Two Kinds of Learning

Updated: Mar 18, 2020

Photo by Kris-Mikael Krister

The Problem?

1. Knowing Stuff

There are two kinds of learning.

One, the kind you’re familiar with, is knowing stuff. If you tell me, I will know. If I read the information, it will sit there in my head. I’ll absorb the facts. (Clever me.) Hopefully - fingers crossed - it will still be there at some future point when it surfaces to be relevant, useful or impressive. If I can pull-off this trick, I might even feel rather relevant, useful or impressive, and this is good for my confidence. Until I’m put on the spot, of course, and then I feel rather wretched for not knowing quite as much as I thought I did. (Silly me.)

The idea that if only what’s in your head could somehow be magically transmuted into my head, all our problems would evaporate into thin air, is ubiquitous. And, I argue, dangerous.

An Inevitable Cycle?

It is a persistent idea, beginning in early childhood as we are told what to do, told how to behave, told how not to be, told-off when we transgress. Then at school, there is the whole system of rules, rewards and sanctions that create compliance to facilitate the telling and knowing of stuff. How well we can do this is called results. Results are numbers that give us self-worth. Or not.

Unsurprisingly, the world of work is based on the same principle, a throwback to our industrial past: I’ll tell you what to do for your reward, and you’ll do it. Good dog! And here are the penalties for not doing it. Bad dog!

If we were not to be told, this idea goes, we would,

a) be totally lost and unable to cope,


b) get away with doing as little as possible.

Indeed, at the heart of it is the unquestioned notion that we need to be managed. Would it not be totally reasonable to respond with, “But I’m a grown-up. I can manage fine.”?

As a system of social control, it seems to have worked rather well – at least to those who benefit from the system – and so our politics operates in the same mode: “We’ll decree. Some of you can direct. And the rest of you can jolly well do as you’re told.” Lo! and behold, it’s those who have benefited, a privileged elite, that perpetuate the pattern, replicating it in our schools and institutions. You might have noticed all this telling of information from some authority down to those less enlightened rather resembles the parent-child dynamic that we started with.

A Watershed Moment

It’s 2005. I’m training as a teacher, on placement in a secondary school on the Isle of Dogs, East London. GCSE English. Poetry. I’m in full flow, telling them about something terribly important, I’m sure, when a lad puts up his hand and cries out,

“But, Sir!” It’s a voice that could shake the walls of Jericho, “Why do we have to know this for?”

I freeze. He has a point. Probably the best question anyone has asked in any school. He wasn’t the first and won’t be the last, but then, in 2005, something had changed that made the question, not just an interesting academic point of discussion, (What is the pursuit of knowledge for?), but rather a barbed accusation that stings with each passing year. For the first time ever, in the history of the world, that student has got the answer right there in the pocket. If it’s information you want, a quick search and you’ll have what you need, when you need it, in a fraction of a second, in the palm of your hand.

The Walls of Jericho

All of a sudden, this massive industrial effort to get people to know stuff for the sake of strengthening a system of social control, becomes, like the walls of Jericho, fragile and useless.

A Persistent Lie

Information just isn’t the problem. Never was. The false underlying assumption is this: knowing stuff changes how people act. It clearly doesn’t. Think of an instance where you’ve observed a disconnection between knowing the right thing and doing the right thing.

You might know, for example, that we’re living through a climate emergency… You’re still getting on a plane. I know that eating meat and dairy can cause suffering, and I, like you, am against suffering on principle. I still drink milk. As, perhaps, do you. You could tell me over and over that this country still throws away enough plastic carrier bags every year to go around the Earth – more than a hundred times! – and I’ll still be at the checkout lamenting how terrible it is that I forgot my rucksack as I reach for another throw-away plastic bag. Next time… I tell myself… next time.

If, as a leader, your organisation is concerned with telling people stuff – information transition – you’ll hear things like: ‘what they need to know…’, ‘I’ve told them’, ‘ the briefing’, ‘They have the information’, ‘What I want you to do...’, ‘Send over the slides’, ‘Is the learning up yet?’, ‘...had the training’, ‘I want to talk to you about...’, or ‘a knowledge-rich curriculum’. People talk of ‘the content’, ‘talent’, ‘your performance review’, ‘managing performance’, ‘needs analysis’, 'the LMS', ‘e-learning’, and ‘the training’. Presentations begin, ‘I’d like to tell you about…’. These are the red flags for a dangerous kind of learning because we are duped into thinking the work is done, that things will be different now.

But here’s what I’ve noticed: 

Most efforts to train people focus on knowledge and information, the wrong kind of learning.

It’s not that knowing stuff is a bad thing (there are plenty of excellent reasons to improve one’s knowledge), but – in an organisation – should we expect to get anything resembling a return on investment? We might even know the answer to that one, it’s probably not news, and yet we still fall back into the same habits, same management structures, same old telling. No sector is exempt.

2. The Other Kind of Learning

Ah, yes, the other kind of learning:


So, if we're concerned with anything other than an actual change in how we do things, aren't we spending money, time and effort on the wrong sort of learning?

The implications are far-reaching for our companies, schools and institutions: the way organisations are designed, the way leaders lead, the way teams interact, and, of course, for how we teach and train others.

Organisational learning is most effective, therefore, as culture change. And our culture, put simply, is our collective behaviour.

What, then, does change behaviour?

I’d like to tell you, but I have a little suspicion it won’t have the desired effect.

To what extent does this article resonate with you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Jon Robbins, Culture of Learning, Leadership and Team Development

Stay tuned for Part Two: The Solution

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