As ISD students, we’ve learned that learners use one of three primary learning styles: visual, auditory or kinesthetic. I think this concept is very unhelpful for any kind of learning design; anyone who can see is a visual learner, anyone who can hear is an auditory learner and anyone who can move is a kinesthetic learner. It’s just a matter of degree, and in my experience, learning style will vary based on the skill or bit of knowledge to be learned. But for informal learning, this traditional approach to learning styles offers no insight at all on how we can encourage and support learners.
I’ve been reflecting and observing all summer on the characteristics that could help learners embrace and benefit from informal learning opportunities. Here’s my list so far.
1. Risk tolerance. People who are not afraid to make mistakes or look stupid may be more willing to step up publicly in unfamiliar territory. Accepting “failures” and missteps as a natural part of the learning process comes more naturally to some than others. As facilitators of informal learning, we need to set the stage for failure as an option, encourage open and honest feedback, and acknowledge our own mistakes with comfort.
2. Curiosity. The thirst for knowledge and penchant for asking questions will help learners open up to new experiences, networks and information. I’ve often viewed curiosity at the other end of the continuum from certainty. A senior professional or executive who is confident in his/her expertise may be too certain to be open to new ideas and information. One who is genuinely curious will seek and be open to new people and ideas – and much more able to benefit from informal learning opportunities. Not only that, a curious learner will “dig in” to the new tools available for informal learning to find out how things work.
3. Mimicry. A lot of what I’ve learned this summer is from observation and imitation. When someone is learning informally – without the immediate guidance of an instructor – it’s really helpful to see a number of good models in order to generalize what “good” looks like. For example, my first tweets on twitter looked like IMs with my kids, friends and close coworkers: very casual with no punctuation or capitalization. But as I noticed the messages written by the most credible people in my little network, I noticed very thoughtful composition, perfect grammar and usage. So as informal learning evangelists, we’ll need to be sure learners are exposed to a wide variety of models, encourage them to find themes and similarities, and decide when and how to imitate, especially in the early stages of learning.
4. Spontaneity. Many of the most exciting and interesting things I’ve learned this summer have happened when I had set out to do something else. Come to think of it, I probably should have been doing something else. Anyway, I think that people who feel comfortable shifting gears on the fly may learn better informally than those who have to finish each task fully before moving on to the next thing. In the past, structure and organization have been highly valued by many workers/learners. We’ll need to support those serendipitous “aha!” moments – and do what we can to help our organizations value them.
5. Generosity. Building an effective informal learning network will probably be much easier for people who are quick to share knowledge and information and look for ways to support and collaborate with others. People who are not interested in sharing with others will probably not be able to build a vibrant network and may miss out on the richest informal learning opportunities.
I’m anxious to hear what my fellow informal learners think.