Tag Archives: doing

Four Ways to Think About Workplace Learning

15 Jun

I’ve been talking lately to people who are charged with supporting learning in their business, as part of a new (to me) genre of professionals sometimes called Directors of Learning, or Chief Learning Officers. I’ve asked myself how I would go about designing support for learning in an organization, if I were in their shoes. Here are the results. I would think about four things: kinds of learning, location of learning, the activity continuum, and the zone of learning.

1. Kinds of Learning

Technical Learning

Of kinds of learning, I think of three: technical, adaptive, and systematic. Technical learning constitutes all those fixed skills, knowledges, procedures, and competencies in which what you are learning is relatively fixed and known. You have to learn a discrete set of information or to do things in the right way. It could be about facts, steps, or cultural norms. A particular equation. A software program. A way of participating in a discussion. The knowledge particular to your profession. It’s content you master. Stuff to add to the “container of you.”

Adaptive Learning

Adaptive learning, drawing on Ronald Heifetz, is different. It’s learning in which you yourself grow or change. The “container of you” gets bigger, better able to handle complex, ambiguous phenomena. In adaptive learning you discover and rewrite your assumptions about the world. Adaptive learning focuses more on the “you” part of you, or what’s there underlying the technical knowledge. Adaptive learning is more difficult, messy, and personal, and makes you acknowledge and address all sorts of anxieties, tensions, worries, and self-limitations. I would guess most workplaces are thinking about technical learning. But I would be impressed if many go beyond technical to embrace adaptive learning.

Innovation

Just to show you how important adaptive learning is, I note that innovation is usually adaptive learning. That is, we’re not hardwired to innovate, and it’s not a technical skill (though it has some technical components); to be able to innovate, we have to change the way we see the world to allow it to be an ok, and not deathly-scary task: we have to learn to be ok with taking risks, failing, ideating like crazy, restraining evaluation, etc.

Systematic Learning

Systematic learning is when you attempt to understand things at a systems-level: as complex and recurring processes, like ecosystems or steam engines. On one level, just trying to see what is going on in your workplace as combination of systems–financial systems; systems of time and investment of time; systems of feelings, emotions, trust, or morale; decision-making systems; environmental systems–is already using systematic learning. The even more interesting application, though, is to the learning processes themselves. This is where you understand individual and collective learning (and their interaction with performance) as interlocking ecosystems, each with natural laws, growth, change, inputs, outputs and so on. This is probably the ultimate goal of any learning officer in a company: to have the learning systems of the company be as visible and as well attended to as well as are, say, finances.

Assessments

Under systematic learning, I want to mention learning assessments, or the ways to know what is being learned. Without them you can’t “see” how you’re doing, so that you can make adjustments. If you can’t see and make adjustments, you don’t have a system that you can manage or understand. (It’s there but you have not found it yet).

2. Location of Learning

Location has two values or poles: Engaged and Disengaged.

Disengaged and Engaged Learning

Disengaged learning is learning outside of the context in which it is meant to be applied. Engaged is learning in the context. For example, you can read Ted Williams’ book about hitting a baseball, you can get someone to throw you a ball so that you can take a few swings, and you can play in a real game. Those are three steps along the path from disengaged learning to engaged learning.

The traditional view of learning is that it is disengaged. And much is. But engaged learning can be some of the most effective. If you cast your mind back over your life of learning, and you dig out one or two examples of where you feel you learned the most or the best, the chances are they will favor the engaged end of the spectrum. Engaged learning can take a lot of forms: apprenticeships, internships, mentoring, debriefs, just-in-time learning, difficult conversations, “gamified” work.

Doing and Learning

You may think that engaged learning just sounds like work, or like “doing.” Well it is. It’s a false dichotomy to think that learning isn’t doing. You have to do to learn. Yet there are also ways you can “do” that aren’t requiring much learning, where you’re essentially repeating things you mastered long ago. In my opinion, as an individual and an organization, you want your “doing” to have as much learning in it as you can. If you’re not learning a lot in the doing, that particular doing is probably ripe for automation.

3. Activity Continuum

Your learning will fall somewhere on a particular continuum I call the activity continuum. At the left end of the continuum is a kind of traditional, reductive, linear, conduit way of thinking about learning. On this end of the continuum we see learning as a kind of passive thing: we are transferring fixed discrete “things” to the learner. At the other end it’s active: the learner is understood to be doing or reflecting or making-meaning or becoming in some new, meaningful way. The poles can be seen to cohere across technical, adaptive, and systematic learning.

In the realm of technical learning, at the left pole, you will have a kind of simple, old-school lecture, or a handout. At the right pole you will have much more engagement, and probably less traditional content, more meta-cognitive thought going on, and more game-like or real-world structure. You can read a book about how to play Worlds of Warcraft or you can work through the tutorial. The tutorial falls towards the right pole. Similarly, in adaptive learning, you can learn about yourself, or you can actually work on your own behavior change. My favorite adaptive learning method, Immunity to Change, famously includes both poles. Also, systems can be understood to fall towards the passive or the active side of the continuum. There can be systems that are reductive and conduit-like, like the basic use of a learning management system (as a document repository). And systems that are dynamically changing, like something in a virtuous cycle of improvement, such as bamboo. The bamboo plant gets sun and nutrients and grows; the larger plant gets more sun and nutrients and grows more.  Eventually it’s a forest, an ecosystem.

I recommend inching towards the right pole wherever you can, but a few instances of left-pole thinking are ok. The problem is that our default is overwhelmingly left-pole, and that is an issue. (Why do we favor passive learning? Probably because it’s easier for the teacher . . . but I digress).

4. Zone of Learning

Thinking about the “zone” of learning is inspired by Vygotsky’s idea that there is a space, like a sweet spot, where you will learn best–a particular growth edge that, if you find it, will be simultaneously most compelling for you, encourage your best learning, and give you the most positive feedback, resulting in you wanting to learn even more.

This idea argues for designing learning that is tailored as much as possible to where the learner is. It requires we be able to assess where people are, and be able to adjust the learning content and experience to fit their needs. Of course the challenge in the workplace is that we will be unlikely to have the kind of master teachers, curricular experts, learning designers, and psychologists who can really make this kind of thoughtful analysis and then design learning activities to it. There are new sorts of automated assessments that can begin to help us, so some hope exists that we’ll be able to do a little bit along these lines soon. And, in any event, it is still worth asking, for any learner, what is the appropriate “zone” for their learning? If we tend towards one-size-fits-all (which is often the case), does this work for everyone? Are there basic things we can do to start to accommodate differences? What are the differences?

Another way to come at this challenge is to trust the learner. Oftentimes a self-aware learner knows best what they should be studying next. I give a personal example: I am an intermediate trombone player. I am actually more interested at this point in hearing people just a step or two ahead of me play, than I am in hearing virtuoso performers, as much as I like the latter. Why? Because the top edge of my learning zone at the moment is advanced intermediate, not virtuosity. I will learn better, grow more, and have more positive feedback with the more relevant goal.

The Second Phase of Creation

12 Aug

When you think about doing new things, there are a few phases. Four, by my count. First comes the part where you conceive of the thing to do–call it the idea phase. In the beginning there was the word, etc. Then there’s a phase where you actually do the thing you conceived of. The doing phase, which is number three. These two phases are self-evident I think to most people, and I’m not going talk about them here, although I note they get really interesting as you peer into them (How do you actually get that idea? What is it you’re doing, when you’re doing, anyhow? Is there any thinking happening in there during that doing? Etc.)

Less obvious than these is a post-doing phase, phase four, where you reflect on how the thing went and look for ways to improve before you try it again. This phase is crucial because with it comes the feedback loop that is at the heart of all learning and improvement, and that turns your isolated action into something that can grow in meaning and value indefinitely and form associations with other things and attract people and change them and be changed by them and on and on in wondrous convolutions and permeations of beauty influencing beauty forever. Having a loop is really the only way to (eventually) achieve goodness and approach perfection, in my opinion, contrary to the semi-conscious belief of many that excellence precipitates from nothing with no precedent. That good teachers are born, not made, etc. I am not sure you can be or do absolute good; but you can improve relative to yourself, and you should focus on that.

I could talk a lot more about this reflection or feedback phase, as I love it dearly, but I won’t, because I would rather draw attention to a phase between the idea phase and the doing phase–which makes it phase two–a phase that is in my opinion the least well known, and least respected, and most suspected, but it’s important, and it’s poised for a comeback, and it’s worth thinking about.

In phase two, which is hard to name, you go from idea to endeavor. And to bridge that chasm you do a certain kind of applied abstraction, or practical dreaming, or ethical scheming. A spiritual machination, maybe. You continue the generative feeling of the creative thinking mode that started the whole thing and produced the wondrous idea you’re working with, but you begin to arc that generation towards your actual physical, local, empirically-confirmed environment with its tangible stuff and laws and real people and moods and everything.

First you start by asking my favorite kinds of questions: “OK, about this new idea. If we did this, just what would it look like?” Or, “Imagine we did this–how would it feel?” Etc. The answers usually come in little pieces that you build slowly into a larger picture that becomes clearer and clearer and more palpable and more real.

And as it becomes clearer and clearer, look out. Experience teaches me that this is the place where people start to get nervous. The idea was no threat as long as it was just a crazy idea. But now it’s growing into reality–particularly if you’re doing a good job of answering the “what would it look like” questions–and it’s starting to bump into people’s assumptions about life. It’s amazing how easily the defensive mechanisms are triggered in this regard–as soon as the slightest whiff of palpable novelty is intuited, up go the hackles. Why? Who knows–the imagined thing could change the existing power dynamic, we could be asked to do something we’re not good at, the things we think we care about might suffer, someone might say we’re incompetent, it might take more energy than we currently choose to expend, it might put us out of a job, etc.

Usually you don’t even know what is so threatening about the idea. Often the toes being stepped on are so buried in the sand that the articulated objection spurred by them seems disconnected and comes across as irrational. Did I say sometimes? It might be more than sometimes. I’m not attacking this quality of self-preservation (see Kegan and Lahey’s Immunity to Change for an examination of it and a praise of it and a way to work through it), I’m just noting that this is where it comes in.

In any event, after this nervous and visceral, slightly animalistic reaction (which happens to us all, I might note, me as much as anyone), this part of phase two often salvages itself by what David Perkins calls “bracketing,” or asking people to put aside objections to just float along in the happy land of possibilities for a bit longer. This simple move is surprisingly effective–who wouldn’t ride with Willy Wonka on the boat a bit just to see what happens? It’s also akin to the magical cape of the bullfighter. “I’m not going to argue with you about that thing you think,” you’re saying. “It might be right, who knows. I’m just asking you to imagine this very interesting thing over here . . .” Wave of cape. Bracketing comes in handy: without out you can’t keep going.

Keep going, that is, to the bricolage stage, where another fun thing happens: you start to look for ways to interweave reality and your idea. Outlets to plug your idea into; bits of spare fabric in which to clothe it. You ask “What do we have lying around that might be put to use? What existing knowledge, procedures, resources, ideas, experiences?”

Here to my eternal delight we get to have a Rumpelstiltskin moment and to transform mundane things into nifty things. Nifty because they buttress your new idea. Here we find resources forgotten, ideas never hatched, people’s skills untapped, cheap back-door strategies, etc. And we see how we can put them to use. It’s as if the unappreciated constellations reform themselves into new provocative shapes right on the faded star map and right in front of our eyes. This transmutation, repurposing, reuse, resuscitation, re-constellation of old stuff is just fun–addictive really–it might even be the main reason people ever want to do new things. Why? Maybe because it means the world is generative, restorative, salvageable; that there’s eternal capacity for creativity, growth, development. That we’re not actually after all trapped, doomed, predetermined, constrained, and locked in a pit of inescapable despair. Maybe because if you can re-associate the stuff around you, it means you’re alive. I’m not sure.

Anyhow, the end of phase two is marked by another particular kind of question that I love. This is the classic “What’s the first step?” Or the “What achievable thing can we practically do, now?” Key here for me is the now part–that is, doing that accessible thing right then. There does seem to be a kind of clock ticking. And there is the sense that if you don’t act, that bracket that temporarily held back all the objections to the idea will start to loose structural integrity like Star Trek shields, and will no longer be able to fend off the glittering blob of worry pressing in through the windows and under the doors.

But I won’t follow that thought, because here we are at the end of phase two. Of course once you do something, even just the first accessible step, you’re technically in phase three, doing, which I said I wouldn’t talk about. So ends my blog post: think about this phase the next time you set about doing something new, and see if you can’t see it at play.