Obstacles to learning: Locus of control

‘Locus of control’ is a technical term used in psychology to distinguish between people who recognise the level of control they have in their day-to-day lives (people with an internal locus of control) and those who see control as lying outside themselves (people with an external locus of control). This is not just a technical difference; it can have a huge impact on our lives, not least in relation to our learning.

Someone with an external locus of control is likely to play down how much of a say they have in what happens; they are likely to not fully appreciate how much control or influence they have and can therefore miss out on important opportunities to move forward positively or to address issues that are causing them difficulties. People with an internal locus of control, by contrast, are much more likely to be aware of what steps they can take to make a difference. They may get it wrong sometimes and assume they can control something they can’t in reality, but for the most part, they are more empowered by this level of self-awareness.

Many times over the years I have run training courses that involved an exercise in which I divided the main group into subgroups, gave each a sheet of flipchart paper and a marker pen and asked them to divide the sheet into three columns: what they can control; what they can’t control, but can influence; and what they can neither control nor influence. This would lead to some very interesting discussions as external locus of control people tended to see the situation very differently from the way internal locus of control people did. Generally external locus of control people would be in the majority, so I would go from group to group pointing out ways in which they could actually control or influence things they had initially said were beyond them. This was quite an eye opener for many people.

So, in a nutshell, what the concept of locus of control tells us is that there is a danger that many of us will underestimate just how much control or influence we have in any given situation. This applies just as much to learning as to any other aspect of our lives, if not more so. I have spent over 30 years helping people learn and a recurring theme has been the expectation on most people’s part that someone else is in charge of their learning (tutor, trainer, workforce development manager and so on). What do you want or need to learn? How are you going to make sure you learn it? What is the learning pathway you are following? In my experience, these are questions most people would struggle to answer, and yet when it comes to maximising our learning, these are key issues.

One example of this is that, on some courses I have run that were clearly publicised as introductory in nature, I have had one or two participants say to me words to the effect of: ‘Thanks Neil, that was really good, but a bit basic for me’, to which I have responded by enquiring whether they had considered asking a more advanced question to take the discussion to the next level or asking me in one of the breaks about exploring where they should take their practice next beyond the basics. In other words, why didn’t they do something about it? Why didn’t they play a more active part in shaping their own learning? It was clear to them that they were with a flexible, approachable and responsive trainer, but they did not use the opportunity to focus on their own learning.

So, when it comes to promoting learning, especially our own learning, we need to recognise that adopting an external locus of control can be a significant obstacle to progress.

Dr Neil Thompson