Monday, 22 October 2012

A time and a place for learning

My Dad used to say “There’s a time and a place for everything”. Usually, this meant that I was doing something that annoyed him. Time and place are critical factors in the kind of learning programmes that I design. I’ve always been interested in time and the impact that it has on people. When I was a student I was hooked on Anthony Powell’s ‘Dance to the Music of Time’, which follows the lives of a group of people who are changed by time. I also read Proust’s ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ in its entirety. I’m still not sure what ‘A la Recherche’ is about. But it seems to me that Proust is trying to make sense of what he has learned about himself, and the people he has known. He takes his time to explore the meaning of the loving, the dreaming and the cheating that preoccupy him. And learning, to me, is making sense of everything around us.

I’ve always been sensitive to my surroundings, though you might not think so if you could see the state of my room. I work best if I feel comfortable, and I feel comfortable if I have natural light, order, and quiet. Noel Coward’s ‘Room with a view' will do me nicely. Mallarmé’s vision of ‘Luxe, calme et beauté’ would be an upgrade too far. If I had all that, I would do no work at all, because I would be too comfortable. As a trainer, I know that the look and feel of the working space can make the difference between memorable and forgettable learning experiences. This is true whether the learning takes place face-to-face or virtually. As Steve Jobs said, people do judge books by the cover.

Learning and performing
For me, experiential learning is a lot like performance art. Any learning experience requires the trainer to be set designer, choreographer and conductor. Natural light, space to move and a constant temperature of about 20 degrees create the optimum conditions for learning, creativity and strong growth. Dark, cold and cramped spaces do not work. And timing, as the best comedians know, is everything. Too much time, and people get bored. Too little time, and people get frustrated. The timing of the day matters, too. Too early, and people are not ready to learn. Too late, and people are too tired to engage. I think people learn best when they feel comfortable and challenged. And there is a tension between feeling comfortable, and feeling challenged, which a trainer can regulate by managing the time.

Five Days Learning in Bulgaria
Last week in Sofia, I worked with a team of LEAD Associates on a leadership challenge to do with energy in Bulgaria. In addition to all the people we met, time and place were key players. We apportioned time to different activities: five minutes for each person to talk without interruption in the learning trios, six minutes 40 seconds for a Pecha Kucha, 30 minutes for each conversation at the World Café, one hour for meals.  Longer for drinking coffee, tea and wine, and less time for sleep. The compact nature of the city centre meant that we could walk almost everywhere. From the cosy Hotel Diter, we moved effortlessly from one space to another. Our base in the hotel garden was airy, and the sounds of the city were energising. We used the streets for intimate conversations in pairs. We performed in semi-public spaces like the British Council, The Ideas Factory and the Tea House, meeting local people and sharing what we had learned. During the short intervals between these performances, we used the outdoor cafes in the squares to download information, and plan for the next meeting. We continuously formed, performed, and then moved on. What I learned is that good timing, and imaginative use of space were key to helping our learners make sense of the complex energy challenges and opportunities in Bulgaria. And what I will try to remember is that groups that take responsibility for managing their time, and can adapt to different environments, are more resilient, and have better learning experiences.

As my Dad used to say, ‘There is a time and a place for everything’.