The importance of understanding of how people learn and how we apply this to our practice 1

When thinking of my own school days, one of the first things that comes to mind is the different ways people were learning and how my peers’ performance varied. Some were able to perform excellently, other less so, and some not at all. Was that due to the skill-focused schooling system, tailored to meet the needs of the average and prefixed on consistently rectifying mistakes, or were there any other reasons? And is it relevant also for the CEF’s modus operandi?

Disregarding individual innate talents and the differences between child and adult learning, the answer to my dilemma could be hidden in the question how and when learning really happens? What are the most basic preconditions for learning to happen? Before going into baldly answering this question, one should be cautious not to be blinded by the theoretical fashions of the day on one hand, and the trap of oversimplifying on the other.

When it comes to (formal) learning, my first observation is that the one-size-fits-all approach does not work as there are at least two kinds of learners: downloaders and active seekers of knowledge. Downloaders are passive recipients of content who typically do not engage neither with the group nor the lecturer, whereas active knowledge seekers do the exact opposite. Arguing that one approach is always better than the other would be a bit too daring , but it seems that in today’s education system, which is more open to the world than it used to be in the past, the latter is preferred and deemed more successful.

This realization, however, should not be mistaken with different learning styles as these too could arguably be a myth. In the literature, there are at least three often cited learning styles:

  • Visual learners who prefer images, pictures, diagrams, films and videos or demonstrations
  • Auditory learners who learn best through the process of listening and talking
  • Kinesthetic learners who learn by doing

Despite potentially providing a rough framework, some argue that addressing learning is infinitely more complex than implied by the learning styles ideology, and for me it would feel naturally right to adhere to this presumption as well.

Does learning happen out of one’s comfort zone? Yes, possibly, but only if a person is ready to push the boundaries consciously by himself/herself, and as long as it feels that the challenge at hand is still manageable. Externally initiated push for going beyond what feels comfortable with most people results in fear, paralysis and inability to receive and think, and without thinking there is not much learning.

Judging from my experience as a facilitator and a parent, learning is integral with experience. Children start learning when they wake up and end when they go to sleep. For them, learning is curiosity, interaction, breaking the routine, surprise and relaxed play. It is joyful and without fear of failure. Should we manage to preserve that, everybody would become true life-long learners. Unfortunately, most of us are in constant search of those long lost feelings.

Although challenging at times, it is my observation that in essence adult learning is no different from that of a child.

How is that relevant for our work? Although challenging at times, it is my observation that in essence adult learning is no different from that of a child. Naturally, there are important differences, such as physical space, and cultural and institutional traditions – all of which the CEF understands particularly well in the context of SEE. However, these components do not alter the equation much.

At the first glance, it might seem difficult to apply these principles to public financial management but this does not necessarily have to be the case. There are examples that prove differently. In our recent blog post written by our colleagues Kaja Jurtela and Polona Sirnik we underline the importance introducing innovations in learning. In addition, in a blog post prepared by Urska Zrinski we underline the importance of linking learning to physical space, and showcase the CEF’s unique approach in this regard.

We are increasingly reaching out to our beneficiaries in the initial stages of our projects, such as with the SAFE funded Strengthening Financial Management Functions of Line Ministries. Close collaboration with finance officials helps us better understand their organizational traditions and actual learning needs. It is our aim to establish joint ownership of the learning agenda to make learning relevant and focused yet also fun, relaxed and guided by professional curiosity.

The CEF team visiting Tirana.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One thought on “The importance of understanding of how people learn and how we apply this to our practice

  • Luka

    Gašper, thank you for this interesting blog post. Useful to learn about three different learning styles (Visual, Audithory, Kinesthetic), and limited scope of ‘out of the comfort zone’ area.