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The three parts of learning a new practice
Department of Psychology,
University of Glasgow.
Often in learning, you are really only learning how to talk about and reason
with a new idea. However when you are learning a new approach to existing
habits (e.g. a management course for managers; a slimming course for eaters; a
safety course for lab technicians who have already years of experience), then
there are 3 parts to the learning: getting the ideas, going over your familiar
environment learning how to recognise how the ideas apply to it, going over
your familiar behaviour and deciding how and when it must now be different.
Standard impoverished HE teaching really only addresses the learning and
teaching of new concepts at the public, general, abstract level. The learner,
if good, will be able to recall and use the main terms, and explain what they
mean in both formal and paraphrased ways; and perhaps apply them to examples
of the kind dealt with in the textbooks. In some cases, this then has no
impact: someone may go to such a course, but their managers may be dismayed
that it has no effect on how they do their job.
A triad of phases of learning is what is required (spending approximately
equal time on each) for learning to make a direct difference to the learner's
- Introduce (and exercise) conceptual learning, as in ordinary
- Have each learner then go over concrete situations they have already
experienced, and learn to recognise how the taught concepts do or do not apply
in each situation.
- Have each learner go over their normal routines and decide where,
when, how to insert different behaviour into them.
Where interactions with other workers are important, then how to
change one's own actions in this context will also have to be addressed at
length for any practical effects of the course to materialise. Food safety
training in supermarkets is difficult to implement where a store is
undermanned (so no time to do cleaning) and managers are under pressure to
reduce food wastage (throwing away cooked food that is too old). Introducing
a new accounting practice is unlikely to be something a single person can do,
since accounts are the interface between many different people and unilateral
changes will break communications.
- Slimming. First teach concepts such as (kilo)calories. Then to
recognise snacks as food as much as meals; then that all drinks except water
contain calories. Then to go over one's daily eating routines and decide what
- Bioethics. First concepts such as utilitarianism. Then go over a
set of classic experimental work in biology, reviewing it for ethical issues;
and ditto for applied work (in farming, in pharmaceuticals, ...). Then for
actions the learner might be involved in, and when they would act e.g. in
doing an experiment because the university asked them to, because a funder
asked them to, jobs, ...
- A health and saftey course for chemistry research students. First the
(legal) concepts. Then perhaps photographs of various scenes in labs, with
the task of spotting what aspects of these typically very cluttered pictures
violate which safety principle, if any. Then reviewing each student's actual
or planned procedure for their own experiments with a view to modifying them as
This triad may be least applicable to learning undergraduate subjects where
the student has no existing practical experience e.g. elementary particle
physics, classical literature. It will have the most applicability where the
subject is practical AND the learner has already developed habits. E.g.
health and safety in the lab for chemistry students, bioethics for biology
students, new accountancy practices for experienced administrators, hygene
(food safety) for experienced family cooks now moving into a catering job,
continuing professional development (CPD) courses for teachers with years of
experience, slimming or addiction personal retraining, cognitive behavioural
The point is that for any activity where we are already reasonably experienced
and practised, we do not think out what we do from first principles, but rely
on "habits" and practised ways of acting. Merely learning new concepts does
not itself touch our behaviour nor perception. If we want the new concepts to
touch our behaviour or perception, then we need to specifically exercise these
in connection to the new ideas.
An alternative triad
The above triad is what someone designing a training course needs: three
aspects, all of which need substantial time and effort from both teacher and
learners. More theoretically, we might say (as
Laurillard does) that all (good) teaching and learning has
both abstract, general aspects and personal, practical ones; but that there
are in fact three different major kinds of the latter:
- Doing paper exercises e.g. essays, numerical maths examples.
- Going over all the situations you have met or might meet, and practising
recognising where the concept appears or applies in them.
- Going over all the activities you have or might carry out, and working
out what you will do differently in order to be consistent with what you are
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