Humans are an incredibly inquisitive and extremely social species. The characteristics that helped us reach our dominant position on planet earth are intimately linked with our search for understanding and our social nature. These also drive our learning patterns. And our ability to learn continuously the way we do has underpinned our success and our creativity throughout history.
We are all life-long learners. There is no doubt about that - even more so than we may imagine. Recent research has demonstrated that we not only learn from cradle to grave but that we were all learning even as babies in the womb, too.
And the first thing we were learning was language.
The Amazing Phenomenon of Language Learning
Children usually learn to speak their parents’ or social group’s native language relatively easily. The experts tell us that our brains are naturally ‘wired’ to assimilate sounds and create meaning. The more we’re exposed to words and sounds the more likely we are to absorb and remember them. So most children develop effective verbal communication skills early in life.
But language learning has some very specific characteristics, including the fact that we all started this aspect of our learning journeys not at birth, but before we were born.
In one piece of recent research into language learning carried out by professor Christine Moon at the Pacific Lutheran University, Washington State USA, and her colleagues in institutions in Sweden, the researchers tested the different responses of unborn babies to vowel sounds of their mothers’ native tongue and to those of other languages. The babies responded differently when they heard the vowels of their mother’s language spoken. The research demonstrated that “unborn babies have the capacity to learn and remember elementary sounds of their language from their mother during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy”.
Another research project by cognitive neuroscientist Eino Partanen at the University of Helsinki showed that babies retain memories of sounds they have heard before birth. Partanen and his team fitted newborn babies with EEG sensors to look for neural traces of memories from the womb. "Once we learn a sound, if it's repeated to us often enough, we form a memory of it, which is activated when we hear the sound again," he explained. This memory speeds up recognition of sounds in the learner's native language and can be detected as a pattern of brain waves, even in a sleeping baby.
So what do these extraordinary insights, and others like them, tell us about learning in general?
Language Learning and 70:20:10
All of the above research reinforces the fact that language learning seems to be an exemplar of the 70:20:10 approach.
Learning to speak a language is a continuous process and not just as part of a series of structured learning ‘events’. This becomes apparent if ever you’ve joined a language class as an adult. Without a lot of work outside the classroom you’ll never gain proficiency.
We learn language primarily through social interaction and experimenting (the ‘20’ and ‘70’). Language learning is also integrally entwined in everyday living. We learn because it’s natural for humans to want to get better and to hone our skills. As Daniel Pink observed in his book ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’, humans are ‘purpose machines’.
In all other respects, apart from its extremely early starting point, learning a language is very much like learning almost anything else. We do it to address a need. We achieve our learning through exposure to new experiences (sounds and other stimuli in the case of language learning), through taking every opportunity we can to practice (just observe a baby’s efforts to learn), through learning together with others (our parents,siblings and friends in the case of language learning), and by using reflective practice smartly.
Added to these fundamental principles there are some others that come into play. We have to possess a need and desire to learn (the ‘drive’). And we need to understand the consequences of not learning. If you’ve ever found yourself in a foreign town or city you’ll know the consequences of not learning even some basic vocabulary. So we stretch ourselves and, where necessary, draw on help and look for resources to enable us to communicate better. Morgan McCall (who’s 1988 book with Michael Lombardo and Ann Morrison ‘The Lessons of Experience: How Successful Executives Develop On The Job’ explored the ‘70’ and ‘20’ elements of learning) explained these principles clearly in this 3-minute video clip.
Starting with the ‘70’ and ‘20
The 70:20:10 framework helps extend our focus on where and how learning occurs. It isn’t a new interface for traditional training, nor a new learning theory. It is a reference model that describes the way people tend to learn.
One of the key elements of 70:20:10 is the principal that the learning which is most likely to be effective, and the learning that lasts, is the learning that occurs closest to the point of use. This is a simple principle, but a challenging one for many L&D professionals.
If we think about language learning, it is almost inconceivable that someone could learn a language without using it extensively (the ’70’) as part of the learning process and also continually learning from others who use it around them (the ‘20’). Of course some structured learning (the ‘10’) is extremely helpful to get started and also to provide some guidance along the way, but structured training in language learning, or in any other domain, will not alone produce high performance.
High performance in language ability and in other fields is almost invariably associated with five common characteristics.
Five Characteristics of High Performers
High performers are often fast learners. They usually display the following characteristics:
1. They tend to quickly master the basics. Usually, but not always, using some structured support. (this is the ‘10’ part)
2. High performers have usually spent hundreds of hours in practice, with trial-and-error, and often self-testing to hone their new abilities. Again, this is often in a structured way (the ’10’), but also through self-directed activities and with colleagues, coaches or using technology to provide feedback and guidance (this is the ‘70’ and ‘20’).
3. High performers are invariably embedded in their professional communities both within and outside their organisation. They regularly share their expertise across their network and also call on others when they need advice and help. (this is part of the ‘20’)
4. High performers will have on-the-job performance support at fingertips. They know where to find the answers to the challenges-at-hand, whether the solution comes via their own PKM (personal knowledge mastery) systems, workplace resources, other tools and systems (the ‘70’) or simply by knowing who will be best able to help them (the ‘20’).
5. All high performers will have been exposed to many hours of experience, practice and reflection, sometimes alone, sometimes with their manager and team, and sometimes with their professional network (more ‘70’ and ‘20’ learning)
The Right Mindset
High performance also goes hand-in-hand with growth and development mindsets. The belief that learning is an important part of everything we do is a critical element in reaching high performance.
Having a mindset that focuses on striving to do better, whether it’s in language learning or any other endeavour, is critical to achieve mastery and, especially, maintain it.
Images: Ancient Khmer Script. Petr Ruzick. CC by 2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/80808717@N00/538287056
'RIP Steve Jobs' by Alec Couros. Licenced under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0