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The art of learning: Why knowledge is no longer enough

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29th Apr 2013
Co-captain Seasalt Learning
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Julian Stodd explains why, when it comes to learning environments, we need to add the social aspect.

We used to gain authority through what we knew, through what we knew that nobody else did, but no longer. Today, knowledge is no longer enough. In a world powered by search technology, where mobile devices let us find things out on the train or in the bath, what we know is less important than what we learn to do with it. The power today comes through our ability to synthesise multiple sources of knowledge into meaningful, transformative action, then to do it again tomorrow and to measure the impact. In today's world, the agile learner will win.

Traditionally, learning has focused on knowledge: pushing as much of it through to the learner as possible, so are we recognising this shift in both our methodologies and delivery mechanisms in organisational learning? Social and mobile learning approaches can help us navigate this challenge, but are insufficient in themselves: we need a blend of effective formal learning (classroom based and elearning) surrounded by the newer social techniques, and we have to recognise that, whilst technology may facilitate the learning, may underpin it, it doesn't guarantee it. It's the quality of the story that counts.

At the heart of everything lies a learning methodology that allows us to set a context for the learning, to demonstrate the concepts we are discussing, to explore what that means within my everyday reality and to reflect upon that understanding. There may be formal assessments and then, finally, we have to transition the learning into the real world, to take footsteps. Organisations are traditionally good at the demonstration part, but that's about it. We can be good at pushing out knowledge, but less good at letting people play with it and create meaning and meaning is everything.

If we subscribe to this approach, we start to see different things happening in each space: we use more social approaches to setting a context, engaging in more of a conversation with the learner about why they may want to engage with the learning (just telling people to do it is no longer enough). In a world where technology cries out for our attention at every moment, only engaging stories will be engaged with, so we have to work hard at the context stage, engaging in relevant conversations (and not being afraid to ask what would make it relevant).

Once we move to the demonstration part of the learning, we may well be in the classroom, but we still need to keep in mind that knowledge is not enough: we can build in diagnostic sections. I'm less interested to know whether people can remember facts than I am in whether they can diagnose a situation and formulate actions to facilitate change. Surrounding workshops may be social layers, semi-formal spaces where the group can collaborate privately, inside or outside the formal walls of the organisation. The key difference between formal learning spaces and social ones is where the meaning comes from.

Within formal learning environments, the organisation typically owns the messages, it creates and shares the meaning. It's different with social: the meaning is co-created within the group. The organisation can't impose meaning, although it may be part of the conversation if it chooses to engage in the right tone of voice.

"I'm less interested to know whether people can remember facts than I am in whether they can diagnose a situation and formulate actions to facilitate change."

In a world where we need learners to be able to create meaning out of knowledge, we need to provide more than technology solutions to facilitate meaningful encounters: we need moderation of the right type at the right time, and this recognises that social learning communities have a lifecycle that requires different skills at different times.

At the start of a community we need to draw learners in, not working with the engaged majority so much as the disengaged elements. We can't assume that people don't engage because they can't master the technology: often the primary reason cited is that the learning is not seen as relevant. Where my primary aim is to create meaning and take action, I am only likely to participate if the benefits are clear. Once the community is formed, the moderator turns to managing the scaffolding. Scaffolded social learning experiences are based around a structure, but build in bubbles where we can experiment, explore, reflect and play. Exploration is good, but the moderator can help draw it back to the subject in hand, ensuring the experience remains structured social learning, based around core knowledge.

In the final stages of the lifecycle of a social learning group, the role of moderation is to draw out the legacy, to write the narrative. There is great value for both individuals and groups in creating shared narratives. The narrative is our learning story: it's not about ensuring that we agree on everything, but rather about documenting what we disagree on and the conversations we had around it. A good narrative will form part of our personal development and also create a baseline for subsequent participants in the same course.

It's valuable to take time out to examine our organisational stance to learning: are we focused on knowledge or do we recognise that our relationship is evolving. It's worth exploring how social and mobile learning can help enhance the experiences we forge, how we can strengthen organisational learning by creating spaces for exploration, play and reflection, to supplement the experiences we already offer within formal spaces. A more holistic model for learning to suit more agile learners.

Julian Stodd is a founding director of Marton House, a leading learning and development consultancy. As well as his learning blog Julian regularly contributes to international magazines and online publications, and recently released his first ebook entitled 'Exploring the World of Social Learning'. Julian's next publication, 'A Mindset for Mobile Learning', is out now

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