Learning is a rational process…right…?

Human beings generally love to think they are rational. Especially when it comes to learning. After all, what could be more rational than the pursuit of knowledge, insight and carefully constructed new skills – the definitive act of enlightened, rational humanity.

And so people approach the creation and delivery of learning programmes in that light. This is why we focus on “learning outcomes”, why high levels of motivation are assumed and why there is so much emphasis on carefully laying out theory and structure – in essence, trying to package up the sum of knowledge and progress on the topic at hand and pass it on to “the next generation” as efficiently and elegantly as possible.

An assumption of rationality is also convenient for those of us responsible for corporate learning programmes. If learning is rational, then it means we can organise, plan and predict, and keep our bosses and funders happy.

But learning, in my experience, is not like this. Which is annoying. It’s worth understanding why.

Here is an important and under-acknowledged dimension of learning: if you learn something, you are not the same as you were before (whether that is knowledge, a skill, a motivation, a behaviour or a habit). You have changed. Changing means leaving your old self behind (or part of your old self). It means becoming, in some way, a new person. As we leave behind a familiar and working model of our old self in order to adopt a new, unproven one, we are taking a risk. And taking a risk with who we are is challenging, anxious, depressing, thrilling, rewarding – above all, emotional.

So there is a tension when it comes to designing and delivering corporate learning programmes: between the rational process we want it to be and the emotional process it actually is for the people going through them.

This tension has some important consequences. It makes designing and planning learning programmes more difficult than people expect, as they wrestle with what they want to rationally be true and their own emotional response to the emerging proposed programme. It forces design down to a ‘lowest common denominator’ because there is insufficient permission to address the emotional dimension. It makes inevitable bumps in the delivery road seem bigger and more problematic than they actually are. It leads to confusion and tension.

This is perhaps the most important value of the Learning Canvas ©, a tool that I have developed and have been using for my learning consultancy projects over the last two years: it enables me to manage the tension between the rational and the emotional. It does this by providing a single, simple but comprehensive framework – which gives me and my clients the rational control we want – but one that warmly embraces and gives prominence to the inevitable emotional elements of a learning programme.

This has worked really well for two recent clients with very different programmes, one a professional qualification programme for intensive counselling, another an awareness programme for digital safety. In both cases, there was significant emotional investment in the existing programmes from some key stakeholders, while others knew that the programme had to be quite radically refreshed. By taking all the stakeholders, together, through The Learning Canvas, we were able to agree together on key ‘fixed’ points, and then have lively but controlled and less emotional discussions about the key aspects where there were different views.

Let me know if you would like to know more:

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