Help! Help! I’m Learning As Fast As I Can!

I’m looking at some trade shows to attend this year. One of the themes that I see is speed — rapid learning development, just-in-time learning, learning at light speed, peer-to-peer learning, telepathic learning. (Well, ok, I haven’t seen that last one — yet.)

sack.jpgI’ve built a lot of learning over the years. Some fast, some half-fast. But we may be losing sight of one of the key principles of learning. It’s not how fast you shovel it into the sack, but how neatly it’s packed.

Malcolm Knowles certainly said it more elegantly, but just throwing a bunch of information into somebody’s head is pretty pointless unless they can process it, relate it to what’s already in there, and be able to apply it in future situations. I spent twelve years in school having various things pushed into my little skull of mush (fractions, capitols, chemical formulas) that I couldn’t apply at all today. They tell me I was “learning to learn” when I complain about those wasted years.

In the 1980′s, one of the most popular corporate learning experiences was a “Ropes Course“. A bunch of suits were taken into the forest and required to climb up into a web of ropes between trees, passing each other back and forth to learn teamwork. (Regrettably, few took the opportunity to drop vice-presidents on their pointy little heads.) Not a lot of research was done on why (or if) this was effective as a learning model, but it was very effective in moving money from corporations to people who tied ropes to trees.

meat_grinder.jpgWhen actual research was done, it turned out that the learning happened almost entirely during the “processing” part of the experience, done on the ground after the dangling and passing. People were led through a discussion of how decisions were made, what they learned about using different skills, how they’d apply this to their work environment, etc. An experienced facilitator could really provide a great outcome that ended up giving a team some very useful experiences.

But the funny thing was that you could get this same result by doing all sorts of other things — passing eggs in spoons, tossing hamsters, or relay-slinky competitions in tall buildings. (Ok, I’m being silly. Sue me.) Turns out that the actual experience wasn’t all that important, but the processing of the experience was the key.

So we proudly trumpet that we’re shortening the learning process and being more and more efficient. We only give people the nugget of information they need at the moment they need it. Knowledge comes from a peer, with no filter or validation. We’re letting the learners decide whether they even need the learning.

It worries me. We’re not really allowing any time for processing, here. I’m getting on (yet another) airplane in a couple of days. Which of these two pilots do I want at the controls:

#1 Completed all training faster than any student in the history of aviation

#2 Has been flying for fifty years, has made some mistakes, and had to crash land once when the engines failed

Are you learning too fast? Do you need to toss a few more hamsters?

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