Is Everything Learning?

28 Jul

I’ve been advocating for a while the idea that we organize the workplace as a learningplace, taking advantage of what we know about how people learn to shape the norms and expectations of what we do on the job.

But understanding things as learning seems to work in all sorts of other interactions and environments. That is, looking to see if core elements of learning are there, and if they are, then asking whether applying pedagogical principles might not improve the thing examined.

What key elements? Well, there would need to be some important knowledge to be created, some individual(s) that could develop, some behaviors that needed to change, some feedback that could be given, some hidden assumptions to surface and adjust, some key outcomes to identify, some important agreements to make, some vulnerabilities to protect, some mentor there to help, some community to share, etc.

These elements pretty much appear in anything people do? That’s what I’m starting to think.

Take your doctor-patient relationship. There’s a little team of two people, one with amazing knowledge about the rules of health and one living in a body. One is used to solving medical problems and one less used to it. Both need to solve the problem. The two have to work together; both have important but incomplete information. Success requires both to share, build on the other’s knowledge, discover and apply ideas together, talk, trust. Hypotheses, testing, reflection, and feedback are in order. Basically it’s a little learning community. A class, a seminar, a tutor-tutee relationship. But does it feel like a seminar? How elusive the hallowed bedside manner, how brusque and condescending doctors can sometimes be, how scared the patient. How we all zoom in and out of appointments leaving things unsaid, how you never really step back and ask “What are we doing here? What is our goal?” or hear a doctor say “how did I do?” All things normal in a team that knows its goal is to learn. So there’s probably room for some of the things we know about learning to help this particular team learn better.

Another example: change management, the great bugaboo. It’s the problem any group will encounter that has the temerity to undertake something new–the fact that people sometimes have a hard time doing new things. Well, change management is learning–the individuals involved have to understand the new thing they’re to do, and be helped getting there, along the way jettisoning some outgrown assumptions, just as if they were learning Physics 101. The reason change is a bugaboo is that we try not to think of it as learning; we just want to snap our fingers and boom! People change. Imagine a professor in Physics 101 thinking something like that? Physics 101 in five minutes? It’s probably silly. Silly in the classroom, silly in the change management context. Probably not how people learn.

When you think about it, almost everything important is learning, and could therefore benefit from applying some of our classroom-honed truths. Particularly things that people do together and that require communication and seeing things from multiple perspectives. Like relationships. Teams. Government. Parenting. Negotiation. Problem-solving. Or, in other words, life.

Is there ever a time you’re not learning? When you could just be, say, or do? Maybe just performing after you’re finished learning? I’m not sure there is.

Things like meditation and prayer try to get to you stop thinking and interpreting and just be. When you do it, you discover that you’re in tune with your body, your environment, your feelings. You’re calm, you’re spiritual, you’re balanced. And yet all that stuff is a kind of information that feeds back into you and changes or influences your behavior and your beliefs. Starts to sound like learning, man!

And about doing. In theory people like professionals might learn something, then just function at a high level thereafter, coasting along in the performance of their skill. In actuality, though, you probably can’t really separate doing from learning. You need to do to learn; that’s what’s behind active learning, experiential learning, constructivism. Learning is essentially doing and reflecting again and again. If the professional hasn’t got some kind of feedback loop going on, then his or her performance seems unlikely to become or remain consistently good. He or she is probably learning even while doing.

But let’s just say for the sake of argument that there is a thing you could learn to do as it were mindlessly with minimal reflection or feedback or adjustment. Just automatically and repetitiously and consistently. And that the unreflective mechanical work would be sort of reassuring or comforting, like playing solitaire. Or watching Murder, She Wrote. Ok, I admit this happens and that this sort of mechanical activity might not benefit from being viewed through the lens of teaching and learning. But the rest of our activities probably do.

So what does this all mean? What happens if we see everything in life (except watching Murder, She Wrote) as a learning activity, applying what we know about how people learn?

Well, we’d start to realize we needed to support people’s learning, that it couldn’t happen fast. We would slow down the leap from problems to solutions wherever we could. People would need to try out ideas and be wrong a lot. We’d have to encourage that. We’d need feedback all over the place. We’d try to make our thinking visible wherever we could. Assumptions would need to be on the table. Painful self-awareness a daily event. We’d know being vulnerable would be key and so we’d build trust in everywhere we could. In fact, my growth would depend on me helping and engaging with people around me as much as it did me doing things by myself. A general shift from the dog-eat-dog high school gym atmosphere of much of human activity into something more like a cross between a support group, a writers workshop, a chess club, kindergarten, and an NGO.

In short, radical change for all places. But behind it all the wonderful idea that the organizing principle of everything is growth, development, discovery, and becoming.


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