Understanding “learning” – some more thoughts

My colleagues at the Internet Time Alliance have been thinking a lot about what "learning" and being a "learner" means.  This has been part of the ongoing discussion we have been having about the hijacking of terms like informal and social learning by "snake oil sellers".

Jay Cross has become well known for helping organisations understand that learning is either formal or informal

In my Social Learning Handbook I identified 5 categories of learning: Formal Structured Learning, Personal Directed Learning, Group Directed Learning, Intra-Organisational Learning and Accidental & Serendiptous Learning.

Harold Jarche looked at these 5 categories and grouped learning into 3 types: directed, self-directed and undirected learning.

In his posting yesterday he now refers to learners  as being Dependent, Independent and Interdependent 

So how do these different terms map together?  I've drawn up this table to make it a little clearer

Recently I have come across a lot of instances of the use of phrases like "managing informal learning" or "formalising informal learning", which might sound as if they make sense, but when you look more closely at what they mean, it's the same thing as saying "directing the learning of self-directed learners"  which makes no sense at all!  

In my opinion it is just not possible to manage or formalise informal learning – if you do, it just becomes formal learning.  All you can do to do is SUPPORT and ENABLE self-directed (independent and interdependent) learners and their learning, which is quite a different thing altogether.  

So what about those people who say that you can’t let employees be responsible for their own learning, they might not learn the right things(!), let me point you to the article in December 2009's CLO Magazine written by Timothy R Clark and Conrad A Gottfredson, Agile Learning, Thriving in the New Economy, which explains why supporting and enabling self-directed/independent learners should be encouraged:

"As competitive environments increase in speed, complexity and volatility, organizations and individuals are compelled toward a dynamic learning mindset. Dynamic learning is defined as rapid, adaptive, collaborative and self-directed learning at the moment of need."

So as organisational learning departments simply can't respond quickly enough to the ongoing learning needs of the organisation (it takes weeks if not months to put together and deliver a course) , they will need to consider new approaches, so as I put it in my article ..

"The consequence of this for Learning & Development  is that they now need to concern themselves more with helping employees become dynamic, agile, self-directed, independent and interdependent – what we might also term "smart" – learners and less with creating and managing learning solutions for dependent learners. Helping employees become smart learners includes supporting them acquire a set of trusted resources and networks, using the most appropriate tools; and having the right mix of skills to make effective use of the tools and (re)sources."

3 thoughts on “Understanding “learning” – some more thoughts

  1. Davidvachell

    Thankyou Jane. An interesting discussion and intruiging model. However, I am wondering if we are starting to be a bit reductionist in our attempt to be clear.
    To me, learning is the creation of a new frame of reference or modification of an existing one, that allows us to make some meaning of the world we encounter.

  2. Wendell Dryden

    There might be a confusion in some minds between “learning” and “teaching.”
    Formal and informal *teaching* makes sense if we think formal means there’s something official about it (e.g. passing a Young Drivers of Canada course means I get a lower rate on my car insurance), while informal means its unofficial (e.g. being taught to knit in a neighbourhood community center). In both cases, there’s a degree of top-down organization, a “teacher” who can do a better or worse job, and so on. It’s about the provision of a service.
    However (I think), informal learning means learning that is very nearly accidental – the things I learn listening to the commentary of a NASA spacewalk or a Bluejays baseball game. Formal learning, on the other hand (I think), is what happens when I set out self-consciously to learn something, whether on my own or with help. It’s only in the case of formal learning (I think) that it’s possible for me to fail.
    We could quibble over my distinctions – doesn’t trouble me any. Probably any attempt to categorize another person’s experiences and perceptions is doomed to failure. I just wanted to say I agree that no one can manage informal learning – if they try, they’re back to teaching. (Snake-oil indeed!)
    It may, however, be possible to create environments that encourage (or discourage) informal learning. Or, maybe even that is saying too much.
    Best wishes

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