Thursday, March 31, 2005
What is learning?
My thoughts around learning have been profoundly altered by reading Wenger, Brown & Duguid and von Krogh and focus on collective workplace practices. Have come to appreciate the role, value and importance of social learning, situated learning, learning in community and culture. That more is learned on the playing fields and in discourse with peers than from the sage on the stage. Even in very structured training situations, it is the breaktime conversation, the secondhand explanation from a colleague that situates the new concept, validates its importance and sanctions its legitimacy.
The key to learning is not the medium nor the message, it is the quality of the dialog with your peers that really matters
Needs assessment as learning driver - a growing unease
The traditional practice of determining information needs and competency gaps seems more and more a hollow exercise. Partly this come from my belief in distributed and situated cognition, partly it follows from experiences in communities of practice where learning agendas are negotiated, emergent and always in flux. I equate annual learning plans with a stable environment where it is easy and effective to predict. My perception is interesting problems are wicked and there is advantage in going with the flow.
Picking CBT courses from a menu a year in advance, learning alone, like thinking alone, is not the way to go.
The importance of cohorts
You may obtain information from the 'sage on the stage' a book or CBT, but you learn on the playing field, where your identity is forged, opinions are validated, values mediated, beliefs formed and assumptions are tested. Social mediation is key, and this is where cohorts help you make meaning and gain understanding. We own a social brain and apprenticeship is the natural way to learn. We need cohorts and community to build a shared repertoire of key concepts, evolve tools, craft language, gather stories and highlight sensitivities. This is where learning products reside.
Shared meaning is the difference between personal knowing and acquired understanding or social knowledge. This is the power behind language and communication. Points to the essential role of sharing critque, alignment & reflection in learning. Meaning is established through patterning, emotions play a key role. To make meaning explicit and ensure alignment, it is essential to test assumptions.
Mike McMaster? helped me first appreciate this key knowledge practice. Creating new knowledge comes from bringing forth new worlds, from agreeing and naming subtle signs, symptoms, patterns and perceptions that enable alternative courses of action. Mostly this happens as a natural byproduct of conversations within groups and is recognized by the issues, the values, the beliefs and in the language of a community of practice. Often encoded in the 'slang' and group talk that sets the community apart. Distinctions are closely related to ontologies and to making meaning. They contribute a large measure to identity.
Deep learning, identity and dialog
Knowing is an act of participation, knowledge is more a living process that acquisition of an object, it is closely tied to who we are and emerges in dialog or through copy and practice. Lasting knowledge is knowing more than definitions, concepts and relationships, it is feeling what is right in a particular situation, requires personal engagement, passion and a community to emerge. Learning and knowledge require an ecology to thrive and evolve.
New insights arise at the boundaries between communities, connections and reflections, are key to synthesis and access to new ideas. The learning potential of an organization lies in maintaining a tension and a balance between core practices and active boundary processes. Identity and meaningfulness are the wellspring of creativity, sharing is a natural by-product of belonging. Learning is more about community than content
Creative abrasion, high challenge and safety
Dorothy Leonard struck a chord talking of creative abrasion. To change your mindset you need to raise the energy levels, increase the attention and focus. This is difficult to achieve in a placid conversation. Exposure to alternative assumptions and frames, some advocacy, deep dialog, strong engagement and a pure clash of ideas help to unsettle, and resettle meaning. Prior beliefs are difficult to change using classroom instruction and teaching as telling. Taken too far, increasing stress levels will reduce the learning opportunity, there is a fine balance to be maintained.
Boundary hopping and busting prototypes
The sweet spot for learning is at the boundaries of individual and community. Here you are less sure and secure , core rigidities are lower, you are flooded with new thought forms, alternative analogies and metaphors. Making connections is key and often follows trusted relationships.
So where is learning headed?
Well there is eLearning, distance learning, web based training, learning portals, mix & match using learning objects, cohort learning, CoPs and more. Fundamental changes in learning paradigms are taking shape with constructivism on the rise, new links between learning, community and networking, exciting emergent alternatives are driving commercial education.