Learning, design and sustainable development

Zahra Davidson and her work with Enrol Yourself is challenging our vision of lifelong learning. This award-winning social enterprise has been exploring the potential of peer groups to maximise individual and collective progress. Zahra shared her thoughts on the future of learning and assessment at the IATEFL event ELTjam co-organised with Cambridge Assessment English. 

Promoting critical, creative engagement

In learning, engagement is essential. However, in formal education our attention is sometimes directed away from what really matters to us. Inventor and visionary, Richard Buckminster Fuller, explained his perspective on this well:

The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.

The message is clear – the focus of education should be to critically and creatively engage with topics that really mean something to us. As co-founder and director of Enrol Yourself, I’ve witnessed firsthand how important this willingness to go back to school and retrain is becoming. Central to the work we do is The Learning Marathon, a 6-month peer-led learning programme, in which participants set out on their own self-directed learning journeys to achieve their career goals. This initiative has led me to reimagine lifelong learning and truly recognise the power of peer groups. Success is not just about engagement, it also requires encouragement and guidance.

Designing meaningful, memorable experiences

I began thinking about how to design activities that are more engaging and more effective. The framework is simple: for an activity to be engaging, it needs to be meaningful; for that meaning to endure, it needs to be memorable.

Think back to your school years. Which lessons have really stuck with you? For me, there’s only one that that really comes to mind. I was a little kid and I was learning about Roman history. That day our teacher took us out of the classroom, gave us spades and trowels and told us to dig. She had buried bits of broken pots, bones and other ‘artifacts’ for us to find. In our naivety, we genuinely believed that we were excavating real Roman history.

Later I realised the truth about my treasured artefacts, but the impression had already been made. I came to understand that a learning experience is something which can be created. It’s something that can be designed to be meaningful and memorable.

Learning and sustainable development

After initially studying design, I began working with a variety of learning ventures, products and programmes. When I looked into specialising in ‘learning design’, I found that there were no MA programmes covering this subject and I had to find other ways to retrain and further myself.

For those of us concerned with the future of learning, one of the key messages is that more people are having to retrain, and with greater frequency. Or, as I read on Twitter recently: “Learning is no longer preparation for the job; learning is the job.

I believe this move away from ‘learning as preparation’ to ‘learning as a process’ has some significant and far-reaching implications. We know that our economic growth, driven by material consumption, cannot go on forever. But that doesn’t stop us from buying and accumulating more and more things to fulfill our apparent need for ‘growth’.

Now, if that habit is no longer viable, could learning and development replace the sense of continual growth that we all desire? I don’t know, but the idea fascinates me and drives what I do. We need to get people together, from the worlds of learning and design, to really explore this possibility.

Zahra is Co-founder and Director of Enrol Yourself and a ‘learner experience designer’ or ‘learner-centred designer’ with a background spanning service design, sustainability, social enterprise and visual communication. She is interested in participatory group experiences and the role of learning in reaching for sustainability. She is a trained coach and co-organiser of the#LXDmeetup.

1 thought on “Learning, design and sustainable development”

  1. I absolutely love the learning marathon idea. Superb stuff! There are various things here that have been occupying my mind for a while, particularly the ideas around the need for lifelong learning to be a key part of life and work. There’s a Canadian chap called Harold Jarche who shares some interesting ideas related to this on Twitter and his blog. His concept of professional development is built on the idea that we should live and work in a state of ‘perpetual beta’ which I strongly relate to. He also says that “work is learning and learning is the work” which to me is not immediately clear, but which I take as being basically what Zahra quotes above from Twitter.


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