The Forgotten Art of Exploratory Learning

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In the past 30 years, the best learning that I’ve done as a human being has been exploratory and self-directed in nature – be it advertising and media, gamification, or data sciences. Sure, I’ve used institutional learning to solidify my understanding and gain credibility through certifications, because that’s what our society rewards, but it all began with a deep personal choice to learn those subjects. This insight triggered me to probe into that type of learning that’s pushed onto the learners, be it students or professionals. Does it even work? Is it even worth it? Why do we still do it?

One common thread that connects my deep personal choice to learn those subjects was inspiration — something, someone, some event inspired me to explore and learn more about those subjects.

David Perell mentions that there are two kinds of learning, one that happens to avoid failure in life — which is a fight or flight response through learning. It’s useful, but maybe not enjoyable, so it’s not sustainable. However, the second one is learning because you get joy through it, it satiates your curiosity. It’s the learning that’s led by inspiration. He also mentions, ‘The way I see it, the need for inspiration inverts the learning process: instead of starting with the building blocks and moving toward curiosity, students start with curiosity and move towards the building blocks. Guided by the light of inspiration, the benefits of memorization become self-evident, and the motivation to learn comes intrinsically.’

How much of the learning that happens in the classroom or through the learning management system is inspiration-led? This question led to another insight.

Teacher centric learning vs student centric learning

It’s unnerving for many to give away control or design learning keeping the learner at the centre of things — like human centred design — learner centred learning has started to take small steps towards its evolution. One of the steps is designing meaningful intentional self – directed learning. The teacher/learning designer is just a mere guide — not an authority in this case. The teacher/learning designer can also become the coach and provide motivational boosts to the learner to continue his/her exploration. Like I mentioned before, with the positives, come the negatives — It might become an intensive, time-consuming approach.

In her book, Evidence Informed Learning, the author mentions that. ‘Learning Designers can help learners to get better at Self-Directed Learning/Self-Regulated Learning through integrating support and guidance into formal learning contexts as well as in the workflow. That way, Learning Designers can help learners to become more conscious of the things they need to consider when learning.’

She goes onto mention that, ‘Learning professionals can invest in measuring Self-Directed Learning/Self-Regulated to give us insight into how learners in the workplace approach their learning, which can in turn help us to figure out how learning professionals can best support them. Examples of Self-Directed Learning/Self-Regulated measurement are questionnaires, self-reporting tools, think-aloud protocols, unstructured interviews, and tracing.

Which leads me to another insight, Learning Designers will have to transform into performance coaches/mentors when Self-Directed Learning/Self-Regulated Learning Practices is chosen as a preferred way of learning.

Learning is like a song

Initially, you’re only attracted to songs that move you emotionally. If they’re catchy, you’ll listen to them enough to get stuck in your head. If the song keeps resonating with you, you’ll learn about the artist and explore the lyrics in-depth. Talk to an obsessive fan and in addition to singing the lyrics for you, they’ll tell you the backstory behind the music.

Learning works the same way.

I hate it when strict directives are provided to me to learn a subject a specific way, it takes me away from exploring the subject and understanding it from its roots, its deepest principles.

Of course — exceptions exist and they may help too. But that shouldn’t take away from the fact that we have systems of thinking, working, and learning that worked great in the age of manufacturing, that are still thriving in the age of knowledge work.

We’re making humans sort of stupid, by taking away their ability to think – independently. Even a box set of Legos is doing that.

Seth Godin decides to frame it differently, “LEGO isn’t the problem, but it is a symptom of something seriously amiss. We’re entering a revolution of ideas while producing a generation that wants instructions instead.”

Instructions Kill Deep Understanding

The instructional designers, teachers, and admins meticulously plan their learning for the learners and the students. They do all the creative thinking so that they can do their bit really well for the apparent benefit of the students, whereas the learners and the students are forced to follow. Isn’t that a sign of toxic relationship? What is the learner or the student getting out of it apart from some instructions to follow?

We’ve constantly underestimated the ability of our learners to think deeply. The limitations on creativity and exploration that’ve been promoted recently will lead to ill-equipped and less dynamic professionals in the real world.

The biggest concern here would be that forced (external) learning would take away/deteriorate the curiosity muscle of individuals that render them to become average learners.

Even though inspiration is hard to define and self-directed/exploratory learning lacks structure, I firmly believe that the learning that happens this way is faster, cheaper, and more effective than other formats.

You can either learn to become literate or you could learn to understand more. Ex: ‘There is the kind of reading that you want just so that you can look at street signs when you’re on the highway and say okay this is Valley Forge Casino — need to get off this stop here but then there’s another kind of reading which is actually being able to grapple with likes of Immanuel Kant’s critique of pure reason’ – David Perell.

While David makes complete sense from an emotional standpoint, he’s not a 100% accurate. Only when the learner knows how to even read the Valley Forge Casino sign, she will, with additional effort, be able to grapple with the writings of Kant.

Evidence Informed Learning the author mentions that there’s a collective understanding amongst the learning practitioners that, ‘Factual and procedural knowledge is extremely useful and also necessary (how can you think deeply and/or conceptually about something that you know nothing or little about?), however, you also need to know when to apply it and how to adapt it to new situations.

Instruction alone, even high-quality instruction, isn’t enough. Learners need to actively participate in the learning process. Without this, they won’t be able to achieve deeper conceptual understanding of what they’ve learned.’

The authors of Make It Stick also mention the following that makes a strong case for exploratory learning. ‘Remember that the most successful students are those who take charge of their own learning and follow a simple but disciplined strategy. You may not have been taught how to do this, but you can do it, and you will likely surprise yourself with the results.’

Maybe we’ve got it wrong, all along. Maybe it’s time to course correct? Have we completely ignored self-directed/exploratory learning or ignored it because of its complexity? What could be possibly be stopping us from enabling this form of learning in our classrooms and workplaces? Why aren’t we moving towards making our workforce expert at Self-Directed/Exploratory Learning within our organisations, especially when there are well documented facts that Self-Directed Learners/Self-Regulated Learners are more knowledgeable and high performers[1].

Would love to know your thoughts. Please reach out to in case you would like a candid discussion on the forgotten art of exploratory learning.

1 e.g., Torrano Montalvo and González Torres, 2004; Ertmer and Newby, 1996; Bjork, Dunlosky and Kornell, 2013

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