Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Learning, self-organization and meaning in life

A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak to a group of Danish consultants who teach project management. They wanted input on principles and criteria for better educational practice: How can we become even better at teaching project management?

I suggested that since the modern konwledge worker has turned life itself into a project, we need to teach project management in a way that mobilizes people's sense of meaning in their lives.


I offered the consultants an alternative to the common transfer model of teaching (the notion that to teach is to transfer knowledge from the teacher’s mind to the learner’s). I proposed a view of humans as self-organizing systems that seek to realize their potentials and bring out their talents. On this view, to learn is to become better able to fulfill one’s potentials.

The task of the instructor, then, is to help people discover which potentials they hold, that is, find direction, purpose and meaning in their professional lives. The instructor must help them bring out these potentials—for example, by training them to become better project managers, if this is the goal they have set for themselves.

I present six implications of this view for how to run practical exercises in training workshops.

Thus, my outline for these notes is
  1. When you have boring workshops,
  2. the transfer model usually lurks underneath.
  3. An alternative is a view of learning as that which helps self-organizing systems (such as people) to discover and realize their potentials
  4. Such a view has very concrete implications for educational practice; I propose six.
The transfer model is everywhere
Okay, let’s get started. We know boring workshops: too much lecturing. The transfer model is implicit in many domains. It has three steps:
  1. Information goes in
  2. Stuff happens in the black box
  3. Suitable behavior comes out
For example, in various domains:
  1. Teacher says it
  2. Pupil knows it
  3. Pupil passes exam
  1. Sensation
  2. Association/thinking
  3. Behavior
  1. Father says it
  2. ”Yes, Father!”
  3. Well-behaved child
Public health campaigns:
  1. ”Quit smoking!”
  2. ”Okay!”
  3. People quit
The Church:
  1. Priest preaches
  2. Flock goes, ”Amen!”
  3. Salvation for all
Authoritarian leadership:
  1. Command
  2. ”Yes, Sir!”
  3. Compliance
The transfer model may be deeply rooted in the wishful thinking of autocrats, possibly the Church Fathers, patriarchs, clan leaders. ”What I say, they do.” It then diffused into epistemology, education and communications.
It presumes people are empty vessels, waiting to be filled. A blank slate for the world (or its rulers) to write on.
Meaning and transfer
Here is an important point: When an autocrat gives a content (an order or teachings), he also gives a purpose, a direction, that is, what to do with the content: act as I want you to act. Forsake sin, execute my order, quit smoking, regurgitate these facts for the exam. When content is transferred, its meaning is given by the very transfer: “Comply!”
People are brimming with potential order
The alternative view: People are not empty vessels. They are brimming with order, activity, pattern, potential, all waiting to be brought out.
I have five sources of inspiration for this point:
1. Humberto Maturana: Autopoiesis, self-production. Organisms are not open input-output systems that can be instructed to deliver predetermined output, like vending machines. They are autopoietic, they create their own inner order, and all ”input” is filtered according to how well it fits this dynamic order. It if does not fit, it gets rejected – the instructor’s common experience.
2. Self-organizing systems in physics and biology. Order arises spontaneously in nature, complexity emerges, ”order is free”, increasing order is natural. Organisms tend to or ”strive” to create more order, that is, realize their inherent potential for order (classically, this potential is called their ”nature”).
3. Aristotle said humans have a goal: eudaimonia, towards which we strive naturally. Traditional translated as ”happiness”, eudaimonia now is referred to as human flourishing, a concept Thomas of Aquinas also used in the context of natural law: people have natural rights or inclinations that the enacted laws of society should obey. All laws (= social order) should contribute to human flourishing.
4. Humanistic psychology (Maslow, Rogers, Deci) and modern studies of human development and education (pædagogik) make the same point: Humans have innate needs that must be met, unique potentials and talents that exert pressure to manifest themselves. To learn is to become better able to express one’s potentials in practical action. Education is about empowering the individual to act purposefully and socially responsibly (Dewey). To learn is not to parrot the teacher, but to develop your unique skill set, to be all that you can be (as the US Army recruiting slogan used to go).
Meaning, self-organized
When learning is no longer accepting the teacher’s content into your head, the direction you’re supposed to go is also no longer given by the teacher. No longer subject to authoritarian input or commands, the learner or actor now has to create her own sense of direction.
In what directions is it that my potential and talents point me? This has to be discovered by every subject in a gradual process and tested out throughout a lifetime. To determine what potentials you have and what goals to pursue amount to finding meaning in your life.
Thus, learning involves finding or creating meaning in one’s life as well. Your learning is the greatest where you are pursuing the meaning of your life, pursuing your truest potentials. Conversely, it is very hard to learn material that seems meaningless to you because it is irrelevant to what you really want to do.
So, the last point of inspiration for an alternative to the transfer model is:
5. The psychology of meaning. Frankl rebelled against Freud’s drives for sex and death and identified a drive towards meaning that keep people going, even in concentration camps. Yalom posits four existentials motivating people, one of which is meaning. Baumeister brilliantly surveys the literature on meanings in life. Schultz applies it to work life and suggest the modern leader must pay attention to employee’s meanings in life.
In Learning Lab Denmark’s (LLD) aborted project Mission and Meaning we looked for commonalities between organizational and individual missions. Personal meaning is one of two key factors meeting managers are to maximize in LLD’s two projects on meetings. Common to all of these are the point: meaning is important to learning. Where things are meaningless, you don’t learn. Where things seem extremely meaningful to you, your capacity for learning is immense.

Pulling the five pieces together
What we have, then, is a view of human beings as inner-directed; there is an inner dynamic, self-organizing order that tends evolve and grow, there is a drift towards more complexity and subtle order. The traditional term for this is human nature, seen as a bunch of innate needs and potentials that seek manifestation in human life.
While the sunflower seed, under the right conditions, becomes a sunflower and a human foetus develops two legs and two arms, nu such determinism can found in the psychological or existential parts of human nature. The transfer model can be seen as an attempt to impose such direction and purpose on a person from the outside: Do as daddy tells you. This is what learning is in traditional, authoritarian societies.
But with the demise of authoritarianism, we need new understandings of learning: as the self-directed expression of human potentials. What these potentials are is unique to each person, and the role of the teacher or the instructor is to help the student discover them and acquire or develop the competencies to bring them out.
Some implications for educational practice
I’ll focus on the particular adult-education setting: Consultants trying to teach project management. It goes without saying that other forms of learning besides lectures must be employed. I don’t have to argue that learning must be active, involved, experiential, close to participants’ own reality, etc.; this is well known.
Assume we have a workshop with group-based exercises or activities. Here are a few implications for practice of the view of human being and learning outlined above:
1. Let people supply content. Instructors often have people play through elaborate exercises – cases, role plays, exciting stories, war games. Such experimentation with pedagogical form is excellent, but often this form comes prepackaged with the instructor’s content, and students become bit players in a grand scheme.
Instead, whenever possible, have a form that lets people supply the content, the beef, the what of the exercise. Give them a few minutes for reflection to come up with a current challenge in their home organization and make that the content for the exercise. That way they get feedback on something real, and the other group members are pleased they could help. In our project on the learning conference, we tested two such forms: ”You have won two consultants, free of charge” and ”Participant construction” (described in Elsborg and Ravn, 2006).
2. Ask content-free questions. Likewise, for pair-wise conversations or group work, don’t overtax people with a series of elaborate questions to answer. Let them ask their own questions. Or, at the most, ask fill-in questions like ”What was the most important pint the presenter made?” or ”What current problem in your organizations was illuminated by the presenter’s approach?”
3. Identify people’s resources. Too often, an instructor arrives with everything he thinks the class needs, and what they bring is ignored. Instead, introduce activities that help people realize what everyone in the room knows in relation to the day’s topic, and help them network to use those resources and bring out the relevant potentials. At LLD, we have developed the Knowledge Exchange (Videnbørsen) for this purpose.
4. Let people make their own conclusions. At the end of an exercise or a workshop, the instructor often recaps the purpose and the lessons to be learnt. This is fine, but since people have their own goals and purposes, there is often no telling what people got out of a particular exercise. Allow room for this.
Ask people: What did you get out of this? Give them three minutes for silent reflection to jot down a few things, have them tell them to their neighbors for five minutes and spend five minutes in a big circle plucking them, that is, hearing one point from five or ten volunteers. This helps people identify their own unique learning potentials, regardless of what the instructor’s message was.
5. What makes today’s topic exciting for you? Many workshops start with twenty minutes of ”forventningsafstemning”, expectation adjustment, where people say what they hope to get out of the workshop. This is fine, but sometimes degenerates into everyone saying ”I want to learn something I can use” or, if specific desires are articulated, the instructor uses this as her life insurance, that is, as an opportunity to safeguard against misplaced expectations that produce frustrations by the end: ”No, we won’t cover that topic today, I’m afraid”.
Instead, mobilize people’s energies by asking them ”What makes it exciting for you to be here today?” People will search for their own unique motivations and learning potentials and will appreciate the opportunity to articulate them. Give them two minutes’ silent reflection and do a round robin. The many different and surprising reasons people have for finding the workshop topic exciting will energize the group far more than the repetitious expectations.
6. Don’t do negative learning (I think). Some instructors like to take people through exercises that demonstrate how complex and difficult things are in this new domain, which produces frustration. This emotional upheaval may be mistaken for learning, but it is not. To be sure, people need to be provoked a little and move out of the ordinary, but for learning to be effective, we need to start with people feeling safe and secure, otherwise they’ll resist.
Growing tips are sensitive and delicate; they need to be acknowledged and appreciated rather than exposed and roughed up. Strong and self-reliant folks can handle demanding challenges and severe frustrations, but everyone needs to feel seen and appreciated to grow. Potentials are just that, potential strengths, not actual ones.
Enough implications for now. I’m sure there are more, but I need to think about this some more.
Summing up
If people are self-organizing systems with inners orders and potentials that need to be expressed in ways to be discovered, learning spaces must be so facilitated as to help people identify and express their potentials and talents, creating meaning for themselves in the process.
This requires workshop instructors to be far more open and receptive to the content and implicit direction that people bring to the workshop, mostly by supplying facilitated form to their resources and experience.
When you teach project management, assume that people already know how to do it, but in a nascent, imperfect, potential way that you must help them sharpen and bring out more fully.


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