Habit Chicken or Belief Egg? Which comes first in PD?

Anyone who has stood in front of a class or training room and sought to help ‘students’ to develop their knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes, recognises that ‘deep’ learning only happens when the student makes sense of the new content or skill by extension of their existing framework of knowledge and skill. We all need ‘hooks’ to ‘hang’ new insights and skills upon.

Another learning success factor is the learner’s belief that they can grow and acquire new capacities. Capacity building via professional development (PD) is a key management responsibility as it continuously aligns the organisation’s human resources with strategic priorities and business needs. Belief in the capacity to learn new and better ways of doing the work required is a necessary pre-condition of acquiring the requisite knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

We don’t (or shouldn’t) expect staff or volunteers to become experts in any skill having only completed one training activity, and it should be no surprise to us that staff who have not practiced, do not form new habits immediately upon completion of their training. The adaptation of Dreyfus and Dreyfus’ 5-stage Model of Skill Acquisition in the chart above emphasises the importance of practice and reinforcement in the acquisition of skills. This is essential for those skills to become second nature, and so require less conscious thought i.e. learning has established new habits.

The other premise illustrated by the chart is that staff will not form the necessary belief in their capacity to advance to the next skill level without first having reached the stage of converting the practice of their new skill into new habits.

As far as capacity building is concerned, therefore, the ‘habit chicken’ comes before the ‘belief egg’, recognising also that to even attempt to build skills to the next level of competence, we need to believe that we have the capacity to build on our existing skills. Expecting staff or volunteers to believe that they can be expert, or even proficient, without first having practiced and become competent is unrealistic, and likely to lead to disengagement.

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