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The right conditions for learningLearning 10147 views
Jay Cross, many moons ago, likened the job of a learning designer to that of a gardener. Yet too often, we treat learning as if it was a part in a machine.
Just like plants, people are complicated. Each individual needs just the right combination of external conditions, previous history, genetics and nutrients in order to flourish. The gardener's role is to help get the right plant in the right place and provide the necessary environment for growth.
(At that point the analogy can fall down - especially when you get into pruning!)
We have an endemic problem in our society - in that a love of learning for its own sake, and the self-motivation needed for effective learning are educated out of us at school. If you don't believe that, then watch Sir Ken Robinson's talk below.
Yet all of us are natural learners. From birth, we've been absorbing as much as we can take. Given the right conditions - of encouragement, challenge, modelling behaviour and access to expertise - we develop and grow intellectually, emotionally and physically.
Then "society" determines that there are certain things that need to take priority over others, and we go to school to be taught by the experts, and tested to make sure the experts are doing their jobs right. However much those experts want to develop and nurture the children in their care, they are constrained by society at large.
The huge majority of people are highly able language learners. We've done it once and can communicate effectively in one language. At school, in general in the UK, we fail dismally at language learning (going by the lack of ability most people have in a second language when they leave school). But all it takes is the right environment and a bit of external motivation (eg. I must communicate if I want food!) In other countries, where the motivation is higher and the environment more conducive, learning a second, third or even fourth language is the norm. It's actually very little to do with the teaching techniques - it's much more about the conditions.
There's probably little we can do to change schools and education - given the weight of public opinion that is stuck with Victorian ideas about learning. But let's not accept those ideas in the workplace.
In workplace learning, we tend to focus a lot on the learning intervention itself (whether it's a workshop, an elearning package, a mobile app etc), but spend very little time on fostering the conditions that will encourage learning & development. Our interventions would be so much more effective if they took place in the right conditions. Currently, it's like a gardener applying Miracle Gro, but to plants that are kept in the dark, with no water!
Just like a plant need light, wamth and water. What conditions are best for effective learning & development?
I would argue that the following are essential:
- a culture where a mistake is treated as a learning point not a failure
- a management culture built on coaching and challenging to improve
- access to expertise that people can understand when they need it
- immersion in the practices, behaviours or knowledge that we are trying to teach
There will be times when the conditions are not quite right, just like a gardener starting out with an uncultivated patch of land. There's no point just adding the Miracle Gro intervention and expecting it to work. A lot of effort will be need to get the other conditions right first.
If you haven't already seen this hugely important TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson, then take 20 minutes to watch it now:
Reading your piece Mark reminds of the start of Ivan Illich’s book Deschooling Society. Although he was writing some time ago, in the early 1970’s, his words still resonate for me. They also make me realise that not much has changed over the last 40 years despite all the good work done by educationalists. Illich’s broadening of debate into wider society based upon the education we have received identifies issues that concern many at present.
The extract I mean is:
“Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.”
Perhaps the horticultural approach is the one we need.
Ivan Illich’s book can be dowloaded from :