Takeaways from WonderLEARN

WonderLEARN is part of our maize.LIVE series aimed at rediscovering corporate learning and mapping out the landscape of education.


Education 17 September 2019

In the opening chapter of Lewis Carroll’s famous novel published in 1865, a young girl named Alice started a dreamlike, phantasmagoric journey into a fantasy world after feeling bored and annoyed by the book that her sister was reading which “had no pictures or conversations in it.” What was indeed the use of a book, said Alice `without pictures or conversation? Alice’s adventure began with a book that didn’t know how to do its duty to make the mind travel, and so it took a rabbit hole to escape boredom in search of discovery and learning.

The concept of corporate learning often has the same effect on employees: rather than hours of tedious training and the feeling of wasting time and money, a jump into the void of a dark hole seems an attractive option. But, like maize.LIVE’s moderator and wise Caterpillar —do you remember the Hookah-Smoking Caterpillar? — Robert C. Wolcott said the true mission of learning is becoming to connect people to themselves and stretch the edges of human potential. 

So what is corporate learning really about? How do we learn? What is the role of technology? How is this field (or how should it be) changing? Starting from unlearning what we know about learning, we followed the paths of people who have gone the way of Alice and followed the white rabbit.

Split across two days of individual stories and parables that we can glean lessons from, these are 9 takeaways that we gained from this edition of maize.LIVE WonderLEARN.

Parable: Learning and Cognitive Models in the Animal World, Roberto Marchesini 

Takeaway: Learning by nature is all about involving emotional, moral, intellectual, and spiritual development

Learning is not just a human activity: all animals can learn, even those with less than a thousand neurons. So what’s the difference between the “evolutionary learning” that allows animals to succeed in their environment and the more complex learning attitude that is connected with curiosity, proactivity, stubbornness, and creativity? Ethologist, epistemologist and post-humanist, Roberto Marchesini, shed a light on the inner drivers that motivate animals, children, and adults to learn. 

And what can you find out by examining the learning behaviors and attitudes of different species? The answer is what we could define as the “secret sauce” of a positive and engaging learning model.

Here’s a discovery that can arise from the observation of what is closest to us: “During the ’90s, a period of examining my kids’ behaviors, I used to wonder why they could not remember the seven kings of Rome but succeeded to remember hundreds of Pokémon characters, whose names were much more difficult than Tullo Ostilio. It was evident that the Pokémon didactic was working much more efficiently than the didactic adopted in school,” said Marchesini.

The key to the “Pokemon” model is to base the learning activity on the stronger motivation of a species, in this case, the human one: learning is not a price, but the outcome of the activity itself. “Therefore, the answer is not “having fun,” that would lead to the following question “why are children having fun?” but involvement. When we are involved, we have fun, but fun is not the point. Involvement makes the subject fully participate, focused on what she/he is doing, wanting to learn, and willing to ask questions and obtain more and more information.

When there is involvement, learning is desired, it is not a chore, and the effort becomes pleasant.

Talk: A new generation of learners, Nasos Papadopoulos

Takeaway: In the tech era, learning is a matter of emotional, moral, intellectual, and spiritual development

Millennials are going to be more or less 50% of the workforce in 2020. Who are they? What do they want? For Nasos Papadopoulos, Podcast Host at Metalearn & Associate and Lecturer at Goldsmiths University of London, getting learning and development (L&D) right is “the challenge,” but why? His answer started with a quote from Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

In Papadopoulos’ view of formal education, schools do not prepare people for the 21st century. Automation is coming, and society is constantly transformed by technology, which means getting learning and development right is more important than ever. But where to start? Organizations must first be clear about the context in which they are immersed and be aware of the key phenomena that will affect their future: Globalization: the increasingly interconnected global economy. Demographics: as new generations of workers with specific needs and values are emerging Technology: industries being continuously transformed by new innovations.

These three elements will directly influence the profile of the worker of the 21st century, who in addition to possessing “knowledge and skills,” must be able to develop the often neglected element of ”character,” or “how we behave and engage in the world.” In fact, even if it may seem a paradox in the era of technological revolution, authoritative sources like the World Economic Forum or Center for Curriculum Redesign (CCR) affirm that the development of character traits such as mindfulness, curiosity, resilience, and ethics are strategically more important than technical knowledge.

New generations are looking for organizations that know how to express these “character” elements because their real differentiating element rather than being “technoholics” is to be “work idealists”: “They spend more and more time thinking of what they love, more than what they need. They want purpose. This is something abstract that might seem unimportant, but it actually matters to them.

So what should an organization have in mind when thinking about its L&D solutions? For Papadopoulos, there is no doubt: “We need more than tools and techniques to be an effective learning organization. It’s not about taking in more information than you can: it is about emotional, moral, intellectual and spiritual development. When you invest in learning as an organization, you invest in your people.”

Talk: Homo Adaptus: What Does 21st Century Talent Look Like? Lior Frenkel

Takeaway: We don’t know the jobs of the future, but we can learn how to learn them

Lior Frenkel, serial startupper, founder of Tel Aviv’s NuSchool, and partner at Jolt — a company that promises to revolutionize upskilling by creating micro-campuses all over the world that give people access to high-quality education — started his speech with a story that many of us can relate to:

My mom taught me that I should learn to do one thing, do it, and earn my pension. But that didn’t work for me: when I was 30, after 10 years as an electrical engineer I realized that I was not happy in that job anymore. I did not feel like I had a purpose and wanted to have one.” What happened to Frenkel? Society has changed so fast today that what is learned in school is not enough and people feel that they do not have to define themselves by a job. Instead, they find value from gaining a set of skills and characteristics that they want to use, through activities that give them meaning and purpose.

But what activities, what jobs, can we imagine for ourselves? The Future of Jobs Report (2018) from the World Economic Forum says that we must prepare to see 75 million jobs disappear by 2022, while 133 million new roles may emerge that have adapted to the division of labor between humans, machines, and algorithms. The report also added that 54% of all employees will require significant re- and up-skilling and, no surprise, the skills on which one should invest one’s own skills are the same as those highlighted by Papadopoulos in his speech: creativity, empathy (to understand and work across cultures), communication (human communication will still be key but people might not be as used to it), and intrapreneurship. 

From this list, it is clear that being able to learn is key: in the future, people will be doing jobs that do not exist yet, so they can’t be learned now, but it is possible to learn how to learn them,” was Frenkel’s conclusion. 

This concept led Lior to formulate the idea of Homo Adaptus, who works with a “startup operation system”: companies have to be adaptable, which means think like startups. “At Jolt, we teach the secrets behind the world’s most coveted businesses. That means you’ll now gain access to the methodologies, culture, behavior, and tools that are used to build the startups, scale-ups, and tech companies the world looks up to.

Talk: A new learning culture: Empathy as a tool for organizational learning, Elena Pattini

Takeaway: Technology is only a means through which we mediate among our relationships

Our brain is not a machine that processes data like a computer, it is a machine with a body that establishes relationships with others,” once said Professor Giacomo Rizzolatti, the neuroscientist behind the groundbreaking discovery of mirror neurons, to whom Elena Pattini is a close collaborator. Pattini has consolidated experiences in the field of psychosocial stress and she is also part of the Stress Control Lab research group for which she analyzes nonverbal behavior and psychometric data.

With a resume like this, what could Elena talk about? She discusses one of the World Economic Forum’s key skills of the future: empathy. 

Often empathy is perceived as something abstract and emotional related to the personality of the individual, often as a weakness, but that is not the case. It is an ability, a competency that we also need in our technological times. Let’s remember, technology is only a means through which we mediate our relationships.” 

Empathy is also a tool, which is useful to obtain good results. Empathy becomes a tool when it becomes business culture: Workers have to be put in the condition to use it, and this allows them to feel good and work better. An empathic mindset must be introduced and embraced by everyone in the company. Corporate learning conveys the company message, it tells employees what is important for that company. introducing empathy in the company allows for the improvement of other abilities, like leadership, and cooperative behavior.

Concretizing empathy means a paradigm shift in corporate culture” and it is necessary to take companies into the Third Millennium. “If every time I use empathy in my company I receive good feedback, I am going to use it more often. This reinforcement has to go beyond formal training moments.”In conclusion, people who are in their best psychophysical condition can express their best qualities.” 

Parable: Of Straight Lines and Spirals. Cultural Patterns in Thinking, Learning, and Language, Paolo Balboni

Takeaway: Diversity is not only reflected in our language, but in our unique ways of thinking

“A lot of what we do is routine: we have an “expectancy grammar” that we rely on to decipher what happens to us and react to it.” In his experience as a linguist and professor at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Pietro Balboni has learned to understand that every culture thinks that its culture is “The Culture.” At the same time, the syntactic structures of different languages (English paratactic, straight to the point; Italian hypotactic, with long sentences; Arab spiral, going towards the main point progressively and going there together —going straight to the point is rude) create different ways of thinking.

But in a society that is becoming more and more multicultural, what do these elements contribute to the workplace? Diversity is not only reflected in our language, but in our unique ways of thinking, solving problems, and even learning. By observing the cultural differences that exist in the gestures that accompany words, in the ways of agreeing/disagreeing, in the ways in which concepts such as respect or the passing of time are expressed, it is possible to understand how language is a concrete expression of behaviors, values, and ways of thinking.

Each of us, whether we are aware of it or not, has three types of “communicative software,” explained Balboni, “Language, that brings very few problems — you can make grammar mistakes without great consequences; Non-verbal codes (proximity, objects like gifts, gestures, etc) that can lead to dramatic misunderstandings; and Socio-pragma-cultural codes, where errors are unacceptable.” So what is the message for organizations that really want to be intercultural and make their messages clear and embraced by everybody?” You need to create a model that you can use to collect what you learn and create your own intercultural communication “grammar” or dictionary.” For example, using tools like the Map of intercultural communication based on the model crafted by Balboni.

Talk: The Reskilling Imperative: Transitioning to a New Learning Paradigm, Kelly Palmer

Takeaway: Companies can lead the way to show what is possible for the future of education

Kelly Palmer, the former Chief Learning Officer at LinkedIn and current Chief Learning Officer of the education technology company, Degreed, has wide experience with the evolution of professional skills and the processes to hire and retain the best talent. While automation, digitization, artificial intelligence, and the accelerated pace of innovation have caused a seismic shift in the skillsets required to stay current and succeed in the workplace, Palmer’s mission is to shift how employees learn, refocusing organizational thinking toward leveraging people’s unique abilities rather than following the status quo of job titles and pre-packaged descriptions.

That’s because data suggest that the status quo is ready to crumble and change sooner than we can imagine: “Over the next ten years 50% of current S&P 500 companies will be replaced” explained Palmer.“Most CEOs think that they will need to re-skill a quarter of their workforce to be future-ready. It’s imperative that we look at this from a company perspective and empower workers to think about what’s next and not wait for an opportunity to land at their feet.”  

Among CEOs, the lack of key skills is perceived as a threat to growth and innovation, but what skills are we talking about? In Palmer’s view, basic digital skills, as well as technical skills, will be relevant, but the “power skills” will form the basis of the success of future work. In her new book, The Expertise Economy, Palmer, and co-author, David Blake, affirm that it’s actually our distinct expertise (our skill-sets) and the capacity of creating not only value but meaning, that are the great assets for the workforce of the future.

Palmer spoke in particular about one concept: “Learning agility is when a person is curious and motivated to continuously learn and build new skills. The message to employees should be, we want you to keep learning: you need to retool yourself and you should not expect to stop.” Learning must, therefore, be part of the company’s strategy and part of its culture, as stated by one quote of Unilever’s former CEO, Paul Polman: “Unilever reshapes its people with its portfolio. In any position in the company, including mine, you need to work very hard on learning new skills every day.

Talk: Redesigning Educational Organizations, Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin

Takeaway: The future of education is about creativity and critical thinking

What’s wrong with our current schooling system? What if we had a chance to redesign it from scratch? What methodologies and approaches could we use? For Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin, Senior Analyst at the OECD Center for Educational Research and Innovation, these are not just hypothetical questions but a starting point to revolutionize our educational system and, in cascade, create future-ready curricula for a new generation of workers.

Professional knowledge — mathematics, English, science for example — are the traditional subjects of today’s education system. However, more and more schools are adding soft skills — a concept that is gaining enormous importance, comprising creative and critical thinking and behavioral and social talents. 

Technical knowledge is surely important, but for Vincent-Lancrin “You cannot be a critical thinker if you do not know anything. But let’s not forget that if you know a lot about a thing it does not mean that you are very good at it or communicating at it. Also, to pursue a career an in-depth knowledge of a specific domain is not enough, especially when you decide to work abroad or in a progressive working environment. What you need to do is integrate the three areas of abilities.

But how can we foster and assess students’ creativity and critical thinking? How can we make it work in different contexts? OECD has been working on these questions for over two years in 11 countries, with about 17,000 students, 650 teachers, and 330 K-12 schools. Through the project, Vincent-Lancrin and his team have tried to build a professional representation, an artifact of the pedagogical resources, based on eight teaching/learning principles like engagement, co-design with students, and feedback The project has another connection to Wonderlearn’s spirit: Leaving room for the unexpected.

Talk: Measuring Learning: Rethinking Assessment through AI, Nigel Guenole

Takeaway: To overcome AI HR’s bias, we’ve got to win what we own

When it comes to organizational learning, Nigel Guenole, Executive Consultant with IBM’s Smarter Workforce Institute & Director of Research for the Institute of Management at Goldsmiths, said that strategies and activities are too often focused on the individual, including ability, motivation, task demands, and learning transfer. But learning can also examine how organizations gain knowledge, which has been shown to impact unit performance and firm productivity. This includes matters like recruiting new workers, developing existing workers, and enhancing processes — all tasks in which Artificial Intelligence could help.

So, what is AI in the context of creating a learning organization? “There are two main areas of application for Artificial Intelligence inside our organizations” explained Guenole, “One is computer systems that augment human intelligence, using techniques like machine learning and natural language processing. The other is the “AI HR system,” which improves processes by learning from data sets and summarizing outcomes of past decisions.” 

Data analysis and machine learning have demonstrated strong capabilities in many areas of HR, creating quicker, better candidate matching solutions; helping to develop learning tools based on relevant recommendations; and augmenting efficiency in screening and hiring time. But as we know, all that glitters is not gold, and even artificial intelligence has its weak point: when an algorithm produces results that are systematically prejudiced, due to erroneous assumptions in the machine learning process, AI can become a recruitment threat.

What’s interesting is that the concept of bias is much more complex than it may appear, and behind a “technical defect” lies a form of social judgment that is reflected in the algorithms. An example? Amazon created a recruiting AI to automatically return the best candidates out of a pool of applicant resumes. It discovered that the algorithm would down-rank resumes when they included the word “women’s,” a pattern that appeared because the algorithm was based on past candidates’ resumes submitted over the previous 10 years.

But Guenole has a positive message: “This does not have to stop us: we have a lot of established methods to address the bias that psychologists have been developing, and these biases are not different from the ones we’ve seen before, so we can address them as we used to.

Talk: Learning Personalization & Future Jobs: The Vodafone Case, Catalina Schveninger

Takeaway: Personalization means understanding how individuals learn

Vodafone’s Global Chief Officer, Catalina Schveninger, led us through the final steps of our journey through Wonderlearn, exploring the facts (and myths) of AI-powered learning personalization. What more can be said about the buzzword personalization? Schveninger has a clear vision: “There’s a lot of hype around the personalization of learning, but the level of personalization right now is pretty superficial. Sometimes it is useless or even creepy. And there’s another personalization, which is more around social filtering, “Netflix-style,” which is based on the idea that if I am watching this, maybe I might like to also watch this. These systems never ask what people don’t like and do not create a conversation —That would be real personalization.”  

In this way, how can personalization be helpful for learners? Fortunately, there are some positive examples in the learning tech industry, like Filtered, which offers a continually updated best-estimate of the skills that learners can most valuably develop; or Edmodo, the education app, which in partnership with IBM Watson, is developing individualized tools for educators to address each learners’ needs.

Speaking about IBM, Vodafone has been working closely with the company to put together a cross-functional squad of the brightest minds from both companies who ideated on the future of work in a lab-like experience, called Innovation Lab. Another experience created inside Vodafone is the Future Jobs Finder: “There is a massive gap between the world of work and people who don’t know how to apply their skills in that world. Can we fix that gap somehow? And in a digital way, because that’s the only way we can have a global reach. The answer they gave is creating the Future Jobs Finder which was launched in March 2018.” 

The result is a set of psychological tests that analyze how Vodafone can use people’s “powers” and make them productive members of the organization. Launched via a collaboration with Sony on the theme of Spiderman, the solution uses hundreds of digital job families and several models, to create its tool. “It combines personal characteristics and preferences with digital abilities. It matches you with available training, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and offline courses in your area that are relevant to your skills. All of this is delivered in a few minutes. It is magic, cool and, above all, focused on understanding how individuals learn.”