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Learning to Learn

By Peter J. Denning, Gloria Flores

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 59 No. 12, Pages 32-36
10.1145/3012421

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Why is it, when we need to learn something new that will benefit our work or home life, we often find ourselves blocked by seemingly invisible forces? When learning fails we miss out on important projects, promotions, and opportunities. We end up suffering and falling short of our objectives. Somehow, for many of us, our natural capacity to learn seemed to deteriorate over time, especially in areas that we care about the most.

Educators and business leaders have used the term "learning to learn" to name a missing skill that would reverse the deterioration. The business literature is filled with tips and buzz-words about this skill: "learn from mistakes," "fail fast and often," "learn faster with technology," "be curious," "collaborate," and "take down silos."7,8 But despite these wise aphorisms, something holds us back. Something within us resistsand even gives up onlearning. What is it?

Time after time in our work with professional teams we have found that many are in the thrall of deep, automatic, and unnoticed assessments and assumptions that guide what they think is possible or appropriate to do. These assessments and assumptions are the invisible force blocking learning. They manifest as moods.


Learning to learn is a navigational skill of recognizing moods that block learning and of shifting to moods that enhance learning.


Cultivating moods conducive for learning is not as simple a setting up a good physical environment, for example with moveable tables, calming music, and bean-bag chairs near the community watercooler. In this column, we argue here that learning to learn is a navigational skill of recognizing moods that block learning and of shifting to moods that enhance learning.

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Developing the Skill

Although we understand intellectually that learning requires that we make mistakes and learn from them, our emotions steer us away from making mistakes. In school we get bad grades if we make mistakes on tests; no one celebrates our mistakes. At work we can get a poor performance review if we make too many mistakes. Hence, even if we know that it is okay to make mistakes, we are conditioned to avoid making them and, if we do make a mistake, we feel frustrated and often embarrassed.

Similarly, we understand intellectually that technology can accelerate our learning. Simulation technologies offer to train us in skills without the risks of injury if we make mistakesfor example, in a flight simulator. Yet even in virtual environments people commonly get frustrated with their inability to learn as fast as they want and they give up. Internet and Web technologies offer to bring vast stores of information to our screen on demand via search and give us access to the world's best courses free via MOOCs. Nonetheless, most of us discover that neither Internet searches nor MOOCs answer our questions. Instead of feeling empowered by these technologies, we often feel overwhelmed and anxious about how little we know compared to what we think we should know, but do not. We feel stupid if we do not know something that seems so easily accessible. In other words, access to these advanced technologies, whether for skill development or knowledge accumulation, is not a surefire path of learning.

Overwhelm, frustration, and anxiety not only cause us stress, but they also close us down to learning. Then we fall into a no-possibility mood, in which we see no chance of ever learning enough to achieve our objectives. Often, we feel like running away and quitting instead.

In short, there is an intimate connection between moods and learning. Certain moods support our learning; others block our learning. Learning to navigate away from learning-blocking moods and toward learning-enhancing moods is at the core of developing learning to learn as a skill.

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Learning and Learning-to-Learn

Let us distinguish between learning a skill in a domain, such as music, sports, architecture, or programming, and learning to learn. Learning-to-learn is a disposition of openness to learning in a domain. If we are not open to learning, we will not learn.

We have found that the skill acquisition framework proposed by Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus in 1980 is excellent for understanding how we learn skills in a domain.4 Their framework says that a learner moves through six stages: beginner, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, expert, and master (see Table 1.) A person's progress takes time, practice, and experience. The person moves from hesitant rule-based behaviors as a beginner to fully embodied, confident, intuitive, and game-changing behaviors as a master. Hubert Dreyfus gives descriptions of these levels in his book On the Internet.3 A beginner, for example, does not know the domain and must rely on others to teach the basic rules and correct mistakes. A competent person knows how to do all the basic standard practices of the domain and does not need supervision to avoid common mistakes. Continued practice is necessary to guarantee progress through these levels.

But there is more to the story than practice. In working with hundreds of people as they sought to develop new skills, we have seen that, in each of these stages, people routinely fall into unproductive moods that make them no longer want to practice, block them from progressing toward the next stage, and divert them from reaching their learning objectives. Despite an initial desire to succeed, they often disengage and ultimately give up. The key to learning to learn is to cultivate moods that will enable us to keep learning, and to shift out of those that will block learning.

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Moods and Assessments that Block Learning

We work with professionals who want to learn how to build high-performing teams. As part of the training, we purposely place the teams into situations where they must learn something new.5 We chose a virtual reality game (World of Warcraft) because it contains many quests that will test a team's ability to coordinate. Very few on the teams have ever played this game before. Hence most teams are rank beginners who know nothing about the game. They cannot move their players until they develop touch sensitivity with the left-hand movement keys. They cannot immediately fathom the game's undocumented complex structure or strategies for completing quests. In such a situation, you would expect them to ask for help from the coaches standing by or from their peers who may know more than they do. More often than not, however, that is not what happens. They become frustrated and confused and then give up. In the after-action debriefs, we ask them about their moods and ferret out their hidden assumptions. We hear assessments like these:

  • Frustration: I want to contribute to my team, but I have no idea what to do. I add no value to the team.
  • Confusion: I do not understand the game. It is way too complex. It is bad not to understand right away. I do not like this.
  • Resignation: There is no point in me being part of this team since I do not understand this game. I am never going to understand it.

Occasionally a team has a member who is an expert gamer. You might expect their teams would make better progress. Often the exact opposite happens. The expert player cannot stop from telling everyone else what to do. Many team members resent the expert for not giving them to chance to learn it for themselves. A few wait docilely to be told exactly what to doat the price of being immobilized when they encounter an unfamiliar situation.

During debriefings, we assist team members to discover what holds them back from asking for help. Their hidden assessments are mostly variations of these five:

  • It is important to be competent.
  • It is important to be efficient and avoid waste.
  • It is important to be independent and self-reliant.
  • It is important to be useful.
  • It is important to be prepared at all times.

In each case, they judge themselves to be incapable of doing these important things. Helping them discover these assessments and then examine the standards that they are holding themselves to is a big step forward in enabling them to develop the skill of learning to learn.

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Navigating Moods

All teams must deal with risk and uncertainty. To be an effective learner in such situations, you must learn two things: first, to identify the moods that you find yourself in and, second, to shift into moods that open you to learning. Tables 2 and 3 give examples of common productive and unproductive moods for learning.1,2,6 You can recognize a mood from the assessments you see yourself making about the world around you. For example, if you are experiencing awe and eagerness about what is going on, you are in a mood of wonder. If you see no possibilities for moving forward, you are in a mood of resignation.

The navigational skill of identifying and shifting moods follows the Dreyfus progression just like any other skill development. The beginner learns the names of moods and the conversations that characterize each one. The advanced beginner recognizes moods more easily and can shift some moods. The competent navigator readily identifies unproductive moods and can usually shift to productive moods alone or with assistance.

Shifting moods requires reflection and practice because you may have to unlearn some habits that you formed for coping with different situations. We have found that asking four questions and reflecting on their answers can open the door to shifting moods. We recommend that you engage these four questions with the help of a teacher or teammate. Although you can do this on your own, we have found that a different observer can help you uncover your hidden assessments, standards, and habits faster.

  • What are my prevailing moods and assessments in the situation?
  • What standards do I have that provoke these assessments?
  • What habits do I have that keep me conforming to the standards?
  • Why is reaching my learning objective important to me? What will I be able to do if I persevere?

In this investigation, it is important to notice that moods are different from emotions. Emotions are "foreground" occurrences that we feel as sensations such as anger at an insult or joy at a child's smile. Moods are "background"they are more like an atmosphere, saturated by vapors of our history and experiences, in which things and possibilities show up in our situation. We can almost always identify the event that triggered an emotion, but we seldom notice our moods. They are automatic assessments that open or close possibilities for us outside our awareness.4

Sometimes moods are temporary and can shift easily. For example, you can be in a mood of resignation (no possibilities are visible) and a parent, teacher, or manager can show you a new possibility that breaks the mood. Sometimes a prevailing mood will yield when you discover a hidden standard and determine to change it. However, some moods are deeply ingrained habitual dispositions that lead you into actions you do not intend. You have adopted a set of personal practices that keep you in conformity with your hidden standards. If you try to violate a practice, you feel extremely uncomfortable and you do not even know why. To shift the long-term mood you will have to train yourself into new practices. That may take time.

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Example: Delegation

Let us consider an important example: delegation. You consider yourself a poor delegator and you see that you and your team could accomplish more if you were to delegate more. Others, including potential investors in your company, agree. But, for some reason, you do not delegate despite your desire to learn to do so. In your exploration of the four questions, you discover you have these moods:

  • Distrust: My team members lack important skills; I dare not delegate.
  • Insecurity: If I delegate, team members are going to think that I am not capable of handling things myself.
  • Resignation: Every delegation I have tried fails. I wind up having to do it myself anyway.
  • Frustration: I would like other people to do as well as I do, but I cannot seem to get that to happen. I just have to do it myself and not get to the other stuff that needs my attention until later.
  • Overwhelm: There is too much to do. I do not have time to wait for other people to do what I need them to do. I just have to do it all myself and hope that I can complete everything. No one can help me.

As you reflect on these moods, you discover you have acquired these standards:

  • The leader must be competent at all times. Therefore, I must be competent at all times.
  • If the leader delegates and the team fails, it is the leader's fault. Delegating to people that are less competent than me is too risky. I might be out of business or get fired.
  • If team members are not up to the task, the leader must step in. If people cannot perform up to my expectations, I must take over to save the project.

From this reflection you discover that you avoid delegating because of standards you acquired in the past.


Shifting moods requires reflection and practice because you may have to unlearn some habits that you formed for coping with different situations.


Having become aware of these standards and the habits that you have acquired to support them, how do you change them? Begin by focusing on Question 4 in the list of four questions we presented earlier. Why is reaching your learning objective important to you? If you delegate more will you have a stronger team? Will you have more time to focus on strategic issues that benefit your team over time? Will people want to join your team because of their potential for growth? The answers to these questions will help you to cultivate a mood of ambition about the benefits of delegating more effectively. Supported by your ambition, you can resolve to embark on a process for learning to delegate. You start delegating and sharing your expectations for your team members' successes. You will need to cultivate some emotional fortitude during this learning period because it will not be comfortable for youbut you are confident that learning to delegate more effectively and have others grow in their responsibilities is good for you, your team, and your company. If a particular delegation does not work, you take time to evaluate why it did not work, talk to the person about it, and try again until it produces successful results. In other words, by cultivating moods of ambition and resolution you begin to shift away from moods that block you from learning to delegate and you give yourself the time and the practice necessary to reach your objective of learning to delegate.

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Conclusion

When we are blocked from learning, the chances are the blockage comes from hidden internal assessments and standards, not from external factors in the environment. Learning to learn is a skill with which we recognize our prevailing unproductive moods and shift to productive moods. The shift frequently involves retraining our automatic responses to learning situations.

Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of learning to learn is learning to be open to learning. As beginners we are more likely to learn if we are open, curious, and in a mood of wonder about what we do not know. Instead, beginners frequently experience frustration, insecurity, confusion, anxiety, and resignationwhich block learning. In those moments, it is important to reflect on what may be provoking those moods so that we can see what actions will shift our moods and allow us to continue learning. Part of the learning process requires that we develop emotional fortitude to tolerate discomforts that come from mistakes and from changing our habitual patterns. If we do this, we will be much more likely to reach our final learning objectives.

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References

1. Denning, P. Moods. Commun. ACM 55, 12 (Dec. 2012), 3335.

2. Denning, P. Moods, wicked problems, and learning. Commun. 56, 3 (Mar. 2013), 3032.

3. Dreyfus, H. On the Internet. (2nd ed. 2008), Routledge, 2003.

4. Dreyfus, S.E. and Drefus, H.L. A five-stage model of the mental activities involved in directed skill acquisition. Storming Media, 1980; http://www.stormingmedia.us/15/1554/A155480.html

5. Flores, G. Learning to Learn and the Navigation of Moods. Pluralistic Networks Publishing, 2016.

6. Flores, F. and Flores Letelier, M. Conversations for Action and Collected Essays. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.

7. Friedman, T. The World Is Flat. (3rd ed.), Picador, 2007.

8. Spear, S. The High-Velocity Edge. McGraw-Hill Education, 2010.

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Authors

Peter J. Denning ([email protected]) is Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and Director of the Cebrowski Institute for information innovation at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, is Editor of ACM Ubiquity, and is a past president of ACM. The author's views expressed here are not necessarily those of his employer or the U.S. federal government.

Gloria Flores ([email protected]) is co-founder and President of Pluralistic Networks, and co-designer of Working Effectively in Small Teams (WEST), a four-month immersive course designed to enable participants to develop skills that will enable them to work more effectively in teams, such as coordination of action, listening, building trust, and managing morale.

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Tables

T1Table 1. Stages of learning and their moods.

T2Table 2. Moods that support learning.

T3Table 3. Moods that block learning.

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2016 ACM, Inc.