Last week i started work with my friend, Dr Sae Schatz, on a new project: the Learning Science Guidebook. Today i am sharing our first draft of an introduction: i doubt whether this will make it into the final piece, but it’s our first steps. Our aim is to provide a strategic overview of where ‘Learning Science’ is at, of why we need it to build a Socially Dynamic Organisation, and some practical insights into what we can do about it all! Also, to have some fun along the way.
This work may end up as simply a series of conversations and blog posts, or it may make it to a full book. We are open, pragmatic, and enjoying the journey. Our aim is to #WorkOutLoud and share this work as it evolves: that means that we will sometimes share our uncertainty and debate, and i hope you will read it in that spirit. This is not finished work. It’s the very start. Also: my own work is held in a principle of #WorkingOutLoud – where there are errors in this work, it’s most likely me at fault for rushing something – remember, this is not a ‘performance’ for us – it’s a discussion.
Why Learning Science?
‘Learning’ is like a cheat code for life. The more you learn, the better you get at learning. And the better organisations are at fostering learning, the more effective they become at being learning organisations, and the better they perform under complexity or surprise.
This glowing review isn’t just our opinion. There’s an extensive body of empirical research showing the impact of learning and teaching skill. For example, skill in self-directed learning (what the academics call “metacognition”) accounts for 17% of someone’s performance in educational settings . And organisations with a strong learning culture are 46% more likely to be first to market and have 37% greater productivity .
Learning Science is a systematically organised body of knowledge built from a variety of other fields such as human cognition, social sciences, education, and user experience design.
It gives us an evidence-base foundation and set of principles to help optimise the design, delivery, assessment, and ultimately outcomes of learning experiences.
It can help us stop doing what we have always done, and instead take a more iterative and developmental approach to gaining new knowledge and skills or to changing our attitudes and processes. That is, it gives us tools for sparking growth and change at the most fundamental human levels.
Learning Science helps us foster effective learning within messy, imperfect real-world conditions.
We use the term ‘effective’ deliberately: at least within our scope, we’re interested in pragmatic learning outcomes that let individuals and organisations do things differently and better – not just the accumulation of knowledge for its own sake.
This is important: Organisational Learning functions are not decorative.
Their intent is to deliver capability, and that capability may involve curiosity, imagination, exploration, sense making, new knowledge and the creation of new meaning. The ‘Learning Organisation’ is not just one that picks up answers: it can create them, and create a different ones tomorrow. Because it fosters learning.
Learning Science tools can be broken into five categories:
- How people learn
- Factors that affect learning
- Instructional methods to enhance learning
- Technology to facilitate learning
- Assessment methods
Each of these subcategories offers useful tools that can speed or deepen learning, help us transfer knowledge from one situation to another, or optimise our processes.
JULIAN: Here’s an illustration that Sae created in her own work. It shows a view of ‘Learning Science’ on a page. You’ll see our five ‘areas of study’ down there at the bottom. But for me, there are two things I particularly love. First is the interdisciplinary nature of this work (you can see it in the blue boxes on the top right): it will be no surprise as i’m a generalist and connector, so i’m comforted by the breadth of these.
But the second is the section that says what Learning Science is not: it’s not anecdotes and tradition, it’s not ‘an’ answer. It speaks to my understanding that Learning Science is a series of things we will need to learn, and a series of things we will need to stop doing.
When i first started thinking about this book, i worked on an illustration too. You’ll see that i choose a web –- a web of curiosity –- because there is an aspect of exploration in this work.
Our aim in this work is to bring insight and practical understanding. To do that we will sometimes bring certainty, and sometimes bring our questions -– for each other as much as for you!
Who cares about Learning Science?
Let’s clear up some potential misconceptions.
First, Learning Science isn’t some esoteric philosophy or feel-good pop-psychology. It’s ruthlessly pragmatic – at least, that’s the stance we’re taking. We want this work to help you effect change.
Second, Learning Science isn’t about having a natural talent in teaching or spending a lot of time in school or at university. Just because we’ve all experienced education and training, and by corollary learning and development, that doesn’t mean we all inherently understand Learning Science. Not least because, like any complex discipline, we’ are all still figuring out just what exactly “Learning Science” may be!
Third, there’s a definable and measurable distinction between ‘low’ and ‘high’ quality training, education, and learning. There aren’t just different ways to teach or develop; there are objectively better or worse ways – that produce more or less effective outcomes.
And those various ways of designing and delivering learning experiences, and growing as an individual, are definable.
Learning Science isn’t an ineffable art, fuelled by gut reactions and practitioners myths. It’s driven by hard evidence.
Why haven’t we already figured out everything there is to know about Learning Science? On the one hand, scientific theory about how people learn can be traced back to Aristotle and likely well before that. On the other, today’s context is pretty unique, which means there’s more to be discovered and new ways to apply general principles.
This ‘context’ of learning is something we will likely delve into quite deeply. We first connected over an exploration of this: Sae’s work on learning science and Julian’s work on social learning, all within the context of the Social Age.
The tools we have for understanding and delivering learning experiences are pretty different nowadays. The explosion of educational technologies (ed-tech) has dramatically changed how we facilitate learning and development. (Imagine what Aristotle would think of today’s online learning, Zoom calls, or *gasp* AI-driven adaptive tutors.)
So, our technologies are creating new opportunities, but we hold a shared skepticism about an over reliance on technology alone. Only through an understanding of the cognitive and social aspects of learning, empowered by technology, will we likely make a real difference.
Technology alone will not save us anytime soon.
Similarly, over the last few decades, our collective understanding about how the brain works – how we think and learn – has greatly expanded. The US Government even dubbed the 1990s the “Decade of the Brain” to focus public recognition on brain research.
So, our understanding of how to optimise the flow of information into and out of our heads has sharpened.
More than all of that, though, the world is changing. Once upon a time in Prussia (where the Industrial Age classroom was born), it was sufficient for a teacher to explain facts and rudimentary skills that students would learn by rote. But today’s world calls for a broader, more sophisticated, and continuously growing set of knowledge and skills.
For instance: In his own work, Julian has started to consider the ‘creation of meaning’ and how it’s separate from the transfer of knowledge, and he’s begun to explore the social and collaborative mechanisms of this – not least because it can help us to understand how ideas emerge, and then spread, and hence how our understanding of the ‘dominant narratives’ of the world that surround us evolve.
This is a good example of what we hope to achieve with this Learning Science collaboration.
Alongside the work we are certain about, we hope to share some of our own curiosity, uncertainty, and ideas. This work started, for us, as a conversation over coffee. It may best be read in that spirit.
Being able to learn is no longer a luxury; it’s a critical skill individuals need for the modern world. Organisations too are realising that learning and development programs are no longer a “nice to have”. Not only do investment in employees’ development confer tangible competitive benefits, but those efforts are increasingly required simply as the price of entry into complex, volatile, or cutting-edge industries.
What do we bring to the discussion?
Julian and Sae have chatted about learning, organisations, knowledge, and the changing character of the world for years. But we approach these ideas from different (and hopefully delightfully complementary) directions. Julian’s backgrounds in philosophy, the Social Age, and organisational effectiveness bring a mix of creativity and pragmatism. Sae’s backgrounds in formal learning theory, technology, and national security bring a strong scientific foundation and unique application perspective.
By focusing these two perspectives on the same target, we expect to illuminate some unique angles, uncover disagreements, and distil a handful of utilitarian best practices for learners, teachers, and organisations.
Sometimes we will speak in one voice, and sometimes with our own separate ones.
Where we bring evidence and certainty, we will share it.
And where we are wandering slightly lost, deeply curious, and faintly bemused, we will share that too: in part our aim of this work is to explore each other’s ideas more deeply, to challenge ourselves, and to make our journey as open as possible.
So, stay tuned to this channel to learn more about…learning.
 Sitzmann, T., & Ely, K. (2011). A meta-analysis of self-regulated learning in work-related training and educational attainment: What we know and where we need to go. Psychological bulletin, 137(3), 421.
 Bersin, J. (2013, Dec.). “21st Century Talent Management: The New Ways Companies Hire, Engage, and Lead.” Deloitte.