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What’s New about New Learning?

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By Dr. Lisbeth Claus, Professor Emerita of Management & Global HR at Willamette University


By Dr. Anja Schmitz, Professor for Human Resource Management at Pforzheim University

WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?


More than ever, learning –and training—are a permanent assignment, a permanent trump card, a permanent responsibility for each employer and each worker. In most organizations, the current human resource development (HRD) strategy does not fit the new way of working. We cannot work differently without changing our views on learning! How do we tackle that today and tomorrow? What does new learning mean concretely? I explore the possibilities and bring in an absolute expert on the matter of new learning, Professor Dr. Anja Schmitz of Pforzheim University in Germany.  

The nature of new learning—fluid learning

My HR professional identity and career are closely intertwined with learning and development (L&D) in terms of curating HR and management knowledge, instructional design, higher education, continuing professional education, human resource development, learning assessment, professional HR certification, critical thinking and metacognitive skills development.  In my own education, I was influenced by the views on learning of the classics such as Socrates, Erasmus, Rousseau, Dewey and Montessori and became acquainted with the various learning theories. But, two seminal works left a lasting impression on my own pedagogical thinking. 

In the early 1990s, as Manager of Learning for a Fortune 50 company, I was tasked with developing a culture of learning and coaching in the organization. I designed a retail leadership development program using the tenets of the learning organization—system thinking, shared vision, personal mastery, mental models and team learning— based on The Fifth Discipline:  The Art and practice of the Learning Organization by Peter Senge (1990). A decade or so later, I started to follow the work of Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope and the New London Group on the development of the meta-discipline of education. In their 2008 book, New Learning: Elements of a Science of Education, they asserted that the social changes of the early 21st century—globalization, social diversity and new technologies—required a new type of learner and educator. The learners were expected to be agents in the making of their own knowledge and identities rather than being receptacles of transmitted content (i.e., curricula, syllabi, training plans and courses) and the educators were encouraged to use ‘pedagogical weaving’ of informal learning through immersion (situation) and formal learning by design (form). 

As a result of these influential thinkers and my own almost 50-year experience as a university educator and professional trainer, I developed my own instructional pedagogy which I called fluid learning.  The idea of a fixed way of learning and learning pedagogy are passé and L&D must take into account 10 essential fluid learning principles: 

  1. Is customized to the learner
  2. Develops the metacognitive skills of the learner
  3. Focuses on critical thinking
  4. Requires bite-sized deep learning
  5. Has elements of flipped learning
  6. Is action oriented
  7. Relies on a cohort of learners
  8. Uses a hybrid instructional method
  9. Requires feedback and coaching
  10. Is supported by information technology  

In most organizations, the current HRD strategy does not fit the new way of working.”

Lisbeth Claus

The tipping point of new learning—new ways of working

With the pandemic as a new tipping point in the delivery of education and the generalized practice that online learning and virtual teamwork (in spite of the limitations of digital learning and distance work) were indeed viable options, I jumped the S-curve again in my own life-long learning  regarding L&D. In addition to being forced to be totally immersed in digital communication and education, I discovered the book of Jan Foelsing and Anja Schmitz, New Work Braucht New Learning: Eine Perspektivreise durch die Tranformation  unserer Organisations-und Lernwelten. (Spinger, 2021) and challenged myself to read the book in German. The central theme of their book is that the current HRD strategy in most organization does not fit the new way of working. They assert that we cannot change to new ways of working (as we are doing recovering from the pandemic) without changing our thinking about learning—and that also holds in the other direction! 

During the past year, I held a series of course development conversations with the book’s co-author Prof. Dr. Anja Schmitz who is a leading expert on new learning and also my colleague at Pforzheim University. I asked her a number of specific questions about new learning:    

The practice of new learning—Interview with Anja Schmitz

Why do organizations need new learning (and training)? 

ANJA SCHMITZ “The latest global developments have posed tremendous challenges for organizations and led to an exponentially increased need to adapt in order to remain competitive. This required level of adaptability can only be achieved if organizations and employees adopt a new approach towards learning and development. Traditional approaches to learning or rather–training—become a liability in today’s context. They are too slow, do not offer enough variation to react to changing context requirements, are not personalized for learners and do not support learner self-organization.” 

Why is new learning so different?

ANJA SCHMITZ “New learning refers to learning that is perceived as valuable for the individual as well as for the organization and thus allows learners to fulfill their potential and support the organization’s adaptability. It can be characterized as an active and social process, integrated in the flow of work, primarily informal and self-regulated. It is personalized to learners’ specific needs and accessible on demand. The central principle of new learning is that it enables learners to feel high levels of empowerment during the learning process: they perceive autonomy over their learning goals, process and methods; know why they learn, and perceive learning as subjectively meaningful. They feel competent in the learning process itself and experience that their learning makes a difference and is impactful.” 

How can organizations introduce new learning? 

ANJA SCHMITZ “As we describe in our book, a re-“new”-al of learning—with the empowerment of learners as the key principle—can only be achieved if learning is embedded in a fitting organizational context or frame. This includes culture, leadership, reward-systems as well as the design of work itself. A new approach to learning will not come to life in an organization if employees do not experience high levels of self-organization and empowerment in their work. If we don’t give employees autonomy over how they do their job, if they cannot impact what happens in their department– how can we expect them to be self-organized learners? This brings us back to system thinking (Senge) and is the reason new learning needs new work and vice versa.” 

“A new approach to learning will not come to life in an organization if employees do not experience high levels of self-organization and empowerment in their work.”

Anja Schmitz

What steps can I take to implement new learning? How do I get started? 

ANJA SCHMITZ “Implementing new learning is not a quick fix. Think of it as an ongoing journey with iterative learning cycles. To embark on this journey, start a co-creation process with the stakeholders in the organization: Engage learners and leaders in the reflection of the organization’s context and draft a fitting vision for learning in your company. On this basis, develop new learning approaches with the learners as a first step towards their empowerment and increased levels of self-organization. Depending on the current development level of the organization, these first new learning approaches can be very different. For some organizations and functions (e.g., in the production area), the first step might lie in shifting from only prescribed training content to self-selected training content. In others, learning-out-loud circles might be a suitable format to foster the aspects of informal, social and digital learning. Learning-outloud is a structured appraoch to collaborative and self-organized learning derived from John Stepper’s concept of working-out-loud. Learners form a circle that meets virtually over a specified period of time, e.g. one hour weekly, over seven weeks. They define learning goals, each participant develops a learning session and shares this content with the others, and the group engages in feedback and reflection processes. This implementation process also requires a role shift in the HRD function toward facilitating the implementation of new learning on the organizational as well as on the individual level. HRD will need to shift from developing training programs and content to curating content, enabling learning and learners, and designing the organization’s learning ecosystem.” 

The goal of new learning—let talent flourish

By adopting fluid and new learning principles, HRD has an opportunity to rediscover how individual, team, and organizational learning go hand in hand. The talent is attracted to organizations that value and support their self-directed development, teams need a framework that fosters learning together, and the competiveness of organizations is highly dependent on learning agility.  In this new learning vision, HRD is called upon to seamlessly integrate the L&D requirements of the various stakeholders of the organization into a learning platform supported by people, tools and technology.        

Organizations can only benefit from embracing new learning and its four key principles:

  1. The current (ongoing) complexity demands new approaches to learning
  2. View learning as an active and social process, experienced as subjectively meaningful
  3. New learning is integrated in the flow of work, and primarily informal and self-regulated
  4. New learning is personalized for the learner’s specific needs and accessible on demand 

Let’s continue the conversation together. What is you experience with learning and development in your organization? Which L&D experiences can you share? Contact me at: lclaus@willamette.edu or https://www.linkedin.com/in/lisbeth-claus/

Sources 

  • This article was published in Dutch and edited by Luc De Decker. Claus, L. (2022). Wat is er nieuw aan het nieuwe leren? ZigZagHR Tijdschrift, September, 4 (27) 58-62.
  • Claus, L., Baker, S. & Vermeulen, P. (2021). Be(come) an Awesome Manager: The Essential Toolkit for Impact Leadership. Global Immersion Press, 2nd edition, pp. 21-23. 
  • Foelsing, J. & Schmitz, A. (2021). New Work Braucht New Learning: Eine Perspektivreise durch die Tranformation  unserer Organisations-und Lernwelten. Spinger.

Lisbeth Claus is Professor Emerita of Management & Global HR at Willamette University (MBA) in Salem, Oregon (USA) and Visiting Professor at Pforzheim University (Germany). She is the author of two recent books: #ZigZagHR – Why the Best HR is No Longer HR (with Lesley Arens) and Be(Come) an Awesome Manager: The Essential Toolkit for Impact Leadership (with Scott Baker and Peter Vermeulen). Both books are available from Amazon. Contact info:  lclaus.@willamette.edu or via LinkedIn.

Written by: Lisbeth Claus

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