The unwilling learner: curated links


A week to this day Brent Schlenker, director, product/technology training for IO, wrote a blog post – his first in a year. Schlenker, a prolific learning and development blogger is back to blogging after a year out. Reflecting on his year back in corporate L&D he says that learning is about people, not technology and at the end of his post he says this:

The truth is, there are no learning problems in corporate settings. There are only people unwilling to learn.

Jane Hart picked up on Schlenker’s post saying that there were two issues at play. One is the willingness to learn and the second is the ability to learn for oneself.

Hart plots a chart looking at willing learners versus are unwilling learners and directed learners versus self-directed learners. In the top left corner the willing, self-directed learners are keen to learn and are able to do it. In the bottom right-hand corner the unwilling, directed learner is not interested in learning and not able to learn for themselves.

Hart concludes that providing one size fits all training and learning probably causes more problems than it solves.

Dennis Callahan also responded to the discussion by sharing his thoughts on why learning is complicated. Amongst these is the fact that learning is closely related to change and that people are complicated and learning is all about people.

He argues that most people don’t change their behaviour because of their environment – be it processes, tools or the people they work with i.e. managers. Callahan suggests the answer lies with an organisation’s leader who must build trust across the organisation. And that learning is the responsibility of the individual not the organisation. Support the individual and they will flourish, he says.

Euan Semple also pitched in to the discussion. His feeling is that we all have a natural curiosity and we just need to make the process of thinking and being curious worth and individual’s while.

The notion of the unwilling learner is not new, however. At the Learning Technologies Conference 2012 Mark Bethelemy gave this conference session on engaging the unwilling learner.

His thesis is that you need to start with understanding the problem before you design a learning intervention, you need to remove any blockers to people getting to learning materials, you need to understand what motivates people we need to guide people through what type of behaviours are expected in certain situations, we need to communicate effectively and ensure that managers support and nurture colleagues.

Addressing the issue of motivating adult learners, the elearning industry website published 17 tips to motivate adult learners. This list suggests supporting learners, letting them make mistakes, aligning learning objectives with business objectives and allowing exploration.

Is that the end of the discussion? Probably not – engaging learners is a perennial challenge for L&D. But the unwilling learner discussion has sparked conversation around two key areas: humans as learning machines and what motivates adults to learn.

Here is a quote from the 21st Century learning Initiative, which has been researching how humans learn for the last thirty years.

We will start with two simple assertions: humans are born to learn and learning is what we are better at that than any other species. These old and essentially intuitive insights are now supported by the new biological understandings yielded by brain imaging technologies developed since the late 1980s. Non-invasive brain mapping has enabled researchers to watch learning occur as specific patterns of activity within the brain light up on a computer screen.

The brain is revealed as a more flexible, self-adjusting, biological system that grows and reshapes itself in response to challenge, or withers through lack of use. The mass of evidence now emerging about learning and brain development has spawned a movement towards educational practice that confirms that thinking skills (meta-cognition) and creativity can be learned. The brain is now seen as a collection of specialized and complex systems, each engineered by natural selection to aid our species in decision-making. Humans are predisposed to learn from and adapt to their environment.

We know that humans are learning machines so when we think about learners as being unwilling are we simply talking about motivation? Maybe it is not as simple as just motivation – there are many other blockers in the way of learning at work – but a look at Dan Pink’s work might be useful.

Finally, it might also be worth remembering what employers ‘get’ from the education system. In his recent Learning Live talk, Doug Shaw shared research that showed by the age of 25 only 2% of people have high levels of ability in being able to think divergently – that compares with 98% of children in kindergarten.

[Picture credit: Aprilbell]



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