Promoting learning

The Nobel laureate economist Robert Solow noted some 60 years ago that rising incomes should largely be attributed not to capital accumulation, but to technological progress – to learning how to do things better. While some of the productivity increase reflects the impact of dramatic discoveries, much of it has been due to small, incremental changes. And, if that is the case, it makes sense to focus attention on how societies learn, and what can be done to promote learning – including learning how to learn. – Joseph E. Stiglitz

We may talk about the importance of learning, but for the most part we do not practice it. Let’s start with schools. Schools tend to focus on weaknesses instead of strengths. They also focus too much on content dissemination. Our institutions have failed to foster the love of learning, and do not motivate students to learn for themselves – in many cases it’s the opposite. One problem is the continuing focus on subject-based curriculum. It separates education from reality. We do not live our lives in subject areas, and no workplace is subject-based, but almost all of our curricula are stuffed into category silos.

No one can master any content field any more. Now we see students having better access to information as well as access to more people than many of their teachers. Students may be chatting online with their friends in Asia, while the teacher is covering Asian social studies in class. The student just checks with the online friend and gets the information in context. Which information is correct – the textbook or the online peer? It doesn’t matter. What really matters is that students are learning how to learn and how to solve problems. However, mastery of the curriculum (content) is what the school administration assesses.

Let’s look at business. Taking care of business should mean mean taking care of learning. If learning is everywhere, it should definitely be where the work is getting done. We should make it everyone’s job to share what they learn. But in many businesses, getting work done is more important than learning anything new. Short term thinking starts with quarterly market results and drives down to individual performance management. Learning hardly has a chance.

Look at how corporate e-learning is developed. “Let us put your content online,” some vendor may cry. We also have industry shoot-outs; to see who can convert PowerPoint content into e-learning courses. It’s all about content because it’s easy to build a course based on defined content since there are no messy, individual, radical learners to get in the way, only a fictional, generalized target population. My experience is that neither the public educational system, higher education nor the corporate training business have made any great achievements in facilitating learning.

We know that societies learn socially. We learn through observation and modelling. But promoting learning is not the same as promoting education and training. Individual and peer-to-peer learning is a key part of promoting learning on a societal level. Disciplines such as personal knowledge mastery can be part of this. I have worked with universities to include PKM as part of their curriculum, as well as companies who include PKM into their leadership programs or make it a core component of work competence. But PKM is not enough. Systemic barriers to learning have to be removed.

Likewise, intellectual property, if not designed properly, can be a two-edged sword when viewed from a learning perspective. While it may enhance incentives to invest in research, it may also enhance incentives for secrecy – impeding the flow of knowledge that is essential to learning while encouraging firms to maximize what they draw from the pool of collective knowledge and to minimize what they contribute. In this scenario, the pace of innovation is actually reduced. – Joseph E. Stiglitz

ideaImagine a research intensive organization where scientists should be sharing what they learn, and the official company policy is to share information and expertise among public and private partners. However, the company is “downsizing” and layoffs are based on performance reviews. If one scientists helps a peer develop a patented product, and as a result get a better annual review, then the former may end up losing his job when the next round of layoffs appears. Sharing knowledge is therefore not a good personal strategy in this work environment. So we see that government policies, like intellectual property regulations, drive business practices, like financial rewards for patents, which can impede learning, and in the end we all lose. In complex systems, the solutions are never simple, but our only hope is learning how to learn better and faster – individually and as a society. If we want to promote learning we should first look at what is blocking it.

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