Learning from experience?

I find it useful to keep an eye on developments in our universities. Two reasons: our future lawyers are seeing and using teaching and learning techniques that they might expect to find replicated in the firms they join as trainees; and just knowing what is going on elsewhere can give us insights into new possibilities.


With that in mind, I was interested (in catching up with Paul Maharg’s blog) to see that he has been developing his work on professional legal education at the Glasgow Graduate School of Law.

Over a period of years Paul and his colleagues have developed an online simulation-based learning system to support professional education at the GGSL. This requires students to engage with realistic legal problems at to solve them individually and collaboratively, through “transactional learning.” This requires, in Paul’s words:

  • active learning
  • through performance in authentic transactions
  • involving reflection in & on learning,
  • deep collaborative learning, and
  • holistic or process learning,
  • with relevant professional assessment
  • that includes ethical standards

The presentation from which this is taken (embedded below) provides a tangible overview of the system, and there is a more detailed paper to go with it, as well as the site itself.

Having read all of this, I was particularly struck by one of the concluding slides (slide 41) in the presentation, which is headed “there’s no such thing as experiential learning.” Citing Schratz and Walker, Research as Social Change: New Opportunities for Qualitative Research, Paul claims the following:

  • We don’t learn from experience
  • We learn by working to interpret experience, given that, when learning:
  • we have different prior knowledge
  • our aims are always different in subtle ways
  • we learn different things from the same resources
  • ‘resources’ means symbolic objects like books & web pages, but also people, including ourselves
  • we can learn intimately and deeply from any resource, given a suitable context
  • Teachers and students need to encode those interpretations as complex memories, habits, skills, attitudes or knowledge objects if they are to re-use them

 That first bullet point is a real challenge to the attitude of many practising lawyers. “Learning on the job” is a classic response to the question, “How do you maintain your knowledge of law and practice?” I am not sure that this approach typically includes “working to interpret experience.” Nor will it often include a formal opportunity for feedback and assessment (of the learning, not the work).

Turning to a recipe for the future, Paul suggests a move away from the current traditional model (in workplaces as well as educational institutions, although his focus is primarily on the latter) (slide 43):

Still focused on:

  • Organisations, ie LMSs, silos of knowledge
  • Products, ie handbooks, CDs, closely-guarded downloads
  • Content, ie modules, instruction, transmissive content
  • Snapshot assessment of taught substantive content

The replacement will require a rather different emphasis (slide 44):

Focus shifts to:

  • Organisation has weak boundaries, strong presence through resource-based, integrated learning networks, with open access (open courseware initiatives, etc)
  • Focus not on static content but on web-based, aggregated content
  • E-learning as integrated understanding & conversation, just-in-time learning
  • Assessment of situated learning

Coincidentally, I have just finished reading Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath. It is a fascinating and accessible introduction to the art of communicating messages so that they really make a difference. Towards the end of the book, the Heaths look at the power of narrative and how it is linked to simulations. (I have been interested in this for a while, but have really caught the story-telling bug since attending a workshop led by Shawn Callahan last month.) It appears that good stories allow listeners to participate by picturing in their minds the sequence of events, the emotions, the situations and reactions, and so on. This process of imagining (or imaging) actually invokes the same areas of the brain as performing the actions or experiencing the emotions described. I have long been familiar with physical simulators that are used to train pilots and astronauts, but I hadn’t realised that mental simulation can be nearly as good at building skills. As the Heaths explain:

A review of thirty-five studies featuring 3,214 participants showed that mental practice alone — sitting quietly, without moving, and picturing yourself performing a task successfully from start to finish — improves performance significantly. The results were borne out over a number of tasks: Mental simulation helped people weld better and throw darts better. Trombonists improved their playing and figure skaters improved their skating. Not surprisingly, mental practice is more effective when a task involves more mental activity (e.g., trombone playing) as opposed to physical activity (e.g., balancing), but the magnitude of gains from mental practice is large on average: Overall, mental practice alone produced about two thirds of the benefits of actual physical practice.

For me, this also links to the theme of deliberative practice, which I have touched on a couple of times in the past, and which Shawn has also picked up on during his trip to the UK. In his second post, he responds to a comment on the first which suggests that we might not have time to be experts in a business context.

To put the effort in to be bloody good requires time and dedication. Consequently we need to pick our desired expertise carefully. Here are some things to consider:

  • do you love the skill that much that it doesn’t seem like work to you?
  • is it a skill you can use in any job?
  • will people value and recognise your expertise and therefore motivate your ongoing efforts?
  • can practice feel like play? If so then there is much more chance you will keep practising.

We will always need content experts. Your social network should help you connect to these valuable folk. What will also need are people who can thrive in complexity and the skills we’ll need to deliberately practice will include designing, leading, managing, innovating, storytelling, strategizing, implementing, sensemaking, and engaging (I’m sure you can think of others). These skills will be helpful in any job and so feel free to dedicate 10,000+ hours to any one of them and know you haven’t wasted your time.

The key, yet again, is to focus and prioritise. And visualise…