The best things I learn in life often come from unexpected places. There’s nothing more satisfying than suddenly seeing something in a startling new way. The pure pleasure when I have said the words “I never thought of it like that!” reminds me of the happy surprise on a young child’s face who has learned something new and exciting. It occurs to me that this feeling of recognition may be what engages us to be lifelong learners, beginning as little tots and continuing into old age.
One such experience came for me around that very word: recognition.
An early innovator of creative nonfiction, Norman Mailer is known for pushing the envelope and transgressing genre. His career path alone is a testament to his willingness be uncomfortable and challenge boundaries: He was a novelist, an essayist, an activist, a playwright, an actor and a filmmaker. “Every moment of one’s life is growing into more,” Mailer once said, “and retreating into less.”
But retreating into, for many, is the natural reaction when dealing with discomfort. Consider a common work situation: You’re working with a group of colleagues on a complicated project. You seem to be reaching a consensus in how to move forward until one colleague raises a new, alternative idea. Another colleague shuts it down abruptly, and awkward silence ensues. You step in with a joke to ease the tension and get the discussion back on track.
But what if that colleague’s idea was worth exploring?
Last week, my colleague, fellow researcher and Books@Work Board Member, Karen Nestor, encouraged us to rethink workplace learning for the 21st century. By separating “learning to be” from “learning about,” she reminded us that organizational learning culture requires a fundamental shift from training employees to creating regular, varied and meaningful opportunities for individual learning.
But how does a focus on individual learning benefit the organization?
For many decades as an educator, I have struggled to describe the kind of lifelong learning that leads to a satisfying and productive life – and the kind of learning that supports institutions and organizations to build a satisfied and productive society. And then this week, a Books@Work participant provided a description that captures what I have attempted to articulate:
“I just think that every employer everywhere [sh]ould say, ‘Wait a minute, I want my employees learning all the time and I don’t care how they’re learning or what they’re learning because eventually that learning will help us.’ As long as you have a workforce that’s learning and growing and expanding their knowledge, it will benefit [everyone]. . . The act of learning is essential to everything we do.”
Do contemporary workplaces embrace this type of continual learning?
This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of John Dewey’s classic book, Democracy and Education. While much has changed in the last century, much has not: his voice continues to inspire us today as we think about the role that adult learning can play in shaping democracy. Dewey’s lesser-known friend and colleague, Jane Addams, provides important practical perspectives as she combined theory and practice in work that shaped the lives of individual people in Chicago and far beyond for many decades.
Dewey and Addams believed that democracy depends on providing opportunities and resources for every person to build his/her own capacity to contribute to the work at hand in their families, in the workplace and in the larger community.
In Learning from Our Lives, Pierre Dominicé suggests that our life history, especially the history of our learning, can be a powerful resource for understanding the future we want to build. Dominicé exhorts educators to encourage adults to explore their educational biography. When adults reflect on their “life journey in learning,” he says, they “become authors of their lives.”
Each of us is a product of our biography. Can we seize on our learning life histories to learn more about ourselves in the present?
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.
But what is learning if it’s not just the acquisition of new knowledge?
This American Life’s “Act V” tells the story of “one of the most evocative productions of Shakespeare done anywhere in 2002,” not on Broadway or the West End, but at a high-security prison in eastern Missouri. Arranged by an organization called Prison Performing Arts, the prison staged one act of Hamlet every six months. “Act V” portrays the prisoners’ preparation for and production of Hamlet’s final climactic act.
So how can prison inmates, many of whom have never finished high school, stage a production of one of Shakespeare’s most philosophical plays?
One of the most amazing discoveries to come out of Books@Work is the power of participant life experience. Unlike a traditional classroom-based seminar, in which the professor and text have something to teach the students, the power of our model is that it fosters the unique collision of three important elements: professor expertise, text and participant experience.