It’s that sudden oh-my-gosh grasping of the solution; a flash of understanding. Often, as L&D practitioners, we don’t design that into our programmes. We have learning objectives but we don’t have insight objectives. We should set up our learning interventions to generate creative insights.”

But, says Will, being an expert in your field does not guarantee creativity. “Broaden your expertise,” he counsels. “Go to the boundaries of your subject and bring together ideas that weren’t connected before. When you connect them, that’s the insight.”

Cues and effect

Will is also interested in the role of habits in learning. “Humans are not as proactive as we’d like to think. Rather, we are nudged by environmental cues.

“For example, my washing machine had a little mould on the door seal so I sprayed it with a cleaning agent. The instructions said leave it to soak for a while, then rinse. So, on the way upstairs to my study, I put the bottle on the bottom step. When I came down later for lunch, I saw the bottle and thought, I’ve got to finish the job.

“That kind of prompting mechanism is really valuable. Are your learners getting those subtle cues to say go the new way? Are you creating that system?”

How to improve learning transfer

In common with us at Stellar Labs, Will is also focused on learning transfer and how to improve people’s ability to apply their new skills to the job. It’s a big topic, but what are his top takeaways?

“Learners need realistic practice, spaced repetition, and some triggering mechanisms to help with recall,” he says. “And they need the support of their manager in the workplace – providing resources, time, permission and coaching.”

There’s something else learners need and, according to Will, it’s the one thing many L&D practitioners don’t think about.

“We should have a sense of the roadblocks our learners might come up against. If we can prepare them for that, they’ll be more likely to persevere and succeed.”

“I hope to create a better interface between business stakeholders and the learning team”

So how does Will see the future for L&D? “I’ll tell you the future I’d like to see,” he says. “I’m currently writing a book in which I hope to create a better interface between business stakeholders and the learning team.

“Many of the issues we face in L&D are because that relationship has broken. Our business stakeholders don’t understand learning, so they don’t ask us what we can do. And we think we should frame everything from their business perspective.

“We forget we have a profession; we are learning professionals and have a strong skillset. I’d like to help us understand each other better. It will open up a myriad of possibilities.”

And if you’re wondering about that noise, it’s the huge number of L&D practitioners cheering Will on.


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