Learning, not education
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Learning, not education

This title may seem a bit bizarre. After all, most people in authority believe education is a good thing and there are organisations attempting to create compulsory education worldwide. The basis for this is the idea that there is an entitlement to education for young people. So I have to explain what I mean by ‘learning, not education’. My fundamental stance is that humans are crucially learning creatures. Human babies are born with the least range of inbuilt abilities of any creature. Babies have to learn hugely the first few years of their life and even then they are not able to survive on their own. So learning is central to being human and absolutely crucial for our survival.

Education, on the other hand, is now seen largely as an institutional process where teachers teach in classrooms against a curriculum with assessments of performance as a central part of the activity. Education and schooling are seen as one. It is this problem that I am addressing here.

Let’s take just one piece of evidence here, though more will follow. We have researched many thousands of managers and professional people across organisations around the world. We wanted to know what makes them effective at work. They all talk about things that they have learned but very little reference is made to education, training, colleges, universities, courses etc.  Indeed, research conducted by a number of universities in the UK and USA has shown that the maximum contribution of education and training to the performance of a professional person is about 10 to 20%. (See Burgoyne and Reynolds, 1997; Cunningham et al., 2004; Eraut, 1998; Eraut et al., 1998; McCall et al, 1988; Wenger, 1998.)

This can come as a bit of a shock to people in the educational world. One reason for the shock is that, by and large, educational institutions do not follow up the people who have attended them to find out what impact that education has had on the lives of the people who attended. We started from the opposite end, which was to find out what made people effective and particularly what learning had helped them to become effective.

In our research we questioned people about what particular processes had helped them to become effective. The most often mentioned word was ‘experience’. When we pursued this in greater depth through extensive interviews, what people actually meant by ‘experience’ was quite varied. Reference was made to having had challenging projects, having had a good boss to work for, travelling to other countries, getting help from a coach, and so on. There was no obvious pattern to these answers – people vary enormously in terms of those experiences that had helped them to learn to be effective.

This research has been in the world of work. When I have done sessions with adults asking them about their wider life, including family and community, the value of education and training drops to an even lower figure. For instance parents often comment on all sorts of ways that they learn to be a parent. These include having role models, reading books, watching TV and films, talking to other parents, and so on. I ask these adults about their role in the wider life of the community, with friends or sports teams. Then things get mentioned such as their own friendships that have helped them to understand how to get on well with other people or how they have learned to take up leadership roles through being mentored by somebody.

A colleague of mine, David Gribble, often asks audiences to come up with one thing that they use on a daily basis that they learned after the age of 11 in education. People struggle to think of one thing. It’s another example of this syndrome whereby the claim that education is preparation for life in our society becomes problematic.

Another interesting example of learning not education came up when 13 of us who had had the greatest involvement in research and practice on learning in organisations came together to see if we could agree about learning. We drew up a Declaration on Learning which we all felt we could agree on, even though the 13 of us come from different backgrounds; for example some were very much university-based researchers, others worked in consultancy in organisations. What linked us all is that we had all written books and papers and done significant research and practice over a considerable amount of time. At one meeting of the group we were discussing an aspect of the Declaration. One person suggested that as we were thinking about learning then education and training should only be used as a last resort. We suddenly found that we could all agree to that statement. In organisations education and training activity tends to be very expensive and often ineffective because there is no attempt to measure what has come out of the education or training activity. The assumption that one size fits all and that everybody has the same learning need at the same time is completely erroneous.

There can, of course, be times when there are some common learning needs; but even then there is generally not a common starting point. One client of mine that I was consulting with was a well-known and very successful international investment banking company. Graduates who joined the organisation were immediately given a test on both the company’s policies and practices but also the general financial rules within which the company had to operate. Most of the participants could answer very few of the questions. That was not the issue. The new entrants were then told that they had two weeks in which to go and find the answers to these questions and that they would be given the same test at the end of that two weeks, in which they were expected to get 100 percent. The company found that not only did this save them a lot of wasted effort in running lectures and giving out boring reading matter but also that the participants had to spend time learning about the business by going out and talking to people. It’s a mark of the success of the business that they had such sensible practices.

A universal need is that of the driving test.  In England anyone can take the test once they are an adult and they can find any mode that they wish to learn how to drive. The state is not interested in the learning mode used by the individual. The person could have spent 1000 hours on the road with a driving school or they could have had just a few hours driving around the block with mother and father. The mode of learning is irrelevant. What is required by the state is quite rightly that the individual has to demonstrate, on a real road in a real car, that they can actually drive safely. So outcome measures are important but measures of input may be irrelevant.

I can remember one conference on mentoring in the National Health Service that I was speaking at. I was observing doctors sitting on the back row reading the daily newspapers. They were attending the day conference in order to tick a box in their Continuing Professional Development scheme but they had clearly no interest in learning anything from the day’s events. Of course they were not being assessed as to whether they had learned anything. This is one of the worst examples of the irrelevance of training. A slightly amusing but also slightly worrying fact is that I know people who have been caught speeding, done a speeding awareness course in order to avoid getting points on their licence, and then three years later they have caught speeding again and done another speeding awareness course. The notion that people can every three years get caught for speeding and do a speeding awareness course and which some people may learn from but clearly others don’t seems to me somewhat unhelpful.

So the case I want to make is that we should pay a lot more attention to learning - and how people learn and what they need to learn, but pay a lot less attention to education and training in formal institutions. Indeed we have to wonder whether as a society we should be spending the billions of pounds that it costs to run educational institutions when they are clearly not at all cost-effective.

Ian Cunningham, ian@smlcollege.org.uk


Cunningham, Ian.  "Why schooling is a major contributor to the crisis – and what can be done about it." Lorimer, D. and Robinson, O. (2010) The New Renaissance, Floris Books, Edinburgh. p.283