Learning is polluted

Written by Paul Matthews on 17 June 2015

I mean the word learning. We use it in so many different ways, and I think some of the ways we use it are actually not serving us well in the L&D profession.

One of the phrases that really bugs me is the commonly heard ‘deliver learning’.

Do you ever hear yourself saying that?

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘learning’, when used as a noun in two ways:

1. The acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught.

2. Knowledge acquired through study, experience, or being taught.

So I know that it is grammatically correct to use ‘learning’ as a noun, but I think this has some consequences in our thinking that are unwelcome.

The phrase ‘deliver learning’ or any of its cousins treat learning like a package, and the focus is on the package rather than the recipient. The courier does not care whether you open that package he has just delivered, and he cares even less whether you use it, or just throw it in the trash. He only cares that it was delivered. For him, once the package is delivered, it is job done.

When we want people to learn, we need to focus on the learner, and what we can do to help them learn. We need to do far more than just deliver the package. And yet so much of what I see people doing in L&D is akin to package delivery. When a delegate is put on a training course, when a worker is sat in front of an e-learning screen, when a resource is made available on the intranet, for many people in L&D, it is job done.This is not enough.

Now consider what happens when you use the word ‘learning’ as a verb. There is a natural focus on the person doing the learning. Learning is something that happens within the learner. It is our job in L&D to provide as much as we reasonably can for the learner so they can accomplish this learning process. Sure, we can deliver the package, but there is so much more than we can do to make sure it’s the right package for their needs, and to help them open and use the contents of the package so that everyone benefits.

Just stop and think for a moment, and be honest with yourself. Do you focus on the entire learner journey, or just package delivery?

Do you use the word learning as a noun and thereby in a subtle, and perhaps unconscious way, abdicate responsibility for making sure that the learning actually has an effect?

Or do you use the word learning as a verb and thereby bring your attention to helping people learn?

Start noticing your own language and that of your colleagues. When you hear ‘learning’ used as a noun, notice what happens to the meaning of a sentence if you rephrase it using learning as a verb rather than as a noun. Which meaning do you think will get better results?

Verb or noun; it’s your choice.


About the author
Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, as well as management development and employee performance support.

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