Learning isn’t learning until you use it

Sharon Streams

2016-02-05 Sharon learning

The learning field is complex, thorny and ever-shifting. Decades – centuries – of intense research, policy, systems, and debate have tried to answer the question, “What is the best way to learn?” and its corollary, “What is the best way to teach?” New theories and related initiatives crop up every few years, each arriving with a bloom of new terminology intended to enlighten but destined to confuse.

This topic excites me because my WebJunction team and I think about learning a lot as we work to offer meaningful learning opportunities for library staff. With that background, I offer one word that I believe is absolutely essential to effective teaching and learning: intention.

Establishing the purpose for a learning activity can be done fairly simply, though the steps are different for learners vs. trainers.

Students: define clear, active intentions

Fight the urge to slip into passive learning habits you may have ingrained from childhood. As an adult, the only “grade” that’s important is the one you give yourself. So:

  1. Before you engage in any learning activity, ask yourself: What do I want to be able to do as a result? Your answer should not be so vague that you can’t picture it (“Do my job better”) but also not so granular (“Understand how to use the Sum function in pivot tables”) that you are missing out on the transformative potential of learning. Write your answer down. If the description of the activity includes a list of learning outcomes, review those and note how they apply to your situation.
  2. During the activity, give yourself permission to be there fully. That means doing what you need to do to ensure your learning time is uninterrupted and that you are focused.
  3. After the learning activity, ask yourself three questions and write down the answers:
    • What is one thing I learned?
    • What can I apply immediately as a result?
    • What is the next step of my learning path?
  4. Reinforce and spread your learning by telling at least one colleague about it. You can even invite your colleagues to a session where you summarize what you learned and have a discussion about it. Often these discussions surface related knowledge and skills from colleagues that will further strengthen your learning.

If you catch yourself saying, “I don’t know why I am taking this training… My boss says I should do it…I’ll never have the time to use this… I already know this stuff,” then yes, you have fallen into passive mode.

Teachers: bake intentions into your curriculum

Support the active learning of your students by making the steps listed above easier for them to do:

  1. Define practical outcomes for your content and make sure they relate to the real world of your target audience. Put these in the description of the activity.
  2. Give participants time and space to learn. For more time-intensive training programs, we ask supervisors to sign a statement to that effect.
  3. Use real-world examples from practitioners who come from the same target audience as your students. Do exercises and practice in applicable settings; templates are great for this.
  4. Allow participants to talk with each other and share what they are learning. You’ll find that learners have knowledge and experiences that you don’t—and that will enrich the learning for everyone.

Whether you’re a learner or a trainer, keeping the intentions of learning activities at the forefront will help focus your efforts.

Stand up for your own education

Comedian Louis CK has a routine where he explains how when he flies first class, he’ll often see soldiers board the plane and invariably head back to the coach section. He thinks to himself, “I should give my first class seat to this soldier. That would be such a good thing to do, it’s easy, and it would mean a lot to them.”

And then he doesn’t do it. Ever.

But, he jokes, he still congratulates himself for just thinking of the idea. Of course, his point is that kindness that is not applied has no effect. His intentions are good, for sure. But they are not actionable.

Knowledge is like that, too. If putting learning to use isn’t part of your intention, then the imparted skills will just sit there, like Louis CK… doing nothing.