Serving up Learner-led Learning

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“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
– Benjamin Franklin

Before I found my calling in learning, I worked in restaurants.

Imagine going to a restaurant where the server didn’t even take your order, but shoved a plate of fatty, flavorless food in front of you instead. And you had to eat it while looking at the back of someone’s head. None of the customers speak; some are swiping on their phones.

Now imagine going to a restaurant, browsing the menu, and ordering a dish that suits your tastes, your fitness regimen, and even pairs well with a crispy glass of sauv blanc (it’s August, after all). Then you get to enjoy passionate, meaningful conversation with others as everyone eats their delicious, nutritious meal. Which restaurant is getting your return business?

Duh.

I don’t go to restaurants to eat whatever they throw in front of me. And I don’t go to work to have learning content shoved down my throat. Either scenario insults my intelligence and demeans my purpose for being there in the first place.

Now some of you at the table next to me might be whispering, “Well! Isn’t that employee hard to please? Who does he think he is—the customer?”

As workplace learning increasingly becomes a focal point of organizational development, the pacesetters have recognized the employee is the customer, and that engaged, passionate, and loyal customers are good for business. So how do we keep our customers coming back and telling their friends? Are our courses too big, greasy, and indigestible? Are we force-feeding workplace learning to our employees?  

There’s a different way to serve up learning. Who’s hungry?

Learner-led Learning

So if the employee is the customer, is the customer still always right?  

Well, hold the bill. While the organization obviously has the prerogative to ensure its employees are capably trained and compliant, that’s merely the price of entry when it comes to learning and development. After an employee has cut their teeth for the first year or so, the onboarding process is likely complete, and we can assume they’ve become proficient in their role. Beyond that point, it really becomes the employee’s prerogative to define where they’re going next.  

As organizations flatten, the old formula of “career development = promotion” no longer applies. This is why it’s so important that employees understand it’s their responsibility to develop themselves. To assess where they are now, envision where they want to be, and plan what skills, relationships, and personal growth work it will take to take to get there. As the employee, that’s my responsibility, and it applies as much to my career path as it does to the workplace training I’m sitting in: I, the learner, am leading both.  

So what do I really want? How will I align myself with the company mission?  Do I even want to? Am I willing to learn, change, and grow as a person to do it? Is that the person I want to be? Is the job I’m doing engaging me in this deeper work? Because if I’m not engaged, I’m not learning. And I’m no longer keeping up, doing great work, or providing additional value to the organization.

There are no wrong answers. In learner-led learning, the customer is always right.

From Push to Pull

So what does this mean for learning professionals?  

The “push” learning approach—presenting information in lecture format for rote memorization—has been around since the Industrial Revolution needed to churn out factory workers to perform monotonous tasks. The learning professional this approach called for was the teacher, expert, and guru who knew more about the topic than the whole class. Training methodology and ethos reinforced this central “expert” identity and the dominant culture orbiting it. Classroom conversation was accordingly one-sided.  

The work required from the modern workforce is more complex, creative, and collaborative than ever before, and the currently deepening shift towards “pull” learning can’t come soon enough. Today’s employee likely holds more expertise in their job than does their manager or their learning department. This means learning professionals must not only evolve their delivery methods to encourage learner-led learning in the classroom, but their competencies in concept and design as well: guiding learners further up Bloom’s Taxonomy, beyond rote memorization and repetition of data, towards the interpretation, deconstruction, and evaluation of ideas.  

But beyond the delivery or development of learning, this evolution manifests on an even deeper level within the learning professional. From being the experts providing answers, we’re now called to become facilitators asking questions, essentially and figuratively stepping back to create space for learner-led learning to occur.

This may sound easy on paper, however, relinquishing control rarely is—especially on a personal level. The need for certainty is a powerful psychological driver, and overcoming it in the moment (as 20 of your peers are staring expectantly at you) is spiritual work as much as it is tactical. It requires the emotional poise to notice and manage the urge to give advice, the spiritual willingness to surrender control, and the professional discipline to respond with a question that inspires thought, as opposed to an answer that drops a piano on it.

Most of the facilitators I’ve trained initially struggle with a tension and anxiety that asks “What if they don’t get it?” I myself struggle to surrender the fundamental assumption that it’s my job to “get it” for them.

It is my job to ensure they “get it,” right? Right. But telling them only ensures they’ll forget, because they won’t have been led into the habit of actually thinking it through. Joseph Campbell is often quoted as saying, “The job of an educator is to teach students to see vitality in themselves.”

Involving the learner in the process (through questions, discussion, group activity, or peer-to-peer teach-backs) is far more likely to result in them retaining and truly owning the knowledge we want them to master. They’ll have fought for it themselves, they’ll have led their own learning, and they’ll leave that training with a greater capacity to learn.  

The implications of this improvement extend beyond job performance into career development. When we shift our learning approach from push to pull, we can leverage our learning objectives as opportunities to grow and develop our people.  

Aligning People with Purpose, through Learning

So what happens when a learner who has developed new knowledge, skills, or attitudes leaves the classroom?  

Unfortunately in many cases, the “learning experience” is over by the time they arrive back at their desk, relegated by pre-existing environmental conditions, performance structures, and behavioral habits. Real, on-the-job learning transfer remains elusive without a comprehensive and cohesive organizational learning strategy, and broad buy-in to change.

It’s a challenging recipe. When an employee on your team develops a new competency or takes on new responsibility, it’s like there’s suddenly more of one ingredient in your soup. It can create imbalances, bottlenecks, and leave a bad taste in the mouths of anyone who liked things the way they were. In order to do learning right, organizations need to be adventurous enough to embrace change, and aligned enough to manage it effectively.

This is the where learning organizations can capitalize. Having an inspiring organizational mission is already a competitive advantage in attracting talent—retaining them means providing growth and development opportunities that drive the business. Aligning learning strategy with talent development creates learning paths that support retention, internal mobility, and home-grown leadership development. It’s an under-exploited way for organizations to take that mission statement off the wall and embody it in a way employees can experience and engage in, and which empowers them to perform, develop, and grow within the company.  

As the learning shifts increasingly from pushing content out, toward pulling the best out of your people, now is the time for organizational leadership to make a concerted long-term investment in learning culture, if it hasn’t already. Learning professionals can transcend content pushing and instead cultivate experiences of participation and peer-to-peer learning, while creating tools and resources to sustain the learning transfer when employees return to their desk. And individuals with the leadership and initiative to grow with the organization can choose from a menu of lean, green, and tasty learning to fuel their engagement, performance and development.  

And lots of snacks.

*Originally published for the fine folks at Actionable.co. Click title for link.

Morgan Toane

Entry Learning, Toronto