The Danger of Directionless Learning

Learning for the sake of learning, without a clear goal or outcome, can, believe it or not – be an excuse. Years ago, in a conversation with a mentor, I said that I thought that I needed to get another academic qualification to achieve my career goals. My mentor was very clear. You don’t. You know your stuff. Stop making excuses. I needed to be clearer on what my goal, my outcome was. What was it that I thought I needed the learning for, and have that as my goal. So, in essence, I needed to start doing, and that needed to be my learning goal.

To learn for learning’s sake or just to achieve an accolade is not true learning and is more of a search for intellectualism and potential status, proving our position as an expert. This can be rooted in insecurity and a limiting mindset (see Carol Dweck’s work on Fixed and Growth Mindsets).

In summary, Dr. Stephen Covey said, “To learn and not to do is really not to learn. To know and not to do is really not to know.”


How to Set Meaningful Learning Goals:

Make the Learning a Habit

One of my learning successes over recent years has been learning to write well, both for my personal and business blog. My goal was to write and be read. If I’d focused on learning about writing, rather than doing it, I would not have achieved as much learning, as this is definitely something you learn by doing. I would also not have met many new people that I have learnt from. Once you start doing – there is an exponential effect that you open yourself up to more learning.

The Dutch have a word ‘startbekwaamheid’ – which means starting competence. For jobs like teaching, or skills like writing, you need a minimum level of knowledge and skill to get started. And then the rest you learn from doing. For any new skill, you need repeated, regular practice.

So, make the ‘doing’ of the skill you want to learn the goal. Make it a habit, part of your weekly or daily routine.


Go Active not Passive

One of my current learning strategies is for learning Dutch. Over several months now, I have pursued ‘passive’ activities – listening to audiobooks and podcasts that teach the language, listening to the radio and skim-reading my Dutch textbooks. And has any of that helped me strike up conversations? Passive learning is not enough to skill up where there are complexities. I have finally acknowledged I needed to be braver, and talk Dutch, no matter how hard it is to do so. My lovely mother-in-law and I are now having daily conversations via Skype, allowing me to practice in a ‘safe’ place. Learning theory states that recall is the thing, regular and ad hoc. This allows neural pathways to form. So, I now study from my text-books, prepare for a conversation (knowing I’m having a daily conversation is an encouragement in itself to do the study), and then have the conversation, which can go in any direction. And this unpredictability means that more learning will take place.


Go Outside of your Comfort Zone

True learning occurs when we are outside of our comfort zones, in the learning zone. I like to call this the ‘stretch’ zone. The learning zone can be a fun place to be. Challenge, excitement, enrichment all take place here. If our learning goals don’t feel like a stretch, then we’re probably not learning. This concept felt self-evident to me, long before I ever heard of Senninger’s Learning Zone model with its comfort zone, learning zone and panic zone circles. Sometimes going out of our comfort zone means doing things for the first time, or doing things differently to what we’re used to. I talk about this in The Uncomfortable Art of Unlearning.


What to do next?

 If you’re interested in doing something and not just reading about it, share your commitment by going to this article on LinkedIn and share in the comments what you want to learn this month. Be sure to consider the elements of building HABITS, ACTIVE learning, and comfort zone STRETCH.

If you want to learn more about learning methods, talk to us about our workshop programme, How to be a Modern Learner and how that can help transform attitudes to learning in your organisation.


Also on this topic: Owning your Personal Development

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