It is common practice for teachers and trainers to make the ‘learning objectives’ for a particular lesson explicit at the very start of the lesson. Indeed a friend of mine who is a schoolteacher has told me that in his school senior managers have recently been making unannounced visits to classrooms with the sole purpose of checking that the learning objectives are on display. Woe betide any teacher whose flip-chart or whiteboard is devoid of lesson objectives! (What a pity the senior managers didn’t focus their attention on the complex process of teaching and learning rather than on what was written on the wall.)
On the face of it, this all seems very logical: the teacher breaks the subject/curriculum down into small chunks; s/he decides exactly which chunks are to be taught in a particular lesson; s/he makes this explicit by stating the learning objectives at the start of the lesson; at the end of the lesson teacher and learners can decide whether the objectives have been achieved, and whether the learners are ready to move on to the next chunk of learning.
This ultra-rationalist approach to learning seemed to lie behind the thinking of a recent contributor to a ‘LinkedIn’ discussion I was part of when he promoted the importance of ensuring the ‘most effective and most efficient way’ for:
individual, long term, learning and transfer of critical, must know, information, aligned to strategic, individual and organization objectives.
But does real human learning actually work like this? I recently read Balancing Act: Capturing Knowledge Without Killing It by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid.This suggests that real learning takes place in a very different, far less rationalist, way. The paper is an account of Julian Orr’s research into how the engineers who repair Xerox photocopiers learn how to do their job effectively:
Orr began his account of the reps' day not where the process view begins—at nine o'clock, when the first call comes in—but at breakfast beforehand, where the reps share and even generate new insights into these difficult machines. Orr found that a quick breakfast can be worth hours of training. While eating, playing cribbage, and gossiping, the reps talked work, and talked it continually. They posed questions, raised problems, offered solutions, constructed answers, laughed at mistakes, and discussed changes in their work, the machines, and customer relations. Both directly and indirectly, they kept one another up to date about what they knew, what they'd learned, and what they were doing.
Now this learning could not have taken place by a trainer deciding beforehand what ‘critical, must know, information’ had to be transferred in ‘the most effective and most efficient way’. The complex and idiosyncratic nature of the photocopiers meant that the required knowledge could only be developed because:
in the course of socializing, the reps develop a collective pool of practical knowledge that any one of them can draw upon. That pool transcends any individual member's knowledge, and it certainly transcends the corporation's documentation.
So in a very real sense the learning that was necessary for Xerox’ commercial success happened outside of the company’s control and outside of the company’s time. And we can be absolutely sure that the engineers did not start their breakfast with a statement of learning objectives!