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People not involved in teaching, facilitation and HR may be forgiven if they lose sight of the difference between learning and “learning about”. Given the buzz of modern media, people learn about many things without ever experiencing them deeply. It is easy to know more and more about less and less until we might expect to know everything about nothing. All buzz and no substance.

Gregory Bateson set out a schema of levels of learning, in which Learning 1 is the acquisition of knowledge. Experience can lift it to Learning 2 by bringing about change in the person’s ability to apply their knowledge. However, we can have lots of experience and still not achieve Learning 2 unless we also have the intention to learn. This is best achieved if we deliberately review our experience, looking for the learning points. That requires us not to lay blame or to justify our errors. We must take care not to make excuses or give “explanations”. Learning from experience can be a tough call, even when we elect to do it. No pretence, no bullshit, only persistent deep enquiry while constantly finding challenges that stretch capability.

As we acquire skill and knowledge, something else is required if we are to be able to apply it and more so if we are to create a context in which to do so. Acquiring the capacity to access these different levels of learning is pretty challenging. In an age when technology dazzles, we might easily overlook the basic need to connect theory with practice. Consider the would-be skier who has read all the books and knows in theory how to ski. Unless they have taken the risk of putting skis on their feet, taken some tumbles, had some coaching, practised the art of skiing, they cannot claim to be skiers.

I meet many people in HR, training and facilitation who do a good job. However, many are pre-occupied with bringing their client groups up to the norms of the workplace or of society, not seeing that such norms need to be stretched if people are to realise more of their potential. Of course, we don’t want people to learn just for the sake of it but so that they become more of what they can be. We can reframe work as a medium of self-development, whereby the experience of doing value-adding work develops the worker’s capability.

We may believe we learn from experience but there is an art of doing so. In a learning culture emphasis will be placed on learning reviews. Feedback enables every experience to have learning outcomes. A purely practical benefit is to eliminate mistakes and improve performance to produce better stuff. However, we should not overlook the opportunity for deeper learning. This requires willingness to probe, which must be blame-free. It also means valuing the learning above any personal embarrassment or hurt pride. You will feel pain but that will be the pain of learning actually occurring. In a good team such learning reviews will be routine at the close of any project or operation – and sometimes periodically within them.

Learning needs to be connected to experience and experience needs to be apprehended if we are to bring about development. Trainers, coaches, facilitators and ultimately line managers need the ability and intention to help people to learn in ways that transform their lives and their work. We should ask ourselves, if all we are doing is manipulating people into being more productive workers and managers, are we really doing them or ourselves justice? Are we really doing our job?

John Varney,  Centre for Management Creativity

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