Learning Technologies 2015: L&D has to “undo educational damage”

"Develop their curiosity, rather than teaching them what they need to know" - Professor Sugata Mitra
"Develop their curiosity, rather than teaching them what they need to know" – Professor Sugata Mitra

The technology of today has completely transformed how employees access information and how they use it. But the technology of tomorrow could do this this all over again. Martin Couzins returns from the Learning Technologies conference and exhibition with his highlights.

Speaking at last month’s conference in London, strategist and futurist Gerd Leonhard told learning and development (L&D) professionals that they need to be prepared for the new ways in which people can interact with technology.

Augmented reality and virtual reality, for example, are changing the way that people interact with information. Leonhard said: “We can use visual means, audio and gestures to control interfaces, and that will change completely how we actually do things.”

He cited research from Oxford University, which predicts that job automation will see 47% of jobs disappear in the coming years. The good news is that the roles left will focus on people’s strengths such as negotiation skills, creativity and imagination.

L&D has to do a retooling job to undo a child’s 17 years of educational damage – Sugata Mitra

In five years, said Leonhard, we will access information to help us do our jobs on an on-demand basis, within the flow of work, as opposed to the way we download information now. This means that L&D’s role will be to disseminate, filter and “peer rate” that knowledge to facilitate business outcomes.

But L&D will need to do much more, according to Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University. He argued that the processes of the past – communication by paper, production lines dependent on human labour, and the manual processing of information – shaped our education system, which, in turn, helped shape corporate learning.

Although technology transformed industry and communications, education has remained relatively unchanged since the industrial revolution. This means we continue to “produce people” for an age that no longer exists.

Outdated ways of learning

Mitra said: “L&D has to do a retooling job to undo a child’s 17 years of educational damage, by supporting colleagues to learn for themselves and develop their curiosity, rather than teaching them what they need to know.

“For learning to happen, L&D teams must create the right environment and present the right problems and challenges for people to work on.”

Research scientist and author Professor Robert Winston picked up on the theme of how humans learn best. He provided delegates with a history lesson in how the brain has developed, from Neanderthal man to today’s human.

For example, early man hunted in packs, and was a social animal. This means communication is key to how humans work together, he said. Therefore, organisations need to ensure that communication between employees is effective.

Learning is a collaborative process – a brain on its own has a finite capacity for knowledge. Many brains expand that knowledge, which is why collaboration is so important in business.

Winston said that, as people learn by watching others through imitation, L&D professionals should reconsider the current emphasis on autonomy in learning and identify situations where employees would do better to learn on their own or together.

Going deeper in to the science of learning, cognitive neuroscientist Dr Christian Jarrett challenged delegates to a brain quiz where they had to identify whether the following statements were true or false:

  • right-brained people are more creative, left-brained people are more analytical;
  • most of us use only 10% of our brains;
  • women have more balanced brains than men;
  • people learn better when taught with their preferred style – visual, auditory, kinaesthetic; and
  • physical coordination exercises can improve the integrated function of the left and right brain hemispheres.

After much discussion among delegates, he claimed all five statements to be myths. This challenged many delegates who base their learning on some of this thinking. One L&D manager asked if they should ditch all the personality-style questionnaires that they use in their business. “Yes, I would,” was Jarrett’s response.

Jarrett then shared five learning tips, which are supported by research:

  1. People learn more effectively when they have to teach – knowing you will have to teach the information you are learning means that you will order the information differently in your mind and be able to recall more facts more quickly.
  2. The testing effect – research shows that testing is very powerful for recalling information because retrieval helps to strengthen the memory.
  3. The drawing effect – drawing concepts can help people retain those concepts. The actual act of drawing helps retain ideas more effectively than those who choose to retain information by reading alone.
  4. The spacing effect – studies show that the longer you want to remember information, the longer you should leave it between looking at that material and recalling it, in an exam for example.
  5. Time-of-day effect – the time of day that you study and practise can affect how well you learn. It depends on the material, but there is a benefit to studying later in the day, as the brain continues to process information as you sleep.

Jarrett said that effective learning requires L&D teams to encourage learners to integrate what they know and come at learning from different angles. He added that incidental learning is very powerful.

L&D challenges

Away from the myth-busting and science of learning, Nigel Paine, former chief learning officer at the BBC and author of The Learning Challenge, brought delegates back down to earth with a look at everyday challenges facing L&D teams.

Learning Technologies 2015 in quotes

“Today we can study particles and far-away galaxies but the brain remains a mystery” – Dr Christian Jarrett, cognitive neuroscientist

“We need to help people take ownership of learning” – Donald Taylor, chairman, Learning and Performance Institute

“Google changed our lives pedagogically forever” – Donald Clark, co-founder Epic Group

“In L&D we don’t treat adults as adults. We treat them as schoolchildren and put them in classrooms. We need to trust people to learn for themselves” – Andrew Jacobs, organisational learning manager, London Borough of Lewisham

“The 70:20:10 model of learning does not dispense with the need for a learning department” – Charles Jennings, Internet Time Alliance

The first is balancing day-to-day activity with being able to manage big changes pragmatically. Second, L&D needs to be a credible player in the organisation so that it is listened to and can make a contribution to the demands of the organisation. An important element in this is helping colleagues understand where learning fits into the business.

Third, learning professionals need to keep abreast of technology to understand how to use it as an enabler of learning. And finally, the fourth challenge is how to amplify the learning. Paine said that learning is no longer something that can be controlled by L&D.

“Unfortunately, the truth is that if you want to be unbelievably successful in your organisation you can’t control learning any longer. You’ve got to give it away. It’s got to happen everywhere.

“It’s got to bubble up all over the place. You’ve got to look at the buzz you can create that will resonate massively around the organisation. The more it resonates, the bigger the impact and the more successful you will be,” he said.

He added that L&D teams need to start listening to the business and show some humility in order to succeed.

“L&D needs a bit of humility. So talk, listen and learn from the organisation. Work out what’s hot, what’s happening and what you can expand and develop. Work out what the roadblocks are and have a vision. If you have no idea where you might want to end up you’re going to find it very, very difficult to get there.”

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