Thursday, October 28, 2010

How do you learn?

When you want to learn something, what do you usually do? Look for a course? Or do you start asking friends and colleagues and search the net for more information on the subject? Most of us start asking people we trust and searching for information. Most of what we learn is integrated into our everyday lives and not through formal education. Although this informal learning takes place all around us it seldom gets recognized. We hardly even notice the process. We just realize one day that we know how to do something that we couldn't do a couple of weeks ago. The formula is usually a mixture of asking questions, watching what others do and a lot of trial and error.

IMG_3678.JPG by tantek, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  tantek 

This type of natural, informal learning is the subject of an excellent blog post by Jane Hart, The state of learning in the workplace today. A great deal of money is spent on formal training in companies but it could be argued that real learning takes place outside the classroom during normal working time. Hart points out that a great deal of learning is virtually unconscious:

"In the workplace, informal learning takes place all the time whilst at work, and in some cases it is indistinguishable from working, which has led Harold Jarche to say that "learning = working = learning". Most workers don't even realise they are "learning", because they have been conditioned to think learning only takes place in a formal educational or training context!"

Organisations should encourage employees to make use of the social media for more effective learning. Many may need a short course to explain how to exploit social media in this way but the main point of the article is encouraging the development of smart workers. When a problem arises you contact your network and see who can contribute. Some people are able to do this already but many will need guidance. The role of the HR department is to help people to use the right tools in the right way.

"By helping individuals work smarter, organisations can reap huge rewards, for it is in social (workflow) learning that the “real” learning in the organisation takes place."

There are two issues here. Firstly that we don't realize how we really learn and secondly that we believe that learning can only take place in a setting that resembles a classroom. There are advantages of gathering people together in a classroom setting but not as many as we have been lead to believe. The trouble is that formal learning is easier to validate and certify whereas informal learning is extremely difficult to measure and assess. We need to become more aware of how we really learn and this is where schools and universities must contribute. Employers will be increasingly interested in hiring already "smart" people who have learnt how to learn. If students already have an understanding of this and have acquired good learning strategies and wide contact networks they will be more attractive on the job market.

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