There is profound change happening in society as consequences of technological advances. And this has plusses and minuses. In this context, however, it’s worth thinking through the changes that are implied for learning.
The changes are more than digital technology. Changes in medicine, social studies, environment, and more all have an impact. Our choice has to be: How do we act in ways that are sustainable and humane?
The changing landscape
A conference was recently held that focused on the changes in our lives. Recent advances in medicine, food, and more have turned us, in the course of a few decades or so, from a society with an average lifespan of 40-60 years to one more like 80-100. And our systems haven’t evolved in accordance. Their concern was: How do you deal with schooling, working, retirement, and more when the old model of working ‘til 60 isn’t economically feasible?
The outcomes suggested the old ‘learn, work, retire’ model is broken. We need to think of new cycles of continual learning, working, retiring, and then starting again! That is, things will be more flexible. We might take regular breaks to learn again, and brief retirements while we deal with family transitions. Or just to recharge the batteries.
We’re massively altering the world as well. Weather changes are getting more extreme. Lighting is so ubiquitous it’s hard to actually find the dark! Animals are evolving to adapt to the changes. The world we grew up in just isn’t anymore.
Learning is part of this. In an era of rapid change, jobs, technologies, and more have a similar Darwinian dynamic. New ones will emerge as others die. Thus, we need to increasingly keep learning. Up against the changing nature of work and retirement, people will certainly need ongoing learning and likely need occasions of deep refresh. It’s been posited that we’ll change jobs more but we actually may have multiple careers!
The unchanging brain
That said, our brains aren’t evolving at the same rate. Despite myths about digital natives and attention span changes, our brains don’t adapt that fast. Our wetware is pretty much unchanged.
Which isn’t to say that we’re not behaving differently. With more options for distraction, we’re more likely to be susceptible. And advances in the science of marketing mean we’re more vulnerable to predatory tactics. We are gravitating to the quick fix. And that’s ok for performance support, but learning’s different.
Despite the prevalence of digital technology, our brains still learn via reactivation over spaced time. We need retrieval practice to fundamentally change what we can do. The elements that support us learning effectively still work.
Which is not to say that our practices reflect this. We still too often see information dump and knowledge test. Bullet points and smile sheets are known not to work yet they’re still prevalent.
Yet societal changes, even crises, suggest we need to do better. We need to align with our natural learning with even more urgency now. Our professional ethics need us to do better.
A number of years ago I took inspiration from the ‘slow food’ movement and proposed ‘slow learning’. It was a light-hearted reaction to ‘rapid learning’, but it also was intended to be more profound. If you look at how learning works, slow is the go!
Our ‘formal’ learning started as a form of apprenticeship. There were authentic tasks happening (e.g., the making of necessities such as hunting equipment) and new apprentices to the craft started by observing. Then, these novices would gradually be given small tasks, authentic in the context of the larger work. Trainees would take on more and more until they were full masters.
As we moved to what Geary calls ‘biologically secondary’ learnings—math, economics, and other man-made concepts—we moved to different knowledge practices. From Socratic dialog through reading to the modern notion of ‘school’, our practices tried to strike a balance between effectiveness and efficiency. And with naïve ideas of learning, we were unlikely to manage the former in competition with the latter.
Interestingly enough, we’ve gone full circle where we can now talk about ‘cognitive apprenticeship’. Here, we apply those old approaches that were in better alignment with how our brains work. And we work better working on scaffolded practice in authentic contexts!
That design approach was inefficient but technology has now given us leverage. We can stream out small, authentic tasks over time, with gradually-increasing challenge and responsibility. We can adapt, even, to individual progression and gaps. We can slowly move people through development at the rate the mind learns. We can deepen the learning at a steady pace.
And such an approach can serve both ongoing learning wrapped around the workflow, as well as deep dives. We can, and should, be looking at learning experience design as a guide to do both, but the latter in particular.
There’s a dynamic new world that we need to adapt to. Our brains can’t change at the rate needed but our science gives us mechanisms to cope. We can design societal shifts to support the way we want and need to treat people. And we can leverage technology to do so.
I’ll suggest that we want to create 'humane' organizations. By this I mean ones that align with how we think, work, and learn. Ultimately, people will be happier and more productive. And that’s a worthy goal