Learning as an affective process
Running counter to academic and traditional views of learning How People Learn (2019) presents ‘affective context’ theory of learning as a first general theory of learning, i.e. one that applies equally to human and non-human learning, encompassing behaviourist, cognitive and contemporary neuroscientific accounts (e.g. Damasio, Immordino-Yang, Panksepp). He defines learning as a ‘change in behaviour or capability as a result of memory’ and ‘memory as ‘a stored affective response to an experience, sufficient for it to be reconstructed’.
When we learn we are storing a complex pattern of emotional responses to our experience, which in turn modify our behaviour. As we grow, we develop idiosyncratic ways of reacting to the world, depending on those things that matter to us (e.g. architecture vs flora) and these concerns in turn determine how we react and define us as individuals. In designing learning, if we fail to relate the content to what actually matters to people, as opposed to what we assume matters, learning interventions will fail. One must care to learn and surface the cares of learners when designing learning, so Shackleton Jones recommends that we first map the concerns of the audience, arguing that learning design should be user-centred in this sense.
His view of learning is that since all content is filtered and subsequently encoded via the individual’s emotional reaction to it, it is essential to understand what matters to them in predicting what will be stored. This is not merely a question of motivation, since there are many things that humans tend to react to (e.g. having a marshmallow thrown at them) that are not a matter of motivation in the usual sense.
This relentless focus on the reactions and motivations (different things) of the learner matters. What is it that really matters to them?
To find out what they do and just as importantly their interests, problems and concerns, one must speak to actual learners. This user analysis is not only useful, it is essential.
Affective Context Model
He thinks that it is almost impossible to understand learning as a purely affective process, so deeply are we wedded to the thinking/feeling (or reason/emotion) dualism that we have inherited from Plato and Descartes, and which we now see reflected in the work of Kahneman, Haidt and Dennett. In sharp contrast his view is that ‘thinking is fancy feeling’, echoing Nietzsche’s ‘thoughts are the shadows of our feelings’. In other words all cognition is affective in nature, and as Darwin argued there is no qualitative distinction between human and non-human cognition.
Building on a rejection of rational philosophy and pointing to new directions in psychology, such as Damasio’s ideas of emotion underlying thinking, effective learning must be affective learning. Like Marsick, Gery, Cross and those who researched and explored informal learning, he recognises that what we call learning is what people get every day when they are challenged or moved. It is propelled by cares, feelings, passions and emotions.
Yet the language of learning seems uncomfortable with the language of emotion and feelings. The language of learning objectives values words like outcomes, competencies, knowing and understanding with measurable SMART objectives. Affective words are most often absent. He argues that we conflate ‘education’ with learning, the former applying to an artificial memorisation ritual that disregards learning as it takes place normally and to a large extent suppresses it.
Resources not courses
This Shackleton-Jones mantra focuses on avoiding a process that automatically includes rather abstract instructional design leading automatically towards courses. His suspicion of instructional design comes from its historical tendency to treat people as ‘blank slates’ and draw heavily on experiments involving factual recall, which in turn side-lines cares, emotions and individual differences. He sees much of it as obtuse, unhelpful, even harmful. He points to Bower & Clark’s (1969) study of the effectiveness as stories in improving recall as an example of how the affective dimension of learning is largely overlooked.
Rather than state learning objectives and work through a process of instructional design towards the creation of courses, Shackleton-Jones recommends either that we address those things that individuals already care about through the creation of resources and performance support, or that we create new cares through the process of experience design. By resources, he means the sort of approach taken in Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto (2011), used to great advantage and success in aviation and medicine.
In the former we shift towards performance outcomes, systematically understanding those concerns that people have as well as the tasks and challenges they face. In creating performance support we can help people to perform by externalising knowledge and guidance. This will oftentimes reduce learning, rather than leading to it. He uses the example of the London Underground map to illustrate this point and to draw a distinction with learning content.
In the latter (experience design) we alter the individual by changing the things that they care about in order to change their behaviour and capability. Typically this is achieved by understanding what they currently care about (e.g. family) and relating this to a new set of cares (e.g. safety). This is accomplished through experience design, where the experience serves to change the individual. Examples of experience design include simulations such as those used by Nasa to train astronauts, and stories which if sufficiently moving can alter what matters to the individual.
He sees similarities between learning and marketing, for example ‘attention grabbing’ marketing campaigns that use common human motivations and personalised marketing that attempts to effect consumer behaviour through use of data about their preferences.
Technology can certainly reduce the need to learn. Learning in the flow of work does work, as most learning takes place as we are doing our jobs. In fact, what we actually learn is through challenges – these are the naturally occurring experiences that call for learning. Above all we must avoid dropping micro-learning into the workflow. He describes this approach as ‘content dumping’. Instead, we should design checklists and job aids that help people with the challenges they have, or present new challenges such as stretch assignments if we wish people to develop, not explicit teaching experiences.
He sees devices such as the smartphone as providing the sort of ‘at hand’ resources one actually needs in situ when learning. Sentiment analysis, a fruitful area of AI can now, to a degree, map what you care about. This is what big tech thrives upon but it can also be useful in learning.
Shackleton-Jones has long been influencing L&D through his work as a consultant, conference talks and book. Now that technology can deliver the resources (not courses) that he has always advocated, his work is being seen as an important contribution to contemporary L&D.
Shackleton-Jones, N., 2019. How people learn: Designing education and training that works to improve performance. Kogan Page
Gawande A. 2011., The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.
Harrison N. 2008., How to be a True Business Partner by Performance Consulting