Learning ‘culture’ from an anthropologist turned instructional designer

During my development as an instructional designer, I am reading a various multitude of blogs and articles. The recent trend of these articles focuses on more than creating the perfect online course or interactive learning program. The articles extend the role of instructional design to include shaping the ‘culture’ of the learning environment.

Simply said, by many before me, that even if the eLearning course, mobile course or even interactive learning game is a perfect specimen. It will not have enough impact on learners unless there is a greater ‘culture’ of learning within the workplace.

As my background is based in Anthropology, when I hear the word ‘culture’ I instantly want to define the term. What do we mean by a ‘culture’ of learning?

I am reminded of Sir Edward Burnett Tylor’s work on ‘culture’, while not in popular anthropological use in our post-modern sensitivities, is still a very apt definition:

“Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” (Tylor 1958 [1871]: 1)

If we can hone this definition down to be relevant to our usual environment, the workplace, and apply the concepts to learning. I think we can safely say that the ‘culture’ of learning is:

The complex whole of learning that includes knowledge, belief, creativity, morality, law, custom and all of the other capabilities and habits acquired within an individual as a member of the workplace.

After defining the terminology used, I am sure you are asking now. What does this mean? How can I adapt this definition into my daily instructional design work? How does this apply to my learning and development?

There are a few words that I think accurately summarise this definition of learning ‘culture’ that can be used as overall goals in instructional design:

  1. Relevant: The learning program needs to reflect accurately on the general capabilities and habits required. Regardless of the content, the learning should be reflective of the daily practice and capabilities required by the learners. For example: think back to your trigonometry lessons from school, as that learner, it is not a stretch to assume that the relevance of the Pythagorean theorem may have been lost on you. Now you may be able to recall the theorem and even quote it, but not use it and certainly not be able to base further analysis on it (unless you are in a technical field where its application is frequent). Had there been a specific relevance to the theorem to be applied to daily habits and capabilities (like in the technical field), this theorem would be retained and maybe even celebrated. This should be the goal of all learning and development, to be relevant to the learners in their situation for adoption into new or expanded capabilities and habits in the workplace.
  2. Intuitive: The learning program needs to naturally align the learner with the beliefs and customs of the workplace. When the learner is a part of the learning program, they should be able to navigate and take value from the learning with little extended effort. The learning program should reinforce the belief system already in place in the workplace so that it ‘makes sense’ to carry on with learning.
  3. Creative: The learning program needs to be flexible and interesting; creativity will invite further discussion and promote further improvements. Rigid learning programs quickly become outdated and lack relevance to the learner. Whereas creative learning programs will change, shape and challenge the learners to integrate themselves within the bigger conversation.
  4. Holistic: Lastly, the learning program has to include everything that is required to shape the learning ‘culture’ within the workplace. One eLearning course, handheld guide, mentoring relationship, or discussion is not enough to shape the experience of the learner to involve them in a ‘culture.’ It needs to be a multitude of these aspects. Alongside the learning program there needs to be an organisational ‘buy-in’ in a learning ‘culture’ that all levels of the workplace adopt and promote.

To all of us instructional designers, and those in learning and development, these words above provide the questions we should ask ourselves when creating learning resources. These should be the overall objectives when assisting in creation of a learning program, as these will promote a RICH learning ‘culture’ (see what I did there!).

Now, I am far from the expert. What do you think a learning ‘culture’ should be? Comment or contact me with your thoughts!

2 Replies to “Learning ‘culture’ from an anthropologist turned instructional designer”

  1. Thanks for writing and sharing this. I think it’s thought provoking and provides a useful framework for thinking about how and why we learn. I guess from my perspective a learning culture is one in which questions are encouraged and responses are listened to.

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