Learning How to Learn

Originally Published on September 16, 2019

by Kelly Palmer | Future of Work: Advisor, Keynote Speaker, Author, Chief Learning & Talent Officer | 9 articles 

The gaping hole in skilling workers

Brain model

Think back to all the time you’ve ever spent, in any job, developing new skills. Did any of it include learning how to learn? Now think back further, to your school days, and ask yourself the same question.

Amazingly, despite the sizeable portion of our lives that we spend in learning environments, most of us are never taught what science shows about the best ways to learn. That presents a huge problem facing businesses today.

In the era of what my book co-author David Blake and I call the Expertise Economy, an agile workforce is the most important resource any business has. We need employees who are constantly motivated and curious about learning new skills, seeking out opportunities, and putting learning resources to their best possible use. 

To accomplish all this, businesses need their entire staff, from the C-suite to middle management to employees at all levels, to adopt advanced, proven methods for how to learn.

This flies in the face of traditional methods. “The education system incentivizes people to master test taking, not how to learn,” David says. He realized at a young age that he had become what is considered to be a “great student” by getting good at test-taking. But he was, as he puts it, a terrible learner. He had no passion for learning or sense of curiosity, and he placed little value in what he was taught. He had been programmed to soak up information and spit it back out on tests. 

This kind of learning doesn’t stick, and doesn’t lead to development of concrete skills that people can use for years to come. 

Busting the learning myths

Fixing this problem for today’s businesses begins with busting some myths.

Myth 1: People only use about 10 percent of their brains. This is so wrong it’s almost laughable, a neurologist from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine told Scientific American. In fact, you use almost the entirety of your brain. So, no, there’s no magic way to unlock a huge trove of brain matter and suddenly become an other worldly genius.

Myth 2: People are either right-brain thinkers or left-brain thinkers. This widespread “neuromyth” has led to debates over whether certain teaching methods favor people who are one or the other. But it has been debunked. In fact, the left and right parts of the brain do not function completely separately. As one study put it, “the two hemispheres of the brain work together in all cognitive tasks.”

Myth 3: People have an optimal channel through which they learn. You may have been told that you’re a “visual learner” or “auditory learner.” But in fact, people use as many channels to learn as they can access. As the Association for Psychological Science put it in a headline, “Learning Styles Debunked: There is No Evidence Supporting Auditory and Visual Learning, Psychologists Say.”

Myth 4: There are certain windows of learning, and when they close, they have no chance of being reopened again. This belief helps fuel ageism in numerous sectors, including tech. (For more on this, see my piece about it in MarketWatch.) The reality is that people can develop new skills at any age. The neuroplasticity of the brain allows us to learn, refine, or add new capabilities all throughout our lives.

Now, with all these myths removed from our conception of what it is to learn, here’s the best method to help employees learn.

The Learning Loop

The “Learning Loop” is a four-stage process that helps people develop skills, hone those skills, and become experts.

It contains four components:

  • Knowledge
  • Practice
  • Feedback
  • Reflection

First, the learner spends time with content that teaches the skill. This could be books, articles, YouTube videos, Ted Talks, podcasts, audiobooks, online courses, or other materials. Next, the learner practices the skill. Far too many people skip this step, which is a big mistake. To help translate the skill from something you’ve been reading or hearing about to something you can do, practice is essential.

Next, the learner seeks feedback from trustworthy people who have expertise in this skill. This can come from peers, mentors, SMEs (subject matter experts), or others. The feedback should be thoughtful and constructive. Then, it’s up to the learner to spend some time reflecting on that feedback to get better at the skill. Again, many people skip this step. Bad idea. Research shows that time spent on reflection boosts performance and the bottom line. One study found that employees who spent 15 minutes a day reflecting on lessons learned performed 23% better after 10 days than their counterparts did.

The process then repeats. Content can help the learner find ways to improve, and the other steps follow.

Motivation is key to learning

To get workers engaged in and passionate about learning, businesses also need to shift the decision making power to the workers themselves.

In previous eras, most learning was decided top down, with executives and managers telling people what they had to learn. Now, outside of compliance, businesses are finding that they do best when they let employees decide what they want to learn. 

Employees naturally gravitate toward the skills that will help them boost their careers, so it’s important for businesses to let employees know where the organization’s skill gaps lie and what kinds of skills they’re looking for. But when people are given the freedom, resources, and time to choose to learn what most excites them, they’re more motivated and committed commit to stick with the learning. They pick up skills more quickly. 

To create the workforce of the future and compete in the global economy, today’s businesses need cultures of continuous learning. Learning should be a part of our everyday jobs. So it’s time to rethink what learning can be — and to embrace what we know works.

Six Tips to Help You Become a Better Learner

1.Make time for learning – it’s about priorities

One of the biggest excuses I hear is that people say they don’t have time to learn. But you have time to do anything that is really important to you.  Make learning a priority. And make it a daily habit. You can start by blocking out as little as 15 minutes a day on your calendar to learn something new.

2. Create learning goals

If you set a learning goal, you are more likely to spend time learning.  Start small, focus on one skill, and realize that you can only focus on building so many skills at one time.

3. Understand if you are trying to gain knowledge or learn a skill

We talk about this difference in our book, The Expertise Economy, but if you really want to learn a skill, you need to do more than read an article or watch a video. Learning a skill requires that you go through the learning loop as described above.

4. Broaden your definition of learning

People are learning all the time from a variety of sources. When you read an article in the New York Times or listen to an audiobook, do you consider that learning? It is! When you learn from your peers on the job in the flow of work, that’s learning too.  Many people only count learning if it’s in a classroom, but that’s outdated thinking.

5. Teach others what you know

This is not a new idea, but it’s true that if you have to explain something you know to someone else, you learn as well. Many companies are putting together “learning weeks” to allow peers to teach each other their area of expertise or passion.

6. Look for opportunities to apply your skills

Once you’ve learned a new skill, see if there are ways you can apply that skill as soon as possible. For example, if you just learned how to analyze data and glean insights, see if there is a project you can work on to apply what you learned.

What are you doing to learn and build skills?

I would love to hear from you too about learning how to learn. What strategies are you using personally or at your company to learn and build new skills?

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

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