What does good learning look like?

As practitioners of people-centred service design and agile delivery, my Stick People partners and I have been privileged to design and deliver specialised learning programmes for public and private sector organisations.

Recently we’ve been thinking about the things that make learning at work truly effective. To paraphrase the Agile Manifesto, we are uncovering better ways of learning, by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

Shared purpose over organisational targets

Learning by doing over teaching to the test

Social construction over content transmission

Designing for diversity over delivering standard courses

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

This post sets out the thinking behind each of those value statements and ends with some principles. It’s an early draft on which I’d welcome any input. Thanks to Edmund EdgarRob Banathy and Victoria Betton who have already given feedback on the earlier Google Docs version.

Shared purpose over organisational targets

In this RSA Animates video, Dan Pink illustrates how knowledge workers are motivated by a shared sense of purpose; autonomy in the way they work; and the opportunity to master new skills. He’s echoing the descriptions of self-directed and autonomous learners found in Malcolm Knowles’ Principles of Adult Learning, and other findings such as those of Marijke Thamm Kehrhahn, in a customer service context, that: “motivation to transfer was the only independent variable that predicted transfer of training”.

All this evidence impels us towards a particular sequence in the initiation of any new learning activity. First establish the shared purpose between the organisation and its people. Next set people free to select the learning they need to realise that purpose. Then support them to follow their own curiosities and master the required skills and knowledge.

Of course organisations benefit when their workers grow more capable, but no matter how much we invest in teaching, people won’t learn if they don’t see the relevance, if they feel patronised or out of their depth. On occasions we’ve found ourselves working with teams where purpose or autonomy are missing. It quickly becomes clear that those are problems which training alone cannot fix.

We start each intervention by gaining an understanding of what learners know, what they can do already, and what they’re hoping to get out of the learning. Sometimes this can happen ahead of time through an online survey.  Before a multi-day face-to-face course, we believe a short one-to-one phone call with every participant is well worth the time. In the absence of advance contact, understanding personal learning objectives is the first activity we do in a learning session.

As agile practitioners, we’ve found the user story format a powerful way of capturing people’s individual learning goals: “As a… I want… so that…” This focuses participants from the start on the relevance of the learning to their own role and work objectives. The format also often highlights the contextual interdependence of knowledge and skills – for example, “I need to know something so that I can apply new skills”.

Asking participants to write their own learning stories reinforces relevance in their own minds and helps the facilitator to tailor the learning for each cohort.

Not only do adult learners need to know why they need to learn something, they should also be empowered to direct the course of their learning as individuals and as a group. It is important to establish from the start that the facilitator will take participants’ feedback seriously, and if necessary adapt the learning “in flight” to meet their specific needs.

We make learning objectives visible throughout any intervention, discussing at the start and, if necessary, adapting them as we go.

Learning by doing over teaching to the test

Learning comes to life when we try to apply it for real. So we deliberately disrupt the traditional “tell, show, do” technique by letting participants try to solve a problem before being taught a solution. Calibrating these “desirable difficulties” is a key part of the facilitator’s skillset.

There is good evidence for spacing out practice and interleaving different but related topics in learning. A quantitative study of verbal recall tests found that: “Distributing learning across different days (instead of grouping learning episodes within a single day) greatly improves the amount of material retained for sizable periods of time”. Similar effects have been found in learning for surgery, maths and motor-memory. Widely spaced learning with remembering on the job significantly reduces forgetting.

We often advocate spreading out learning so participants get a chance to apply their new skills and knowledge at work, then come back and share what they learned by doing it. (For this reason, there’s also little point showing people a digital tool if their employer’s IT or policies prevent them from using it right away!)

Where project work is used in the classroom, we aim to get participants working in self-organising, multi-disciplinary teams around tasks as close as possible to those they will encounter for real. Participants have told us they much prefer these kind of activities to ones that feel made-up or false.

We’ve noticed a concern in the learning and development community about how to “transfer” learning to the workplace, as if knowledge and skills can be created fully formed in the classroom then simply applied back at the office. This is looking at things back-to-front. If we believe learning can only be fully realised by putting it into practice then the question becomes bigger and more urgent than mere transfer. It’s “how might we make every workplace a place of learning as well as a place of work?”

Business thinkers outside the learning and development space are also coming to understand that, in the words of Peter Senge, “work must become more ‘learningful’”. The idea that all work includes learning is central to Eric Ries’ Lean Startup movement, through the principles of “validated learning” and “innovation accounting”. The Service-Dominant Logic of marketing posits a transition from “profit maximization” to “financial feedback and learning”.

Learning in the workplace means we never have to worry about how it can be transferred to the workplace. We love delivering learning to teams in their own workspaces, ensuring that we leave something behind for them to put into practice immediately. Some of our engagements blend training directly with project work, helping teams to make progress on their work objectives and grow their capability and confidence at the same time.

The agile practices of regular “stand-ups” and retrospectives have a triple purpose in learning situations. They: empower each group to collectively direct and improve the learning journey; stimulate individual participants to recall and reinforce the material covered; and model habits of continuous inspection and adaptation that can be continued after the formal learning.

There is a space for standards and assessments of progress but as a means, not the end of learning. In the words of Peter Brown’s ‘Make it Stick’ from where many of the references in this section are drawn, we should “stop thinking of testing as a dipstick to measure learning” but rather “as practicing retrieval of learning from memory”. So we encourage participants to test themselves a little and often. We check and iterate with low-stakes quizzing and self-testing.

However we avoid testing techniques that lead to risk aversion or fear of making mistakes. As this “festival of errors” for French schoolchildren illustrates, making mistakes in a safe environment is a constructive part of learning.

Social construction over content transmission

Schools of thought about learning exist on a spectrum between social construction and content transmission. Transmissionists frame teaching as a process of pouring a teacher’s wisdom into the empty heads of their pupils. We reject this account.

Our practices of service design and agile delivery are inherently constructivist: in service design, value is co-created with users; in agile, it is collaboratively and incrementally realised. So when it comes to learning, we side with the large body of educationists who see learning as primarily socially constructed.

Knowledge and skills cannot be stored on a web server ready for transmission to receptive students. They have to be created anew in each individual and team through interactions with fellow learners, experts and coaches. Taking this position means we value the social processes in learning. We seek to communicate with participants to establish shared understanding and rapport before the formal learning starts.

When we get into the classroom we create a scaffold for learners to construct their own knowledge, as individuals and as a group. We focus on pacing and facilitating discussion among participants. We give cues but leave questions unanswered and encourage people to connect new information with the things they already know. Well managed, these discussions can be very powerful, especially when a cohort of learners is well matched for diversity, common concerns and complementary skills.

We set up the learning space to model the best user-centred, agile environment and behaviours and encourage the group to take collective responsibility for learning objectives – only they can decide when a topic is done. We support each group in distilling the underlying principles as they go and sharing their conclusions in show and tells.

Dot voting and done stamps, like these in the DWP Digital Academy, make visible the cohort’s own assessment of its progress across a map of learning objectives.

After the formal learning we encourage follow-up interactions and pursuit of shared interests by participants. Group exercises help participants see where they share similar experiences, as well as points where their differences means they can help one another. Often learners tell us the confidence and networks they gain through learning are as important as the skills and knowledge.

The same applies to the way we use digital resources. Short videos, online resources and discussion forums allow people to research independently and learn at their own pace. We like Youtube videos and TED talks, but these transmissive tools are not enough on their own. Social media and group discussion forums are essential to cement online learning. [Added 24 March 2016: Donald Clark has written a great blog post on the evidence for social media as a method of learning.]

We’re inspired by practitioners of “flipped learning” who get their students to research topics as upfront homework to maximise precious face-to-face time for discussion and practice. They have also found that video of a teacher who the learner knows in person has a more powerful effect than one of a remote expert with no social connection. Participants can even make their own videos to cement and share their learning as they go.

Designing for diversity over delivering standard courses

From the values above, it follows that we must facilitate the right learning for each person, not just corral the right people into the learning we already happen to offer. As agile practitioners we respond to change over following a plan, and we see this echoed in the one question a flipped classroom teacher asks themselves every day: “what is the best use of my face-to-face class time?”

So how can we allow learners to pull what they need, when they need it? And can we really do this at scale? We believe that with effort applied in the right way, face-to-face, blended, and purely online learning can be much more responsive than traditional L&D processes have allowed. For example, the contractual and organisational separation of L&D “design” from “delivery” is an unnecessary obstruction to rapid, iterative learning about fast-moving topics such as digital practice. It’s hard to facilitate constructivist learning under contracts laced with transmissionist assumptions!

Individuals can pull in the learning they need, when they need it. This may mean booking onto courses, but also learning informally from other people.

A kanban board can be used to schedule learning according to demand and match participants into balanced cohorts with diverse experiences.

In any cohort, each learner will have unique experiences to share with their peers. We encourage them to make the most of all these experiences. We can also connect them with people who have been through the same journey before them. These other people don’t have to be experts, just far enough ahead to help today’s learners see over the next hill. We love welcoming back past participants from our programmes to share their experiences with current cohorts. Communities of practice help to facilitate such interactions.

One way to be responsive at scale is to address the needs of teams, not just individuals. We love working with teams where participants already know each other and share a sense of purpose. For them, we can tailor learning to suit exactly where they are in their service lifecycle and capability journey.

While it is tempting to imagine that face-to-face can be reserved for more advanced levels, we suspect the opposite may be the case. Learners need in person support the most at the start of their journey. This helps them to understand what they need and where to look, and to connect as peers who can help each other, so that they become progressively more independent and capable of pulling timely and specialised support when they need it.

But this doesn’t mean that everything has to be done face-to-face. Just as digital services offer help to users who need it through “assisted digital”, so we can use “facilitated digital” – digital learning backed by coaching and facilitation – to grow the skills and confidence that will allow people and teams to progressively take control of their own learning.

In summary, some principles…

Shared purpose

  • Motivation springs from shared purpose plus personal autonomy.
  • Start with needs* (* learners’ needs, not employers’ needs).
  • The who and the why are as important as the what.

Learning by doing

  • Every great place of work is also a place of learning.
  • Model the best experiences, environments and behaviours.
  • Space out the learning around chances to apply it for real.

Social construction

  • Fresh and relevant learning emerges from social interaction.
  • Provide scaffolds for learners to construct their own knowledge.
  • Value confidence and networks as highly as skills and knowledge.

Design for diversity

  • Close the loop between design and delivery of learning.
  • Let teams and individuals learn what they need, when they need it.
  • Support everyone to become an independent learner.

[Principles re-ordered and tweaked 24 March 2016]

What have you learned about learning?

We’d love to hear your tips and stories. Please add your comments, suggestions and question below.

Thank you!

4 thoughts on “What does good learning look like?

  1. Matt – this is fantastic material. I really love that you support your approach with relevant research too – great for persuading people to use the approach when they have no intuituve opinion!
    A big change though, makes me really think about different ways to construct skill sharing and learning. A lot of old ideas to throw out!

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