Learning: It’s Not Just What You Know

Learning: It’s Not Just What You Know

Image: M.C. Escher, Fish, 1942, [Fair Use] via WikiArt.org

In a TED talk that has been viewed almost 50 million times, Kenneth Robinson says that education “goes deep with people” when it taps into their innate desire to learn and grow. We start with creativity and curiosity that motivates our learning – but too often we lose much of our enthusiasm for “education” along the way. I like to think that each of us actually is an expert on learning. We just need to step away from the idea that learning is simply mastering new information and skills and think back to times when we learned things that really mattered to us and the people around us.

Scholars who study the science of learning describe three essential factors that constitute real learning: cognition, emotion and social interaction. The beauty of their theories is that they point to things that are common sense to most people as we think about our own experiences of genuine learning. We at Books@Work have adopted this holistic view of learning as the first principle that guides our work in companies and communities across the country.

When most people think about learning, they first pay attention to cognition – the “stuff” that we are supposed to learn by systematically getting it into our heads. Starting with math facts, history dates or the periodic table, everyone has prepared for countless assessments of “learning” outcomes. Many employers still focus on training that conveys new information about the latest technology or new requirements in the workplace. Of course, we know that cognition is much more than rote learning, but our default understanding of learning is that it happens when we study information with the goal of improving our performance at work or in life. And the over-emphasis on cognition continually fails to provide the outcomes we seek.

Cog-Em-SI Iceberg

William Bradford, Icebergs, 1865, [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org

In fact, cognition is just the tip of the iceberg. If we think about our own learning experiences a little, we recognize that emotion exerts a profound influence on how effectively we learn. It is harder to learn when we are overly anxious, fearful or embarrassed. We rarely forget mistakes we have made. We thrive in learning situations that build on our strengths rather than our weaknesses. When a topic matters to us, we learn quite easily. We are more eager to learn when we feel respected by our teachers and colleagues.

These emotions are directly related to the quality of social interaction in the learning environment. Lively engagement with others fuels our desire to learn. We gain deeper insights when we listen carefully to our colleagues’ ideas and stories – and when they listen carefully to us. Groups build stronger relationships when we share diverse points-of-view on the same topic. Even when we are reading or studying alone, we interact with authors and written material as our knowledge and skills grow. We gain a deeper respect for ourselves and for others through interaction with others.

Learning theorists use these common-sense ideas to describe the complex process of how we learn (Illeris, 2008). People learn and grow within the continuous interplay of cognition, emotion and social interaction. And the best way to create an organization filled with learning individuals and teams is to nurture the conditions that promote that interplay. This holistic approach to learning doesn’t simply provide knowledge and skills; it builds stronger learning muscles that we can exercise in any situation that demands new ways of thinking.

In Books@Work programs we see powerful examples of the kind of educational engagement that Kenneth Robinson says “takes us into the future we cannot grasp.” Specific training or information (cognition) cannot equip us for that uncertain future, but a mindset grounded in subtlety, nuance and essential questions does. Discussions of complex narratives promote the elusive learning environments that organizations seek. Participants bring those enhanced learning muscles to the unpredictable, ever-changing decisions and actions required in the workplace.

As Books@Work participants reflect on the program, they recognize the powerful learning that springs from universal stories of human experience, discussed in safe, positive conversations that challenge their thinking and strengthen their ability to understand colleagues. Those new understandings pay dividends in their everyday work and relationships and give us a new paradigm to consider the impact of learning in the workplace.

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Karen Nestor

Karen Nestor

In more than four decades as an educator, Karen Nestor has taught at every level from early childhood through graduate school. Karen is a member of the Board of Books@Work.