Wednesday, June 04, 2008

"Learning" is so last year

Isn't the concept of learning tied to traditional societies, where growing up was a matter of mastering your parents' skills? To learn something, after all, is to pick up stuff that somebody has already laid out for you.

You learn somebody else's skills, you learn by reading books somebody wrote, you learn how to win an argument--by emulating someone skilled at it. "What did you learn in school today?", as Tom Lehrer sang.

By contrast, stuff no one knows or has tried before is not absorbed or mastered through learning. Vasco da Gama wouldn't say "I learned how to sail to India by going south of Africa"; no, he discovered the new route. Experimenting with electric bulbs for them to stay lit was not a matter of learning for Edison; he invented a superior incandescent light bulb. Arnold Schönberg did not learn how to compose twelve-tone music; he created it.

Of course, this does not mean learning is passé. Even the most wildly innovative knowledge society has huge amounts of stuff that people need to learn, old-style: brushing your teeth, taking the bus, buying a house, chairing a meeting.

But we may well question the underlying model of what a human being is: "Infants and kids don't know stuff and we need to learn to become fully human. We're empty and need to be filled with the skills, the knowledge and the wisdom of those who went before."

A different way of seeing humans is to assume that they have potentials that need to be actualized. People are in the business of human flourishing. This can be done through imitative learning, trial and error, free experimentation, innovation or in many other ways.

All of these we might subsume under the umbrella of "development." People need to develop; that is the essence of human flourishing; it is another word for it. Learning is subset of development, appropriate for fairly imitative ways of picking up stuff, not for innovative ones.

My colleagues at Learning Lab Denmark are pushing the concept of learning right to the limit by proposing the term "innovative learning". Would we need this hybrid term is the concpet of learning was not so entrenched in our institutions already (like in "Learning Lab Denmark" or its new name, the "Department of Learning"?) Wouldn't we just skip it and go straight to more embracing concepts like development or innovation itself?

"How did you develop in school today?" seems a far more relevant--if inelegant--question to ask of our kids, and of ourselves: "Did I develop or help others devdelop today at work?" I mean: development in the sense of doing more with less (Ackoff), of improving the quality of our lives, of meeting the customers' real needs rather than their superficial desires.

And how does this question ring: "Did you learn something new today at work, daddy?" Learning is not the issue in the workplace, is it? Coping and mastering and innovating and developing and creating meaning and value in new and more economical and sophisticated and deeply satisfying ways are. The challenge is how to promote the work organizations that are deeply meaningful to their employees and truly valuable to their customers.

By sticking to "learning", learning researchers (such as myself) may unwittingly sustain dated modes of being in schools and institutions and workplaces. A better focus might be human flourishing or the development of the full repertoire of human capacities and potentials--regardless of how close they are to what we, a hundred years ago, saw fit to place in the categories of teaching, education, schooling and the like.


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