Thoughts from a Guest Blogger: Why Learning Needs Context

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About the author: Nigel Paine has been involved in corporate learning for over twenty years. He has run organizations that produce learning software, CD-ROMs and multimedia materials, and has offered development support, as well as learning resources, to companies large and small. In 2012, Nigel was awarded the Colin Corder Award for outstanding achievement in corporate learning by the UK’s Learning and Performance Institute. He is the Chairman of the UK CLO Network. 

Today’s blog post features Nigel’s thoughts about the importance of context in learning, and why organizations need to focus on more than just skill-building: 

Recently, I was flying across Australia and awoke in a darkened plane, not realizing whether I had been asleep for five hours or five minutes. It was very disorienting. To figure out how long I had been asleep, I decided to turn on the electronic map to find my location. The map showed an airplane moving through a colored background, and was delicately shaded from light blue to dark blue to yellow to black. This was not helpful! What was missing was any sense of scale, any recognizable reference points or any context. I got my information shortly afterwards from other sources, but the hopeless image from the screen stayed with me for a long time.

The Importance of Context

During this plane ride, it struck me how important context is to make meaning. Context helps us know why, know when, and know how. Similar to my own confusion, that sense of disorientation and frustration can occur in organizations when you’re told what you should do, but not why or in what context it needs to be done.

Learning needs context not only to make sense, but also to justify your development exercise. With context, you can better motivate and empower your students, as well as develop skills.

Adding Context to Your Courses

My colleague Matthew Bidwell  from the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton Business School, developed a very simple little model to illustrate this. It is a triangle with empowerment, motivation, and skills in the three corners, which shows how these facets of learning are interlinked. When it comes to effective learning, is often pointless to develop skills without building motivation, to motivate without empowering, and empower without the skills to deliver.

In summary, when you’re considering building skills and competencies, you should also be focusing on motivation and empowerment. This allows people who work in learning to have really powerful conversations with the operational side of the organization and help build a valid context which can be shared and ratified. These are much more complex conversations than simply, “Give me a course!” and they are richer conversations because they share the responsibility for the successful implementation of learning.

The Bottom Line

All too often we blame learning for not doing what it said it would. We blame the learner for not changing in the way we had hoped, and we blame the learning organization for delivering less than it promised. But, if you reflect on that triangle of skills, empowerment and motivation,  I’m sure that you’ll have better conversations, as well as deliver more effective learning.