Practical Developmental Ideas #A6 October 2004

This issue is about accelerating learning. I have wondered for a long time how infants learn so fast and what we could do to keep learning as fast as they do. This ezine is mostly about my ideas about this with links to other resources. This is a huge field, so it is impossible to do it justice by skimming over the many approaches. I have decided to share my best thinking and give you some other places you can look for more ideas, if you want.


We now have a Yahoo group sharing practical developmental ideas.


This will help you share directly with each other your own developmental ideas, ask each other for ideas and share your experience of using them. There are 150+ of you, with a very wide range of interests, roles and experiences. This will support the ezines and make us feel more connected too.


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My ideas on Accelerating Learning

Very young people learn extremely effectively if given half a chance. We almost all learned how to walk, talk, handle tools, control our bodily functions and get our needs met in complex social situations, by the time we were three years old. This is an astonishing achievement.

Our ability and willingness to learn new things tends to fall off dramatically as we get older, certainly when compared to that of our earliest years. Most people think this learning ‘gap’ is inevitable and biological, therefore unchangeable. This seems a pessimistic point of view.

How infants learn

Very young children learn in many, many different ways. They observe the world. They try things out ‘for fun’ and see what happens. They imitate people. They ask questions. They ask for help sometimes. They set themselves goals and go for them with enormous persistence. Their involvement with the learning process is total. There is no separation between learning, play, work, and leisure.

Infants do everything, including all aspects of learning, with great intensity. If they hit obstacles, they freely express their frustration in tears or tantrums. If they have success there will be squeals of excitement or enormous giggles. These forms of emotional release seem to unlock the energy required to continue the process of discovery.

The learning environment around young people

Unfortunately, because our society does not value or support parenting, the pressures on parents make it hard to maintain optimal conditions for learning for much of an infant’s early life. However, something like what follows happens in most homes sometimes. It is an ideal.

A child is learning to walk. Typically the adults around the child are 1) paying loving attention 2) being encouraging 3) showing delight at attempts and ‘failures’ as well as successes 4) being noisily enthusiastic about the child (you clever girl!) and showing it 5) not ‘helping’ 6) not judging or criticising 7) not giving advice 8) not interfering with the child’s natural learning process 9) not directing what should be learned, or when 10) celebrating success with the child 11) accepting the child’s feelings and allowing their expression.

The effect of this loving and encouraging atmosphere is that the child enjoys the learning process and responds to others pleasure in her learning. Everyone finds it enormous fun.

How is the natural learning process degraded?

Learning is one function of human intelligence. In order to understand how it operates (and is degraded) we need to think about how intelligence operates. Human beings as infants have enormously flexible intelligence. They take in information open-mindedly from the environment, compare and contrast it with what they already know and then make a new and appropriate (for them) response. The flexibility of very young children’s intelligence is legendary; you can never predict what they will do.

This process is available to all of us, and works well except in two circumstances. We tend not to think well when we are hurting and we may then do stupid things that hurt others or ourselves. We also find it difficult to think when we are in situations which remind us of times when we have been hurt in the past. Again, we tend to do stupid things that reinforce the original hurt. Eventually this leads us to develop rigid (non-learning) patterns of behaviour.

The degradation of intelligence when we are hurting affects all aspects of human behaviour including our learning processes. We cannot learn effectively when we are hurting or when the situation where we are trying to learn reminds us of a ‘learning’ situation in which we were hurt. Unfortunately, many of these ‘learning’ situations were inappropriately managed and hurtful. We were often judged, criticised, rigidly controlled and humiliated. Many of us are so damaged by this that we acquire a rigid behaviour pattern of rejecting voluntary learning altogether because of our association of all learning situations with painful experiences

The recovery process

When young people are hurt they take immediate action to get rid of their pain. This process is spontaneous and untaught. Typically a young person will find another person who is attentive and then actively release the tension. This can take the form of talking to the other person, crying, angry movements (a tantrum), sweating or shaking, laughing, or yawning. These processes will continue, if uninterrupted, for quite a long time. At the end the child will be bright eyed, energetic, and eager to continue learning.

These processes thoroughly eliminate the painful emotion and lead to the rapid recovery of the ability to think in the area that was blocked by negative feelings. Unfortunately, these recovery processes disturb adults and society and so tend to be inhibited, often in quite unconscious ways (e g the common injunction “big boys don’t cry”). We often lose the awareness and ability to use our natural recovery processes through these inhibitions that are imposed on us from outside.

Counselling is a natural process in which one person agrees to pay attention to another as the other “talks through” a problem or situation and releases their tension using the above mechanisms. In its most powerful form the counsellor and client then swap roles. This process will shift the inhibitions around learning naturally.

When a young person has learned something new she or he will noisily celebrate this fact by crowing about it. The child will celebrate her/his enormous cleverness in learning this new thing. The expression of self-appreciation and delight anchors in her/his mind the awareness of the child’s abilities and reinforces her/his motivation towards making the best of further learning experiences.

This celebration makes most adults feel very uncomfortable because it stirs up their own feelings of doubt and discouragement. We tend to suppress the child from ‘showing off’ and create the very doubt and discouragement that we suffer from. So the process perpetuates itself.

Implications for Training and Development

We could create better conditions for learning to take place. These conditions would as far as possible be similar to those that surround young people ideally. There would be more play, more support, more tailoring to the learner and much less detailed instruction than is common.

We need to enable our students and ourselves to release any of their tension about learning situations before we try and teach anything. Tense students with tense teachers are not likely to learn well. We can help our students and ourselves recover as much as possible of our once giant sized ability to learn.

We need to encourage our students to celebrate their naturally enormous ability to learn and crow about their successes. Trainers can do this themselves. ‘Three reasons why I am an excellent trainer are…’

We need to research more into the nature of the natural learning process, play. Observe what young people do, listen to how they think and learn from them how to learn and grow.


The ideas in this note are a hypothesis based on common sense observations. They now need testing and refining. If they prove to be true, we will design learning and teaching processes that will enable us to use our innate abilities to learn. The implications and benefits are staggering.

A request

I would very much appreciate your thoughts about the ideas in this article. I have tried some tiny experiments and the basic idea seems to work. However, I would love some suggestions about how to test these ideas properly or just ideas for people I could talk to. Can you help?

Other resources about accelerating learning


The SEAL website is a good place to start SEAL is the Society for Effective Affective Learning it is an international networking organisation for those interested in all aspects of learning. They produce a regular newsletter, have active groups in the UK and elsewhere and a first class annual conference.

SEAL have produced a book “Transforming Learning” compiled by Susan Norman. This book describes over fifty different approaches to accelerating and transforming learning with rich links to other resources.

Its ISBN is 1 901564 06 1and it is available from Saffire Press, or

Re-evaluation counselling

There is an excellent and very thought provoking chapter in The Human Situation by Harvey Jackins (1973) that explores the nature of the learning process. Just three of his ideas are: –

“A human being cannot intelligently take in information that he or she cannot relate to what he or she already knows”

“The learner must talk. The learner must have the opportunity to think about the new information. The most effective way is to talk about it.”

“Learning itself is motive enough – almost all tests, examinations, warning slips and even honours interfere profoundly with the ability of students to learn”

Next ezines

I plan to cover the subjects below in the next ezines. Which, if any, appeal to you? I always welcome your feedback.

Designing learning events

Developing your people

Improving working relationships

Stimulating creative thinking

Thinking tools and processes

Tuning up your mind


If you have any particular developmental interests, you would like me to cover, please let me know. I will try to respond if I can.




I am a facilitator of change and development in organisations. I recently reviewed the work I had enjoyed doing most and found that I enjoy helping people in organisations find creative ways to be more productive. I like working in a way that maximises my impact and that is usually with senior individuals or teams. The best people to work with are open-minded risk takers who care about people and want to change their organisations for the better.

If you want to contact me, call +44 1707 886553, or email If you want to read about my work, or ideas, or read back issues of the ezines you can also visit I always enjoy informal chats.




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If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick