Visionary and effective leaders want people on their teams and in their organizations who are hungry to do more, hungry to innovate, and hungry to learn. If you want those people in your organizations, you better be ready to feed them. Providing meaningful and impactful learning opportunities for a workforce is the most powerful way to engage high performers and keep them engaged.

While workplace learning has been around for a long time, we are at an inflection point in our collective organizational development. With the constant, rapid, and continuous change facing all industries, we are overdue to disrupt how we learn in the workplace so we can face the unique challenges of tomorrow.

The way we can do this is by bringing the one-room schoolhouse approach to learning in the workplace. In his book The Education Myth, John Shelton points out that when our education system was first being developed in the U.S., it was a way to teach people to be discerning citizens. We wanted to show people how to read, think critically, and problem solve. It was a way to prepare for an unknown and exciting future. When those one-room schoolhouses started sprouting up in rural communities across the country, they were a way to bring children together so they could not only learn from the teacher, but also learn from each other. 

Today, we look at education quite differently. We are told to justify the need for education by equating it with job creation. Education today is reactive to the current and foreseeable future.

One of the concerning things about this reframing of education is that, for some, it implies the following logic: If education is preparation for work, then once we are working, education is no longer needed. While not many people would recognize or admit to this logic, the opinion that there is no place for learning in the workplace is prevalent. This results in a cold, unproductive, and toxic work environment. 

In these One-Room Schoolhouse Workplaces, we come together to learn from each other, break down silos, hear from different perspectives and disciplines, and share experiences.

A One-Room Schoolhouse Workplace revives the spirit of learning together back into our organizations. By teaching people fundamental concepts like critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and how to learn, we not only create a healthier and more productive workforce, we also have the opportunity to create community, something we are painfully short on these days. Even before the most acute stage of the COVID pandemic, Cigna was reporting that 61% of adults were lonely. Airspeed reports that over 70% of workers when working remotely are not interacting as much as they would like.

In these One-Room Schoolhouse Workplaces, we come together to learn from each other, break down silos, hear from different perspectives and disciplines, and share experiences. Group learning creates a unique opportunity to learn from one another, exercise values, and define what it means to be part of the workplace community. As Robert Waldinger of the Harvard Study of Adult Development puts it, “Personal connection creates mental and emotional stimulation, and those things are automatic mood boosters.” 

This is how we can get back to true innovation and continuous improvement. Great minds demand engaging environments. The single most powerful way to create those engaging environments is through recreating the vibrant and challenging spirit of the one-room schoolhouse in the workplace. This learning culture can have drastic positive effects on organizations. Deloitte Insights find that a learning culture can increase retention rates by 50%, help with new product development, increase productivity, and improve profit. That’s a might big return on investment for something that’s just a fundamentally good thing to do for the people who work for your organization. 

Here are some examples of how you may already be applying the concept of The One-Room Schoolhouse Workplace:

  • Communities of Practice
  • Reading Groups
  • Restorative Circles
  • Mentorships
  • Peer-led Workshops
  • Team Lunch & Learns

What are some other examples? What can we do to foster The One-room Schoolhouse Workplace to help enrich the lives of more people in all types of workplaces around the world?

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