Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Nonprofit learning: Adults learn in different ways

On Feb. 8, I shared my draft nonprofit learning manifesto, eight premises about how adults learn and, specifically, how adults working and volunteering in the sector learn. Today, I discuss point 5 of that manifesto, adults learn in different ways.

The fact that adults learn in different ways should be self-evident. We probably know it. We may even practice it in other areas of our lives. But do we structure our board work as if it were true?

There are different ways of framing the differences between your learning style and mine. One that I find useful is Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. The name identifies the premise: humans have different ways of demonstrating and using intelligence, far broader than the typical, singular definition that usually comes to mind. Gardner identified seven types of intelligence in the early 1980s:
  • Linguistic intelligence
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence
  • Spatial intelligence
  • Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence
  • Musical intelligence
  • Interpersonal intelligence
  • Intrapersonal intelligence
He later added an intelligence, naturalist, bringing the total to eight.

We tend to build the board agenda around linguistic intelligence. Meetings involve words - a lot of words - via verbal and written reports and discussions leading to decisions. We obviously can't avoid engaging linguistic intelligence in board work. But if that is the only mode of working, we only fully engage some of our members. Others are unable to make the most of their talents.

What if I am a board member who absorbs and analyzes information visually? What am I possibly missing if the only way I experience information essential to governance is via the written or spoken word? How likely am I to be fully engaged in the work if I am constantly asked to think and act outside of my comfort zone?

Perhaps I have strong intrapersonal intelligence: a strong intuition that I need to explore and trust. How likely am I to give you the best I have to offer if I am never given the space to reflect on the issues at hand, to access the wisdom that is within before reaching a decision?

Maybe my dominant intelligence is interpersonal: I am at my most creative and effective when I am able to mix things up with my fellow board members in rich and occasionally raucous debates. Do I have those opportunities; or am I forced to listen to endless reports, with my participation confined to "aye" or "nay?"

Must all board work take place around a conference room table? What opportunities do you have to engage me if I'm a kinesthetic learner? What are you missing as a board if I'm expected to sit, immobile, in a chair that is uncomfortable and perhaps too big for me? Will I be able to give you my best?

Whether or not you find multiple intelligences illuminating, the takeaway is this: as learners, we take in and process information differently. To be fully effective and productive, governance experiences must engage all of the learners and leaders in the room. How can you structure governance work to ignite those different ways of thinking and acting in service to your mission?

How does your board already do this?

No comments: