What pedagogy can teach us about leadership and learning

I first started teaching in higher education in 2006. Two years later I moved to a full-time position at Northwestern University – part staff role, part instructor.

This, after 20+ years as a corporate leader and consultant working at the intersection of technology, learning and knowledge management.

Pedagogy – the methods and practice of teaching – was not a thing for me until I made that switch. Which was unfortunate. The people who think deeply about teaching in higher education understand that what they do in that setting – their practices and approaches – must emerge from a philosophy about learners, learning and the mission of higher education to contribute positively to society.

Positive social outcomes. Philosophy. Practice.

In corporate settings we don’t make those same connections, or ask ourselves to do so.

Here is an example of what I mean.

“…Critical Digital Pedagogy:

  • Centers its practice on community and collaboration
  • Must remain open to diverse, international voices and thus requires invention to reimagine the ways that communication and collaboration happen across cultural and political boundaries
  • Will not, cannot, be defined by a single voice but must gather together a cacophony of voices
  • Must have use and application outside traditional institutions of education.”

–  From Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel, Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Definition in An Urgency of Teachers  

I would argue that each of the elements of critical digital pedagogy is relevant to the reality most of us face within our non-higher-ed organization settings. We must engage diverse voices, to reimagine how that might happen, and to move away from our fixation on “content” and instead center our practice on community and collaboration.

Let me clarify. I am not arguing that pedagogy in the higher ed sense can be simply and easily adopted, as is, to inform the way we lead within corporate settings.

But we learn by spanning boundaries and looking for opportunities to frame our challenges differently. That’s the path I wish to explore. What can pedagogy teach us about learning and leadership?

With that, let me try to articulate the lessons I’ve learned by teaching-with-a-philosophy in higher ed. As I reflect upon my career before 2006, I see lessons and insights that would have informed the way I practiced leadership and learning.

Problem spaces and inquiry

Good courses are not built on content and topics. They are built upon authentic and complex problems and a structured but open inquiry into those problems. The problem space and inquiry lead the way.

When I have taken this approach in an education setting, it is in an attempt to create conditions that are similar to performing some practice in an actual organizational setting. It really is learning by doing. Or more precisely learning and doing because the two are inseparable.

I see two key takeaways for leading learning. The first is about defining right-sized problems. The second is having a basic understanding of inquiry as a process and how to facilitate it.

Right-sized problems. Right-sized problems do not have one possible answer; they force everyone to scratch their heads a bit. That includes the person posing the question – whether an instructor or a leader.

The tension created by this ambiguity hopefully forces everyone to shake their natural inclination to jump to the first solution that comes to mind. Or look for a solution they think is “expected.”

What I have learned as an educator is the art of defining a right-sized problem space. It is open and ambiguous enough to invite curiosity and exploration. But it also has clear boundaries, so that at the end of our time learning together we can come to some resolutions to the problem space we explored.

For leadership and learning outside of the classroom, I think there is a lesson here about paying more attention to how we define and articulate the problem spaces we give our teams to explore. This ability to see and define problem spaces is the starting point for setting an environment where doing and learning are inseparable in the workplace.

Inquiry as a process. Now that we’ve defined an appropriate problem space, we must set learners on a journey to explore it. Think of it as inquiry, and inquiry is tough work. In my experience, it really helps to understand inquiry as a process with distinct phases. I’ve adopted language and descriptions from the community of inquiry work of Garrison, Anderson and Archer, which builds upon the work of educational philosopher John Dewey.

  • Triggering event (problem): Describing the problem to allow for multiple plausible solutions.
  • Exploration: Divergent thinking, information gathering and exchange, framing and reframing the problem, brainstorming, suspending judgment.
  • Integration: Convergence, synthesizing and connecting ideas, defining potential solutions.
  • Resolution: Applying solution idea and testing, learning more about the problem.

In any role that involves leading learning via inquiry, I find the key is to understand where individuals or teams will struggle, when to “let it go” as just part of the process, or when to intervene by facilitating or supporting the learning process.

Communities and learning out loud

Instructors are not the center of learning. Neither are activities and content. The center is the group, or community of learners, and the culture of learning instructors facilitate.

One way of looking at it is shifting from “teaching” to “co-learning.” I’ve come to see my goal, as the designer of a learning environment and teacher, is to invite learners to explore a problem space in which I also participate as a learner.

There are powerful reasons behind this shift to focus on the community level. Individuals learn more when they feel they are supported by a community of peer learners. The community focus also embraces the role of peer-to-peer learning – and diversity of thinking – in making sense of complex issues.

I see the payoff in establishing a learning culture within the community is when the community becomes its own learning engine, generating insight and progress on its own.

Learning out loud. Etienne Wenger is the learning theorist who first recognized and defined communities of practice as a social learning structure. Communities of practice help practitioners make sense of their world. And among the important sense-making elements is the role played by artifacts – the tools, concepts, methods, visuals, etc. that we create.

“Artifacts without participation do not carry their own meaning,” Wenger writes. “And participation without artifacts is fleeting, unanchored and uncoordinated.”

I see this play out routinely in work settings with teams. Visuals such as journey maps or experience maps help design teams make sense of employee or customer experience, for example. Team members who participate in the development of such maps understand them with deeper meaning than outsiders. The test? Just ask someone who worked on developing a journey map to explain it, and compare it to what you understood on your own.

At the individual level, I know that sharing something visibly with a community is different than keeping it private, or sharing it only with an instructor. There is a different level of social tension; how will my peers view my work?

But I also know that overcoming this social tension is critical to developing the trust and psychological safety necessary to create the conditions for the learning culture we desire within the community. If learners can safely “learn out loud” and reflect, and know the community supports their efforts, they feel some incentive to reciprocate.

Positive social outcomes

Problem spaces, inquiry, community and learning out loud may all provide tactical frames through which I might look at how I would lead learning within workplaces differently.

But I think one of my biggest lessons is how we (instructors and leaders) think about if, and how, our work contributes to positive social outcomes. See If enterprise social networks might help us remake organizational learning, what is our pedagogy? and Revisiting: A critical pedagogy for organizational learning?

The lesson emerging from those two posts is to take action within a space in which you have some influence and control. I can make my classroom more inclusive, more equal, more open and produce exceptional learning experiences. The classroom, and the course structure, gives me a container of time and space. I just need to take care and focus how I lead toward those socially positive outcomes, through testing pedagogical practices.

I do something. I see what happens. I think about it. And do some more. It is integral to the way in which I – and my teaching colleagues – understand our practice. It is continuous inquiry into our own complex problem space.

That, I think, is one of my biggest takeaways about leading learning in any context. Where is it that we have some influence and control – what slices of time and space – can we use to connect our practices with our philosophy about learning, and learners, and positive social outcomes?