Breaking the pattern as a way of adapting to new skills

Pattern interrupts can be simple events that interrupt what we were doing and get us to focus on something else entirely. Imagine you are having a conversation in a noisy coffee shop and all of a sudden somebody drops their tray. The noise level in the coffee shop will take a nosedive, some may scream or clap even and very likely you may not remember initially what you were talking about. Hence your pattern was interrupted.

In learning new skills, when you are brand new to a topic, you rarely have to eliminate a pattern, but rather you need to develop one. However, in changing habits such as for example instead of lounging in the sofa after work, choosing to go to the gym or go for a walk, we find it a lot harder to change our ways. Breaking with the od habit and creating a new, often works best when we build a new routine attached to some healthy old ones. But we do need to break the old pattern first.

Holiday break

What has me thinking about this, is the upcoming holiday I am aiming to take at the end of next week. Last year I had a project where I had to check in a little every day of my holiday to see if something had come up and I wedged the holiday around business travel to conferences. I have to say I didn’t feel I had any pattern interrupt that allowed me to recharge my batteries sufficiently. Besides the fact that the project I was checking in to, was a problem child and the people involved very unappreciative of the time and effort we were putting in. Thankfully we managed to turn them into a happy ending over time, but I certainly lost the break I really needed from a rough year in business. So with that still in the back of my mind, I am keen to this year make a solid break.

For the pattern interrupt to happen, I need to switch off completely from day to day work. To be honest for two weeks, it is a small amount of time in the larger scheme of things. What I find that larger organisation find this totally acceptable (at least those with healthy work habits) and the smaller organisations are the ones who feel their world will fall apart, even if on a good run they would take two weeks or more to get back to you.

What the break in daily grind does, is that it basically sets you up to change your routine and create an openness to something different. For some people the break may come easy, for others, it takes a while to get used to the new routine and fully relax. In my case, the best holiday breaks have been those where I switched off completely and managed to focus on totally different often new activities. Those actually recharge and give new energy to come back with.

Pattern interrupts in games

Games use pattern interrupts frequently to create the element of surprise and to force you to do things differently. New obstacles, new ammunition, different environments all throw you off the things you considered normal and got used to in a previous level or even the previous round for some games. Gaining skills comes from adapting to all these new situations and to keep levelling up or increasing your score.

In fact, I would probably argue that for some game types this is the thrill of the game and the very piece that makes the game so attractive. Other games only use the technique sparingly and are much more about regular similar patterns, such as puzzles for example.

Why is it not prevalent in learning?

In a lot of learning design, the course is created from the viewpoint of the novice gathering this information for the first time. However, in most organisations, people come with some base knowledge on most topics especially in the soft skills arena and possibly a lot of others too. Yet we send them down the same track as the people who know nothing?! If this was a game, you wouldn’t play it for very long.

I have never really understood why this happens. Is it because instructional designers start with a set format of sharing information? Or is the rapid authoring tool structure? Or is it the way the subject matter expert thinks the information needs to be conveyed? Or is it just the way it was always done?

Granted, it will take longer to dream up relevant pattern interrupts and to create storylines similar to the work grind. Often the budget and time doesn’t allow for that, but then I would also question whether no change in any behaviour was what you really aimed for?

Pattern interrupts for learning

In my internal trainer days, I often got invited to address problems a certain team was experiencing. I remember one team, who invited me to their kick-off retreat with the whole group which ranged from senior managers all the way to new starters. This group had a technical remit but often had to present solutions, the feedback on their presentations had been relatively poor across the board. So the head of the department asked me to give them something useful in 30 minutes in a plenary setting format.

The only way, I could make it meaningful and relevant was to pick on some of the bad habits I had seen people do. From the guy with a hand in their pockets creating a very visual bulge, which I had one person volunteer and caused massive laughter but made the point. The rattling of keys, coins or clicking of pen heads and tops, again classic, super funny when exaggerated but also spotted for real. The ice bear walk up and down a stage, the becoming the projected image, etc. All very visual, memorable and for the volunteers, these were real pattern interrupts.

In order to embed the changes, you would need to take away some of the things so people could get used to let’s say speaking on stage without movement. Standing with your hands beside your body on one spot and delivering your talk with just words. Then little by little allowing a bit more movement, such as one impactful move in the first 10 minutes. Would it make you more conscious about when to use what move? Absolutely!

In online learning, starting with scenarios or quizzes or quests, where the learner will have to make some difficult and hard-to- get-right choices will create an awareness of needing to learn something more. Allowing them to then learn just that, is equally important.

Starting with the fact that learners will have base knowledge is good and in today’s world probably assumed normal. Asking them which habits they are utilising or guilty of is also a fun starting point, then showing them the implications of those in the safe learning environment can be very powerful.

Imagine in a healthcare environment, you have a nurse admitting she often just lifts someone up manually quickly herself when really best practice tells you equipment should be used. Telling her she did it wrong, has little impact, she probably knows anyway. Showing her the impact it has on her body and that of the patient may wake up the attention to learn. Then showing how to build a new habit linked to an existing one, is a good way of giving easily transferable ways. Then catching them doing it, in reality, the right way, when praise then follows is the embedder of that way of working.

The purpose of the pattern interrupt is to grab attention and focus people on something new or different. I personally feel pattern interrupts should be as prevalent in learning gamification as they are in games.



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