“We should be careful to get out of an experience the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.” ― Mark Twain

At JMReid Group, our unique design process embraces the tensions, paradox and complexities that fill the modern “wicked” world. The current context requires learning that avoids over-simplification and easy answers. Learners themselves are also complex in terms of how they learn and process information. While learning is influenced by social, emotional and cultural variables, it is the impact of learning traps that reoccur in many situations for all kinds of learners that is our focus here. Learning traps are simply when past experience or knowledge limits further exploration and the revising of one’s beliefs.

One significant learning trap forms, in part, from selective attention. Selective attention is the process of directing our awareness to relevant stimuli while ignoring irrelevant stimuli in the environment. Selective attention has its perks, giving us the ability to be more productive and allowing us to create a zone, cut out visual aural noise and capture the important things for our task at hand. However, selective attention can create a bias if the dimension an adult explores early on is given inordinate weight — blocking out other meaningful data. 

Selective attention is most acute when the focus is a negative event or experience. Like the cat that touches the hot stove, the power of negativity impacts our willingness to continue to explore and gather more insight versus shutting down. This has a significant impact in our pursuit of diversity and inclusion since we can hold stable false beliefs about whole cultures based on one piece of negative data.

Another trap worth mentioning is that we construct new knowledge based on current knowledge. Adult learners rely on their ability of association and the recognition of patterns to learn and adapt to new knowledge.  

Fish is Fish (Lionni 1970) describes a fish who is interested in life on land. He befriends a tadpole who grows into a frog and ventures onto land. The frog returns weeks later to share his observations. The frog describes all kinds of things like birds, cows, and people. The fish envisions all of these through his unique lens – people are imagined to be fish who walk on tail fins and birds are simply fish with wings. The tale illustrates how easy it is to be trapped by an existing schema.

In addition to learning traps, learners also face content that is often created for a different environment from which they operate. There are two fundamental learning environments, and each requires its own approach.

Consider the popular streaming show on Netflix, The Queen’s Gambit. The entire show is based on a game that takes place within a Kind Learning Environment wherein the rules are relatively simple and there is a close relationship between effort and outcome, action and results. There is a linear “if this, then that” nature to Kind Learning Environments. The environment is predictable, the rules are clear and prior knowledge can continue to be built upon.

What’s interesting about a Kind Learning Environment is that while players like Bobby Fischer and Phiona Mutesi display absolute brilliance when it comes to their sport, we often miss that their expertise relies heavily on the environment.  This is in fact one of the failings of Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hour practice rule.

A popular study by William G. Chase and Herbert A. Simon demonstrates this through memory-based research focused on chess experts. Chess players ranging from beginner to masters were shown a position from an actual chess game for five seconds and asked to recall the location of all the pieces. Beginners were able to recall the correct location of about four pieces and masters could recall more than twenty.

When these same players were shown chess boards with randomly placed pieces masters and novices could only identify four pieces. An unexpected situation where there is random and incomplete information is a Wicked Learning Environment. We all mostly operate in a Wicked Learning Environment.  

Unfortunately, much of the learning that is designed today is built for a Kind Learning Environment. It is about models, lists and steps. While models have value, they are less effective as the context changes – which it is doing right now, even as you read this.

So how to learn in this environment? First, continue exploring additional knowledge versus exploiting what you already know.

Also consider the balance between high- and low-temperature learning strategies. Low-temperature learning strategies allow us to improve and grow through making small changes to our current state over time. However, that type of gradual improvement limits the realm of possibility. It limits our growth due to the traps that are in place – like avoiding repeating an experience we found unpleasant or difficult.

Developmental psychologist and philosophy of mind expert Dr. Alison Gopnik writes that, “Learners who begin with a broader higher-temperature search and gradually move to a narrower low-temperature search are most likely to find the optimal solution, just as in metallurgy heating a metal and then cooling it leads to the most robust structure.”

Most adults love to learn something new while paradoxically over-valuing and over-relying on what they already know. The Wicked Learning Environment requires us to spend more time exploring, which is a critical concession since few of us know as much as we think we do.