The difference between insights & learning


From the known to the novel

Who is this article meant for: Behavioral trainers / facilitators, Instructional Designers or Teachers.

Average read time:  8 min

Most of us are familiar with the term insight; are familiar with the term ‘learning’. My intent then, in writing this article is 3 fold:  1) to bring out  the difference  between them 2) to reiterate why it is quintessential to create insights in the class room 3) how to create insights in a workshop – I shall be sharing some ideas and would invite you to add to this.

The difference between insights & learning

Before understanding the difference, I’d like to take the reader back to ancient Greece, at a time when the word ‘Anagnorisis’ was coined (roughly much BC). ‘Anagnorisis’ is a moment in a play or when a character makes a critical discovery. Anagnorisis was the hero’s sudden awareness of a real situation, the realization of things as they stood. And it is in Anagnorisis that I find the basic difference between Insight and learning. That, almost singular point in time when the bulb lights up in your mind and you say wow – that’s interesting or that’s something I can use or that’s something new.

Learning on the other hand does not restrict itself to the nature of ‘insight’ – think of it more like a super set, with insights as just one of the subsets or facets. Learning could happen over a period of time, like becoming deft at using certain machinery or learning how to paint or how to deal with a difficult manager and so on. The other kind, the kind that has Anagnorisis at its heart is what I am calling an insight and what I shall be unpacking in this read.

For the purposes of this Article: Anagnorisis = discovering something new / novel in a particular instant in time

So why is Anagnorisis important?

Bear with the brain science: There are 2 regions in our midbrain called the ventral segmental area VTA and the Hippocampus HPC. novel information detected by HPC regulates DA (Dopamine) neuron firing in VTA. Novelty induced DA activity then promotes neural plasticity mechanisms in HPC to enhance behaviors such as spatial learning and context processing (Mizumori et al. 2004, 2009; Lisman and Grace 2005)

In other words Novelty triggers Dopamine (the feel good chemical) which motivates us to learn

Researcher, Düzel says: “When we see something new, we see it has a potential for rewarding us in some way. This potential that lies in new things motivates us to explore our environment for rewards. The brain learns that the stimulus, once familiar, has no reward associated with it and so it loses its potential. For this reason, only completely new objects activate the midbrain area and increase our levels of dopamine.”


  1. The novel is an important ingredient for creating the motivation to learn .
  2. You also need to do so quickly –  I’ve seen many well meaning facilitators (including myself ) crash and burn just because they waited for after lunch to launch their first insight

A simple method for creating insights

The Twist

Running a session for a group of 23 managers, I asked them to select a team member and write out one piece of feedback they’d like to give this person. After they’ve finished I ask them to look at their flip-charted responses for any patterns.  Several responses later people begin to realize that the inputs  provided by each and every member of the group is around an improvement area, something which is broken, or a weakness – everyone  writes negative stuff only: I want my subordinate to start being more punctual , committed, accountable etc. It’s almost as if for the first time they are questioning the unconscious mindset that feedback = negative stuff. This is the first peek into Anagnorisis

I then ask them why, why is it that all their feedback was around the negative only. After a few feeble defenses, which I let stew for a bit, people begin to get vulnerable and confess how this has been unconsciously ingrained in them: feedback is mainly about what’s not working –   getting a few people to state it allows people to begin to own it, kind of strengthening the first penny drop.

Some participants do come up with “oh but the sandwich technique…” basically shorthand for providing feedback that has 3 parts to it – begin with a  positive, chase it with a  negative and close with a positive like a sandwich . My response: ”while this may be  worthwhile, while doing an appraisal, here’s why I don’t like it for day to day developmental conversations:  think about the time your boss said to you that s/he wants to give you feedback, called you into a room and said good stuff – what was your reaction –wasn’t some part of your self-talk: “ok that’s the good stuff what does s/he really want to say. Positive combined with the negative sometimes dilutes the message. Small penny drop again

Finally I say: ”providing positive feedback that is divorced from the negative has another benefit, it’s a method of  investing into your team member’s emotional bank account; sending  out the message: ’ my supervisor is taking time out to think of the good stuff’ – so when it time to give redirecting or negative feedback, you stand a better chance that your team member will think, listen and maybe own it.” This is the final penny drop for the session.

To summarize – ingredients for insight creation:

  1. Deliberation: Creating insights happens in two parts: the first is deliberative, much before the event and a part of the design phase, where you construct the insights at different points in your training program. Part 2: When you’ve done enough of the first part, sometimes when you’re within a training room you are able to co-create insights along with the participants purely from the here and now – this, to me is advanced facilitation. Till then prepare, prepare, prepare.
  2. Layering: Unless you have a real big single cracker that is going to change people’s lives – an insight is an aggregate of multiple small penny drop moments – don’t just say: “ok I’ve created one insight now my job is done…”

Constructivism: Paradoxically, even thought an insight has Anagnorisis at its heart it works best if the discovery / the aha moment is constructed from the responses of the participants –they own it so much more.

Author-Greg Chapman is a management consultant with over 16 years of relevant experience. He’s currently as an Independent professional and is also associated with Vyaktitva. He is passionate about designing and executing various behavioral interventions for audiences ranging from the CEO & amp; his/her top team to mid level managers and has partnered with clients across industries on creating end-to-end learning interventions.


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