Creating a Learning Organization (Preview)

Education can take on many forms and apply to a myriad of different professions and workspaces. In the following conversation, which took place in April, former Design Museum Everywhere Director of Learning and Interpretation Diana Navarrete-Rackauckas spoke over Zoom with three professionals—Josephine Holmboe, Leah Ben-Ami, and Ray Coderre—who each shared how education impacts their specific careers, and the unique challenges they faced as a result of the unprecedented events of the last year.

Headshots of guest speakers

Illustration by Blacksneakers

Moderated by Diana Navarrete-Rackauckas

Diana: Especially in the past year, with how the pandemic has impacted education and restricted in-person learning, those working in education have been thinking a lot about how to teach adults in the workplace, and how to actually get people involved in their learning.
I would love to hear about the specific challenges that you faced in your positions over the past year, and what it means to work with adults in the workplace generally. The central question that we are trying to answer is: What are all of the different approaches that we can take to teach adults at work in the workplace? The first question that I will pose to find the answer to this larger question is: How would you define the difference in your mind between learning and education?

Josephine: I would say first that one is a verb and one is a noun. There’s the action of learning and how people learn, and then there’s the actual concepts, which comprise the education. Everyone learns at a different level, at a different rate, and at a different speed. As any kind of educator or teacher, understanding that is really critical to knowing how to offer the information or the education you’re giving students. When we talk about human-centered design and the way I teach said concepts across our organization and business, it is all dependent upon who’s participating in that particular session. I am constantly having an internal conversation about how I am relaying information and showing them how to think, work, and approach a problem, but I also have to make sure that they are comprehending it and that they are absorbing it so they can then go out and use it.

Ray: I agree with Josephine and would add that to me, within organizations, we often talk about creating a learning culture, or the conditions that enable learning. That’s distinct from the things that we teach people. I think a distinction that is lost in the learning space is that you have to focus on creating the right learning environment, with the recognition that that varies depending on the population, the circumstances, or what you are actually trying to teach. Some concepts are experiential, and some are much more technical, but if you focus on this distinction and are clear around learning objectives and the structure of what you are teaching students in this context, then you are more likely to have that effective interplay between active learning and education.

I think a distinction that is lost in the learning space is that you have to focus on creating the right learning environment, with the recognition that that varies depending on the population, the circumstances, or what you are actually trying to teach.

Leah: One of my favorite quotes that I feel applies to this question is, “I never learn when I feel like I’m being taught a lesson.” It ‘s important to keep in mind that you can have an education, but simultaneously have learned absolutely nothing. I think that with the STEM field especially, I’m learning a lot more about how they tinker and learn and fail and try again. Through this trial and error concept of learning, learners can gain an invaluable education that may not be the explicit lesson or “education” that was designed for them to obtain, but this is still a key notion for educators to keep in mind.

Diana: Creating a learning space definitely requires a certain amount of vulnerability from everyone involved, along with a commitment to trust in the process. So how do you set the stage for the adults that you’re working with, to get people on board for the journey they are about to go on with you?

Josephine: I love that you use the word journey, because when you’re talking about teaching adults, they all have learning biases that they have acquired during their lives. At the start they’re smart, they’re experienced, and they have a lot of perspective on life. As someone trying to teach a concept or process, you have to understand that some adults are going to come in with their guard up. I think the hardest thing that I have to encounter is how to help adult learners suspend the mentality that the way they’ve done things in the past is the only way to do things going forward. I find it helpful to approach learners early on in a pre-workshop, class, or session with the idea, “Let’s get an understanding of where you are.” Because if I can understand where they are, it’s very helpful in knowing how to structure the way they need to learn.

I think the hardest thing that I have to encounter is how to help adult learners suspend the mentality that the way they’ve done things in the past is the only way to do things going forward.

Leah: I’m so happy that you mentioned that, Josephine, because I have also been working through the concept of adaptability versus customization. This is a direction that we knew we would have to go in for Continuing Ed., because there are different personas of adult learners, whether they are career changers, career explorers or career starters. These are import-ant distinctions to help determine what’s the right learner journey for each individual, but these classifications are far from finite, so what I really love to get involved with is more mentorship and coaching—providing a network to support the learner through their entire journey and really understanding all the different touch points from the beginning. Considering learning during the pandemic last year, you have learners who are not in an ideal environment, and having to educate virtually has been a worry, because it is more difficult to determine if what you are teaching is truly resonating. You don’t have as much visibility, so coaching, being vulnerable, unlearning, and focusing on a grit and growth mindset are some pieces that we’ve been focusing on.

Considering learning during the pandemic last year, you have learners who are not in an ideal environment, and having to educate virtually has been a worry, because it is more difficult to determine if what you are teaching is truly resonating.

Ray: Having now taught in-person, hybrid, and online classes, I think one challenge of working with adult learners is the necessary shift in delivery from instruction to facilitation. For adults, that distinction is really critical. We’re not trying to tell them what to learn. We’re trying to help them understand the concept at hand, relate it back to their own personal experiences, and then test it against their skepticism, through peer interaction and application.
I also think it is important to ask the question, “What are the constraints or barriers for people to enter into the learning space?” There are cultural, societal, or systemic constraints that certain populations may experience that an educator may not be in tune with, where students do not feel like they can take advantage of learning because of their work culture, boss, or manager, or because of their partner, personal life, society, or community. As educators, we have to be attentive to these unique circumstances, and try to create learning conditions that are informed by where people are coming from, just as much as what we’re trying to teach them…

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Cover of the Education Issue

From Design Museum Magazine Issue 019