Real World Learning

How do we learn? How do we learn to learn? Important questions that Aussie Arun Pradhan has been addressing in the process of developing a new app (that just cracked its crowdfunding target over the weekend, congrats Arun!). To get some real world insight into these ideas, Arun posed four questions for people to consider. Here are my answers:

Q1. In your working life, how have you learned effectively from experience, please provide an example if possible? (e.g. how have you used intentional practice, learned from failure, learned from ambitious projects and/or used reflection)

“Not all experience is educational. For an experience to be educational we must attend ourselves to the learning which it contains” (John Dewey). I memorised this quote over 30 years ago in teachers’ college and it has shaped my approach to learning from experience ever since.

In any experience, at the end of it (and often, along the way) you’ll find me sitting there, reflecting on the experience. Going back over any notes I’ve taken, highlighting significant ideas, ordering or giving a visual structure to the content, looking at photos I’ve taken, mind mapping, writing down questions to follow up. Interestingly, I often meet kindred-spirits at the end of things who are engaged in the same process!

I’ve recently been doing a weekly process of writing down the 5 things I’ve learned this week. Carving out the time is always hard, but when I do it, it’s a valuable process.


Q2. In your working life, how have you learned effectively from people, please provide an example if possible? (e.g. how have you learned from project teams, mentors, coaches and/or broader social networks)

For much of my working life I engaged in formal, professional supervision. Regular sessions with external professionals from a range of disciplines (psychology, life coaching, psychiatry, mentoring). I’d invite them to not pull their punches in terms of insights, questions, blind spots and then I’d start talking my way through my working life and let them work their magic! They steered, listened, questioned, poked and dug me out of more than a few holes that I’d made for myself.

Whilst in my more recent roles I haven’t engaged in this process formally, the idea of intentionally putting myself in places and with people who will listen, engage, challenge and encourage me is still an important one. Having people in my professional life who will read between the lines of my rants, tweets, posts and blogs (or lack of them) and reflect back to me their observations and ideas is gold. I guess these people would now be called my personal learning network. That sounds a bit formal for me, but the key is being intentional about it, and making the time for it.

My favourite all time coaching question (acknowledged always to Bruce Moore) was the one he started every session with: “What’s the question that you don’t want me to ask you today?”. I still find myself reflecting on what my answer would be.


Q3. In your working life, how have you learned effectively from courses, research or investigation, please provide an example if possible? (e.g. how have you learned from reading on the web, reading books or attending conferences/courses)

I have two key practices for this. One is longstanding, the other relatively recent.

The longstanding one is taking notes, but not just any kind of notes. It’s a blended approach, depending on a range of variables (content, context, learning environment etc). Sometimes it’s almost verbatim, with an annotated style that takes some time decoding at the end. Other times it’s mind-mapping, or sketchnotes, giving a visual structure and illustration to the ideas. At times it’s been whole (literal) walls of notes with large sheets of butcher’s paper so I can see the big picture of the content.

The newer practice is bookmarking. Whilst I find enormous value in the note taking process for both ordering my thoughts, retention and integration with existing knowledge and frameworks, it’s hard to find/search within my many note books for content I may want at a later date. With the onslaught of digital content, my newest and favourite tool is Diigo – a simple bookmarking app that allows me to store the url/document/picture and more importantly, tag it with key words for future searchability.


Q4. What’s your top advice for someone who wishes to develop faster and learn complex skills in modern workplaces?

The thing I see most people neglecting (particularly L&D people, who spend their days doing it for everyone else) is being intentional about their continuing professional development. It’s simply not enough to rest on your laurels, you must develop yourself to do the role that you have, and to prepare yourself for future roles.

You need a plan.

One that takes into account formal and informal learning; experience/education/exposure; 70:20:10. I don’t mind what you call it, but have a plan, be purposeful about it, write it down and work it.


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