|When you spend a decade working in Knowledge Management, you can’t help thinking a lot about how people learn. The book that first helped me understand the learning process was Nancy Dixon‘s The Organizational Learning Cycle. Nancy was writing about ‘collective learning’, a subject I was already skeptical about even then: I was, and remain convinced that learning is an intensely personal, individual experience, and that we all learn differently.
The graphic above is adapted from Nancy’s book. It says that, in general, we learn as follows:
Frames trump facts. All of our concepts are organized into conceptual structures called “frames” (which may include images and metaphors) and all words are defined relative to those frames. Conventional frames are pretty much fixed in the neural structures of our brains. In order for a fact to be comprehended, it must fit the relevant frames. If the facts contradict the frames, the frames, being fixed in the brain, will be kept and the facts ignored. [George Lakoff]
Because people understand by finding in their memories the closest possible match to what they are hearing and use that match as the basis of comprehension, any new idea will be treated as a variant of something the listener has already thought of or heard. Agreement with a new idea means a listener has already had a similar thought and well appreciates that the speaker has recognized his idea. Disagreement means the opposite. Really new ideas are incomprehensible. The good news is that for some people, failure to comprehend is the beginning of understanding. For most, of course, it is the beginning of dismissal. [Roger Schank]
You may think this description is unduly negative. I arrived at it, from reading at least a dozen books on the subject since I read Nancy’s work, from interviewing co-workers after they attended presentations and seminars to de-brief with them what they said they had learned (try it — you’ll be astonished at the results), and from thinking about– not how people learn — but why people learn.
The purpose of learning is ultimately Darwinian — we don’t learn just for learning’s sake, or because it is fun. We learn, and learn the way we do, because it helps us to survive. In most situations, the recall and application of past learnings is far too slow and unreliable to keep us alive in critical situations, so to survive we rely much more heavily on instinct. Instinctive ‘knowledge’ is hard-wired into us, as it has been for us and our primordial ancestors since life first made its appearance on Earth. Intellectual and moral learnings are a back-up system, for when we have the luxury of time and the opportunity to apply more complex situational knowledge to a survival problem (such as planning a date, keeping a job, or designing a hydrogen fuel cell).
Bernd Heinrich, in Mind of the Raven, probes the sharp, massive (relative to body size) brains of corvids, the brightest species of birds. He describes the raven’s capacity for ruse (when hiding food so it won’t be found by others) and sophisticated memory of place (for finding the food again). He also describes a simple IQ test for animals that most ravens pass with flying colours: A thick string is hung from a tree-branch, to which is attached a well-wrapped morsel of a favourite food. It cannot be reached from the branch or the ground, and cannot be extracted by grabbing it in flight. Ravens quickly appreciate that the answer is to sit on the branch and pull the string up, claw over claw, until the food can be reached and unwrapped. There is no trial and error involved. The abstract reasoning is well within the raven’s considerable intellectual capabilities. Like us, they simply reorganize the accumulated learnings in their brains to fit the new problem’s context.
Heinrich surmises that the raven’s large and sophisticated brain evolved because it had to, to survive. Ravens do not possess the tools to kill their prey, so, like man, they began as carrion eaters. But then, they ‘learned’ to collaborate with wolves and other killers of large animals. Now they fly overhead and find the meal, and then buzz the wolves, flying circles between the wolves and the prey until the wolves, too, ‘learn’ what the ravens are ‘saying’, make the kill, and share the spoils with their avian scouts.
In Experiential Learning, David Kolb describes a four-phase learning ‘cycle’: Experiencing, Reflection/Observation, Conceptualization, and Experimentation/Application. If this is indeed how we learn, it is not surprising that ‘on-the-job’ learning trumps ‘book’ learning. If we learn by doing, it is hard to imagine a worse learning environment than the classroom or boardroom. And it also explains how stories, which are so engaging, so participatory, are such effective teaching tools: You are sharing your experience in the story, not merely your observations and conceptualizations. It also explains the popularity of Case Studies in the classroom and Best Practices in the workplace, though both of these are extremely poor substitutes for first-hand learning. Kolb describes four basic ‘Learning Styles’:
His research suggests that women tend to prefer experiencing while men prefer conceptualization, but he hypothesizes this may be culturally learned behaviour rather than anything innate. There are of course many other models that parse learning styles differently, and different activities (note-taking, summary writing, reading vs. listening, graphics vs. text, oral recapitulation etc.) that enhance learning for each of us differently during each of the four phases of the learning cycle.
One of the things I have observed in watching people in social gatherings and in more formal meetings is that almost all multi-person social activities are essentially sequences of distinct two-party conversations. It is almost as if the signal/loss ratio is so poor in conversations, which are not really shared experiences but rather ‘playbacks’ of one individual’s (the talker’s) experiences and learnings for the supposed benefit of the other individual (the listener), that a simultaneous ‘bandwidth’ of two people is all we can manage. Perhaps the reason why we even tolerate these abstract social activities is that we hardly ever do anything together anymore. The job of the typical specialized ‘knowledge worker’ today (despite the prevalent and somewhat fraudulent hype about collaboration and work ‘teams’) is mostly individual, solitary activities and experiences. And social and family discourse often centres around the passive and individual watching of television or films or listening to music. We often don’t even eat together anymore, the primeval, original social activity of all species.
All of this got me thinking about the constraints to learning, and why, in this ‘information age’, there seems to be less learning occurring going on rather than more. Here is my list of the top 10 constraints to learning in our modern culture: