Learning Fundamentalism
28/09/2011 - "Learning Fundamentalism" by Donal Carroll

Learning fundamentalism –and how to reclaim it

We're back, having spent a year doing what we do best - finding new ways to tackle old problems for better outcomes. However, consultancy this time was in a different form, writing a book –working title 1512. More later, through these blogs and Twitter - and prizes for guessing what it's about.

One radical approach of the book was that for organisations to reach their next stage of development, they would need to change their management and business models, and the 'midwife' for doing so is their learning model. By a learning model we mean 'the choices made about how organisational thinking is mobilised (what best next)'. Sounds contrived? Does your organisation have one (regardless of what it's called)? When we asked if most organisations made a choice about their learning models, we began to unravel a deeper question: is the choice unknowingly made for them –and if so, how come?

The extracts below –we didn't use but similar ones- illustrate how. They are from mainstream academic sources, an associate dean for teaching and learning, a vice chancellor, a senior academic and a THE report on universities' knowledge transfer awards. They exhibit learning fundamentalism, an overwhelming confidence they are right about learning, which carries on and strengthens the dominant tradition. The effect: when –or if- organisations think about their learning model, these assumptions inform it as an automatic 'choice'.

The extracts:

  • 1 '... staff should promote 'teacher-centred teaching' to curb the enthusiasm for the 'new mantra' of student-centred learning... there are so many different teaching methods, that it is simply unreasonable to expect lecturers to be good at everything...'

  • 2 'changing funding means re-thinking teaching... pedagogic ignorance is not the problem...'

  • 3 'Knowledge transfer': a university helped an IT firm to develop a business and marketing strategy, while another helped an occupational health service develop a way to measure levels of stress

  • 4 An interview with a senior LSE sociologist, Catherine Hakim, about her new book Honey Money where her 'expertness' cannot disguise her inability to learn. I have included it as it seems the perfect result of thinking from the other extracts http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/aug/19/catherine-hakim-interview

The assumptions:

  • In the first, the teacher is always right, while teaching and learning are somehow a power struggle. Teaching method, which should be just a flexible conduit, and teaching itself, are ends in themselves rather than the means to enable learning.

  • In the second, 'subject knowledge' (or product) automatically trumps process (or method); 'andragogy'-how adults learn- is not mentioned while pedagogy –how children learn- is beyond criticism.

  • In the third, these two instances (there are others) seem examples of good teaching, which managers could learn on a business course. Why is this called 'knowledge transfer' –does it concentrate on content transmission (teaching again) rather than learning? Isn't learning significantly more than 'transfer'? 'Knowledge transfer' also suggests an easy transplanting of what works onto what doesn't - a sort of Tommy Cooper activity –'just like that!' Set inputs rather than bespoke problem solving.

  • The fourth may seem an odd choice but it brings together key aspects of the previous three to construct academic 'expertness': in this case, arrogant and solipsistic, a stunning example of the inverse relationship between intelligent questioning and idea-development, where learning is fixed, finite and 'owned'.

The limitations of this centuries-old 'learning model' are apparent anyway but even more so when taken into organisations: 'expertness' is its highest form and in practice, it is a telling one, with learning for others a tax on it, their role as an accepting audience. The effect is a taxidermist legacy which generates dependence and creates 'I want to be spoon-fed' respondents. It is an automatic choice for many, as it lubricates their equally traditional management model.

The over-mature model needs reinventing for C21 organisations as a more 'democratic' one, where staff have power to determine what learning is, how it is constructed and who can produce it. One which recognises that learning is infinite, in flow, and that staff can create it as an everyday activity, where they are its producers and consumers. Challenging and sharing is its growth-path, and social media makes it stronger. Effective organisations choose a learning culture designed to produce independent, creative, critical staff.

'Student-centred learning' (from the first extract) which by any account means identifying and meeting learner needs, may be new to the author but is not to learners. In the case of education, without this as the core of 'teaching', typical 'blame the customer' comments emerge: 'brilliant lecturers frustrated by the stupidity of students in tutorials...' Make your own comments up about traditional manager views of staff learning in organisations...

If this is damaging in higher education, think what damage it does elsewhere. So choosing an organisational learning model can't be an afterthought, based on 'just what's already there.' It needs to lead thinking about the 'choice' of a management model, which in turn, means dislodging learning fundamentalism for a more democratic model.

What do you think?


Visitors' Comments on this Post

03/08/2012 Comment posted by David McAra
[Did my post go astray or is it being moderated? By the way, I hadn\'t noticed this piece was so old. It\'s still current for me!]
Hi, Donal. Interesting thoughts. What is exercising me at the moment is leadership and power. If the owner and the management team believe that they know best, it doesna
19/10/2011 Comment posted by Greg Palmer
I think you are right, Business and Management Models really cannot operate in isolation from a learning model. CC is right, the fear of change does rather push us into learned patterns of thinking and behaving. Rather than berate care staff for having a tick box mentality wouldn\'t be better if Lansley et al asked how did the tick box mentality get there in the 1st place? If an efective model of organisational learning informed the dept of Health would we have to face the privatisation by stealth of the Health & Community Care bill?
I think you are being unfair in the 2nd extract. Pedagogy is generally taken to mean science/art of teaching (& learning)Reduced funding could lead to more efective learer centred pedagogy in organisations with an explicit model of organisational learning.
17/10/2011 Comment posted by Claudia Crawley
The problem with learning within organisations is that people cling to the traditional model of learning, despite its limitations. Could this be because they fear change? Or maybe they don\'t value learning and don\'t make the effort to do what needs to be done to either change the model to something that\'s more effective or to take post training action to enable the learning to become firmly embedded and applied. So, taking your theory to its logical conclusion, unless organisations change their approach and attitude to learning there\'s little hope for the development of really effective management and business models. Good stuff Critical Difference.

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