It’s far easier learning a foreign language when you immerse yourself in the culture. Live in a remote Italian village for 6 months and you’ll quickly learn Italian because you’ll starve if you don’t. Immersion certainly focusses the mind, but it also gives you a real feel for your subject matter in a way that can never be gained from a classroom situation.
In 1979 the Swedish Psychologist Roger Säljö asked a number of students what they understood by learning. Their answers fell into five categories:
- Learning is acquiring information or ‘knowing a lot’.
- Learning is storing information that can be reproduced.
- Learning as acquiring facts that can be retained and used.
- Learning is making sense of subjects and how they relate to the real world.
- Learning as interpreting and understanding reality allowing you to reinterpret the world.
The ideas behind 4 and 5 are different from the first three. Answers 1 to 3 imply learning is a bit like shopping. People go out and ‘buy’ knowledge and it becomes their possession. The last two answers suggest learning is something you do internally in order to understand the real world.
It’s the difference between watching a focus group and judging the respondents against your preconceptions versus watching a focus group and placing yourself in that person’s shoes – of forgetting your opinions and seeing the world though the respondent’s eyes. You need to immerse yourself in their world in order to understand their needs.
Yet so few marketing executives are willing to do this when thinking about their customers. They attend focus groups as though they are ‘shopping’ for ideas. It’s patronizing to the respondents and it’s a waste of time for everyone else.
The Humanist psychologist, Carl Rogers said it best when he made this distinction:
I want to talk about learning. But not the lifeless, sterile, futile, quickly forgotten stuff that is crammed in to the mind of the poor helpless individual tied into his seat by ironclad bonds of conformity! I am talking about LEARNING – the insatiable curiosity that drives the adolescent boy to absorb everything he can see or hear or read about gasoline engines in order to improve the efficiency and speed of his ‘cruiser’. I am talking about the student who says, “I am discovering, drawing in from the outside, and making that which is drawn in a real part of me.” I am talking about any learning in which the experience of the learner progresses along this line: “No, no, that’s not what I want”; “Wait! This is closer to what I am interested in, what I need”; “Ah, here it is! Now I’m grasping and comprehending what I need and what I want to know!”
For me it’s the difference between using knowledge to reinforce your world view and using knowledge to change your world view. Unless you do the latter you’ll never achieve the insights that will give your business the edge.