Learning to learn: How to be a better learner

By Mark Story, Head of Learning Innovation

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Us learning and development types have often spent careers noticing star learners and learners where learning just doesn’t seem to take, where a learner will come out of a learning experience pretty much the same as when they went in.

I’ve seen this is countless workshops and courses from management and leadership to a brief spell offering guitar lessons to friends’ kids. The stars are a motivating force, and the laggards make you question your effectiveness.

As organisational and occupational learning shifts to more of a self-directed, online self-serve model and away from the hand-holding structure, the learner needs to engage less with a trainer or facilitator – is it just fate that some will swim (the stars) and some will sink (the laggards)? And what about the bulk of people somewhere in between?

A revelation that I had a few years ago, I propose, is both the cause and solution. I have since learnt that my revelation is common knowledge among many learning professionals but perhaps not widely understood beyond that circle, and most importantly not yet in the minds of the learners themselves. So, maybe I’m late to the party, but I’m not the last guest to arrive so I’ll still get a good seat and my pick of the high value stuff on the buffet…

What’s the revelation? That learning is a skill. You can be good at it or you can be bad at it but crucially, you can get better at it.

Categorising learning as a skill, rather than just a bridge to cross before you can do a thing, helps us begin to explore the factors that determine a good learner from a poor learner. Here is my take on those factors – the intention behind this is to encourage you to consider your learning practice and how it too can be improved:

  1. Reflection. A good learner will use reflection to consider what they’re good at and what they’re not good at. They will apply self-honesty to this practice and will bear the inevitable pain or squinty eyes it will invoke. A good learner will focus their self-inquiry to a particular topic and will rummage around. “I’m good at engaging people in conversation but I can’t seem to get them to commit to a course of action.” Or “I’m good at putting people at ease when they’re in discomfort, but I’m uncomfortable at giving them information that might cause discomfort.”
    A good learner will then internally try and validate their reflections – “What experiences support my view and what experiences contradict this view?”
  2. Feedback. We are subject to a whole bunch of psychological biases when trying to reflect ourselves. A good learner will seek external validation of their reflections. They will commit to seeking feedback from others – people who observe them practice or people who experience them. It’s a vulnerable position to put yourself in which is why so few people really do it. In FuturU we have a value: “Always learning.” Which means we actively solicit feedback and value the journey of discovery. When presenting the values, our CEO remarked that “we have a duty to solicit the feedback in a way that makes it easy for people to give it to us.” Despite the millions spent in organisations on training managers to give feedback, it makes sense that some of the responsibility for quality feedback should be on the recipient. Afterall, they will be the beneficiaries.
  3. Acquire skill or knowledge. A good learner will seek skill or knowledge. They will take action to observe someone recognised as excellent, they will read around it, they will take courses and go on YouTube. The process of research can help further refine what skill or knowledge is needed or best suits the pursuit of an outcome. “Being better at giving bad news” could be refined down to “being better at communicating a death” and tips, pointers, models and tutorials related to that specific requirement are available in abundance for the good learner to find. (Of course, a search on FuturU would offer some great material.)
  4. Deliberate practice. Life is the best classroom. It offers us all the opportunities we need to practice our skills or apply our knowledge. The good learner, however, will be purposeful about it. They will be conscious of the opportunity arising and will prepare to do something different with their newfound understanding of the skills or knowledge they can apply. They may set the situation up to gather immediate feedback asking a colleague or manager to observe with a specific focus on the area they’re looking to improve. Good learners will step into this new space, purposefully avoiding the habitual approaches they’ve used before and purposefully doing something new. Good learners are brave like that.

We find ourselves back, full circle, at reflection again. This is iterative. It’s only when something is as good as we need it to be that we can encode it into unconscious practice again and turn our attention to something else.  

Being good at learning requires a deliberate approach to learning and then in a meta-learning kind of way, we might also reflect on our approach and apply it to learning itself – how good are we at reflecting? How good are we at soliciting feedback? How good are we at acquiring skill and knowledge? And how good are we at deliberate practice?

At FuturU, the value we have of ‘Always Learning’ sounds like a typical value from a typical organisation. But peel back the layers, it becomes a fundamental shift in thinking – we all strive to be better, that’s the typical bit. The way we are challenging ourselves beyond this is by asking the question: “How good can we get at getting better?”

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