The principles of learning

Yesterday I came upon a 13-year old cassette recording of Peter Henschel, executive director of the Institute for Research on Learning, speaking to a breakout session at Elliott Masie’s TechLearn conference. This talk had a profound effect on my thinking. It holds up damn well today.

Learning About Learning: Lessons from the Trenches
Session 99TL-503, TechLearn 1999, Orlando

Presentation by Peter Henschel, Institute for Research on Learning

Summarized by Jay Cross

The mental model of “I teach/you learn” is fraught with problems. We’re seeing a more interactive model of learning.

Think about how you learn a new software program. I doubt you read the manual. If John or Susan know the software, that’s where you find out.

Communities of practice, a term coined by Institute for Research on Learning staff. Apprenticeship is a natural process for almost any craft or profession. It’s more than teacher and master. It’s richer. It’s more about a community and joining a community. You have to be outside, almost lurking, before you get in.

Newcomers learn as they become members of that team. Learning is a condition of continuing membership in that community. Barn raising. It’s always informal. Shared practices create bonds between people. We are all members of multiple communities of practice.

What we learn has much to do with who we are and who we wish to become.

Knowing is really embedded in practice. The real work. The poetry of what it takes to get something done.

From extensive fieldwork, the Institute for Research on Learning developed seven Principles of Learning that provide important guideposts for organizations. These are not “Tablets from Moses.” They are not a mantra. Not a dogma. Rather, they are the principles that we kept bumping into during our anthropological studies of how people learn. They are evolving as a work in progress. However, it is already clear that they have broad application in countless settings. Think of them in relation to your own experience.

  1. Learning is fundamentally social. While learning is about the process of acquiring knowledge, it actually encompasses a lot more. Successful learning is often socially constructed and can require slight changes in one’s identity, which make the process both challenging and powerful.
  2. Knowledge is integrated in the life of communities. When we develop and share values, perspectives, and ways of doing things, we create a community of practice.
  3. Learning is an act of participation. The motivation to learn is the desire to participate in a community of practice, to become and remain a member.  This is a key dynamic that helps explain the power of apprenticeship and the attendant tools of mentoring and peer coaching.
  4. Knowing depends on engagement in practice. We often glean knowledge from observation of, and participation in, many different situations and activities. The depth of our knowing depends, in turn, on the depth of our engagement.
  5. Engagement is inseparable from empowerment. We perceive our identities in terms of our ability to contribute and to affect the life of communities in which we are or want to be a part.
  6. Failure to learn is often the result of exclusion from participation. Learning requires access and the opportunity to contribute.
  7. We are all natural lifelong learners. All of us, no exceptions. Learning is a natural part of being human. We all learn what enables us to participate in the communities of practice of which we wish to be a part.

Participation, opportunity to contribute, identity.

You’ve got to look at everything from the size of a cubicle a whether they have wheels on the chairs or not. The devil’s in the details.

Technology is a key support for informal communities. We need to support natural communities as well, including face-to-face.

Develop new practices with an appreciation of the old. Design the environment to support informal learning. Realize that learning off the record is where a lot of really powerful learning occurs.

Roughly seventy percent of the learning that takes place in the workplace is off the record: it’s informal. Do you really want to leave that to chance?

Senior managers assume that training = learning. What if the learning experiences you help make happen were directly integrated with the work processes that exist on the job?

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