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Posts Tagged ‘learning’

Learning to Innovate

April 21, 2015 1 comment

dancing trees nycTony Wagner is a compelling champion for change. In his books and TED talks, the former teacher and “Expert in Residence” at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab makes the case that “reform” doesn’t sufficiently capture what it will take to align our education system with the emerging economy. Wagner says that what’s needed now is nothing short of system reinvention; that we’re overdue for shifting the metric for success from what students know to what students can do with what they know.

He has identified seven skills that we must foster in students who will be equipped to thrive in a world where innovation is king and knowledge has become a commodity:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepreneurialism
  • Effective oral and written communication
  • Accessing and analyzing information
  • Curiosity and imagination

Further, Wagner has observed that student success is most likely when this adaptive, collaborative skillset is complemented by a strong sense of intrinsic motivation. In a series of interviews he conducted, outstanding young innovators consistently expressed the value of giving back and making a difference—a value that had been nurtured by parents and teachers who allowed them to discover their passion and purpose through play.

Now, I know there are thousands of teachers and administrators who share Wagner’s perspective and are working to reinvent our education system from the inside out (see for example, Educators 4 Excellence). I also know that these innovation-friendly skills and values are already firmly established in the recruiting and people-development playbooks of entrepreneurial leaders and start-up talent managers.

But I think Wagner’s message has relevance for leaders in every sector of the economy—maybe especially those currently being subjected to disruptive innovation. Innovation, after all, is learning. Regardless of the nature of your work, the extent to which learning is integrated into your culture directly impacts your ability to achieve and sustain the results you want.

What ideas can you borrow from a conversation about reinventing education to awaken the playful, adaptive, purpose-driven learning capacity of your own organization?

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Powerful Questions in Action

apple picking“I always have a question that I can’t answer just by thinking about it.”

That’s how Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison recently responded to an interviewer’s question about how she decides what to write about.

As befits her status as an international treasure, Morrison captured in this simple comment not just an insight into her own creative process, but something broader about the very nature of learning. She models for us the essence of action learning.

Many theorists have explored the inextricable connection between action and reflection in human learning processes. Kurt Lewin, David Kolb, and W. Edwards Deming are noted for their contributions to our understanding of this dynamic. And I often point to their cyclical models in encouraging my coaching clients to make room for reflection in their busy lives. “Reflect so that your next actions incorporate the wisdom you’ve gained.”

But what Toni Morrison hints at is an organic learning process in which action and reflection happen simultaneously; something closer to Bill Torbert’s theory of action inquiry. When we enter into action with awareness and the intention to absorb the learning it has to offer, it enhances the quality of the action we take. We not only find the answers we set out to find, but we expand our capacity for learning and leadership. We discover the creative power of inquiry itself.

What’s a question that you’re living with right now that you can’t answer just by thinking about it?

Braving the Discomfort Zone

April 10, 2012 7 comments

Waiting to singOne person’s fear is another person’s fun, right? A friend of mine is totally unfazed by donning 50 pounds of scuba diving gear and breathing apparatus to plunge into 75 or 100 feet of water, but when she is faced with the prospect of walking into a room full of strangers her heart races, her breath gets shallow, her palms sweat.

For me, singing in front of an audience can drive my anxiety up to acute levels. What sets off your fight or flight alarms? Regardless of what your particular challenge looks like, the fact that it feels risky is a solid clue to tell you that there might be something of substance for you to learn from it.

Oh, sure, we might wish to hang out endlessly in our comfort zones, those cozy, familiar, not too challenging places where we feel safe and self-assured.

Or we might crave more time in the flow zone that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has identified as the state in which people experience their greatest capacity for happiness and creativity. When you are absorbed in a “flow experience” he says, “…your sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.”

These two inner-directed zones are absolutely vital to a balanced, joyful, healthy life, representing a spectrum of unconscious feeling that ranges from serenity to ecstasy. But even if we could choose to spend all of our time there, we’d be cheating ourselves out of something critical, wouldn’t we?

Just as important is that discomfort zone in which we get conscious about what scares us and what matters to us most. It’s there that we identify the gaps in our life and define our opportunities for growth and understanding. In short, it’s there that we learn.

It’s only in the discomfort zone that you can gather valuable data by asking, “What makes this experience so difficult for me? What would it take to convert these feelings of vulnerability, inadequacy, stupidity, frustration, or uncertainty into feelings of comfort and flow?” Your discomfort zone is a practice field where you can acknowledge and challenge your biggest fears and declare your intention to disarm them in pursuit of what you really care about.

When you choose to enter the discomfort zone with intention and curiosity—walking into that room full of strangers, standing up there to sing—you build your muscles for navigating this challenging zone the next time you find yourself there unexpectedly. Will you give it a try?

Reflection

December 14, 2010 2 comments

Reflection at sunsetA couple of nights ago, at a service convened to sing in the Christmas season, the celebrant invited us to come back often. He suggested that his church, with the music it offers, creates an ideal spot for reflection and refuge from holiday stress.

I noticed how frequently we’re encouraged to “reflect” during this time of year, and I got to thinking about reflection. By its nature a relative term (reflection on…, reflection of…), the word reflection means, from its Latin roots, a bending back. To reflect is to reconsider something in a new light. Like a shadow or an echo or a memory, a reflection measures and translates the substance of the thing being reflected.

When my sister died in a flood four years ago today, there was no time for reflection. In shock, we were immediately occupied with the logistics of saying our unprepared and broken-hearted goodbyes. Yet in the months and years since losing Kate, I have repeatedly bent back to her life and her death in search of understanding and inspiration.

In that reflection I have found insight…

To reflect is simply to learn, and ultimately perhaps, to act with new awareness. More than just a trick of light, a reflection is less tangible but no less real than the thing that gives it being.

What are your reflections teaching you?

Gratitude

Cool in the shadeWhen it’s 105 degrees Fahrenheit, nothing spells gratitude like the pool of cool shade at the foot of a tree.

But it’s easy to be grateful for things that make us feel better. What about being thankful for things that push us around a little? Like the heat that forced us into the shade in the first place.

In her funny, life affirming blog, ThxThxThx, Leah Dieterich has written more thank-you notes to Pain than she has to Chocolate, Laughs, Money, and Possessions combined.

Maybe no one wants to hear old chestnuts like “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” or “pain builds character.” Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny that important benefits accrue to us from challenge:

Patience from poison ivy. Learning from embarrassing mistakes. Clarity from scarcity. Compassion from suffering.

Thornton Wilder said, “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” What happens to our aliveness when our definition of treasures includes the tough stuff?

Alive in the hot sun. Alive in the cool shade.

What are you grateful for right now?

To Err is Human. Celebrate It!

photo by Mike SchubertIf you’re human you make mistakes sometimes, and you probably hate to admit it. But what if instead of cringing and trying to hide it, you got curious about the upside of being wrong?

In their book, The Art of Possibility, Rosamund and Ben Zander remind us that mistakes are indispensible to learning. “Giving an A” is one of the 12 daily practices they offer for shifting your mindset from limitations to possibilities. They first hit upon the practice as a technique for disarming the performance anxiety of Ben’s music conservatory students.

Worried about how they’d measure up, the students avoided taking risks in their interpretation class. When they were told from the outset that they’d receive an A, and they were asked to use their imaginations to time travel into the future and describe the effort with which they’d earned it, the prospect of making mistakes fell into the larger context of playing better, and became a lot less scary.

Ben writes, “It is only when we make mistakes in performance that we can really begin to notice what needs attention. In fact, I actively train my students that when they make a mistake, they are to lift their arms in the air, smile, and say, ‘How fascinating!’”

Now comes further illumination as to why being wrong should be more a cause for celebration than shame.

In a Boston Globe article introducing her new book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schulz calls for a new way of thinking about wrongness, one that recognizes that our fallibility is part and parcel of our brilliance. She explores how inductive reasoning, the process by which our brains add new knowledge and understanding at an impressive rate, is also responsible for our tendency to err.

And she makes the case that when viewed from the perspective of larger systems, an accepting stance toward inevitable personal error leads to process improvement. In some high stakes industries, like aviation and healthcare, reporting individual mistakes is encouraged, or even required, in the interest of preventing greater damage over the long term.

Of course, some systems take a much more punitive approach to error, and reinforce our instinct to keep our bloopers under wraps. But if we wanted to take a stand for being wrong, we might quote biologist Lewis Thomas who observed, “The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music.”

The next time you goof up—or even completely implode—what will you do to celebrate the successes that are bound to follow?