What did you learn in high school?
I remember studying for a European History test, and making up songs while dancing around the room to help me remember all the dates I knew might be on the test.
Battles, treaties, assassinations…
I did well on the test, but I couldn’t tell you one of those dates today.
So did I learn European History? It’s debatable.
Then there was Physics, which I actually enjoyed a lot more than I expected I would, as opposed to AP Chemistry, which I thought I’d like, but couldn’t stand.
Chemistry was a lot of taking detailed notes about incomprehensible things that felt like they had nothing to do with my life.
Physics, on the other hand, was about how things worked, which intrigued me. I could see how, at least a bit more than Chemistry, how it impacted my life.
Even so, the only lesson I can trace directly back to my Physics teacher is that red has the longest wavelength on the color spectrum, but I don’t remember that from a lesson from class.
I’m sure we did have a lesson on the various wavelengths of the colors of visible light, but I have no memory of that.
What I do remember, quite clearly, is the day at the end of term, when the teacher gave out a certificate to each student in class, customized with some sort of Physics-related award.
One at a time, as she called our names, we walked up to the front of the room to receive our award.
I had long, straight, red hair at the time (longer, even, than my current COVID hair!), and my award was for “Longest Wavelength Hair.”
It was a class hit. A great Physics pun.
Everyone laughed, and that moment was burned into my memory.
Because it was an experience. It created an emotional reaction. So I remembered it.
Aside from learning that red is the longest wavelength, when I look back at the eighteen years I spent in academic settings, a good portion of what I learned was how to please a single authority figure (i.e., the teacher), and how to do well on tests.
Those are the things that stuck with me, rather than Trigonometry, European History, and Physics.
Some of my college courses taught me to think critically. But for the most part, my education, sadly, was not designed for how people actually learn.
I don’t want to dismiss the hard-working, talented teachers who put their best into their job. It’s not their fault the educational system is set up to work against them.
Here’s the thing: repetition and “cramming” are not the building blocks of memory (though I was onto something with making up songs, as it turns out!)
The building blocks of memory are emotional reactions.
As Nick Shackleton-Jones writes in his book, How People Learn, “The learning formats that will work best will be those that generate or respond to a reaction in our learners.”
Which is why experiential learning is so much more effective than passive “knowledge transfer” formats.
Think back on your own high school experience. What do you remember?
It’s likely not the boring, mundane moments.
What pops to mind will probably be the emotionally charged experiences, big or small.
These are what we remember: emotionally charged experiences.
We don’t remember boring experiences.
Clearly, we want virtual trainings and events to be memorable, because if we want the learning to stick (i.e., behaviors to change as a result of the training) they’ve got to be memorable.
Which means designing emotionally engaging experiences.