Giving learning ‘what for’

Karyn Romeis (@learninganorak) is an avid user of the web and social media to assist her own learning journey. When preparing learning for different audiences she asks herself (and her learners) “What is it for?” Is this one of the questions you ask yourself? Let us know in comments at the bottom of the article.

So there I was, having an instant messaging chat with a Facebook friend in South Africa. The friend in question is a cartoonist of the political satirist variety. He was bemoaning the fact that Obama had yet to reveal ‘that one thing’ on which he can be lampooned, and he pointed me to an early attempt by an American cartoonist. This led me to an article in an online newspaper, which caused me to look up a detail of Democratic party policy, which had me trying to find out the equivalent stance in the UK, which drove me to a blog post, which aroused my interest in that blog, which… you get the picture.
I have come to realise that every single aspect of my life is affected by my learning journey, and vice versa. I also realise that my lifewide, lifelong learning journey is a very rich blend. To date, it has included:

  • A developing and developed country
  • Formal and informal learning
  • Compulsory and optional education
  • Corporate and academic learning
  • Face to face, elearning, social media and any number of other approaches, including good old fashioned books!

My life tends to be without boundaries. My husband will see me beavering away and ask whether I am working, learning or playing. I am not always able to give a definitive answer.
By contrast, some of the spaces in which I learn are so clearly demarcated, they might as well be surrounded by moats… and woe betide the would-be visitor who does not possess the magic key that will bring the drawbridge down!
Like many of the people I encounter in the unbounded world of social media, I have been bemused by these well-marked boundaries. Since I am able to access the learning spaces equally, it has seemed odd to me that they should be seen as separate entities.
While I remain hopeful that we will one day reach the point where we stop placing learning in silos, I have been forced to acknowledge that the learning within corporate and academic spaces is still very different. And the key difference, I suspect, hinges on the answer to the question: what is it for?
During online conversations on Twitter or web conferences, this question has repeatedly bubbled up from the depths of the surrounding conversation. It often takes some of the participants by surprise. During one conference about the future of what appears to have become globally known by the American term K-12 education, it was evident that it had never occurred to many of the teachers in attendance to question the fundamental purpose of formal primary and secondary education. To them it was a given, a starting point from which to ask all manner of other searching and challenging questions. Questioning the ‘what for’ of the medium in which they operated was almost like questioning a fish on the purpose of water.
So let us ask ‘what for’ in a few of the spaces I mentioned earlier.
Developed/developing world
In many developing countries, the school-going child is expected to toe the line, to accept perceived wisdom as dispensed from on high. The result is that many of these countries still follow a behaviourist approach to learning. Prepared learning materials are in short supply (I suspect there are more such places than many people realise), and call-and-response teaching techniques are still very much the norm.
My own compulsory education took place within a ‘first world’ infrastructure within a developing country, and some aspects of that ‘third-worldness’ did intrude. For example, the history syllabus was heavily propagandised, and we were actively warned against trying to defend a point of view that was likely to be viewed as subversive, and possibly even culpable.
One could argue that constitutes institutionalised brainwashing. Would any such moratorium apply at a school in Europe or North America, I wonder? Could one venture to say that education in developing countries often serves to prepare children to be obedient citizens within the paradigms established by the ruling party?
And, within the so-called developed world, what are the criteria for including X, but omitting Y? Is there a belief that the materials included will lay a suitable grounding for informed debate and critical thinking?
For the sake of this article, let’s say that formal education follows a pre-determined programme, while informal does not. By definition, someone has to do that ‘pre-determining’. The ‘what for’ (such as it is) is determined before the learning objectives are drawn up. The what for might be to bring a learner to the point where the institution can confidently award a B/M/D degree, or for a corporate organisation to demonstrate to a regulatory body that its staff members know how to safe on the shop floor.
The learner might approach a formal learning programme with a ‘what for’ of his own. It might be a means to break through a glass ceiling, or a way of saying “How do you like me now, Ms High-school-teacher-who-said-I’d-never-amount-to-anything?” Or perhaps the learner signs up for a workshop in search of a missing skill/concept in her proficiency in a certain area.
The ‘what for’ of informal learning lies squarely in the hands of the learner. A learner interrogating an interactive performance support tool is looking for the answer to a specific question. The Twitter user, following links to all manner of online resources may be on a journey of serendipitous discovery, ready to follow the white rabbit down whichever hole looks most interesting. Alternatively, he might use hashtags or trending to keep up with news on a pet topic.
An erstwhile manager of mine refers to learners as falling into the categories of volunteers, conscripts and prisoners of war. From an early age, I knew that I wanted to work as an enabler, but I also knew that I had no interest in trying to teach people who had no choice in the matter.
Every bit of learning I have done since the age of 16, when I was legally entitled to leave school (but didn’t), has been voluntary… in theory, at least.
Many of us are signed up for this or that course at the whim of a manager. As an adult, I have learned that I have a lot more power of refusal than I did as a child, but, in regulated industries, it is sometimes necessary to jump through certain hoops in order to gain or keep accreditation. When this has been the case for me, I hope that I have been more conscript than PoW!
In all my years in the field of workplace learning, I have only directly encountered two PoWs. I managed to win one over, but the other, I ‘liberated’.
There are few things more disempowering to an adult than to be forced to do something against your will. Nobody wants to be on the receiving end of ‘because I said so’ training and – trust me – it’s no great fun to teach it, either!
This has been the big crunch point for me. I was so sure that we could tear down the walls that divided corporate and academic learning spaces. After all, learning is learning, right? What does it matter where I learnt something?
But I think that it is in the ‘what for’ that the difference shows.
Academic learning is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake – because you’re interested and you want to know. Because it is irresponsible not to know when it is possible to find out.In the final analysis, corporate learning is about the bottom line.
I have moved in both these spaces. In the corporate world, people call me a geek and roll their eyes. Academics see me as something of a corporate anomaly.
Stand up in front of a roomful of corporate trainers and start telling them about this theory and that underlying psychology and they will yawn at you. The down side of this is that corporate learners are at risk of cottoning onto a model that makes sense on some intuitive level and clinging to it long after the underpinning theories have been found to be bogus.
On the flip side, academics are at risk of becoming so wrapped up in theory for its own sake, that they forget to consider practical relevance… so you have teachers of business studies who have never run (or even worked in) a business.
Corporate learners may find it difficult to be transparent about what they have learned. This goes against the grain in a cut-throat world where so much store is set by one’s ‘competitive edge’. Academic are only too keen to share what they know, since this is how they gain kudos… and sharing moves the whole community forward.
Final thoughts
Social media spaces are great levellers, and we see an increasing number of corporate professionals engaging on an individual basis, becoming generous with what they know, for the benefit of all. We also see engagement between learning professionals from all manner of camps.

One of my key drivers is to encourage and empower learners to ask that question. Rather than blindly following a programme of study prescribed by employer or faculty, they step back and ask “What is it for?”
And if the answer is “Er, um, well…” they will challenge its relevance to them.
Lately, we have seen a rise in the number of people asking finding fault with the formal education system, many of them inspired by the redoubtable Sir Ken Robinson. Perhaps the groundswell of questioning will gain momentum, until the entire educational model is rebuilt from the ground up, starting with the question: What is it for?

Karyn RomeisKaryn Romeis (aka the Learning Anorak) is an independent learning and development consultant with more than 20 years’ experience in the field in a wide range of roles. She is passionate about all things learning, and regularly says “this is not what I do, it’s who I am.” She currently lives in the United Kingdom with her husband and one of her two sons. Find out more about her on her blog and website.

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