Monday, 28 September 2009

Experiential Learning

I recently (only about 2,300 years after the event!) came across this quote from Aristotle: "for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them." It kind of sums up the problem with experiential learning. As Peter Honey (a couple of millennia more recently) said “learning from experience is tough, you get the test first then the lesson afterwards”.

And yet experiential learning remains one of the most important approaches to learning and development, especially in the world of work. Learning for work is about more than the acquisition of knowledge or even skills: it’s about applied learning, about changing behaviour; about demonstrating competence or more; about using the knowledge and skills acquired to gain performance improvements. And not just for the individual learner, but to share them with their work team and among the whole organisation – to achieve business results.

Given this importance, it’s odd that we don’t have very much simple language to explain it, as distinct from the range of terminology associated with learning through teaching and the classroom (or more recently, all the techie jargon associated with e-learning, but let’s not go there again). Some of the cumbersome phraseology in the last couple of paragraphs – “experiential learning”, “demonstrating competence”, “performance improvement” – requires quite a lot of explanation for what is essentially very simple activity.

I’m coming round to the view that “practice” is a succinct way of describing what we’re talking about. It’s commonly used to describe sporting activity, like football practice, or musical activity, like piano practice; it’s widely understood to represent the process of learning by doing things repeatedly, until you get them right; and it’s a common word with little ambiguity attached to it. We’re all familiar with the saying that practice makes perfect.

So perhaps we should talk less about “experiential learning” or “work-based learning” and more about plain, simple, practice.

I hope to get the opportunity soon to apply this thinking – to practice what I’m preaching. In fact, I’m dissembling a little: I know I’m going to be looking at this in a major new project I’ll soon be undertaking, so more on this theme will inevitably follow.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Learning platforms

I sense some disquiet among techies when we refer to learning platforms: it may be the terminology is not strictly accurate. But I increasingly prefer it to the array of acronyms, none of which is much clearer when spelled out, and which only serve the cause of mystifying e-learning when presented in abbreviated form.

VLE – Virtual Learning Environment – is my favourite, but remains open to misinterpretation, as is its near relation MLE (Managed Learning Environment). The popular LMS, short for Learning Management System is, I think, especially misleading, as it conflates Learner Management System with Learning Content Management System, two different things.

A learning platform, whatever we call it, essentially comprises some or all of three components (and perhaps some additional features). These are illustrated in the diagram.


The Learner Management component manipulates information about learners. This is what enables learners to manage their personal information, and it is what yields records and reports for organisations. Crucially, this is not just about e-learning, as it may be used to manage learner information relating to all learning activities, including those that remain exclusively offline.

The second component is about courses, learning objects and learning resources – the content of learning programmes.

And the third, sometimes neglected, component is about managing the learning processes. Hopefully this is about more than simply building pages of illustrated reading with quizzes bolted on at the end. It can include a virtual classroom, or collaborative tools like discussion forums, blogs and mini-blogs, or wikis.

Many platforms have been around for a decade or more now, and amazingly, we still seek clarity on what they actually do. I hope this post helps.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Why coaching is misunderstood

I used to think that coaching was something I hadn’t done very much of. Even though I wrote about coaching, mentoring and related activities in my first book, A Guide to Management Development Techniques, offering a couple of coaching case studies along the way, I still felt it was something I hadn’t practiced much. I’ve recently learned this is a common misconception.

I’ve been looking more closely at coaching recently, as a result of writing a short contribution on the subject in the CIPD’s Learning and Development manual. John McGurk, CIPD’s Learning, Training and Development Adviser, writes in the August 2009 issue of Impact, Quarterly Update on CIPD Policy and Research, that “if we identify the behaviours of coaching rather than the concept of activity, we find that coaching is already much more embedded through the activities of line managers than might be expected”. In other words, managers already do a lot of coaching – they just don’t recognise it by that name. Frustratingly, McGurk doesn’t go on to give examples of this, but they can be found in the report he references, Coaching at the Sharp End (CIPD, 2009).

The report highlights some characteristics of a coaching style of management, including:
# Development orientation (I help them develop themselves as individuals)
# Planning and goal-setting (I help them express their own action plans)
# Mutual support (If any of them has a good idea, I always use it)
# Effective listening (I spend more time listening rather than questioning)

..and the lesson for learning and development professionals is that we need to engage with people at this level of detail rather than speaking our own code of “coaching” that we mistakenly assume others implicitly understand.