agent of arcadia

The modern learner: What’s changed?

In Development, Effectiveness, Learning, Training on June 17, 2016 at 4:07 am


I remember an episode of the popular American sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, where one of the characters, Leonard, was trying to convince his roommate, Sheldon, that maybe he couldn’t approach a particular issue as a ‘purely intellectual exercise’.

In presenting his case, Leonard cited the time Sheldon had tried to learn how to swim using the internet. Sheldon countered that he did, in fact, learn how to swim. To which Leonard retorted that he had only learnt how to swim on the floor. Sheldon then debated that the skills were transferable.

But are they?

If say, tomorrow, we were to log into an online learning platform or watch a webinar or read a book about how to swim, including breathing, exhaling, floating, and finally, the different strokes to execute a swim, would that automatically classify us as swimmers? Would we then be able to jump into a body of water and immediately apply the skills? Sure, apply the skills. But would we be able to do so deftly? What’s missing here?

The acquisition of knowledge

The Oxford dictionary defines learning as:

“The acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught.”

Learning can take on various forms. As the definition describes, we can learn through study, such as classroom-based environments, tutorials, workshops, self-study, online, digital, e-learning, webinars, and academically; and experience, such as first-hand accounts, episodes and events. And of course, we can learn by being taught, such as mentoring, coaching, feedback, and all of the previously mentioned forms. No matter which form is applied or adopted, one basic element remains constant when defining learning – the acquisition of knowledge.

So how do learners acquire knowledge?

It’d be fair to say, the way in which we receive information is amazing. Today, at the touch of a button, the swipe of a finger, and the flick of a page, we are able to tap into a collective pool of information that is vaster than any human living brain could compute. But one fundamental hasn’t changed. In his whitepaper, First Principles of Instruction, M. David Merrill states as one of the principles:

“Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems.”

Merrill is not wrong. In order to shift mindsets and change behavior, there needs to be a real-life experience that influences the learner to reflect on and then shift thinking to absorb, practise, then apply the learning. This is called experiential learning.

Kolb’s Learning Cycle

American educational theorist David Kolb, the father of experiential learning, reasoned that the learner, in learning, undergoes the cycle of experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting. At a basic level, Kolb believed that when we experience an event, we reflect on that event, which then brings about a desire to implicate action on that reflection. This eventuates to experimentation, often projected as a shift in mindset and behavioral change. This then creates new experiences.

According to Kolb, this is learning.



Learn by doing

This brings to mind the old adage, learn by doing. There’s nothing quite like developing an acute sense of awareness when one learns by doing. This is the rule of application. Content embedded and anchored in a sound delivery methodology that primes the learner for practise allows the learner to immediately apply the theory to real-life situations. Take for example the swimming lessons we spoke about at the start of this blog. Learning by theory when unapplied is at best, a theory that sits in the cognitive space. We can certainly tap into the skills when required, but in order to ensure ability to execute the task effectively, transference from cognitive to application needs to happen.

Learning has changed – then again, it has not

Without boring you to tears, the roots of formal learning and education dates back to the 12th Century. We have since come a long way. Learning has most definitely evolved through the years. More precisely, the way in which we learn and acquire information has evolved. But as John Seely Brown states in his whitepaper, ‘Learning in the Digital Age’, learning occurs “as a result… of a social framework that fosters learning.”

So even though in the digital age, technology has certainly revolutionized and even influenced the way we learn and the way we acquire information, the foundational way we learn, which is through that very social framework that fosters learning, coupled with Kolb’s theory of doing, implementation and application, has, in fact, not.

Copyright © agentofarcadia 2016


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