Skip to main content

Learning Matters: Learning Can Be a Slippery Slope

Learning Matters: Learning Can Be a Slippery Slope

By Debra Christopher, MSM | January 22, 2015
Director, Professional Learning Systems, ETR

The Colorado Rockies. Snow country in December. Over the holidays, my family and I trekked to the mountains for some snowshoeing and winter hiking. So spectacular!

Our drive home required the navigation of two snowy mountain passes. We were caught in some pretty treacherous weather. My 21-year-old son was driving, and it was stop and go in extremely icy conditions

As we crept along he told us a story of his best friend Adam, who was in a similar situation on a family skiing trip a year earlier. Adam had very little experience in these conditions, especially in heavy traffic, and was driving his parents' car—yikes! Everyone in the car was on edge.

Then it happened. The car started to slide uncontrollably...

...toward the other vehicles in front and alongside of the car. Adam’s stepdad, who was sitting in the back seat, calmly said, “Adam, just pump the breaks, and if you crash, it’s OK.”

That Was Brilliant!

I thought about that statement and realized how profound and brilliant the advice. It was personal and provided a reminder to employ an immediate and simple skill set (pump the breaks). Further, it calmed and gave comfort in the fact that all might not go well, and that was OK. It was OK to fail.

I made the analogy to our professional development (PD) work, which most often involves teaching learners a new skill set. I thought about how the complexity of skill acquisition is not simple or always intuitive. It can be uncomfortable, wobbly and even scary. It requires concentration, practice, re-adjustment and support—in the moment and over the long term. The true test comes when the learner is actually behind the wheel.

Don't Be Fooled: Learning Takes Effort

So don’t be fooled by those who claim or believe that learning takes place instantly. Like those people who seem to believe that if they run through 50 content-heavy PowerPoint slides in 60 minutes, the content on the slides will immediately, through osmosis, ooze into your brain and you will walk away properly prepared and polished to use a new skill. Nope. Not gonna happen.

The process of change takes time. It can be a slippery slope. Professional developers have an obligation to prepare learners for successful implementation by modeling, providing practice time, and being honest about the complexity of changing what people actually do in the real world. Proficiency requires effort.

The Implementation Dip

One of my most cherished mentors, Michael Fullan, taught me early in my career about the Implementation Dip, and its importance for anyone teaching and/or training others to gain proficiency in a new skill. He defines this as “the inevitable bumpiness and difficulties encountered as people learn new behaviors and beliefs.” The Dip is “literally a dip in performance and confidence as one encounters an innovation that requires new skills and understandings.”

There are three key concepts to put in place once you believe in and acknowledge that “the Dip” is real.

  1. Learners must go through the Dip for true learning to take place. In other words, this is part of a normal change process. Both trainers and learners need to own it, embrace it and plan for it.
  2. Change is a process, not an event. We have all heard this one before, but do we apply it appropriately? (Hint: Those of you using the PowerPoint osmosis technique, or using a one-time only event to promote learning—stop it!)
  3. Learners can survive the Dip. To survive the Dip (or chasm, as the case may be), here are three very important steps learners must consider:
    • Expect it.
    • Name it.
    • Build in support.

Embrace the Dip!

Savvy professional developers assist by helping learners understand, expect and embrace the Dip. Discussion of the Implementation Dip should be part of any professional learning experience. For the learner, patience, confidence, stick-to-itiveness, sprinkled with a little forgiveness, are key.

Pump your brakes, and it’s OK if you crash. Try again, again and again, until you are a master.

Your Turn: Guiding Questions for Facilitator/Trainers

  • What elements do you provide as part of your learning processes (training sessions) to build in support for learners once they leave the online or in-person event?
  • Do you include information about implementation challenges (the Dip) during your in-person or online event? What support do you have in place if learners have questions or encounter barriers?
  • Do you acknowledge the Implementation Dip in your own personal learning processes (PD self-care)?

For more information or to find out strategies used by the ETR team to engage learners—and prepare for the Implementation Dip—contact Debra Christopher, ETR’s Director of Learning Systems.


Debra Christopher, MSM, is Director of Professional Learning Systems at ETR. Contact her at

Sign up for the ETR Health Newsletter.

Social Media :

  • YouTube
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Instagram