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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Learning Hasn’t Changed; social learning and facebook don't really add much

A few years ago I was asked for my annual prediction my e-learning magazine and I predicted the death of m-learning. I was attacked by everyone. Funny we don’t hear so much about m-learning any more.
Learning is a field that is very trendy.  There is always the latest greatest that everyone must do. Today this is “social learning” and “on the job learning.”

There is one problem with this. None of this stuff is ever new in any way. Learning hasn't changed in a million years. Did I say a million? Too conservative. How do chimp babies learn? Socially? Of course. They copy what their mothers do and what their playmates do. (Amazingly they do this without Facebook.) 

Do they learn on the job? Apart from the fact that chimps don’t actually have jobs, that is the only way they learn. In the process of doing something they either fail and try again or someone helps them out.

Mentoring. Another learning innovation, Except there has always been mentoring, Parents,  big brothers, helpful neighbors, all there to help you when you are in trouble. None of this is new.

But suddenly big companies have discovered it. Good for them. Better than classrooms and books (which are very new, if you think about it, cavemen didn’t have either.)

I play softball regularly. When I first started playing in this league I noticed a guy who was the best hitter I ever saw. I asked him questions. He gave me tips. I asked for criticism. He gave it to me. The other day I was hitting really well. I was congratulated by my team. I told them I owed it all to him. They didn’t know what I meant. I said I had appointed him my personal coach ten years ago.

What confuses me is why this has to be institutionalized in big companies. It is not that complicated. Tell everyone they need to spend an hour a week mentoring and an hour a week being mentored. Let them say officially whom they have chosen. Create a culture where mentoring is the norm. It is the norm in sports. My mentor has never has asked for anything back. I am sure people mentored him over the years.

On the job learning is more complicated. Why? Because the right tools might not be available to do it. What are the right tools:

  1. someone to ask who can give just in time help
  2. a short course that one can take just in time and that one is allowed to take when it is needed
  3. a group that is available for discussion

I will explain each.

Just in time help has always been available to most of us. It is called mom or dad. Even today I get “help” calls from my grown children. They know I will stop my day and help them. I always have. 

How do we institutionalize this in the modern world? By recording all the help type stories that an expert has and making them available to anyone just in time. It sounds complicated and it is. We have built such a system. It is called EXTRA (experts telling relevant advice.) Every organization needs one. Experts move on and their expertise goes with them. Capture it and learn how to deliver it just in time in short bits that last less than 2 minutes.

Stories from experts matter. Not in the form of long lectures but in the form of a conversation that happens when there is an interest in hearing the story.

To put this another way, mentoring is not driven by the mentor. As a professor of PhD students for 35 years I served the role of mentor to a lot of people. They showed up in my office once a week because I told them they had to. After that I told them nothing. Instead I listened. Maybe I asked a few questions to get them to talk if they were shy. But learning happens when someone wants to learn not when someone wants to teach.

I did the same when I taught classes. I set up questions and listened. I encouraged students to argue with each other. I chimed in at the end when they were ready to listen.

Apprenticeship is the other side of mentoring. An apprentice takes on jobs assigned to him. A good mentor lets the apprentice drive every now and then. Surgeons let interns make the first cut after they have watched the process many times.  

In the end there is always a story. In the modern era we can deliver stories when a someone needs one. (When they ask or search or we simply know what they are doing and what would help them do it.) But, the old method still works. Talking.

The problem with big companies is that they set up training sessions that last for a week instead of mentoring sessions that last for an hour. Once a week everyone should meet with their mentor for an hour and talk. Just talk. Maybe a beer would help.

And what do they talk about? A good mentor knows that the mentee drives the conversation. Maybe the mentor saw the mentee make a mistake and could comment on it, but younger people know when they are struggling and are always ready to learn if they respect the person who is helping them.

Formal training really has never been a good idea. The army does it for new recruits but they do it because they are trying to create soldiers who don’t think and just follow orders. At the higher level of army training, at the Army War College for example, officers sit around and talk.

There do not have to be mentors in such situations. People who work together should have the opportunity to exchange “war stories.” This should just happen late at night in bars. It is the most important training there is. But there has to be time made for it. And no it doesn’t require Twitter or Facebook. Social learning has always been how we learn. It is in fashion again and that is nice but it is nothing new. The elders have always gathered around the campfire to discuss the day’s events.

Do we need to teach people how to mentor and how to discuss? Yes and no. Excessive talking, lecturing and such, has never been a good idea and is never tolerated in societies that are truly cooperative. The key is learning to listen. 

Listening, oddly enough, does need to be taught, Most people don’t really know how to do it. They learn the hard way that listening works as they get older. Should we teach it? Yes. How?

We need to put people in situations where listening is demanded of them and where they are likely to fail to do it. (Training is one such place where people tune out. That is why that is why there are tests, but tests usually don’t test anything important.)

Having to perform is the best test.

Summarizing: Short courses delivered just in time are better than training sessions. Gathering a company’s expertise and delivering it via tools like EXTRA matters a great deal. 

But most of all, learning to listen and advise well is what separates winning teams from from losing ones. To listen and advise an organization must formally make time for it, otherwise it won’t happen. Do it on twitter if you like.


jake said...

Great post again Roger. I am following your progress with great interest.

As a teacher, I am doing my best to change the status quo. I have read your book, "Teaching Minds" and combined with Sugata Mitra's work, you two are my educational heros so to speak.

Getting the old school to see it is an entirely different story, but I am working on them.

Keep writing posts as it continuously provides me the motivation to keep fighting for change.

Anonymous said...

Love the rant - a gentle one albeit - a very simple message for success and needs to be learned by many, me included - thanks for the tip.

Anthony Hopper said...

The willingness to listen is not all that helpful if the listeners don't also posses good short-term memories and excellent critical thinking abilities.