I lost my fifth grade science fair.
Given the title of my presentation — which was something like “The Art and Architecture of Ancient Greece” — this outcome may not surprise you. It certainly came as a shock to me.
It turns out my meticulous drawings illustrating the soaring columns and sculptured friezes that still support ancient Greek temples many centuries later weren’t quite what all the kids were talking about in middle school. Honestly, the judges must have thought the topic so obscure that my parents had to have put me up to it. But no, sadly, it was all my choice. I was strange that way.
As you may have suspected, my project ended somewhere in the middle of the pack. The winner was a presentation on the science of surfing by a classmate who had just returned from visiting family in California. He definitely had the cool factor I was lacking in my project, not to mention a really solid demonstration of wave science.
Setting aside the painful pop that accompanied the end of my middle school art pretentiousness, I learned a couple of valuable lessons. First and foremost: Know your audience. For most people, and especially those whose daily conversations centered around “The A-Team” vs. “The Dukes of Hazzard,” the Pacific tops the Parthenon any day.
In hindsight, the more significant lesson was just how vital the experience of learning is. Curriculum and content are important but what lasts are the triumphs and disappointments, the aha moments and insights. Learning is as much about the stages we go through as it is the knowledge acquired.
For example, I can remember there were three basic styles of Greek architecture: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. If pressed, I might even be able to muster up a rough explanation of the differences between them but it wouldn’t be much more than an educated guess.
What stands out most from that project isn’t the knowledge acquired. It’s pretty well established by now that we forget most of that not long after we learn it. Paging Dr. Ebbinghaus, your forgetting curve is looking for you.
Rather, it was the experience of learning that taught me the most: the days of research and work to assemble the project, the feeling of accomplishment when it was done, the nervousness and anticipation before presenting it to the judges and ultimately the disappointment at the end. What lasted is what I learned about myself. It’s the experience that matters most in the long run.
Learning departments have no shortage of demands on their limited time and resources. Pressure for results is unrelenting. The pace of change is quickening. Skills become outdated faster than ever before. Keeping up with the technology side of learning is a full time job in itself.
But investment in content, courses and technology shouldn’t come at the expense of the exceptional value the learning organization brings. Done right, the learning organization puts the content of what’s learned in the context of what’s important for the organization. It does it in a way that brings people together to learn from one another, from our achievements and successes as well as missteps and mistakes. Done right, the experience of learning is transformative for both the individual and the enterprise.
The special power of the learning organization lies in the ability to bring it all together — content and context, talent and technology. That experience of coming together, whether in person or online, in real time or on an ongoing basis, is the source of the innovation and insight that is at the heart of learning. It’s also the source of competitive advantage. Technology and content are the fuel for the experience but they’re not the engine.
The experience comes with its fair share of frustration and disappointment. It can be a struggle. Conflict is just as likely as collaboration. But those missteps and mistakes often bring the most value. The Greeks taught me something after all.
Mike Prokopeak is vice president and editor in chief of Chief Learning Officer magazine. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.
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