The Essence of Learning

Tom Peters

I talk too much during the seminars I conduct. On a day-to-day basis, most managers talk too much, too. Consequently, we end up denying others sufficient opportunity to become engaged in what they do.

Certainly none of the above is news. But an excerpt I recently read from the book Louis Agassiz as Teacher (by Lane Cooper, 1917) brought this issue, which is of increasing importance to management, home once again. The excerpt included recollections from distinguished scientists who had studied under the renowned Harvard zoologist—and exceptional teacher.

One former student recounted his introduction to Agassiz: “I had assigned to me a small pine table with a rusty tin pan upon it … When I sat down before my tin pan, Agassiz brought me a small fish, placing it before me with the rather stern requirement that I should study it, but should on no account talk to anyone concerning it, nor read anything relating to fishes until I had his permission to do so. To my inquiry, ‘What shall I do?’ he said in effect: ‘Find out what you can without damaging the specimen; when I think that you have done the work I will question you.’ In the course of an hour I thought I had compassed that fish … I was anxious to make [a summary report] and get on to the next state of the business.”

But Agassiz paid no attention to his student that day, the next or during the following week. So the novice, after suppressing his impatience, forged ahead. To his surprise, he learned more: “I set my wits to work upon the thing, and in the course of 100 hours or so thought I had done much—a hundred times as much as seemed possible at the start.”

Agassiz eventually responded: “On the seventh day came the question, ‘Well?’ and my disgorge of learning to him as he sat on the edge of my table, puffing his cigar. At the end of the hour’s telling he swung off and away, saying, ‘That is not right.'” Reluctantly, the student went back to the drawing board. After another week of hard labor, he had results that astonished himself and satisfied his teacher. Agassiz acknowledged the student’s success by placing before him about a half peck of bones telling him to see what he could make out of them.

Much more agonized examination was in store, with stupendous results: “Two months or more went into this [second] task with no other help than an occasional looking over my grouping with the stereotyped remark: ‘That is not right.’ Finally the task was done, and I was again set upon a remarkable lot of specimens representing 20 species of the side swimmers … I shall never forget the sense of power … which I felt in beginning the more extended work on a group of animals. I had learned the art of comparing objects, which is the basis of the naturalist’s work.”

Agassiz’s approach is the most extreme—and best—example of learning through involvement that I have discovered. Over the past 25 years, I have taught in classrooms, led seminars, and managed people. I have preached “wholesale” involvement and self-motivation from a thousand pulpits. But for me, the Agassiz anecdote illustrates just how far short of the mark I (and most others) fall in comprehending the true nature of learning.

Any learner progresses only by observing, doing, making mistakes, wrestling ceaselessly with mind-numbing confusion—and being egged on to continue the struggle until ever deeper levels of understanding and appreciation of the subject are reached. (If you still need more confirmation, picture yourself in the midst of a weekend project, with the garbage compactor disassembled about you, the manual long lost. True learning is about to take place.)

The best teachers understand this process. I’ve had the privilege of conducting seminars with dozens of them. At the end of the day, I frequently receive much higher ratings from attendees than they do. Why? I tell interesting stories and present statistics non-stop, exactly what’s expected of a “good” teacher.

And those master teachers? Rather than bombarding participants with information, they sketch only the outline of the picture. They force their charges, from the outset, to grapple with the missing elements and to confront the frustrating contradictions and hidden assumptions, as they try to apply abstract ideas to their very human settings. In the long run, the participants doubtless regret their instant response to these masters.

The manager’s job is like that of the teacher. He or she has but one objective: pursuing improved performance by fostering long-term personal (and team) engagement, learning and continuous development. I acknowledge differences between the Agassiz vignette and the typical business setting. For example, many workers would tune out long before the end of the seven days during which Agassiz ignored his student’s plight. Yet I think the similarities are far greater than the differences. It takes deep immersion and a lot of frustration to comprehend any topic, from the nature of a specimen in a glass jar to the workings of a distribution center. Moreover, I repeatedly observe that the average worker, like the good student, is an avid would-be learner—if only we would create workplaces that resemble Agassiz’s
lab a bit more.

Learning is the ultimate accomplishment of every human being. And virtually everyone is motivated to learn, which is one reason we regularly observe such stellar off-the-job, self-taught accomplishments by those whose creative instincts are most suppressed on the job. Today, competition requires the constant improvement of every process and product, by every worker. As a result, managers should see their primary task as creating de facto learning labs on the job.

(c) 1988 TPG Communications.

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