Learn How They Learn

Your colleagues learn more than you know. Ask them how they do it.

For me, the end of spring no longer means final exams or tender farewells. Fulfilling lessons and intense emotions happen all year round. Particularly valuable are the occasional assignments that encourage me to learn new things outside my usual practices.


One such assignment came from a mentor who challenged me to spend more time learning from people around me everyday. Less time behind books, sifting through journal articles, and facilitating educational research. I thought you might appreciate this sort of assignment, too.

To begin the assignment you need about an hour of time over the coming months and a way to capture what you find.

  • The objective: Discover how your colleagues acquired the skills and know-how for their present job.
  • The approach: Conduct short interviews with six people you respect.
  • The result: Gain new insights into how authentic learning happens at work.

First, identify the people you want to interview. Consider this an opportunity to dialog with coworkers you don’t ordinarily talk with about their development. Select people with work styles you admire and who have an outlook on work life similar to your own. I suggest this simply because they will likely offer more information you can use in your own professional growth.


Next, schedule a time to ask each person several questions. Explain that your informal interview will only take 10 minutes and that you are doing this as part of a small learning project.

Here are the questions:

  1. How did you initially learn to do your current job?
  2. If the response isn’t specific, follow-up with something like: “Did you learn to do the job through a formal program such as an apprenticeship, a job-swap, an academic course, or a workshop? Did you learn in an informal way on the job or through trial and error as you went along? Did you read any special books or manuals? Did you seek the help of a mentor, a manager, or a coach?”

  3. If you have been in your job for more than a year, how have you learned to improve your performance over time?
    Ask people to elaborate — was it through formal efforts, informal methods, or a combination?
  4. How would you describe yourself as a learner?
    “For instance, do you learn easily and from many sources? Do you prefer to get the gist of something and fill in the details over time?” Any sort of response will be illuminating. Encourage people to talk about what they would describe as their learning style and which learning approaches work best for them. If they can’t pinpoint what works, ask: “What have you tried that didn’t meet your needs?” Go from there.
  5. How long did it take you to grasp your current job?
    “Do you feel competent in the role now? If not, what are you doing to remedy the situation?” Dig deeper by asking when they realized they knew the language (the terms, jargon, theories) behind their work or profession. Did they know it coming in or did they uncover it later? What facilitated that breakthrough?
  6. If you needed to learn a new job tomorrow, how would you approach it?

Then, consider their answers. Are you surprised by a response? Did you anticipate people learned more from formal education than they reported? Perhaps people said they were less sure of their knowledge today than it appears to you from the outside. If these sorts of questions piqued your interest and you learned something new from each interview, consider asking more people. When I keep the questions short and provide colleagues a chance to reflect on their learning, many readily respond.


Now ask yourself some questions.

  1. Did the responses you heard align with your own experience?
  2. How would you describe yourself as a learner?
  3. When you undertook your current job, how did you learn it? How long did it take?
  4. If you needed to learn a new job tomorrow, how would you approach it?
  5. If you landed a fabulous new job but wouldn’t receive a salary until you were proficient in it, how would you approach your learning?
  6. If you could learn your new job online, would you? If so, what would you supplement it with?
  7. Do you know your learning style?
  8. Are there learning methods you wish you could access that don’t currently exist or don’t seem available for your profession?
  9. What assumptions do you make about learning that might limit your capacity to learn more?

While not required, consider sharing your assignment with me or posting your comments on our learning forum. Include a paragraph describing what you learned from your interviews and your self assessment. In a future column I will address what I learned from you.

All too often, leaders focus solely on cutting-edge learning programs while not asking enough how people reliably learn today. Likewise, the Internet makes it easy to seek authoritative information at the exclusion of those experts in our common journey who we work with every day. Boundless knowledge resides all over — a few feet away from us as well as in those with whom we work virtually across the miles. Go ask questions and learn from how people learn.