Groups That Learn are…

So I’ve launched this project (yes, another project!) and who knows where it will go, but the idea is this: we learn best in groups. And by groups I mean two or more people who voluntarily share a question, need, problem, or challenge that is PERSONAL (as opposed to solely professional or educational or academic). I mean two or more people who enjoy each other’s company and have FUN together, who cultivate a spirit of PLAY as they gain new skills and knowledge. I mean two or more people who share a deep RESPECT for a diversity of opinions, are open to new ideas, and can admit to being at least partially wrong because the shared inquiry is more important than individual ego. And finally, I mean groups that have effective means and routines for SHARING what they are learning. These means and routines (the processes) are easily and quickly revised as needed.

Anybody who has ever been part of a learning team or group such as I have described will know how fulfilling this is. Why? For starters, I think it’s because we strike an important balance. We simultaneously respect individual agency (choice) while leveraging the potential of diverse perspectives and experiences. Individuals do not feel impinged upon; they are allowed to freely associate with others who create meaning from the similar questions, needs, and problems. They can also disassociate at will. Even the means or the processes they use to share are flexible and can be adjusted at any time.

Now contrast this with what goes on in schools and businesses around the globe.

1) Where is choice? Do I get to chose what I study? Do I get to find topics that are personal and important to me? Do I get to choose who to study those topics with? Can the group freely adjust their means and routines for sharing information?

2) Where’s the fun? Observe any healthy group and you’ll see a lot of playing. If play is the work of the child, than maybe it’s play that nurtures within us a childlike engagement with the world. So many great ideas come from play!

3) Where’s the respect for difference? Just because a group of learners finds a topic interesting does not mean that they will *ever* reach consensus in their views. How good are learners at acknowledging difference while rigorously testing ideas and concepts. Where does that happen?

4) Where’s the sharing? Sharing loses it’s effectiveness when its form or content are mandated or assessed; sharing should be voluntary for it to be really effective. It needs to come out of each learner’s desire to improve and share or process what they are learning in an open, free way, confident that their ideas and reflections won’t be immediately “graded”.

Find me this kind of group and I will move my little fanny to be around you. I will put my kid in your school. Find me this kind of group and pay me to be there and I will likely never leave. Find me this kind of group and I will learn so much material and solve so many problems it will astound the world. If there are organizations, educational or otherwise, that are aiming for this type of learning experience, I want to know about them. And I want to learn how they encourage this kind of group work, in spite of the many pressures that exist in every large organization to do things as they’ve always done. Inertia: only smaller sized groups will pull us out of that rut.

From this view of the playground, these are groups that really learn.

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Okay, I’m already hearing the shouts. “But will groups like this ever get anything DONE?” you’re asking. This sounds all fine and dandy, but we need productivity, we need measurable results, we need viability! My short answer to that is this: put a group that learns in front of a problem where there is a significant monetary motive to solve it, and you will get better results than if you put a loosely formed group of dead learners with twice that money as incentive. We’re talking demonstrable ROI. No, I don’t have studies to prove this but I wouldn’t be surprised if they existed somewhere. Problem solvers always win. We just don’t have the foresight to encourage and support problem solving on a regular basis, and the group dynamics like I’ve just described. And so we never get there. We never taste the wine *inside* formal organizational structures. We save all the good stuff, individually and collectively, for after work, after school. Why not bring it into our daily living/learning/working earlier in life?

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