Learning in the “real world”

I currently have the extremely good fortune to be travelling in Italy. The sun is shining and it’s nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday at home. The thing that I have most been noticing since being here is the language. A few years ago, my husband and I decided to learn to speak Italian. We spent two years at TAFE, one night a week learning the language and, although I’m not yet completely fluent, I’ve come a long way. I definitely speak more than the average tourist and I’ sure that if I practiced more I would become better still 🙂

The main thing that I have noticed on this particular trip to Italy is how much of the language you pick up just by being here. This is real-time experiential learning. You have some basics to get started (Buongiorno, Vino, Pizza, etc) and every time you go out and interact with the locals you gain a little more knowledge. You are immersed in the language and, if you’re a little off the tourist trail like we are, you have no choice but to learn. It’s on TV, every shop you go in to, every interaction you have with other people requires you to undertake trial and error learning.

At the moment, experiential learning seems to be experiencing something of a renaissance within a workplace context. Corporate learning professionals are, in some respects, re-discovering experiential and “on-job” learning. Part of this is driven by the need to cut costs by reducing the time and money invested in learning within organisations. Part of it, I’d like to think, is also a re-discovery of the effectiveness of this type of learning. The main problem is how to capture it and package it into something usable…but do we need to?

Let’s take the example of being a tourist and needing to learn even a few words of another language to get around. You don’t plan the learning, you don’t establish a learning contract with yourself or ask for feedback from native speakers. You just talk and see if anyone understands you. If you manage to get the meal you want or the bus ticket you need you are elated. If you don’t, you reflect on why and change your approach next time. It’s really that simple. Why don’t we seem to be able to do this in a workplace context? As learning professionals, we admit that most of what people learn at work is through experience or other people, why do we then persist in making everything a “programme” complete with “toolkits” and instructions? Is it to make it look like we’re working hard? Is it to standardise the approach and make sure everyone is doing the “right thing”?

Maybe, as when travelling, it’s time to learning professionals to learn to let go and guide rather than instruct.

I’ll put my theory to the test next week when I arrive in Greece. Not speaking any Greek at all is an interesting new position to be in. Perhaps I should formulate a learning plan? I think it will involve asking for ice cream and directions to the nearest beach 🙂