Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Learning: Roman roads or woodpaths?


If you read the FT Weekend edition you will be familiar with the 'Slow Lane' column by Harry Eyres, on the back page of the Life and Arts section. 

His column on 2nd January 2010, 'When straight is a bit narrow', was a great piece about his experiences as a university teacher where he found that students wanted to be presented with the shortest and quickest ways of acquiring grades and, therefore, sidelining anything that wasn't relevant to their primary goal.  He made a useful analogy between Roman roads - designed to be straight to get from city centre to city centre by the fastest means and woodpaths - that wind along until they end quite suddenly in an impenetrable thicket.  Apparently, there is a conversational German expression 'to be on a woodpath' that means to be on the wrong track; a way that goes nowhere. But as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger observed nowhere might turn out to be somewhere.

 I'm not going to argue that we should adopt the latter in favour of the former when thinking about learning practice as it seems clear to me that we need both.  There is no virtue in leaving people to wander aimlessly in the hope that they will, eventually, pick up what they need to do and know by solely experiential means.  Enterprises need people to do things and perform in certain ways and so expectations should be explained.  Equally, to attempt to produce learning solutions that are narrowly focused on instrumental approaches cuts out the opportunities for reflection and critical thinking that are essential to learning how to learn.  People want to make sense of what they are doing and need to have the opportunity to be able to explore ideas, ask questions, place them into context and reshape them, 

But the language of efficiency and directness is seductive; why not take a direct approach if this will save time and money.  It seems hard to argue with this to some extent.  But maybe it is not just the learners who are calling for Roman roads but also the teachers, consultants, facilitators of all sorts and their paymasters?  

I notice from my practice that when you give people the chance to reflect, they take it.  But, I also notice a tension that is hard to reconcile: the client's need for the learning process to be like a Roman road - efficient, to have a clear structure and objectives (and my pragmatic desire to respond to the brief) and a learning process that needs to be more like a woodpath.

For this to happen successfully several things need to in place:

A strategy for learning: 70:20:10

The 70:20:10 model of learning is an excellent way of envisioning all that is having an impact on how knowledge and skills are being developed:  experiential (70%), informal/collaborative (20%), formal (10%).  It's multi-faceted, real-time, short term and long term.  It's the basis from which it is possible to create an understanding of what learning is and how both its practices and its purposes can emerge. 

An observation about workplace practice: 'Learning in the Wild'

I'd like to see more attention given to the body of anthropological and ethnographical work that has looked in detail at how work gets done.  It is good at showing the seen but taken-for-granted customs and practices that shape the work.  

I like the title 'Learning in the Wild' that James Conklin from Concordia University, Montreal gave to his 2010 paper about how a group of care workers in a nursing home were learning in real time. Perhaps the most famous and accessible study is Julian Orr's work at Xerox with copier engineers: Talking About Machines.  Doing studies like this takes a lot of time and probably isn't suitable for everyday workplace learning practice but we can teach observational and research skills as the basis for inquiry and action. 

A conversation about learning

Tools like Moodle and Yammer are showing the way in how to open up networks in organisations to create a dialogue about learning.  I was talking recently to somebody who works in one of the big consultancies where Yammer is being used.  The sign-up and usage is impressive.  It is encouraging conversations to take place across the enterprise and I am impressed in the way senior managers, executives/partners are taking part very actively.  The consultancies maybe natural places for this to start as they share knowledge as a way of business but the principle would work elsewhere too.  

A reflection on what is being learned

We should encourage reflection practices.  Harold Jarche challenged learning professionals to develop their own practices through the idea of: connect, exchange and contribute - part of the reason why I've started blogging.  The same must apply more widely too.  At the moment, in my own practice I do quite a bit in the classroom to encourage verbal reflection but almost nothing in writing.  I have recently started to encourage a management trainee group that I'm working with to use tools like Evernote to capture their learning.  The learners have been receptive and it is encouraging me to do more on this.


We need Roman roads and woodpaths for learning to work well.  But there is a lot of work to do to support and challenge business leaders, line managers, learners and learning professionals to trust and expect learners to follow their interests and to find their own pathways.  

As if to make the point, in the time that I have been putting together this blog  my TweetDeck application has been chirping away alerting me to yet more pathways through the wood.  

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