Introducing 5DL: What We Do and Why

 The Opportunity. If one wants to learn something new, today is arguably the greatest moment in human history to be alive. New developments in the study of learning, particularly tools like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scanning, allow scientists to look deeply at how humans learn, remember, recall, and connect learning to action. They also allow us to investigate connections among cognitive, social, and affective (emotional) learning and understand far more deeply how feeling, thinking, and relating to others shape what we learn, how we learn it, and what we can do with our learning. New, important findings in learning science arrive frequently, and the pace of discovery seems to be accelerating. In other words, not only is today the greatest day to learn in human history so far, but also tomorrow promises to be even better!

A Mismatch. Unfortunately, however, these new findings are not necessarily reaching people who want and need to grow. Schools, colleges, universities, and corporate training courses are stuck in routines and rituals that date back hundreds and sometimes even thousands of years. Too often, a course in 2019 CE looks a great deal like a course in 1919 CE—and many features of it would be recognizable to students in 1219 CE and even in 319 BCE!  If those features were optimal, there would be no problem. But as learning science research progresses, it is becoming clear that many of our learning practices are very far from optimal, often inhibiting instead of accelerating the learning we want to achieve.

Closing the Productivity-Performance Gap. One important reason that fiveDlearning exists is to eliminate the gap between what scientists know about how best to learn and how learning is actually practiced in the world. We are an applied research firm, meaning that we don’t usually conduct original research on learning ourselves, but instead apply the work of others, selecting and adjusting what works until it produces the greatest possible real-world results. We act to eliminate the barriers between the learning science laboratories and the real-world learning environments in which most human beings operate.

G7 and Elite Biases. When one starts to investigate how to improve learning, it becomes clear quickly that there are two sorts of obstacles. Some, as noted above, are based in brain science and therefore apply equally to almost everyone. Others, however, are rooted in history and culture, and have very different impacts on people depending on their different cultures or histories. Learning as we practice it today was developed and refined largely in the West over the past 150 years and particularly in the advanced industrial economies, the G7 nations. Within those countries, it was further developed primarily for higher-level (elite) members of society. Only in the past hundred years has it been extended to serve all members of those societies—and often it serves lower-status members of a G7 society far less well than it serves the same society’s elites.

Emerging and Developing Economies. When that same, G7-based system of learning is applied in emerging and developing economies, which have quite different histories and cultures, the performance and bias problems worsen. G7 learning makes some strong assumptions about learner preparation to learn—assumptions that must be fulfilled if learners are going to succeed. Many of its assumptions are based on how Western students prepare to learn outside of school, in their families, from friends, in religious and social activities, as part of organized extra-curricular activities such as athletics, clubs, or student government, and so on. G7 nations have a rich web of social and other institutions in which elites learn how to learn what they need to know in order to succeed. Formal schooling is only one part of that institutional web—the largest and perhaps the most important part but not the only necessary source of learning or preparation to learn. Even in the G7 nations, learners have differential access to those other institutions: elite learners have more and better access to higher-quality out-of-school learning opportunities, and so they perform better in school as well. When one extracts the G7 schooling system from the G7 cultural context and puts it into a nation that doesn’t have those other social institutions, the schooling can’t compensate for what’s missing, and its performance diminishes sharply for all learners. Even elite learners in such a system will only perform, at best, as well as non-elite learners in the original, G7 system.

Set Up to Fail. As a result, when emerging or developing nations try to ‘catch up’ to the G7 by duplicating its approach to schooling, they set themselves up to fail. The more closely they duplicate G7 practices without duplicating the entire, complex institutional web that surrounds G7 schooling (an impossible task, in most cases), the more certainly the results will under-perform G7 results. Those nations end up widening, not closing, the gap between their citizens and G7 citizens. If you are involved in learning practice in any emerging or developing economy right now and you think about this for a moment, you will recognize this pattern in your own nation. Emerging and developing economies have been trying to perfect Western education for decades, often giving huge sums of money to anyone who promises to bring “Western quality” to their nation’s learning systems. The track-record of these efforts is individually and collectively dismal, because the way the effort is designed makes success impossible.

Closing the Equity-Performance Gap. Another reason that fiveDlearning exists is to assist emerging and developing economies in designing, developing, and implementing learning systems that match or exceed in performance those practiced in the G7 nations. The trick to outperforming the G7 is to analyze what G7 nations teach outside of school that matters for learner success and then incorporate it into the formal learning process. If one does this well, not only can one develop a learning system that meets or exceeds the performance of formal schooling in the G7, but also one can reduce, and perhaps even eliminate, the information biases that reduce performance for non-elites as well. That is true for the formal learning found in schools, colleges, and universities and also for the lifelong learning found in corporate training programs and government public-education initiatives. When learning is designed—from the ground up—to address the complete spectrum of needs of the learner, that learner is far more likely to benefit in full, as the sponsors of the learning intended.

The Price of Low Learning Productivity. It is difficult to overstate the benefits that come from closing the Productivity- and Equity-Performance Gaps, making learning contextually appropriate and using 21st Century understandings to improve learning productivity. Every nation exists today in a global economic system that values learning very highly. All over the globe, high-productivity learners command salaries that are much larger than low-productivity workers, and they can expect a far more comfortable and prosperous future. Nations that produce large numbers of high-productivity learners enjoy a tremendous competitive advantage over nations that cannot. That advantage is measured in GDP, which in turn translates into marked differences in real wealth for a nation’s citizens. In other words, marked improvements in national learning productivity translate directly—and quickly!—into sharp increases in wealth and prosperity for a nation’s citizens and improved social stability for the nation as a whole.

What to Aim For. The G7 nations today lead the world in learning productivity but their learning practices are far from optimal. Because they are so successful as-is, they are slower to adopt the new learning science insights. Their core learning systems are still stuck in the era that created them, usually the 19th and early 20th Century. They are moving to adopt the new advances, but slowly and with much hesitation. If a non-G7 nation can adopt the insights of learning science more quickly and address the Equity- and Productivity-Performance Gaps effectively, it is entirely possible for that nation to leapfrog the G7 and lead the entire world in learning productivity for the rest of the 21st Century and beyond.  

How to Get There. For a non-G7 nation to achieve the “leapfrog” outcome, it must be willing to do two things:

  1. Embrace the new learning science insights and re-engineer its formal learning systems to make the most effective possible use of them.
  2. Abandon efforts to mimic G7 education and instead analyze its own social and institutional context, determine what preparations for learning are needed, and devise formal learning mechanisms to provide them.

These are difficult challenges requiring focused will, persistence, resilience, and resources. But they are not impossible; in fact, nations around the globe are achieving them in small, localized contexts right now. The keys are to scale that accomplishment, and then sustain it at scale, so that the new approaches can serve every learner in society.

How does fiveDlearning Fit In? We have designed ourselves to be your partner in achieving these 21st Century outcomes. We have full, ongoing access to the learning-science knowledge and expertise needed to overcome the Productivity-Performance Gap. We have the tools and expertise to support you in performing the social-contextual analyses needed to overcome the Equity-Performance Gap. We have the design and project management skills needed to develop the programs that will replace low-productivity learning systems with the learning systems that will take you to global leadership. And we have the commitment and resources to develop your people to do the work, so that you fully own and master the new learning systems that we develop together. Subsequent blog posts will discuss in more detail the various tools and intellectual capital that we use to generate success for our client-partners. All of it begins here, with the commitment to leapfrog what the West is doing today and make one or more emerging or developing economies the leader in learning productivity for the 21st Century and beyond.

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