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A Bias for Action

August 12, 2012

Not Just an Annoying Management Slogan

Yes, it is true that “a bias for action” is something of a jargon phrase; often, it reflects little more than an attempt to “incentivize” workers toward productivity or to convince stock analysts that the company is efficient and goal-oriented (whatever that means).

But it turns out that a “bias for action” is precisely what our brains do in fact have.  As James Zull puts it in his new book From Brain to Mind, “the brain is a natural transformation machine” that “transforms information into action.”  Zull also cites Richard Thompson (whose book The Brain is definitely worth checking out), who writes that “the purpose of the brain is to produce behavior.”  What all of this means, according to Zull, is that we don’t just want to get information; we want to use it.

Put this together with the consensus, among hiring managers and other IT experts, that what employers are looking for is less what a new hire knows and more what she knows how to do, and you start to see some of the disconnects between “schooling” and the kind of experience-based education that’s important in the working world.

Knowing is Only HALF the Battle

In order to be consistent, let us not stop with this knowledge of the brain; instead, let’s ask ourselves what actions we can now take.  What should our “bias for action” look like given this new information?  I have three suggestions to get us started.

1: Always prepare a lesson or curriculum beginning with the desired action.  Rather than asking ourselves, as teachers or managers or trainers, what the learner should know after the lesson, we should ask ourselves what he or she should be able to do.  As a writing instructor, I learned this myself over the course of several years.  When I finally integrated it fully into my lesson-planning process, I found my classes becoming far more useful to students–and far more fun for everyone.  For example, I began to plan my courses around teaching my students how to write persuasive arguments rather than what argumentation means or looks like.  It may seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s not; students recognize the difference immediately.

2: Always let students act.  As Zull notes, the brain’s “transformational” bias means that we always want to be moving from passive to active, from listening-reading-watching to speaking-writing-doing.  Any lesson should include enough of the former to provide a background, then enough of the latter to create skills–and then enough repetition of both to create not only learning but habit.

3: Remember that the ultimate learning action is teaching.  Once a learner has progressed to the point at which he or she has read and watched and listened, then acted and demonstrated skill acquisition, the final step to cement learning is to have that learner teach someone else.  Think about the lab science courses you took in college.  The teacher would lecture for an hour or so, and then you would go into the lab and do the experiment.  Finally, you would write a lab report in which you explained what had happened–this was the teaching part.  Every learning process should involve all three of these steps, the effect of which is to move the learner from passive listener/watcher to active doer to teacher.

The brain really does have a “bias for action.”  We must understand this bias and design our teaching, training, and managing around it.  No amount of passive information absorption is sufficient.

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