Resistance to New Learning Methods: Embracing Change in Education and Training

Social Learning: Unlocking the Power of Peers in Knowledge Acquisition

Organizations often resist change and cling to traditional learning methods, even as technological advancements present alternative options. The resistance to new ideas and models can be attributed to various factors. One factor is inertia, as professional learning has followed a classroom-based approach since the Industrial Revolution.

The concept of an expert delivering knowledge to a passive audience has deep cultural roots and has persisted over time.

However, the preference for face-to-face learning is not solely based on the belief that it is the only or best approach.
The benefits of remote and online learning models have been well-documented. The primary obstacle to change lies in the expressed preferences of potential learners. When surveyed, they often indicate a preference for classroom-based learning.

For learning and development professionals, the challenge lies in convincing people to embrace new and valuable approaches they may initially distrust. Simply telling individuals that their ideas are outdated and insisting on different methods is not effective. Forcing learners to adopt methods they are not convinced of can lead to resentment and hinder the learning process. Therefore, the key is to understand what learners truly gain from face-to-face learning.

Upon investigation, it becomes apparent that there may not be a significant overlap between people's stated preferences and their actual preferences. Teams may claim to enjoy a three-day training course held in a distant hotel as a way to acquire new skills. However, their true appreciation might stem from the opportunity to spend more time with colleagues, to have time for reflection, or simply to escape the routine of daily work.

These are all valid reasons for valuing face-to-face learning. Similar to school classrooms, physical events go beyond knowledge absorption and skill development—various other dynamics occur in these settings. And these dynamics are important. Well-rested teams who have established social connections alongside professional relationships tend to be more productive and satisfied. While it is important to acknowledge the significance of these face-to-face events, it is crucial to be honest about their primary purpose.

We wondered about the process of learning and discovered that in formal settings, it is often structured as a top-down approach led by experts. However, learning encompasses more than just expert-led instruction. It frequently occurs through interactions among peers, known as social learning, which is horizontal rather than hierarchical according to psychologists.

Being social creatures, humans constantly gather information and ideas from one another. We engage in conversations on public transportation, share stories at the office water cooler, listen to podcasts, read books and blogs, and watch movies. We gossip, exchange tips, recount experiences, and observe how our peers behave in different social situations. This is how we acquire knowledge about the world—through social learning.

Social learning has been a fundamental aspect of human development since the early days of Homo sapiens. Our ancient ancestors shared stories around campfires and depicted them on cave walls, which served as some of the earliest forms of visual storytelling. Survival relied on observing and imitating others, such as learning how to hunt, start fires, and differentiate between edible berries and poisonous ones.

In any workplace, social learning occurs organically, even without deliberate orchestration. For instance, when someone encounters difficulties with software, they may seek formal training from HR. However, if face-to-face courses are unavailable or scheduled for a later date, individuals are unlikely to wait idly. Instead, they turn to their colleagues for assistance, resolving the problem through informal social learning.

However, offices are not entirely egalitarian environments. Cliques, in-crowds, and shared experiences can create barriers and exclude certain individuals from accessing the information they require. Leaving social learning to chance can be deemed unfair. This is where learning and development specialists play a crucial role in addressing these disparities.

One strategy is to foster connections between team members and internal experts. An internal expert refers to someone who possesses extensive knowledge in a particular area within the company. For instance, Sarah, the company's accountant, specializes in financial matters, while Abdul from the IT department is well-versed in the company's holiday booking system. The learning and development team maintains a checklist of internal experts, allowing individuals like Sarah to be connected with Abdul when facing related challenges. Likewise, when Abdul requires assistance with expense processing, he knows to approach Sarah from accounting.

This informal and horizontal relationship between Sarah and Abdul is based on social learning, facilitated by the deliberate social learning strategy employed by the learning and development team. They act as "skills matchmakers" by compiling a list of internal experts, eliminating wasted time and frustration often associated with not knowing whom to turn to for assistance. Importantly, this approach ensures equal access to help and support for everyone, regardless of their tenure within the organization.

A digital learning is frequently inefficient due to its perceived passivity, isolation, and sedentary nature. Motivation is the key ingredient that fuels effective learning, while technology serves as a valuable tool in the process. It acts as the missing key that propels learning forward, but not only that...

The preference for face-to-face learning often stems from its ability to provide a break from the office environment and offer networking opportunities. As social beings, we thrive on learning together with peers rather than in solitude in front of a screen.

Therefore, e-learning should not be viewed as a standalone solution; instead, it should be integrated into a broader culture of social learning to enhance its effectiveness.

An effective method of fostering social learning is through organizing lunch-and-learn sessions. These sessions bring together individuals who may not be well acquainted over a shared meal to engage in discussions on specific topics. The low-key and low-pressure nature of these sessions encourages open dialogue and facilitates the nurturing of social connections.

Although the social world of our Stone Age ancestors was limited to their tribes, it expanded over time. With the invention of the printing press, information began to circulate across continents. Nowadays, information travels globally within seconds. Yet, the essence remains the same. When we watch amateur chefs preparing pad thai on YouTube or participate in fitness forums, we are engaging in a behavior that humans have always done—learning from our peers. It has certainly become more technologically advanced, but it remains social learning.

Now, let's connect these ideas to professional development, the focus of our discussion. To do that, we can refer to the work of Julian Stodd, an American educational psychologist and author who extensively explores learning and development in the digital age.

Stodd emphasizes that trust forms the foundation of learning. If we trust someone, we are more likely to believe that the information they provide is valuable and useful, rather than suspecting that they are trying to manipulate us with self-serving beliefs. As social beings, we are inclined to place greater trust in knowledge acquired through social learning compared to formal knowledge. For example, many people are more receptive to ideas encountered online from their peers than ideas presented by authoritative experts.

Stodd and the author both conclude that reinforcing the authority of experts is not the solution. Instead, they suggest working in alignment with human psychology. If social learning plays a significant role in knowledge acquisition, incorporating it into learning strategies becomes essential.
Ideas Culture