What I believe about learning

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —October 24, 2006
Filed in Communication

I was thinking this morning about what I believe about learning. Some of the things that sprang to mind include:

  • people don’t think they’ve learned anything until they’ve reflected on what happened. When I conduct lessons learning sessions I get the same response. “So, what did you learn from the project” I’d ask. “Hmmm, let me think … no, nup, there was nothing new for me,” is a typical reply. We then start recounting the stories from the project and I then hear things like, “Hey, remember how we got our funding. What a mess. Remind me to just say no if it looks like that again.” The learning comes at this point of reflecting not in the act of work in many cases.

  • learning is social—it benefits from conversations. While I believe learning can learn on your own, most learning comes through interacting with people. Learning richness increases as multiple perspectives are described, discussed, challenged and explored.
  • learning is social, intellectual and emotional. There is a tremendous focus on intellectual learning in organisation yet we know decisions are made on more than the facts. Whether we are aware of it we learn through the emotions we experience. It’s no coincidence that we are better able to recall stories (our experiences) when they are attached to strong emotions.
  • we learn through experience, and experience is shared through stories. I remember my honours year at uni spending 2 months researching the geomorphology of macro-tidal rivers, ‘learning about’ interference ripples, point bars and sedimentary structures. From the 3rd month I spent six weeks in the Ord River in Western Australia only to learn that it is never as clear as the diagrams in the text books make it out.
  • we learn best when there is a reason to learn—I think this is an important aspect of sensemaking. We are awash with experience and information and we only notice things we care about. One of the reasons we care is when we know we must apply what we are noticing and making sense of.
  • we get better at what we learn through practice. Focussed experience helps us develop a portfolio of patterns we can then use for future decision making. It’s said that it takes about 10 years the be proficient, perhaps expert, in a practice. But action without reflection through conversation doesn’t build proficiency.
  • we all have different learning preferences and ways of interacting. On Saturday I facilitated a workshop attended by ninety futurists. They were exploring, as a group, how they might improve collaboration among their members. I invited everyone to arrange themselves along an imaginary line. At one end were those people who would prefer to avoid technology, even the phone was something they didn’t love using. At the other end were the techno-maniacs who love using blogs, wikis, and a raft of other web 2.0 gizmos. There was a completely even distribution along the line. And this is just one type of learning style preference. Audio, kinaesthetic, visual is another set of preferences to keep in mind.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. ken says:

    Do you have any thoughts about not-learning (cf. not knowing 🙂

  2. coleman yee says:

    “people don’t think they’ve learned anything until they’ve reflected on what happened”
    I don’t think this is always true. Learning can take place during the “aha!” moment, the flash of inspiration when a problem is being solved.

  3. Hi Ken and Coleman,
    The only thought I have about not knowing is that the awareness of not knowing is healthy for learning.
    Good point Coleman. I agree. The aha moment is a good example of when it just hits you in the face. I do wonder though, whether it happens after dwelling on an idea for sometime and at the point of not thinking about is specifically something else triggers a connection and bingo, aha!

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