The trouble with order
The pervasive ideology that learning and assessment need to follow a linear sequence has dominated much of education and practice this century. This linearity is perhaps most easily exemplified by the school year or grade system which is entirely contingent on the belief that children will all progress in an orderly and sequential fashion from one development level to another. Deviations from this orderly progression were often assumed to be abnormal in some way.
As we are propelled into the future of work and education by globalization and rapidly advancing technologies, linear approaches to learning seem less and less likely to be fit for purpose. Longer lifespans and increasing optionality in the job market have meant that our paths are becoming increasingly non-linear. And addressing the immense problems of our era – from local economic inequalities to the climate crisis – demand creative, often non-linear ways of thinking. A recent global survey from PwC showed that 60% of the general population think ‘few people will have stable, long-term employment in the future’. As the pace of technological change accelerates, linear learning may lack the agility to deliver skill sets fast enough to keep pace with the growing demand.
With that in mind, we need more individualized, efficient, and integrated workflow learning strategies which enable us to cover necessary ground quickly. Equally, we need to normalize the idea that non-linear learning is both a feasible and a highly efficient path for increasing apt knowledge – knowledge that is adaptable, agile, and fit for purpose. Through our work in higher education and in the EdTech industry, we are challenging and disrupting the traditional reliance on subjective sequence-based learning.
Drawing the line on linear learning
In straightforward terms, non-linear learning can de defined as learning which happens via any medium in the absence of a pre-defined order or sequence. To dispel doubt, non-linear learning does not mean random or without structure of any kind, indeed, relationships between content and concepts are essential for learning. Sub-structures like modules are often used in non-linear learning but mostly without specifying the amount, order, or rate at which content should be experienced. A popular misconception of non-linear learning is that there is no endpoint, but this need not be true at all. Specifying fixed mastery targets or competency goals can be hugely beneficial for determining capabilities and for providing valuable feedback to learners; non-linear learning just provides a more individualized, and likely faster, way of reaching a firm grasp on a subject.
Importantly, non-linear learning is not simply another means of achieving the same thing as sequence-based learning. Benefits of this disruptive pedagogical paradigm are dramatic increases in learning efficiency, as measured by the time and amount of content required to achieve a certain level of understanding. In our hands, non-linear learning is also associated with heightened self-awareness, greater confidence, and increased learner independence.
At Homerton Changemakers we’ve seen that non-linear, experiential learning circumvents students’ pre-conceived ideas, and demonstrates that growing resilient mindsets is possible; and this gives rise to further skills built on a high capacity for adaption. Teaching confidence in navigating uncertainty, for example, increases capacity not only for creative (non-linear) perspectives but also builds students’ capacity to quickly identify fundamental principles across apparently disparate subject-sets.
At Obrizum we have paired non-linear learning with metacognitive decision-making and A.I. to produce a highly efficient and deeply individualized way to pick up new skills. Metacognition has been defined as: the knowledge and awareness of one’s own cognitive processes and the ability to regulate, evaluate, and monitor one’s thinking. We and others have identified a strong, significant, and reproducible effect of metacognitive approaches on learning outcomes. Alongside non-linearity, these techniques further contribute to more efficient and active learning. When Obrizum’s non-linear adaptive learning was compared against linear learning in a ‘Big 5’ professional services firm we saw a 5x improvement in time-to-competency.
Applications for learning leaders
Learning leaders in educational institutions and in the workplace should be cognizant that learning naturally occurs in a nonlinear fashion. Only by understanding and accepting that variability will be the norm within and among learners, will we be able to adapt curricula and expectations to the individual’s learning pattern, which may vary on a daily or hourly basis.
Nothing about non-linear learning removes the requirement or importance of quality content, and to avoid conflicting or misinformation it is strongly recommended that before non-linear learning takes place a trusted base of learning resources is selected and curated for learners by an experienced individual or group of individuals (or with the help of A.I.!). This content should clearly contain information of the knowledge and skills that the learners will be seeking to develop.
If you do want to make the most of non-linear learning, it would be wise, like Obrizum and Homerton Changemakers do, to integrate metacognitive learning strategies alongside monitoring the success of your intervention. This can be done by including collaboratively designed formative assessments so that learners can receive feedback on their own performance; to maximize results assessment and take into consideration learner confidence. Measurements will yield a wealth of data-driven insights which can be used to further improve the quality and impact of learning programs.
With non-linear learning, leaders can provide higher levels of formative and personalized feedback based on need whilst also cultivating cognitive and emotional agility in students: it’s a fresh, fast, effective, and exciting opportunity for learning leaders to quickly realign their relationships with their students. And for students to realign their relationships with knowledge. By making full use of non-linear learning strategies and by embracing the variability of each person’s learning we can ‘leapfrog’ traditional pathways in favor of making rapid, non-linear progress with our individual learning goals.