‘Learning’ vs ‘learning’

It helped me to realise that ‘Learning’ and ‘learning’ are completely different things. Maybe it will help you.

‘Learning’ is synonymous with ‘education’ and ‘training’ – a set of curious rituals originating in the last few hundred years that bear very little relation to learning.

It quite often happens that people who work in Learning (Education) start to take an interest in learning – and come to the realisation that almost everything in Learning is terribly ineffective when considered from the standpoint of learning.

There then follows this kind of uncomfortable tension that arises – for example when they go to Learning events or read articles or participate in conversations about Learning – all with a growing sense that something is terribly, terribly awry. It’s all a bit nuts. Imagine an astronomer going to an astrology conference: everyone is frustrated and confused. The astronomer thinks the star signs are bizarre, and the audience have never heard of half of the stars she is talking about.

So it helped me enormously to look closely at every use of the word ‘Learning’ to see if it was really referring to Education, rather than learning. Once you do that, all kinds of things become clear: Learning Management Systems are Education Management Systems, Learning Analytics are Education Analytics, Learning Technologies are Education Technologies – and Learning Research is Education Research. There is no point in arguing about these things; you will just find yourself at cross-purposes.

So today the problem is this: the conversation about learning hasn’t started – but at least we can set aside the Education conversations.

If you work in Learning, you may be quite annoyed by all this at this point. Perhaps you believed you were working in learning. Perhaps an example would help:

Like you, in all probability, I spend a lot of time in meetings. Most of my day in fact. There is no doubt that I learn a lot from these meetings – I couldn’t say exactly how much (the learning research hasn’t been done) but I know it does happen. For example, I learn that Bob doesn’t much like Mary’s idea.

When I come out of the meeting, I may relay what I learned as a story. Someone will say ‘How was the meeting?’ and I will say ‘Well, Bob didn’t much like Mary’s idea. He pulled a face.’ Humans, like chickens and other creatures, learn by watching things and doing things. Unlike other creatures (except bees) they can share what they learned as a story.

So now that we have an account of normal, everyday learning, here are some questions: how would your Learning Management System track my learning during the meeting? Would xAPI help? What Kirkpatrick level is my learning? Was Instructional Design involved? How many meetings do I go to before I get a certificate?

One of the problems with real learning is that you can’t measure it. That’s because learning refers to changes in neurological connections that you can’t measure directly (except under a microscope). Fortunately you can infer it – from behaviour. This is how we measure (real) learning in animals, for example. We divide them into groups, give them different experiences, then see if their behaviour changes.

But with humans this is often impractical, so instead we came up with something we can measure (word recall) and called that ‘Learning’ instead – even though that has next to nothing to do with learning. This is a bit like saying ‘I can’t measure your genetic composition so instead I will measure how fast you can say ‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers’ and call that your ‘Genetic Composition’. So now we have an entire ecosystem measuring how fast people can say ‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers’ – with tutors and certificates and vast, expensive technology systems. It’s just bizarre. The so-called ‘Learning Research’ doesn’t help much, since often it concerns tests of word recall – something that most of us only have to do in Educational contexts – rather than measuring say, faces, or stories or behaviour. Sure, Doctors have to know some words – kids pick up words just fine without school.

But what if you show someone a short video and test them at the end? Haven’t you measured their learning then? No – you have just measured their ability to pass your test. They may have learned all kinds of things – for example, that people in HR get to make videos, that the company doesn’t take this initiative seriously enough to spend money on hotels, that they like the sound of the narrator’s voice, that the skip button has been disabled… you really have no idea what they have learned (except that they figured out how to pass your test somehow).

So what’s to be done about it?

As above, I think the first step is to set aside the ‘Learning’ conversations.

The next is to start a learning conversation.

It may take a while.

About the author – Nick Shackleton-Jones

Transfixed by the task of understanding people, technology and the challenges of integrating the two, Nick began his career as a psychology lecturer and author. He has since worked in consultancy, Siemens, the BBC and BP in roles encompassing learning strategy, leadership, culture, innovation and technology. A memorable conference speaker and well-known in the corporate learning world for ground-breaking thinking and work, he divides his time equally between being disruptive and provocative.

Nick was the winner of the prestigious Colin Corder Award at the 2017 Learning Awards

Follow Nick on Twitter @shackletonjones

Connect with Nick via LinkedIn 

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