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Natural Learning
Wednesday, October 05, 2005
A major component of informal learning is natural learning, the notion of treating people as organisms in nature. They are free-range learners. Our role is to protect their environment, shelter the newborn, provide nutrients for growth, and let nature take its course. Shouting at roses will not turn them into rhubarb nor artists into engineers. You can’t motivate a person to become something they are not.

Putting natural learning to work is more like landscape design and gardening than traditional instructional system design. All of life is interconnected. Organisms cannot live independent of their ecosystems. Self-service learners are connected to one another, to ongoing flows of information and work, to their teams and organizations, to their customers and markets, not to mention their families, friends, and friendship groups. We can improve their connections and nurture their growth but we cannot control them or force them to live.

Great gardens express a unity of design. Each garden is a whole, not a bunch of independent pieces. All great landscapes have unity. Designers of learning experiences must create harmony among the layers of our learnscapes.

A landscape designer’s goal is to conceptualize a harmonious, unified, pleasing garden that makes the most of the site at hand. A learnscape designer’s goal is to create a learning environment that increases the organization’s longevity and health, and the individual’s happiness and well-being.

Gardeners don’t control plants; managers don’t control people. The most that either can do is nurture growth by tilling the soil, supplying nutrients, and pulling weeds. Gardeners and managers have influence but not absolute authority. They can’t make a plant fit into the landscape or a person fit into a team.

The designer must work to satisfy aspirations and values, not precise outcomes. Man plans; God laughs. No learnscape survives when the levee breaks.

The late Peter Henschel, former head of the Institute for Research on Learning, said that “The manager’s core work in this new economy is to create and support a work environment that nurtures continuous learning. Doing this well moves us closer to having an advantage in the never-ending search for talent.” How else could it be? Neither nature nor the workplace will cooperate by going into suspended animation so we can tweak the details without things changing all the time. Everything flows. You go with the flow or you are out of it. Every learnscape has a history and a future, but the present is a moving target.

The Tool Shed

  • Learnscape Design – strategic intent, shared vision, harmony
  • Preparing the Land – architecture, workspace design, organizational form
  • Pruning – 80/20 focus, pulling the weeds, unlearning
  • Maintenance – organizational network analysis, augmentation
  • Lifecycle – of the learners, of the ecosystem
  • Seasons – adaptation of the learnscape, cycle time
  • Tending each plant – I/O, progress, fit, connections, response rate
  • Nutrients – rewards, sunlight, stories, patterns, stability
  • Yield = revenue
  • Garden tours – customer feedback, beauty, charm
  • Experiments – plant exotic species, keep mutants, innovate often
  • Flows – the streams of information
  • Sunset Garden Book – double loop learning, meta-learning


Courses end; learnscapes persist. Organizations and their members are living things, and the landscape/learnscape analogy invites us to consider nature, symbiosis, interconnections, genetic make-up, adaptation, the change of seasons, and life cycles. People are not plants, so the analogy doesn’t stretch into self-expression, thinking, identity, personality, and collaboration.

In the mechanical world, I’d wrap this up with a conclusion. In the natural world, this is but one step on a long journey. Nothing ends. So I’ll end here for now and pick up later when the situation is ripe.


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