Lying for Learning
Some Stuff

On Directed and Flow Learning Goals

Tony Karrer has an interesting post on the issue of learning goals. He's noticed that there seem to be two types of goals:

  • Directed Learning Goals – specific focus
  • Flow Learning Goals – nonspecific, exploratory

He goes on to argue that 1) people tend to fall into one of these two camps in terms of how they approach their own learning and 2) formal learning seems to more effectively support people with directed learning goals, while informal learning seems more for those with flow learning goals.

Says Tony of informal learning:

Unlike formal learning, informal learning is generally not going to ensure that specific knowledge will be transferred. Instead, people will learn what they need in order to accomplish the ultimate objectives. We aren't sure what they will learn.

He suggests that for informal learning to be effective for those with a more directed learning goal approach, the instructional design process must take into account their need for more specificity about what will be learned.

Tony's take on this makes sense to me. He sees himself as a directed learning goal guy. I'm much more of a flow learning goal person. After working with Tony on the Work Literacy Ning learning event, I can see that some of our behind the scenes back and forth on how to structure the learning was based on us coming at this from these two different angles. I saw us designing a much more free-flowing, exploratory experience, while Tony had some very specific learning goals in mind.

You can actually see our two approaches in the unit we did on social networking and LinkedIn. I set it up as a sort of "here are some things to explore--check them out" kind of unit. Tony added a screencast on how to find an expert on LinkedIn. You can see that he had something very specific in mind about using LinkedIn, while I was coming at it from a very different point of view.

So the issue becomes, how do you define learning goals for social, informal learning in a way that provides context and makes sense for more concrete directed goal learners?

Tony suggests that defining a business outcome or purpose for the learning is a good start. There doesn't have to be agreement about the specific topics or process, but if directed learners understand that the purpose of the informal learning is to help them achieve a specific business outcome, then they have a higher level of comfort with the process.

In my experience, this may be true of a directed learner like Tony, but he seems to be an exception. The people in my work who are most uncomfortable with informal, social learning are those who are also uncomfortable with something as ill-defined as a "business outcome" for their learning goals. They want very specific, concrete, actionable learning objectives AND they want a step-by-step process for getting there. In fact, I find that these types of learners have no patience for informal learning. To them, it's not learning at all. It's too messy and ill-conceived (in their minds).

For me, some of the value in Tony's distinction is that it points to a larger learning issue I see around types of learners. In general, in my experience, those who have directed learning goals (with Tony as the exception, rather than the rule) are also the ones who see formal learning as the only route to achieving those goals. They have a more concrete, linear way of seeing the world that requires X to lead to Y to lead to Z.

Flow learning goal people tend to prefer more informal learning events, in part because formal learning feels too constricted and controlled. They seem to be less linear and more networked in their thinking, where X connects to A, which connects to G and gets us to Z. They want and need the freedom to explore those connections, rather than being forced down a linear learning path.

If I'm right, I'm not sure that it's possible to provide enough of a structured goal orientation to informal learning to totally satisfy most directed goal learners. You can get partway there by doing as Tony suggests--linking the learning to some specific business outcomes. You might also try to provide people with some guidance on how to set directed learning goals for themselves within the context of a specific informal learning activity--perhaps by providing them with some potential learning paths to follow that lead to a more specific skill or by suggesting questions they might ask to get what they want from the experience.

What's intriguing to me about informal learning is that it most closely mirrors the work environment, which is rarely (if ever) linear and structured, unless you're in a manufacturing facility. It forces us as learners to have to extract our own learning from the situation, which in turn forces us to have to be clear about establishing our own learning goals and strategies.

In designing informal learning activities, we may need to get better at helping directed and flow learning people forge a learning path for themselves to navigate the social learning space. But that's a good thing--because then we're also helping people develop the skills they need to learn from work itself.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Even a manufacturing process will have non-linear learning as tacit knowledge such as short cuts in doing a task learned from those who have done the work over a long period of time or trouble shooting when there is a production process benefits from informal learning (the water cooler effect as an acquaintance calls it).

I agree with you about the difference between the two types of learners. Unfortunately, the traditional type (in which most business management models fall into) is for a formal, linear learning design.

Interesting post, Michele. Here's what I reacted most to:

The people in my work who are most uncomfortable with informal, social learning are those who are also uncomfortable with something as ill-defined as a "business outcome" for their learning goals. They want very specific, concrete, actionable learning objectives AND they want a step-by-step process for getting there.

This is so totally NOT me, and it explains why I often have trouble training, particularly when I was trying to train in the systems area to a group! I have never been able to teach anyone -- even people in systems -- how to safely use the "briefcase" that comes with Windows and lets you synch your files to the server while keeping a local copy. It's a great program! But I can't seem to teach it because you have to understand the concept and then the steps simply follow.

As a geographer, I like a map with the entire route, not the mapquest step-by-step instructions, which I find frustrating because I don't know where these instructions are taking me. Once I view the entire route, I can pick out the main areas where it might be complicated, zoom in and see the street structure. Then I'm comfortable, knowing where I'm going!

Interesting reading, and now I know more about why and how people interact in training classes and why many people love the format whereas others don't like that there aren't PowerPoints with bullets.

I don't like the old, staid, "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, tell 'em, then tell 'em what you told 'em." I think that is boring. But, we have to look at both sides of that equation, don't we?

And then there is always Howard Gardner and "The Theory of Multiple Intelligences" to pay attention to. Fits with this idea of flow vs. directed...

Kia ora Michele!

My interest in community takes me to the understanding that its members are diverse in their outlook, nature, goals and methods of learning. Though I see merit in informal learning, I can also recognise that the majority of people find this sort of learning (for a specific learning goal) messy as you say.

I also feel that it's not just attitude to learning. People are quite capable of learning from informal conversation, Vygotsky found that out. But as Tony says, what's learnt is not necessarily following 'a learning pathway' in the sense that it meets a specific learning goal.

My hunch (I have lots :-) is that we should look at some blend of formal and (so-called) informal - a new mode of learning, though I'm not sure how this can be facilitated or arranged. The bottom line is that formal learning is falling out of favour, yet that form provides the goal focus that appears to be lacking in the informal approaches discussed to date.

Catchya later
from Middle-earth

The comments to this entry are closed.