How to Reinvent Learning


Stop Tinkering Around The Edges

“Faced with the relentless acceleration of artificial intelligence (AI), cognitive technologies, and automation, 86 percent of respondents to this year’s [2019] Global Human Capital Trends survey believe they must reinvent their ability to learn … we have deliberately chosen the word “reinvent”. Reinvention goes back to the core–the foundation of an organization. This is not about tinkering at the edge.”

2019 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends

The report begs the question “How do I implement such a broad structural change in my management and my company? Where does reinventing learning begin?”

When I was researching and writing Minds at Work: How to Succeed in the knowledge Economy, I found a small number of companies all over the world that had reinvented their ability to learn. The ability to continuously learn professionally and personally was the secret to their success. They were companies that had stopped “tinkering around the edge” and completely reinvented learning. What were they doing that other companies needed to learn?

Some Background – The Industrial Model

In the previous industrial economy, the only model for learning was formal[1] or “push” training. The content, selected by management, was the singular focus. Training was scheduled as an event delivered at a specific time and place. Attendees registered and attendance was taken, grades were given, and instructors were evaluated. If attendees “passed” they received a certificate. If the instructors passed they received high marks on the smile sheets that graded their performance. The push approach was all about rote learning, the kind of learning that is committed to short-term memory for just enough time to pass the test. Attendees were then expected to go back to work as soon as the formal classroom or online program is finished. The expectation was you can now do your job or do it better because we gave you the training we decided you needed.

They were getting what I call ‘just-in-case training’ just in case they needed to recall and use it someday. Push learning is content-centered and developed and delivered in response to the management’s perception of a deficit, of the knowledge and skills are missing or in need of improvement. If this sounds familiar it is the way we spent most of our lives in school. And that was the model then lifted and completely copied into the workplace. It’s the way we learned to learn since the beginning of the industrial economy in the 19th-century.

We know from all the research that this model never really worked.

As far back as 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus extrapolated the hypothesis of the exponential nature of forgetting. The following formula can roughly describe it: R=e^{-\{t}{S}} where R is memory retention, S is the relative strength of memory, and t is time. A typical graph of the forgetting curve shows that we tend to halve the memory of newly learned knowledge in a matter of days or weeks unless we consciously review and use the learned material.

Further research, initially done by my team at IBM in the late 1980s, and at many other companies and organizations since then, shows a disproportionate amount of learning – anywhere between 70 to 80 percent – takes place during the informal phase after the more formal classroom-based or online learning is completed[2]. Informal or “pull” learning is what happens when knowledge has not been externalized or captured and exists only inside someone’s head. To get at the knowledge, you must locate and talk to that person in real time. Pull learning is learner-centered and is a response to the need for knowledge and skills on the job. The results are eye-opening.

What little learning we get (20-30%) during the formal push training stage is rapidly forgotten. This means every $1.00 spent on training returns on average 20¢ – 30¢ of value. The training stops when the initial, formal 20% training period is over. Learners are on their own as they enter the workplace with 70-80% left to learn.

Yet we have stubbornly persisted for more than 100 years in taking the formal training approach as the only way to learn. According to a recent Association for Training and Development (ATD) survey, the majority of training programs today are still based on the old push model. It is the default and the reason why the Deloitte study has 86% of the respondents calling for profound changes in the ways employees learn.

Welcome to the Knowledge Economy – Time For Reinvention

The companies that have reinvented learning have dramatically and successfully changed the model. Actually, that’s not exactly true. What they have done is take into account the real learning process, the way people are already learning on their own, and added in the enabling, already existing technology people are currently using. In this new model, context is far more important than content. knowledge and know-how must be delivered when and where it is needed not in a remote classroom away from the moment of need. Many of these companies have made profound structural changes during their reinvention and are in many ways years ahead of their competitors.

If like most companies you are just dipping your managerial toes into the new waters and have not yet even begun tinkering around the edges, where can your reinvention start?

Here is a suggestion gleaned from the companies big and small that have already started. I call it The Learning Curve and The Pivot Point. They key is to design your current learning programs to catapult the attendees from the initial push training period into the more critical informal learning period, where the research tells us that as much as 70-80% of the learning occurs[3]. In these advanced companies that are reinventing learning the pull[4] model takes over at the pivot and is used to help people get the information they need whenever and wherever the information is most useful.

The implications of not tinkering around the edges, of the change between the old and new models of training, is significant. The old rote model of push training delivers formal training content and stops cold. The new pull model of real learning uses formal training as a jumping off point for informal learning. Content is less important than communication, collaboration and continuous learning. Formal training is just the beginning. Formal training programs are considered the first step in the real learning process[5], and are more focused on laying the groundwork for the skills that need to be adapted, tested and acquired. The emphasis would not be on the details that can be accessed later but on the big picture–the ‘Aha!” moment”–and the performance outcomes that are expected.

This new approach has a clear continuum from formal to informal. The key is to identify the switch, the pivot from formal to informal learning. What do you need to do to create the most useful bridge between these two aspects of the learning process?

The Pivot Point is Critical

The Pivot Point is the moment formal training ends and informal learning begins. Focusing training on the Pivot Point is important for several reasons:

  • Learners need to be aware of what is involved when they pivot from formal to informal learning (and back again).
  • The focus on the Pivot Point will make sure the employee’s formal training is supported when they return to the workplace.
  • A plan for a well-timed hand-off from the formal to the informal can be developed to support employee performance during their informal learning.
  • The training can take the Ebbinghaus curve[6] into account and provide tools to reinforce the basics upon which learners need to build skills and knowledge as they adopt and adapt what they remember from the formal training.
  • Training can be designed to mirror the actual environment in which learners will work to make the pivot as seamless as possible.
  • This approach will reinforce the new goal of training: to prepare learners to successfully pivot and learn how to improve their performance when they are back at work.

How the Pivot Point Works


The Learning Process and The Pivot Point

All learners start out unequal. That simply means no one brings the same level of skills to a training program. Yet a training program can still be one-size-fits-all. All learners need certain basics as they go forward from the formal to the informal part of their learning. Those basics can be covered in ways to help bridge the transition between the two parts of the learning process.

The initial learning curve in the diagram represents the research done by Ebbinghaus and others. The research shows that there is a point where there is a precipitous drop in what someone learns during the push training program. During the learning process, the learning curve peaks at the Pivot Point, toward the end of the formal push training program. If nothing happens past the Pivot Point, people start to drop off the curve and forget what they learned. The goal is to get there before that happens.

At the Pivot Point, pull learning takes over. This is usually towards the end of the push training program event even as the learners are still in class completing a survey or a smile sheet. It is the time around which the short-term memory is full yet not yet shunting the learning into the longer-term memory. It is when people need to start adopting, adapting, trying, playing with, testing, and expanding upon what they learned–relearn it in a way–as they go through a variety of informal, constantly changing circumstances, and experience a series of similar, shorter learning curves to reach a level of mastery of expertise.

The process of learning can be summed up as a series of curves, each one representing the need to review and relearn what we learned. Each of these later learning curves, where more complex or sophisticated experiences occur, also has a downward side, where there is a falling off or forgetting of the new learning. The difference is that each succeeding curve in this extended learning process becomes less steep. We remember more, forget less, and as a result, need to learn less. As people draw closer to an expert level, the curve is almost a straight line. The key is to allow for time and reinforcing new skills and behaviors in the real context in which they are needed. Understanding the process reinforces the importance of using the Pivot Point.

Many different learning solutions can be used to facilitate the Pivot Point. First, managers can work with employees to decide what needs to be learned. Then they can provide access to the methods or combination of methods that will contribute to that learning. We’re not talking about incorporating new and expensive technologies. This is a starting point to your reinvention using what is already in place, just using it in new and better ways. Here is a list of some of the most commonly used methods I saw being employed at the pivot. The first five are primarily instructor-driven; the second five are learner-directed:


  • Coaching and mentoring: establishing relationships with people who have already taken a program or other leaders to help employees continue to develop the knowledge and skills needed to bridge formal and informal to be more effective at work.
  • Games and simulations: employing experiences that make learning more interactive and fun by applying the principles of gaming, such as scoring, competition, and rules of play, to replicating real-life problem solving within a virtual and safe environment
  • Story-based learning: Lessons couched in an emotional narrative that take advantage of our natural ability to remember and learn from stories. For example, attendees can tell their stories as they pivot from a classroom to a workplace.
  • External conferences, lectures, and courses: participating in outside events intended for professional development provided at the pivot as a next step to attend after the class.
  • Internships, apprenticeships, and job rotation: working in a temporary position to learn about a job, the work environment, and the organizational culture. Very similar to a structured on-the-job learning program that promotes growth and development.


  • Action learning: learning from reflecting on an activity while doing it, and from reflecting on an activity by looking back on what happened, then applying what was learned in a past situation to a new situation. Reflection is a critical element of the real learning process.
  • Daily log: individual employees writing or recording learning from each day of work and then sharing their observations with a small cohort of co-workers.
  • Experiments: gathering evidence in a controlled environment to support or refute a particular change that is being proposed, such as prototyping an innovation in the product development process and then trying it out with a few customers and learning from what happens. Similar to play. Works best in a fearless environment in which failure is not punished but learned from.
  • Learning communities: people who share the same interests or responsibilities in an organization, or across organizations, communicating and collaborating online to learn from each other, sharing successes and failures, answering questions and continuing to learn.
  • Interactive performance support program: Online materials providing information about a specific task that is easily accessed just-in-time at the moment of need. The best programs use NLP – natural language processing – answering spoken questions with answers in the same way that people use Google or Alexa.

The Pivot Point is just the beginning of your reinvention. Training programs can no longer be seen as the end of learning before working, but as the gateway to performing at the highest level.

When we start to see learning as a continuous process from push to pull (and sometimes circling back over and over again), we realize the value of the Pivot Point. And we realize that with planning, we can make that pivot a seamless move from pushing knowledge and skills to people pulling what they need to learn, when they need it, where it’s needed. The pivot is an opportunity to start managing people and reinvent learning that does not require any expensive or new technology during or after the push event. It requires a new way of looking and imagining how people can learn. Connecting the push training and pull learning together opens the door to a more complete learning experience. Use it as the beginning of the process of reinvention as your company enters the 21st-century where communication, collaboration, and continuous learning are the rule and not the exception.

You can find more ideas and approaches, as well as a wealth of research and background material, in my book Minds at Work.


[1] [1] Formal training happens when knowledge is captured and shared by people other than the original expert or owner of that knowledge. The knowledge can be captured in any format—written, video, audio—as long as it can be accessed anytime and anywhere, independent from the person who originally had it.

[2]Andrew Jefferson, Roy Pollock.”70:20:10: Where Is the Evidence?”, ATD Science of Learning Blog,

Tuesday, July 08, 2014.

[3] Ibid., ATD Science of Learning Blog

[4] Informal or pull Learning is what happens when knowledge has not been externalized or captured and exists only inside someone’s head. To get at the knowledge, you must locate and talk to that person in real time. Pull learning is learner-centered and in response to just-in-time need for knowledge and skills.

[5] We believe that learning is a process of adapting and adopting. Learners adopt what the lessons they learn in a formal program. They then adapt those lessons – through a self-directed process of trying, failing, succeeding and learning from experience – during a constantly changing set of circumstances.

[6] Weibell, C. J. (2011). Principles of learning: 7 principles to guide personalized, student-centered learning in the technology-enhanced, blended learning environment. Retrieved July 4, 2011 from

[7] Clark Quinn, “77 Tips on Today’s Hottest Topics from DevLearn Thought Leaders” On Cognition and How the Brain Learns, 15-18,The eLearning Guild, 2015.

[8]Ibid., p.18


Building a New Culture? Wear Jeans!

In my book Minds at Work, we researched over 30 companies that had the courage to change their management model from a 19th-century managing hands approach to what we termed a 21st-century Knowledge Economy managing minds model. Their stories are compelling and inspiring. How they moved from companies that were just doing okay to being the competitive leaders in their field is only part of the story.

A better lesson is what happened when they started to make the change. In many cases -such as the Novartis piece that follows – the beginning of a culture shift was a simple as the CEO wearing jeans to work.

Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan: How to be a boss in an “unbossed” company

CEO Vas Narasimhan has been running the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis since February 2018.  He began to change the corporate culture from the start.

Moving a huge multi-billion dollar global company from managing hands to managing minds is often seen as impossibly hard to implement. Novartis is proof that the transition can start with something as seemingly simple as the CEO wearing jeans.


Reinvent Learning or Die

“Faced with the relentless acceleration of artificial intelligence (AI), cognitive technologies, and automation, 86 percent of respondents to this year’s Global Human Capital Trends survey believe they must reinvent their ability to learn … we have deliberately chosen the word “reinvent”. Reinvention goes back to the core–the foundation of an organization. This is not about tinkering at the edge.”

2019 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends

In my roadmap for a successful approach to 21st-century management, Minds at Work, the research showed that companies having the courage to move from a 20th-century industrial managing hands model to a new managing minds approach are the big winners. These companies are the competitive leaders in their industry and avoid all the problems that plague companies still holding to the older way of managing people – from incredibly low employee engagement to a complete lack of innovation and more.

A year after publication, this video from learnapalooza proves the conclusions were correct … and that we seriously underestimated the timeframe. If you care about having yourself or your team or even your company succeed in the Knowledge Economy, take the time to watch the video … and learn how the future will look and feel. And stop tinkering around the edges.


Economist Insights into AR and VR

Top Takeaways From The Economist Innovation Summit


Augmented and Virtual Reality

Augmented and virtual reality aren’t just for fun and games anymore, and they’ll be even less so in the near future. According to Pearly Chen, vice president at HTC, they’ll also go from being two different things to being one and the same. “AR overlays digital information on top of the real world, and VR transports you to a different world,” she said. “In the near future we will not need to delineate between these two activities; AR and VR will come together naturally, and will change everything we do as we know it today.”

For that to happen, we’ll need a more ergonomically friendly device than we have today for interacting with this technology. “Whenever we use tech today, we’re multitasking,” said product designer and futurist Jody Medich. “When you’re using GPS, you’re trying to navigate in the real world and also manage this screen. Constant task-switching is killing our brain’s ability to think.” Augmented and virtual reality, she believes, will allow us to adapt technology to match our brain’s functionality.

This all sounds like a lot of fun for uses like gaming and entertainment, but what about practical applications?  “Ultimately what we care about is how this technology will improve lives,” Chen said.

A few ways that could happen? Extended reality will be used to simulate hazardous real-life scenarios, reduce the time and resources needed to bring a product to market, train healthcare professionals (such as surgeons), or provide therapies for patients—not to mention education. “Think about the possibilities for children to learn about history, science, or math in ways they can’t today,” Chen said.

Learning on the 272 Rainbow Steps

Well, I’m back from Asia – specifically Malaysia – and finally all here … I’ve redefined jet lag as my body took a plane and my mind took a train …  I’m still getting over the ride to the KL airport … I’m convinced that Kuala Lumpur taxi drivers are all telepathic … they tailgate by inches, cut each other off abruptly without carnage or death … would drive you crazy before you ever reached the Batu Caves and climbed the 272 Rainbow Steps.


“The Evolution of Learning: Redesigning Your Learning Experience” the 2-day workshop I recently presented in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, sponsored by Global People Strategies of Malaysia, was very successful. As I climbed the steps to the caves the morning before leaving I thought about the program I’d delivered. Here’s some of what I learned.

Malaysia, as a colony, was a source of cheap labor and resources. The British needed to create a big administrative bureaucracy filled with interchangeable human minds to run the empire. They needed a production-line educational system that could slot teachers in and out, and produce minds that could read write English quickly and legibly, and be as numerate as they were literate. Their minds were identical: you could grab a Brit Bureaucrat from Malaysia and plunk her or him down in Canada and no one would blink.

As an unintended consequence, Malaysia also skipped most of the Industrial Revolution’s approach to managing hands: everything from putting up telephone poles and stringing wires to being addicted to the default sage-on-the-stage way of learning. Malaysian’s are more than ready to jump forward and do what’s needed to manage minds. I’d recommend studying Singapore’s SkillsFuture. It models the changes that the rest of the world needs to quickly adopt as global markets shift from a labor-intensive to a mind-intensive workforce.

Countries like Malaysia know they can leapfrog countries like the EU and the U.S. who are still stuck in their murky smokestack industrial past. Worth noting that they are joined by many other countries in that region including Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China.

In Malaysia, I felt I was truly being heard.  This was a stark contrast to my experiences in the EU and U.S., where I feel like a voice crying out in a “managing hands” wilderness, where command-and-control hierarchies, lack of transparency, “sage-on-the-stage” event-driven training, and a failure of the imagination still prevail.

The participants in my 2-day workshop in Malaysia represented a variety of Malaysian companies and industries.  They listened closely to the stories I told of companies that have learned to managed minds. They were keenly interested in hearing how critical it is today that companies create an environment of collaboration, open communication, and continuous learning, enabled by digital technology.

Even more fascinating to my Malaysian audience were ideas of a fearless workplace that supported and expected frictionless learning.

More than anything, they look forward to embracing the future and making Asia great while business leaders and managers in other parts of the world try and hold onto some romanticized version of a simpler past when we made things with our hands.


Read the Introduction to my latest book “Minds at Work: Managing for Success in the Knowledge Economy” to understand the profound differences between the old model of managing hands and the new approach focusing on managing minds.

Developing Frictionless Learning

A Frictionless Learning Moment

Sue stood in front of the expensive machine and sighed. For a while now, at the end of her shift, she’d experienced the same problem with the machine. She could never remember what to do; the class on the machine was months ago, and the instructor was long gone.

Fortunately, she had a new performance support program. An app on her phone had already “talked” to the machine and recognized her as one of its operators. She opened the app and searched for the fix for the problem. The solution came up almost instantly as the app gave her a choice: Would she like to read about it or watch it on a video? She was in a hurry, so she watched the procedure, pausing and rewinding the video when needed, and then followed the steps. It was that easy. Even writing a report, including a picture, was a snap. For once, she’d be home by dinner.

The Superforce and the Speed of Now

The forces of globalization, digitization and automation and the initial experiments with artificial intelligence all combined in the 1980s to produce a Superforce that has profoundly impacted every workplace in every country. Today, it seems as if time is moving faster. Decisions need to be made on the spot, knowledge is less valuable than know-how, and the ability to perform a job and quickly move on is seen as time better spent than learning.

The impact on learning and development is dramatic. The old model of training is being replaced by the need to enable business to move at what is being called “the speed of now.”

Removing Friction from L&D

As the pace of change continues to speed up, learning something “someday” or even “soon” no longer works. The new standard is “now,” as in, “I’m in the middle of a disaster” or, “I’m ten minutes from the meeting” or, “The customer is on the phone,” and “I need to learn something now.”

Today, learning programs need to be developed overnight, provide instantaneous knowledge and know-how, rely on curation more than course design, imagine what learners might look for in the future, and search outside their own area of expertise for materials. L&D needs to identify and remove the friction between learning and work – to deliver frictionless learning experiences.


Defining Friction

The term “friction” was originally used by website designers responsible for the user experience (UX), whose goal was to reduce the amount of time (i.e., friction) spent looking for something on a website. The learning experience deserves the same consideration.

In learning, friction is what comes between the question and the answer, the need to know and the know-how, the issue and the solution, the problem and the procedure. If learning is the only real competitive advantage for companies in the knowledge economy, then, according to recent Gartner research, reducing friction will be the most important contributor to that competitive advantage.

A New Direction for L&D

It is impossible to foresee all the changes that a frictionless learning ecosystem will entail. However, some are already obvious, because a growing number of companies around the world are evolving toward a more frictionless form of learning:

Classroom Training

The formal sage-on-the-stage approach has proven to be ineffective. Unless they are quickly implemented, learning in a virtual or actual classroom is subject to the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. Evolved L&D organizations have replaced the classroom with structured on-the-job training and performance support. “Learning by doing,” or simply “doing and moving on to the next job,” is the new approach to a frictionless learning ecosystem.

Social Learning

In many of these companies, communities of practice (CoP) have replaced “push learning” with “pull learning.” Learners can connect to the CoP with any device, anytime and anywhere. They can ask the community a question, read the answer, listen to the answer, watch a video of the answer or look at a schematic for the answer. They can even snap a photo and show their work to make sure that they are doing it correctly. If they want to learn something in more depth, they have to learn to ask the right questions and engage in a learning conversation with the right person. Communication and collaboration, supported by the organization’s culture, leaders and technology, become the norm. L&D may be invisible, working behind the scenes to make it work.

Self-Directed Learners

Writer and consultant Harold Jarche emphasizes the critical need for companies to develop and support self-directed learners: “Management needs to support self-learning … [and] workers will also have to be their own instructional designers.” John Hagel, co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation, also has a take on what it really means to be a self-directed learner. Jarche, Hagel and other L&D leaders agree that self-directed learning will be a necessity in a frictionless learning ecosystem.


In companies where L&D has evolved, managers play a critical role in helping people develop self-directed learning skills, including curation, critical thinking, effective communication, active participation, self-reflection, creativity and emotional intelligence. This approach requires a culture that actively supports fearless questioning and open communication. Managers are the critical lynchpin needed to help people learn to learn in this new frictionless ecosystem.

There are many examples of this new frictionless learning ecosystem. As William Gibson said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

  • A salesperson in the field preparing to make a presentation to a client uses her phone to quickly and easily find out what to tell them about planned changes to the product.
  • An operator in a manufacturing plant, unsure about the correct cutting speed and spindle speed for a job, quickly finds the information from the performance support system before beginning to work.
  • A new internet installation field tech working on a telephone pole needs to remember the exact procedure for connecting the local conversion point cabinet to the internet service provider fiber. He calls his supervisor and uses real-time, two-way video to review the procedure.
  • The foreman of an HVAC crew working on a high-rise wants to verify part of the city’s building code. Using the expert locator on his mobile phone he quickly finds the names and numbers of three people authorized to tell him how to proceed.
  • A manager is scheduled to hold a monthly performance review with one of her new direct reports. She visits the company’s internal wiki and watches a performance review simulation.

This new approach requires L&D to focus more on curation, communication, collaboration and performance than on courses and classes. It requires L&D to support self-learning at all levels of the organization. It shifts the focus from knowledge to know-how; promotes emotional intelligence; and develops a culture that supports inquiry, experimentation and fearlessness as well as frictionless. It’s the dramatic evolution L&D must undertake to enable companies to successfully compete in the interconnected, hypercompetitive and constantly changing knowledge economy of the 21st century.

Spaghetti on the Putting Green


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 the 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 only a 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. I felt like I was 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 – 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.


Hot Water


I was recently presenting a workshop and during a break one of the participants said to me “You must spend a lot of time learning important things every day.” I smiled. He asked what did I learn the evening before the workshop.

I said “Hot water.”

Here’s the story. I was washing the soap off my hands and the water was cold. The soap left a soapy residue. So I turned on the hot and Presto it was nice and clean. My quest for knowledge as always started with a “Why? … why does hot water remove the soap better than cold?”

The answer is complex and wonderful thanks to @chris at StackExchange on physics:

“The other answers are correct, but I think that you might benefit from a more “microscopic” view of what is happening here.

Whenever one substance (a solute) dissolves in another (a solvent), what happens on the molecular scale is that the solute molecules are surrounded by the solvent molecules.

What causes that to happen? As @Chris described, there are two principles at work – thermodynamics, and kinetics.

In plain terms, you could think of thermodynamics as an answer to the question “how much will dissolve if I wait for an infinite amount of time,” whereas kinetics answers the question “how long do I have to wait before X amount dissolves.” Both questions are not usually easy to answer on the macroscopic scale (our world), but they are both governed by two very easy to understand principles on the microscopic scale (the world of molecules): potential and kinetic energy.

Potential Energy

On the macroscopic scale, we typically only think about gravitational potential energy – the field responsible for the force of gravity. We are used to thinking about objects that are high above the earth’s surface falling towards the earth when given the opportunity. If I show you a picture of a rock sitting on the surface of the earth:

Example of a potential energy surface

And then ask “Where is the rock going to go?” you have a pretty good idea: it’s going to go to the lowest point (we are including friction here).

On the microscopic scale, gravitational fields are extremely weak, but in their place, we have electrostatic potential energy fields. These are similar in the sense that things try to move to get from high potential energy to lower potential energies, but with one key difference: you can have negative and positive charges, and when charges have the opposite sign they attract each other, and when they have the same sign, they repel each other.

Now, the details of how each individual molecule gets to have a particular charge are fairly complicated, but we can get away with understanding just one thing:

All molecules have some attractive potential energy between them, but the magnitude of that potential energy varies by a lot. For example, the force between the hydrogen atom on one water molecule (H2OH2O) and the oxygen atom on another water molecule is roughly 100 times stronger than the force between two oxygen molecules (O2O2). This is because the charge difference on water molecules is much greater (about 100 times) than the charge difference on oxygen molecules.

What this means is we can always think of the potential energy between two atoms as looking something like this:

enter image description here

The “ghost” particle represents a stationary atom, and the line represents the potential energy “surface” that another atom would see. From this graph, hopefully, you can see that the moving atom would tend to fall towards the stationary atom until it just touches it, at which point it would stop. Since all atoms have some attractive force between them, and only the magnitude varies, we can keep this picture in our minds and just change the depth of the potential energy “well” to make the forces stronger or weaker.

Kinetic Energy

Let’s modify the first potential energy surface just a little bit:

Kinetically trapped rock

Now if I ask “where is the rock going to go?,” It’s a little bit tougher to answer. The reason is that you can tell the rock is “trapped” in the first little valley. Intuitively, you probably can see that if it had some velocity or some kinetic energy, it could escape the first valley and would wind up in the second. Thinking about it this way, you can also see that even in the first picture, it would need a little bit of kinetic energy to get moving. You can also see that if either rock has a lot of kinetic energy, it will actually go past the deeper valley and wind up somewhere past the right side of the image.

What we can take away from this is that potential energy surfaces tell use where things want (I use the term very loosely) to go, while kinetic energy tells us whether they are able to get there.

Let’s look at another microscopic picture:

enter image description here

Now the atoms from before are at their lowest potential energy. In order for them to come apart, you will need to give them some kinetic energy.

How do we give atoms kinetic energy? By increasing the temperature. Temperature is directly related to kinetic energy – as the temperature goes up, so does the average kinetic energy of every atom and molecule in a system.

By now you might be able to guess how increasing the temperature of water helps it to clean more effectively, but let’s look at some details to be sure.


We can take the microscopic picture of potential and kinetic energies and extract two important guidelines from it:

  1. All atoms are “sticky,” although some are stickier than others
  2. Higher temperatures mean that atoms have larger kinetic energies

Going back to the coffee cup question, all we need to do now is think about how these will play out with the particular molecules you are looking at.

Coffee is a mixture of lots of different stuff – oils, water-soluble compounds, burnt hydrocarbons (for an old coffee cup), etc. Each of these things has a different “stickiness.” Oils are not very sticky at all – the attractive forces between them are fairly weak. Water-soluble compounds are very “sticky” – they attract each other strongly because they have large charges. Since water molecules also have large charges, this is what makes water-soluble compounds water-soluble – they stick to water easily. Burnt hydrocarbons are not very sticky, sort of like oils.

Since molecules with large charges tend to stick to water molecules, we call them hydrophilic – meaning that they “love” water. Molecules that don’t have large charges are called hydrophobic – they “fear” water. Although the name suggests they are repelled by water, it’s important to know that there aren’t actually any repelling forces between water and hydrophobic compounds – it’s just that water likes itself so much, the hydrophobic compounds are excluded and wind up sticking to each other.

Going back to the dirty coffee cup, when we add water and start scrubbing, a bunch of stuff happens:

Hydrophilic Compounds

Hydrophilic compounds dissolve quickly in water because they stick to water pretty well compared to how well they stick to each other and to the cup. In the case where they stick to each other or the cup better than water, the difference isn’t huge, so it doesn’t take much kinetic energy to get them into the water. So, warm water makes them dissolve more easily.

Hydrophobic Compounds

Hydrophobic compounds (oils, burnt stuff, most stains) don’t stick to the water. They stick to each other a little bit (remember that the forces are much weaker compared to water since the charges are very small), but water sticks to itself so well that the oils don’t have a chance to get between the water molecules. We can scrub them, which will provide enough energy to knock them loose and allow the water to carry them away, but if we were to increase the kinetic energy as well by increasing the water temperature, we could overcome both the weaker forces holding the hydrophobic compounds together, while simultaneously giving the water molecules more mobility so they can move apart and let the hydrophobic compounds in. And so, warmer water makes it easier to wash away hydrophobic compounds as well.

Macroscopic View

We can tie this back to the original thermodynamics vs. kinetics discussion. If you increase the temperature of the water, the answer to the question “How much will dissolve” is “more.” (That was the thermodynamics part). The answer to “How long will it take” is “not as long” (kinetics).

And as @anna said, there are other things you can do to make it even easier. Soap, for example, is made of long-chain molecules with one charged end and one uncharged end. This means one end is hydrophilic, while the other end is hydrophobic. When you add soap to the picture, the hydrophilic end goes into the water while the hydrophobic end tries to surround the oils and burnt stuff. The net result is little “bubbles” (called micelles) made up of soap molecules surrounding hydrophobic molecules that are in turn surrounded by water.”

…and that’s what I learned by asking about hot water.

So there’s a point here about learning. Learning is curiosity fueled by a solid dose of “whyness” supported by an open mind. Learning is always on if you are endlessly curious and it has nothing to do with what you are told to learn, supposed to learn, need to learn, or are forced to learn. It’s the innate response to the curiosity that has driven knowledge and know-how for 100,000 years of human thinking. It is I believe the thing that separates us from all other creatures and the major reason our brains grew to where we are today. Why and how we learn has been the focus of years of my study and conversations, writing and research.

Next question ….

Keynote at Learning Technologies France

I gave this keynote in Paris focusing on the research that went into my book Minds at Work: Managing for Success in the Knowledge Economy.  It’s become the central theme in the work I’m doing and underpins what I believe is forcing so many changes in work and learning around the world. Let me know what you think.