Why we all need to regard learning as a precious process

Dr Peter Honey, the co-creator of the Learning Styles Questionnaire, discusses the enduring relevance of learning

Learning is one of those things that, despite its undoubted importance, it is easy to take for granted.  It is too easy to assume that learning is a natural process and that everyone therefore automatically knows how to learn effectively.

This makes learning a difficult ‘product’ to market.  Firstly, when it comes to formal learning opportunities such as a course, too many people have been turned off by unfortunate prior experiences (sadly, often during their compulsory schooling) that they found tedious, boring and largely irrelevant.  Secondly, when it comes to informal learning (in other words, the sort of learning people do most of the time as they go about their lives) people too readily assume that it is safe to leave it on automatic pilot as a largely unconscious process.  ‘Subliminal’ learning has many attractions – it requires no effort, no extra time and is inexpensive – but it produces fuzzy and, often, inappropriate learning.

Learning is the (yes, the!) most important of the so-called ‘life-skills’.  This is because it is the gateway to everything else.  All your knowledge and everything you can do (with the exception of some basic reflexes) you have learned.  It is no exaggeration to say ‘You are what you learn’.  And yet, in most educational establishments, learning to learn is not on the conscious agenda.  It is rare, for example, for the learning process to receive sufficient airtime or for students to be explicitly encouraged to complete all the stages in the learning cycle so that ‘lessons learned’ and subsequent actions are clearly identified.

We are certainly born with the basic equipment to learn – a brain and senses designed to gather information from our surroundings and transmit it to the brain for processing – but we have to learn how to use the equipment to best effect.  Rather than thinking of learning as a natural reflex (i.e. something that is built into the system and doesn’t have to be learned), it is safer to regard it as a vital skill that, like any other skill, needs to be practiced, honed, and continually worked at.

The key to treating learning as a learnable skill, is to think of it as a process, not just an outcome. At present we tend to place too much emphasis on  results. This is quite understandable because the results clearly matter, but it means we do not spend enough time helping people to understand, relish and continuously improve learning as a precious process.

This is not to deny the importance of learning outcomes (indeed, there would be no point in trying to improve learning processes unless we were interested in better outcomes), but to shift the emphasis from the results of learning to the ‘hows’ of learning.

In an ideal world people would

  • be able to describe precisely what they have learned
  • be happy to share their learning to benefit others
  • be prepared to have their learning assessed (both quantity and quality)
  • be able to transfer their learning and apply it to a range of situations
  • be able to learn proactively and reactively
  • be able to improve their learning processes and become more skilled at learning from both formal and informal opportunities.

Few people (if they are honest!) can tick all six of these criteria – even when they can see that learning is a key capability that improves their wellbeing and their employability.

 

Dr Peter Honey is the co-creator of the Learning Style Questionnaire. Working with Alan Mumford in the 1970s and early 1980s, he adapted David Kolb’s Learning Cycle to develop a model which enabled people to identify their most and least favoured styles of learning. The aim of the LSQ is to promote continuous learning within occupational and educational contexts, in order to further self understanding, development and teamwork.

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