PrehistoricEvery day someone is breathlessly gushing over the newest, latest technology that is going to change the way we think, the way we drive, the way we sleep, the way we work, and, of course, the way we learn. With the sheer volume of technological advances we are presented with on a daily basis, it often begs the question, “How did we do it before?” How did we do it? Whatever we did before, we seemed to manage to get here, didn’t we? I find this applies very directly to learning. Before all of this technology, humans managed to learn enough from one another to get where we are today. Perhaps there is something to be learned by looking back to where we came from. And I mean way back.

In his book, From the Campfire to the Holodeck: Creating Engaging and Powerful 21st Century Learning Environments, educational futurist David Thornburg describes four learning models that harken back to prehistoric man: the campfire, the watering hole, the cave, and life. These four concepts sound very basic, but they hold the key to the effectiveness of any learning technology endeavor, primarily the watering hole.

The first model, the campfire, is essentially a lecture or classroom environment. Despite the clear limitations of the lecture model, many factors lead to it being the default mode of transferring knowledge. And while technology promises to improve this model, it is rarely used to do so. We have organizations building virtual environments for delivering learning and they simply replicate a real-world classroom. Moving from paper books to e-books is not delivering learning in a new way. When using technology, it’s important to find the things that make it unique and effective and use it that way. Technology should be used to make the classroom more like a campfire, where everyone is huddled in, engaged, almost mesmerized. Knowledge is being imparted, but there is room for questions and interaction.

The watering hole refers to social learning. It’s a place where people are already going to be, and while there they exchange ideas and ask questions. Perhaps they discuss the topic of the previous night’s campfire talk. The idea here is to have an environment where this type of interaction can take place. Sometimes the lessons of a particular classroom session do not crystalize until the learners are able to discuss it amongst themselves. Giving your learners a place to commune and extend the classroom is critical to ensure that whatever transpired in the campfire model does not get lost. Brandon Hall Group’s  research on Relationship Centered Learning finds that high-performing, leading edge companies are providing these kinds of opportunities.

The last two models may not have a lot to do with technology, but they are still important. For instance, the cave is a place for quiet reflection for learners to think about the ideas and concepts they are working with. In the corporate world, we often overlook the necessity of this solitary time. Instead people are barraged with meetings, emails, deadlines etc., and rarely given the opportunity to reflect. The rest, of course, is life, the place where we take all we’ve garnered in the other models and put it to use.

The basic concept here is that too often we get wrapped up in new technology and all the cool things it can do, rather than understanding the underlying concepts that make the technology effective. Whether it’s around an actual watering hole or in a social network environment, people naturally want to gather and exchange ideas around the things they are learning.

Once we’ve heard the lesson, discussed it with our peers and reflected on it personally, it is time to step out into life and put our knowledge and ideas to the test.

David Wentworth

David Wentworth has been a senior research analyst in the human capital field since 2005 and joined the Brandon Hall Group in 2013. He has authored reports and articles on various human capital subjects with an emphasis on workforce technology. He has contributed to several reports published by ASTD, including authoring Mobile Learning: Learning in the Palm of Your Hand, The Rise of Social Media: Enhancing Collaboration and Productivity Across Generations, and Instructional Systems Design Today and in the Future. His work has also appeared in Compensation & Benefits Review and T+D Magazine.