Inadvertent learning

We spend a lot of our time considering what actually works in learning.  Organisations – or rather their L&D professionals – agonise over blended learning, peer learning, the uses of every latest technology and platform, evaluation and RoI.  We are a modern Captain Ahab – and learning interventions that actually, demonstrably work – are our Moby Dick.

But there’s a shortcut to some answers.  Think about Inadvertent Learning – the stuff we’ve learned without ever really trying to learn it.  Because if we’ve learnt something without planning to do so, and without any noticeable exercise of willpower, there must be some powerful techniques out there.

An example.  I’ve learnt the Italian for “We are now arriving at Victoria Station.  This train terminates at Victoria Station.”  Not only the words, but the right accent as well.  This comes from commuting to London on the Gatwick Express, and hearing the same multilingual announcement at 8.30am on perhaps 1,000 working days over the last few years.  I can do the French and German as well.  This is 100% useless to me.

So repetition works.  Ever got a song stuck in your head – one you don’t even like – because somebody insisted on Capital FM at work? Or your six-year-old has played it 73 times in the car?  The advertising industry pays trillions to get inside our heads this way.

Perhaps we should call it environmental repetition, or unconscious repetition – leading to subliminal learning, or inadvertent learning.

The power of deliberate practice has been analysed brilliantly by Matthew Syed in Bounce and Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers.  But I’m talking about something on the other side of the learning supermarket, way over there in the discount aisle – less attractive, less packaged – a rather grubby technique, but very cheap, and quite effective.

Which gives rise to some questions:

– can we exploit Inadvertent Learning to get across simple learning points?

– are we using the surfaces which repeatedly come into the view of colleagues, on a daily basis, as a learning platform?  I’m talking office walls, mousepads, disposable coffee cups, the blank surfaces of lifts, login screens, the inside of toilet cubicle doors..

– can we do this without being annoying? and would that matter?

Or to be more sophisticated:

– are we using our repeat contact with colleagues (eg through hits on L&D intranet pages, through participants on every course, through every user of e-learning) in the most effective manner?

– how could we help teams to exploit this technique for themselves? (eg using the last half-an-hour of a team learning session to design a poster for the office wall, or a mousepad design)

Never mind Gatwick Express – the technique can be classy as well.  Back in the 1990s, travelling on the London Tube, and gazing vacantly into space for 30 minutes every day, I accidentally semi-memorised some lines by William Carlos Williams which Poems on the Underground had splashed around the insides of the carriages.

They’re still with me, to this day.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: