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The agile learner and self-directed learning

Jun 08 2018 14:53
Amanda Visser

American writer, futurist and businessman Alvin Toffler once said: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” 

In the end, greater learning agility will separate the wave riders from the crashers, or those who are able to adjust and relearn as opposed to those who become obsolete.

Directing their own learning

Agile learners often take charge of their own learning process. It’s called self-directed learning (SDL) and is not a new concept. As early as the 1970s SDL was already defined, by adult learning specialist Malcolm Knowles, as, “a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes”.

Well-known SDL concepts include “just-in-time”, “on-demand” and “dip-stick” learning, and the idea is for learners to identify what they need to learn to overcome immediate or longer-term obstacles in their careers. 

The learning is short, intense and meaning-ful. It could be a YouTube tutorial or a demonstration by a peer who has mastered a specific skill. 

Are you an agile learner?

There are certain characteristics that set agile learners apart and make it “easier” for them to direct their own learning, says Karina de Bruin, managing director at JvR Academy and a counselling psychologist. 

De Bruin says there are informal ways to assess your learning agility. 

Ask yourself the following simple questions: Are you flexible enough to react to change? How motivated are you to learn something new? Do you need someone to tell you when to learn and what to learn? Does stress and change paralyse you, or do they energise you?

The answers will give you a good indication of how agile you are in learning. Agile learners are “usually responsible, purposeful, self-accepting and self-disciplined. 

They rely on their own judgment in choosing a course of action. They tend to be more focused, organised and creative,” De Bruin says. 

Agile learners can also be described as “whole-brain thinkers”, says James Jooste, CEO of Nothando Training and an educational coach. 

He further describes them as goal-driven and detailed but equally playful, creative and open to exploration. They’re able to link the present and the future, understand the bigger picture and structure information in a meaningful way.

“Agile learners have the ability to remember the base of information, to understand it for what it is and then to take it apart, evaluate and analyse, interpret and present it in a new way that will bring change.”

It really doesn’t have to be a “big thing”, Jooste says, “But you have to be brave and bold to explore the unknown without fearing where this new knowledge may take you, and how it may change what you know.”

Agile learners don’t believe too strongly in what they know. They’re willing to unlearn and relearn. They challenge the status quo and learn from mistakes and feedback from others. 

Agile learners in the workplace

As they prefer SDL, agile learners need to work for organisations offering non-traditional learning methods. 

“New ways of learning – besides formal training – need to be explored, because the time lapse between knowledge acquisition and obsolescence is increasingly becoming smaller,” De Bruin explains.

These new ways of learning “should preferably be relevant to the change you encounter in the organisation, which will help you to adjust effectively to the change”, De Bruin says. It should be personalised to speak to both the job and the person.

An SDL culture is beneficial in many ways, for both employers and employees. Organisations that have a strong SDL culture do not fall apart in the face of changes and challenges, De Bruin says. 

For employees, SDL should be seen as key to maintaining job fitness, explains Michael Simmons, writer and a co-founder of Empact, a company specialising in entrepreneurship and innovation as well as leadership events and programmes. 

Just as we have a minimum recommended dosage of vitamins or steps per day, we need to be rigorous about the minimum dose of “deliberate learning” we need to maintain our economic health.

“The long-term effects of intellectual complacency are just as insidious as the long-term effects of not exercising, eating well, or sleeping enough. Not learning at least five hours per week is the smoking of the 21st century,” Simmons writes in an article for the World Economic Forum.

How agile is your workforce? 

Jooste says some companies are so rushed that they don’t realise they’re like a person running next to their bicycle. If they would only stop and get into the saddle, they’d realise they have a much faster tool to get to their destination – and beyond. 

If you’re keen to assess the level of self-directedness or the learning agility of your workforce, there are tools out there that can help. Online assessments might be seen as costly but could be valuable if you want to identify learning gaps. 

Simmons says we often believe we can’t afford the time it takes to learn, but the opposite is true – none of us can afford not to learn.
This article originally appeared in the 7 June edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here, or sign up for our weekly newsletter here.

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