Wednesday, 31 October 2012

HOW are people learning?


In his address to the Digital Media and Learning Conference in San Francisco in March 2012, John Seely Brown (JSB) said a number of interesting things about the changes required in learning to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.  For the transcript follow this link.  For an animated video summary of the presentation follow this link.

Here are some key points on which I want to comment, which I see as fundamental to the debate about change:

  • 'Just being able to learn as individuals is not enough'
  • 'How do we invest in new types of social practices and new institutional forms and new skills?'
  • 'What are the social practices?'
  • 'How do you participate in the ever moving flow of activities?'

Learning as an 'everyday' participation in ever moving activities

The question 'how do we participate in the ever moving flow of activities' is the right one to be asking.  The emphasis that I want to make in this post is about the 'how'.  And not just how do we participate but also how we learn.

Right now in the workplace, people are participating with each other and learning collaboratively.  This is being done through a process of meaning making that's accomplished through talk: day-to-day, everyday talk about work; done under pressing conditions of time and space to achieve some kind of understanding to enable something to be done; by people who are uniquely skilled to understand the context in that place, at that time.

When we look at work in this way it is irreducible from learning.  People are learning continually and ongoingly through a constant web of interacting elements.  

This web is now being extended by the effect of social media.  I think what we are seeing is the same  process of meaning making in action but amplified on a bigger stage with the opportunities to make new connections over and above what would have been possible in more cellular places of learning, e.g. a meeting, a schoolroom (JSB's reference), a 1:1 conversation across the desk, a phone call.  This process is also generating new institutional forms and skills.

Learning as a social practice

Whilst John Seely Brown's encouragement to, say, do more 'playing' and 'tinkering' might be pointing us in the right direction, these are glosses that miss out on lots of details and therefore we don't have an understanding of exactly how these practices work.

As a social practice learning is constantly variable.  However, this variability also creates complexity, which is a problem for the field and hence why we use abstracted notions as a shorthand to create a sense of structure and certainty when, in reality each learning accomplishment is rather specific to the context and circumstances of the setting.  Harold Garfinkel, the father of ethnomethodolgy, described this as 'just-this-ness' as a way of explaining his attention to the 'work' being done in everyday settings and of their resistance to generalisation.

An example of a social practice in learning that has widespread acceptance and appeal is coaching.  As a practice people who take part in it say that it helps, which is evidence of something, but what?   The question I am exploring is exactly how does it work.  If it helps learning, what are the methods in use that enable this?  In fact, coaching is a composite of multiple practices like questioning, listening, sensing, probing and so on which are themselves glosses.  To be able to explicate them would require detailed analysis in situ and in vivo, i.e. in the place and with the people involved and taking into account the social context.  

My point is that if this is true of coaching, or of other accepted practices like action learning, or neuro linguistic programming, then it is also true for the social practices that are now evolving, which might also include playing and tinkering. i.e. exactly how these things work is important but they remain unstudied

How is this relevant to learning in the 21C?

The premis of JSB, and many other commentators besides, is that the world is changing rapidly, e.g. the half-life of skills being 5 years and so on, and therefore that learning and approaches to it need to change, be that social practices, new institutional forms or new skills.   

My position is that to understand what and how to change we should treat our current social practices as interesting in their own right and to avoid taking them for granted. This means spending time following the action of learning, especially the everyday always-occuring learning in the workplace, to find out what is being done and how.  This will inform and explicate the deeply social nature of our learning practices and enable clearer prescriptions for change.  

Image via Photobucket

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