No Image Available

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Sandbox Learning


 (adapted from an OU blog post I made on the 5th April 2012)

Something inside me rebels at the thought that learning is a commodity that must be delivered, that students are passive vessels into which understanding and wisdom are poured. Is there no place for the self-directed learners, the inquisitive individuals who explore and investigate, seek out new learning for themselves rather than passively wait to receive it? 

We seem to live in a corporate world where Learning and Development (L&D) are ‘delivered’ to the learner. At regular intervals students receive ‘learning’ and ‘development’, to be ‘developed’ and to be ‘trained’. If there is no training then there is neither learning nor development. The received wisdom, that seems to be pervasive in organisations, is that knowledgeable others, the ‘trainers’, impart their knowledge and understanding to the unknowledgeable others, the ‘students’, and that without this imparting and receiving there is no learning. I’m talking about all forms of imparting and receiving here; mentoring, work-shadowing, blended learning, e-learning, directed research, distance-learning and so on, not just classroom-based learning.  

I’m not disagreeing with the idea that learning can be imparted to, and received by, students; nor am I disagreeing with the idea that the knowledgeable impart their knowledge to the unknowledgeable.   What I am disagreeing with is the idea, that seems to go hand-in-glove with this, that learning only takes place when it is imparted by a knowledgeable other; that learning somehow requires others before it can take place. Whilst I would expect this to be the norm in schools where the Vygotskyan notion of proximal development is very effectively practised in models such as IRF and scaffolding I would not expect it to be so pervasive in the workplace. Rather I would expect the ubiquitous HR department (I admit that I'm not a fan of the term 'Human Resources'; it has the whiff of Stalinism about it), because ‘training’ is an HR function according to corporate orthodoxy these days, to have realised that learning can, and frequently does, take place without the conscious involvement of others.

This learning, which I think of as ‘sandbox learning’ after the unstructured, free-roaming, self-directed computer games known as ‘sandbox games’, seems to be an opportunity often missed by organisations’ focus on delivering training.  ‘Sandbox learning’, and by association the ‘sandbox learner’, particularly require creativity and determination, as do many forms of learning, but rarely to the same extent: creativity to look for, identify and access learning in whatever form it takes, and, determination to keep looking for, identifying and accessing learning with no external guidance or support.

I have no idea how many ‘sandbox learners’ there are likely to be in organisations, nor, if they are out there, is it necessarily the case that organisations are unaware of them (they may simply not know how to capture unstructured, free-roaming learning), but in my experience, and this is necessarily limited so I’m not generalising here, there are almost always circumstances in which organisations can benefit if they somehow tap into the sheer creativity and motivation of their ‘sandbox learners’. By capturing and harnessing this ‘sandbox learning’ and encouraging the ‘sandbox learner’ organisations can access a rich, if sometimes idiosyncratic, stream of learning.

So what is my point?  My point is simply that in the world of corporate orthodoxy ‘sandbox learning’ be recognised as a valid form of organisational learning.

4 Responses

  1. Yes, it’s a valid form of organizational learning, but…..

    but it takes time, for many organizations too much time.

    As an example in my company we have created a new business unit where we need to build expertise in entirely new product lines, new markets and new customers.  This needs to be done NOW, we have specific requirements, all of this information is available from different sources.  What the traders, risk managers and marketers NEED (yes, we tell them), and are receiving, is a structured and focused series of learning experiences designed to allow them to be successful in this new space as quickly as possible.  A sandbox approach would be unrealistic in this context, there are too many variables (learner motivation being one of the most significant).

    20 years ago I saw this sandbox approach more frequently.  I worked extensivly on 21 day management development programs which allowed for this developmental, self directed experience where important personal learning was often serendipitous.  The university that managed these 21 day programs now deliver the ‘same’ in 7 days!

    As a personal learning approach then the sandbox is great.  If you know exactly what skills or knowledge need to be imparted then in my view it’s not an effective approach.



  2. I agree, it’s not a panacea.

     Mark, I take your point and wouldn’t disagree with anything you say; sandbox learning isn’t appropriate in all contexts nor is it appropriate for all learners.  I also wonder if it might be considered culturally inappropriate in some organisations, for a variety of reasons.  I do however believe that it has a place and is worth considering as an approach when circumstances allow.

  3. A breath of fresh air . . .
    Thanks, Alex, for a refreshing reminder of a fundamental truth of learning — most learning is done outside of the formal halls of knowledge (known as schools and training classes). Tacit knowledge, that which we learn by absorbing more than thinking, represents the greatest part of what we know – and the most important things upon which we base our daily living (language, culture, values, etc.). The ePortfolio movement has tried to propose a means to document this kind of learning (not necessary to validate it’s value, but important to making it useful and rewardable in the workplace and educational settings). It was refreshing yesterday in a meeting about creating a “university” for our organization that the facilitator of the meeting pointed out the need to make “fun learning” an integral part of the model.

  4. Where the thought came from.

     Les, the thought came from a conversation with my eldest son.  I was describing how some of my students struggled to ‘get’ the idea that they should set their own learning objectives (the context was developing effective personal performance at work and the central theme, at that point, was identifying areas of personal development).  My son then came out with the comment that what the students were having to do was ‘sandbox learning’.  This set me thinking about how we learn in such an information rich environment; digital communication means we can access knowledge 24 hours a day and the implications of this for learners in the workplace – are trainers really that necessary (I think they are but I’m sure there are those who don’t)? – what effect does this online knowledge have for the whole area of ‘expertise’ (an old colleague of mine said, jokingly, that he had built his career on  The implications are endless, and fascinating; we now have digital autodidacts who can, if they choose, learn completely independently of any external input.  

No Image Available

Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!