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Summary: How People Learn: Designing Education and Training that Works to Improve Performance by Nick Shackleton-Jones


Nick Shackleton-Jones provides a searing indictment of education in schools, colleges and organizations. He defines their problems, then offers a sensible solution: Design education and training that addresses learners’ cares and concerns. He calls for replacing current academic and corporate educational systems with resources and experiences with designs that meet learners’ priorities. Shackleton-Jones describes his “Affective Context Model” as the first unified learning theory, the only theory prioritizing emotions as the root of learning. While his approach contains many practical ideas, dismissing everything people thought they knew about learning seems extreme.


  • A learning-focused education system necessitates continual assessment of individual needs and liberty to explore challenges of escalating difficulty.
  • The “Affective Context Model” offers a new, empirically grounded theory of learning.
  • People can share the same experiences and remember different things.
  • Teachers and trainers fail when they try to force content into people’s heads.
  • People learn only when they care about the subject.
  • Discover what people care about, so you understand what drives them; then, you can design learning that addresses their concerns.
  • When people don’t care about a topic, educators should design experiences that make them care.
  • When people already care about a topic, offer resources they can “pull” from.
  • The “5Di Learning Design Model” provides memorable, effective education.

Summary: How People Learn: Designing Education and Training that Works to Improve Performance by Nick Shackleton-Jones


A learning-focused education system necessitates continual assessment of individual needs and liberty to explore challenges of escalating difficulty.

Thinking is not distinct from feeling; rather, it is a specific form of feeling. Humans and animals alike communicate their emotions through complex systems of vocalizations (language). Language is primarily used for storytelling to convey experiences and emotions to others. Humans and other animals share similar learning mechanisms.

The present education system is “based on an incorrect understanding of cognition and learning.” It emerged from historical circumstances and industrial age requirements.

“The idea that an education system faces a choice between allowing people to pursue their passions and shaping them into productive workers is a false dilemma. Whether you are a sea-snail or a human, there are just two systems to consider: the pattern of things that you care about, and the world you find yourself in. These two things interact, shaping each other throughout your life. That’s what learning is for. The best outcome is that you find yourself in a world aligned with your cares; the worst is that you feel trapped in a crappy job doing none of the things that really matter to you.”

An optimal education system should integrate learning and work throughout a person’s life, with a focus on task-based learning stemming from real-world issues. Recognition should be based on accomplishments, influencing employment opportunities.

The “Affective Context Model” offers a new, empirically grounded theory of learning.

The affective context model, “the first general theory of learning,” states, “we store our affective reactions to experiences and use these to reconstruct them.” Learning does not equal knowledge transfer. A learner’s affective context, which includes their motivations and broader concerns, shapes what they remember and how they remember it, often at an unconscious level. Learning is defined as “a change in behavior or capability as a result of memory.” Memory is defined as “the encoding of an affective response to an experience, which allows that experience to be reconstructed.”

When asked to talk about what they’ve learned, people often don’t mention school or training. Instead, they usually talk about a memorable, emotional moment that led to learning. For example, when you move to a new country, change jobs, or feel embarrassment or shame when something goes wrong, you remember and learn from these events.

“As a rule of thumb, the deeper the personal significance, the more reliably something is learned – we don’t often repeat our more embarrassing mistakes.”

Your brain is a finite resource. It stores only what matters most. You can, with varying degrees of accuracy, recall your most emotional moments because you encode your reactions to them. You may also encode other people’s reactions to things you say and do. If you ask kids how their school day was, they might say it was boring because it engendered no reaction from them. Adults offer similar responses about routine meetings at work. But if a loud argument ensues during a meeting, you’ll react to it, encode it and remember it. You probably won’t remember the original point of the meeting, but the outburst will stay with you.

To demonstrate the impact of an emotional reaction on learning, Nick Shackleton-Jones taped a banana under several chairs at a learning and development (L&D) conference where he was a speaker. In the middle of his presentation, he stopped and asked audience members to look under their seats for a banana. He invited those with bananas to come up on stage for an “Olympic Banana Munching” exercise. Shackleton-Jones explained that over the coming days, his audience probably forgot everything he said in his talk, but they remembered the banana competition. Subsequent encounters with audience members, even years later, prove him right. Shackleton-Jones discovered “some special kind of irony at work here: Learning people learn little about learning at a learning conference.”

“What if I told you that everything you thought you knew about memory and about learning is wrong? Not just slightly wrong but completely and fundamentally wrong?”

Human behavior is steered by conformity and an affective mapping of the world. Individuals don’t have separate instinctive and rational cognitive systems but one emotional system that “balances immediate emotional states and imagined emotional states.” Cognitive biases are inherent in this emotional processing system. To change attitudes, one must first understand existing ones, and behaviorism is coherent only when it incorporates affective states. “There is no distinction between semantic and episodic memory.”

People can share the same experiences and remember different things.

Past reactions and encoding make learning different for different people. That’s one reason tailored, personalized learning is often the most effective learning route. You can share an experience with someone else, say, a vacation to a historic city, but you both may recall different elements of it later. This finding has vast implications for learners who attend the same lecture but leave with different take-aways.

Words serve as mediums to express emotions and reactions, not just to represent objects or concepts. Communication involves sharing these emotional responses, leading to the activation of similar feelings in the listener. In the context of educational design, crafting an effective learning experience hinges on inducing specific reactions in learners. However, predicting these reactions requires a deep understanding of what is significant to the individual, highlighting the role of empathy and personalization in education.

Teachers and trainers fail when they try to force content into people’s heads.

Until a few hundred years ago, children learned from playing, from observing their peers, and from the stewardship of their parents and other adults. This approach became impractical as societies and economies grew more sophisticated and new, specialized roles proliferated. At that point, children needed a place to go. Communities set up schools and hired teachers to pour content into children’s heads. Good teachers tried to enliven their lessons with enthusiasm, but the results were spotty. Many forced students to care by instilling fear of failure on tests – and, by implication, in life.

And today’s learning methods aren’t more effective. As a teacher or instructor in a typical course, you probably don’t expect people to memorize anything. You watch them take notes so they don’t have to remember material without a reference. You know that a few weeks or months later before you give an exam, they’ll cram it in, spew it out – and then forget the whole thing. – This is an absurd process. When students sit down, shut up and take notes, they don’t learn – unless they have an emotional connection to the material. But because this model predominates, it spread from academia into corporate learning.

People learn only when they care about the subject.

To construct a standard, one-size-fits-all course for a range of participants, you must know that all of them truly care about your topic. Only then might traditional education work. For example, to engage a group of new hires, design a session about how they can best fit into the firm. That would win their attention, cause an emotional reaction and enable them to learn.

“Learner-centricity must be placed at the heart of any educational design process.”

Talk to your would-be participants and ask what they care about. The people you teach can’t learn unless they care about the topic, so you must first understand their concerns. Knowing what people care about enables you to design learning that causes a reaction and results in embedded understanding.

Likewise, if you have a group of employees who are making a transition to roles as first-time managers, you might create a seminar around the top 10 things to do – and not do – as a new leader. Because it addresses their aspirations and their fears, it would probably be very popular.

Discover what people care about, so you understand what drives them; then, you can design learning that addresses their concerns.

If educators fail to tap into learners’ feelings and emotions, their students will avoid lectures, borrow each other’s notes, and cram for exams while amassing tuition debt and learning next to nothing. In exchange for their payments, students acquire certificates and degrees that rarely lead to jobs that relate to their course of study. And when they go to work, they don’t apply their education – they learn on the job.

Personal growth is influenced by both innate characteristics and environmental influences. Discrepancies in personal values can lead to conflicts unless acknowledged and resolved. There’s an inherent connection between designing learning experiences and life experiences; both involve presenting meaningful challenges and linking new concerns to pre-existing ones. Individuals are particularly open to change during significant life events or unique circumstances. Designing these transformative experiences necessitates a “human-centered approach” coupled with a willingness to experiment and refine the process iteratively.

When people don’t care about a topic, educators should design experiences that make them care.

Learning developers and L&D trainers may introduce new ideas and technologies with the promise that they will change the game, but they never do. Learning management systems, e-learning in “big chunks,” massive open online courses (MOOCs), and micro-learning fail because they focus on content rather than on finding out what people care about and providing it.

“If we can make people care about something or the other, they will use the resources we give them. Hence learning is not something we ‘do’ to people – we just support it or create the conditions for it to happen.”

Before you design a learning experience, you need a comprehensive understanding of your learners’ needs. Every learning resource or experience should be tailored, stemming from an in-depth analysis of what the learners value and are interested in. When people care about a topic, offer resources they can “pull” from. When they don’t care, design experiences that make them.

“[There are] two types of learning intervention…Pull: Build resources, not courses. These may well improve performance by reducing learning. [And] Push: If you wish to build capability, design experiences.”

A person who cares about a topic will seek learning. Hence, design learning experiences that hit home emotionally. The strongest impact often comes from experiences, such as the banana exercise. Compelling stories and scenarios that reflect real workplace conditions also make an impact. This might include cautionary tales and reality-based scenarios of situations that learners might encounter on the job.

Simulations boost learning’s impact further by making the experience more real, relevant and vivid. Other play-based learning might include serious but fun games, including video games that encourage trial-and-error experimentation in a safe environment. The vital role that feedback plays in learner development explains why coaching and mentoring can be so effective.

When people already care about a topic, offer resources they can “pull” from.

If you use a conference room phone a few times a year, why should you learn all its features? If you need to patch in a remote worker, a step-by-step guide to doing so – ideally, attached to the phone – is sufficient, just as the washing instructions in clothing prove more functional for users than an instruction manual. If you want people to use your content, provide the easiest, most efficient resources. Instead of a video of a talking head describing how to do something, create a concise, step-by-step job guide. Never film a lecture, dump it online and expect anyone to learn anything from it.

“The further away from the point at which people need information (‘point of need’) you are, the more time and money you are going to waste trying to get people to memorize the information.”

The best pull resources are concise. They emphasize practicality, rely on visuals and communicate conversationally. People understand them and find them easy to access. Even for brain surgeons, checklists often prove more efficient than memory. Worthwhile resources reduce your need to learn. In fact, learning often stands in the way of performance and wastes resources.

Consider London taxi drivers who used to memorize the city’s thousands of streets. They earned a premium for this knowledge because a random driver lacked their understanding. But GPS has replaced them. As a “performance guidance system,” GPS is far more efficient than having drivers memorize routes or maps.

With pull-type resources and performance guidance systems such as GPS, organizations can achieve personalized learning by offering a range of resources that people care about – such as a learning ecosystem you curate to fit your employees’ and teams’ unique concerns. These resources and tools can eliminate the need for highly skilled, highly paid and hard-to-find talent by making low-skilled people capable of performing advanced tasks.

The “5Di Learning Design Model” provides memorable, effective education.

The 5Di Learning Model starts by “defining” success by outcomes rather than by learning objectives. Next, “discover” what matters to your learners. “Design” the most efficient, tailored resources and experiences for them. “Develop” these resources and tools with the learner in mind. Involve learners in the process. Finally, “deploy” your solutions in an iterative manner. As with Lean practices, start with minimally viable learning, ask for feedback, and continuously adjust to improve.

“The solution is either to allow people to learn as they care, or to find a way to make them care.”

Do not evaluate your efforts by tracking how many people visited your learning management system and completed courses. Measure how your resources and designed experiences affect learner performance and business outcomes.

About the Author

Nick Shackleton-Jones is HR Director, Talent & Learning at Deloitte, UK. Previously, he worked for PA Consulting Group, BP, Siemens and the BBC.

Table of Contents

Chapter – 00: Preface;
Chapter – 01: Cognition;
Chapter – 02: Learning;
Chapter – 03: Education;
Chapter – 04: Language and learning;
Chapter – 05: Learning design;
Chapter – 06: Learning elimination (performance consulting);
Chapter – 07: Defining experience;
Chapter – 08: Human-centred learning design;
Chapter – 09: Bringing about change;
Chapter – 10: Ethics and AI in learning;
Chapter – 11: How to change someone’s mind;
Chapter – 12: The future


The book is a guide for learning and development (L&D) professionals who want to design education and training that works to improve performance and engagement of employees. The author challenges the traditional view of learning as a process of transferring information from one person to another, and proposes a new model of learning based on how people actually learn in real life. He argues that learning is not a rational, linear, and passive process, but an emotional, associative, and active one. He suggests that learning happens when people are motivated by a problem or a goal, and when they connect new information to their existing knowledge and experiences. He also claims that learning is influenced by social and environmental factors, such as emotions, relationships, context, and culture.

The author introduces his ‘5Di model’ as a framework for designing effective learning interventions that align with how people learn. The 5Di model consists of five stages: Define, Discover, Design, Deliver, and Drive. In each stage, the author provides practical tips and tools for L&D professionals to apply in their work. The model helps L&D professionals to:

  • Define the problem or goal that motivates the learners and the desired outcomes of the learning intervention.
  • Discover the learners’ needs, preferences, expectations, and existing knowledge and skills.
  • Design the learning intervention using various methods and techniques, such as storytelling, simulation, feedback, gamification, personalization, and social learning.
  • Deliver the learning intervention using various channels and formats, such as online, offline, blended, synchronous, asynchronous, formal, informal, etc.
  • Drive the learners’ behavior change and performance improvement by providing support, reinforcement, measurement, and evaluation.

The author also discusses how to create learning resources that learners can access when they are actively searching for information or solutions. He suggests that L&D professionals should use pull and push techniques to provide content that is relevant, useful, engaging, and easy to find. He also explores how to use artificial intelligence (AI), marketing, and ethics to enhance the learning experience and impact.

I found the book to be very insightful and innovative. The author presents a compelling case for rethinking how we design education and training in the modern world. He draws on his extensive experience in L&D as well as research from psychology and neuroscience to support his arguments. He writes in a clear and engaging style, using stories and examples to illustrate his points. He also provides actionable advice and tools that can help L&D professionals improve their skills and results.

The book is not only relevant for L&D professionals, but also for anyone who wants to learn more effectively and efficiently. It offers a new perspective on how people learn and how we can facilitate their learning. It also challenges us to question our assumptions and biases about learning and to embrace a more human-centered approach. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn how to design education and training that works to improve performance.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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