Tuesday, February 26, 2019

What is learning?


Source: https://stocksnap.io
A few months ago, as a part of a course that I was undertaking, the facilitator posed a simple question in the online discussion forum: What is learning? 
I have been working in the learning and performance industry for the last 20 years; surely, I can answer this question, I thought. But as I was formulating my answer, I realized how deceptively complex the question was. What does learning mean? generally? specifically? academically? theoretically? socially? personally?

When you think of learning, what comes to your mind?

Is it the formal education that happens in schools and universities?
Is it the structured activity that happens inside of training rooms?
Is it the informal process that happens at homes, workplaces and within the community?
Is it the unstructured activity that happens online in collaboration with others?

The fact is that this simple question has many layers. Learning is complicated and learning is messy.

An idea that adds to the challenge of defining learning is that learning is understood both as a process and a product. As a process, when I think of learning, I imagine several aspects such as if learning is driven by self or others, if the context is work or life, if it is an event or something ongoing, if it results in a change in behaviour or not, etc. When learning is treated like a product, I hear terms like classroom learning, online learning, elearning, digital learning, blended learning, social learning, mobile learning, micro learning, etc.

Furthermore, learning tends to be implicit but the output of learning may be explicit. But even when the output may indicate a change in behaviour, attitude or skills, one can't be certain that these changes happened because of or only due to learning.

Finally, each learning theory including behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism has its own set of assumptions about learning which makes defining learning even more challenging. Perhaps this is why most textbooks and papers hesitate from defining learning and rather describe the subtexts around learning or discuss the 'types of learning'.

In all of this I have realized that instead of focusing on trying to come up with a universally acceptable definition of learning, the goal should be to develop a shared understanding of what learning means to each of us within our current contexts. 

In my work context and for me personally, learning is an active process and is situated within a real-life context. It leverages the prior knowledge and experience of people and engages them in cognitive, constructive and reflective activities. Learning may happen at an individual level but may also be collaborative and social. And it is definitely not a single, isolated event but more like an ongoing, continuous process. 

Perhaps the best way for me to summarize what learning means to me is how Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) highlight that "Learning involves ongoing, active processes of inquiry, engagement and participation in the world around us."

What is your personal take on learning? What does learning mean to you?

If you need some ideas, here is a curation of 10 Definitions of Learning by Connie Malamed @elearningcoach


Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Cathedral Thinking - Designing for the Next Century

“Though there are many instances to which Cathedral Thinking can be applied, they all require the same foundation: a far-reaching vision, a well thought-out blueprint, and a shared commitment to long-term implementation.” 


Cathedral thinking dates back to the medieval times when architects were tasked with building cathedrals none of which would be completed in their own lifetime. The challenge they faced was how to use long-term thinking and engage with others such that there was a strong commitment to the shared vision. Although the idea of cathedral thinking originally came from architecture, it has been applied to different fields including corporate visions and individual road maps. 

I came across the concept of cathedral thinking back in 2014 through Jory C. Faibish. In his talk recorded at an event in 2014, he shares the importance of cathedral thinking, leadership and strategic innovation. In this video, he mentions how cathedral thinking involves enrolling other people into your vision, to truly think beyond your own lifetime and detach one's self from the final results. He shares a few historical examples and leaves us with a key question, 'How do I communicate something that is bigger and beyond me and make other people participate in that vision?' He says the first thing it takes is 'getting out of our own way and imagine something big.'


Rick Antonson, an author and former President and CEO of Tourism Vancouver, spoke about cathedral thinking in a TEDx event in Vancouver. In Rick's words, cathedral thinking is about keeping the present generation tethered to the future.


Cathedral thinking involves taking a leap and imagining the bigger picture and realizing that while it may seem that you are a small part, you play an important role in how that bigger picture will eventually emerge. It means realizing that your decisions today will lead to consequences in the future that you may or may not live to see but others will. 

Needless to say, the concept of cathedral thinking has been applied to many fields including space exploration, design and development of cities, visions for big organizations, tackling climate change and conservation of plants, animals and other resources, etc.; basically anything that requires long-range thinking and being okay with always thinking about and continuing to invest time and money in 'unfinished work'. I'd also connect the philosophy of 'slow' with the idea of cathedral thinking. In some ways, both the concepts focus on the idea of finding the right pace to do things and focusing on quality over quantity. But I will save those ramblings and reflections for another blog post. 

I think the concept has a key role to play in how we design for learning especially considering the future of work and the future of learning including multi generational learning in the context of Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and other adaptive learning technologies. 

With the cathedral thinking mindset, there are many questions that I am pondering about:

  • Do we really know where we are going or are we only fixated on getting somewhere faster?
  • Are we thinking of learning innovation in the truly long term or are we being driven by agility and short-term gains? 
  • Are we finding the time to slow down and reflect on our decisions or are we focused on being hyper-active, always on, always doing? 
  • What are the decisions that we make today about learning and technologies (such as using AI and machine learning) that will have consequences down the road? Not just thinking about 10, 15, 20 years ahead but thinking at least seven generations ahead. Do we have that kind of vision for learning?
  • Are our learning visions truly embracing the shifts that are happening and will continue to happen long after we are gone?
  • How can we use cathedral thinking to envision modern learning interventions that are more diverse, inclusive and ethical?
  • What active steps can we take today that speak to that shared vision for the future? 

As a learning professional, I obviously focused the cathedral thinking lens on design for learning. But I do realize that there is scope and a good need to apply cathedral thinking to every aspect of my life. Reflecting about the cathedral thinking mindset reminds me of my role in making the design for the next century come into fruition and how powerful my actions of today are towards building a better future for someone else tomorrow.


"You can't build a long term future on short term thinking."- Billy Cox

Monday, December 24, 2018

The Circle of Life

Morning Star by Alex Janvier (Photographed at the Canadian Museum of History, Ottawa, Canada)
The year is drawing to a close and we will soon start a new year and a new circle of our life. The circle is symbolic in many ways and is a cultural, religious but more importantly, a human imagery. A circle represents the sun and the earth and the passage of time and seasons. 
To me, a circle is a metaphor for both life and learning. When our ancestors discovered fire and sat around it to share their knowledge and wisdom, that is when this universal symbol of learning was perhaps born. 
The circle represents wholeness and completeness. The center of the circle is filled with trust and openness. And while the rim is flexible, it stays protective of that what is inside; the core of the circle. There is no hierarchy in a circle because the shape equalizes everyone. A circle is a keeper of democracy and of relationships and intimacy. It represents a journey but one that has no beginning or end and in that respect, a circle is in a continuous process of being. The circle in its true form represents infinity and potential. And all these qualities are true for life and for learning. 
As the year draws to a close, I am reminded of the value of my own circle. I am thinking and reflecting about that what is at the core of my own circle; what fills the inside and what pushes the boundary everyday. I am thinking about the relationships that mean the most to me in this circle and the give and take and the ebb and flow. I am pondering about who is it that am I becoming in this process of being created constantly. In answering these questions, I am flexing the rim of my existing circle to expand it just a little more...
Life is a full circle, widening until it joins the circle motions of the infinite.” 

― Anais Nin