A Wider Lens on Learning

Learning in times of turbulence requires much more than lessons or courses – it requires new systems.

I’ve long contended that learning is all about systems. I’ve not backed away from that. However, I’ve also been a part of some rather terrible systems. Post-secondary education is definitely one of them. So, too, has most of my work with conducting webinars, workshops, lectures, and demonstrations.

The reasons have less to do with the medium or the message, but the system in which learners interact with the content, themselves, and each other.

As we spend more time online with webinars, workshops and other means of gathering as we seek to find some way to move forward, enhance our skills, or just ‘level-up’ what we know it might be worth stepping back and asking ourselves: what are we actually doing?

This is what prompted me to leave academic teaching the last time and as I explore answers to this question it might mean not going back.

A Social and Biological Charade

It might seem a bit rich that someone with degrees and certifications is coming out and saying that education and training is a charade, but hear me out. I’m not suggesting that the university and training experience isn’t worthwhile – I’m saying that what it is best for is not necessarily learning subject-matter content. That is why it’s a charade. Yes, you will learn through courses and training programs, but most of what you’ll learn is not tied to the topic of interest and certainly not at the level that would be considered both effective and efficient.

Why? Let’s start with timing. Firstly, many of the course or webinars we take are tied to the schedule of when they are offered. That means we are learning on someone else’s schedule, not ours. True, on-demand courses often all us to learn at our own pace, but most professional training and education is done based on a set schedule. There are many logistical reasons for this — e.g., instructor considerations, cohort effects, space reasons (for those events still done inside) – but that doesn’t mean that they are good for learning, even if they make sense.

One of the reasons is that our ability to learn is tied to our ability to recall and use of the material we are exposed to. Research on retention of information suggests we might lose more than 50% of what we are exposed to within one day (and more as time passes). This forgetting curve comes from a combination of biology (the brain’s physical ability to encode and retain information) + the lack of reinforcement of that learning, and the volume of information we are exposed to. Reinforcement and focus can help to retain information if done in close proximity to the moment(s) of exposure. Brains and memory like having things repeated.

The next issue is connection. Neurobiology teaches us that connections between ideas and past experiences are key to forming memories in the brain just as social psychology teaches us that connections with other humans are key to making and using memories. This means stressing both the need to connect our lessons to what we already know or have experienced — even if it’s entirely novel at the outset – and the need to socialize this in practice.

We cannot do this in a vacuum. What we do when we teach and train people without an ability to socialize material, without the time and space to reflect, recall, and integrate that material into their work, we are creating a bit of a charade. It’s education and training theatre.

Connecting to Craft

Another key to learning is tied to craft. If we are looking to acquire knowledge that is to be applied toward a problem or situation, we need to have knowledge that is available in proximity to that problem or situation and to have the space to apply it. The somewhat mythical 10,000 hours of deliberative practice is tied to that ability to take what we are exposed to, apply it into practice, repeat that practice, and to build an understanding of how to learn from practice.

Deliberative practice is about building a feedback loop while we are learning to continue that reinforcement, integration, and development of an idea. It’s about craft.

Not everything in education is about craft, but a lot more of it is than we give credit for. People learn to write code, paint, use design thinking, apply quality standards, or evaluate (and more) because they want to apply it in their life. Theoretical sketching is an absurd idea — you need to do it. No one wants to read a book about swimming or riding a bike– you swim and ride.

In an era where so much of what we are doing is tied to learning to do something, should we not be designing our systems to actually help us build a craft? What about the ability to gain feedback from what we are doing? What about mentorship or peer learning? What about having timely information when we need it, not just when it’s offered?

Are We Serious About Learning?

This is the question I asked years ago and I continue to ask.

People sign up for courses, webinars, meet-ups, and events with an idea of hope and a desire to transform their circumstances into something. This is the essence of what Herbert Simon meant when we he defined design as:

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.

We seek out educational and training opportunities because we want to design our lives and careers. We want something better.

Why not design systems that are suited to this? This is a question I’ve been working on for a while and am starting to experiment with.

I’ve been quietly developing something called the Cense Academy with this in mind in an effort to create a learning design that is better suited to the needs of those seeking to innovate (more to come — this post is not about that initiative). I’ve been actively engaged in some of the learning communities that have been established since COVID-19 first broke and many that were already in place to see what is working, not working, and what other ideas there are for engaging people in real learning.

I’ve taken lessons from the community of practitioners who also work offline like those in forest and nature schools and various trades who still promote work with our senses, not just the eyes and ears and fingers on keys and screens. It’s an interesting journey and it speaks to the possibilities for real learning. It’s taught me a lot and confirmed much of what I’ve suspected about the way we learn and what works and doesn’t.

Scott Galloway has written about the upcoming demise of the university system as we know it. I think he’s right and wrong in his assessment. He’s right that universities are going to whither, but wrong about the timing. Our desire for credentials, apprehension around engaging in models we don’t know, dissatisfaction with online learning (despite claims it will be the future of education), and the tradition and market might of the current post-secondary system and the many, many private training programs out there mean we’ll continue to pursue degrees and other certifications — even if we no longer fully understand what their value is.

Designing Learning for Innovation

If we are serious about learning we need to design for those who, as Simon puts it, seek to devise those courses of action to make change happen — to see what problems exist, recognize opportunities, uncover and discover options, put those ideas into form, translate that into actions, evaluate them and promote the innovation, together. Not everyone needs to do it all, but there’s a growing need to know how to innovate.

Why? So many systems are in flux now. The pandemic of the 2020’s has initiative changes in systems across our society and the globe and amplified many changes that were already started. What comes next is going to be the largest global reconstruction project since the end of the Second World War and more interconnected than anything we’ve ever seen. This means, to paraphrase from The Leopard, we are going to need to change things even to keep what we want the same as it is.

This means learning how to innovate. That is about putting a new twist on the way we learn to do what we do — whether that’s accounting, conservation biology, medicine, machinery, or social work — it’s all requiring new ways to work, think, create, and learn. It means designing new systems for innovation.

Until then, sitting on a webinar or in a classroom isn’t going to do much unless you’re able to connect with others, connect those ideas to others, apply what you’re learning to something, and repeat. So design your own system for learning while the rest of the world seeks to build systems that make it easier for you to do this.

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash, Tim Gouw on Unsplash, and Tim Mossholder 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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