Fostering self guided learners with Catherine Lombardozzi

As workplaces and work are changing rapidly, people need to be more in control of their own learning and learn while working.  Self-directed learning is a key skill for the future of work. In this podcast Robin talks with Catherine Lombardozzi about fostering self-directed learners in your organisation.  

Catherine’s approach to self-guided learning identifies 10 pillars organised into three different areas around individual qualities, learning skills and environmental characteristics. The podcast finishes with Catherine talking about some powerful tactics to help your learners develop these skills.


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Useful links on self directed learning


Robin: Why do you think people are quite often naturally not self-directed in workplaces?

Catherine: Well, I think they are naturally - they have some natural ability to be self-directed but I think there is a lot of blockers in the way.

We live in a world, obviously, that is changing fast and furious, so people really need to be self-directed in their learning. They have to prepare themselves for advances in their jobs. They have got to be ready to even change jobs or change roles of their own volition.

So the need to manage our own learning is becoming more and more important and in organisations we are talking about this idea of letting people use the internet and sort of manage their own learning on a day-to-day basis, sometimes with curated resources but really just letting them pick and choose whatever it is that they would like to use to learn and that becomes a little bit problematic because people are not used to doing that.

So I think the reason I talk about self-directed learning is because we are moving in a direction of letting people manage their own choices and they are not prepared to do that, so I talk about how we can support or scaffold that for people.

Robin: I think of it almost as one of the most critical skills we need to be developing in people at the moment. It was interesting you used some subtle words, natural, you responded that people are naturally self-directed. There are things we do in our workplaces that stop people being self guided. Do you think it is the education system?

Catherine: Yeah, it does seem rather ludicrous that we should have to teach people how to learn but I do think that the vast majority of people have educational backgrounds where all of their learning was directed.

They were given a syllabus, they were given a set of activities, they were given the textbooks to read. They were guided in their learning and they have come to expect that in their professional learning, to have somebody else say “This is what you should do first, second and third in order to learn this knowledge base or skill."

So, when we withhold, not withhold but when we decide that it is not productive to try to create all that formal structured learning, then they are lost, "Where am I supposed to go?".

And if you have ever done a Google search, you know that is not necessarily useful. You get way too many hits and you do not know where to even begin, so we have to find something in between those two things. That's my belief. Something between giving them something that is very lock-step structured, and something that is very, so loose that people are at a loss.

Robin: The way I think about this is that there are two different ways to go about this - one is to help people develop better self-directed skills and the possibility of giving people maps or guides to help them through the actual learning process.

Catherine: When I talk about creating a learning environment, which is a curated set of resources, I do talk about, on the one hand you give people a curated set of resources and they can pick and choose whatever they want. On the other hand, if you are brand new to the topic, if you are in some way hesitant, it’s really useful to have a "start here" button, you know? (laughs), or a "start here" list that just gives people some places to begin and then once they have got some background, they are much better equipped to pick and choose from among the other things you might have available.

But that first step, I think, can be really difficult if you are relatively new, unless somebody gives you a starting place.

Robin: If you're an expert in an area, it is easy to be self-directed because you have a bigger picture of the knowledge base but as a novice you need a guide, I often think a "start here" button is a nice metaphor, people often just need a bit of guidance to move forward.

Catherine: Right. In a lot of areas, the real novices probably need something structured. They probably need some sort of training programme that allows, that gives them the language, it gives them the framework that they can build everything else from. Very bad English, but you know what I mean!

Robin: You have an elegant idea of the pillars of self-directed learning. What are those?

Catherine: There are ten of them. Let me start for just a second by talking about what self-directed learning actually entails because that is where the pillars came from. I went looking at our theory and our research around self-directed learning and just tried to understand if people are going to be self directed, then what is necessary for that to be effective?

So you look at a self-directed learning process, wherein somebody figures out that they have something to learn, they go looking for some resources from which to learn, they watch the video, they read the book, whatever it is they find and they decide for themselves whether or not that was enough or they need to keep looking and adding additional resources in order to learn the knowledge or skill that they went seeking. And they just keep looking for more resources until at some point they think they have got enough for the moment and they can move on to something else.

But that process, I mean, if you just think about what that requires, it requires that people know how to identify their own needs for learning, that they can figure out where to find resources, and identify the best resources for their own learning, that they can actually engage with those and learn from them without a lot of guidance. That they will be persistent and keep at it until they are satisfied that they have learned something. All of those things are what is necessary to make that work, and that is where the pillars came from.

So, when I looked across a lot of the different writers that talk about self-directed learning, I came up as I say, with ten things that I think are really important and I put them in three categories.

The first category is individual qualities, so qualities individual people bring to the table that enable self-directed learning, the first of which is motivation. You have to be motivated to learn. You have to be motivated to learn even when you are in structured learning, of course but it is doubly important when you are self-directing because you've got to maintain that yourself.

You need some level of self-awareness, which allows you to first of all identify that you have a learning need and then as you are learning, to be able to evaluate whether or not you are getting it, whether or not you have gotten enough information or enough skill, that you are ready to move on. That all comes from self-awareness. And then you need both persistence and resourcefulness. So, if you are going to go looking for your own resources and keep at it without somebody directing that for you or holding you accountable for that, you need your own degree of persistence and resourcefulness to keep that going. So, that is the first set of individual qualities.

The next three pillars are in an area I call learning skills, so you need to just have decent learning skills and there are three of those. One of them is attention. You have to know what you want to be paying attention to. It does not help, for example, to go observe somebody if you do not know what you're watching them for or to listen to a video if you do not know exactly what you are supposed to be seeing when you're watching that video. So, having some degree of attention on a particular thing is an important learning skill.

The second one there is intention. That is, at least for adults, it is really important that you know where you are going to apply it because you are going to filter everything that you run into through, "How is this going to work when I try to do it in the project that I have in mind? What does this mean for me?" So that understanding of your intention is an important element of your ability to learn.

And then the third is to have good reflective practises. That is, to really know how to learn. Reflection is the way we process what we have taken in and turn it around into guidelines for future action, that's all it is. So you've got to have the ability to do that in order for self-direction to work. So those are the learning skills that are necessary.

And then the third set of pillars is really about the environment in which you are trying to learn. So, one of the things you need in that environment is relationship strength, so even though you are self-directing your own learning, very frequently what you are doing is going and finding people to talk to. So you have to have the ability to build rapport and to build trust and to engage other people so you can learn from and with them. So relationship strength is important.

Engagement is important. That is the resources that you encounter, your videos, your books, your lectures, whatever it is that you're using to learn, they need to be engaging. You want something that is going to hold your attention, that is interesting, and isn't the most boring thing on the planet. So, making sure that the resources you encounter are really good resources is a critical part of that.

And then the third one is the one we've really struggled with and that is, you have to give people time. It takes time to learn. We are very excited these days about the idea of learning and the flow of work but sometimes you really do have to step out of the flow of work in order to learn and people often feel like they don't really have enough time to process what they are learning and figure out what it means in order for them to actually be advancing their knowledge and skill, so that is a big piece of the environment as well.

So those are the ten pillars that seemed apparent to me when I went through the literature on self-directed learning.

Robin: A lot of great and really interesting things to explore there Catherine. I think we could actually explore each one of those pillars in a separate podcasts

Catherine: Isn't that the truth!

Robin: Just to pick up on the research bit because I think there's not a huge amount of research about how people learn in the workplace. One of the really fascinating things about the self-guided learning research, this quite often comes from an education space and transfers so beautifully into the workplace. What are your thoughts on this?

Catherine: Well I don't know, I don't pretend to know the whole gamut of literature, but what I found was the foundational literature in self-directed learning is around adults. It's figuring out how people who are trying to change careers learn or people who are trying to, women who are trying to enter the workplace, how do they learn?

So the original set of theories I encountered on self-directed learning really was about adults. But I think you're right in that there's all these other terms that are kind of like self-directed learning - self-determined learning, for example is much more school-based in structure, facilitated, if that makes any sense? So I do think that there are strains of self-directed learning research and theory that is really about how to allow students to be more self-directed in their formal schooling.

So there's two strains of that at least.

Robin: The education system is starting to prepare people for different types of workplaces as well

Catherine: Right and I think it's also coming from the adoption of constructivist kinds of practises in schools. So people are trying to allow students to be much more hands-on, to give them more things to sink their teeth into rather than being fairly passive learners and I think that that's where this stuff starts to really come to the forefront.

Robin: Those sorts of theories are quite often difficult to translate into practise. You actually have a series of tools and ideas for scaffolding self-directed learning. What are some of the most powerful ones, Catherine?

Catherine: Well, what I did in thinking about this, I can be ridiculously practical in the way that I look at this! I love delving into the literature, I love looking at the theory, but my thing is "Okay, so what does that really mean, when you actually have to put this into practise in your day-to-day work?".

And so I looked at those ten pillars and I said "Alright, one of the things we need to do is figure out which of the pillars might be weak and then we need to shore up those pillars".

So maybe people are really motivated, we don't have to worry about that but there may be other angles on this where we know the people we are trying to serve, the pillar among those folks is fairly weak.

So I looked at each pillar and said "If this is a weak pillar, what do we do to prop it up?". So I came up with a whole list of what I call 'Tactics for Scaffolding Self-Directed Learning' and I know you'll give a link to a web page on my website that has this document, so all the listeners can go and look it all up. So I won't go through every single one because there's way too many!

But I can talk about a few of the ones I think are really, to me, seem to come to the forefront and are most frequently needed.

So, in the area of individual qualities, trying to support motivation, self awareness, persistence and resourcefulness, in that area, I think the one we have to support the most is self awareness. So people can't direct their own learning if they don't know what their learning needs are and so whatever we can do to help people recognise their own need for improving their knowledge or skill base is really important.

And we can do that through self assessment exercises, that can be as broad as a broad competency model, where people can say "Okay, these competencies I have, these competencies are weak and I want to work on that" and can help them to self-direct, to something that's much more narrow. I'm working on my presentation skills and there's a document that says "Here are all the skills necessary to be really effective in presenting reports to a group of people in a room" and I can look at that list and I can say "Okay, I'm okay in doing these kinds of things but these other things are the things I want to improve now, let me go to my resources and see what I can do to learn those areas".

So whatever we can do to support self assessment and self awareness, I think is really critical if we're going to help people to manage their own learning.

I'll stop there for a moment in case you want to say something. I've got something for the other two areas as well, but let me pause.

Robin: Humans are very goal-centred, I think that self assessment is a powerful way to help people know what their strengths and weaknesses are. We then naturally seek out those things we need to improve on. It's a really fascinating human trait.

Catherine self-directed learning is being thought about as a way to help develop the future capabilities of an organisation.

Sometimes,organisations are really clear about what those skills looks like. But sometimes they're not quite clear. They're saying, "Oh, we need to be more innovative" but what that looks like in the context, is actually harder to explain. It's then harder to build self assessment tools around that sort of thing.

What are your thoughts on some on developing some of these emerging skills e.g. data science?

Catherine: I think that there are industry-wide, shall we say, models that are self assessment tools for some of those kinds of things. So you can go and look at "What does it mean to be innovative?", or "What does it mean to have certainly daily analytics?".

There's quite a few folks who are saying "If you're going to be a data analyst, here's the things you need to know". So, there may be some ways for you to explore that from an industry-wide perspective and draw from those and then extrapolate what is necessary for your own learning.

It's a little bit harder, I think, if we're looking at, if I'm a “learning leader” in a particular organisation and I'm working with a particular learner group or department or set of employees on skills, the more specific I can be about what those folks might want to be thinking about, the better off they will be.

But in many areas, I think you are right, individuals need to be thinking in the future. I mean, I just think about my own career and learning and development. There are certainly some things we all know we needed to know about learning and development. There were competencies that my supervisors or my CLO might have in place that he wanted all of us to be demonstrating but it was on me to be looking beyond the organisation I worked for and saying "Where's the industry going?".

My particular learning leaders in the last part of my career were not learning and development specialists, they were people that came out of other areas of the business and they had lots of great qualities but they weren't inundated or immersed, shall we say, in the L & D the way I am.

So I needed to be looking out and sharing with my boss and with my peers, "Here are some of the things I'm hearing, should we be thinking about this? Should we be moving in this direction?" So it is a balancing act between what a leader can share with his or her employees and what the employee can generate for himself or herself based on what's going on in their industry.

Robin: Thank you for going off on a slight tangent for a moment Catherine. Back to your tactics, what's another one that's helpful?

Catherine: So I think, for learning skills, the learning skills to remind you, were attention, intention and reflective practise, I think that the underlying thing that we need to do there is really good curation.

Too often, I think curation is really just generating a list, it's a better list than Google perhaps but it's still just a list of links or a list of resources. And that's not all that curation is, as your listeners will know because you've done some podcasts on curation.

It's really about annotating that. About letting people know why certain resources are provided or what makes them relevant in this particular context. So the better you can annotate your curated resources, I think makes it easier for people to know what to be paying attention to, how they're supposed to be applying it and you can even provide them with reflective questions or guiding questions for their exploration of the resources that you're providing, so they know what they're looking for.

I think that's one of the most powerful things we can do in the area of learning skills.

Robin: So that's learning skills. Is there another powerful way of being able to work within the environment?

Catherine: Yeah. I think in the environment, the curation comes back again, because people need to know who the best people are and they need to find engaging resources. So both of those are helped by curation. But the big thing we can do in terms of environment is helping people figure out the time issue.

How do we give people time to learn? There's lots of ways that people experiment with that, from the famous "Google 20% time", I'm not sure they actually got 20% time but really loosening up people's schedules a little bit so there is time for them to learn, to really just valuing learning so that people feel like, if they do stop and sit in their office for two or three hours and actually go through some resources on the internet to try to learn, that's seen as work and not as wasting time.

Or when they do talk with their peers and have long conversations about what's working and what's not working, that's not seen as water cooler chat, that's really working together! That's learning together. So the more we can really help people to find the time to learn, I think the better off we're going to be.

Too often right now, I think our message is "You're going to learn in the flow of work". But if the flow of work is like a raging river, that's really, really hard. So we have to give people a chance to breathe, so that they can process their learning.

Robin: The way I think about it is that learning still needs to be structured. It might not be a formal session but people need the sort of structured moments to reach out to new things as well as reflecting on new things or even reflecting that torrent of work as well.

Catherine: I remember once, in my career, I was asked to take a course on developing employees. And not that there's nothing I can learn about developing employees but the course that was being offered was being offered for people that weren't immersed in that all the time. And so because it was required, I had to spend three hours in this class, which I thought was an unfortunate amount of time to invest in something I already knew.

And my boss at the time said, "Well, what should we have done?" and I said, "Well, I would have taken the three hours and read a book and written you a bulleted list of what I was going to do differently in the future, based on the advice that I was gleaning from this book." That would be a good use of three hours of my time, rather than asking me to go to this structured course that was going over material I was already pretty familiar with.

Robin: That's a perfect example of self guided learning as well. A research project we did a few years ago was on learning cultures in general practice. What we actually found was that when a GP practice closed down, literally closed down and didn't have patients, no income coming in, for an hour a fortnight, or an hour a week, to do an in-practise training session, where everyone was involved including the non-medical staff, there was a direct correlation between exam results. Because essentially, the whole team was told "learning is so important that we'll reduce our income" to do it and everyone started to see it from a really different way. But because it was such a highly structured workplace, it had to be structured in terms of its time.

Catherine: Right, and that's such a good example. It doesn't necessarily have to be a lot of time, but that kind of breathing space is so important in environments like that, where every minute of your day is structured. Our call centre people and our and even, I remember talking with someone in the L & D field and they said that they had basically scheduled their employees at 120% of capacity!

And I thought to myself, "Wow! If you're scheduling them at 120% of capacity, where are they learning?" Because you're scheduling them for more than their dedicated time where you believe they're going to be working on projects is more than the time they even have in their normal workday.

Now, of course, they don't actually work, maybe they don't actually work 120% of the time because estimates are always kind of funky but still, I thought that was pretty intense and made it hard for people to make changes in the way they did things or to do anything innovative because they had to do something that would happen fast and that could be put behind them so they could move on to the next thing.

Robin: That’s a nice example. Catherine, if you were talking to an L & D person and they were wanting to foster self-directed learning skills, what would your biggest piece of advice for them be.?

Catherine: I think that the three things I mentioned is what you want to do. You want to give them some foundation on which they can assess their own skill set and assist them with that. You want to give them a curated set of resources and you want to give them time.

Those are the things I think really make it possible for people to manage their own thing from there.

Robin: Thank you, that's a lovely wrap-up. In the show notes of this particular podcast there will be some links to some of Catherine's tactics and work in this area as well.

Catherine: Thank you so much it was a fun conversation, I really appreciate it.