Learning: Why it's easier said than done

I am living in the south of Spain at the moment and attempting to home school my two children through year 4 and year 8. I had visions of them being motivated to learn Spanish, of us exploring the history and geography of our local area, and maths lessons involving currency conversions and Spanish bus timetables. The reality is a little different. I’m realising that my children already equate ‘learning’ with reaffirming what they already know, and gaining external validation that they are ‘clever’ and ‘smart’. I thought they would relish the opportunity to be free from assessments, marks and grades, but instead they are drawn to any activity which provides this.  I can’t help but wonder, if they have this attitude after their limited experience in the education system, is my approach to professional development and learning really any different?

About a year ago, I confessed to a fellow psychologist that I became anxious whenever I read a new release book in my area of expertise. I found myself scanning for new evidence or information that contradicted the way I was working, all the while experiencing a sense of dread that maybe I had been getting it wrong all this time.  Not exactly the most conducive attitude for professional development and growth!  Being honest about this experience helped me to see that my need to be ‘right’ was sabotaging my capacity to learn and grow.

You have likely heard of Carol Dweck and her research on Growth Mindset (www.caroldweck.com). My understanding of this work is that when we have a Fixed Mindset, we limit ourselves to those activities that we know we can do well.  The priority is to look smart no matter what.  We aren’t really interested in growing and learning, we are seeking validation that we are good at what we do by getting things right.  Conversely, when we have a Growth Mindset, we value learning and are willing to make mistakes to facilitate the learning process.  The priority is to learn, and mistakes help to facilitate this process.  Quite clearly, the development trajectory for the Growth Mindset is far greater than the Fixed Mindset!  

This morning my daughter was in tears because she received a score of six out of ten on her online maths quiz (in our home schooling program).  She told me that if this happened in her classroom at school, she would be dropped down a maths group. Not surprisingly, she was devastated and fearful to receive such a low mark.  And it made me think about how often we do this in the work setting too.  We may say that mistakes are okay and part of the learning process, but do we reinforce this with our actions? Are those who acknowledge and own up to mistakes rewarded, or do we reward those that keep up a smooth ‘all good on the front’ façade?

As a case in point, a client recently came to me concerned over his engagement survey results. As a manager of the team, he could see that the results were an honest reflection of a very difficult past few years for the team – including multiple redundancies, non-existent career development opportunities, and a general climate of scarcity in an industry that was bruised and battered by a downturn.  When he met with his manager to discuss these results and talk about what his team needed to feel more supported, he was told that the results reflected negatively on him as their manager.  Further, an ultimatum was set that if the results didn’t improve by next survey, he or others would need to be moved.  The opportunity to learn was lost, at least at the senior level.  

It has taken time, but slowly I have come to relish those times when I uncover new information that demonstrates I have more to learn. I still feel anxiety at these times – that hasn’t gone away.  But it no longer stops me from opening to the new learning and expanding my knowledge and my skills set. Further, it actually fuels my desire to learn and to find professional development activities that I know will test me.  Here are some practical tips that may help you to expand your own professional development and contribute to a learning culture in the workplace:

1. Identify the professional development you are avoiding.  It might be a specific area, or a group of people, or even a format of learning.  
2. Challenge yourself to complete professional development that really stretches you, rather than reinforcing what you already know.
3. Change your language around mistakes. Focus on the learning opportunities, both in the present and in the future.
4. When others come to you with mistakes, make it clear that you support them and ask questions to encourage a learning process. 
5. Accept any anxiety or fear and re-frame it as a good sign that you are working to your limits.

This blog is part of a series written while travelling overseas on a gap year with my husband Jay, my son Hayden, and my daughter Bronte.  It’s a challenging, daunting and at times extremely rewarding journey to open our minds and hearts, and to come home more capable than we left.  From a business perspective, it is an opportunity to gain a new perspective to make Within Consulting a stronger and more unique organisation which can support our diverse and varied clients into the future.
Within Consulting offer a range of coaching, consulting, leadership and team workshop services.  For more information, contact Tamara Baker at tamara@withinconsulting.com.au or Miriam Yates at miriam@withinconsulting.com.au.