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Improvement Learning Blog

Sunday, August 16, 2009


I have supported the learning and improvement efforts of people in many different settings and with many different levels of education. Surprisingly, there are a number of things that seem to be important for everybody, despite such differences. This is particularly important when it comes to encouraging and fostering the development of initiative.

1. First of all, most people are innately curious. The trouble is most schools have a way of dulling and discouraging that curiosity and with it the native propensity to take initiative that is present in all of us. By the third grade most learners have been conditioned into passivity. They have learned what it means to be considered "a good learner" in our society. A "good learner" knows what the teacher wants him or her to learn, is willing to do it on schedule (when the teacher wants him or her to learn those things), and how the teacher wants him or her to learn. And a good learner demonstrates what has been learned in ways that are most comfortable for the teacher, not the ways most natural and appropriate for the learner.

2. If we want to unleash a good deal of the repressed curiosity and initiative that is there in every learner and worker, we need to find ways to reverse this process, that is, ways to de-condition people, ways to help them re-discover their curiosities and passions. We need to help the people we work with identify their skills, their values, their preferences, their passions and their sense of direction and purpose. This is how we can best help them go where they want to go rather than where we want them to go. This is how we can best help people tap their own deepest motivations.

3. An important part of helping people discover or better articulate their personal sense of direction is to help them develop a better appreciation of their particular strengths. And side by side with that growing appreciation, they need to be encouraged to develop the habit of leading from strength. This way of work needs to be applied to whatever task or project or major goal they are working on. And leading from strength should be applied just as routinely to the learning they need and want to do in support of such efforts.

4. Only with this sort of foundation is it possible to help people see if they can connect with externally proposed tasks, projects, and assignments, or with the curricula and/or requirements of a particular course, training, or continuing professional development activity - in a genuine way.

5. We need to help people set and learn how to set for themselves achievable and measurable goals and objectives. The odds for success should be high, particularly for people who have been discouraged by a good deal of failure. Actually, 90% success (10% stretch) seems to be a good mix for most of us.

6. Encouraging workers/learners/patients to negotiate and training them how to negotiate the important details of projects they are working on is an essential ingredient in the mix when preparing people for lives characterized by a high degree of self-management and a great deal of initiative. This should include learning how to negotiate the criteria by which their success will be assessed. And that, in turn, should be followed by active participation and collaboration in the continuous formative and summative evaluation processes associated with such activities.

7. Learning experiences are most powerful when they are characterized by reciprocal interactions and a great deal of true dialogue. Reciprocal learning is where teachers/supervisors/colleagues and learners are learning from and with one another. It is a two way street. "True dialogue" [Freire] is where both or all participants expect to learn from and with one another, are willing to be changed by the interaction and where participants anticipate creating new knowledge together, not just the sharing of "existing" knowledge. The craft of the educator/leader, here, is knowing how to consistently and reliably create conditions that facilitate these sorts of reciprocal, truly dialogical learning experiences.

I have found these things equally relevant to supporting the work, improvement efforts and learning activities of high school drop-outs and doctors...and so many others.

Lack of a clear distinction between action and learning is deliberate. We should seek to unleash initiative in every sphere of human endeavor. Encouraging, supporting, and expecting it everywhere will reinforce it everywhere.

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