Oct 25 2012
Next week Nancy White and I are doing a talk at USAID on “Keeping Our Eye Out for Learning: How to identify learning practices and leverage them more strategically”
We are inviting people to step back and consider a wider range of learning as a step toward asking what, exactly, learning is (and how to do it)? Learning is hard to pin down because it doesn’t just happen in the classroom or the laboratory or in any specific place. The notion of a community of practice was invented to help focus attention on how indeed learning happened “outside the classroom.” Learning doesn’t happen at an easy to identify time, either. We can’t even say, “learning is what happens when you are in your communities of practice.”
In 1946, in “Behavior and Development as a Function of the Total Situation, X” a chapter of Field Theory in Social Science: Selected Theoretical Papers (Washington, DC, American Psychological Association, 1997, http://isbn.nu/9780837172361) Kurt Lewin (the father of Organization Development) wrote, “Learning is a popular term referring to such different processes … [that] no one theory of learning is possible.” He offered a nice list of examples to show that diversity, which I’ve adapted and illustrated with my own learning activities:
- I’m learning to swim a side-stroke facing left because I noticed I really couldn’t do it very well: I was clumsy and tired myself out quickly. (Developing a physical skill.)
- I’m learning to use quantitative tools like Google Refine and R because I realized I’ve been so deeply into the first-hand, touchy feely world of learning for the past 15 years that I had forgotten that for 20 years as a data geek I actually thought in the SAS language (and the SAS community was an eye-opener for me).
- I learned to cuss in a complicated world: my parents were very straight-laced medical missionaries from Ohio but we lived next to a slum in Puerto Rico so that by age 5 I was claiming to my mother that in Spanish I was the linguistic authority on what was a cuss word and what not.
- And of course there’s the ongoing learning how to collaborate with people, social learning. Recently I’ve been absorbed in a really good book on military strategy that really comes down to how to work with people: Barry Boyce and James Gimian, The Rules of Victory: How to Transform Chaos and Conflict–Strategies from The Art of War (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2009). As I read it I think to myself that you can read the whole book as if it were titled “The Art of Learning.”
I guess I’m learning that there is more than just one kind of learning, so more than one theory may be needed.
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