Learning seems to be more on people's minds in September because kids go back to school. My daughter, Alexis, who is 2.5 years old went to her playschool for the first time last week. She wasn't very happy at first even though she is there only for three hours a few days a week, but things are getting better. This is a good time to remember that although it may have been a while since our own school days, learning never stops. Moreover, certain things in life we have to learn despite or, maybe, because of our resistance and kicking and screaming. This brings me to the topic of today’s post – inspired learning.
Even when we are done with formal education, we still live out our personal learning curriculum every day. This learning is not about getting good grades or impressing others, but rather about our continuously improving and growing. It's about directed personal development that is the hallmark of a rich and vibrant life. How do we decide what to learn? How do we keep track of what we are learning? Here are a few things to consider in designing a personal learning curriculum.
Seeking learning that matters. There is usually a gap between information and transformation, knowledge acquisition and action, intent and impact. Possible causes for such a gap are the lack of relevancy, inertia, and wavering attention. For the learning to stick and matter, it needs to be personal, meaningful, and inspiring. The following three questions may help us close the gap. As you consider what you should be learning, go ahead and ask:
- What's in it for me?
- What's in it for those who I love and care about?
- What's in it for those I serve?
Inspired learning enables us to improve our own lives and lives of others.
Reflecting on our learning. Awareness of how we learn every day is the first step to gaining more control over our personal learning curriculum. The learning goals we set for ourselves are driven by the outcomes we want to achieve in work and life. When we make a conscious decision to learn something, the progression towards our goals is easier to track. But it's not the whole picture of learning. The challenge is to become aware of what we learn unintentionally. For example, children model their behavior after parents, including negative patterns because they don't have yet the capacity to decide what's good for them and what's not so good. Adults can also learn undesirable habits without much thought. Mindfulness is the antidote for unintentional learning. Awareness can also help us to focus attention on positive learning that sometimes goes unnoticed. The following questions are good for detecting unintentional learning that have happened during the day:
- What could I have done better? This question gives us a chance to reflect on our actions and improve on them so that we can do better next time. We unlearn negative behavior patterns by replacing them with better alternatives.
- What triggered strong negative emotions in me today? As much as we like to attribute our negative reactions to the behavior of others, these reactions are opportunities to examine our own perceptions and mindset. If we get frustrated because the traffic light turns red, the problem is not the light. If left unresolved, these negative patterns may grow stronger if we are exposed to the trigger again, and as a result, we unintentionally learn to react in an undesirable way.
- What should I do more of? This question helps to reinforce what's working well for us. As they say, energy flows where attention goes.
- What assumptions and beliefs undermined my achievements today? Unchecked assumptions may lead to misunderstandings, poor decision-making, and repeated mistakes. They keep us stuck in the old paradigms. This question aims to break rigid thinking patters that we may have learned unintentionally and open our mind to new perspectives.
- What assumptions and beliefs supported my progress? We want to nurture these beliefs because they are the foundation of our future successes.
Being mindful of learning as it happens. The practice of reflection may lead us to a new level of awareness: we may be able to monitor our learning as it occurs and adjust our course of actions as needed instead of reflecting on things only after they happened. We are able to gain the state of clarity that I like to describe as the mental "white space." In art and design, the concept of "white space" refers to the absence, or nothingness, that makes the content stand out. White space creates balance. Similarly, when we are truly present and aware, our perception is heightened. We notice things we wouldn't otherwise. We experience more insights. We respond to situations as they arise without stress or worry generated by mental clutter. This is learning in the moment, with the mind open to all relevant cues our environment has to offer.
Expanding our information channels. Information is inside and all around us. How do we decide what to notice and act upon? We are used to relying on our critical thinking and cognitive abilities to process and filter information. This limits our learning to what we can observe through our senses and get to know through thinking. Recognize that we can access information through a variety of channels: text, images, people, experiences, dreams, intuition, feelings, emotions, etc. Some of these channels are rarely used, if at all. If we only stick to the preferred ways to receive and process information, we may develop a tunnel vision. The challenge is to learn how to use different information channels and integrate them for the optimum decision-making. For example, if you are a logical/analytical type, try using your intuition more often or notice your emotional and physiological responses once you've made a decision.
Emptying the mind-cup. You may have heard the Zen parable about a cup of tea. A university professor came to visit a Zen master to inquire about Zen.
The Zen master served tea. He poured the cup full and kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow in bewilderment and then protested: "It is overfull. No more will go in!" The Zen master said, "Like this cup, your mind is full of your own opinions and preconceptions. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"
There is learning, and then there is knowing that comes from learning less rather than more. Information overload doesn't make us wiser. Sometimes, we need to quiet our mind to have a true insight. Try incorporating practices that help you gain clarity and heighten perception, such as meditation, guided visualizations, longer walks in nature, or simply naps. You may discover that you are able to concentrate better, notice more, and respond creatively to challenges as they arise.
Creating flow. In his book “Finding Flow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about how to achieve the state of complete engagement, "being in the zone," or "flow." It is a very joyful state when we are completely immersed in the experience, free of fears and doubts, and we often lose the track of time. According to the author, the conditions that make the "flow" more likely to occur include:
- clear and compatible goals,
- immediate feedback, and
- a fine match between the skills and the challenge to avoid anxiety when the challenge is too high or boredom when it is to low compared to the level of skills.
The state of flow is characterized by clear focus, involvement, and control – all important attributes of inspired learning. Csikszentmihalyi writes, "Thus the flow experience acts as a magnet for learning – that is, for developing new levels of challenges and skills."
Recognizing serendipitous learning opportunities. As much as we'd like to control our personal learning curriculum, it is important to embrace some element of uncertainty when it comes to learning and be open to important lessons as they come. Indulge your curiosity and trust your instincts to take you to the learning path you need to follow in the moment.
What does inspired learning mean to you? Please share...
Orientation Series: 21 Steps to Becoming a Better Learner:
Step 1: Setting your learning objectives
Step 2: Taking an inventory of your skills
Step 3: Taking an Inventory of Your Learning Tools
Step 4: Finding opportunities for cognitive apprenticeship
Step 5: Determining the "IIQ" of what you read
Step 6: Choosing helpful books for law students
Step 7: “The Three 'P's of Performance” in Action
Step 8: Tapping into your social networks
Step 9: Identifying your learning barriers
Step 10: Finding your sources of motivation
Step 11: Managing your energy
Step 12: Focusing on how you think
Step 13: Mastering informal learning and professional development
Step 14: Asking Good Questions
Step 15: Condensing your knowledge
Step 16: Memorizing
Step 17: Becoming a reflective learner
Step 18: Establishing rhythms, rituals, and routines
Step 19: Learning holistically
Step 20: Learning to learn