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Last Updated on February 1, 2021

7 Most Important Cognitive Skills for Fast and Successful Learning

7 Most Important Cognitive Skills for Fast and Successful Learning

One of the biggest problems with the traditional education model is it works on the premise that one size fits all. As we now know, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work well in a universal education system as we all possess different cognitive skills.[1]

At the basic level, there are 4 learning types: visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinesthetic, and each of us are dominant in one or more of these types.

  • Visual learners learn better in an environment where there are a lot of visual stimuli. These people often have what is commonly called “photographic memories,” where they see an image or a page of text and from the visual cues memorize whatever it is they see.
  • Auditory learners learn best when they can hear and listen to the subject they are learning. These people thrive in lecture halls, using podcasts and audiobooks.
  • Reading/writing learners find reading and writing out what they learn to be most effective.
  • Kinesthetic learners need to be doing. Lectures and textbooks do not stimulate their brain’s learning centers; instead, they need to be doing whatever they are learning. These people do well in school science labs or in the art or woodwork rooms. Here, they can practice what they learn in real time.

However, on top of these basic learning types, there are also cognitive skills related to the way our brains process information. There are 5 primary cognitive skills: reading, learning, remembering, logical reasoning, and paying attention. Each of these can be utilized in a way that helps us become better at learning new skills and developing ourselves.

Understanding where we are strong and where we lack skills helps us improve what and how we learn. For example, most people find that when they learn something new at a workshop and don’t apply that learning to a real situation soon after the workshop, whatever they learned is soon forgotten. This is part of the cognitive skill of remembering and being able to translate what you learned to a practical situation (logical reasoning).

One of the advantages we have over our ancestors is the almost limitless access we have to free education. Websites such as TED, YouTube, and millions of web pages on Google give us limitless possibilities. You can learn anything from how to polish shoes and tidy your house to quantum physics and applied mathematics.

However, with those almost limitless possibilities, you will not learn anything effectively unless you know and understand what kind of learner you are.

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So, to help you become more effective at learning, here are 5 ways you can use your natural learning type with cognitive skills:

1. Discover Your Dominant Learning Style

This will appear obvious once you start to think about the way you naturally learn.

For example, whenever I want to learn something new, I will begin on YouTube. I am a very visual person, and I need to see how to do something.

Recently, I have been learning how to fold clothes the Marie Kondo way. I regularly have an item of clothing on the table and Marie Kondo on YouTube “showing” me how to fold. What I am doing is taking my naturally dominant visual and kinesthetic learning style and applying the cognitive skill of logical reasoning to learn the best method for folding clothes.

A two-minute video of Marie Condo folding a T-shirt while I am following the instructions ensures I am internalizing and applying the correct method to fold a T-shirt.

2. Experiment with Different Channels of Learning

If you aren’t sure what kind of learner you are, you can begin to experiment through a variety of experiences.

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Take a subject you want to learn and start off by reading about the subject. Then, watch a video or lecture on the subject. After that, apply the knowledge you have learned.

For example, if you were to improve your presentation skills, you could do a simple Google search for an article about the top ten ways to improve your presentation skills. Read that, and then do a similar search on YouTube. After you have read the article and watched the video, apply your new knowledge to your next presentation. That way you reinforce the knowledge you learned and internalize your new skill, and you also discover which learning points you remembered more readily.

3. Practice Focused Work

One of the weakest cognitive skills for most people is the ability to pay attention. In a world where we are being distracted and interrupted multiple times a day, it is very difficult to stay focused. Teaching ourselves to be comfortable with our phones and notifications off is one of the best ways to strengthen your attention span.

You do not have to go all day with your phone and notifications off. All you need to do is turn everything off for set periods of time each day. Likewise, if you are in a meeting or training course, turn off your phone completely while you are in a session. These days, facilitators understand the need for people to be in contact with the outside world, so there are regular breaks for you to catch up with messages and important emails.

Learn more about practicing focused work in this article: 17 Ways Deep Work Will Help Wipe Out Modern Distractions and Refocus

4. Seek Many Different Ways to Take Advantage of Your Preferred Learning Style

To help reinforce your new knowledge, do not rely on just one way to practice your new skill. If you want the information to stick in both your short-term and long-term memory, you’ll need to apply a variety of cognitive functions through brain training.

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For example, if you have spent some time learning how to write better emails, then apply your new learning by writing a journal or a blog. Neither a journal or a blog have to be published; you can keep them private. What you are doing is applying your new writing skills in a variety of different ways, which strengthens your brain’s capacity for flexibility and allows for a larger scope where your new skills can be applied.

5. Reinforce Your Knowledge by Reviewing What You Learned in Your Less Dominant Learning Style

While we all have a preferred learning style, it is wise to review your new cognitive skills in a different way. If you are a visual person, and you have devoured every chart, image, and infographic you can about your new skill, then find a written article or book on the subject and read that.

The more ways you study your new skill, the faster you internalize the skill itself. Doing this helps your brain to fill in the missing gaps of what you have learned and strengthens your knowledge.

While our dominant learning style will always be the best way to learn, we still need our less dominant way of learning to help with the retention and deeper learning required to really master a skill.

6. Apply Your New Knowledge in a Practical Way

This works on the principle that if you don’t use it, you lose it. This applies to cognitive abilities and executive functions  in a very important way.

Think back to your foreign language classes at school. Most people very quickly forget the new language if they do not use it consistently after they have learned it. Even with your native language, you might learn a new word or phrase, but if you never find a need to use that word, you soon find you cannot remember it.

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Our brain’s neurons need regular exercise. Without it, like a muscle, they shrivel and die, so make use of your cognitive skills whenever possible.

7. Use Your New Skill as Quickly as Possible

Imagine you were to attend a sales training workshop. On day one, you participate in a meet and greet and learn about asking questions. At the end of that first day, practice what you learned.

On the way home, start a conversation with a stranger on the bus or train. Alternatively, if you stop at the supermarket on your way home, talk to the cashier and practice asking them questions.

The important part of doing this is you are strengthening the learning process by performing tasks with your working memory. What your brain has now done is taken something you learned in theory and applied that to a real situation in a practical way. You can adjust the theory to fit better with your personality, and very quickly asking questions becomes almost natural.

The Bottom Line

When you apply the science of learning to the cognitive skills you want to learn, you increase the chances of succeeding. It also speeds up the learning process as you are naturally developing the parts of your brain that learn the fastest.

Over time, as your skills grow, you can deepen the learning by reviewing different ways of developing the skill.

More Tips on Effective Learning

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity?

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Carl Pullein

Dedicated to helping people to achieve their maximum potential through better time management and productivity.

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Published on March 1, 2021

What Is Double Loop Learning And How Is It Valuable?

What Is Double Loop Learning And How Is It Valuable?

As someone on the Millennial/Generation X cusp, one of my first memories of a news story was the devastating crash of the Challenger space shuttle. I couldn’t process the severity or the specifics of the event at the time, but looking back, the Challenger explosion represents a heartbreaking example of what can happen when systems fail.

A part of the shuttle known as the O-ring was faulty. People from NASA knew about it well before the disaster, but NASA employees either ignored the problem—writing it off as not that bad—or were ignored when they tried to alert higher-ups about the issue.[1] This is a tragic example of single-loop learning where organizations focus on what they’re doing without reflecting on how or why they’re doing it, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Single and Double-Loop Learning

Chris Argyris describes the difference between single and double-loop learning with a metaphor. A thermostat that turns on and off when it senses a pre-set temperature is akin to single-loop learning. The thermostat being able to reflect on whether or not it should be set to that temperature in the first place would be more like double-loop learning.[2]

Imagine the difference if NASA would have encouraged and addressed employees’ questions about how they were doing, what they were doing, and whether or not they should be doing it at all—you’ll start to see how an extra layer of questioning and critical thought can help organizations thrive.

Single Loop Learning

Single-loop learning is when planning leads to action, which leads to reflection on those actions and then back to planning, action, and more reflection. Now, you might think that because reflection is involved, single-loop learning would be an effective organizational model. However, because there isn’t room for critical questions that ask why actions are being taken, problems begin to bubble up.

The Double Bind

When organizations are operating in single-loop learning, they get stuck in what Argyris calls the Double Bind. Because there’s no value placed on questioning why the team is doing something, team members are either punished for speaking up or punished for not speaking up if something goes wrong down the line.

Primary Inhibiting Loop

When an organization is stuck in single-loop learning, the double bind leads to what Argyris calls the primary inhibiting loop. Real learning and growth are inhibited because team members withhold information from each other. This withholding leads to distrust and is difficult to remedy because even if employees attempt to become more forthcoming, lack of trust sours interactions.

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Secondary Inhibiting Loop

Because information is being withheld, team members play unconscious games (not the fun kind) to protect each other’s feelings. For example, I might try to distract my colleagues from worrying about a problem in our plan by shifting the focus to another project we’re working on that’s going better.

When you’re stuck in single-loop learning, the organization does whatever it can to continue taking action after action instead of stopping to truly reassess the bigger picture. This leads team members to hide information from each other, which causes distrust and behaviors that try to mask flaws in the organization’s structures and systems.

Double Loop Learning in Organizations

A common misconception is that the opposite of single-loop learning involves focusing primarily on people’s feelings and allowing employees to manage themselves. However, the solution for single-loop learning is not about doing the opposite. It’s about adding an extra later of critical analysis—double-loop learning.

With double-loop learning, questioning why the organization is doing what it’s doing is an organizational value. Instead of moving from planning to action to reflection and back to planning, in double-loop learning, people are encouraged to reflect on why they’re doing what they’re doing. This can help the organization take a step back and reconsider what’s best for all stakeholders instead of being stuck acting and reacting.

Ultimately, double-loop learning gives team members the time, space, and systems to ask tough questions and have them addressed in meaningful ways.

Let’s think back to the Challenger disaster. If NASA had created an organization that uses double-loop learning, employees wouldn’t have felt compelled to stay silent, and the employees who did speak up would have influenced the process enough to reconsider the timeline and develop a solution for the O-ring problem.

Single-loop learning is like a train with no breaks. Double-loop learning provides the extra layer of critical thought that allows the organization to stop and pivot when that’s what’s required.

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Think back to Argyris’ thermostat metaphor. Instead of just reacting—turning on and off when it detects a certain temperature—double-loop learning invites the thermostat to reconsider why it’s doing what it’s doing and how it might do it better.

How to Shift to Double Loop Learning

So, how can organizations shift from single to double-loop learning?

1. Stakeholders Must Level With Each Other

The first step to shifting from single to double-loop learning is for all stakeholders to sit down and talk openly about their expectations, values, and goals. These sessions should be led by organizational experts to ensure that old single-loop learning habits of distrust, withholding, and game-playing don’t keep people stuck in single-loop learning.

One of the keys to team members leveling with each other is listening. Focus on creating an environment where everyone can speak up without fear of judgment or punishment.

2. Create Benchmarks for Lasting Growth and Change

Old habits die hard, and single-loop learning is no different. If systems, check-ins, benchmarks, and periodic times to reflect and reset aren’t put into place, old habits of withholding and mistrust will likely creep back in. You can guard against this by making it a norm to measure, assess, and improve how new double-loop learning systems are being implemented over time.

3. Reward Risk-Taking and Critical Feedback

Double-loop learning requires squeaky wheels. You have to create a culture that rewards criticism, risk-taking, and reflecting on the system as a whole and the reasons the organization does what it does. Think big picture stuff.

This is about walking the walk. It’s one thing to tell employees to speak up and give their feedback, it’s another thing entirely to have systems in place that make employees feel safe enough to do so.

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Kimberly Scott’s Radical Candor comes to mind as one way to start shifting to a more open and critical environment. Radical Candor is a system that incentivizes employees and managers to start speaking up about things they used to sweep under the rug. It’s a roadmap and a way to assess and improve open and reflective feedback between all stakeholders.

Double Loop Learning for Individuals

Double-loop learning isn’t only for organizations. You can also apply Argyris’ ideas to your learning.[3]

Here’s how that might look:

1. Level With Yourself and Seek Accountability

Instead of being stuck in a single-loop learning cycle, break out by adding another layer of critical reflection. Why are you learning what you’re learning? Is it important? Is there another way? Think big picture again.

Become clear on what you want to learn and how you’re currently trying to learn it. Then, open yourself up to others to keep yourself accountable. Leave the door open to completely shift major details about your learning goals.

2. Create Benchmarks and Don’t Put Your Head in the Sand

Just as with organizations, individuals also need to create goals and continuously reflect on whether or not they’re moving toward double-loop learning. Schedule times to meet with the people keeping you accountable for your learning plan. Then, ask yourself whether or not your learning goals still make sense.

Ask big picture questions. Are you in the right environment to learn? Is your learning plan working? Do you need to change course altogether or shift your goals entirely? If it’s double-loop learning, you can’t be afraid to ask questions about why you’re doing what you’re doing and change course when the need arises.

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3. Value Risk-Taking and Accept Criticism

You’re also going to need to shift your mindset from simply learning and reflecting to accepting criticism, being critical of yourself as a learner, and taking risks and experiencing discomfort as you ask big questions and make drastic alterations to your learning plan over time.

Instead of concerning yourself with grades and GPAs, double-loop learning would mean you’re allowing yourself time to step back and analyze why you’re learning what you’re learning, if there’s a better way, and even whether or not you should be on that learning trajectory in the first place.

Final Thoughts

Think back to the thermostat example. Doing homework, handing it in, and then receiving a grade is single-loop learning. Thinking about why you’re doing any of that and making appropriate changes that align with your learning goals shifts you into double-loop learning, and that’s a great way to see the bigger picture and get the best results.

Learning and reflection are two of the most important things when it comes to organizational or personal development. This is why double-loop learning is key if you want yourself or your organization to succeed.

More Tips on Effective Learning

Featured photo credit: Cherrydeck via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] NPR: Challenger: What Went Wrong
[2] Harvard Business Review: Double Loop Learning in Organizations
[3] Journal of Advanced Learning: The role of reflection in single and double-loop learning

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