Untraining The Rats: 4 Ways To Encourage Learning (Not Education)

In the middle of my undergraduate years I read Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich, the Jesuit social critic, and his thesis has been in my mind since:  the institution of education can actually stifle creativity and learning.  He once said, “education is exchanging your mind for a packaged substitute.”

Like the mandatory training programs we embrace (or endure) in all marketplaces today, compulsory public education was promoted in the 1870s and still today as a way to increase the acquisition of necessary skills.  Most competent teachers know that most training is only marginally successful in these goals – learning requires a rich, individualized experience and mentoring.

If you want to encourage learning, creativity and innovation in your work environment, consider the following:

  • Understand the aspirations of the learner – instead of relying on a curriculum, find out what the learner is interested in that is related to your organization.  There may be some basic skills you have to help someone develop, but your interest may encourage their personal inspiration.
  • Support self-direction – the moment a peer identifies something they want to learn, do whatever you can to encourage their curiosity.  Illich talked about “learning webs” or networks that grew because of self-directed activity by the learner.
  • De-emphasize certification – no, not eliminate, but be focused on what certification really means to your success and that of your team.  In my consulting career there have been countless examples of the GED-level innovator who continually outperformed the MBA graduate.
  • De-emphasize classroom learning – seek learning experiences that stimulate critical thinking while meeting the requirements of specific skill acquisition.  There is no research that convincingly suggests that perfect skill acquisition must precede innovation or outstanding service.

With our reliance on homogenized institutions and colleges of education, we have moved increasingly toward credentials that are not meaningful.  This has now been taken to an extreme where tests are used to certify high school graduation, teachers gear lecture content to the tests, and they are financially incentivized to do so.  We are training the rats well.

Despite this there is great hope.  Innovation will always be there and master mentors are everywhere around you.  Seek them out, take a chance, and learn something new.