A question of attitude

When I first entered the learning and development profession, I was assigned a mentor, a certain Mr Ernest Knagg. Ernest had strong opinions on just about all matters of pedagogy and good practice and that included the issue of attitudes. “Clive,” he said, “It’s not our business to try and change people’s attitudes. We can try and change what they do, but not what they feel about things.”

There’s a certain sense in what Ernest said, although time and time again I’ve encountered situations where attitudes are the major block to progress. I’ve checked this out with lots of other l&d professionals and they agree. It’s almost impossible to address issues of knowledge and skill when attitudes are in the way. An attitude is a predisposition, a tendency to think, feel or act in a certain way without reference to the facts of the situation. Try getting past “I absolutely hate computers”, “My job would be perfect if only there were no customers”, “I would never give a job like that to a woman” or “E-learning is the work of the devil.”

If you are looking to help people construct knowledge or develop skills, there is a reasonable amount of agreement on what works and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, the pedagogy of attitude change is much less certain. In trying to get a handle on the latest thinking I hunted down Teaching and Learning in Affective Domain – Emerging Perspectives on Learning, Teaching and Technology from Mary Miller at the University of Georgia which, if nothing else, served to demonstrate just how many different approaches you can take:

  • You can start by changing behaviour:  “When a person is persuaded to act in a way that is not congruent with a pre-existing attitude, he or she may change the attitude to reduce dissonance” (Smith & Ragan).
  • You can instead work on knowledge:  “Individuals are in an unstable state when their attitudes towards an object, event or person and their knowledge about that object, event, or person are inconsistent” (Simonson & Maushak). Causing this unstable state demands that you get a persuasive message across, This message is most likely to cause attitude and behavior change if it “can shape both beliefs about its topic and beliefs about what important individuals and social groups think about the topic and how they behave toward it” (Zimbardo and Leippe).
  • You can model behaviour: “An individual learns attitudes by observing the behaviors of others and modeling or imitating them” (McDonald & Kielsmeier). This model, which must be credible to the target audience, “can be presented on film, by television, in a novel, or by other vicarious means” (Martin and Briggs).

(From which I have derived Clive’s theory of attitude change, which proposes that no theory of attitude change can be credible if presented by less than or more than two theorists.)

The article goes on to present a variety of instructional design models for influencing attitude change. I’ve drawn out a few common elements:

  • Present persuasive messages in a credible manner (dry statistical information has less effect than vivid and concrete examples).
  • Use respected role models to demonstrate the desired behaviour.
  • Have learners practice the desired behavior, perhaps through role playing.

All of the above have the potential to induce dissonance in the learner which could compel a shift in attitude. Basically this seems to come down to the following:

  • He or she is someone that I admire. He or she has a different attitude to this subject to me. Perhaps I ought to change.
  • From what I now know my current attitude makes no sense. I should change it.
  • Now I am behaving differently, I’d better shift my attitude to match.

I would throw in some tips of my own:

  • Never try and force an attitude change.
  • Try and get negative attitudes out in the open early on in an intervention.
  • Never be judgemental about someone’s attitude, however undesirable.
  • Encourage full and frank discussion.

What works for you?

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