Learning how to learn? Preposterous!

Sketch of a chemistry lab process ending in a brain

Is the idea that people need to learn how to learn a ridiculous concept?

I’ve seen recently, in comments around these parts, the suggestion that everyone knows how to learn because it’s just part of life. So the idea of learning how to learn — related to improving the learning skills of employees in workplace learning — is nonsensical. At least that’s my reading of the comments I’ve seen.

This is interesting because for a long time I’ve taken it as a given that, for the most part, people DON’T actually know how to learn very well at all. The evidence being that we don’t remember things, we often aren’t very good at strengthening weaknesses or developing our skills; we do the same annoying, ineffective, or dangerous things, over and over again and we often subscribe to some kind of personality traits which are self-limiting because we then have no way of escaping the box into which we’ve categorised ourselves.


But to what extent is that learning effective?

Is it a form of deep, focused, relevant, targeted, professional and personal performance-improving change? Because that’s what proper learning is, isn’t it?

I’m pretty sure that having spent a lot of time learning about metacognition, self-directed learning, reflective practice and other related areas, I have a good idea of how learning works and how I can do it better.

But do I learn effectively? Well, some of the time, yes. Other times, not at all. And I’d say there’s nobody who learns effectively all the time.

We tend to be exposed to content a lot but remember little of it. Things go in our brains and out again. They don’t stick. We think we learn from reading, but we usually don’t. Have you ever revisited a book and struggled to remember reading it in the first place? I know I have.

Our capacity for memory ranges from phenomenally effective, to utterly terrible. We really need all the support we can get. The things that stick naturally are usually events that cause a strong emotional reaction; with no effort at all we end up remembering those things for life. The horrendously embarrassing moments are probably the stickiest.

The shame!

We don’t actually WANT to remember those moments, but we can’t help it, because of the strength of the emotional reaction. The Affective Context model relates to this, it’s worth checking out. Much of the time professional development isn’t like that, apart from when we make some kind of monumental F up that remains etched in our minds forever.

Humans don’t just learn effortlessly by being exposed to content, having experiences or standing near to someone who knows something that we don’t. Learning by osmosis? I want to be an osmotic learner.

It’s a shame that the famous ‘Dewey’ quote isn’t a real quote, because I think it nails a really important point. We don’t, for the most part, learn from experience, we learn from REFLECTING ON EXPERIENCE.

And that reflection, to be most effective, needs to be deliberate, doesn’t it? Focusing on, for example:

What? So what? Now what?

So we’re deliberately analysing the issue and addressing the need for change. Just thinking about an incident and mulling it over is probably a natural response but it seems like the minimum we can do. Being more deliberate could help reflect more deeply and learn more effectively.

We can learn from feedback, because half the time we don’t even notice what we’re doing, or we recognise something isn’t right, but we aren’t sure why, so it would help if someone could tell us. So we can take steps to arrange feedback, for example, from our peers.

Maybe we’re using strategies we think are working well, but are actually ineffective, or following concepts that are basically folk tales that have been debunked by science. We might have been taught these previously, but haven’t been aware of anything different that would help us ‘unlearn’ and find better solutions. We might think we know what we’re doing because we’re using the knowledge we have, but we’re missing a load of key points that we’re unaware of.

And often we don’t even know what we don’t know because unless we’re exposed to something that tells us different, how the hell would we know?! We don’t even recognise our own incompetence: Dunning and Kruger weren’t just messing around.

As far as the self-directed side of things goes, this is where enaging online and being exposed to knowledge from all over the place helps make us more aware of stuff we don’t know and then we can follow up.

So as I see it, there are significant benefits to developing the ability to pay attention to things happening, drill down into the realities of the situation, to evaluate and problem-solve; seek answers, guidance and feedback; experiment with new ideas, techniques and practices and generally making conscious steps towards improving our skills.

And in terms of teams or organisations learning effectively, what percentage of teams, I wonder, make the time to reflect together, during or after projects? How many organise a retrospective to identify issues, learning points and evolve best-practices, mapping out steps for the future that will help improve their performance?

I suspect these are the kinds of things that many teams want to get around to, but don’t, and so keep doing the same things again hoping that they turn out differently, or just accepting that something is what it is, even though it’s detrimental.

So we can learn from experience by having the tools in our personal learning toolkit to help us learn from what we do. Is this something everyone develops naturally? I doubt it. A quick look into ‘effective study techniques’ would quickly reveal how many well-known strategies like highlighting, certain methods of note-taking and other such things are actually less than effective practices.

That’s actually a good example of how things change, as things are verified or debunked by research, over time. In many fields, part of good (perhaps essential) professional learning is keeping up with knowledge and research, so being able to engage in good learning processes, to access knowledge and make good use of it, is important.

I hope my GP is an effective learner.

Some people spend a lot of time trying to learn things and then wonder why it isn’t working. And it’s usually because the techniques they are employing are ineffective. Language learning is a fabulous example of this. There must be hundreds of thousands of people around the world who have spent dozens of hours of time (if not hundreds) to learn how to repeat some phrases and recite a load of verb conjugations in a foreign language but couldn’t actually use the language for any useful function if their lives depended on it.

Anyway, the blog is a bit ranty today and I’m all ranted out.

Hey, I may be wrong. If you think so, let me know. But these are some of my opinions about this at the moment.

In general, I think that learning to learn better, by which I mean learning how to become more effective at organising the ways in which we seek to develop as people and professionals, is something worth working on. And it’s an adventure.

Digital discovery

Related to my rant is this fabulous article on learning to read more effectively shared in the comments of my previous blog post.

And I came across an organisation called The Hum. I’m intrigued by what they’re doing and very interested in the idea of decentralised organising. Check out their articles and resources if this sounds interesting. I think it’s worth thinking about in relation to remote teams.

If you have any thoughts or comments, let me know below.

Featured image by holdentrils from Pixabay

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