How do we know when someone learns something?
This timeless question continues to challenge academics and professionals as they look for the best methods to teach others so that the knowledge is transferable to the real world. Once information is taught, how can we know whether or not this new knowledge will trigger a change in behavior? How do we know if the information was absorbed and can be reproduced? In the translation of theoretical learning to real life application, Northeastern University’s co-op program is renowned. This innovative feature of Northeastern’s higher education experience integrates the classroom and the real world, where students of all levels are engaged through a blend of professional and academic work, research and service all over the world.
Does this style of learning translate to the executive level? What is it about experiential education and action learning methods that helps develop new behavior and leadership tendencies? We spoke with Brendan Bannister, Associate Professor of Management and Organizational Development at D’Amore-McKim, to learn more about Northeastern University’s world-renowned model for learning and how it can be used to influence every level of management.
“One of the things that strikes me the most about Northeastern is the university-wide approach to action learning that drives everything taught and learned by faculty and students here,” said Bannister. “It’s a naturally occurring process where students and faculty can adjust the learning and behavioral development process.”
We learn best when we have context to the information we’re taught, meaning that you’re able to apply new skills in your day to day life in situations that are most familiar to you. According to Bannister, that’s what Northeastern does best– The school places students in applicable learning situations where they’re forced to adapt to, develop and reproduce new skill sets that could reflect a future career path.
“We want people to get down in the dirt, break down fundamental behaviors and figure out what they want and need to learn, followed by how they’re going to accomplish that,” explained Bannister. “In order for someone to really learn something, they have to be activated as the change agents themselves.”
Bannister refers to this style of knowledge intake as “untidy or messy learning,” where the learner is expected to grab or capture real life challenges to apply critical skills. No amount of classroom problem sets, case studies or lectures can approach the richness of real issues in real time. We must remember that learning is a living process.
But does this same approach work for executives? Bannister says yes. While leaders may have their own personal styles and a unique set of challenges they’re faced with, it’s about creating an effective learning program that works situationally for them.
Over a decade ago, Bannister spent time with a partner institution in Ireland, Dublin City University, where he worked with Irish colleagues at the executive levels. There, he found that the key to effective learning was through a complete immersion into what he calls the three pillars of a learning and behavioral change program: personalization, integration and longitudinal.
“In analyzing cases of behavioral change, these three pillars become quite important. Personalization is viewing the individual as the case character, integration is capturing the real world through intervention, and the breadth and repetition of this learning is understood longitudinally (we read, we learn, we observe, we try something, we re-evaluate and try again), said Bannister. “Skills don’t happen just because….they take time and practice.”
“When we train executives, we first need to look at the real-time situations that they might be exposed to,” said Bannister. “It’s imperative that we create specific learning programs that cater to their unique needs and skills. Most importantly we ask them to do– to go beyond analysis and talk to real action in the most significant learning venues available- their lives and jobs.”
In the same fashion that Northeastern educates its undergraduate students, professors like Bannister believe that a blend of experiential and action learning serves as the most effective way to help executives learn the skills that matter the most.
What are your thoughts on skill development for executives? Does action and experiential learning work? Let us know in the comments section.