Monday, October 27, 2008

Free, free, set them free

This post constitutes part of this month's Working/Learning Blog Carnival, being hosted by Leean at Xyleme. The theme is "what do you find helpful (or harmful) to learners in the training environment".

Several conversations I have had in the past few days have come back to the concept of linear learning. Twice I have found myself exchanging views on Kolb's learning cycle, which can be roughly replicated as follows:
The thing is, I'm not convinced that people follow the sequence so obediently when given the freedom to come to grips with a new concept or skill in their own way. I see no reason why a person, on having unexpectedly stumbled across a concrete experience, might not begin active experimentation, from which they might develop abstract ideas on which they then reflect, before reverting to more experimentation.

And why should experimentation and experience be two different things? Surely if I am experimenting with something, I am also experiencing it?

I might be persuaded to think that this is just further evidence of me at my maverick worst. However, when I wrote this post, I was reflecting on a learning experience I had shared with a classmate who didn't follow the prescribed flow either. In fact, I can honestly say that few members of my class at that time appeared to be following Kolb's path.

What I'm coming to is this:

I think that one of the most helpful things for a learner is space. The space to approach the learning in their own way - to progess it in a way that works for them.

By contrast, I would say that one of the most harmful things is prescriptive 'teacher' expectation. When a teacher/trainer/whatever expects learners to learn a concept by following x, y or z process, because that's the way he/she learned it, it closes so many doors to so many people.

I am not refuting the existence of Kolb's four phases per se. But I am skeptical that they follow the order that Kolb settled upon. I am also skeptical that those four phases are always present and that no other as yet unidentified phases exist. If a learner chooses to leap from phase to phase with reckless abandon, but it works for them, what of it?

We are not dipping sheep, after all!

One of my greatest concerns is that we seem to be trying to inculcate independent thinking skills in our teenagers, only to discourage it when they get into the workplace. I have a son who has just entered sixth form. These are the two optional school years that follow the general certificate of secondary education (GCSE) examinations in the UK. These two years culminate in A level exams, without which it is very difficult, if not impossible to get into university. During these two years, they are being taught the thinking skills that will stand them in good stead when they ascend the lofty halls of their chosen university. They are taught to think critically. They are taught that this is how adults (should?) think. That criticality reflects maturity and intelligence. Debate is encouraged. In a recent email to my family, I described my son thus:

He gets into these wild-eyed, hand-waving explanations of what he's learning about, and his theory of the universe, while his dinner grows cold and (his brother) chafes to be excused from the table. He would probably love to chat to (his uncle) about quadratic this and cubic that. His new school is far more academic than his previous school. Coupled with that is the fact that 6th form is not compulsory, so the kids that have stayed on tend to be those with an academic bent. On top of both those things, the subjects he's taking (PE/sports science, maths, physics, biology) are those in which the kids like to debate such weighty issues as the 11 dimensions of the universe and how every single point within the universe is the centre and how an already infinite universe can be said to be expanding and whether something can be said to be true when it one fails to prove that it is false and and and... and he's in the thick of it, debating, arguing... fulminating is probably the word we need, here! His teachers are encouraging him to think about ways in which his ideas can be corroborated, explored, substantiated. Which is great - a huge improvement on telling him to keep his mind on the prescribed syllabus!
Now take this child and fast forward 10 years or so. Unless there have been radical changes in the way workplace learning is conducted, he will not be encouraged to do any of this questing, enquiring and fulminating. The passion that has been awakened in him in the short time since early September will be squished and squashed until he is able to obediently follow the back and next buttons of his company's elearning courses. He will be expected to demonstrate compliance as he sits through a host of one day workshops which will cover a raft of stuff he already knows, a raft of stuff he will never need to know and a smidgeon of stuff he will use... most of which he will forget before he comes to apply it.

After a few years of this, his eyes will glaze over when someone talks to him about learning and development. He will groan when the HR person calls to talk to him about the fulfillment of his CPD requirements for the year.

He will decide that learning is a trial. And this will be a Great Tragedy.

While I have been persuaded by neuroscientists that the whole left brain/right brain thing is tosh, I would say that pretty much everything else Ken Robinson has to say in this much viewed clip is on the money.

I honestly believe that every single one of us loves to learn, but many (most?) of us have had enough negative experiences along the way that involved square pegs, round holes and back-and-next buttons, so that we have persuaded ourselves that this is not the case. I am on a one-person campaign to remind every person I possibly can that they love to learn, and to find the hot button that will re-ignite that spark in their eyes.

Coming soon to a soapbox near you ;o)


Anonymous said...

Nice soapbox, Karyn. I'm not entirely sure that everyone loves to learn -- if my experiences and their consequences have convinced me that what I see as "learning" is painful and counterproductive, then, no, I don't love it.

I did laugh when I followed your link to an explanation of Kolb's learning cycle and found this opening:

"Reflective practice is important to the development of lecturers as professionals..."

While I do think that lecture, in certain circumstances, isn't a bad way to store some information, its usefulness is limited. It seems to rely on inertia ('we've always done it this way'), the dosage theory (sheep-dipping in "content"), and a hall-monitor's view of efficiency ('didn't you attend the briefing?').

Poking around further, I smiled at this piece in Wikipedia's entry on experiential learning:

...Experiences do not automatically equate learning. The classic example of this is the lecture experience many students have in formal educational settings. While the content of the course might be "physics" the experiential learning becomes "I hate physics." Preferably, the student should have learned "I hate lectures." Experiential learning therefore can be problematic as generalizations or meanings may be misapplied. Without continuity and interaction, experience may actually distort educational growth and disable an otherwise capable learner.

(More opinionated than usual for Wikipedia, and not sourced...)

The upsycho said...

@dave "if my experiences and their consequences have convinced me that what I see as "learning" is painful and counterproductive, then, no, I don't love it"

That's my point exactly. If I've only eaten canned, stewed fruit for the past X years, then I will probably say that I don't like fruit. But oh, that day when someone hands me a juicy, fresh yellow cling peach and I bite into it. Mmm. I may remember the delicious fruit I used to eat long, long ago and hopefully my appetite for it will be re-awakened. I will remember that I do love fruit - as long as it isn't canned and stewed.

Julaine said...

Karyn, as usual your posts are very analytic and insightful. I like your passion. I have used educational theories as a guide but not as a mandatory have to follow exactly prescription. The characteristics of the average student have changed and each person approaches a learning situation differently. That’s why a lot of companies have been developing courses that can be customized by the leaner, or that has freed up the navigation so that learners can go through the course as they feel.

Indeed everybody likes learning; we all have interest in things that we eagerly go out to find more information. As you have rightly said some formalized learning have taken away the intrigue and engagement that sparks learning and have replaced them with a locked approach.

I think the workplace is evolving as people talent has been making a difference. More and more companies want critical and analytical thinkers to question things and come up with better solutions. More of them are realizing that the younger generation brings something different and good to the table and they are ready to harvest that. I can attest to that from my experience so far. Keep up the passion and your mission!

The upsycho said...

@juliane Thanks for the encouragement!

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora!

Go for it Karyn!

I saw the Ken Robinson vid early this century. It still makes an impact when I watch it today - thanks for the recollection.

Experiment and experience. Hmmm. I'd hate to get into semantics here.

The two terms are undoubtedly closely related. It's what's done with the experience AFTER experimentation that makes the most significant impact on learning.

Your reminder of Kolb's learning style serves to show that you have correctly recognised the need for its use if experience is to be used effectively as a learning tool.

Ka kite
from Middle-earth