Everything you know about learning is wrong…and what might that mean?

Nick Shackleton-Jones on stage

Nick Shackleton-Jones is an entertaining and occasionally puckish speaker, and kept the Brighton audience for last night’s Tilt Talk on their toes with jokes, challenging questions, short activities and giant marshmallow-throwing.

And that wasn’t just playfulness, but illustrating one of Nick’s key points about how people learn: that we are much more likely to remember things when we are engaged and active. He joked that “something has gone horribly wrong”, that in spite of everything now known about learning, the audience was sitting there waiting to hear from “the sage on the stage.”

Drawing on differences between learning and education, Nick discussed the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve which, he argued, only shows “human memory is very good at throwing out rubbish.” And so, leads onto his particular theory as described in his book How People Learn.

Learning is emotional

In the Affective Context Model, Nick argues that learning is only made of emotional responses, from which the memories are reconstructed. This got me thinking about what might count as emotions, and also how I really got into cooking not from TV chefs and their overproduced programmes, but from the kind of shows that showed live cooking.

An important point here is that if we are engaged and motivated to learn, an educator merely needs to provide the resources. This is the Pull condition or what Nick calls “strong affective context”. In the “weak affective context” or Push condition, we need to provide experiences, narrative and more so that unmotivated learners become motivated.

Slide "but when to do which". A spectrum of activities going from Push or 'care less' to Pull or 'care more' respectively: experience, story, animation, guide, checklist.

Below "Push": The organisation wants me to: be convinced, feel inspired or engaged, and understand why.

Below "Pull": I want: support and guidance, simple practical stuff, to understand how

Describing some of his work at BP, Nick described a very user-centred approach to understanding real needs. Don’t talk to stakeholders “about topics,” Nick says, “talk about what people need to do,” and then talk to those people about how to meet those needs.

In talks like this, we expect to hear about things that are exciting and innovative, but it was the inclusion of more ordinary tools that made me pay attention. These included factsheets and checklists that allow people to explore and understand a subject, and to help them take the right actions.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised as I’m a fan of tools built for explorability. The Design Process I helped build at BDP allowed different professionals to understand their responsibilities during any stage in a building’s design and construction. Also at BDP, redesigning the website, I made it a key principle that there would be no dead-ends in the primary information.

But, it’s not just about learning…

As I got to think about the importance of emotions in learning, it struck me that the same principles held true in internal communications and culture change. This shouldn’t have surprised me, as I’ve previously argued that learning is how organisations change.

It shouldn’t surprise me, or anyone working in learning, change, comms, or intranets, that this is all interconnected. We are all trying to win the limited attention of the same beleaguered employees, and that won’t work in the longer-term if the surprises become predictable.

That leaves listening and understanding as the tools we should all use. We can build tools that effectively support exploration and understanding, ones that can push users into the right learning, without creating too much noise for our colleagues. Choosing when and when not to use emotional hooks may be the most important thing we do.

Nick Shackleton-Jones is @shackletonjones on Twitter and his book How People Learn is available from publishers Kogan Page, or order it from your local independent bookshop.

Every thing we do…

Two quotes from tweets have really got me thinking this week, and reminded me of a quote from Karen McGrane that is never far from my thoughts.

The first was this from Simon Rohrbach’s talk to the Leading Design conference about joining, building and leaving a company.

Having confidence in the business makes everything else easier

Simon Rohrbach

In some ways “having confidence in the business makes everything else easier” feels like a truism. When there’s confidence, uphill slopes feel flatter, minor irritations are quickly forgotten, and people know the work they’re doing has a direct impact on the way the business works.


While I’m never going to suggest that internal comms needs to sell false confidence, it has an important role in stitching together a coherent story from what the business actually does. Confidence has to be built up through communication and co-operation with leadership, the people who sell the business, the people who do, and the people who train.

In short, I see this as being about changing people, which brings me to this tweet by Bruce McTague.

I find it unsettling how many people in the organizational change business do not actually believe in people

Bruce McTague The decision to invest in a person

Bruce was writing about “the decision to invest in a person” over the course of that person’s employment with a company. What chimed with me in the words “how many people…do not actually believe in people” were the times that compliance, HR, IT and other functions treated colleagues as something the business needed to protect itself from, rather than as Bruce says Truly lasting change & organization effect is within people themselves.


Which brings me to something I find myself quoting month-in, month-out. I’ll always picture mid-renovation London Bridge Station on a grey wet autumn morning, dodging between puddles in spite of being under cover, and trying to find a dry spot out of the way of the trudging crowds, so I could rewind and replay what I’d just heard.

Every thing we do is change management

Karen McGrane IA Summit Closing Keynote

My initial reaction would have been a defensive “no it’s not, don’t be stupid”, but there was something so compelling that grabbed me. So I took myself aside and there in the dripping, dark station played it back.

Karen said:
The longer I do this, the more I realize every thing we do is change management. Every single thing we do. Our whole job. Our whole career. Every single one of you, your whole career is change management.

More than the idea of change management, it was Karen’s use of “every thing” that hit me. I had an “turtles all the way down” moment.

Change management could be as simple as helping people use our websites or services effectively, to get better at using them.

It could mean helping our users understand the tools we give them, the technology they use, the language we use, and it can mean helping them to help others manage the second, third or fourth degree of that change.

It could mean helping colleagues, bosses, leaders, stakeholders understand better ways of doing things, and to get better at doing work, learning from that, and feeding back into the work we do.

No change without people
No people without confidence

Particularly in the digital workplace, every thing we do is change management. We need our fellow employees to accept that things are going to be a little different tomorrow than they were yesterday. Without engaging them as people, we can’t give them the confidence that we believe in them, and the confidence that participating in that change is going to benefit them.