Understanding the Benefits of the Dialogic Innovation & Learning System (DILS) by EQ Lab

dialogic learning dils education leadership social learning Jan 26, 2021
Benefits of the Dialogic Innovation & Learning System (DILS) by EQ Lab

Introduction by Oscar Venhuis | image by @robsonhmorgan


2019, it’s a hot summer’s day. As he steps into the communal area of theDesk, a ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ style co-working space where we agreed to meet, I take note of Dr. Richard Claydon’s attire. We are both wearing casual summer outfits; a pair of shorts with short sleeve tops. A sensible choice because Hong Kong’s summers are warm and incredibly humid. Today is no exception, the humidity hovers around ninety percent. After a welcoming handshake we take a seat and we begin to talk.

The minimal co-working interior of theDesk in Hong Kong. 


This casual dialogue back in 2019 with Dr. Richard Claydon was the beginning of many more dialogues and the collaborative inception of what is now known as Dialogic Innovation and Learning System or, in short, DILS. It’s a delivery tool developed by EQ Lab that unifies empirical neuroscientific research with emergent innovation practices.

Why is this relevant?

Educational technology (EdTech) is inundated with neuromyths. Persuasive snippets that sound compelling for the uninitiated yet they are detrimental for the progress of the industry. Explaining the underpinning theories of DILS is of great importance because myths are more common than one may think.

The most persistent myth is learning styles, also referred to as VAK; visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners. It alleges that students will learn more if they are taught in a way that matches their preferred style. Despite an absence of any evidence to support this claim, research carried out in 2014 found it was believed by over 90% of teachers around the world.

The following piece is an examination of the foundational and scientific theories underpinning DILS, a dialogic tool that, at the time of publication, has been market-tested over 200 hours and more than 150 times with over 2,000 participants from all over the world.



Foundational Ideas, Educational Evidence & Neuroscientific Research and Leadership Development

Written by Dr. Richard Claydon

The origins of dialogic learning lie in the techniques employed by Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, in his teaching and exploration of emergent and established ideas and concepts in Ancient Greece. From the Agora of Athens to the teaching methodologies of some of today’s leading business schools, Socratic Dialogue has been central to the examination and exploration of complex topics and emerging ideas. 

Today, similar dialogic techniques underpin two of the cornerstones of contemporary leadership development - coaching and cognitive behavioural therapy, and developmental psychology. 


Foundational Technique of Coaching & CBT

Socratic dialogue plays a central role in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), when it is employed to help clients become aware of, and in turn, modify processes that perpetuate destructive behaviours, and in leadership coaching, when it is employed to raise awareness, promote reflection and improve problem-solving thinking. 

There are two different outcomes: maieutic and enlentic. 

  1. A maieutic outcome occurs when the facilitator helps give birth to new knowledge in the learner. The giving birth metaphor is apt, as the emergent new knowledge feels joyous and active, rather than clinical and passive. 

  2. An enlentic outcome happens when the dialogic group determines that their current understanding of a problem or solution is inadequate, and embarks on a collaborative journey to discover new and better insights and ideas. 


Foundational Concept for Developmental Psychology

Adult development, drawn from the Paiget’s cognitive development work on children, is often understood as occurring through a series of up to fourteen stages (click here for examples). 

Leadership development employs similar models, including Jim Collins Five Levels, and Bill Torbert’s seven levels. 

As does organizational development, with some positing five levels (e.g. Laloux’s Teal Organizations, Logan and King’s Five Levels of Culture) and others positing seven (e.g. Spiral Dynamics). 

All are underpinned by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s work on the Phenomenology of Mind/Spirit, in which he positions the playful and witty techniques of Socrates’ dialogic method as necessary for maintaining dialectic action and enabling further developmental steps during complex and challenging conditions. 


Educational Evidence: How Dialogic Learning Improves Performance

In the modern, educational context, research indicates that dialogic learning: 

  • Helps participants learn more

  • Helps participants engage actively with content

  • Improves the thinking process - i.e. helps people become better at solving complex problems

  • Generates a growth mindset - i.e. participants begin to believe they can solve increasingly complex challenges

  • Can make people more intelligent (at IQ and at complexity of thinking developmental levels)

  • Consistently surprises teachers into discovering how capable their students actually are

Quantifiable research over the last decade has illustrated how dialogical learning improves initial learning, increases the retention of skills and knowledge, transfers to other domains of skill and knowledge, and improves performance in reasoning or general intelligence. 


Initial Learning: In a traditionally low performing academic institution: 

  • After 1 Year: 57% of dialogically-developed students scoring “Advanced” or “Proficient”, compared with 38% average

  • After 3 Years: 82% of students scored in the “Advanced” or “Proficient” ranges, compared to only 40% average

Retention of Skills: long-term retention effects for up to three-years

  • Significant gains in long-term retention over a two-year period, which was also retained a year later (an average of 1 grade difference against a control group)

  • Significant improvement in reasoning abilities, maintained over a 43 month research period


Transfer of Knowledge: The development of general capacities in one domain which transfer to another domain for at least three years after the learning experience.


Reasoning Development: far greater ability in exploratory approaches facilitating the successful solutions of complex problems than displayed in control groups, and direct evidence of increases in reasoning ability. 


Passive and Active Learning

Research has clearly indicated that effective, real-world learning is only possible if it includes both passive and active learning components. 

If passive learning is absent or badly implemented, and learners are unable to understand the concepts and tasks, then subsequent self-directed learning and discussions will be poor. Hence, we source expert hosts to frame the topics. 

Active learning, in which learners explore well-formed concepts and tasks, improves problem solving capabilities, attention and memory. 

Research has found that passive-first-active-second learning produces higher levels of accuracy in learning, and results in less time spent on training and a more efficient exploration of a subject.

In our DILS sessions, ¼ of the time is spent on passive learning - listening to the host explain and explore their topic of expertise-  and ¾ on active learning - our dialogic component in which people discuss the topic in small, deeply engaging groups. 

We toggle between passive and active to further enhance the learning experience via the increase of contextual cues and deliberate distractions and interruptions - the benefit of which will be explained later. 


Neuroscientific Research: The Cognitive Gym Model

“I get sick of people taking my psych intro class and coming back next year and not remembering anything. It’s a waste of time and money!”

- Melody Wiseheart, Head - Cognitive Flexibility Lab, York University


Building Strength: Storage Strength and Retrieval Strength

Memory has two strengths - storage and retrieval.

Storage strength measures how well learned something is. It builds up with studying. It becomes even more effective with use. It never decreases. Everything learned is stored. Forever. There is more than enough storage space to record every second of your life, however long it might be. Volume is not an issue.

Retrieval strength measures how easily learned information comes to mind. It also increases with studying. It also gets better with use. 

Retrieval strength can build quickly. It can also weaken quickly. Its capacity is relatively small. That’s why, if you take a test right after you learn, you can recall a lot. But take it weeks later and recall might drop to almost zero. 

This is the problem of fluency. What feels fluent immediately after studying might not feel so fluent after a month. In fact, it might feel strange and inarticulate. 

So are immediate tests useless?

It seems not. Taking a test immediately after learning something increases the stickiness of the learning. It helps you remember more. In fact, it aids retention of learning by circa 50% over a two-month period.

Within DILS, we  enhance learning stickiness by having learners take short, self-directed tests that:

  1. help them recall what they know

  2. reflect on what they didn’t know before the session

  3. identify what they want to know in the future


Desired Difficulty & Spaced Learning

As anybody who has tried a crash diet knows, while it works in the short-term, the inability to change one’s life to accommodate regular dieting results in the weight soon piling back on. 

Short-term intensity, and the difficulty and pain of maintaining it, doesn’t bring any long-term benefits.

Taking up weights makes things even more obvious. You aren’t going to develop an impressive physique overnight. You need to train with regularity. And between training sessions, you need to rest. 

Lifting weights induces tissue breakdown in muscles, making them feel sore and painful the day after (delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS). If you start weightlifting at an intense level, not only will this soreness not go away, but you’ll likely injure yourself pretty badly. 

You need rest. After a day’s rest, your muscles will rebuild, leading to more strength the next time you do the exercise. Over time, this strength will increase significantly. 

The same is true of learning. If you intensely cram, you’ll possibly pass a test you take a day later, but you won’t see any long-term improvements. You might have a certificate saying you know something, but you won’t really know it. 


You need to space it out. 


Research shows that the harder we have to work to retrieve a memory, the greater the subsequent spike in retrieval and storage strength (learning). The degree we need to work has a sweet spot - the desirable difficulty. 

Drawing from studies identifying the best intervals for short-term and lifelong learning, we can design our programs so the intervals between sessions occur at a rate that aligns with your learning goals. 

Whether you only have a couple of weeks to prepare a team for deployment, or the relative luxury of a year to develop your people, we can determine the right amount of time between sessions to attain the desirable difficulty for enhanced learning. 

Spaced study also adds contextual cues to the learning experience, which we’ll examine in the next section.


EQ Lab’s Dialogic 'Drinks': Contextual Cues, Collaborative Connection & Innovative Ideas

Much online e-learning is built around a specific notion -  the idea that sitting alone in a room studying a single textbook without distraction is good learning.

It isn’t. Having something going on during the study is much better than nothing. 

To experience good studying, we need multiple contextual clues (e.g. different music, light, background colors) when learning.  These enable better, more complete, retention. 

DILS has always been built around research illustrating that the best learning, connection and insight generation takes place in liminal spaces - when you discuss work challenges over coffee, at yum cha, or during an after-work drink. 

The value of such liminality is well-established, with research illustrating that roughly 90% of innovative ideas get generated in informal, agendaless meetings and discussions, not at formal brainstorming sessions. In Sweden, such meetings have become an institution in themselves, with organisational-wide fika (coffee breaks) twice a day.  In 2020, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, this type of learning almost disappeared for the majority of organisations.  Indeed, if remote working becomes commonplace, one of the key challenges for Learning and Development teams will be recreating this type of learning experience in virtual settings. Without it, innovation will cease. 

DILS enables this type of connective experience, recreating the informal conversations in which the Innovation element of DILS is more likely to manifest. It also improves social capital by strengthening the connections within a social network, making innovation more likely as diverse, cross-functional insights and ideas dynamically and effectively flow.

The second reason for our drinking metaphor is explored in Benedict Carey’s exceptional book, How We Learn. Carey writes:

“The personality of the learning brain that emerges from all this work on external and internal cues is of a shifty-eyed dinner companion. It is tracking the main conversation (the homework assignment, the music notation, the hard facts) and occasionally becoming engaged in it. At the same time, it’s also periodically having a quick look around, taking in the room, sketching in sights and sounds and smells, as well as noting its internal reactions, its feelings and sensations. These features—the background music, a flickering candle, a pang of hunger—help our companion recall points made during the conversation later on, especially when the topic is a new one.”

- Benedict Carey

This “dinner conversation” experience is a vital one. At such events, you are unlikely to be a passive participant, spending all your time listening to a single speaker dominate the discussion.  If there were, you’d be unlikely to go back.  Instead, conversation ebbs and flows between different mini-groups of people discussing different topics in dynamic flow. Your participation is engaged yet distracted, focused yet fragmented.  This makes the experience meaningful and the learning sticky. 

These variations in visual stimulation leads to an increase in retrieval strength of 40%. It doesn’t matter what aspects of your environment you vary, as long as you vary what you can. 

This informs the Learning dimension of DILS.  During a DILS session, varied visuals are central - you are always looking at different backgrounds and faces, because you are always talking with different people living in different countries studying in different environments. These regularly shifting, different contextual cues enable you to develop more storage strength and better storage retrieval. 


Insights - getting people into the insights zone

At the centre of our method is the claim that we generate insights and innovative leaps more regularly and with greater depth than other developmental models. To do that, we keep people actively living in the insights zone. 

We do it through distractions and interruptions.


I’m not surprised. I was when I first explored the research. I’ll try to explain, because it makes real sense when you get beyond the initial counterintuitive surprise. 


Distractions and Interruptions 1: The stickiness of the unfinished conversation

In our dialogues, people regularly complain that they had to finish the conversation just as it was getting juicy and interesting.

That’s a problem, right?

Actually, it’s not.  Research shows that people remember 90% more of unfinished learning activities than activities they’ve completed. The shock of a sudden interruption right at the moment you are most focused and engaged makes the learning far more memorable. 

In fact, being interrupted at the “worst possible” moment extends engagement and memory the longest. 

And, we’ve found, our participants don’t actually give up on the conversation they were having. They want to chew every last morsel of that juicy meat off the learning bone. 

Many actively seek out the person or people they were speaking to when the conversation was interrupted, and continue the discussion on a one-to-one basis. 

This further increases their knowledge acquisition and memory retention, and builds social capital across the extended intelligence network. 


Distractions and interruptions 2: The problem of functional fixedness

A significant challenge when trying to come up with meaningful insights or innovative leaps is the problem of functional fixedness.  This means that the learner develops a very specific perspective on a topic that is preventing them from seeing other possibilities for action. Nothing they can do can unfreeze them. Increasing one’s immediate attention and focus is more likely frustration and disengagement than any creative or game-changing breakthrough. 

Indeed, what tends to happen is the answer springs to mind while the learner or researcher is doing something decidedly different - taking a walk, chatting to a friend, listening to music. 

To increase the potential for such moments of inspiration, we design our dialogues so the learning can properly percolate. It filters gradually into the mind, before insights burst out in a lively and effervescent fashion. 

To achieve that, we design our programs so learners carry a topic around for a certain period, during which time they have spaced interactions with its different elements. That enables the percolation.


The Three Stages of Percolation

  1. Interrupt the discussion at its most engaging (and/or most frustrating) point, and go and do other things. This doesn’t put the topic to sleep. Instead, it keeps it bubbling away at the back of the mind - fully awake in the subconscious domain

  2. Continue to gather and collect further information and data, through a range of direct interactions with interleaved material (see below) and indirect observations and conversations that keep the topic boiling away

  3. Listen deeply to one’s own thoughts about the various inputs from stages one and two, from which generative insights and innovative leaps emerge, often suddenly and without warning

Interleaving: To better achieve this deep learning and insight generation, DILS takes an interleaved approach.  This means we mix related but distinct material during study. A DILS program does not develop across the traditional method of moving from more simple to more complicated lessons, but jumps backwards and forward across a range of topics and materials that are associated with the whole. Hence:

  • The dialogues themselves can take place in any order, as long as there’s a coherent holding topic we are exploring. That topic can be anything we choose. 

  • Our additional material includes videos, podcasts, blogs, and books, providing the learner with a multifaceted journey of further data collection which engages multiple senses.

Why do we do this? 

Research indicates that varied practice (different people, different discussion, different topics, different context, different tools) is up to 50% more effective in pressurised conditions. Simply out, if you run a very structured program people won’t remember vital information under pressure. 

If it’s interleaved, they will. 


DILS: Final Outcomes

A key problem for modern organisations is their inability to develop leaders. Deloitte reports that:

  • Only 7% of companies believe they are capable of developing Millennial leaders

  • Only 13% can develop global leaders

  • Only 14% are confident in their succession planning

Our methodology develops people who exude gravitas and expertise, are capable of generating authoritative insights, and are capable of effectively contributing to decision-making processes in complex and challenging circumstances and environments. 

It also identifies people in the organisation who are capable of and ready for leadership, but who have forever flown under the organisational radar. Research indicates that 30% of high-potential leaders never get identified as such. This opens up a wealth of talent possibilities for organisations struggling with their leadership development and succession planning.

A final outcome is the development of a good eye, or an intuitive understanding of complexity. Thanks to our DILS methodology, our participants learn to extract the most meaningful set of clues from a vast wealth of data, and discover how to effectively probe multifaceted collections of insights and ideas, and do so at increasingly rapid rates. 





If you’re anything like us, you’ll be sick and tired of websites claiming a scientific model that make no reference to any scientific research. Here are our references.

Special Reference: A significant portion of our DILS research, including most of the neuroscientific structures, is drawn from Benedict Carey’s exceptional book, How we learn: the surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens. We heartily recommend a purchase.

Carey, B. (2015). How we learn: the surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens. Random House Trade Paperbacks.

Selected References

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