MOST RESEARCH ABOUT LEARNING FOCUSES ON HOW INDIVIDUALS LEARN. BUT RESEARCHERS AT THE INSTITUTE FOR RESEARCH ON LEARNING FIND THAT AT WORK WE LEARN BY DOING THE MOST ORDINARY THINGS--TOGETHER.
"We're looking for the poetry--the implicit, often tacit 'stuff' of work," says Peter Henschel, executive director of the Institute for Research on Learning. That goal sounds unlikely for a research organization, but the institute's unique investigations often lead to the intuitive and the unseen in the way people learn in the workplace. "It is often in this realm that we discover the foundation of know-how," says Henschel.
The Palo-Alto based institute is a by-product of the 1982 report on U.S. education, Nation at Risk, which called for a bold departure from traditional models of learning and teaching. Funding from the Xerox Foundation set up the institute in 1987, to "search for new models of successful learning."
The search is not confined to schools or training classrooms, nor is it conducted exclusively by researchers with backgrounds in education. People from IRL's staff of anthropologists, educators, computer scientists, psychologists, linguists, and others work in the offices or plants of partner organizations.
"Interdisciplinary research is inefficient, often difficult, and definitely messy," says Henschel. "But our mission is to understand how people best learn what they learn, and that calls for the kinds of insights that come only from the synergy of people from different fields working together in real settings."
The institute does its work through partnerships and strategic alliances, mainly with large business organizations and with foundation support. The research takes place in real work settings and focuses on real work issues. It usually results in a design for a learning environment created by IRL with its partners.
"We look for places that want to support environments for learning," says Henschel. "Then we join them in seeking answers to their real problems."
For example, in one such project, IRL joined Philips Electronics NV to solve the problem of why people don't use the full programming capability of their VCRs. To IRL, it seemed clear that VCRs presented users with a learning problem and that Philips needed to design controls for its VCRs that made them easier to learn to operate.
The IRL researchers teamed up with Philips's research and product-design staffs to develop a new approach to the design of the complex communications interfaces that go into VCRs.
The team videotaped graphic designers' work sessions before and after the
installation of the new Philips technology in order to see how it affected the designers' work. An analysis of what the tapes revealed helped change the design process. Then the design of the interface was revised to make it more transparent to the user and more learnable.
To test the "learnability" of the new design, the whole process was repeated in a different setting.
IRL argues that complex technologies become more learnable through iterations of analysis and design. The key is getting a closer and closer fit between the practices of the designers and their designs.
Many attempts to figure out how people learn in the workplace rely on interviewing people about their jobs or interviewing managers about their views of the work. But IRL researchers decided that this method alone was not likely to uncover tacit or implicit knowledge about how to do a job.
"Managers often don't really know what people do on the job, and groups of people usually act more competently than an individual can describe their actions," says Henschel. "Our methods rely heavily on observation and joint assessment by managers and employees of their ordinary activities."
Using videotapes of groups working, the researchers observe everyday practices and try to discover the ways in which people learn through their interactions with each other and their environment--in other words, their social learning habits. …