Learn to learn – become an intentional learner

The phrase “lifelong learner” has been used – some might even say, over-used – by people from national government right through to small business groups and everyone in between.  There’s no disputing that everyone is in fact a life-long learner, as we all adapt to new situations and learn new skills throughout our lives.  It’s one of those truisms that seems to have seeped into our culture without actually adding anything new.  I wonder whether instead the term “intentional learner”, as used by McKinsey amongst others, is actually closer to what is intended.

It's important to recognise that the ability to learn is in fact a skill in its own right, and that as a skill, it’s something that we can practice, develop and improve.  As with many skills, learning is something that can benefit from guidance and advice and requires learners to take up development opportunities as and when they are presented.

Intentional learners adopt a mindset where learning is something that happens all of the time, not just during formal training opportunities.  Being an intentional learner needs individuals to adopt specific behaviours and develop two critical mindsets.  It’s a much bigger change in behaviour than can be dealt with in a short article here, so let’s concentrate on the key points.

To be an effective learner, you need to believe in your own ability to learn – as has been mentioned in previous articles, adopting a positive approach is generally constructive and builds in power and effectiveness, negative approaches can be damaging.  There are two elements to this:

  • having a growth mindset, where you recognise that your knowledge and understanding is incomplete, but also recognise that you have the ability to change and develop it
  • having a curiosity mindset, where you are open to new ideas, and look for links between concepts in order to help fill those gaps in your current knowledge and begin to develop an awareness and understanding of entirely new areas.

In summary, you need to believe that you can learn in order to be able to learn.

To develop and nurture these mindsets, intentional learners will need to adopt five key behaviours to help them get the best from their learning experiences.  Good performance management and L&D programmes within an organisation will naturally align with many of these behaviours.

It is essential to set small, clear goals to be able to define what you are intending to learn and enable you to track your progress towards achieving it.  Being able to embrace learning opportunities as they arise is important, but you still need to have a clear goal in mind.  The ability to focus on achieving your goals will require you to manage your time and workload effectively to reduce distractions. 

Seeking feedback will help you refine your approach and develop your skills further – especially if you prime people by explaining what you’re aiming for so that they can provide more relevant, actionable responses. 

Practicing your skills will help you improve your performance over time, especially if you focus your practicing on skills that challenge you and stretch you. 

Finally, reflection is essential.  Taking time out and looking at what you’ve done and what has and has not worked will allow you to identify what you need to do next.  Reflection isn’t something that should be approached as a rushed afterthought, but instead should be seen as a key element in the learning process, enabling you to refine your skills and get the most from your experiences.

The Development Zone provides you and your organisation with a range of tools to support you become an intentional learner, from courses looking at ways of setting and monitoring targets, to CPD recording tools to allow you to store records of your progress (and your reflections) in one place.

Don’t just be another lifelong learner, embrace the challenge and become an intentional learner.


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