Human Learning versus Machine Learning

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

Online learning, digital learning, virtual learning, AI led learning platforms - there is an ever increasing focus on how learning can be done just between the learner and the machine. But this kind of learning, while it has its place, is not a replacement for a different kind of human learning. Learning that takes into account context, conversation, meaningful engagement. This series of short blogs explores why human to human learning is so important and why somewhat counterintuitively, it is also deeply efficient.

I’ll start with the importance of context. We have just finished running a programme in San Francisco where we agonised over the ‘where’ as well as the what’. Why does the quality of space for learning matter to us? Why won’t a hotel conference room do?

Here are five ways in which place plumps up learning (if you’re a human).

Space for Reflection

Islands are good. Woods are good too we found for reflection. In fact, Muir Woods, outside San Francisco, with its redwood cathedrals mandates silence. ‘Enter quietly’, the sign says. We were there in the rain a few weeks ago, dusty off the plane. The young female ranger was glad about the rain ‘because the woods are at their best – smell them!’. During the week, we made the most of the corners of San Francisco that encourage reflection. In the interstices of the programme we made space for it with ‘walkshops’, socratic wanderings in pairs that made room for people to tussle with new questions, walking over the bridge for example and on the ferry past Alcatraz (we’re saving that for next time…).

In his book ‘Consolations’ the poet David Whyte talks about how silence ‘orphans us from certainty’. Most real learning needs people to step into uncertainty and away from the noise.

Space for Creativity

Oddly, a wooden cabin can be just the thing. In his book, ‘How Buildings Learn’ Stewart Brand remarks ‘An important aspect of design is the degree to which an object invites you into its own completion. Some work invites you into itself by not offering a finished, glossy, one-reading only surface.’ It’s the very lack of beauty and polish here that allows people to cover the walls with half-finished ideas, pin up work in progress and generally make the mess that leads to creativity. Leather and glass just don’t cut it.

Space as Imagery

Many people remember through images rather than words or numbers, yet words and numbers dominate in most business situations. As Mark Twain said, ‘figures are monotonously unstriking in appearance, and they don't take hold, they form no pictures, and so they give the eye no chance to help. Pictures are the thing. Pictures can make dates stick. They can make nearly anything stick--particularly IF YOU MAKE THE PICTURES YOURSELF.’ So, to get away from the urgencies of the office to think about the future and to do it at the top of the Salesforce building – the tallest in San Francisco - as we did, early in the morning makes pictures. The view out over the city is breath-taking, vertigo-inducing. It’s the kind of image you file away in your memory. Equally, a log cabin can provide much more than a kitsch, backwoodsy vibe if you are thinking about culture, about home. The point is that ideas of the day are remembered viscerally as experiences not concepts. Moreover, there are inevitably photos to show the team back home and images around which to have new conversations. Thus the ideas swim out.

Space for Group Forming

Learning experiences that aim to build trust amongst peer groups need a robust container. Small spaces can work well. Round tables are good, fires, family style dinners, mess that can stay through the week and not be cleared up. It’s best though to guard against leaky vessels, like hotel breakfast rooms, huge teaching rooms with lots of tech, course ipads, piped music or baggy city ‘tours’, where you can feel any gathered intimacy leach out into the atmosphere.

Oxford colleges with their closed, grassed quads, cloisters, wood panelled walls, stone faces and discoverable gardens serve the purpose well. It may be something about the acoustics and the smell of the stone.

Space for Ideas

You can’t talk about strategy in a basement. Once I had to do that for three days on the trot and it doesn’t work. Strategic thinking needs light and perspective and the ability to walk away and come back to it. You can’t learn from each other in a banked lecture theatre – they have their place but, truthfully, we never use them. Good coffee is a strategic tool. You can’t have a risky conversation if your legs are hidden under tables. Circles of chairs make people (understandably) nervous. We do them but not in a hushed way. Ethicists we’ve found tend to need big rooms to talk in otherwise people feel scrutinised up against the walls. You can’t really have more than 12 (think disciples, think juries) if you want a single conversation – over that and it splits into two. Every conversation needs to be designed and set according to the ideas: that goes for every meeting on every day.

I think robots and algorithms would be fairly agnostic about all that.

Tracey Camilleri