Emergent Learning

A couple of weeks back I had a good old natter with Doug Shaw about the learning experience and how we could encourage a much more free-form of what happens in the workplace to support learning and therefore performance.

We toyed with the idea that if you asked a group of people to come together, and let them decide what learning needed to happen, what role, then, does the facilitator play?

In typical learning and facilitation, the facilitator has a set of notes, a slide deck, a range of topics to cover, exercises and some clear learning objectives. There’s nothing wrong with that, and is the form and structure of a lot of current learning programmes.

Of course, when I say nothing wrong with that, what I mean to say is there’s nothing wrong with that if you don’t care about how learning actually happens and don’t care about knowledge transfer and application to daily work practices.

So, imagine it. A group come to the room ready to learn about any given topic. There’s no structure, there’s no direction, and there’s no lesson plan. There’s no slide deck, there’s no agenda and no planned exercises. You’re at the mercy of the group, and at the mercy of life itself.

What would they learn? How would they learn it? What’s the point of an expert? What models can they use? What does good practise look like? How can they improve? How can they get fixed?

This weekend, I chose to attend a self-facilitated and self-organised learning event all about facilitation skills. It was called Facilitation Jam, and was probably one of the best learning experiences I’ve had in recent years.

Different to the unconference environment which is still focused on production of content and allowing an agenda to take place at the pace of people attending, this was much more free-form and loose in its execution.

There were a group of seven of us, all skilled facilitators in different ways, and all there for our own reasons and purposes. As I reflect on it, there were several things going on which meant we all engaged and disengaged in varying forms, and had the support and confidence of the group to move things along.

We spent the whole time together contracting and checking in with one another. This was of high interest to me because I didn’t realise how vital this is to building trust in a group. Ordinarily on a learning session I might contract with the group at the start of a session about the behaviours we all agree to. But for it to be a regular and focused part of the conversation meant people had the freedom and permission to be engaged, challenge others when they thought they weren’t being participative, and share when they felt disengaged by what was happening.

The checking in, for me, was something I overlook regularly. The checking in was all about asking people to acknowledge what is going on for them personally and sharing that with the group so we’re all aware of the state of that person and can support them if it’s requested. I think we did this very well with one another, and we were fortunate. I know there are a good many groups who would find this truly challenging and not important.

There was no pressure to have to conform to an agenda or learn set things or follow a model of thinking. We shared knowledge, helped each other develop our own thinking, and had robust discussions about lots of things.

We understood each others purpose for being there. We wanted everyone to focus on how to achieve what they came for, and supported each other in this pursuit. Some had the opportunity to deal with things directly, others got there by virtue of unexpected insights and discussions.

What the Jam showed me was the power of emergent learning.

What it also challenged me with was how to bring that experience to the work environment. It’s a hard sell to a group you’re going to facilitate a learning session with no set up, no agenda and no overall learning plan.

The opportunity, though, means that we truly tap into people’s motivation, providing the right support for performance  improvement, the right support for personal development and the right environment for learning to take place.

One of my reflections with the group was that we were in an environment where creativity and innovation could happen because of the people present. As I reflect now, we were also supporting a good many other things, but none explicitly sought, and that matters.

Something also tells me that one of the reasons the Jam worked so well is that we were an experienced group of facilitators who knew and understood how to enjoy a session like this and how to make the best of it.

Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

2 thoughts on “Emergent Learning”

  1. Hi Sukh interesting post, I spent two years researching the introduction of an enquiry action learning approach to postgrad social work education which had all the same features of the jam you describe above. The big difference being that students were preparing for an accredited, professional body qualification. It was introduced too quickly, with insufficient attention paid to whether the students had the skills to drive their own learning (this was before the days of Google, Twitter etc) and as a result the students felt abandoned, without direction & fearful for their degrees, the staff were also uncomfortable with it. Over time it settled down but took on a more familiar shape with greater signposting & intervention by tutors. So no answers from me but a reflection, emergent learning is great, I love it but does it work when you have a clear set of skills, behaviours & actions to achieve within a specified time? My experience then was it didn’t but times have changed. That’s not to say it can’t, I’ve seen peer led learning sets work exceptionally well on our management & leadership programme, but it needs careful preparation, motivation of all concerned & a shared commitment to making progress.

  2. You just described the key differences between true facilitation and training. There’s a need for both and the challenge is identifying the need and giving ‘trainers’ facilitation and engagement skills as well as training delivery skills!

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