Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Why We Need Learning Theories

I often find myself engaged in a discussion around the importance of learning theories. Newcomers to the industry are curious about why training design should be based on learning theories. Some are looking for the 'best' learning theory and others are wary of applying old theories in the age of digital and social learning. 

In general, I tend to stay away from academia. But when it comes to the area of learning theories, I think it is imperative that as learning designers we understand common theories of learning and are able to make good choices and educated decisions regarding the learning interventions we design. This becomes even more critical as we integrate technology, social media and informal methods into the design of learning and create blended learning programs. 

Whether we are aware of these theories and the related jargons or not, all teachers and learning designers approach training in a way that is governed by one of the learning theories. When we choose a particular way to teach, it has consequences related to how people learn. As learning designers, our goal is to make sure that learning is relevant and aligned to the needs of our audience. We also want to select and apply the right instructional strategies that help the audience achieve their goals. Once we become more aware of learning theories, we can begin to understand the process of learning, understand our beliefs about learning and challenge our assumptions around the methods and methodologies of learning.

Learning design should be based on learning theories because:

  • Theories provide a basis to understand how people learn and a way to explain, describe, analyze and predict learning. In that sense, a theory helps us make more informed decisions around the design, development and delivery of learning. 
  • There are different learning theories (behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism, connectivism, etc.). These theorists have thought deeply about learning and contemplated and researched it extensively. Learning designers can leverage this knowledge to think critically about learning and education. 
  • Learning theories offer frameworks that help understand how information is used, how knowledge is created and how learning takes place. Learning designers can apply these frameworks according to different learning and learner needs and make more informed decisions about choosing the right instructional practices. 
There is no one ‘best’ learning theory because: 
  • Each theory offers a different way to look at learning and the essential ingredients that make learning happen. Using these theories as lenses, learning designers can understand and describe the role of the learner, role of the instructor/teacher/facilitator and how learning happens in different ways. Each theory has influenced and shaped instructional practices and methods and all new theories will continue to do so. 
  • Different theories provide the context of learning, underlying motivation and methods of teaching and these have implications for designing and delivering instruction. Also, different theories are best suited to different learning outcomes and different audience profiles. 
  • Since each theory comprises of facts and assumptions, learning designers must begin the design of training by first identifying the goal of training and then select the right theoretical framework that can help achieve those learning outcomes. 
If you'd like to learn more about learning theories and their impact on learning design, the following resources might be useful:

Taxonomy of learning theories by Ryan Tracey where he identifies key theories that apply to workplace learning, categorizes them according to common properties, and illustrates the relationships among them.

Learning theories for the digital age by Steve Wheeler where he discusses if old theories are still adequate to describe the kinds of learning that we witness today in our hyper-connected world.

Learning theories by Greg Kearsley and Richard Culatta where they describe the principles, application and examples of several learning theories

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Making a Shift from 'Know What' to 'Know How'

Source: Stocksnap Photographer:
In my previous blog post, I shared some of my thoughts on how to avoid the death valley in workplace learning. One of the key ideas was to step away from the know what mindset and focus on the know how and know who mindset as a way to design impactful learning experiences. 

So, what's the difference between know what and know how?

The ancient Greek philosophers had one word, epistêmê, that is usually translated as knowledge and another, technê, often translated as craft or art. This distinction, it might be thought, maps roughly onto the distinction between knowledge-that and knowledge-how, respectively.

Gilbert Ryle (1946) described a contemporary version of these two ideas when he distinguished between knowing that and knowing how.
"Effective possession of a piece of knowledge-that involves knowing how to use that knowledge, when required, for the solution of other theoretical or practical problems. There is a distinction between the museum-possession and the workshop-possession of knowledge. A silly person can be stocked with information, yet never know how to answer particular questions. (p. 16)"

All education and progress is a combination of know what and know how. But traditional models and methodologies have focused far too much on the know what mindset in trying to develop a body of knowledge composed of facts and information. Although know what is important, it is not the ultimate goal.  The way I see it: 

"Know what is to training what know how is to learning and performance." - Click to Tweet

We know how to swim by swimming not simply by knowing what is swimming or why we stay afloat while swimming. If we teach participants about swimming and create a multiple-choice assessment on swimming and the participants 'pass' the assessment, can they swim? The answer is an obvious no.

Learning is not something we get from others; it is something we do. Yet we continue to create and deliver 'training' using instructional methods that are meant for building a knowledge base or know what but are not suited for developing the know how. Know how is created by a process of "learning-by-doing" (Arrow, 1962; Dutton and Thomas, 1985; Argote and Epple, 1990). So, it is time that we focus more on this experiential aspect of learning and design learning experiences that focus on the doing. This can be facilitated by integrating learning and work, by working out loud and by sharing our work with the right network of people (know who).    

I once read somewhere, "The only certainty about the future is that it doesn't resemble the past." This statement cannot be more true when it comes to the learning and employment needs in the future. As the boundaries between humans and machines blur, the jobs of tomorrow won't be the same as today. Many jobs will change and many more will disappear. The World Economic Forum has produced a report that predicts what the employment landscape will look like in 2020. The top 10 skills in 2020 will be:

-Complex problem saving
-Critical thinking
-People management
-Coordinating with others
-Emotional intelligence
-Judgment and decision-making
-Service orientation
-Cognitive flexibility

Just reviewing this list on the face value is a good indication of the demand for know what vs. know how. The present but most definitely the future is not about what information we have. Rather it is about connecting with people who might have the information we need and more importantly using and applying information and knowledge to solve problems. 

“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” ― Leonardo da Vinci

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Avoiding the Death Valley in Workplace Learning

 Taruna Goel Photography
Taruna Goel Photography

Are you designing and delivering training but find that little or no learning is taking place. Are you trapped in the 'death valley' of workplace learning? Here are a few thoughts and ideas on how, as learning professionals, we can avoid the death valley in workplace learning and instead help sprout the seeds of learning, performance and change:

  • Let individuals take the accountability and responsibility for their own learning. Enable individuals to pull content at their moment of need rather than push content. Integrate learning into work.
  • Encourage individuals to unlearn before they learn. Support them as they let go of knowledge that has served them well. Help them find new knowledge and new ways of interpreting their existing knowledge.
  • Help individuals learn how to learn and enable them to be more self-directed in their efforts. Remind them that self-directed learning is more about autonomy and less about independence.
  • Help individuals move along their maturity continuum and support and guide them as they move from dependence to interdependence.
  • Don't rely only on courses and classroom training to create learning opportunities. Curate and share meaningful and relevant resources including websites, blogs, videos and a community of other individuals who are keen to learn and share.
  • Design structured reflective practices as a part of the learning experience. Relate reflection activities to performance outcomes and contextualize the activities to the learning process.
  • Step away from the know what mindset and start with the know how and know who mindset as a way to design useful learning experiences. Maximize the opportunities to learn by doing.
  • Defocus from smiley sheets, tracking LMS visits and checking off boxes and move towards measuring the real impact of learning by evaluating if and how the work performance has changed.
  • Say "Yes to the Mess" and be open to possibilities and the creative power of teams. Improvise with what you have and believe that something new and creative will emerge.
  • Promote a culture of continuous learning, trying out new things, experimenting with new ideas and embracing failure. Show individuals how to fail well.
  • Remind individuals about all the informal learning that takes place outside the classroom and help them make their own informal learning more visible by recognizing it, assessing it and encouraging them to share it with others.
  • Design and plan for transfer of learning to real-life to enable individuals to use the learning immediately and in the future.
  • Be an empathetic provocateur and question individuals in a supportive way. See yourself as both a facilitator and a partner in their learning journey.
  • Nurture and develop yourself as the seed for learning conversations and a integral node through which individuals can connect with content, peers and experts and develop their own personal learning network.