Two weeks ago I started a blog series for this month I’ve entitled, “Be a Better Learner”. And although we are nearing the end of the school year, I want to emphasize the point that learning shouldn’t stop. Initially, I told a story about a critical moment in my own education when I realized how to write better. The story highlighted critical issues you need to be aware of including distractions, fears (especially of failure & social perceptions), and overvaluing outcomes over growth. If you remember, a key point I was making was that these issues can “block” you from taking a learning approach regardless of the environment (school, sport, personal, etc.). Thus, the first step in becoming a better learner is in recognizing what is in your way.
Last week I focused on developing a mindset for being a better learner. The key is in building an attitude that encompasses changes in how you think about what you are trying to learn and get better at. To do this there are three critical points. First, think about how your learning will benefit others beyond yourself. Second, look at the “big picture” in terms of time. What you are working on today isn’t about being perfect, but in ironing out things now so that you can be ready when it counts. And finally, it helps to be realistic about the degree of skill or luck it takes to be successful in whatever your working on. Then, get to work on honing the skill so that luck favors the outcomes you hope for. Essentially, choosing to have the right attitude about learning and improving opens you up to getting better.
So now it is time to put some focus on the “how to’s” of being a better learner. Put another way, once you have the right attitude you need to take action. But before you read further, I want you to take a few moments and think about this upcoming summer. For the next three months, contemplate what you want to get better at. Rather than setting a goal, let’s focus on creating a “system” for yourself. So what is this thing, and what is the context? I’ll give you a few examples if you are uncertain…
- Improving as a student → get better at reading, or writing
- Improving as a basketball player → get better at shooting skills
- Improve your health → get more physically fit
Your turn. What do you want to improve at? Then, write it down.
A key feature here is the implied “I” nature of this. What ever you want to be better at, or improve in being a learner at, it has to be important to you. So, if you are writing something down because you think it will make someone else happy. Start over. If you are a parent or coach who has “convinced” your child or athlete to pick something, walk away (or better yet, pick something for yourself and act as a role model). Now, look back at what you have chosen, and be honest; have you picked something you want to be better at because it is important to you, or do you need to pick something else? Trust me, this will get tough soon enough, so it better be something you are willing to fight for with yourself on a bad day. Read on if/when you are ready.
The How-To Elements
Welcome back, and thank you for taking the first step. And by the way, if you did, you dove right in to the first actionable task – taking a risk on your own behalf. That’s right, choosing something that is important to you is most likely connected to something you know you don’t already do at the level you want, and you were able to identify what it looks like on the other side of your current ability. All it took to do this is to recognize that the difference between where your skill set is now, as compared to where you want it to be, is to see this as a challenge. You needed to allow yourself to recognize that who or what you are now isn’t locked-in or final. Instead, you invisioned yourself as being more. This takes some courage, because it means you have to accept that there is more out there for you, and that when you get to where you want to be, you will be better, and probably happier, for yourself.
Now that you know what you want to become, and why, the next thing to do is develop routines that create the opportunity for growth. Notice I didn’t say “create habits”. This has become fairly popular within sport psychology and “life coaching”. But the reality is, habits are subconscious. Meaning, you are not aware of what you are doing. So if it is a habit, you aren’t learning. Learning takes awareness, which can be answered with two simple questions; what was I trying to improve, and how much better have I gotten? And don’t forget, learning = growth, no matter what you’ve chosen for yourself. So the question is, how do I create routines, especially if it seems like what I want to be better at is so far off from here? There are a few simple strategies.
Routines essentially come down to planning. So start by making a schedule that identifies when and where you plan to put in the work it is going to take. If your intent is to become a better student by improving at reading, then you need to schedule time to read every day. Looking to be stronger? Then block out time on your calendar for lifting weights. Whatever you plan on being better at, make the time.
Most of us will jump right in here, with zest about the “new path” we have set for ourselves. But I guarantee that within a week or two, the umph of the new will wane, and things will get tough. Whether it be boredom, slow growth, or pain, you are going to lose the excitement. So to keep yourself on schedule, keep records. This involves two elements that you can either combine or break into two different tasks. How you do it is based on the complexity of what you are trying to get better at, and personal preference. My advice is to keep it as simple as possible, but do so in a way that allows you to literally see what you have done. The two elements? First, keep track of occurances by noting what was done during the scheduled time. Second, make note of the good stuff by indicating how you got better, what you learned, or how you improved. And again, keep it simple. You aren’t writing a book for someone else, this is for you to go back and look at and recognize the growth and learning you’ve accomplished. Seeing this kind of evidence is motivation to keep working at what ever this thing is that is important to you.
Hopefully by now you are getting a clearer picture of what you plan to improve at over the summer months. To really make the effort worth it, you need to be active in the third step. Like the first, this is going to require some bravery because you are going to have to be open to things you may not want to see or hear. You need to seek feedback. Whether it be positive or negative, feedback is one of the most powerful tools in learning ANYTHING. And it isn’t easy. I do it everytime I write for you. There are a few people I trust, who I know will in some way give me feedback on what I put out there. So I ask them on purpose to take a look, and let me know what they think. The feedback they give me helps shape what I do down the line.
Using the feedback also depends on the type you are willing to take in. If you are asking others to let you know what they think, you need to be specific on what they should be evaluating, OR you need to be able to hone in on what information is important for your own growth after asking an open-ended question. After all, you aren’t looking to improve at all things at all times (see Part 2 on “seeing the big picture”). Similarly, you can’t take it personal. Feedback isn’t about you, its about the effort and product. And these can always improve at. Don’t forget, that’s the point; learning “what” was bad, and “how” it can be better, as well as “what was good and needs to be maintained.
Feedback can also be objective. Sometimes we need to see what is happening with our own eyes, instead of getting someone else’s opinion. A great strategy here is to use video. For example, if you are trying to be a better golfer, and thus are working on improving your swing, taking video of yourself is as objective as it gets. Not only do you get to see what you did, the flight of the ball is an indication of what that movement created. Making the adjustment is now about using the feedback to get the results you are looking for.
Being a better learner is really about turning your attention toward growth. Learning isn’t the simple accumulation of factual knowledge. Unless you are trying to win at trivia, knowledge by itself isn’t worth much. Instead, learning is more about having intention and awareness of what you want to be be better at, and what it will take to get there. This means understanding why learning and growing is important to you. You also need to be willing to commit your time by establishing routines to put in the work. And finally, get feedback on what you are doing as you go. Because, learning only stops when we stop trying or paying attention to what we are doing. Afterall, if you aren’t learning, you are falling behind. Should you find yourself needing more help in this area, why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.