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Learning to love and do what you like

Mayvin Director James Traeger argues that if organisations want to adapt, innovate and learn, they may have to step into the space of more inquiry, and rather less advocacy, and embrace not knowing, right now.

There’s so little content we don’t know how we got it through’, screams the headline of the Daily Telegraph (9/12/11). This story is about how an exam board insider is blowing the whistle on the poor quality of learning at GCSE level. The lack of content, we are to believe, is regarded as a bad thing, a scary thought that our children may not be being tested hard enough, or that they might not know important ‘facts’.

Charles Dickens was being ironic when his character Gradgrind made a similar lament in the opening section of Hard Times. So perhaps our challenge here isn’t a new one, but it still stands: maybe we don’t need to know more facts; the challenges of life aren’t best modelled by a pub quiz. Perhaps what we need is to learn how to learn. This is predicted by the now-famous 70:20:10 rule – that only 10% of people’s learning comes from formal education, with 70% of it being picked up in the course of doing stuff, ‘on the job’, with the other 20% covered by role modelling and coaching.

Management educators, as well as those of children and young people, are slow to engage with this set of truths. In our laziness, we rely on tried and tested content knowledge, all too often teaching what we know, rather than making space for learning what they need to learn. Why is this? There are so many pressures to do the former: habit, path dependency, the fear of being caught out, wanting to show that we are clever or that we know of all the Gurus. At its heart, it may just be that what we fear most of all is that we are faced, every day, with unprecedented situations, where knowledge based on what happened before just won’t fit. Could it be that we are scared of the unknown present, let alone the unknown future?

If we look backwards and use yesterday’s knowledge, then what we get is more yesterdays. That’s all well and good, but if organisations want to adapt, innovate and learn, then they might have to step into the space of more inquiry, and rather less advocacy, and embrace not knowing, right now. This is scary.

Perhaps what stops us from letting go of ‘content’ is simply fear itself. This means that what people will need is some looking after, some encouragement, some compassion and caring, in order to feel safe enough to let go. Just like our kids do. We are increasingly offering learning programmes that are, by and large, content-free (apart from what the participants bring themselves), and I find this always a scary-exciting prospect. And so I should. If I stopped being scared, I might start moving away from the edge and pretending I know the answer.

The art of doing this is paradoxical because we have to start off with some real clarity, self-belief and compassionate encouragement, to make people feel safe enough to take a risk. It’s a bit like being a parent. If we want our kids to grow up, we have to both look after them, care about them and let them be. Or, as an old friend of mine (sadly now deceased) used to say: ‘Love them hard and then let them do what they like’. That’s learning.

(Follow this link for information about one of our ‘content-free’, Action Research programmes, in Association with Training Journal.)