Few ideas are as sacrosanct in contemporary sensibilities as the notion that human beings achieve mastery over their lives through learning from experience. ~ James March
I’ve been doing some work recently related to the Learning Environment Design framework, and a few interesting bits of feedback have given me some food for thought related to on-the-job learning. A colleague who reviewed a paper I wrote on the component framework noted that the category of in-the-job action and reflection had few specifics compared to the other categories of learning components, which seemed the wrong proportion given the importance of learning from experience. In the same week, a focus group that I ran identified few instances of learning by doing when asked to talk about the ways they learned their specialty skills. When pressed, these folks noted that when they learned at the moment of need – in the work – they often relied on resources in the other categories of components, especially seeking out people who could help and finding accessible resources to inform the problem.
These “mmm…” moments have me thinking about the complexity of learning from experience and how to leverage that in our learning environments, whether these are our personal environments or the environments that we are designing to support others’ learning.
It’s not so simple.
In The Ambiguities of Experience, James March writes eloquently about the fact that learning from experience is quite complicated and too often not actually helpful.
Take the idea that we learn by replicating successes – that sounds innocuous enough, but consider the possibilities for error in the process. When something works, and we want to take lessons from that success forward into future action, we try to identify the characteristics of the action that drove its success. This is because we rarely need to do exactly the same thing in exactly the same context, so we are replicating the success in a slightly different environment. For this to work, we have to have identified the “right” lessons to take forward, and we have to have fully understood the “causes” of the success – a tall order.
So how do we support learning from experience?
In adding the in-the-job action and reflection category to the learning environment component framework, my intention was to recognize that learning from experience plays a substantial role in our learning of any complex skill.
I noted four components: At it’s most basic level, the category involves learning by doing. Or we might use experimentation by more carefully deciding on an action and thoughtfully noting the results with the intention of learning from that cycle. It is also important to note that learning occurs through co-creation in collaboration with others. It was clear to me that reflection needed to be called out as one of the components as well – the need for reflection is a clear theme in theory and research on adult learning. I spelled out reflection as “self-monitoring and analysis of outcomes and feedback.” Those four components seemed at the time to capture the basics.
And these components have proven useful in assessing and designing learning environments. In assessing the current state of a learning environment, examining how effectively people are learning in the course of doing the job is no easy task, but a critical one. In designing an environment, I have wanted to consider how to make room for effectively learning from experience. Can we help people to see how they can leverage their day-to-day work for learning? Can we make room for and encourage solid reflection? Can we team people up – especially on new problems – in ways that will help them to learn from and with one another?
Even so, I can’t help but wonder if this line of thinking is oversimplified. Even if I hone in on the learning from experience that is engaged for the purpose of building work skills (and leave aside learning from experience for other purposes like identity formation, for example), I wonder if there’s a lot more to be examined.
I want to continue looking at this important aspect of learning to provide solid advice on enriching this part of a learning environment. If you have ideas about other aspects of learning from experience in a work context that should be considered, I would be happy to hear them.