Friday, October 18, 2013

When Apples Decay

In our experience education is perceived as a continual process, accumulating knowledge progressively over time.  A shiny apple exemplifies the learning student or an inspiring insight (see Newton, Sir Isaac). Less consideration is given to the fact that the educational process can work in reverse leading to a loss of capability over time.  In other words, the apple decays.  As Martin Weller notes on his blog The Ed Techie, “education is about selling apples...we need to recognise and facilitate learning that takes ten minutes or involves extended participation in a community over a number of years.”*

This leads us to a recent Wall Street Journal piece, “Americans Need a Simple Retirement System”.**  The article is about the failure of educational efforts to improve financial literacy.  We admit that this is a bit out of context for nuclear safety culture; nevertheless it provides a useful perspective that seems to be overlooked in within the nuclear industry.  The article notes:

“The problem is that, like all educational efforts, financial education decays over time and has negligible effects on behavior after 20 months. The authors suggest that, given this decay, “just in time” financial education...might be a more effective way to proceed.”

We tend to view the safety culture training provided at nuclear plants to be of the 10 minute variety, selling apples that may vary in size and color but are just apples.   Additional training is routinely prescribed in response to findings of inadequate safety culture.  Yet we cannot recall a single reported instance where safety culture issues were associated with inadequate or ineffective training in the first place.  Nor do we see explicit recognition that such training efforts have very limited half lives, creating cycles of future problems.  We have blogged about the decay of training based reinforcement (see our March 22, 2010 post) and the contribution of decay and training saturation to complacency (see our Dec. 8, 2011 post).

The fact that safety culture knowledge and “strength” decays over time is just one example of the dynamics associated with safety management.  Arguably one could assert that an effective learning process itself is a (the?) key to building and maintaining strong safety culture.  And further that it is consistently missing in current nuclear industry programs that emphasize indoctrination in traits and values.  It’s time for better and more innovative approaches - not just more apples.

*  M. Weller, "The long-awaited 'education as fruit' metaphor," The Ed Techie blog (Sept. 10, 2009).  Retrieved Oct. 18, 2013.

**  A.H. Munnell, "Americans need a simple retirement system," MarketWatch blog (Oct. 16, 2013).  Retrieved Oct. 18, 2013.

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