“We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”
~ John Dewey, Education Reformer and Psychologist
It’s never been easier to learn. There are MOOCs, meetups, professional organizations and thousands of non-fiction books per month being published. Not to mention all the blogs and podcasts and YouTube videos coming online every day.
We are awash in information, and yet, it seems like we are getting further and further from understanding the things that really matter and digesting the content we are eating. We are sitting at an endless buffet of knowledge and getting heartburn in the process. If only they made Tums for knowledge overload! As a way to cope with the onslaught of new material, a common reaction is to stop consuming so much information, and instead, to move into action mode. Start doing stuff instead of just learning about stuff.
“Don’t consume, create! Don’t think, do!”
This makes common sense. If I want to get better at hammering a nail, I should hammer lots of nails. If I want to get better at writing, I should write a lot. If I want to be a better coach, I should get more coaching hours under my belt. If I want to improve my running ability, I should log those miles.
At work, learning by doing implies that the best way to learn is by identifying something you want to perform better at and selecting projects that employ the use of those skills. It all makes common sense. I do learn better when I am engaged in work, as opposed to just thinking about what is to be done.
The Missing Link
However, learning by doing overlooks a critical aspect of how we are built to learn. And yes, we are built to learn. We wouldn’t have gone from living in caves to flying around in metal tubes in the sky if we weren’t.
We learn reasonably well by doing something time and time again. We don’t, however, become excellent at a task through brute force repetition alone. If I hammer a thousand nails, I might get good at hammering, but I also might get good at shanking the metal and dinging the wood. If I run a thousand miles training for a marathon, I might improve my endurance, but I might just as well engrain an atrocious running form into my body.
Repetition, without reflection, will end badly.
Case Study: Wipro’s Experiment
I stumbled upon a research paper, “Making Experience Count: The Role of Reflection In Individual Learning” while plunging down a rabbit hole on the Internet. I was trying to understand how we learn most effectively. This paper illustrates just how vital reflection is to the learning process. It struck a chord, in part, because it hits on something so simple, but often overlooked, when it comes to how we learn at work (or in any other aspect of life for that matter). The authors contrast the effectiveness of Experiential Learning (learning by doing) with Deliberate Learning (learning by doing with built-in time for thinking and reflection on what’s being done).
One of the experiments cited by the authors was a field study at Wipro, a large business-process outsourcing company. In the study, a group of customer support agents-in-training were assigned to one of two groups: (1) reflection or (2) practice. Both groups went through the same training program, with one key difference. The reflection cohort was instructed to spend the last 15 minutes of their days articulating the main lessons they learned during the day. The practice cohort didn’t reflect, and instead spent the final 15 minutes of their day continuing with other training activities.
At the conclusion of the training period, all trainees were given a knowledge assessment. The cohort that was given 15-minutes to reflect on their lessons learned each day scored 23% higher than the control group. Even more interesting, after graduating from the training program and put into customer service roles, the reflection cohort was found to demonstrate a 19% higher likelihood of getting a “top-rating” by customers.
I can’t think of an easier way to boost performance by a large margin!
One study doesn’t make a rule of law. However, this idea seems to have legs in other domains. As a coach, it is common knowledge that a powerful question to ask clients in concluding a coaching session is one that prompts reflection on insights gleaned and lessons learned.
Personally, I use journaling as a way to reflect on learning from day-to-day. My typical journal entry will include a brain-dump of (1) What happened today? (2) What did I learn? (3) What’s next (based on the lessons learned)?
Most of us work in fields where learning is vital to our relevance on the job. How can we maximize our potential and learning aptitude? It’s clear that learning by doing is only part of the picture. The consolidation and integration of whatever we learn is a vital part of the process. It doesn’t have to take a bunch of effort. 15-minutes seems to do the trick.
The aforementioned study sums things up well:
“Together, our results reveal deliberation to be a powerful mechanism behind learning, confirming the words of American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey” “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”