I’d like to teach the world…

How can we implement more effective learning and continuing professional development (CPD) strategies to develop better leaders, or a more effective and reliable workforce? These are questions for which Andrew Sharman and Darren Sutton are trying to find answers.

We all know the words of the song: “I’d like to teach the world to sing…” Some of you might even remember the world-famous brand that used it in its advertising campaigns back in the 70s. Yes, learning can be that simple and memorable sometimes. If we could teach the world to be safe, or teach leaders to influence behaviours better, now that would be something worth singing about!

When was the last time that you really scheduled some time to learn something? Either a new skill or a new language or, perhaps, to prepare for an exam or to study a new concept. This is something that we at RMS Switzerland discuss often – then we try to think how these things could be applied to safety.

How could we make learning more impactful; how could we create a learning environment that would ensure people think, act and feel differently? Why is it that some training tends to stick in people’s minds longer than others?

How we learn is a fascinating area of psychology and performance with many models and theories that occasionally seem to be contradictory. Some have even been totally debunked!

If you’re still planning your classroom sessions around meeting all of the learners’ different learning styles (Fleming’s VARK model) then please stop – modern neuroscience has suggested that this is not as important as we thought it was back in the 1970s and 80s. There are much more important things for us to consider when developing meaningful and sustainable learning experiences.

So, let’s explore what works best. How can we develop training that will actually change the way our learners think, act and perform? How can we implement more effective learning and CPD strategies to develop better leaders or more a more effective and reliable workforce? And what do we need to know for safety, health and well-being training initiatives?

Generally, at the C-Suite and C-1 level of multi-nationals we see two very obviously different pathways of learning to prepare people for these roles. Some take the traditional route – they were excellent conventional learners who always achieved high grades, went to the world’s best universities and had a high level of technical knowledge. These are our Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Larry Page types. Then we have those who take a more experiential journey to the top. These are the more disruptive and usually visionary types such as Richard Branson, Craig Venter and Steve Jobs.


Have you ever crammed information for an exam? Or left your preparation to teach a new subject to the very last minute and had to stay up all night to make sure that you knew all that you needed to know? Well we wouldn’t water a garden like that – several weeks’ or months’ worth of water in just one day – it would create an awful mess!

Neuroscience suggests that learning works in much the same way. It’s better to do a little bit every day, in bite-sized chunks. This gives our brains time to soak up each nugget of information. To reflect and consider how what we’ve learned could be applied “in our world” or context.

Following extensive research in many different areas of learning – including critical thinking, cognitive understanding, physical practice and psychomotor skills – Benedict Carey makes a compelling argument in his best-selling book, How We Learn. Watering our brain regularly with information works much better than saturating it in heavy loads.


Let’s make our learning easy for people, right? Well actually no! The evidence suggests that learning becomes much more efficient and long-lasting if we make it tough for ourselves. Have you noticed those people who write diligent notes on training programmes? Those who very neatly highlight key information with fancy, fluorescent marker pens? They go back and re-read all that important information to help them to remember. Well, that’s not the best way to actually retain or better understand any kind of information – it makes it too easy!

It’s much better to read a chapter or listen to a lecture or podcast then, rather than highlighting or tagging key information, close the book or pause the podcast. Look at the questions at the end of the book or try to recall what you’ve just learned. Make it hard for yourself, then go back and check if you were right.

This is a much more effective strategy to learn, even if you were wrong at first you now know that and you’re more likely to remember the information in the future. It’s like building new muscle – if the exercise is too easy, then we don’t “rip” the muscle and it doesn’t grow. Our brains work in a similar fashion.

Carey calls this Desirable Difficulties and it’s much better for learning than making learning smooth or fluent. By making things tough and trying hard to retrieve the information from our minds creates a more powerful cognitive connection and the learning sticks.


Another great way to ensure that learning sticks better is to teach your new knowledge to someone else. Imagine teaching it to a five year old! You’d have to break things down into simple language and ensure that they are properly understood. Many organisations miss this crucial step in cementing the learning experience. Challenge people to deliver short presentations on what they’ve learned. Ask them what they enjoyed most, what intrigued them and what will they be telling others about what they’ve learned.


The research in this area is significant. Tough learning can be tiring – exhausting even – and that’s good; that’s exactly what we want! Now go and sleep, or take a quick nap! This will allow your brain to really soak up the new learning, with both deep understanding and cognitive recall improving dramatically.

This is known as the Zeigarnick Effect. If you leave something unfinished and then take a break or a rest, the sub-conscious fills in the gaps for you. Zeigarnick proved this in several ways, including how waiters or bartenders can remember orders much more effectively. If they take the order and payment for the order at the same time, the brain sees this as a completed transaction and it doesn’t remember the order too well. If the waiter doesn’t receive payment when taking the order, the transaction remains incomplete – and that actually helps the waiter remember the order!


If we really want our learners to be engaged there are three important factors that we must consider. Whichever learning methods or processes, trainers or courses to which we might expose people, our interventions can only act as a lens or a prism to facilitate each individual’s line of thought to reaching a conclusion. People will immediately start to work out what’s in it for them, or how they might be able to apply the learning to their context. They need a compelling reason why?

I would imagine that for most of us who ever questioned why we needed to learn calculus in high school, the answer was something like “this will be absolutely vital in your future career”. For 99 percent of us, that is absolutely not true. What’s more, we suspected at the time that it was not true. Then, we left high school, went to university or college, had successful careers and had this suspicion confirmed.

This scenario is probably familiar to many people and begins to illustrate that, without a strong rationale behind why we are learning something, it becomes much more difficult to actively engage people.

Therefore, before we even mention training opportunities to our staff, we need to create the vision about why they even need the training. To do that is as simple as leveraging the organisational culture that should already be present in any successful company. We need to communicate, specifically, how this training will benefit everyone. If people cannot identify the problem that training solves, they won’t actively participate.

Next, it’s good that we give people a choice in how they might complete the learning. Autonomy is a critical part of self-determination theory. Let’s give people an opportunity to choose how they might consume their learning. Will it be on a live, face-to-face programme? Will it be by self-directed study or, perhaps, some sort of online e-Learning option?

The human mind is designed to remember information it believes important innately; if we want more we must capture it. Research suggests as much as 40 percent of our learning is forgotten in the first 20 minutes and, in six days, we may forget as much as 77 percent. So, what does this mean for your organisation?

In short, the training you paid for last week may only worth about 23 percent of its original value. A wise investor would not invest in anything if the return was this low. Organisations rely on training to develop people, grow and meet standards – and this is a reality that will not change. However, how can you ensure that an investment made in training is sound?


First, the individuals undertaking training must be given an opportunity to make the most of any training they attend, setting aside time to sort through the information, taking what is relevant and leaving what is not.

Reflection is key to retaining knowledge; it is a flexible, personalised way of thinking about what was important. Ask yourself what was a surprise about the training, one thing you learned, what will you start to do differently from tomorrow as a direct result of this training and one thing that was a reaffirmation of previous knowledge. Time is a valuable currency. Instead of spending a few days on a course and losing the knowledge, take responsibility and learn for yourself.

The way organisations invest in employees impacts their motivation, quality of work, and, yes, the bottom line. Is it more important to have employees who have been trained, or have employees who actually use their training?

These are questions that need to be asked at every level of leadership. If you want to create greater retention, consider running further mini-workshops internally where trained employees present and teach what they learned during the course.

The final stakeholders are trainers and facilitators themselves. External trainers have unique perspectives and insights, and invest in organisations in different ways than internal staff. Trainers may not have an opportunity to create lasting change in a hands-on manner, but they can create programmes that provide simple tools to use on a daily basis. If you want training that creates lasting change, challenge facilitators by asking: What are the practical learning outcomes of this training?

Licensed Train the Train programmes are a great way of spreading deeper learning throughout your organisation quickly and effectively. Facilitators should create lasting impact by giving simple practical takeaways from training and supervisors should have meaningful conversations with attendees following any training.

Ask the learners what they learned, how are they thinking or feeling differently and what specifically will they commit to doing differently. Getting the most out of learning opportunities should always be a priority.

We believe that online learning can have a longer lasting and more significant impact on people as it drip feeds information in a way that’s accessible to them. It also incorporates many of the key principles of effective modern learning that have been outlined above.

We’re offering all readers of SHEQ MANAGEMENT a 60-percent discount off our world famous IOSH-approved Behavioural Safety Leadership Online Programme. We’ve never offered more than 25 percent before and this offer is only available to the first 50 subscribers who use the code SHEQ60. We’ve had some fabulous feedback from this programme. Let us know how it works for you.

Published by

Andrew Sharman

Professor Dr Andrew Sharman is managing partner of RMS – consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. He’s a chartered member of Saiosh; immediate past president of the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health; and chairman of the board of the Institute of Leadership & Management.
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