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How Is Learning Relevant to Me?

Without meaningful context and sensible processes, learning can become, well, merely academic.

Today’s ideal classroom isn’t really a classroom at all; it’s not limited to a room in a building. The ideal classroom is better described as a “learning system.” It includes a series of experiences, conversations, and activities that allow students to generate a self-directed and satisfying education. People, places, and exercises all become resources for motivated learners. And students learn in the context of answering the question, “Why is this relevant or important for me in my life or job now and in the future?”

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In this scenario, the process of learning has four dimensions:

1. Acquiring knowledge and information
2. Practicing or applying that learning in a variety of settings
3. Integrating feedback from both successes and failures
4. Coaching and mentoring to enhance performance and to apply acquired skills

Today, a healthy learning system stimulates students through all six senses. It provides access to contextual learning as well as to experiential learning; it adapts constantly to changing needs; and it employs a flexible delivery system. Here’s what that system might look like.

Define your goals. To design an effective learning system, you must be clear about the goals you hope to reach. For instance, if it’s true that collaborative problem solving is a necessary skill for successful employees, then all learning activities should be reviewed from the perspective of learning, practicing, coaching, and getting feedback on collaborative problem solving.

Design clear feedback loops. Dynamic feedback loops are essential for learning and work best when they make use of both subjective and objective criteria. Try using visible scoreboards to record people’s progress. Use computers and self-paced learning programs to assess and give feedback based on performance standards. Initiate portfolio reviews that allow employees to assess their progress against their own and others’ performance standards. The results should give you the information that you need to match employees to tasks in which they can grow their skills and enhance the competitiveness of your workforce.

Build in diversity and integration. All learning should include multisensory, multidisciplinary, and multidimensional approaches. For instance, an integrated learning strategy for tackling teenage smoking would include a biological context, a study of the human respiratory system; a sociological context, the role of peer pressure in making decisions; a political-science context, determining whether smoking should be banned from enclosed spaces; and an economic context, the impact of prohibiting tobacco sales from the U.S. economy.

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A program designed to teach new managers how they can enhance their staff’s performance through effective coaching might ask participants to interview three managers who have an excellent reputation in coaching. It might also include going on a field trip to a professional sports event to watch a world-class coach in action. The managers might then be asked to write a set of instructions for a task using questions, rather than commands, to guide learners. Finally, participants might practice coaching skills in a simulated, online case study.

So the learning system of the 21st century must be designed to deliver the right content via the right processes in the right context. The definition of “right” is whatever gives learners access to their own skills, creativity, and success. What works today could be obsolete in six months, so we must focus on creating opportunities for self-generated, relevant learning that allows people to discover avenues for self-empowerment in the future.

Rayona Sharpnack (rayona@womensleadership.com) is founder and president of the Institute for Women’s Leadership and creator of the Women Leading Change and Partners Leading Change programs.