Safety – Learning by Doing and Learning by Theory
I get amazed at the number of times I read safety people parading ‘dumb down’ as a badge of honour. This constant envy (or whatever) of academic learning versus practical learning seems more accentuated in the safety industry than any other I have encountered. There is no hierarchy of learning (apologies to Bloom) and it makes no sense to denigrate any mode of learning as better or less than the other. I received a letter this week from a safety person who informed me that University was ‘theory land’ compared to 20 years ‘on the front line’. Why does the safety industry think this way, it is like safety is addicted to binary thinking and can’t maintain identity or purpose unless it is juxtaposed against something. Why is this ‘either-or’ thinking so fixated in the safety sector? For example: How many people do you want injured today? Zero. Well, same question style: do you support the war in Gaza? (answer yes or no) Well you must either be anti-semitic or pro- Palestinian. There are other ways of thinking and questioning, poor olde dumb down safety, you don’t have to think or talk in this binary way.
So, in the interests of balance, let’s look at a few modes of learning.
Learning by Doing
Learning by Doing is experiential learning, one learns in the very act of engagement. There are many variations of this way of learning that starts as early as birth, children learn so quickly through play, experience, feel, touch and sensations. For some strange reason this mode of learning seems to diminish and shift in upper primary school and doesn’t seem to return till adulthood that is, unless one dismisses risky social learning in adolescence as low value.
There is no doubt that experiential learning is of great value. It is indeed strange that the safety industry so driven by zero, loves risk aversion and experiential learning simultaneously. A great recipe for schizophrenic safety.
When we think of learning by doing, we also need to think about the limits of such learning. Sometimes, learning by doing can be simply the ongoing ‘pooling of ignorance’. The view that 20 years of experience is somehow ‘better’ than other modes of learning creates an air of hubris (arrogance and overconfidence) and this is indeed dangerous.
Learning by Theory
Learning by Theory is sometimes branded ‘academic learning’ but is most associated with reading, listening and observing in space removed from ‘the front line’. Most professional degrees I know also have large components of fieldwork that are based on the apprenticeship model. However, I no longer get surprised by the number of people in safety who look at my profile and then conveniently dismiss my experience as irrelevant, ‘lost in theory land’ or a ‘book nerd’. This is the trap of the hubris of practice over theory; it is as if being theoretical is a sin in the church of safety. How does safety get so judgmental when it sees a ‘Dr’ in front of someone’s name. Yet, how strange that this is the first thing they look for when they have need of a specialist and their body is failing. Yes, we want all those years of ‘head knowledge’ when someone has a scalpel in their hand.
It isn’t one mode of learning over the other but we need a balance of both. The denigration of either mode of learning is indeed dangerous. Practice without reflection is mindless, reflection without practice is monastic.
There are other modes of learning that complement learning by doing and theory that also deserve a mention.
Learning through Community
Learning through Community is a form of experiential learning that is connected to learning by existing in a culture, environment and society. The values in this form of learning are absorbed unconsciously. When one joins a community-of-practice learning comes through mentoring, coaching and observational experience. Community-based-learning often has all the checks and balances needed for a healthy approach to safety.
Unconscious Learning occurs mostly through the power of semiotics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semiotics) and semiology (http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/S4B/sem01.html), these powerful modes of communication surround us daily and have strong influence on thinking, learning and behavior. This is why language such as ‘zero’ and silly sayings such as ‘all accidents are preventable’ create cultures of intolerance, authoritarianism, hubris and risk arrogance.
There are many modes of learning and if one is interested a read of Howard Gardner (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_multiple_intelligences) would be a good start. After all, if you have read this, it can’t all be about ‘the front line’.