Learning’s Problems

Learning is the key to innovation and resilience and it also presents us with problems.

Developmental evaluation, adaptive strategy, and learning organizations are a few of the concepts used to reflect an attitude of responsiveness and innovation. We pivot, flex, adapt, and are resilient — or so we tell ourselves. In some cases we are — although not as much as we might think.

Learning is a word that’s easy to use and more difficult to realize. Too often it’s substituted for ‘education’, which is a different thing altogether as Seth Godin writes.

“Education is the hustle for a credential. It exchanges compliance for certification. An institution can educate you. Learning can’t be done to you. It is a choice and it requires active participation, not simple adherence to metrics. Learning is the only place to find resilience, possibility and contribution, because learning is a lifelong skill that isn’t domain dependent.” – Seth Godin

This conflation between learning and education is at the root of learning’s problems.

Problem 1: Metrics of Success

Education as an institution employs metrics and measures of success. One is tested or expected to demonstrate knowledge (sometimes abilities) in a manner that fits the method of examination. Do this enough and you are rewarded with a certification (see problem #3).

This is based on a standard and that standard is considered the definition of ‘success‘. Success is defined as having accomplished an intended purpose. If so, what was the purpose? If learning is, as Seth Godin suggests, a place of finding possibility and contribution and building true resiliency, there aren’t real metrics for success. If that’s the case, we are judging our learning by a false metric because we can’t even define what ‘success’ is.

If we are using a metric to assess quality, qualification, and achievement that is not based on a true measure of learning, then what are we doing?

And yet, this speaks to the other side of the coin and another problem for learning: failure.

Problem 2: Failure & Fear

Innovation is all about learning — trying something new to generate value (usually through experimentation and modification). We can only successfully experiment if we’re open to discovery and that might mean challenging our assumptions and testing our hypotheses. In some sense, it means being wrong (or failing).

Yet, failure also means having a metric to judge success by (see above). If we are not adjusting our metrics we then face a situation where we will fail and bring with it the social consequences of that such as disappointment, shame, fear of being rejected or dismissed, or ignored altogether. Western cultures in particular revere success to the point where an entire sub-culture of ‘innovators’ have managed to pervert the idea of ‘failure’ into a means of success.

The alternative is that we create the kind of metrics and measures that allow us to steer away from real learning toward checking off the boxes and avoiding confronting the real issues of growth, struggle, and reflection that true learning brings with us.

Are we failing to learn as a result? Yes.

Problem 3: Credentials

A good friend of mine recently completed coursework in a field of practice he’d been working in for over 20 years. He is – by the standards set by his industry, employers, partners, staff, and customers — a master of his craft. He also didn’t have any credentials. In order to advance in his company or secure new employment within his sector he needed to have the letters behind his name; to be credentialed. Those letters had little to do with his capacity to perform his duties and may have actually stifled his skills had he started his career taking these courses. Yet, his fit for his role is judged not by his actions, but by his paperwork.

There’s too many things wrong with that.

Certainly there are areas where the risks are sufficiently high that credentials need to be the barrier to entry into a profession — physicians, lawyers,aerospace engineers come to mind — but in many areas of work, credentials’ true value is open to question. For example, one can be a brilliant artist or designer and never step foot in a college or university and one can earn advanced degrees in those fields and practice to the same high level. Credentialing in this case — the process of completing a specialized form of training and certification — may help advance your abilities, but it’s not a guarantee.

Problem 4: Pathways

As the world struggles to contain the effects of a pandemic, education and training is going partly, if not entirely, online. The use of online coursework isn’t inherently bad, but like every method, it’s got limits. Unlike face-to-face interactions, these limits are more pronounced with certain things (e.g., group work, discussion, interaction). It’s difficult to learn if we don’t have psychological safety so there need to be practices to support that which might be different than the usual.

Teachers are working hard to re-draft their lessons in light of the threat of ‘teaching by Skype.’ We might be creating new lessons, but are we re-working our pathways to learning? Is this piecemeal approach likely to create the pathways to take one idea to the next? In other words: are we actually learning?

Learning happens when we connect things together and that can only take place – systematically at least – in good systems.

Problem 5: Systems

Learning is degraded in bad systems. When you consider the litany of factors that support how people expose themselves to, reflect on, integrate, and apply knowledge into their practice it is no surprise why education can fail us. Our models are not set up for learning.

If we are serious about learning, we need to design for it. This means designing the right lessons, structures, engagements, expectations, and evaluations that are fit-for-purpose. Whether it is professional education and training, grade school teaching, or something else — learning thrives in systems designed to support it. It also needs the right measures and metrics, too.

Learning is our way forward, if we’re ready and design for it.

If your organization is struggling to learn systemically, it might be how you’ve designed your systems. These can be improved and the culture of learning you need can be made real. Contact me if that’s something you could use help with.

Photo by Lili Popper on Unsplash 

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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