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Things That Can't Be Taught

By Roger C. Schank / July 2009

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Comments (7) Instapaper


  • Thu, 29 Oct 2009
    Post by Brian Wilson

    The more we learn about neuroplasticity, the more I question how hard-coded are any attributes of the mind. I've read about or witnessed many cases where an individual's behavior has changed so significantly as to suggest that a fundamental change in the "wiring" of personality is possible. On the other hand, the idea that e-learning alone can create such an impact as to change behavior (much less to rewire personality) seems absurd. I agree with your approach, and I create real-world learning environments whenever I can convince customers that's what they want.

    The article was thought-provoking. Thanks, Roger.

  • Wed, 14 Oct 2009
    Post by Luke

    Hi! Fantastic articles, I very much enjoy reading through them. Just one comment on this one though:

    "Most people would agree that personality cannot be changed. Children are born with distinct personalities. Mothers often compare their children by saying, "They even behaved differently in the womb!" One child is aggressive while the other is contemplative. One is constantly talking while the other hardly says a word."

    A child will inherit a genetic blueprint from the parents, which may determine what kind of temperament a child will have, what inclinations, gifts, predispositions. But character depends crucially upon what a person is offered soon after his birth and over the first years of life. Children learn by imitation and have nothing else to go on but their own experiences.

    For example: The well-known American pediatrician Dr. Brazelton once filmed a group of mothers holding and feeding their babies, each in her own particular way. More than 20 years later he repeated the experiment with the women those babies had grown into and who now had babies themselves. Astoundingly, they all held their babies in exactly the same way as they had been held by their mothers, although of course they had no conscious memories from those early years. One of the things Braselton proved with this experiment was that we are influenced in our behavior by our unconscious memories. And those memories can be life affirming and affectionate, or traumatic and destructive.

  • Thu, 08 Oct 2009
    Post by steve hammill

    ...certainly an accurate lament, however, the reason corporations pay to teach the unteachable has more to do with being "a responsible corporate entity" and maintaining a risk adverse legal stance than an expectation of success.

  • Sun, 20 Sep 2009
    Post by Jason Allen

    Roger, I couldn't agree more. As a sales trainer, I am constantly put in the position of attempting to teach quiet, introverted detail oriented people to excel in a sales environment, and it is incredibly frustrating. Usually, about halfway through the training session I end up taking them aside and having 'the talk'. I think it has been made even more difficult in this economic climate, where people have been willing to supress notions of "I could never do THAT for a living" if it meant they might earn their first paycheque in over a year. It comes back to the old notion that there are two reasons you shouldn't try and teach a pig to dance: 1. It can't be done. 2. It annoys the pig.

  • Thu, 03 Sep 2009
    Post by Joan Vinall-Cox

    From the other side of the picture - creating jobs to fit the people's skills. From "Many people with autistic spectrum conditions struggle to succeed in the workplace, even if they are intelligent and skilled. The difficulties with social interaction that are common in autism and Aspergers Syndrome can make working in a typical group environment highly stressful for an autistic person, and their social awkwardness or unusual mannerisms often mean that they are negatively prejudged by potential employers before they can prove themselves.

    On the other hand, it has often been pointed out by a number of autism researchers and experts, such as Simon Baron-Cohen and Tony Attwood, that people on the autistic spectrum often have enhanced abilities in areas such as logic, maintaining intense focus and concentration, understanding the rules and behavior of systems, visual memory, and attention to small details. It is traits like these that Sonne seeks to tap into."

  • Sun, 26 Jul 2009
    Post by Ken Allan

    Kia ora e Roger!

    While I agree in part with your post statement, I believe it is not the whole story. Personality is not the only reason why some things are difficult to teach. As well, my feeling is that personality is not the most important factor when it comes to learning difficulties either. There are many more reasons for such difficulties and it would be inappropriate to attribute all or even most problems associated with this to personality.

    While morality and ethics appear to be cornerstones for behaviour, it's the interpretation of those qualities in the context of the environment of those who uphold them that has the most bearing. Within what may be regarded as a 'criminal organisation', despite the apparent lack of morality or ethics it is often found that these do exist within the organisation and are adhered to - sometimes on pain of death.

  • Tue, 21 Jul 2009
    Post by Peter J. Fadde

    Great commentary on "training the un-trainable". But I think we can expand our idea of what is trainable -- in particular aspects of expert performance that appear to be intuitive but are actually highly developed and automated cognitive processes. In baseball, research shows that expert batters pick up cues in the pitcher's motion and early ball flight that allow them to identify the type of pitch and predict it's location. The expert batters typically cannot articulate their pitch recognition process, but it is measurable and also trainable. Indeed, it's possible to train the pitch recognition skills that differentiate expert batters in an eLearning environment, separate from psychomotor skill execution [see research on my website:]. I wonder if similar approaches can be used to train "intuition" in something like ethical behavior. We may not be able to change people's basic honesty, but if we determine that recognizing ethical dilemmas(as opposed to knowing the right answer in a presented dilemma) differentiates highly ethical performers, then that is perhaps a cognitive skill that we can train.