Obstacles to learning: Magical thinking

Sadly it appears that very many people seem to assume that learning happens by magic: they just have to get busy doing their job and the learning will happen spontaneously. Similarly, a significant proportion of people will attend training courses, not make a single note, barely contribute to discussion, give the issues covered very limited consideration and still expect to have benefited from the event as a learning experience.

Of course, learning can happen spontaneously at times, but generally only in very minor, superficial ways. For much fuller and more in-depth learning that will last over time, it is necessary to develop a better understanding of the issues involved, be prepared to develop the associated skills and locate both the knowledge and skills in the context of the relevant values. None of this happens as if by magic. Optimal learning is an active process, a deliberate effort to capitalise on the learning opportunities we encounter, whether in specific learning contexts, such as training courses or involvement in an online learning programme or from our work experience more broadly (and, indeed, our lives outside the workplace which also offer much by way of learning possibilities).

This is, in part, what is meant by ‘reflective learning’, basing our learning on thinking through the issues involved, linking them to our previous learning and seeing how they cast light on the challenges we face. This is, of course, the exact opposite of magical thinking.

Processes, such as supervision, mentoring and coaching can be very helpful in this regard, as can informal discussion among colleagues. Some people are very effective at thinking through the issues for themselves and taking the learning forward under their own steam. However, very many people need to rely on the stimulus of discussion with others in order to do the ‘processing’ of the information that is necessary for learning.

And, of course, any learning gained needs to be consolidated in practice over time. Assuming that the initial learning benefits will ‘stick’ without being reinforced is another example of magical thinking, expecting something positive to happen without having to make it happen. This is also where supervision, mentoring and coaching can be of value by helping to make sure that we build on the initial learning impetus, and do not allow the early benefits to fade away. Without this type of consolidation so much learning can be lost.

Inevitably perhaps, pressures of work will lead to much learning fading away, as busy individuals focus on what they have to do next, rather than focus on drawing out the learning from what has gone before. But, it doesn’t have to be the case that we lose so much learning – there are steps we can take to capitalise on the learning opportunities we come across. However, before we can take any such steps, we need to let go of magical thinking and fully embrace the idea that optimal learning depends on adopting a proactive approach to our own development.

To some people this may sound like a lot of effort, but the reality is the more we do it, the less effort it will take and the more skilful we will become at drawing out the learning and embedding it in practice – and, of course, the benefits of doing so far outweigh any investment of time and effort.

Dr Neil Thompson has over thirty years’ experience of helping people learn. He is currently involved in developing e-learning resources and runs the Avenue Professional Development programme, an innovative online learning community based on principles of self-directed learning and geared towards developing critically reflective practice (www.apdp.org.uk). How website and blog are at www.NeilThompson.info.