Community Learning at Work
I listened to our instructor explaining how our new software package will work. I’m excited to learn and use this tool – it will ease communication and improve how we do business. There’s a lot to absorb, but I’m confident that eventually it will become routine, even for me.
I followed the presentation closely, watching screen after screen of instruction. The instructor was very good. But certain processes just did not, excuse the pun, compute for me. I got lost in a flood of new operations.
Adrienne Morris, my Executive Assistant, sat next to me. At a couple of key places, she moved over to my laptop and showed me the right commands. What she taught me is what I remember now.
The simple lesson: complex skills are best learned from others who are learning and dealing with the same problems, challenges and issues that we are. That’s true whether the topic is new software commands or how to change the workplace to make it more civil, inclusive, and productive.
Absorbing basic information can be accomplished via a solitary experience. Reading, watching a video, or completing an online course will work fine; those are efficient and cost-effective learning methods.
But when you have questions and need to practice a new skill, you need help. Perhaps you disagree with or don’t understand a concept. Who better to help you translate it to your situation that someone who has already worked through the same questions? In that way, colleagues are often your best tutors. They’re the ones who can give you a different perspective, challenge your assumptions, or explain an issue in a way that is specific to the work you do (something even the most talented instructors often fail to do).
I’m far from the only person who has found it useful to have support beyond an instructor’s lecture: One skilled physics professor at Harvard has learned that his students learn more from one another than they do from presentations he has meticulously prepared. So he has them do reading on their own, then uses the class time for small-group discussions. In these groups, a student’s peers can say, as Adrienne did for me, “Here—take a look at this. This is how it works. This is what he means. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Or, What don't you understand?” At Harvard, peer teaching is being considered as an important, revolutionary learning method of the future. And this discovery is making news in the world of education.
The only problem is one of labeling. There is nothing revolutionary about this method.
For eons, we’ve learned many of our most important lessons from friends, family, and peers. When we’re trying to get people to act in a certain way in line with basic dos and don’ts of workplace conduct, lectures alone and just raw information won’t be effective. If you want to change behavior and culture, make sure you provide plenty of opportunity for colleagues and co-workers to talk to each other and work through key questions. Build your own informal learning community by tapping into the talents of your own bright “peer instructors,” just like Adrienne Morris and my other skilled colleagues teach me every day.