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Learning to Learn at Work

How to make the most of on-the-job learning
Learning to Learn at Work

Most of the skills we need to do our jobs — the ability to complete tasks, collaborate with colleagues, circumvent obstacles, and plan for future assignments — are skills we learn at work, not before. But when employees learn by doing, they don’t always recognize when and how the learning is happening — and likewise do not consider the best ways to optimize their learning as they carry out tasks. 

Ingredients for on-the-job learning:  Intentionality, Commitment to quality, Active reflection
Researchers at the Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA), an initiative of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, are investigating how to make on-the-job learning a richer experience. Examining a variety of professional contexts, including education, HGSE Professor David Perkins; Michele Rigolizzo, Ed.M.’10; and Marga Biller, Ed.M.’81, explore how employees can approach different tasks to achieve quality results and fuel future learning. Their research suggests that there are three stances, or mindsets, that people adopt when approaching a task at work: completion, performance, and development.

  1. In the completion stance, employees aim to get a task done well, but with little time or mental investment. Think of filling out a timesheet; although there may be an easier way to do it, it just has to get done right. The only learning that happens in this mindset is accidental learning.
  2. In the performance stance, employees aim to get a task done very well, with a sizable time investment, but without reflecting on how they can use that process in the future. Think of a substitute teacher leading a class that routinely uses a Smartboard; he wants to use the board for the few days he is in that class, but he isn’t concerned with mastering every aspect of the technology. His learning is incidental — a consequence of the push to perform well in the present moment, but not aimed toward future tasks.
  3. In the development stance, employees aim both to get a task done very well and to learn from that process how to complete future tasks. Think of a supervisor who leads a weekly meeting; she wants each meeting both to be productive and enjoyable and to set the precedent for such meetings in the future. Learning here is intentional, with the supervisor actively noting, analyzing, and reflecting on the flow of each meeting.

Different tasks require different stances, depending on their importance and the likelihood that they will recur. And as employees progress from the completion to the performance to the development stance, deeper learning occurs.

Embracing a Development Stance

For many employees, however, learning falls short. Fear of failure, impersonal work environments, and monotonous tasks are just a few of the reasons why workers don’t progress past the completion stance. If teacher preparation time is limited, then a substitute doesn’t have adequate time to understand the Smartboard. If a supervisor is pressured from her superiors to finish meetings quickly, then she won’t try out new ways of running the meetings or take the time to reflect on their design and effectiveness.

Still, the development stance is ideal for learning purposes. It encourages employees to assess their processes and to strive to improve. So how can organizations foster it?

Leaders who recognize that their employees are stuck in the completion or performance stance can try to pinpoint what precisely is hindering them — and then think about the surrounding factors that might be contributing to that issue. If workers fear failure, can supervisors make the office more welcoming? If tasks seem too tedious, can leaders offer incentives to innovative employees?

Most simply, leaders can communicate directly that they encourage a development stance — quality work and active reflection on that work. Leaders can model this approach themselves, and they can implement systems that allow easy collaboration and feedback between colleagues. The organization can also set aside time for reflection on completed tasks. With an emphasis on the development stance, their employees can remain engaged, lifelong learners.


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