Fred's Blog

What is a Super Learner?

In an interview with Eric Davidove of Super Learner Magazine, I was asked the following:  How do you notice the presence of superlearners within the respective communities that you serve? What is their effect on other community members?

First, perhaps, a definition of superlearner is in order. For us at Teachers Without Borders (an international non-governmental organization devoted to local teacher development – on a global scale), our definition of superlearner is observational, rather than empirical, but consistent.

Superlearners (a) remove barriers to all forms of learning so that they can seek, find, discover, and create information (b) use street smarts to apply and advance advanced concepts to problems (c) superlearners remain so (rather than learn in bursts, then implode) because they are making progress, even if the goal of understanding something continues to elude them. In short, they pursue knowledge with a kind of manic zeal, they can think on their feet, and they climb the stairs of their accomplishments

In what ways might superlearners become frustrated at the existing learning and collaboration structure of their workplace? What can learning executives do to meet the needs of superlearners and to harness their energy?

The hip answer to the issue of superlearner frustration is the following: they have to function within a stultifying, cubicle-based, command-and-control environment in which their voice is not heard or their accomplishments not acknowledged. While we may agree that learning takes place best in a non-intimidating and engaging environment (recent research in cognitive science provide pretty compelling evidence for this), our experience is much more nuanced than that. Kids are soaking up TED talks (lectures, really) and iPads are passive, consumer devices. But TED talks are really good and, more than an “i-fad,” mobile devices do remove barriers to access.

A workplace that jumps to the other extreme – unlimited freedom, unfettered creativity, unbridled enthusiasm for every idea, no matter what its value, is just, well, bad teaching. Superlearners find (and contribute to) the sweet spot of independence and obligation; creativity and grunt work; enthusiasm and skepticism. They have to feel, most of all, that they have contributed to the structure itself (2 days in the office, 3 days out; a structure of feedback and discipline that creates a sense of duty and play, for example). Executives would be well served, then, to come out and ask the question to their staff: “How do you learn best?” Stay away from questions having to do with productivity. Let sales go through the roof because people multiply your executive brain.

Finally, collaboration is not necessarily the answer to every issue – communication is. Sometimes we cannot possibly learn when there are others around, or even (God forbid) when we have to share everything. Though I believe our products must be shared, collaboration for super learning has its place. For me, it is at the initial brainstorm stage and then – when it matters. But don’t turn it into a mantra.

What types of social or informal learning opportunities do you have in place that you feel can potentially meet the needs of superlearners?

I am not a fan of “team-building” exercises. The Geico commercial says it all (A trust exercise involving the clueless executive falling backward, expecting the hapless gecko to catch him). But I have also learned the hard way that superlearning is falls apart when we, as an organization take ourselves too seriously, when we consider teaching and learning so hallowed, so revered that we may lose the human dimension. We know this well – that we can become superlearners when we’re having fun or when we blow off the next session at the conference and go out to lunch with someone we’ve just met who, it ends up, can really, really teach us. After all, we go to museums to find a muse. Superlearning often happens when no one is looking…or even trying.