Change and Learning

Traditionally, trainers produce context, which is supposed to change the behavior of learners. That is, we believe that the environment changes behavior (stimulus-response or cause-effect). And when our content fails to change the behavior, we try a different content in hope that it will work. With luck, things work out in the long run. But by looking at the learning process from a PCT (Perceptual Control Theory) perspective, we could greatly enhance the learning process.

Informal Learning

Seventy percent of learning by employees in the workplace happens informally or outside formal programs developed by organizations (Day, 1998). Informal learning is defined as "any learning that occurs in which the learning process is not determined or designed by the organization." While formal training includes both an expressed organization goal and a defined process.

For example, getting help from a coworker is informal learning. Going to a two-hour class is formal learning. OJT could be one or the other, depending how the organization coordinates it, thus the 70% the study cites is a rough estimate, rather than a precise number.

In addition, there is incidental learning — the by-product or unintended outcome of a learning experience. For example, over-hearing two coworkers discussing how to do something — you learn something, even though you did not intend to learn it.

What we need to realize is that learners act upon the world based on what they perceive and thereby change their environment and what they consequently perceive of it. Most informal learning uses this method. This is negative Feedback. For example, a toilet uses negative-feedback to fill itself up with water when flushed:


To put this in this in a learning perspective, here is an example of someone learning to use a new computer spreadsheet function:

Note the negative-feedback looping effect -- the learner responds in such a way as to reverse the direction of change (errors). The actions continue as long as there are errors. Once the errors cease, homeostasis has been achieved. Also note that the environment (stimulus) does not change the learner's behavior, but rather the learner's perceptions causes her to perform actions that change the environment until it meets her purpose.

Formal Learning

Formal learning normally implies that a major change needs to occur. The first problem when change or learning needs to occur is to find the commonalities between the organization's objectives and the learners' goals. Learners will change how they act upon the world when old ways are no longer effective in getting what they want (purpose or goals). This change in behavior is NOT based on a behaviorist view of variation and selection of specific behaviors, but rather variation and selection of goals as the learner discovers which new combination of controlled lower-order perceptions lead to the attainment of higher-level goals.

Thus, learning or change is goal or purpose directed. And our goals are based upon our emotions. Logic, rules, reasoning, etc. help us to further define our goal, but our emotions are the main drivers. Hence, to do change you must push the envelope! Arouse the emotions and then use logic and reasoning to help guide the emotions.

For this type of learning, positive-feedback is required, for we do not want the learners to remain constant (homeostasis), but rather we want change (rheostasis) — or better yet, a continuing spiral of change. Thus, we want a toilet that flushes up — a Sewage Ejector System (SES). An SES hold the sewage water in a special holding tank, once this water hits a certain level, a pump forces it up through a pipe that has one-way valves to prevent the sewage from coming back down. Thus, we want to fill the learners with arousal, skills, and knowledge so that they start "pumping" the learner towards the direction of change! Of course, unlike the toilet, you must keep the crap out of it as most learners pretty well know when they are being fed such.

Normally, with informal learning, the learner already has a goal in mind, while with formal learning you must work with the learners to not only establish goals that benefit them, but also enable them to reach the organization's objectives.

Secondly, with informal learning, the learner normally has a schema in place, or at least a pretty good idea of the type of schema that is required. While with formal learning, the learners need to build their schema. This is why comparing formal and informal learning is the same as comparing apples to oranges. With informal learning, the learner is doing what comes naturally — homeostasis, as she already has her basic purpose and schema in place, thus the goal is consistency.

While with formal learning, the learner must go through a change process — rheostasis, thus you have to help her define her purpose or goal, which must align with the organization's, and then you have to help create a schema that will allow her to reach that goal or purpose.

Once the learner has her purpose and schema in place, it works basically the same as discussed above in informal learning — break the learning into small parts and then design activities that allow PCT to do its part.

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Day, Nancy (1998). "Informal Learning Gets Results." Workforce, June 1998, v77 n6 p30 (5).