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Lessons Have Been Learnt - Or Have They?

15/10/2015

Dr Peter Honey, the creator of the Learning Style Questionnaire, explores why everyday, tacit learning is difficult to recall and how this can have a negative impact on teams and organisations as a whole.

I’m fascinated by the number of times you hear people – politicians in particular – say things like, ‘Lessons have been/will be/must be learnt’.

Then something happens that throws doubt on whether the ‘we have learnt’ claims were true. 


Fuzzy Learning

When people struggle to recall what has been encountered (too often for comfort), I assume it is either an indication that, despite claims to the contrary, lessons were not learnt, or that they were but not shared, or that they were but not acted upon. Or, most likely, a cocktail of all three. 

I believe this is because so much informal, ‘everyday’ learning (the really important sort!) goes on at a subliminal level where it lurks in some vague, fuzzy, unseen state.

 

Just pop the question

People might claim to learn something new each day, but if you ask them to describe what they have learned, you rarely get a convincing answer.  In fact, I think twice before popping the learning question because it is hard to see people squirm and fob you off with platitudes.

It isn’t necessarily that people haven’t learnt, just that retrieving it from the dark recesses of wherever it lurks, is easier said than done.  Tacit learning is extremely difficult to articulate; hard work too.

It is much easier to leave it slumbering, beyond the light of day, where it requires no attention, no investment of precious time we haven’t got and no troublesome reflection. 

But this apathy has some serious consequences – both for the learner and for other people who stand to gain through learning that is shared. From an organisational context, this might be team members, or even the wider environment.  

 

The problem with nothing

1) Since the learning is not articulated it remains vague and doesn’t get passed on. This has two adverse consequences; the learner isn’t really sure what they have learnt and other people are deprived of potentially useful lessons learned. 

2) Tacit learning is less likely to be converted into action – ways of behaving and doing things that are enriched by whatever has been learnt.  This explains why mistakes are often repeated; lessons might have been learnt but were never worked up anything that was ‘doable’. 

3) Tacit, unstated learning is beyond the reach of quality assurance.  This is serious because the learning might be erroneous (it is just as easy to learn the ‘wrong’ things as the ‘right’ things).  Tacit learning can’t examined or challenged; it slips past ‘on the nod’ without scrutiny. 

4) Effortless learning ‘just happens’ without people understanding the process.  This tempts people to treat learning as an automatic reflex rather than as a precious skill that is capable, and deserving, of continuous improvement.

All these snags are overcome if learning is surfaced and made explicit.

 

The act of articulating learning means that:

  • The learner becomes clear what he/she has learnt.
  • The learning is shared, making it a trigger for others to learn.
  • The learning is more easily converted into action plans/implemented.
  • The learning is amenable to quality assurance.
  • The learner can learn-to-learn and thus become a more effective learner.

 

What’s the answer?

I’m convinced that rather than shy away from asking people what they have learnt, we should step up our efforts and refuse to be fobbed off. 

The next time anyone claims that ‘lessons have been learnt’ we should ask ‘what lessons?’ and probe a) their specificity and b) plans to do something better or differently as a consequence. 

When they wriggle (I nearly said if, but I’m sure it will be when), we should insist on getting a thought-through answer within 24 hours. I often find my learning becomes clearer if I am allowed some time to reflect.

 

Give me just a little more time

Immediately after an event, I’m usually in too much of a muddle to make much sense of what has happened; a definite sorting out the wood from the trees problem.

Therefore, when I’m put on the spot and asked what I’ve learnt, I always say, ‘I’ll let you know tomorrow when I’ve slept on it’.  And then I send them an email the next day.

 

Ask and they will learn

Facetiously speaking, perhaps we should have a ‘what have you learnt today?’ campaign complete with T-shirts, a rally in Trafalgar Square, a march on Downing Street and 5-minute slots on the telly where people from all walks of life describe their learning, learning reviews at work before people are allowed to go home.

But I digress! At the very least, every trainer should have popping the learning question written in to their job description.

 

Dr Peter Honey

Learning Styles

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