Let the learners own the learning!

Many executives say they would like to see their people take more initiative to learn and change, but our basic assumptions about learning may get in the way.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with many learner-centric modalities that give learners more ownership of objectives, approaches and outcomes. This post describes what I have learned from putting learners front and center.

Most organized learning is based on a teacher-centric model. We are all accustomed to learning with the help of teachers, though sometimes we call them trainers, facilitators or coaches. In a teacher-centric model,  learning is designed to achieve specific goals and it is the job of the teachers and their sponsors to drive the process by which those goals are achieved.  The teacher tells the learners what they need to learn, often instructs it point-by-point, then tests learners on whether or not they have mastered the material or skills.

It is possible for learners to take a more assertive role in driving their own learning, but placing learners at the center of the learning process raises uncomfortable questions about the role of the teacher.

If the teacher isn’t teaching, who is? And what is the teacher doing?

While many teachers would like to give more ownership to learners, it is not clear how such an approach can be implemented and managed. What’s the role of the teacher? Who does the teaching? Who takes responsibility for establishing objectives and tracking progress?  How do we judge if anything was really learned?  Who keeps the whole thing from devolving into chaos?

How do we assess the value delivered by the teacher?

Learner-centric modalities call into the question our assumptions about how a teacher adds value. Teachers (whatever they call themselves) are often trapped in a world that constantly asks “What have you done for me lately?”  Our reason for existence may be enabling others to develop and grow, but our access to budget and advancement is generally based on what deliverable or result we produced rather than on what learners learned and accomplished (albeit with our support).

Who keeps the learners motivated?

One common objection to learner-driven modalities is that many learners are not motivated to learn unless someone drives the process for them and holds them accountable. This is a reasonable objection, but I think it says more about the assumptions and objectives of the teachers and sponsors than those of the learners. If the learners are not motivated, this probably indicates that the offering is not well-aligned with the needs and goals of the learners. And this is not surprising since learners are driven by diverse needs and goals.

Increasing agency increases motivation

One way to wake up the agency in learners is to give them as much responsibility as possible for their own learning goals and experience. Sponsors and teachers can minimize their presence while still providing structure and guidance. Participants follow their interests, but they receive help from sponsors and facilitators in selecting areas of focus as well as in moving from interest to action that benefit both the learners and their organizations.  Sponsors help create the organizational learning agenda and they keep an eye on learning processes, parameters and themes. Facilitators get things moving and help the learners stay on track. They ask questions, share stories and provide tools and structure. At some level, though, it is up to the learners to select their own challenges, set their own action plans and commit to taking action.  They rely on each other as well as the facilitator and sponsors for support as they translate action into learning and results through repeated cycles of exploring, defining, driving and (as they start to feel the results of their effort) thriving.

Learner-centric modalities works best when the sponsors, facilitators and learners share a few assumptions about the nature of learning:

1.     Agency – Learners should be in charge of their own learning

       With a bit of reflection, most people are capable of figuring out what they need to learn in order to get better results.

       Most people are pretty good at finding a way to learn on their own if they have a reason to learn.

       Although it is reassuring to have a guide, innovation and creativity can be (unintentionally) constrained by the frames and objectives that a teacher brings to the learning process.

       Even a great teacher cannot learn for the learner.

2.     Experimentation – Doing is the fastest path to learning

       Analysis can clarify the range of actions available, but we need to take some kind of action to test any hypotheses we have developed.

       If we take too much time for analysis before we act, our actions may be addressing a problem that has already changed.

       By taking action we have a direct impact on our environment and we confirm in real time the results that a certain action may produce. In the process, we collect up-to-date data on the real world.

3.     Reflection – We learn by examining what we’ve done and what happened as a result

       Once we take action, we need to process the new data that comes back as feedback from the environment.  This can be done in real time or it can be done in cycles of action and reflection, but it must be done in some form to ensure that we do in fact learn from our actions.

–  In performance management we tend to think of feedback as something that is given, but feedback is also something that can be collected proactively by the individual how needs it.

– Feedback can be collected independently of others. In fact, feedback delivered to someone who is not seeking it often falls on dead ears.

4.     Collegiality – We learn more when share the learning experience with others.

       Reflecting together accelerates learning in at least three ways: 1) I consolidate what I have learned by telling you about what I did and what I learned. 2) You consolidate what you have learned by telling me about what you did and what you learned. 3) We both pick up new ideas for action by listening to each other and noticing actions we can cut-and-paste into our list of experimental actions.

– Reflection is often easier when we do it together with someone else, especially someone we trust. Self-driven learning does not have to occur in a social vacuum.  Many people think more clearly when they think together with someone else.

–   Reflecting together with a trusted colleague often reveals something we might not have noticed on our own.

       Although learners are often quite good at figuring out what they need to learn, knowing that someone else expects to hear about the experience can add a positive sense of accountability and sharing to the process.

5.     Dialog – Articulating experience helps us convert insights into repeatable formulae for action

       When the reflections of one person are mixed with those of another, the result is often new insights that would not have come from one person working in isolation.

       Our ideas often do not become clear even to ourselves until we articulate them in a way that makes sense to others. The best way to learn is to try.  The best way to consolidate learning is try to teach what you have learned to someone else.

       As we ask questions to help others clarify their experiences and ideas, we often gain insights about our own.

Having led many learners through initiatives based on these principles, I have been amazed at how quickly groups take to learner-centric approaches. Still, I must admit that at times I have also felt that by the end of a cycle of learning I might be superfluous to the learning process.  In a sense, this is the most satisfying moment for me because I know that this group has momentum that will keep it learning on its own without sponsorship or facilitation.  But this does leave the dilemma of explaining my own role as a steward of learning.

As teachers, we need to maintain our credibility with our organizations, customers and communities. This makes it is tempting for us to do so by showing off our value as subject matter experts or professional managers of consistent, uniform learning processes. 

In my experience, though, we should focus more on how to bring out the agency, curiosity and ingenuity of the learners. Adults and even children are often capable of learning effectively and efficiently on their own, and they often learn as much or more from their peers as from us. They may not need teachers who own teaching as much as they need teachers who create an environment that is conducive learning.

Perhaps we don’t need to be owners of the learning so much as stewards of the learning space. When we do just enough but not too much to guide the learning process, we create space for learners to take initiative to learn. This in turn enables learners to maximize their contribution to their organizations and communities.

For an exploration of peer-based learning based on an approach called “copy/paste” prompts, listen to:

© Dana Cogan 2009, 2017, and 2022 all rights reserved.

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