Let’s Talk About…Learning

Patience, and eventual clarity, comes from properly understanding needs, reminds Davina Greene.

Learning is a high-profile thing right now. Social media and Zoom chats are full of humblebrags about knits, bakes, and random artistic adventures, and it’s lovely. However, sometimes the process of getting to the point of competence isn’t all that lovely. If you want to learn or teach, it can be helpful to understand learning from a few different angles. You know, just so no one kills anyone.

When we learn, we generally go through four different stages. The first is Unconscious Incompetence (“I don’t know what I don’t know”): picture the teenager grabbing the car keys under the assumption that driving is super-easy, dashing towards the driving seat, giving you near heart failure. Next, Conscious Incompetence (“I’m beginning to realise all the things I don’t know”): picture said teenager cutting out several times in the driveway before proceeding to reverse out onto the road, nearly hitting a giant truck. The fear has now kicked in; his resilience decides whether he continues or runs away (As an aside, this is point where we all ditch the ‘New Year’s Resolution’ yoga class, bemoaning our lack of bendiness relative to that of our intimidating classmates…).

Next comes Conscious Competence (“I’m able to do it, but I’m very aware of every step”). He’s now driving around the locality competently, but probably chanting “Mirror, signal, manoeuvre” out loud for a sense of security. Finally, the aspiration: Unconscious Competence (“Did I really just drive home from work? I don’t remember anything about it”). That is, the new normal. Depending on the skill being acquired, mastering these stages can take seconds (‘how to boil a kettle without burning the house down’) or months (‘how to drive a car with full confidence and competence’).

Within that, there are other angles. For example, the Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic approaches. Lots of people learn by watching others do the task first, or by drawing maps or pictures to convert the lesson from words to images. Some people can learn by just listening. Some people learn best by doing the task, essentially learning by ‘feeling’ the process (kinesthetic).

Alternative terminology considers if the learner, be it you or someone else, is an Activist, Theorist, Reflector or Pragmatist. In brief: the Activist is more likely to grab the keys out of your hands and rush towards the driving seat. The Theorist probably wants to go read a few books or watch a few videos about driving first (if you speak technically, they may listen to you for a bit). The Reflector wants to listen to you and view the materials, go away and think about what you said, then come back and try driving. The Pragmatist wants to listen to you a little, watch you a little, read a little, then get behind the wheel fairly promptly.

So, in short: it’s complicated! To go back to my favourite 5 Traits: the ability of a person to learn will depend on their Resilience, Communication skills, Perspective and Responsibility. Your ability to teach will depend on those same things from your side, plus your Humanity in handling a person who is struggling.

Whether you are dealing with children who are having to learn more at home than you ever could have imagined, or with a colleague who is taking all your energy to train remotely, or engaged in some other form of learning now or in the future: take a deep breath. There is a solution, but don’t try to guess it. Talk it out as best you can: “What’s your favourite way of learning something?” is a great, simple question. Through learner self-knowledge, clarity will come!

People learn differently. Know what questions to ask, and success will come faster.