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Imagining a Path: Employee Learning for Young Professionals

Welcome to Employee Learning Week: Seeing Yourself as a Learner

20_learning All week I'm planning to do a series of posts (including some great guests posts) in support of ASTD's Employee Learning Week.

In today's post, I want to take a look at what I consider the backbone of professional development--seeing yourself as a learner.

Some Context--School Kills Learning
After 15+ years as a training professional, I've come to believe that school was the worst thing to ever happen to learning. It taught most of us to wait passively for someone to feed us pre-formatted, pre-filtered information that we could then regurgitate back in some pre-selected form. It made us believe that for learning to take place there must be a teacher, classroom, books, quizzes, papers and worksheets.  For many of us, it killed our curiosity and stripped us of our ability to learn on our own. It changed us from the learners we were at birth, into students who must rely on others.

This model of learning continues in many professional development settings because 1) many trainers were educated as teachers and 2) learners demand it--it's the only way they know how to "learn." I can tell you from personal experience that one of my greatest challenges as trainer has been when I try to move trainees out of that classroom comfort zone. It's what they expect and they don't like it if I violate those expectations.

But to be successful in a world where continuous learning is the norm, not the exception, we have to see ourselves as learners, not students. We have to feel the personal sense of empowerment that will guide us to say "I need to learn this and this is how I'm going to do that" without waiting for our bosses to tell us it's time to learn or for a class to be available for someone else to teach us. We have to take responsibility for our own learning. It's the only way to control our professional destinies.

How to Become a Learner
So how to go from student to learner?

  • Start asking questions. As soon as we start talking, we start asking questions. If you've spent any time at all with a pre-schooler, you know what I'm talking about. Unfortunately, school seems to have been designed to teach us to STOP asking questions. We spend more time responding to teacher's questions, then we do formulating our own. But learning starts with a question--"why does this happen?" "why do things work this way?" Without questions, you will never get off the ground as a learner. So start asking "why" and "how".
  • Get comfortable with making mistakes. Learning is about making mistakes. It's about trying something, finding out what does and doesn't work and then moving on. Kids don't worry about mistakes (until we teach them to)--they just forge ahead. But as adults, we believe that we must be perfect, especially in the professional arena. I think it's fear of mistakes that holds many of us back from being better learners.
  • Reflect on what you do. Most people are great in taking action. But the problem is real learning only occurs when we also reflect on what took place. We have to take the time to think about what happened and what we want to take from that experience. It's one of the most valuable things I've learned about learning. Here are 5 tips to get you started on your own reflective practices. (Another reason to start a blog, by the way.)
  • Connect to others. One of the many advantages of the read/write web for me is the exponential opportunities for learning through connections with others online. By reading and commenting on other blogs, joining email forums and listservs and social networking, I've connected to a world-wide community of people who are constantly learning and sharing. Entering into this connected world has turbo-charged my learning in ways I only dimly imagined a few years ago.

And here are a few other resources to explore:

Here's the reality--at least to me. We can talk all day about professional development, but until we see ourselves as active learners, none of it matters. We can't develop--professionally or personally--until we take responsibility for our learning and start to move things forward for ourselves.

Photo via Aaron Schmidt


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Great post, Michele. As a teacher, I've always felt that if I could teach my students only one thing it would be to teach them to ask good questions.

On a tangential note, I love the graphic you chose for this post. Where did you find it?

Thanks, Robin--I was one of those kids in school who asked a lot of questions and never raised her hand, but unfortunately most teachers didn't care for that. I wish that teachers could actually learn to enjoy it. As a parent, the questions my kids asked were the most fun!

RE: the graphic, I got it from here:

It's great, isn't it?


You model the model of learning too!



Excellent points. I love the idea of empowerment in learning. And thank you so much for the link and your kind words. I can't wait to read the rest of your series.

Thanks for this cool post! My wife & I are thinking seriously about ( well actually we have decided but not done it yet) taking all of our kids(4 at home) out of school and home schooling for these very reasons. I want my children to be able to adapt and flourish in a world that is ever changing and it seems to both of us that public school ( especially here in Florida) are ill equipped to prepare them for real life. I also think that blogging is a good tool for expanding my own way of thinking.
God Bless and thanks again,

Thanks Beth and Anastasia--you're both great role models!

Shaun, I applaud you on your decision to remove your kids from public school if the school is not providing them with what they need to be successful for the future. This is something I struggle with with my younger daughter, who is still in high school, although I see that my older one in college now seems to be doing well at being self-directed. I keep hoping that me modeling behavior and helping them to see themselves as learners teaches them some of these skills. They're absolutely critical.

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