What is the future of the learning environment? That was the question posed by keynote speaker Sugatra Mitra at the 2015 ATD International Conference & Exposition in sunny Orlando, Florida last week. The conversation that followed was both eye-opening, inspiring, and timely.
The world of education, learning, and training & development is changing. This much we already know, but never has it been more apparent than at the conference this year. Mobile learning was everywhere! More on that topic in another post… But the main focus was creating the type of learning experiences that really connect with the modern workforce. No doubt you have experienced a shift in the workplace dynamic. It is becoming increasingly virtual and collaborative, and learning is becoming more “quick-hit” where only small bits of targeted and hyper-relevant information are provided to participants.
Mitra, a 2013 TED Prize winner for education research, helped us to understand the future of the workplace by looking backwards at the history of people development. Think about the Age of Empires, what he listed as 16th-20th centuries, where the goal was to produce large quantities of people who were interchangeable, followed orders without asking questions, and were not expected (and even discouraged from being) creative and innovative. Over the past century, the need for a sub-category emerged. We needed people who could write clearly, make calculations in their head, sit and focus for long periods of time, and remember a large quantity of information – but still were not expected to be creative or innovative.
But these days everyone has a cell phone. And access to Google. “The whole world went into our mobile phone. The whole world went into our pocket,” says Mitra, and according to him, the learning environment must evolve accordingly.
So what does that mean for those of us in a training related field? What is the future of the learning environment and HOW can we evolve? What can we do to prepare? Mitra offers these ideas:
- Drive Learning Through Questions. Your job is to create learners who are curious; learners who ask questions. Mitra described learning as “an intellectual adventure”, and our role is to stimulate that adventure and stoke curiosity. We are training people not to just know things, but to know how to- and want to– find out.
He gave the example of trying to teach gum health to 10 year olds. Instead of presenting the information, the teacher asked the students what happened when your baby teeth fall out? They grow back was the answer. So what happens when your adult teeth fall out? An hour later, the students were bursting with information about what happens and how to prevent it. It was an innovative lesson on gum heath.
- Don’t Make Learning Happen. Let it Happen. The learning experience or an “ah-ha” moment could happen at any time. It doesn’t have to occur at a pre-set time during a scheduled workshop or in a structured learning environment. That’s why mobile learning is such an important topic- we are literally empowering our workforce to learn at any time, anywhere.
Mitra encourages different forms of learning. In addition to opportunities for independent studying, participants should be able to make their own groups and switch groups as often as they want. They should be able to ask each other questions at anytime. They should be encouraged to teach each other new skills. You never know where and when inspiration will strike!
- Use Admiration to Improve Self-Imposed Learning. Think about what happens when someone says to you, “Wow, that’s fantastic, how did you do that!?” Well, you probably light up and feel special. Mitra calls this “The Method of the Grandmother” where positive encouragement inspires the learning process. He tested the theory with children in a remote village in India attempting to learn English through the internet. After just one month of positive encouragement from the “Grandmother” their scores increased from 30% passing to 50% passing. Our job as trainers is to be an encouraging mediator in the learning process.
- Embrace the Edge of Chaos. Mitra equates learning to physics- it can emerge as spontaneous order at the edge of chaos. In the simplest sense, he means that if you have an ordered system and never introduce anything new, you’ll always yield the same thing. Conversely if you have a chaotic system you never know what you’ll yield. Find the balance between the two- the edge of chaos. In training adults this idea is crucial. Our habits and our preferences have become more entrenched than when we were children. In order to learn we must free ourselves of a pre-conditioned mindset. You can’t predict where chaos will go, but it will go somewhere; it won’t stay static. You can’t yield anything new if you never do anything new.
Mitra asked us to think about when the next billion come into the workforce. They will not be identical. They will be curious. They will be creative. That is the workforce that we are to prepare for. This is the learning environment of the future.