The role of ritual and why to avoid too much structure in learning

It’s a big day here in Amsterdam, Queen Beatrix has abdicated and handed the crown over to her son, the now King Willem-Alexander. The Dutch like to party and today is no exception: as i write this the celebrations are in full swing. On the the canal outside my window there are various barges and boats, filled with orange clad revellers, flags draped from buildings, bands playing and a general air of festivity. We are sandwiched between the two formal parts of the day right now: the formal abdication was this morning, the investiture of the new King this afternoon, so everyone is aimless but happy. We know where we stand in the routine of the day.

It’s a day of rituals: the formal events are governed by structures, by rules, by the ‘way things should be done‘ and they’re surrounded by the more social elements. Whilst the formal events are governed by ritual, the celebrations outside are without a plan, or at least without a plan beyond where to steer the party boat or which pub to navigate towards next. Ritual is important: it gives structure, it gives continuity, it gives gravitas. On days like this, the ritual is part of the show: we saw the Queen arriving, we saw her signing her abdication document, we saw her lead her family out onto the balcony, introduce the new King to the nation and bring out the young Princesses to a huge cheer that i could hear from the apartment here.

Ritual and social learning

Rituals should anchor events in history, bring us together around spectacle, but in learning they often just repeat what was done before. It’s the social layers where meaning is created.

We use rituals in many parts of life, some formal like today, others highly informal, like the rituals we use around retirement parties or induction events. We use rituals a lot in learning: pinning badges onto our shirts at conferences is a ritual, delivering keynote speeches is according to a ritual, the icebreaker exercises we run on workshops are a type of ritual, putting multi choice assessments at the end of everything, that’s a ritual too: everyone knows what’s coming, it’s a predictable formula. We use a lot of ritualised structures in learning design for e-learning, with formal introductory screens, predictable structures of navigation and assessment, but do we ever stop to question why?

The rituals of state have a purpose: they join us together, they provide focus for our society to bond around certain moments, certain occasions that stand out from the ordinary. Ritual allows us to elevate certain moments from the everyday to something to remember. But much ritual in learning is simply habit: we do things the way we have always done because we don’t stop to think about doing things differently. Much of what we do fails to add value: instead of elevating an event or piece of learning out of the everyday, much of what we do in learning simply buries it in the predictable repetition of another ill conceived, abstract learning event. Much of what we do leads to mediocrity rather than effecting the change we seek.

It’s easy for ritual to become dogma. Instead of making a difference it’s just ‘how we do things‘. Instead of making something extraordinary, it makes it less than ordinary. It makes it forgettable.

Can you feel where your own professional practice is touched by rituals: ways of working that you have inherited, that you’ve codified into your routine, but which you haven’t questioned for a while?

The interesting part is the social elements surrounding the formal: this is where the party is happening. Even on a day like today, governed by formal structure and ritual, the meaning is being created within the crowds, by the million small family stories being written, by the groups of friends on the boats, by families travelling to the city to witness the event, the legacy of today will be those stories, those shared narratives.

The potential to create memorable experiences in learning must include these social layers: using social learning as semi formal spaces around the formal, but recognising that this is where the meaning is created, beyond the ritual, beyond the formal. It’s the space we really live in and really learn in.

So formality, structure, ritual are great: they give fixed points in time to hold onto. But in learning, we need more. We often focus on doing things according to plan, to brand guidelines, to fixed templates and structures, whilst the real value comes in the conversations that happen around this, in the social learning.

What rituals do you see in your own organisational learning? How much has become dogma? Where’s the creativity and the social? Where do people do their learning?

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Community, Continuity, Difference, Effectiveness, Experience, Formal Spaces, Informal Spaces, Learning, Learning Design, Narrative, Pace, Social Learning, Standardisation and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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