Hidden in Seth Godin’s book, The Practice was a profound observation on how we learn things. Let me paraphrase today’s lesson.
Seth observed that if you study children of Indian descent in American cities, you might not find a strong taste for things like tandoori chicken or vindaloo shrimp. Yet kids with the same DNA in Mumbai or Delhi might crave these dishes every day.
So it’s not a question of genetics.
Seth asks: how do the parents of these children in Delhi teach them to love their own food? They do that, don’t they? First, they teach them the history of Indian cuisine, with all its variations. Then they ask them to memorize a number of key recipes. Finally, they give them public tests and examinations. Is that how it’s done?
We all know the answer. Of course not!
Children in India eat their own ethnic food because of the culture. They do what they see happening around them. The community in which they live eats – and enjoys – certain foods; so the kids follow suit. Children in the United States are in a different culture. Their peers enjoy shakes, burgers and apple pie. American children follow larger local norms — no matter what the parents want.
The real point: why have we forgotten about culture, as a force for teaching people things? Why are we so caught up in the pedagogy of learning things? Why do we try to teach so much using the study, memorize, test exercises? If culture is powerful enough to teach us what to eat, what to wear, how to behave, and so many other societal norms, why isn’t it powerful enough to teach us so much more? Why are we so dependent on the artifice of formal education?
Let’s be clear: many disciplines require a rigorous pedagogical approach. Culture alone cannot teach people to be surgeons, scientists or architects. But wait, even in these areas, ancient civilizations relied on culture to teach fairly advanced skills across a range of professions. And in others, like art or even business, we lose so much when we rely only on formal classroom instruction.
The culture does not require class attendance or set texts or regular tests. That’s not how it works; that’s not how it’s transmitted. Cultural norms have spread because humans are social creatures; we do what is done around us, especially if it is done by role models in society or those we admire. Culture is responsible for whole communities being very good at business, for example.
Not by forcing every young person to take an MBA, but by example, modeling and practical orientation. Culture can achieve quite difficult pedagogical achievements, for example, in health and personal discipline. It can also do the opposite: lead to the collapse of society if the wrong people become the creators of culture.
Two reflections on culture today. First, in our modes of education, let us revisit the power of culture. We should not rely solely on rigid teaching; we should also understand the humans we are teaching a little better and let role models, mimicry and kinship support learning. If we stick to stilted pedagogies alone, we miss great opportunities to teach faster, better and more sustainably.
A second area of change should concern our organisations. We seem to depend so much on just as regular and episodic traditional training. Our employees need new skills? Send them back to class. By all means, let’s retrain our people – we have no choice but to do so in this era of rapid change. The skills of tomorrow must be learned and relearned. But is “back to school” the only way to do it?
The most powerful way to teach in organizations is right under our noses. It’s called on-the-job training, and it’s become a forgotten process. People learn best not in artificial environments or situations, but when they do the real work in which they need to improve. That’s why we had apprenticeships – something some of the most enlightened educators and trainers are bringing back today.
Frontline coaching is a great way to bring cultural transmission back to the workplace. Successful practitioners of a skill learn to coach; and then oversee the actual work in progress, quietly and largely in the background, only intervening when something needs to be corrected.
Some great customer service training jobs are done just like that; by qualified people who circle around, intervene to rectify or rework situations, sometimes taking over temporarily so that the learner can observe the best approach – then try it, live and in real time.
How is learning going in your organization? By heart or by example?