How people learn

September 3, 2006

The other day I decided I wanted to craft an informal learning cookbook. Recipes for common business situations. I began making a list of how people, but something was out of kilter. I’d listed

  • learning by watching a master
  • by being instructed
  • reading
  • observing
  • look-up
  • repeating
  • teaching
  • learning by doing
  • learning by trying and failing
  • writing & reflecting
  • role play
  • debate
  • collaborating

But learning wasn’t just one-to-one anymore. It could be individual, pair, trio, small group, or large group. It could be emotional, cognitive, automatic, or physical. The things I advocate in Informal Learning seemed out of place.

The Big Transition
We live in a society in transition from the industrial age to the knowledge era. Yuppies are rooted in the industrial age: their parents lived with the ultimate command-and-control success story, winning World War II, and it takes at least one generation to unlearn one’s parents’ worldview. So by and large, yupiies believe one person can control others. They believe things are manageable. They believe that the future is predictable.

The incoming workforce have grown up in a different reality. They know that intangibles and ideas count for more than physical stuff. They appreciate that control is an illusion and that going with the flow is the way to get ahead. The world is complex, and no one knows what things will be like five years from now. Groups solve problems, not individuals. They don’t put up a facade: they are who they are. Deal with it.

Instructional design is industrial design
Instructional design is an industrial age concept. If you design & develop a program you’ve already defined its curriculum and shaped its delivery perameters. ISD doesn’t think of learners implementing, so that’s out of their hands. Likewise, evaluation is external to the learners. Often, formal programs appear to distrust the learners. Hence, the focus on discipline, testing, and confining learners to a classroom. This is push, push, push, with someone other than the learner taking charge of the process.

Informal learning presumes learners need to prepare to deal with surprises. “Designers” of informal learning don’t focus on programs and content so much as on the learning environment and letting content that’s already in the group manifest itself. They facilitate learning; they don’t lead it. They remove obstacles. They provide challenges, not detailed instructions. They rely on learners’ innate motivation to excel. They trust learners to find their own best ways of learning what it takes. This is pull, pull, pull, with the learners deciding when they’ve had enough.
Just as you wouldn’t use lectures in an informal setting, you wouldn’t use free-flowing diakogue in a formal one. Most of the literature of instruction deals with the traditional, formal side of things. To balance that, we need a taxonomy of ways people learn informally. Only then can we match what’s to be learned with the appropriate technology to support it.

What We’re Used To

First we make our habits; then they make us. Why do courses have such staying power when they are so often the wrong unit for instruction? Not all topics warrant an hour; some warrant more. Training vendors have to have some unit to sell, and buyers understand what a course is. Another reason is that courses simplify the lives of adminstrators, both in school and in corporate life. It’s so easy to say “Take a course.” We think we know what it means.
Instructional design has a similar anachronistic legacy. If you’re a designer, you’ve got to design something. Award someone a masters degree in instructional design, and every problem looks like a need for more instruction. This approach is fighting the last war, for design is no longer the cure-all it was in times of rigidity and certainty. Many learning situations evolve or grow out of a culture or self organize. Often the shortest road to performance is getting out of the learners’ way yet this is not a topic in many ISD curricula.

Pick and Choose
I’m not much for television in the morning. Hell, I don’t watch television more than an hour a week. Yet this morning I began the day watching a very funny clip of Dave Letterman when GE purchased RCA and became Dave’s new boss. (He tried to take the Board of GE a fruit basket but was turned away at the door.) This is the difference between old-style behavior and the new. I no longer have to sit through a hour of boring stuff and commercials to get to the really funny parts. Similarly, no one should have to endure an entire training program in order to learn the few nuggets they came for.

In the old days, we just took it. I sat through twenty years of educational exercises. Coloring outside the lines or thinking creatively was punished. Eat your training; it may taste bad but it’s good for you. Today people are mad as hell and won’t take it anymore. They take the lessons that are useful and fast-forward through the rest. The learners have seized the remote control.

Life Support for Obsolete Practice
When I was advising SmartForce at the dawn of eLearning, the company was purposely automating old-style forms of training. SmartForce offered a library of courses, along with a newsletter, online meetings… There was still expert knowledge delivered by an authority to the learners.We were selling horseless carriages, not automobiles. Collaboration was in there somewhere, but it wasn’t emphasized. Our online community had more than a million theoretical members but sometimes only one or two of them was actually online.

My book contends that most learning is informal.

Workers learn more in the coffee room than in the classroom. They discover how to do their jobs through informal learning – asking the person in the next cubicle, trial-and-error, calling the help desk, working with people in the know, and joining the conversation. This is natural learning: you learn from other people when you feel the need to do so.

Instead of applying technology to manage attendance or decontextualize content, shouldn’t we be looking for ways to make it easier to converse with colleagues in the know, to make sure the help desk is placed where help is needed, social networking for virtual teams, and providing places for conversation to take place?

(I’m going to continue this in a new post)
With this “pull” perspective, we can begin to imagine how technology can be repurposed to support learning. For example, this morning I visited a site call Weblist for the first time. Like Digg or PopURLs, this is a site that lists the top ten stories on other services. The only difference I can see is in the audience the service is targetting.

Imagine what it would be like to have a resource like this inside an organization. Call it Orglist.

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