What makes a great learner?

Events and exhibitionsHaving operated in this learning and development space for the past two decades, I’ve amassed a significant tally of trainees, that have as it were learnt under my wing.  A very rough estimate puts it at around 7000 people.  In that time I’ve probably seen everything a trainer might expect to come across in a life time!  Truly the good the bad and the metaphorical ugly!  As a learner it might be very easy to blame the teacher for a poor learning experience, perhaps justifiably in some cases, but without doubt the mindset of the learner will make an enormous impact on the value of the intervention.

I see this weekly, often daily.  I also see the contrast between groups of people that are truly ‘working’ the learning experience, and those that have to be pulled, nudged and cajoled into a learning zone.  It’s only happened once, but I remember one particular delegate many years ago sitting in their seat arms crossed, announcing to the group “I’m not doing this exercise, it’s not my learning style!”  For a short moment, I was speechless!

In my experience, great learners do seem to have some similar characteristics.  Here’s what I’ve found they have in common.

They are inquisitive

Great learners are like little kids in the rock pool, inquisitively lifting rocks to find out what’s underneath.  They are like explorers, open to whatever they encounter on their expedition.  This openness to all possibilities is so helpful in learning.  Rather than casting off an idea, they engage with it and explore its credibility, questioning, exploring, developing their understanding.

They value their time

Great learners value their time so much that they totally commit to the learning experience, protecting that time jealously.  In contrast others consider learning time something that can be played with; phone calls made; emails completed all in the pursuit of perceived effectiveness.  The reality is they murder the opportunity to develop and at best leave with a few incremental improvements.  The learners that commit time, leave with rich insights and matured thinking.  They are very present, especially when attending remote workshops online, cameras on, committed to the experience.  

They go deeper

Great learners demonstrate the humility that recognises they can still learn, and they penetrate the depths of a topic.  Poor learners skid along the surface, seeing ideas as very simple in concept.  Putting learning preferences aside, great learners are willing to give a concept time and thought in order to extract its richness.  They will take the time to milk every last drop of insight before leaving the topic.  It’s like learning to play a page of music.  The player may grasp the basics of the piece, and manage to perform it.  But the great learners will work it, again and again, to nuance, to refine, to take every little part, explore timing, dynamics, expression, phrasing, rhythm, musicianship, technique, variation, interaction with others etc.  The deep dive brings deep learning and ultimately excellence in performance.

Listen to Squeeze episode 35 for more on this topic.

Bob Bannister

Ships Captain