The future of learning, many have speculated, will almost certainly be less formal and structured and more about picking things up as you go.

Corporate training pro Catherine Lombardozzi, who writes the blog Learning Journal, recently articulated that view, which reflects both evolving notions about how we learn as well as the introduction of new technologies that make sharing expertise far simpler.

And while that vision of self-directed and immersive learning is certainly compelling, it also raises an important question about language and how we acquire our working vocabulary. It’s a problem that many of you may recognize in your own lives.

Finding the Right Words

How many times, for example, have you had a vague notion of something you wanted to ask or research, but struggled to even form a coherent question because your vocabulary wasn’t precise enough? Imagine, for example, being a novice HR manager tasked with forming a training seminar at work. If you didn’t already know terms like Learning Management System and Subject Matter Expert and e-Learning, where exactly would you start your research? What’s the first thing you’d type into Google?

Or, here’s a really geeky example: I was recently talking with someone and tried to make a comparison to a dilemma Captain Kirk faced in a famous episode of Star Trek. In the program, the young captain has to prove his mettle by outwitting a training program that’s pre-programmed to produce only no-win scenarios (thus exposing his moral makeup). Somehow, though, Kirk is able to hack around the training simulator and win the day.

But how, exactly, did the story go? I’d forgotten. And what was that training-simulation-thing called? And how did he actually outwit it? Ten or 15 minutes of skimming through Wikipedia eventually yielded the answer (it was called Kobayashi Maru, if you’re curious). But how much faster would my research have been — and how much more sense would my initial story have made — if I’d had that term at my fingertips to begin with?

Finding a Balance

It’s obviously a trivial example, but the phenomenon is probably familiar — you struggle to learn about something because you don’t even have words to formulate the questions you want to ask.

These sorts of moments of confusion make it clear that training pros need to consider the dilemma: How to balance learning-as-you-go with the need to establish a framework and a vocabulary that makes that learning efficient? Lombardozzi says:

“At some point we have to learn the language of the new field in which we want to engage. Some language we can ‘pick up.’ But some fields demand a little bit of up-front orientation in order to even begin to understand the conversations about the work. … In order to learn, we have to be able to put our questions into language that will get us to the right answers. But in order to have that language in our vocabularies, we have to have learned it somewhere. It’s a classic ‘Which comes first?’ problem. … “

Lombardozzi’s solution is to play it by ear. For some subjects that are less directly related to your everyday job — in her case it’s learning the finer points of web design (or, I imagine, recalling arcane details of old TV shows) — you can take more of a learn-on-the-fly route to picking up the jargon. But for topics you expect to develop an in-depth understanding of, take a more structured approach to learning the lingo so you can have a full, nuanced understanding of training discussions.

How do you balance the need to immerse learners in a topic with the need to orientate them with key terms?

[For more articles on learning and development, click here.]

London-based Jessica Stillman blogs about generational issues and trends in the workforce for, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist.

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