Tag Archives: gamification

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.


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.


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.

Alan Kay, Systems, and Textbooks

17 Apr

Alan Kay give a talk called “Is Computing a Liberal Art?” yesterday at the 2012 NITLE Summit. Here I discuss his key idea: that systemic thinking is a liberal art, and I explain a corollary idea, that textbooks suck.

Kay is attuned to how ideas evolve and are instantiated in the culture and the mind. For him a key piece in this process is the relationship between ideas and the categories we have for them; the relationship is this: if you don’t have a category for an idea, it’s very difficult to receive that idea.

Kay says we’re born with 300 or so preexisting categories that the species has evolved to know it needs to think about to survive, and we’re wired to be looking around for thoughts in those categories (food, shelter, pleasure, etc.). But the story of the last few hundred years is that we’ve quickly developed important ideas, which society needs to have to improve and perhaps even to continue to exist, and for which there are no pre-existing, genetically created categories. So there’s an idea-receiving capacity gap.

Education’s job should be, says Kay, to bridge this gap. To help, that is, people form these necessary new idea-receiving categories–teaching them the capacity for ideas–early on in their lives, so that as they grow they are ready to embrace the things we need them to know. Let me say that in a better way: so that as they grow they are ready to know in the ways we need them to know.

Said he, “If you have a new idea come in and education won’t teach people it from birth, you get a pop culture.” Pop culture! A harsh but fair critique of our society. More on that pop culture below.

For now, what are the ideas or categories, or what capacity for ideas should we now be teaching? Kay has one major thought in mind. He wants us to cultivate the ability to conceive of, work with, create, understand, manipulate, tinker with, disrupt, and, generally, appreciate the beauty of systems. This he hails as perhaps the most important of all the liberal arts.

It is the zeitgeist of the last 100 years that everything now appears as a system that was but a piece of a system before–or everything is now multi-dimensional that was linear before—thinking of the body as a system, the environment as a system, economics as systems, computers as systems. It’s why we talk about gamification so much–because a game, or a simulation, thought of as a thing we might create (rather than a thing we only act within), is a visceral example of systems thinking. (If this sounds familiar to readers of this blog, it’s because I’ve written about seeing systems before, in The Age of the Gums, or in Errol Morris and Spirals of Learning, or in Pieces of an Ecology of Workplace Learning, or even in The Conduit Metaphor, for instance. It might be all I write about.)

Seeing systems is an epistemology, a way of knowing, a mindset. As Kay said, “the important stuff I’m talking about is epistemological . . . about looking at systems.” It’s the Flatland story–that we need to train our 2D minds to see in a kind of 3D–and Kay’s genius is that he recognizes we have to bake this ability into the species, through education, as close to birth as possible.

One main point implied here is that we’re not talking about learning to see systems as an end point. Systems thinking is to be conceived of as a platform skill or an increased capacity on top of which we will be able to construct new sorts of ideas and ways of knowing, of more complex natures still. The step beyond seeing a single system is of course the ability to see interacting systems – a kind of meta-systemic thinking – and this is what I think Kay is really interested in, because it’s what he does. At one point he showed a slide of multiple systems–the human body, the environment, the internet, and he said in a kind of aside, “they’re all one system . . .” Compare that to the advanced stages in Bob Kegan’s constructive developmental psychology: “At Kegan’s sixth and final stage . . . there is a dawning awareness of an underlying unity that transcends human and environmental complexity.” (That from Philip Lewis’ work on Kegan, The Discerning Heart: Just happened to read that on the Metro on the way back to the hotel, as I was passing through Arlington National Cemetery).

Kay’s complaint is that higher education does not cultivate the particular epistemology of systemic thinking. We don’t teach integrative ways of knowing; we instead dwell within our disciplines, which dwelling you can see as being trapped within an arbitrarily chosen system. The point is to be able to see connections between the silos. Says Kay, the liberal arts have done a bad job at “adding in epistemology” among the “smokestacks” (i.e. disciplines).

Ok, so we’re not teaching systemic thinking. So what? What happens if you don’t teach people systemic thinking?

Then, Kay says, you’re allowing them to be stuck in whatever system they happen to be in, without thinking of it as a system. What happens when you’re stuck in a system? You don’t understand the world and yourself and others as existing in constant development, as being in process; you think you are a fixed essence or part within a system (instead of a system influencing systems) and you inadvertently trap yourself in a kind of tautological loop where you can only think about things you’re thinking about and do the things you do and you thus limit yourself to a kind of non-nutritive regurgitation of factoids, or the robotic meaningless actions of an automaton, or what Kay calls living in a pop culture. He sees this problem in higher education, where even faculty, experts in their own fields, are uneducated, in the sense that they can make no meta-connections among the fields, such that (as he said) hardly anyone exists who can understand the breadth of thought in a magnum cross-functional opus like the Principia Mathematica. And yet our future will be built on such integrative meta-connections as Newton’s.

By way of conclusion, I’ll now tell you why textbooks suck, according to Kay. A downside of being epistemologically limited to thinking within a system is that you overemphasize the importance of the content and facts as that system orders them. If you’re a teacher, you limit your students to processing bits according to a pre-ordained structure, to being a program, if you will, instead of learning to write a program. It would be better to use the system itself as the information students act upon when they construct their knowledge, and to find a way to get students to build new systems and even systems of systems. We teach students vocabulary within one set of grammatical rules, with the rules as the endpoint, say, but if we were disciples of Kay we would allow students to make grammars of grammars and languages of languages, with spirals of increasing complexity of thought looping into infinity and no endpoint in sight. That’s the order of consciousness Kay is after. Most textbooks, however, are on the stuck-within-the-system and vocab-and-grammar level. Which is why they draw Kay’s ire.