You Don't Actually Learn From Experience

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Lots of people say that the best way to learn is from experience but the truth is, strictly speaking, nobody actually learns from experience.  If you want proof of that, consider what a group like Alcoholics Anonymous would say about real learning.  Learning is observed through a change in behaviour. A person dealing with alcoholism, or any destructive pattern, has likely been through a number of destructive cycles – lots of experience – without “learning” anything.  Most alcoholics will tell you that there are powerful forms of adaptive denial at work that keep people from getting the help they need.  They will often coach themselves saying, “I can get on top of this,” or “It’s not that bad,” “I can stop any time.” In the face of a destructive behaviour, new information doesn’t change anything; people just take this new information and absorb it within their existing structures.

New information, by itself, will only very rarely change someone’s long term behaviour.  If you actually want to help someone learn something you need to do more than just provide them with new information.

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Real learning comes from experience (information) that you then have an opportunity to reflect on, and then a chance to talk about with a group of people, and churches don’t typically do this very well.  Usually it happens by accident, if it happens at all. In a church context, what this means is that the sermon is actually not a very effective tool for changing behaviour. I’m not saying sermons aren’t useful, they just aren’t very effective by themselves.  You are “learning” more when you talk about a sermon than when you are listening to one.  That’s why it is so important for your church to have an opportunity to discuss the sermon.  It gives people a chance to learn!

You are not learning much through the absorption of information, no matter how well it is presented. But when you have a chance to reflect on it and then talk about what you’ve learned, well now we’re getting somewhere! You can add this cycle of reflection in all kinds of contexts in your life: at the end of the day ask your kids, “What happened today?”  When they answer they are not just informing you of what they did, they are learning about it along with you. If you are taking a class, or reading a book, take some time to summarize what you are learning and share it with somebody.  Not only do they have a chance to learn, you will understand it better too.

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