Relearning How to Learn

We used to be really good at it.

Remember, in those early years, when we learned to walk, talk, count, read, and use people’s names all at the same time! But now, when we really need our learning skills to help us deal successfully with work and each other and constant changes every day, many of us (maybe not you, of course, but many of us around you) seem to have forgotten how to learn effectively. Instead, we assume we know the answers. We jump to conclusions, complain about each other’s shortcomings, and criticize real creativity when we meet it in the workplace. 

How can this happen? How can we turn from people who just love to soak up new information and new perspectives so naturally into people who already know all there is to know, who find ourselves saying “Yes, I know that” when we really should be responding “No. Please explain it to me”? And if has happened to us, how can we relearn how to learn so that we can be successful in today’s demanding workplace?

In 1991, Chris Argyris wrote Teaching Smart People How to Learn, a Harvard Business Review article that has since become a classic. In it, Argyris asserted that smart people forget how to learn because they don’t fail enough. Argyris says that learning is presented as problem-solving in our education system. If you’re successful at learning, storing, and applying solutions to problems, you get locked into “single-loop learning.” In single-loop learning, if the answers you have stored up don’t work, you get frustrated and blame your failure on the problem itself (i.e., the other person) instead of taking the time to reflect on what might be going wrong.

This second step—reflecting on the situation and testing your own assumptions along with the characteristics of the situation itself—is what Argyris famously calls ”double loop learning.” It is this second loop that allows us to engage meaningfully with the situation we are challenged with and that leads us to significant new learning. But in order to take the second loop, we need the humility to admit that we don’t know everything. We have to find the time and place for reflecting on the situation. And we have to be willing to engage with the situation with respect and wonder.  

But those things are difficult in our modern work environment —especially for smart people. We just want to get on with it! We’ve got too much else to do than to be worried about these people who just don’t get it! 

In February, I discussed this learning challenge and Argyris’ article with my colleague, Dr. Melanie Cohen and other panelists, in a learning session at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. If you’re interested in hearing more about how we might relearn how to learn, I invite you to view that discussion: