Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Protege Effect: Lessons for Leadership Development?

You often hear the adage, "The best way to learn something is to teach someone else... If you can teach someone about a subject, you really have to understand the material."  New research, described by Annie Murphy Paul in Time magazine, reinforces the accuracy of this nugget of wisdom.  Scholars have used a "teachable agent" - a computerized animated figure named "Betty's Brain" to examine what they call the "protege effect."   Betty's Brain behaves like a real-world student.  Children are encouraged to "tutor" Betty's Brain.  The studies find that, "Student teachers are motivated to help Betty master the material, so they study it more conscientiously. As they prepare to teach, they organize their knowledge, improving their own understanding and recall. And as they explain the information to her, they identify knots and gaps in their own thinking."  Moreover, scholars have found that, "The agent’s questions compel users to think and explain the material in different ways, and watching the agent solve problems allows users to see their knowledge put into action." 

Is there a lesson here for leadership development?  I believe so.   Leadership development professionals, professors, and consultants always struggle with how to get managers to actually change their behavior based on what they might learn in a classroom-type environment.   We might think about putting high-potentials in the role of teacher, not just the role of student.  If we put high-potentials in the role of mentoring and teaching new hires and other junior employees, then perhaps the high-potentials will learn new skills and capabilities more effectively.  Perhaps behavior will change more significantly and more quickly. 

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