Embedded Learning

  • Dan White
  • January 21st, 2021

The best learning happens on the job, through trial and error, rather than in a classroom-like environment. Dan White, the director of Ezra's Impact Lab, discusses how interventions around learning in the workplace need to understand and reflect this, rather than clinging to the idea that the intervention itself is where all the learning happens.

Embedded Learning

I have been as guilty as any learning and development professional of over emphasising learning interventions (classroom learning) at the expense of traditional “learning on the job.”  It’s an easy trap to fall into.

Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemann, one of the world’s foremost authorities on behavioural economics, spends a lot of time discussing “availability heuristics,” or the human tendency to use any information that we can recall quickly to make decisions for the future.

If we apply Kahnemann’s theories to learning professionals, it suggests that we tend to emphasize those things we know best (formal interventions) where we work directly with people to “develop” them, rather than the learning they may do independently “on the job.”

Many professionals pay lip service to “on-the-job” learning, but if we’re being honest, many of us find it an affront to our professional egos; we want to believe that our brilliant design, brilliant delivery are the factors that make the difference for learnings.  How could people learn without our extensive expertise?

Well, the fact is that most of the real learning does not happen when we are around.  If we can accept that reality just long enough to consider what this means for learning professionals, then we can make better decisions when designing learning interventions.

The need for learning to get real

A core challenge for learning professionals is that much adult learning delivered in sessions that are devoid of real-world context.

To capture some of that real-world experience, we tend to lean on simulations but most of us know that they are hard to deliver, expensive and, at the end of the day, still create a hollow version of reality. When we force people to learn outside of a real context, we run the risk that it doesn’t stick and the decay rate of what they have learned is very high.

The fact is that we learn most effectively when we’re in the same place we can fail with consequence.

Behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner’s famous experiments in the 1950s with rats in boxes are pretty inhumane by today’s standards, but they helped establish that consequence has an enormous effect on our ability to learn.  When it doesn’t matter what we do, when our actions do not materially affect meaningful outcomes, we don’t or perhaps can’t learn.

And, let’s face it, the classroom is a hard place to create genuine consequence.

Letting The Learning Choose

Free White Paper Letting The Learner Choose

Instructors typically make decisions on who learns what and how.

But what happens if we give learners more control? We examine the benefits of a more autonomous approach to learning.

With gamification we can, to some extent, get people to care about the outcomes but it still falls short of real life and real consequences. We’re going to have to admit that the real world is where the real learning happens and that the intervention is where the reflection, refocusing, regrouping, planning and prioritisation is most appropriate (such as within a coaching app, for example).

Increasingly, I begin to see the intervention phase as that moment when you are momentarily unplugged from the roar of normal life.  You can take a breath, reflect, look back at yourself and think, “why the hell do I always fall into the same trap?”

The incredibly well disciplined can do this on their own but most of us need a buddy or a confidante, someone to give us a swift kick so we can focus and then cheer us on as we get back on task.

Creating pauses to learn from real life

I have started to wonder if we need to give people space when they emerge blinking from the madness of actual work and ask them if they are ok. We need to find out if they need to take a moment to analyse their own performance and what they want to do.  Too often, we push people into interventions that start piling learning layer after layer, topic after topic.  I should know – I’ve done this for years with the best intentions.  No doubt some of it even hit home but I’ll acknowledge that most of it was all delivered out of context and free from consequence.

To draw an analogy, several of my university friends stayed on after graduation to do PhDs and apply for research grants. One even secured a chunk of “Hubble time,” where they got to decide where the famous telescope would point for a brief time. For them, learning happened in the lab and the learning intervention was the common room where they had a coffee and dissected their efforts with a trusted colleague.  I think we should think of organizational learning and leadership coaching in the same way.

There is a famous/infamous team building exercise where people are given a marshmallow, 30 strands of spaghetti, a metre of string and a metre of masking tape. They are then asked to secure the marshmallow at the top of the tallest spaghetti tower possible.  Who performs best?  Well, engineers and architects, which should be comforting.  But after those outliers (the secret is triangles by the way) the group that does best are primary school children.

Kids beat the adults? It turns out kids don’t waste a lot of time talking it through, attempting to learn the solution in the abstract through conversation and then apply those thoughts and plans to real spaghetti.  Unconditioned, they just grab a handful of dried pasta and start building; learn through direct experience, iterate and improve.

If we can feed the human appetite to learn by creating opportunities to actually do things with opportunities for deep reflection, then we have created a very powerful learning paradigm.

We may just have to accept that we learning professionals will perform a slightly different role to the one we are used to.

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