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Tuesday Insight: Discerning Learning

Sometimes learning requires no more than drawing people’s attention to the obvious. It’s like when we were watching Pitch Perfect the other day and learnt that Darth Vader literally means Dark Father in German. Except, apart from containing an embarrassing admission, this is a terrible example; it doesn’t. 

Perhaps as a better example, I can use the experience of our most recent Discovery Day

I’d chosen to run First Impressions, an exercise that had originally been designed for use in the classroom. It involves participants applying labels to people based on a photograph. 

Labelling people we don’t know is something we all do, apparently. In fact, research by Princeton psychologists, Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov, has suggested it takes less than a tenth of a second for us to form an impression of a stranger from their face. One tenth of a second! And, just as importantly, they found that longer exposures don’t significantly alter those first impressions.   

So, what happened when we asked people to do something they do every day; apply labels to people based on their physical appearance alone? At this point I should perhaps explain that, unlike the classroom version, participants were being asked to apply labels openly, in discussion with their team.

Which made them feel extremely uncomfortable. 

I’d always known that making something that was done covertly, overt, would make it more difficult for participants, but I hadn’t fully appreciated that this would in itself generate the key learning point.

The reasons we all felt uncomfortable were obvious. We knew, of course, that any labels we chose to apply would be subjective and quite probably unfair. Instinctively, we knew therefore that what we were being asked to do was wrong. 

We all know, on some level, that the first impressions we form of people not only influences the way we initially approach them; they can have a deep and lasting impact on behaviour. And sometimes, perhaps, they can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

And yet, we all do it. The power of the activity, it turned out, was that it made us consciously aware of a reality that was as uncomfortable to admit as Luke Skywalker’s.

And the learning point I took from it was this: If we feel uncomfortable labelling people openly, perhaps we need to be more aware of the labels we apply privately. Perhaps we need to recognise and acknowledge those labels and try, as one delegate so eloquently put it, to re-educate our biases.

Until next time…

April 13 2021Rod Webb

Rod Webb

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