Growing up, I faced tremendous family and social pressure to do well in school. Doing well really meant passing exams with higher grades rather than actually acquiring any knowledge. Apart from failing intermediate English class terribly, I lived up to the expectations for the most part. As a kid, I never understood our society’s obsession with earning good grades in standardized tests. Earning good grades, by the way, meant endless hours of memorization – the ritual I was terrible at. I still can’t relate to this obsession but at least I am able to appreciate where it comes from – the evolution of learning, or the lack thereof.
My understanding of human learning is heavily influenced by Ken Robinson, who believes human life flourishes on three principles – diversity, curiosity and creativity. Unfortunately today’s education and learning systems, for the most part, do quite the contrary. One-size-fits-all learning curricula support conformity, not diversity, limiting what can be achieved; use of structured assessment to measure success rather than learning diagnostics curb curiosity and support compliance; and this is how the culture of success and fear of failure is simply killing creativity.
One doesn’t need to go back millions of years or explore Adam and Eve’s lives to study human evolution. There’s no doubt we have changed and we have changed tremendously. The way we gather information, relate to each other and process knowledge has evolved significantly even in few short decades. I am convinced the way we learn has evolved too. The question is though, have the systems that support our learning kept up with our evolution? I seriously doubt that.
The industrial revolution did something remarkable for human race. It brought structure, systems and standardization to pretty much every facet of life. It made perfect sense for the education system to compliment this by offering one-size-fits-all curricula to educate masses. State of the art education system came with a state of the art, standardized assessment. Eventually industrial revolution became thing of the past and we declared ourselves knowledge economy. Even the knowledge economy label have started to fade away now but we continue to hang on to the education and learning system we adopted during industrial revolution.
Anant Agarwal, a Computer Science Professor at MIT and President of edX, believes the real innovation in education was printing press, enabling mass production of textbooks and learning material. This allowed us to create the one-to-many learning structure to educate masses. In 1920’s NYU and other universities offered education through radio, which was then taken over by TV a couple of decades later (as a child I remember TV timeslots dedicated to Allama Iqbal Open University training courses). By 1980’s we had the ability to link training/class rooms to remote locations via close-circuit video to support distance learning. Of course the arrival of internet led to the concept of E-learning. One might think of all this as fantastic chain of innovative revolutions in learning. However, the fact is, all these activities supported broadcast style education with structured, one-size-fits-all content in a non-personalized way which contributed little to the diversity, curiosity and creativity of human beings.
Profound ideas are always simple. Salman Khan of Khan Academy took profoundly simple idea to revolutionize the way humans learn. His style supports personalized learning, continual concept development and testing as diagnostics tool which compliments fundamentals of human learning, curiosity, diversity and creativity, like never before. Likes of Dave Cormier and other educators took this idea further and made 2013 the year of MOOCs. Although the underlying purpose of MOOCs is to capture broader audience and some later educators have used this term quite loosely, but in principle MOOCs can truly encourage learners through open and transparent learning, engage them in knowledge creation & assessment and build communities of knowledge.
What does it mean for the corporate world, one might ask, where learning has historically been prescribed for primarily adult learners? I’d say a lot. Learning is natural when you’re young but adult learners must see purpose and reason to educate themselves. Over $170 billion training industry does not have as much to show primarily because of this disconnect. We have seen global engagement through massive engagement jams, open source software development, and other crowdsourcing activities. Coming together to learn from each other shouldn’t be an uphill battle. Organizations can leverage existing expertise, diversity of workforce and plethora of content to craft MOOC style learning management systems. The only limitation is their mindset. The exact nuts and bolts of this type of learning system will most likely be different for different organizations. But for this change to take place the organizations would need to demonstrate characteristics of true learning organization – transform in the wake of changing environment.
When Harvard Business Review asked David Garvin and Amy Edmondson, Professors of Harvard Business School, to name organizations that truly meet the test of being learning organizations, they came up with one – General Electric. From my recent interaction with GE I am convinced this organization has the ability to work the idea throughout the organization on one hand and the courage to act on it on the other. GE has the processes, they have the climate and most importantly leadership behaviors to revolutionize corporate learning the way Khan Academy and MOOCs did to education in general. I am sure there are other organizations in this club and there must be plenty more close to joining. Luckily organizations are under no social pressure to earn “good grades” or memorize any content but their success will largely be driven by the extent to which they incorporate fundamental needs of human development, diversity, curiosity and creativity, in their learning systems. This will not only ensure bigger bang for their learning buck but will also make my friend Ken Robinson very happy!