I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the web as I revise the Real Learning model. Jumping around the web, I ended up finding this research with fits with my learning philosophy like a glove. People learn what they want to learn.
Self-assessment and exhortations to “know thyself” are already in the book. The nuances here can make that material a lot better — and improve the odds of it making lasting change. I am jazzed.
Unleashing the Power of Self-Directed Learning
Richard E. Boyatzis, PhD
May 28, 2001
Richard — I knew him from the Instructional Systems Association; he ran Hay Group/McBer — is a professor who works closely with Dan Goleman. His look at learning hits on a major facet of Aha: learning to be who you are, tacit know-how. I’m going to jot some of this down for further reflection.
What these studies have shown is that adults learn what they want to learn. Other things, even if acquired temporarily (i.e., for a test), are soon forgotten (Specht and Sandlin, 1991). Students, children, patients, clients, and subordinates may act as if they care about learning something, go through the motions, but they proceed to disregard it or forget it—unless, it is something which they want to learn. Even in situations where a person is under threat or coercion, a behavioral change shown will typically extinguish or revert to its original form once the threat is removed. This does not include changes induced, willingly or not, by chemical or hormonal changes in one’s body. But even in such situations, the interpretation of the changes and behavioral comportment following it will be affected by the person’s will, values, and motivations. In this way, it appears that most, if not all, sustainable behavioral change is intentional. Self-directed change is an intentional change in an aspect of who you are (i.e., the Real) or who you want to be (i.e., the Ideal), or both. Self-directed learning is self-directed change in which you are aware of the change and understand the process of change.
The First Discontinuity: Catching Your Dreams, Engaging Your Passion
The first discontinuity and potential starting point for the process of self-directed learning is the discovery of who you want to be. Our Ideal Self is an image of the person we want to be. It emerges from our ego ideal, dreams, and aspirations, The last twenty years has revealed literature supporting the power of positive imaging or visioning in sports psychology, appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider, 1990), meditation and biofeedback research, and other psycho-physiological research. It is believed that the potency of focusing one’s thoughts on the desired end state of condition is driven by the emotional components of the brain (Goleman, 1995). The Ideal Self is a reflection of the person’s intrinsic drives. Numerous studies have shown that intrinsic motives have more enduring impact on a person’s behavior than extrinsic motives (Deci and Ryan, 1985). Our aspirations, dreams, and desired states are shaped by our values, philosophy (Boyatzis, Murphy, and Wheeler, 2000), life and career stages (Boyatzis and Kolb, 1999), motives (McClelland, 1985), role models, and other factors. This research indicates that we can access and engage deep emotional commitment and psychic energy if we engage our passions and conceptually catch our dreams in our Ideal Self-image. It is an anomaly that we know the importance of consideration of the Ideal Self, and yet often, when engaged in a change or learning process we skip over the clear formulation or articulation of our Ideal Self image. If a parent, spouse, boss, or teacher, tells us something that should be different, they are giving us their version of our Ideal Self. They are telling us about the person they want us to be. The extent to which we believe or accept this image determines that extent to which it becomes part of our Ideal Self. Our reluctance to accept others’ expectations or wishes for us to change is one of many reasons why we may not live up to others’ expectations or wishes, and not change or learn according to their agenda! In current psychology, others’ version of what our Ideal Self should be is referred to as the “Ought Self.”
Charles Handy describes the difficulty of determining his ideal. “I spent the early part of my life trying hard to be someone else. At school I wanted to be a great athlete, at university an admired socialite, afterwards a businessman and, later, the head of a great institution. It did not take me long to discover that I was not destined to be successful in any of these guises, but that did not prevent me from trying, and being perpetually disappointed with myself. The problem was that in trying to be someone else I neglected to concentrate on the person I could be. That idea was too frightening to contemplate at the time. I was happier going along with the conventions of the time, measuring success in terms of money and position, climbing ladders which others placed in my way, collecting things and contacts rather than giving expression to my own beliefs and personality. (pg. 86)” In this way, we allow ourselves to be anesthetized to our dreams and lose sight of our deeply felt Ideal Self.
The Second Discontinuity: Am I a Boiling Frog?
The awareness of the current self, the person that others see and with whom they interact, is elusive. For normal reasons, the human psyche protects itself from the automatic “intake” and conscious realization of all information about ourselves. These egodefense mechanisms serve to protect us. They also conspire to delude us into an image of who we are that feeds on itself, becomes self-perpetuating, and eventually may become dysfunctional (Goleman, 1985). The “boiling frog syndrome” applies here. It is said that if one drops a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out with an instinctive defense mechanism. But if you place a frog in a pot of cool water and gradually increase the temperature, the frog will sit in the water until it is boiled to death. These slow adjustments to changes are acceptable, but the same change made dramatically is not tolerated.
[Some time when Uta is away, I’m going to buy a few frogs at the East Bay Vivarium and video a gruesome experiment to see if this is true.]
The “boiling frog syndrome” applies here. It is said that if one drops a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out with an instinctive defense mechanism. But if you place a frog in a pot of cool water and gradually increase the temperature, the frog will sit in the water until it is boiled to death. These slow adjustments to changes are acceptable, but the same change made dramatically is not tolerated. The greatest challenge to an accurate current self-image (i.e., seeing yourself as others see you and consistent with other internal states, beliefs, emotions, and so forth) is the boiling frog syndrome. Several factors contribute to it. First, people around you may not let you see a change. They may not give you feedback or information about how they see it. Also, they may be victims of the boiling frog syndrome themselves, as they adjust their perception on a daily basis. For example, when seeing a friend’s child after two years, you may gasp as to how fast they have grown. Meanwhile, the parent is only aware of the child’s growth when they have to buy new shoes, clothes, or a sudden change in the child’s hormonal balance leading to previously unlikely behavior. Second, enablers, those forgiving the change, frightened of it, or who do not care, may allow it to pass unnoticed. Our relationships and interpersonal context mediate and interpret cues from the environment. They help us interpret what things mean. You ask a friend, “Am I getting fat?” To which she responds, “No, you look great!” Whether this is reassuring to the listener or not, it is confusing and may not be providing feedback to the question asked. Of course, if she had said, “No, it is just the spread of age or normal effects of gravity” you may not have more useful information either.
For a person to truly consider changing a part of himself or herself, you must have a sense of what you value and want to keep. Likewise, to consider what you want to preserve about yourself involves admitting aspects of yourself that you wish to change or adapt in some manner. Awareness of these two and exploring them exist in the context of each other. All too often, people explore growth or development by focusing on the “gaps” or deficiencies. Organizational training programs and managers conducting annual “reviews” often commit the same mistake. There is an assumption that we can “leave well enough alone” and get to the areas that need work. It is no wonder that many of these programs or procedures intended to help a person develop result in the individual feeling battered, beleaguered and bruised, not helped, encouraged, motivated, or guided. The gaps may get your attention because they disrupt progress or flow (Fry, 1998).
Exploration of yourself in the context of your environment
- How am I fitting into this setting?
- How am I doing in the view of others?
- Am I part of this group or organization or family?
…and examination of your Real Self in the context of your Ideal Self both involve comparative and evaluative judgments. A comprehensive view includes both strengths and weaknesses. That is, to contemplate change, one must contemplate stability. To identify and commit to changing parts of yourself you must identify those parts you want to keep and possibly enhance. In this way, adaptation does not imply or require “death” but evolution of the self. There are four major “learning points” from the first two discontinuities in the self-directed learning process:
1) Engage your passion and create your dreams
2) Know thyself!
3) Identify or articulate both your strengths (those aspects of yourself you want to preserve) and your gaps or discrepancies of your Real and Ideal Selves (those aspects of yourself you want to adapt or change); and
4) Keep your attention on both characteristics, forces or factors—do not let one become the preoccupation!
All of these learning points can be achieved by finding and using multiple sources for feedback about your Ideal Self, Real Self, Strengths, and Gaps.
The Third Discontinuity: Mindfulness Through a Learning Agenda
The third discontinuity in self-directed learning is development of an agenda and focusing on the desired future. A learning orientation will replace a performance orientation for those organizations that thrive in the coming decades. While performance at work or happiness in life may be the eventual consequence of our efforts, a learning agenda focuses on development. Individuals with a learning agenda are more adaptive and oriented toward development. In one study, a learning agenda resulted in dramatically better presentations, whereas a performance agenda resulted in people becoming defensive, not wanting to fail or not wanting to look bad, and did not result in increased performance (Brett and VandeWalle, 1999). A learning orientation arouses a positive belief in one’s capability and the hope of improvement. A learning agenda helps a person focus on what they want to become. This results in people setting personal standards of performance, rather than “normative” standards that merely mimic what others have done (Beaubien and Payne, 1999).
[This is blowing my mind, for I’ve been coming to the same conclusions as Richard. He’s into research in a big way, while I’d relying on my intuition. Whatever. This stuff brings a smile to myself.]
The major learning point from this section crucial in self-directed learning is: Create your own, personal learning agenda!
People only learn what they want to learn!
A major threat to effective goal setting and planning is that people are already busy and cannot add anything else to their lives. In such cases, the only success with self-directed change and learning occurs if people can determine what to say “no” to and stop some current activities in their lives to make room for new activities.
The Fourth Discontinuity: Metamorphosis
The fourth discontinuity and potential start of self-directed learning is to experiment and practice desired changes. Acting on the plan and toward the goals involves numerous activities. These are often made in the context of experimenting with new behavior. Typically following a period of experimentation, the person practices the new behaviors in actual settings within which they wish to use them, such as at work or at home. During this part of the process, self-directed change and learning begins to look like a “continuous improvement” process.
To develop or learn new behavior, the person must find ways to learn more from current, or on-going experiences. That is, the experimentation and practice does not always require attending “courses” or a new activity. It may involve trying something different in a current setting, reflecting on what occurs, and experimenting further in this setting. Sometimes, this part of the process requires finding and using opportunities to learn and change. People may not even think they have changed until they have tried new behavior in a work or “real world” setting.
The Fifth Discontinuity: Relationships that Enable Us to Learn
Our relationships are an essential part of our environment. The most crucial relationships are often a part of groups that have particular importance to us. These relationships and groups give us a sense of identity, guide us as to what is appropriate and “good” behavior, and provide feedback on our behavior. In sociology, they are called reference groups. These relationships create a “context” within which we interpret our progress on desired changes, the utility of new learning, and even contribute significant input to formulation of the Ideal (Kram, 1996). In this sense, our relationships are mediators, moderators, interpreters, sources of feedback, sources of support and permission of change and learning! They may also be the most important source of protection from relapses or returning to our earlier forms of behavior.
The major learning points from the fourth and fifth discontinuities critical in self-directed learning process are:
(1) Experiment and practice and try to learn more from your experiences!
(2) Find settings in which you feel psychologically safe within which to experiment and practice! and
(3) Develop and use your relationships as part of your change and learning process!
Signposts on the Path to Change and Learning
In guiding yourself or others through the self-directed learning process, the learning points can be used as signposts, or benchmarks. If you do not feel that you have addressed the learning point, do not bother attempting to move forward. The process needs to slow down and either wait for the person to reach the learning point, or try another way to help the person. Please remember, people do not gain these discoveries or experience the epiphany of the discontinuity in a smooth manner. One person may take minutes to achieve a breakthrough of one discovery, and yet another discovery may take several days, weeks, months, or even years.
The signposts on the path to self-direct learning are:
1) Has the person engaged their passion and dreams? Can they describe the person they want to be, the life and work they want to have in the future? Can they describe their Ideal Self?
2) Does the person know himself or herself? Do they have a sense of their Real Self?
3) Can the person articulate both their strengths (those aspects he/she wants to preserve) and gaps or discrepancies between their Real and Ideal Selves (those aspects he/she wants to adapt or change)?
4) Has the person help their attention on both Strengths and Gaps— not letting one become the preoccupation?
5) Does the person have their own personal learning agenda? IS it really their own? Can the elements of the plan fit into the structure of their life and work? Do the actions fit with their learning style and flexibility?
6) Is the person experimenting and practicing new habits and actions? Is the person using their learning plan to learn more from their experiences?
7) Has the person found settings in which to experiment and practice in which he/she feels psychologically safe?
8) Is the person developing and utilizing his/her relationships as part of their learning process? Do they have coaches, mentors, friends, and others with whom they can discuss progress on their learning agenda? Do they have relationships with whom they can explore each their new behavior, habits, new Ideal Self, new Real Self, new strengths and gaps as the process unfolds?
9) Are they helping others engage in a self-directed learning process?
[Real self goes well with Real Learning]