Most of us have probably heard of the term lean manufacturing, a process popularized by Toyota. The focus of lean manufacturing is to improve quality and reliability, without increasing the time and other resources required to support the manufacturing process. While the thinking behind lean manufacturing has been applied by other activities, only recently has the approach been applied to the process of learning.
Yet, learning is an activity featuring ample opportunities to increase efficiency and effectiveness. Consider that we forget 75% of what we learn in just seven days if we fail to apply it, according to research by psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus, the discoverer of “The Forgetting Curve.” Meanwhile, estimates are that college freshmen retain less than half of what they learned in high school. It is not unusual to find that students fail to recall much of what they have previously learned, even over the course of a few weeks or months.
Much of the thinking and research related to lean learning is occurring in the world of adult learning, primarily in the workplace. Businesses have clear incentives to have the learning of their employees be efficient, so that minimal production time is sacrificed to classes and other learning activities. They also want employees to retain what they learned to avoid having to relearn what they once knew.
Lean learning thrives in the presence of several conditions. For example, it works best when it is driven by a specific need, is seen as useful, or has a purpose. Lean learning practices also fit best with skills and concepts that have immediate application and can be applied in real-life settings and situations. Lean learning is typically iterative. Learning starts with just the essentials of what is to be learned, and additional information, skills, and applications are added as learners are ready for them. Introduction of new content and skills is driven by and aligned with the specific needs and interests of the learner. Further, lean learning is enhanced when learning and practice are shared with peers.
There are obvious opportunities to apply lean learning principles and practices with our students. However, there also are challenges in the context of standardized curricula, set schedules for instruction, and frequent difficulties providing real-time, real-life applications for learning, especially if we are just starting.
You might consider starting with your own learning to gain experience and build confidence with the approach before engaging students. Consider this brief lean learning cycle as an example of a place to start:
- Identify a skill you would like to learn. For example, you may have a technology tool or application with which you would like to become proficient, or you may want to try a new discussion or questioning technique. The list of potential topics and skills is limitless. (Condition: Specific need or purpose)
- Engage someone to help you learn the essential information you need to get started. And, if possible, enlist others with a similar interest or need to learn with you. Often, as little as 20-30% of the full scope of the skills is enough to begin. Focus on what is crucial to be able to do something with what you learn. (Conditions: Focus on essential learning and learn with peers)
- Apply what you have learned as soon as possible, optimally within a few hours or days, while the learning is fresh and the recall is clear. The longer you wait, the less you will remember, and the more difficult it will be to practice productively. (Condition: Real-life, real-time application)
- Get feedback on initial attempts, ask questions to clarify and extend your learning, and capture any insights you gained. Ask yourself: How did it go? What do I need to learn next? What did I discover from the initial application? (Condition: Explore what you want to learn next)
- Repeat the cycle to build the next level of learning, expand your skills, and gain expertise while your initial experience is fresh and feedback is still recallable. With each iterative cycle, focus on new applications, more sophisticated skills, and new insights upon which to build. (Condition: Iterative cycles)
The principles and conditions that underlie lean learning are not new. However, too often they are ignored in large-scale learning efforts and neglected when what we need to learn is challenging. Take some time to build your lean learning expertise and then offer the same opportunity to your students.