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learning without fear with scarf

Welcome to the Love Shack: Learning without fear with SCARF

Sometimes learners can be resistant to new ways of learning and it can be difficult to truly engage them. Senior Learning Designer, Stefan Eger, has some experience with making learners fall in love with learning again. In this blog Stefan explores the reasons why some people have a fear of learning and how we can use the SCARF model to make sure they can learn without fear.

“Hop in my Chrysler, it’s as big as a whale and it’s about to set sail…”

But before we do that, let’s jump back a few years, to when I worked as a coach in a big call centre.

I was surrounded by a lot of people who had a difficult job. They had to navigate a tricky system, carry out complex tasks and keep customers happy, all at the same time. They knew their remit inside out and were proud of that.

But most of them dreaded “having to do some training”. My initial reaction when I became a trainer was to take that personally, but after speaking with colleagues, I realized that it wasn’t me they had a problem with. In fact, it was having to learn something new.

  • Some feared losing their ‘expert status’,
  • For some, it was lack of ‘buy-in’ (they were missing the ‘why’) or,
  • Insecurity (“I’ll never understand this!”), and
  • For others, it was simply that their previous experience with learning wasn’t very good and they didn’t like it.

In summary, all of those reactions can be described as fear of learning = fear of change.

Fear of learning

Of course, many people love to learn new things, be it professionally or outside of work. However, for many learners the situation they’re in, along with previous experiences, makes them afraid of learning new things at work.

If you’re an L&D person, you’ll likely recognize the folk I talk about above. It’s easy to decree that “they’re adults and they need to get over it! They need to learn the new thing and that’s that” because, after all, we worked hard to make the new content palatable.

But that doesn’t do anyone any good, it just creates resentment on both sides.

Change management

When looking for the right approach to this dilemma, I realized that it might be a change management exercise.
Learners are going through a change (e.g. learning a new process), and they are showing all the responses that we find on the change curve.

Managing the Change Curve with SCARF

For example, the image above shows seven emotional states. States 1 to 5 (the challenging ones) have one thing in common – they all carry with them an element of anxiety. If you’re familiar with David Rock’s SCARF model, you’ll know that when our feelings of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and/or fairness are challenged, we often react with ‘fight or flight’.

This makes us less able to think straight, less able to collaborate with others and less able to absorb information.

What is the SCARF model?

Status “I used to be respected because I knew my stuff!”
Certainty “I don’t know what’s coming!”
Autonomy “I have no control over this!”
Relatedness “I don’t see the benefit?!” and/or
Fairness “This is too difficult for me to understand!”

But there’s something we can do.

“Not enough love and understanding!”

Ok, I’ll stop with the pop references, I promise. Cher’s not wrong though.
The only way for us to address the fear of having to learn something new is by trying to understand its causes. Seeing the experience from the learners’ perspective shows us the concrete pain points and how we can help.

Why do learners hate learning?

They’ve had a rubbish learning experience last time:
The SCARF triggers here will likely be certainty, autonomy and fairness.

This is the one we can control directly. We can involve our learners in the design. Carefully consider your audience and fight for your ability, space and time to deliver what you know they need.

Consider their pressures and where possible don’t add to them. Don’t take them away from their day jobs any longer than necessary. Carry out learner interviews before you start. Get them in a room and ask them what they would do to reach the learning objectives. Run a pilot phase where a group of learners give feedback on part or all of your solution

Lack of buy-in – they’re missing the ‘why’:
In this case, it’s their feeling of relatedness that will be in question.

They’re not clear on why the change is happening and don’t understand the need for it. You can help them by explaining the benefits to the organisation and to the learners of bringing in the new process – give them the ‘Why’. Sinek’s Golden Circle is your friend here.

Loss of status, insecurity/anxiety:
In SCARF terms, it’s about status, fairness and autonomy.

This is where the ‘love and understanding’ come in. We can use the principles and techniques of change management, and apply them to learning design.

Providing support for all states on the change curve and acknowledging that resistance is a normal reaction – a reaction to be understood, rather than judged.

Invite them to The Love Shack (metaphorically speaking)!

Positive challenges

There’s a great book on ‘The people side of change’ by Jeffrey M. Hiatt and Timothy J. Creasey. Since reading it, I’ve tried to consider learners’ anxieties before and during the learning process, and started to write kinder elearning in response. However, that doesn’t mean not making the learning experience itself challenging. Learning experiences that don’t challenge our learners in a positive way won’t reward them and will disappear in the mist of the forgettable.

I think the critical thing is to consider what learners feel before they even start your learning experience.

What are their preconceptions?
How can you take them into consideration?

These things don’t take a root and branch re-think of your approach; they just take little tweaks that will mean your learning experience triggers less resistance in people. It will make their experience better and likely lead to them retaining more of what you’re trying to teach them. And that, dear friends, reflects oh so well on you!

More from Stefan Eger

If you’d like to hear more from Stefan sign up for his webinar on 24th February. He’s joining Head of Learning Experience, Jack Quantrill to explore The Disruptive and the Invisible: How to Create Effective Learning Experiences in 2021.

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