OPINION

We Ask Our Kids What They Learn Each Day. Why Don’t We Ask Ourselves?

We Ask Our Kids What They Learn Each Day. Why Don’t We Ask Ourselves?

I love my family’s dinner routine. We cook, we eat, and most importantly we talk. Our kids are young, but we still ask our preschooler what he learned each day. And I imagine that topic will endure as our boys progress into elementary school and beyond.

But as adults, my husband and I don’t ask or think about the answer to that same question. We talk about whether we had good days or bad days, but not about what we learned or how we grew. Inherently, there’s an assumption that learning is reserved for the young and in the four walls of a school.

Research shows that a mindset toward growth and learning, no matter how old you are, is a significant predictor of success. And reflection on that learning makes a difference. A Harvard study showed that employees who spent 15 minutes reflecting each day performed better than those who spent that time doing a bit of extra work. Despite this, people strongly prefer to do more work than spend time thinking about what they learned and how they can improve. This is where we can do better.

Proactive versus reactive learning

I work in schools, and recently launched a product to help students get better at the process of learning. But I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t practice the same philosophy for myself as a learner. I power through a busy day job and hold down the fort of a busy family. At the end of the day, I often get on my laptop to do a bit more work—just like the uninformed people in the Harvard study.

There have been times in my adult life when I’ve been more intentional about learning, but frankly, it’s usually the result of something going poorly. Several years ago, I transitioned from business consulting to a leadership role in a school district. Despite years of practice delivering presentations to senior executives, my first session with the school board did not go well. In all honesty, I bombed it.

I reflected immediately and ad nauseam to come up with a variety of strategies to improve: observe more board presentations, build stronger relationships with board members, practice with my supervisor in advance. I focused on learning and getting better to make sure disaster didn’t strike again.

Students do this too, and as educators, we work really hard to show them why it’s a bad idea to reflect only after setbacks. Instead of waiting until a test is failed, we can use formative assessments to know whether student learning is on track. And together with students, we use this information to proactively improve learning every day—not just when things go bad.

In the wake of the election, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the blocks of voters who feel left behind by the economy. I worry that things are going to get worse, not better. Jobs lost to technology aren’t coming back, and I’d guess there’s a lot more of that to come. To drive our own destiny, we all need to build our capacity to learn new things. And we need to do it proactively—even when we think things are going well.

Let’s walk the talk of “lifelong learning”

I’m starting a personal challenge to become a better learning, and I’m going to use the reflection research as my starting point. Each week, I’ll set a learning goal for myself—professional, personal or somewhere in between. Examples might include giving better feedback at work, improving my skills in a second language, or learning how to write SQL queries. Having the same goal multiple weeks in a row a-ok. At the end of the week, I’ll write a brief reflection on how it went and what I learned. I’m hoping it will take 5-10 minutes each week.

There are lots of ways to reflect—a good old fashioned journal, technology tools like the one I’m working on, or thinking time while you’re getting ready for bed. The hard part is actually following through and making it happen with some semblance of regularity. I’m hoping to find a simple system that helps.

I heard a quote recently that went something like this: “Learning how to read was the critical skill of the last century. Learning how to learn is what is critical for today.” I couldn’t agree more. Want to join me?

Rupa Gupta (@rupa_c_g) is a founder of Sown to Grow. She was previously Redesign Administrator at Burnett Middle School in San Jose, Calif.

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