Personal Growth

How to Promote Continuous Learning

One of the great joys of retirement is having more time (and perspective) to observe and reflect. As I consider the growth and development of my toddling grandchildren, I can’t help but note the extent to which they enthusiastically engage in an endless cycle of act, experience the outcome, receive feedback, learn. This iterative process is what translates a near-blank slate into choices to repeat actions that work, stop actions that don’t, and refine actions that have potential.

Something as simple as learning to clap your hands is the product of a thousand micro-steps. To get to that point, infants must first learn that they have two hands and that something other than random flailing is possible. Often, this cycle of continuous learning is improved when an observant adult is engaged, shows interest, and perhaps makes a game of it. It is this type of guidance and affirmation that babies eagerly gobble up, internalize, and use to inform their next move.

All of this has me thinking about the everyday opportunity leaders have to contribute to individual and collective learning in the workplace. Cultivating relationships, networking, lunch-and-learns, and mentorship programs can all provide a context in which real learning can take place. However, in my experience, many of these efforts fall short of their potential because they don’t involve the real work inherent in capacity building.

Supporting the continuous learning and growth of others should not be limited to improving practice in a specific area. As leaders, we need to teach people how to learn so that future improvements come faster and with greater independence. Success in this area can be greatly enhanced when we commit to a framework for improvement that embeds thoughtful, reflective, purposeful attention into each step of the learning process.

One of the best learning experiences of my professional career happened during my last two years as a school board superintendent. I had the good fortune of working with a group of senior leaders motivated by a desire to improve outcomes for students. Operating in an environment of trust and well-established norms of collaboration, we pledged to get better at what we were doing. This commitment stemmed from a belief that there is always room for improvement and that great leadership teams know how to set aside individual ego for a greater good.

What meaningful learning processes have you embedded into the culture and practice of your organization?

Our commitment required us to set aside time and resources to support our individual and collective learning. This included scheduling collaborative learning meetings, expecting accountable documentation of our learning in accordance with a defined process, and inviting external expertise to guide us along the way. The benefits extended well beyond our group as we made the process transparent and modelled a roll-up-your-sleeves approach for the entire organization.

The key was a disciplined, rigorous, accountable commitment to a framework for continuous learning that was introduced to us by Dr. Steven Katz. The method we used boils down to a process of supporting each other in a “Plan, Act, Assess, Reflect,” and repeat cyclical learning journey.

To elaborate, we each committed to make a difference in one area of our practice by planning for success, co-learning from that experience (whether good or bad), and then letting that inform our next move. The collaborative learning process was introduced to us as follows:

  1. Choose one leadership challenge of professional practice and develop a working hypothesis.
  2. Determine what intervention or change in behaviour/action will support progress.
  3. Thoughtfully articulate the next best leadership move.
  4. Determine success criteria to be collected (and how).
  5. Implement the plan.
  6. Analyze the evidence in relation to the success criteria.
  7. Reflect on the learning.
  8. Go back to step 1 and repeat.

This certainly isn’t the only pathway to supporting individual and collective learning. However, it does speak to the fact that various approaches are more or less successful. Real support requires more than just enthusiasm and commitment to the development of others. It needs a disciplined approach, clear framework, and deep insight into how people actually learn and improve.

What meaningful learning processes have you embedded into the culture and practice of your organization? Consider what might move your team forward on the journey of continuous improvement.

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Mark Schinkel

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

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