Learning In Small Batches

How do you learn?  Have you ever taken the time to think about that? Do you learn in large chunks or small batches?  Do you think it matters?  As one who cares a lot about how people learn, I believe your approach can influence the effectiveness of your (and others) ability to learn.

In the last eighteen months, I’ve had the opportunity of teaching music of comparable difficulty to a choir.  (Disclaimer: I am not a music teacher).  I was pretty excited about this opportunity and wanted to make sure that the choir learned the song as quickly as was possible.  I figured that the best way of ensuring success was to go over as much of the song as was possible during each practice session i.e. learn in large chunks. Um, bad idea!  At each practice session, it was evident that we were not making much progress as we spent significant time reviewing what we (thought) we had learned in previous practice sessions, in fact, we would find ourselves starting from the beginning again.  This pattern repeated for many months until we learned the song and performed it.  In spite of eventual success, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there had to have been a better (and easier) way that I could have facilitated the learning experience for the choir.  Did it need to be this difficult, painful and long?

Fast forward a couple of months later and I was presented with another opportunity to teach another songpiano2 to the same group.  I really wanted the experience to be different but I didn’t know what to do differently. One morning, I was up early, practicing a piano piece that I was going to perform and as I practiced I began to reflect on how I was practicing.  It dawned on me that I practiced the piano piece measure by measure i.e. I would repeat a measure until I was comfortable with it and then proceed to the next measure in the piece.  I never really attempted to play through a new piece at once.  In fact, I only played the entire piece once I was pretty comfortable with all the measures leading up to the very last measure.  Could such an approach work with those learning to sing a new piece of music?

I decided to put this approach to the test.  When I started teaching them the new song, we started with the first section and just practiced (repeated) it until we had mastered it.  Only when we had mastered the first section did we move on to the next section.  Our practice sessions started by reviewing sections we had mastered previously and then we would go on to learn a new section.

So how did things turn out?  Well, in a month and a half, the choir had learned the song and was ready to perform it.  It basically took half the time to learn the second song as it had the first song with the major difference being the way we had decided to learn.  By learning in small batches, we had completely changed both the learning experience and the eventual outcome.  What had really happened here?  Without going too deep into the science of it, at least a couple of things:

  1. By (seemingly) learning less per session, we  did not over the overload the short-term memory in the brain and made it easier for everyone to remember what we had gone over.
  2. “Repetition deepens the impression” – because we repeated the same (smaller) section multiple times, we kept re-entering it into short-term memory and as we did  so, it was facilitated the process of having the information transferred to long-term memory as the section became more important.

My readers with a knowledge of Lean or Agile thinking will know that the concept of small batches is not something new.  We talk about it all the time with regards to the flow of work in product development (and knowledge work in general).  It seems quite obvious, doesn’t it?  Yet, do you actually (explicitly) leverage small batches in learning?

How do you approach learning in your personal life?  In your relationships? Big or small batches?  For those of us that are coaches, managers or leaders, how do you encourage learning in small batches on your teams?  Does a monthly retrospective with the team or a yearly performance review with an employee lend itself to learning in small batches?  Does a three day course in [stick your favorite method here] facilitate learning?  Do you throw ten new practices at a team and expect them to learn them all at once?

I challenge you (in a friendly way) to ask and answer these questions for yourself.  The scary thing is this – if small batches are not involved in learning, it’s very possible that learning is not happening at all.  As we step into 2014, maybe its time to revisit how we learn.  As a former boss of mine used to say:

Remember, bite small so that you can chew fast.

Happy 2014!


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