Those of us who are comfortable with speaking at conferences and giving presentations tend to find the experience quite energising and rewarding at several levels. Not only do we have the gratifying boost to our egos when people turn up to listen to us, we have the pleasure of sharing with others what we know and believe to be important. But what if it’s also because we are thriving on the sensation of learning by talking? There is some very interesting research to back up this theory, which shines a spotlight on one of the reasons why the After Action Review (AAR) can be so powerful too.

The traditional view of learning is that it occurs when we listen to our teacher, the lecturer, or the TED speaker. As they explain concepts to us, we integrate the information into our existing knowledge, and either assimilate the information (adding it to what we know already) or accommodate it, which is the term the educationalist Jean Piaget used for when we change or alter what we know already.

Much less attention has been paid to what happens cognitively to the person who is speaking and sharing the information. The assumption has been that the speaker is recounting what they know already and is not the person in the transaction who comes away with new knowledge. However, under certain conditions, it seems that the opposite is true: the speaker is learning by talking,  and learning as much, if not more than, the listeners.

Learning by talking

Research undertaken over several decades by Johnson and Johnson at University of Minnesota (with thanks to David Gurteen and Nancy Dixon for the introduction to this) has demonstrated that, as we explain our thinking to others, we have to structure it in a different way. This means it has to become more logically organised and new connections between units of information are created. This means we are covering fresh ground and learning in the act of speaking, or when we prepare beforehand or create a visual presentation.

This just may be the source of the energy we get when presenting at a conference, because we are learning by talking and getting a dopamine boost as a result.

Greatest source of change in an AAR?

This feature of learning by talking also explains why the AAR can be such a powerful instrument for change. In the AAR, every participant is invited to answer the specific AAR questions, and for most people, it will have been the first time they have put their feelings and experience into words. It is this very act of translating thought and feeling into words said out loud, explaining expectations and lived reality to others, that is creating new knowledge for the speaker. The listeners are certainly benefiting from hearing each other’s experiences, but it is very apparent during AARs that, through the process of each person telling their story, sense -making is taking place for the speaker too. They are learning by talking.

It is in the telling out loud of the actions taken before a drug error, or the steps followed prior to an eleventh hour decision to postpone the office relocation, that the speaker achieves a new cognitive map of the context and their own actions. My theory is that the impact of this is enhanced because the Conductor of the AAR is traditionally someone who was not involved in the event, so everything has to be explained clearly to them, just as it does when speaking at a conference.

Other applications

Beyond AAR there are several other applications of this learning by talking process which spring to mind, among them:

  1. Problem solving – talk your problem though with a colleague and invariably the light bulb solution will arrive without them saying anything.
  2. Designing impactful workshops – when small group discussions are created around a key question which each person gives their answer to, deeper learning will result.
  3. Making reading count – explain to another person about the article or blog you have just read, and the conversation will enable you to incorporate the ideas more fully into your own cognitive map.

If you would like more information about how we help organisations and teams get the many benefits of learning with AAR, please get in touch.