What RUN DMC vs Jason Nevin Taught Me About The Individual’s Responsibility To Learn

In their 1997 classic remix song ‘It’s Like That,’ Run DMC vs Jason Nevin beat out a line of ‘the next time someone’s teaching why don’t you get taught.’

I think of this line pretty much every single week as I observe individuals apply their different approaches to learning. For all the considerable (and warranted) focus on the strategies and techniques of learning professionals, what about the role and responsibilities of the individual professional, or student for that matter, to actually learn when they have the opportunity to do just that…?

I am intrigued and at times exasperated at the passive approaches people often take to learning.   There appears to be an increasingly sit-back methodology to learning whereby people take zero notes; ask few questions; and fail to contribute to what could be challenging and worthwhile discussions.  When all three habits take place, individuals, and even entire organizations are most likely on a slow-track to mediocrity when it comes to self-development.

Often these same individuals will come to me weeks or months later complaining that they have learnt nothing in their job or from their studies.  Are they perhaps expecting someone to crack open their head, and spoon-feed some mystical learning into their brain?

This passive approach to learning is further compounded by the increasing habit of learners to be distracted by social media, and their phones.  The fleeting to prolonged glance down to check emails; messages; or their social media sacrifices their own learning, no matter how much people proclaim their ability to multi-task.  This action is worse when coming from senior people, for it creates a negative example for junior staff to follow, and risks providing the impression that the learning activity warrants token attention only.

So learners it’s time to step up and play your part with five fundamentals to increase what you gain from a learning activity.

  1. Be Purposeful – Before going into a learning activity, set yourself up with a learning purpose. Ask yourself what you would like to learn from the activity – about yourself; the topic; the facilitator; your colleagues – anything.   Having a purpose assists in developing an intent to learn, and can then assist you in being more active in the learning as you now head towards a specific target.
  2. Be Prepared – Walk into any learning session with a pen and notebook. They might be old-school, but their combined relevance remains true.  Obviously they allow for the taking of notes that then enhance (if reviewed later) the consolidation of knowledge.  But also, by striding into a learning activity with pen and notebook also sends a message of intent to your colleagues and to the facilitator that you have come to learn something.  Some will take notes on their phones or other devices, but if you lack the discipline to not be distracted by emails and social media then stick with the pen and paper.
  3. Be Vocally Curious – Ask Questions. Damn it ask questions. Questions assisting in holding facilitator accountable; draw out sometimes bonus information; and open doors to knowledge that silence otherwise will keep closed.
  4. Be a Contributor – Group discussions with peers remain one of the most powerful forums to learn in. So contribute to discussions when the opportunity arises, and if you have an opinion, or an experience that is relevant to the topic, then speak up.  Doing this not only hones communication skills, but contributes to the learning of others, who perhaps had not considered the perspective that you offer up.
  5. Drop Your Inhibitions – Inhibitions in a learner do much to prevent active learning from taking place, and in many cases it is the fear of the opinions of peers that create negative questions in the mind of the individual.

If I am the only one taking notes, what will people think?  What if I make a comment and it is ‘wrong’ or people disagree with me?  What if I ask a question and everyone else knows the answer to it? If I sit at the front will I be targeted by the facilitator for participation?  Will people think I am a ‘nerd?’

This concern of sitting towards the front stems back to our junior schooling days where the general perception is that the ‘cool kids’ sit at the back, and as we evolve (hopefully) into adults, for some individuals this concern of where they are sitting remains a higher priority than actually learning

Such thoughts and questions can paralyze individuals from participating.  I have seen individuals walk in with a note book and pen, and see them want to write, but look around, observe nobody else is writing, and put their pen back down.

It certainly is not easy to remove such inhibitions, but having the grit to push through when such questions enter your mind, can result in a significant step to enhancing your own learning, and of those around you.

And a final note to managers.  if you are a manager then your responsibilities to the learning environment, and the culture of learning are even more pronounced.  Put your technology away and give your full focus to the learning activity in front of you.  If you are unable to do this then your half-dedication is likely to do more harm than good; if the trainer is of high quality then fantastic, you can learn much. But if the trainer is not brilliant, which will often happen, then your role as a senior figure is even more important – the questions you can ask to draw out information, and the insights you offer to guide discussion can increase the value of any session, and allow others to walk away from the session having learnt more then what otherwise would have occurred.

Run DMC vs Jason Nevin.  They might now be the most obvious of educators, but their words from all those years ago ring true.  Whatever the learning activity is that you are taking part in, professional, educational, or personal, it’s up to you to make sure that you are actually putting yourself in a position where you can indeed get taught…