Designing the “Natural Learning” Program

Rajeev Roy - Designing natural learning programI have shared that “Natural Learning” can be an interesting approach to designing learning programs which overcome the “Monday Syndrome”. Today, we will explore how we can design Natural Learning programs. In subsequent posts, we will look at possible media for these programs and finally reveal an offering that promises to fulfil the lucrative promise of Natural Learning. Yes, there is a pot of gold at the end of the Rainbow.

Let us begin by looking at what distinguishes Natural Learning from instruction based learning. There are three aspects which differentiate these – the goal, the learning environment, and the learning process.

The goal in instruction based learning is to develop an ability – ability to work in teams could be one possible example. What’s the goal in Natural Learning? It is a result to be achieved. For example, the result for a child could be to move from one place to the other – what we call locomotion. The abilities required to achieve the goal are determined and developed by the child, not as researched and instructed by someone else. So, how do we apply it at work? Look at what is the task at hand to be accomplished and not what ability will have the task be accomplished. For example, you have just been appointed as the CEO of your company and one of the goals is to reduce attrition. In Natural Learning, you will figure out what abilities need to be built to achieve this task – not some trainer.

Let us look at the learning environment to further distinguish this. In instruction based training, we have a learning setup. A simulation created specifically to mimic the real life situation we are training people to deal with. A simulation, which has been designed and tested for effectiveness based on research. The flaw – no two people are the same and all statistics are lies (in this context, at least). In Natural Learning, the environment is natural – as it exists. People are doing what they are doing and responding the way they respond. Going back to the example of the child, there is gravity, obstacles, supports, and people walking and running all around. The learning environment is also ruthless – if the child takes one wrong step, he will fall, get hurt, feel real consequences. In fact, it’s the reality of the environment that allows the child to evolve and develop reliable abilities. Every time the child tips forward beyond a point, he tips over. The rules are fixed.

The third aspect that distinguishes Natural Learning from instruction based learning is the learning process. In instruction based learning, instructors promise the learning outcomes, teach the theory, share real life experiences, and finally convince you that what they are teaching is the right way to accomplish your goal and they are accurate. You then try it on in the simulated environment and it works. You are now convinced that it will work in the real world too. That is till the Monday Syndrome hits you. The learning process is very different in Natural Learning – it’s all based on observation followed by trial and error. The child observes what other people are doing around to move from one place to the other. However, where he is now – lying on his tummy, he has no access to start walking like the others. So, he keeps trying to move his arms and legs till it can turn over, then crawl, then stand with support, then cruise, then walk, and finally run. The child is observing what is happening around but has to keep adapting and make the learning his own. Of course, the child never forgets what he has learnt because it’s been done the way that specific child learns not how others learn.

Now, before I get into how to possibly design Natural Learning programs, let us examine in what situations it will be effective. It will only be effective in cases where one is committed to causing breakthrough results. It could be breakthrough results in existing roles that people play at work or new roles they are taking on. It will not work for incremental results. What do I mean by breakthrough results? Breakthrough results are those which were not likely to happen under normal circumstances.

So, how can we design Natural Learning programs? Borrowing from the goal, learning environment, and learning process described earlier, the first step in designing a Natural Learning program will be to define the goal. The goal is a result that is as close to what we expect the participants to achieve in the organisation. A goal that is holistic and integral to the responsibilities of the person in the organisation. The next step would be to create a learning environment where the instructions given are minimal and the learning path is not fixed. Two participants can achieve the same goal through completely different routes by building completely different abilities. During execution, the learning process has to be all about trying, failing, and trying something new. The failure will be real – it will stop the participant from moving ahead in the program. It will not be limited to a failure followed by explaining how others did it. The participant will have to individually overcome the challenge.

So far so good. The next obvious question is – what medium can we use to design this kind of a program? A medium that allows for real goals with challenging and natural environments which demand lots of trail and error to succeed. A medium where failure is not an option.

That’s exactly what we will look at tomorrow. I can promise you, it’s really exciting.

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