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What Is Exploratory Learning?

How following your curiosity helps you adapt and thrive.

Key points

  • Learning is primarily aimed at helping us survive and thrive in “unpredictable conditions,” which pretty much seems like life.
  • Exploratory learning builds on the standard distinction between exploration and exploitation in the field of organizational learning.
  • Exploitation is engaging in the same activities, following routines, and getting tasks completed.

Why do we learn? This is the provocative question that Stanislas Dehaene asks in his book How We Learn.1 But you’ve probably never asked yourself: “Why do we learn in the first place?” As Dehaene states:

The very existence of the capacity to learn raises questions…Why aren’t we born pre-wired, with pre-programmed software and exactly the pre-loaded knowledge necessary to our survival? In the Darwinian struggle for life, shouldn’t an animal who is born mature, with more knowledge than others, end up winning and spreading its genes? Why did evolution invent learning in the first place? (p. xvii)

The question seems almost absurd to ask, but the answer grounds learning in adaptation. As Dehaene continues:

The ability to learn…acts much faster—it can change behavior within the span of a few minutes, which is the very quintessence of learning: being able to adapt to unpredictable conditions as quickly as possible. This is why learning evolved. Over time, the animals that possessed even a rudimentary capacity to learn had a better chance of surviving than those with fixed behaviors. (p. xix)

 jtpatriot/Pixabay
Source: jtpatriot/Pixabay

On this account, learning is primarily aimed at helping us survive and thrive in “unpredictable conditions,” which pretty much seems like life.

Exploration Vs. Exploitation

Adapting to unpredictable conditions is often the result of exploratory learning—which builds on the standard distinction between exploration and exploitation in the field of organizational learning (March 1991). Within an organization, exploration is typically the purview of R&D departments, although as an individual you can think about having “R&D” time. Exploration in your daily life is learning new things in your field and following your curiosity. Exploration is risky, however, as your efforts could ultimately lead nowhere, just like ideas tested in R&D that don't lead to tangible products.

Exploitation, in contrast, is engaging in the same activities, following routines, and getting tasks completed. Think of the difference between the two "modes" as a ladder: Exploitation is about climbing the same ladder you've been on and occasionally making it stronger and more reliable. Exploration is about climbing "new walls" or altering the capacities and reach of the ladder, itself.

fMRI studies have found that exploitation is closely linked to reward centers in the brain (Laureiro-Martínez et al., 2015).2 It’s rewarding to complete routine tasks (i.e., climbing the same ladder). Unfortunately, exploitation can also be risky. It is analogous to Dehaene’s notion of “fixed behaviors,” which lock us into a response pattern. Exploratory learning, in contrast, helps us to adapt for the long term, expanding our repertoire for “unpredictable conditions” as we explore new "walls" and expand our abilities.

The main problem most of us face is that exploratory learning tends to get cut from our schedules, just like R&D departments get cut. This doesn’t have immediate consequences, as we can exploit our current knowledge. The problem becomes our long-term ability to adapt and thrive.

An Example From Industry

In Organizational Learning and Performance, I discussed the WD-40 company and its reliance on a single product for decades. When the environment shifted with new competitors, they needed to engage in exploratory learning to expand their product base. Before this, they were in what Garry Ridge, the company CEO, called the “typhoon zone,” which is being caught in exploitation, where you “plan your work, work your plan,” and “you miss the review, the magic, or the learning moment” (Yemen & Conner, 2002, p. 3). To break out of the typhoon zone of exploitation, they engaged in a series of exploratory activities: training sessions, reading books about best practices, and greater sharing of lessons learned. Through this process, they expanded their repertoire of products (moving from a "brand fortress" to a "fortress of brands). They also expanded their capacities as individuals and have been thriving as a company since.

One of the main ways to engage in exploratory learning is through a discovery process of talking to "end users" or customers. Discovery is a process of "needfinding" and understanding the experiences of individuals with a sense of empathy and a "beginner's mind." It is exploratory learning that can lead to insights that help you adapt and thrive long-term (although it is "risky" in the sense that it takes time and may not lead to breakthroughs).

So, think of exploratory learning as fundamental to your nature (and embedded in ways of discovering new ideas). As Dehaene provocatively states, we weren’t born “pre-wired” with all the knowledge needed to survive and thrive. We learn to adapt, and exploratory learning helps you build your repertoire and knowledge for the future.

References

1. Dehaene is a French neuroscientist, and the book is primarily focused on learning and artificial intelligence. It is an accessible introduction to a technical field, and he provides tangible advice to teachers with his four pillars of learning: focused attention, active engagement, error feedback, and consolidation.

2. You might wonder, how do you study exploration and exploitation in an fMRI machine? They used a game with four slot machines that had uncertain payouts. You could "explore" different slot machines or "exploit" your knowledge and continue playing the same machine.

Dehaene, S. (2020). How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine…for Now. Viking.

Laureiro-Martínez, D., Brusoni, S., Canessa, N., & Zollo, M. (2015). Understanding the exploration-exploitation dilemma: An fMRI study of attention control and decision-making performance. Strategic Management Journal, 36, 319–338.

March, J. G. (1991). Exploration and exploitation in organizational learning. Organization Science, 2(1), 71–87.

Yemen, G., & Conner, M. (2002). WD-40: The Squeak, Smell, and Dirt Business. Darden Business Publishing.

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