We need to learn out loud

One of my favourite books of the last few years has been Smarter Than You Think by Clive Thompson. In the book he introduced me to the concept of thinking out loud. To paraphrase Clive (badly), thinking out loud is the process of putting incomplete thoughts and ideas out in to the world so that like-minded and otherwise interested people can contribute to them, and in the process help you both learn. The true value of thinking out loud is the learning that comes from it.

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I would argue that in an increasingly dynamic (and may I dare say disruptive) work environment the ability to learn out loud is not only valuable, it is fundamentally required.

To understand this, let us take a moment to look at antithesis of learning out loud, which is quite obviously, learning quietly. Now this may not be a concept you have heard of before (ba-boom) but it is a type of learning that you are all too familiar with. Learning quietly is what we were taught to do at school, it normally involved listening to a teacher, reading a text book or taking a test…all in hushed silence. Although there is some research to suggest that overly noisy environments can be disruptive to learning, this is not what we are talking about. Learning quietly is not about the environment we learn in but the way in which we learn.*

*This is not an introvert/extravert thing either. I would argue that thinking out loud is just as relevant for both, but for introverts there might be larger doses of self reflection in-between. 

This quiet, studious approach to learning might have worked in a world full of ‘facts’, when the ’truth’ was printed and bound into text books and the teacher’s role was to recite and the learner’s job to digest and regurgitate. Am I talking down learning quietly? Well, I suppose I am. The more I reflect on the close to two decades I spent learning like this I am not sure it served me that well.*

* I am including universities in the learning quietly approach as this was still the dominant form of learning that I experienced there. Case in point, when two of my friends asked if they could do a joint PhD on collaboration they were turned down…a PhD on collaboration could only be done by one of them because the university wouldn’t be able to determine who did the work and therefore who ‘made the grade’.

In contrast learning out loud is a collaborative approach, as pointed out earlier, it involves putting incomplete thoughts and ideas out into the world and getting feedback. Learning out loud is the cognitive equivalent of learning by doing. It is a proactive and iterative approach that involves making mistakes and adjusting accordingly. It is best suited for complex environments where the answer is not known, and often not knowable. According to Dave Snowden (who has an extraordinary ability to make complexity simple) the best strategy to employ in such complex situations is Probe – Sense – Respond. Take action (probe), determine whether the outcome was good or bad (sense), then if it is good, do more of it, if it is bad, do less (respond).

When we Learn quietly we do not probe, instead we are relying on other people to do the probing for us and just hope we get to read about it in a blog article or text book later on. But regardless of how similar another person’s circumstances and experiences are to your own they will never be the same, and as a result the outcomes will also be different.

So beware of false prophets when it comes to technology. Any vendor peddling the perfect answer, a turn key solution…or uses the words ‘best practice’ followed by just about anything, is primarily selling jargon. Digital technology offers wonderful opportunities but you are ultimately going to have to have to take some responsibility for learning it and implementing it for yourself…and if you’re going to learn, can I suggest that the best way to do it is to find a group of like-minded (or otherwise interested) people, and learn out loud.