Learning at the Water Cooler and Everyplace Else

Water Cooler

I cannot believe how duped we’ve been to think of learning as an event. That idea is artifact of the Industrial Revolution and a terrible conceit on the part of the educational institutions we developed. Learning starts BEFORE we are born and (for all we actually know) continues AFTER we are dead. We are in a very real sense Continuous Learning Organisms.

Here’s a piece from Annie Murphy Paul’s The Brilliant Blog which is aptly named and , and if you’ve missed, it I recommend putting it on your weekly ‘must read’ list.

“Bersin by Deloitte, a human resources firm, has an interesting report out on the future of learning in organizations. The language in which it’s written is turgid, to put it kindly (“Our new High-Impact Learning Organization Framework® shows organizations have moved from ‘talent-driven learning’ to a focus on ‘continuous capability development’ . . . “), but there are some good insights to be had. Here, translated from corporate-speak, are its main findings and predictions:

“Continuous Learning” and “Capability Development” will likely replace the buzz around “Informal Learning.” Our new High-Impact Learning Organization Framework® shows organizations have moved from “talent-driven learning” to a focus on “continuous capability development.” Driven by these changes, the L&D market grew 12 percent last year, the highest growth rate in more than eight years. The buzzword of “informal learning” is giving way to a whole architecture of L&D programs that are social, mobile, continuous and highly integrated with talent management strategies.”

Cognitive scientist Allan Collins and his coauthors John Seely Brown and Susan Newman in Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, notes that digital tools are creating a transformation as profound as the one that swept the apprenticeship model of learning into the Industrial Revolution. It is a transformation that is causing many people to rethink the idea of education. “In the apprenticeship era, most of what people learned occurred outside of school,” they note. “Universal schooling led people to identify learning with school, but now the identification of the two is unraveling.”

Finally we are starting to get to the bottom of learning things! I must admit, I’ve been as culpable as anyone feeding the maw of the formal vs. informal learning debate. My head was stuck in an academic box and stayed there even as I moved into a corporate environment. It was the same problem that corporate learners inherited. As we developed formal learning in our workplaces, we simply grabbed what we knew and were comfortable with from the schoolplace. Learning as an event. Formal, scheduled, instructed. We often went so far as to copy the old physical layout of the classroom – seats facing forward, instructor on the stage, quiet until called upon (yikes!) or recognized by a single hand held waving in the air .

What has been called ‘informal’ learning was really nothing more than a way of naming all the interstices,  the spaces in between the formal learning events. Well, time to move on. There is no “formal” or “informal” learning. There is only, and always has been, continuous learning. And accepting that changes everything.

It means that the definition, design, development and delivery of learning changes. It alters the way learning is managed and measured. The endless conversation about formal versus informal stops. Naming conventions like “courses” and “programs” and “corporate universities” goes away. We start to see learners in a new way – as individuals moving through a world in which they – we – are always learning something new because there is always something new to learn.

We tried to formalize this natural process, and managed to do a really good job disabling it. We took learning out of any real context, gave the onus of the experience to the instructor who provided a predigested often canned helping of facts, heaped upon a PowerPoint slide, removed any chance for serendipity, social interaction or creativity. Rewarded remembering instead of discovering. Punished failure  And we expected people to sit through these massive knowledge dumps and actually learn something.

In a funny way, I was correct years ago when I wrote “At the Water Cooler of Learning“. I think the definition of real learning – the ability to adopt and adapt what we’re taught – is still valid. And I still believe we really do learn most of what we need in between the events that we are told to attend. Yet I was guilty of the same bifurcation of learning into “formal” and “informal” as everyone else. There is no versus, just a flow through the day, learning as you go, remembering what you need to know and know how to do, and forgetting what you knew and knew how to do. It all adds up – from scheduled events to chance water cooler moments – to continuous learning.

So what will this mean to the way you approach learning? As a student? As an instructor or teacher? What will you do differently?

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