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Stressful Learning

June 17, 2007

This blog is about training. I used to train air traffic controllers. When I first started, I thought to myself that this must be one of the hardest professions to train. No day was like any previous and the environment was difficult to predict. Typically a student was ‘dropped into the deep end’ and surviving the day was considered ‘learning’. Some sank, some float and that’s all there was to it.

I realise now that this isn’t quite how it works. It took (what seemed to me to be) a contradiction between two definitions to spark the birth of this realisation. The first occurred back when I was first learning to be a trainer. I was told that learning is ‘a modification to behaviour as a result of adaptation to the environment’. Fair enough.

A little bit later (years in fact), during a session on stress management, I was told that stress is ‘a physiological adjustment to a change in the environment’. I didn’t get it right away, but in bed that night it hit me. Hang on, that sounds a little bit like learning.

That was when I came to understand that learning = stress and stress = learning. Which is interesting, because stress can hinder learning and understanding can reduce stress.

What I also found out was that more experienced trainers can get get quicker results, reduce some of the stress during training and keep a few more afloat. I also noticed that their students looked more confident and seemed better prepared.

This was true in any training that I witnessed from that point forward. It didn’t matter if you were learning to scuba-dive, sail a boat or answer a phone. As with anything you do in life, experience soon equals ‘a couple of tricks’ or techniques that have been refined over the years. That is where this blog comes in.

My primary focus is on ‘on-the-job training’. It is a challenge in any job and more often than not, it involves additional risks to safety, productivity, teamwork and sanity. It is also where the difference between doing it wrong and doing it right yields the biggest results. I took me over a decade, a lot of mistakes and a few insights from some gifted co-workers to learn what I’d like the share here.

I’d also like to hear what you have to add.

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