In a recent post, Boundaries are for learning, Harold Jarche talks about how learning takes place at the boundaries of human systems. I agree, but interpret Harold’s assertion and thoughts in slightly different terms. In much of my experience, one phrase spoken by a mentor over twenty years ago continues to ring true: “All problems stem from interfaces.”
Interfaces exist wherever one component, subsystem, or system connects with another. My mentor referred to the problems that arise in the design of complex physical systems. Often these are produced in different locations and expected to interface properly when finally brought together. But the metaphor applies to human interfaces too. Think about a computer’s DOS command prompt or graphical interface. Whichever you saw when you first ever switched a computer on, likely you didn’t quite know what to do–it presented a problem. But solving problems is one of the best ways to learn. A bicycle, an automoble, and an airplane are all examples of systems with human interfaces, and each presents a problem the user must solve in order to use it.
Social systems have interfaces too. These occur wherever people interact, in person or online. Sometimes these interactions go smoothly. How many of us have been in meetings where everyone agrees? Everyone’s satisfied and the meeting is adjourned. But what if someone has a dissenting position and argues persuasively? In a way, this too is a problem. We learn, initially from considering the new point of view and synthesizing solutions, but often we also learn how to deal with strong personalities, to compromise, and to influence. Joining Twitter chats, I often read many thoughts essentially similar to my own. Other times I see dissimilar thoughts, and when I float my own it stirs inquiry and debate. Which of these chats offers the greater learning opportunity?
Harold is spot on that learning opportunities lie at the boundaries of human systems. But it’s possible more learning occurs at those boundaries where they interface with other systems. When things go smoothly, often there’s little to learn. When problems arise, as they frequently do at interfaces, those represent learning opportunities. People learn by confronting challenges and solving problems.
Thanks for reading! @tomspiglanin
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