How to keep learning and still have a life

How to keep learning and still have a life

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How to keep learning and still have a life

Continual learning is now possible in the workplace, where the profession is integrated with the learning process. Lisa Burrell talks about building stronger learning environments that could become the new schools of modern age

A  colleague of mine recently made this prediction: People who work together will soon start asking one another, “What courses are you taking?” It’ll be the new “What are you reading?”

He’s probably right, and that worries me a little – but not because I don’t like learning. I like it so much that I’d have stayed in school for a few decades if I could have paid my bills. I’m just not sure how I’d tuck a bunch of seminars and “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, around the edges of my wonderful job and my life as a parent who already sets the quality bar lower than she’d like.

In a sense, though, I am still in school – most of us are. At work we’re not only allowed but expected to be perpetual students. As we make our contributions and manage others, we grow and adapt, and so do our organisations, creating new reasons and ways for us to stretch. Some employers help by providing venues for mentoring, coaching and networking. 
Self-directed venture

But there’s a big difference between professional development and structured learning. And although some forward-thinking employers with plentiful resources have corporate universities, most companies seem to view continuing education as self-directed – something that people take on in addition to their regular duties as invested members of their organisations, families and communities.
Where should the responsibility lie? Edward D Hess, a Darden business professor, urges companies to assume a greater share of it. His new book, Learn or Die, offers what he calls a “blueprint” for building stronger learning environments. While it’s not quite that precise, it provides useful guidance. 
Edward draws on a large body of research on the cognitive, emotional and behavioural factors that promote learning and on the kinds of leaders, cultures and policies that enable businesses to change and survive. And he holds up several exemplars – describing in some detail, for instance, how the investment firm Bridgewater Associates structures internal conversations as debates, exploratory discussions or teaching moments.

Learning efforts can easily fall flat without institutional muscle behind them. Sure, leaders may encourage employees to sign up for extra training and courses – but how many people will find time to engage properly, or at all, if their workloads remain the same and their studying must be done after hours? How many will even feel safe seeking support in areas where they have “room for growth” if learning isn’t integral to their organisations?
The solution, Edward suggests, is to create a workplace where people’s jobs become their classes – “where learners experience a combination of positive support and positive challenges.” That includes providing good role models, granting sufficient autonomy, measuring progress through 360s and giving rewards such as promotions and stock ownership to fuel engagement.

Meanwhile, of course, individuals still need to do their part by honing their learning skills and adopting the “growth mindset” that Stanford University’s Carol Dweck famously identified as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Liz Wiseman, a leadership adviser, even makes the case that a predisposition to learning often gives inexperienced people an edge over their more seasoned colleagues, who may be encumbered by what they know and assume.

 In her new book, Rookie Smarts, Wiseman says rookies close their knowledge and skills gaps by scanning the landscape for information, marshaling as many experts as they can, listening carefully and making connections. When facing brand-new challenges, they work their way toward mastery incrementally but quickly, conducting small experiments and frequently checking in with stakeholders to mitigate risk.
Learning aids
Wiseman, like Dweck, argues that working and living on a continual learning curve serves people well in a fast-moving world. But what if that outlook doesn’t come naturally to you? The consultants Sebastian Bailey and Octavius Black say you can develop it with the many mental exercises they offer in “Mind Gym” (recently released in the United States, after gaining a UK following).

Their book is meant to help you think more positively and creatively, exert more influence and in general make the most of what you’ve got upstairs.Despite the care that Bailey and Black take to tether their advice to scholarship, their book feels a little light, maybe because the overarching goals are vague (to improve “performance” and achieve “success”). But it includes some interesting tools – such as a brief self-assessment to identify why you’re procrastinating. I can’t imagine plowing through all of them, though you might dip into certain chapters (on getting more from people, sparking creativity and so on) as various needs arise. And the exercises are fun, in small doses.
Reading them reminded me of my 9-year-old’s “pre-homework” – palpating her collarbone with one hand and her belly with the other. It’s a trick she picked up in Brain Gym, a programme used by schools and organisations since 1987 to promote “learning readiness” through movement. “Gets your right side talking to your left side,” she explained when she caught me staring. 
Brain Gym’s creators, Paul and Gail Dennison, say that 26 activities dramatically improve concentration, organisation, academic performance and relationships, “even though it is not clear yet ‘why.’” Critics take issue with the Dennisons’ research and their claims that the programme “builds, enhances or restores natural neural pathways in the body and brain to assist natural learning.”

Dubious neuroscience aside, Brain Gym has something going for it: It’s designed to make education feel both fun and doable. That’s a real need, given the emerging mandate to sustain our learning indefinitely. If my colleague’s prediction comes true, we’ll be scouting for many of our own growth opportunities – as we should, and as we’ve done all along. But even the hungriest of us will make much more progress if our organisations set us up for success. They’ll reap the benefits, too.

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