Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Learning to Learn

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
Benjamin Franklin
All my professional life I have been struck by the difference between remembering and learning. This may not be that surprising for someone who has been at various times a teacher, an author and a publisher. But there is a truth in the difference that continues to inspire me.

While we are growing up we are taught to remember - to churn out facts or apply formulae that get us through exams. We are not taught to learn - at least not in formal education.

Learning and remembering are not the same. Anything remembered can be forgotten. Anything learned is for life. Is it possible to 'un-learn’ how to ride a bicycle for example?

Real learning comes when we take risks. We have to fall off a bicycle before we learn to ride. Sadly, we are taught not to take risks, but rather to give the expected answers that we have remembered by rote. If we left it to schools to teach us how to ride a bicycle they’d have us studying a manual and remembering how to take the thing apart and put it back together! At school I was taught French in this way, expected to remember grammar rules and sheets of vocabulary that were promptly forgotten the minute I’d written down what I had stored in my mind for the exam. Thus, in the real world, when faced with the opportunity to think outside the box, to take risks in order to learn something new, we are conditioned not to. We operate within artificial boundaries set by social or corporate memory – or ‘the way we’ve always done things’.

In an increasingly competitive and changing business environment, leaders need to nurture creativity, not suppress it. And we need to assess and reward people based on what they have learned and continue to learn - not merely remembered for the purposes of gaining a qualification or ticking a box at an interview.

In the education publishing world that I inhabit, innovation is the key to survival, to growth and to contributing to a better education perhaps than the one we had. Innovation comes from learning and from applying that learning to the products and services of the future. For an organisation to learn, the individuals that are the heart of the organisation need to learn, to take risks, to fall off the bicycle, to question ‘the way we’ve always done things’ and to feel supported in doing that. As a ‘leader’ this means I have to strive to encourage risk-takers, to foster creativity and reward innovative behaviour. This is achieved through involving people in the decisions and directions the organization takes. Every day.

And so, in business, I look to Benjamin Franklin’s words for inspiration. Tell staff what to do and they’ll soon forget. Teach them what to do and they’ll remember, but never question the process or try to improve it. Involve them and they will learn, improve, thrive, innovate and ultimately drive the organization to success.

First posted on August 8, 2011 

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