Learning & Potential Perils of “Negative Transfer”

A friend recently invited me to help him with a project. I was pretty excited to help out because he had a big job that required very large tools. One of those days where you get to accomplish a couple of those items on the bucket list. “Okay if I start you out on the bulldozer?” was the question he asked me when I arrived. I was in for a day of good fun. He gave me the quick tour of the bulldozer. How to turn, how to stop, how to move the blade. One of the things he showed me is the “decelerator.” It’s in the same place as you’re used to having an accelerator in your car, but it does the opposite: It slows the engine down instead of speeding it up. I could make the bulldozer go okay. I pushed some dirt around,  and actually got some useful work done. The first part of the “learning curve” wasn’t so hard. He made piles of earth and gravel and I pushed them around to make them smoother than they were. (My efforts at making a perfect grade were poor, but it wasn’t bad at all for a first effort.) The thing that I had the most difficulty with was the decelerator. I knew what I wanted to do, but what I had learned previously got in the way of this. I was experiencing a “negative transfer of learning.” My brain kept processing it as an accelerator — after all, a pedal there in my experience did one thing only for decades of my life. If my foot wasn’t on it, I did fine. When I was changing directions,  I kept getting tangled on that darn thing, and I even allowed myself to feel a little dumb for that. Letting myself feel dumb wasn’t being fair, though.  I was new to something that was the opposite of something I was used to. Getting tangled up on something that is the opposite of what you’re used to is called “negative transfer of learning.” It can happen in many ways, and sometimes not directly.  If you play guitar, and switch to a different instrument where the strings are tuned in a different sequence, you have a dual case. You have positive learning transfer because you have learned to play a stringed instrument, and negative transfer because the tuning sequence is different. As a flight instructor, one of the most interesting things to get new students used to is taxiing the airplane on the ground. The “steering wheel” moved controls on the wings and would do nothing to change your direction on the ground. You move the nose wheel to change direction on the ground with your feet. There’s huge negative transfer of learning going on when doing this, because people are used to driving their cars, they turn with their hands. The strategy I found that worked the best? “Student. Sit on your hands. Good. Now take the plane over there. I have the throttle.” Once the student is used to steering with his feet, the hands can come out again, and the negative transfer problem is significantly diminished. There are many applications for this when in business or life: 1) Expectations. If you expect a new task be done perfectly or even well when it’s first tried, you’re being unfair. 2) There’s always a learning curve. 3) Sometimes the things we’ve learned before make it more difficult to learn the new task. 4) If old learning is getting in the way of the new learning, find a way to sit on your hands. If you’re training someone for a new task and they’re having a hard time of it, it doesn’t mean they’ll be incapable, it may mean they need extra time to make the new learning fit with their old learning. If they have learned well in the past, chances are very high, that they will do well with the new thing too. It may take some time, however. New methods — even if they’re improvements over old methods, often require a period of “unlearning” the previous method. Give new methods time — for yourself and for your people.


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