Back to the Trees!

I ventured for 2 years in the Learning and Development community to deepen my knowledge on Learning. I was surprised by the buzz around informal learning, formal learning, and social learning. I think it’s fine to reinstate informal and social learning but not to appropriate ownership as if it was an innovation. I’m using a human evolution perspective to illustrate my point. I may do some confusion of dates and periods but it will my conclusions.

Last week I took in a futuristic view of Learning and Knowledge Flows, this week I bring you back to cavemen age. For my friends living in Australia or North America it’s easy to disconnect from cavemen, here it would be a posture.

Some of my neighbors have their roots in this land for as far memory and monuments can go. As I stay here, I’m getting into their shoes. When I came nature was well, just nature: grass, trees, cows. Years after years people point me to plants, trees, places. Today it is as if an augmented reality is placated on what I see. This plant that came by itself with the nice blue flowers “Bourrache” (Borage) is great for cleansing. This plant “consoude” (Comfrey) is great for pains in joints. A nearby woman asked me to take an armful of sage from the big bush I have. The more you know, the more you realize that you walk in an open source pharmacy. This knowledge didn’t come from laboratories studying plants with microscopes. It came from thousands of years of hunters-gatherers living on this hill.

We need to learn from others

Place yourself back in a tribe who took refuge here 10 000 years ago. They moved from up north because the climate was getting cold. This nice hill was surely on their sight when they walked in the plain.

They climbed here and discovered a completely new ecosystem. Some new plants, trees and animal. They will also realize after some time that some trees and remedies they were used to are now missing. I had the same experience trying to plant a plum tree I brought from Alsace: it died.

Each and every adult will not learn all the eatable plants on his own. Some plants are poison, they can become poisonous above a certain quantity and beneficial at small quantities. The only way to know is to try, and possibly die. Some plants are eatable only at some period of the year or after some preparation.

If you don’t know anything about your new environment, it’s likely your are not going to survive. You will be surprised by the sudden fall of temperature, some resources and animals will suddenly be inaccessible. It takes several years to understand the cycle and how to adapt to it.

Lurking others working out loud

An important source of knowledge are the other groups. At that time communities were small and scarce. The likelihood to have someone to watch, speaking a common idiom and willing to share was limited. yet the more we learn the more we know there were exchanges taking place.

This tribe who just came in on this hill could very well roam around and see what animals are eating and what other tribes are doing. At that time, most activities were taking place outside. People didn’t have our habit of speaking with a low voice, behind closed doors and exchanging written notes during meetings.

Working Out Loud was just the norm. Hunting was out and loud, Wandering and collecting wood, herbs, fruits and plants as well. So it was easy for youngers of the clan or for lurkers to see what was going on and just replicate. This could take place without any interaction, without exchanging a single word. It could very well exist from the very first stage of human development, before language. It’s definitely a great way of learning from others as soon as knowledge emerge. We still use it every day in Software development.

Social Learning came first

Within the clan (150 people) the easiest way to share knowledge is to learn from others. There are no books, no lectures, no classroom. Language exists but surely not as perfect as we have and yet we have difficulties to share know-how and gestures with just language.

So my guess is that most of the knowledge were shared during occasional encounters. Opportunities came during walks to show a plant, take one, show which part is eatable and how to consume it. Very much like my neighbors are teaching me today.

For me, this is the prototype of social learning. It was present 10 000 years ago, has always been around, will remain long after most of the technology around us is outdated. Yes it was mobile first 🙂

How common knowledge became private

Using plants for curing and healing as always been around as well. Just some 200 years ago some people managed to turn them into packaged remedies. To force the change from self-healing to over the counter medicine they privatized a common knowledge, placed patents on them and influenced lawmakers to have laws prohibiting to share this ancestral knowledge.

Of course, there were benefits. Many charlatans pretended to have miraculous potions that will cure everything. Preventing them from selling their poison was good. Yet we didn’t prevent other tricksters to sell medicine outside from the approved usage. Just you need to have a bigger shop, a diploma, visibility in the market.

Another benefit was that it promoted research, widespread of better formulas, new treatment. What I’m not sure is if it was necessary to ban and dispraise traditional medicine for this purpose. It was cheaper, more variate, entertained garden diversity, creativity and above all fostered responsibility for one’s health down to each house.

The same happened in Learning as well

Learning didn’t become formal for the benefits and pleasure of workers. It became formal because with the rise of written word it was easier to transfer knowledge with this dehydrated form. It held fewer barriers to sharing over large distances, and long periods of time.

Formal is also great because it scales well. We see that there are some similarities and it is not just for learning and medicine. It’s a general pattern of all the progress of the last 300 years. Standardize to the maximum extend, mass production and mass diffusion. Limitate local, homemade alternatives as it slows desire and traction for mass diffusion.

The second common pattern between big pharma and workplace learning is the temptation of branding and ownership. Big pharma ended up convincing lawmakers to outlaw exchanges of proved traditional remedies and let them place patents on them.

The third pattern is rediscovery. Big brands are now telling us that nothing is worth herbal therapies, use of organic cultivation practice. So not only they deliberately hindered old practices but now they act as if they were the protectors of them and wish to appear as the best source of them, the only authorized suppliers.

Sorry man. a bottle of pumpkins seeds is $30 in your online shop, and free in my garden. I go for my garden seeds, dry them myself and it’s good enough. let’s do the same for Learning.

Paleo Learning Technology

Social Learning is not what it used to be for 10 000 years, it becomes like a trademark of this or that author. Definitions abound but all rotate around the same idea: it’s new, it has been invented, and to learn the practice you should take a course, buy a book etc.

Working Out Loud is not what humans have been doing since the dawn of humanity, it became a practice for getting back attention and motivation for workers to learn and share withing the firm after they have been told for hundred years it’s not productive and a loss of time.

Informal learning is all learning experiences that are not designed, organized and formalized with an immutable material. All the learning taking place from human to human or on demand, by ourselves, rediscovered accidentally is informal. This is how most of us learned to live, to guide our actions, to do our jobs. There is nothing new, it’s just the apostles of organized learning discovering they killed creativity and autonomy of their learners like big farmers killed their soil with the excess of fertilizers. It’s their problem, not ours.

Now it doesn’t mean that all the research, the studies done are useless and wrong. Like for the big pharmas there are nice outcomes, great clarifications done. As opposed to big pharma it’s rarely real science, rarely proven research with a trustable methodology. They are ideas, contributions, suggestions, indications, not laws or definitions. We shouldn’t ignore or reject them, just take them for their real facial value.


Let us not let anyone comes and tells us they discovered informal learning, own the concept, the expertise and will teach us how to do it. The more so if they keep dividing people and suggesting others don’t get it. It’s time learners, and especially independent lifelong learners become their own guides and let go the pandits.

Take works and contributions for what they are: inspiration, not truths. There is at least as much to learn from marketing, software or design.

Let’s keep in mind that social learning, working out loud, informal learning and on the point of work learning is simply how the humanity did it up to now. If you doubt, do like me, take your bag, hit the road and visit the world outside from conference rooms with your eyes wide open.