Monday, February 23, 2015

Sweet Spots, Fast Food and Slow Food

Rachel Burnham writes: As you may know I am currently participating in a most interesting MOOC, which is all about social learning.  This blog is being written at the end of week 3 of 4 weeks and we have spent this week thinking about informal & formal social learning.   This is a Working Out Loud blog as I am sharing my learning from this week (and earlier weeks) and make no claims about having completed my thinking on these topics!
I have 5 thoughts to share with you from this week’s study:

1.  The Relationship Between Informal & Social Learning  

There is a big overlap between social learning and informal learning.  When I use the term ‘informal learning’,  I refer to all those learning methods which are outside of formal learning or education.  A great many of the methods of learning that we describe as informal learning involve social learning ie learning with and from other people.  I recently wrote a blog about informal learning which included a diagram attempting to categorise a range of informal learning methods and if you read the blog, just how many of these methods do also fall under the heading of social learning. This is one of the factors in the confusion that surrounds these terms.

However, it is important to note that not all informal learning involves social learning – there are many ways of learning informally as an individual and I will return to this point latter on.  There are also aspects of social learning that are formal and we can immediately identify workshop based sessions, webinars/virtual classrooms and action learning sets as learning methods that are definitely social but are clearly also formal.

2.  The Relationship Between Informal, Social and Formal Learning

Each of these types of learning has a valuable contribution to make to learning in the modern workplace.  At present too many organisations still rely primarily on formal learning only.  Or rather only acknowledge the part that formal learning plays in the development of knowledge, skills and behaviours for performance at work.  Informal and social learning have always gone on in organisations – people learn by chatting with their colleagues or observing how an effective manager tackles a project or by vowing never, ever to speak to someone in the way that they have just experienced themselves (reflection).  Micheal Eraut spent years studying how people learn in practice and has developed some interesting models which I explore in this previous blog post ‘Lift Off for Informal Learning’.  

The challenge for L&D professionals is to work out how we can most effectively support, encourage and enable informal & social learning in our organisations.  To do that we need to be clear about when each of formal, informal and social is most effective.  It is about making effective choices to suit the context.

We can also combine these through designing scaffolded or guided blended learning programmes as Jane Hart describes them, which combine aspects of the structure of formal learning with the openness, flexibility and individualised nature of informal learning.  Providing access to curated collections of resources which learners are encouraged (but not required to access) can be part of this.  Such programmes can also incorporate opportunities for informal social learning eg through sharing of resources (co-curating) & sharing information/tips/ideas/experiences perhaps through the use of social media. 

3.  Understanding the Value of Social & Informal LearningIt is helpful to appreciate the distinctive benefits of each type of learning to know how best to make use of it. 

Social learning brings with it: 
·       Access to information & expertise in a timely fashion
·       Different ideas/experiences
·       Alternative perspectives
·       Opportunity to question & be questioned
·       Opportunity to work co-operatively with others on common issues or problems

Most particularly in the words of Lynda Gratton in ‘The Future of Work’ ‘social will simply become much more important in the future because it fits dynamic learning environments.’

4.  Downsides to Social Learning

The main downside to social learning that I have become aware of is a risk of ‘groupthink’ developing, particularly in social learning environments where there is an absence of critical thinking.   Two factors can particularly affect this I think: social learning in contexts where there is a lack of external contact and secondly, where there is limited engagement with theory.  

In the first case I am thinking about the situation that arises in some organisations where the organisation is very inward facing, perhaps working in silos internally and then further exacerbates this by limiting opportunities for contacts & networking.  This can come in the form of reduced budgets for travel, limited opportunities to step away from operational duties even for short times, discouragement of the use of social media for work use or even an organisational culture that emphasises the distinctiveness & uniqueness of the organisation.  I have experienced this kind of environment occasionally when providing an in-house programme for L&D teams – a culture can develop where social learning leads to the development of clones, where a single idea of ‘best practice’ can be arrived at & then stuck with and a lack of challenge flourishes.  (Just to be clear - I am currently working with an in-house team and my experience is very different with this present team, but this is why I was so keen for each member of the team to have access to a mentor from outside of the organisation.) I think for social learning to be healthy, we need access to a diverse network.

Secondly, for social learning to be healthy and not just some kind of collective folk wisdom, it needs to be tested against theory and particularly evidence based research.   Our practice needs to be informed by theory and the theory needs to keep pace with & in turn be informed by practice – ie  we need to explore praxis rather more consistently than we often do.    

@conmossy shared a very relevant quote as a result of the Twitter Chat on 18/2/15 by Kirk

‘the possession of knowledge without the capacity to effect professional actions of various kinds is pointless; professional action that is not informed by relevant knowledge is haphazard; and knowledge and skills that are not subjected to self-criticism constitute a recipe for professional complacency and ineffectiveness.’  (Kirk, G ‘The Chartered Teacher: A Challenge to the Profession in Scotland’  Education in the North, 11 10-17, 2004)

5.  Social Learning is great, but don’t forget individual learning

In exploring and appreciating the huge value of social learning, let’s not forget that individual learning has its place and value too.   There are many forms of informal learning that are about individuals learning – on their own, at their own pace, thinking their own thoughts and experimenting & reflecting.  Donald Clark in his blog ‘9 Reasons Why I am Not a Social Constructivist’ reminds us of the value of individual learning and also of its particular importance to introverts.  Perhaps I should own up here to my own introversion and how much I enjoy & need time and space on my own as part the way I learn most effectively.   

Sometimes social learning experiences, whether traditional formal approaches or informal approaches can feel rather ‘fast food’ approaches to learning – with their speedy give & take and sometimes little opportunity to slow down, ponder, question and pause.  In those circumstances, I know I struggle sometimes to share deeper reflections or to think critically.  

I think there is a value in more of a ‘slow food’ approach to learning from time to time.  The ‘slow food’ movement is all about food that is cooked from scratch, often using traditional slower cooking methods such as ‘braising’ ‘marinating’ and ‘oven-roasting’, with fantastic fresh locally produced ingredients.  Actually in learning terms, including asynchronous social learning methods, such as discussion forums, which naturally enable opportunities for pause and reflection can be a ‘slow food’ method. 

Adopting more of a ‘slow food’ approach doesn’t mean abandoning social learning, but adopting more of a balanced diet between social and individual learning.  The precise proportions may vary from individual to individual – introverts among us may prefer a slight higher proportion of individual learning, to the extroverts in the population, but we all need both approaches, I would suggest. 

Or we could explore the ideas suggested by Andrew Jacob’s 'Silent Disco' blog and find ways for individual learning at its own pace, but within a social context.  I think that is what we do with blogging – people share their learning individually but by sharing our blogs and then reading & commenting on others we are subtly influenced and learn together. 

As always, I welcome your thoughts and ideas – and feel free to take some time to ponder on them if you would prefer!

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals become even more effective.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance.

Follow me on Twitter @BurnhamLandD

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Theory & Practice or Never the Twain Shall Meet

Rachel Burnham writes: I am currently participating in the MOOC on Exploring Social Learning, which is turning out to be a fascinating learning experience .  I am writing this blog at the end of Week 2 (of 4), in which we have been exploring social learning theories.    This blog is a Working Out Loud post, which is just another way of me explaining that I am using it to make sense of some of my learning from the programme this week and I haven’t yet sorted through all my ideas & learning from this week and they may yet change & develop.

On Wednesday 11 February I participated in the weekly Twitter chat which forms part of the MOOC, which was based around the question ‘To what extent does social learning theory inform your practice?’   This brought out very different responses, with some people explaining that it was very much an important part of their practice, but with others expressing very strong views to the contrary.  Some people explained that the theory seemed to over complicate matters and others that social learning happens all the time, perhaps with the implication that therefore theory wasn’t really needed.   There were lots of challenges to this questioning of the value of theory and those not keen on theory were reminded of the risks of not working from an evidence base – the dreaded spectre of learning styles was mentioned more than once!   It seemed to me that there were some very strong views expressed.  

And it felt to me like there were differences between people from the different backgrounds participating – did our differing educational & professional backgrounds (country of study, field of study, professional focus (eg HR including L&D or instructional design) make a difference to our approach?  

I fell somewhere in the middle. I had started by saying that ‘most of the time I am not conscious of following social learning theories.’ which is rather different from rejecting this theory.  As the discussion went on, I explained ‘Something I have noticed from the materials for this week, is how 'distanced' I find the academic language from my experience’.  We moved into discussing how challenging academic language can be for those who are not academics and why this language is used.  

In this post, I want to explore a little more around these ideas.

I think we were using the term ‘theory’ to talk about three related but different concepts – evidence based approaches eg spaced learning; theory – generalised or abstract broader thinking; and models eg Honey & Mumford’s learning styles.

Evidence-based research
Research that produces evidence of what works or doesn’t work or works in particular circumstances seems to be relatively straightforward.  If the research appears sound then we can accept it and if it doesn’t than we don’t.  If it is sound we need to get on and use it.  Of course, it isn’t really that simple – I’ve not touched on context, which is a huge issue, both of where the research was done and where it is to be applied.

Theory is often based on this kind of research.   Some of the theories which have been around a long time and are often taken for granted eg Piaget’s theories of child development are based on research which we now question.   Theory may also come out of debate, discussion and disagreement with or refinement of other theories.   So, some theory may be useful and some may not.  And which is which may also be a matter of opinion. 

It was most interesting to read through the series of blog posts shared in week 2 of the programme which examined the key ideas of a number of leading social learning theorists.   Much of the language used by these social learning theorists (and other academics) is hard to understand.  Although this academic language aims for precision, at times it seems wilfully foggy! It was so interesting to read of many terms from the literature which seem vague and fuzzy even to other academics in this field eg DonaldClark identifies that what Bruner means by structure, sequencing or scaffolding is still rather unclear. 

It is no wonder that many practitioners get a bit fed up by it and end up rejecting theory for making things too complicated.  I find I can struggle through it and often make some kind of sense, but I do wonder why I should have to.  Shouldn’t academics be aiming for clear, simple language that can make their ideas open to a wider audience and be useful to practitioners?

With this backdrop, it is no wonder that sometimes theories are misused, over-simplified or used out of context in a way that makes them untrue.  If the original material is so hard to make sense of (and also sometimes is hard to get hold of) it is no wonder that practitioners sometimes misuse otherwise ‘good’ theory.

Another issue with theory, is that for it to be well thought through and so ‘good’, takes time and painstaking effort and this means that theory often can lag behind practice.  In our VUCA world, many of the situations in which practitioners may be working may not explored by relevant theory or evidence based research.

A model presents a simplified picture of reality.  They often focus on a particular aspect or aspects of reality in order to understand and make sense of it.  Models may come from evidence based research or be part of the theory discussed above.  Or they may come from a less reliable source and be more of a ‘back of an envelope’ creation.  So where they come from is important.   

Julie Drybrough @fuchsiablue recently discussed the value and limitation of models in a recent post and this inspired me to also write ashort post on the subject, so I don’t wish to cover this in detail again.   

The value of a model is that is simplifies reality and even if it is based on sound research and/or theory that is also its limitation.

So what?
This week’s discussions have brought home to me how important it is for academics and practitioners in L&D to be working together more closely.  I think there are lessons for each of us.

For Academics

  • The language papers are written in could be much simpler and more accessible.
  • It would be helpful if academics could be more practice orientated and focus on questions and issues that are current with practitioners in a timely fashion. Learning in organisations is different to learning in the formal education world and so often we are trying to apply learning from the formal education world to the workplace.

  •  There is a value in encouraging ‘translation’ of material into clear language and practical advice for practitioners.

For Practitioners

  •   We need to be much less quick to write off all theory and more willing to engage with relevant theory.

  • We need to be more questioning about where evidence, theory or models come from and what the basis is for the ideas that underpin our practice.  Failure to do so will only lead to more ‘learning style’ messes.

  • We need to be much more rigorous in understanding the background to the evidence, the theory and the models we chose to use and not apply them willy-nilly to situations that they were never intended for use in – unless we are consciously & openly experimenting & broadening their use.

I have some other thoughts more specifically around social learning theories, but I think I will save those for another post, as this has gone on quite long enough.  As always I look forward to hearing your comments and responses.

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals become even more effective.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance.

Follow me on Twitter @BurnhamLandD


A way of seeing is also a way of not seeing

Rachel Burnham writes:  A recent post by Julie Drybrough (@fuchsiablue)  got me thinking about the models we so often use in helping people to learn about HR, L&D and management.  And ‘how’, ‘when’ and ‘if’ those models are useful & helpful.  
And what a lot of models there are – communication models, learning models, feedback models, coaching models, leadership models, management models.  Models for just about any topic that you care to Google!

It brought to mind an assessment I was required to write whilst first studying management at university – we were asked to write about an organisation from three perspectives: technical, social and political.  I found a quote whilst working on this that has influenced me ever since – it was ‘a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing’ – in the subsequent years I’ve forgotten who said it and I’m probably paraphrasing it, but it has stuck with me and challenged my thinking from then on.

I don’t know if you have ever gone camping – it is something we do regularly in our family.  There seem to be two schools of thought when camping, about how to handle the darkness and the tricky business of finding your way around a campsite at night. 

There are those who use torches to shine a light and help them to find a safe path around the tents and caravans to shower block, washing up area or bar.  The torch provides an easy way to avoid tripping up, puddles and the guy ropes of other tents.   A focused beam of light picking out the path for you to take. It is a bit like the way a management model or model of learning can help you to focus on a particular aspect or dimension of a skill or role, providing a language to discuss it and guidance on how to get started.

Yet, at the same time the torch illuminates your pathway, it also throws everything else around you into absolute & utter darkness.  It becomes harder to see anything else outside of the light shed by the torch.  And in a similar way, reliance on a particular model can lead us to focus on a single or limited range of aspects of complex skills/roles such as learning or leadership.  And may lead to us to neglect other aspects or even to forget that they even exist.

The other approach taken by campers, is to leave torches alone and rely on developing your night vision, allowing your own eyes to gradually acclimatise to the darkness.   Initially, I find that I am stumbling around a bit, a bit unsteady on my feet and I find that I move more slowly.   But slowly & surely, you start to be able to see your way – the walkways, grass, tents and trees come into view. 

It always seems a bit miraculous and wonderful to be able to see further and more clearly without external light than with.  I notice more and feel more in tune with my environment.  You make your own maps of the territory.  So, this provides a metaphor for an alternative to a reliance on models, which is to work from your own experience and that of others, to use reflection and discussion to create your own context specific understandings of what is important and what works.

Models can be useful tools, simplifying and giving us in Julie Drybrough’s words ‘an approximation’ of the real world, but in using them we can become blind-folded to other aspects and the richness & messiness that is the real world.

Rachel Burnham

22/1/15 (Originially written for MOL Learn and reposted to L&D Matters 15/2/15)

Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals become even more effective.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance.
Follow me on Twitter @BurnhamLandD