E2. Managing My Own Professional Development

E2.1. Setting the Learning Stage:

Overcoming Learning Barriers

 


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The last part of setting the learning stage is to identify and overcome barriers to learning. At one time or another, we all prevent ourselves from learning. These barriers often come in two forms:

Learning Defences

1. Defending against learning because of sources
Personality issues, trivial as they may seem, are frequent targets of learning defences. We tune out because the person speaking, writing, teaching or informing is too arrogant, too wimpy, too timid, too quirky, or too whatever it is we don't like.

Stereotyping is also a common defence against learning. We dismiss a message because of stereotyping about the source of the message. There are a host of stereotypes we can use: race ("I won't learn anything from a white/native/black/etc."), gender ("No woman/man can teach me anything"), lifestyle ("What can a homosexual/biker/skinhead/etc. teach me?"), culture/religion ("I won't listen to a fundamentalist/Jew/catholic/protestant/ etc.") and credentials ("I can only learn from someone who has more education than me;" "What can an academic tell me?").

Status can be used as a learning defence, too. We'll choose to not learn from a rookie on the worksite, someone who is "lower" than us on the organizational chart or a younger person. We dismiss these people because of assumptions about their experience, expertise or wisdom.

2. Defending against learning because of content
Sometimes, it is the content of the message that causes us to put up barriers to our own learning. Probably the most common content issue is belief conflict. We are more likely to defend against learning when the message we're hearing goes against our own beliefs (even though these messages often best get our attention).

Extra effort messages, ones that may cause more work for us are defended against, too. We'll think we're doing a good job, performing well, and somebody comes along to tell us there's a different, better way of doing things. If the suggestion causes more work, some of us will dismiss the message, finding ways to rationalize old ways of doing things.

Messages that cause embarrassment also raise barriers. When someone points out that we're doing something inappropriately, inadequately, inefficiently or incorrectly, our pride may prevent us from responding to the message.

3. Defending against learning because of message delivery
The way a message is delivered can be central to our defending activities.

There are likely more learning defences than the ones listed here. The point is not to identify them all, but for you to begin to get a sense of how you may actively prevent your own learning. Once you have identified these self-created barriers, it is relatively easy to take them down or get around them. Taking them down means just that: Not letting these defences arise the next occasion in which they might occur. Of course, a certain amount of motivation is required to want to remove your defences, and that is where it is important to look at learning obstacles.

Learning Obstacles1

Learning obstacles are all those things that directly get in the way of meeting specific learning goals. Sometimes these are external barriers over which you have little direct control; sometimes they are beliefs you have that really slow you down. Regardless of their origin, learning obstacles act to weaken your motivation, thereby reducing your energy for learning.

Unlike learning defences, which are general barriers you may carry to every learning goal, learning obstacles are best dealt with when seen as goal-specific. Each learning goal you have may be accompanied by different learning obstacles. It is important, then, to review possible learning obstacles every time you set a learning goal.

Each learning obstacle is described below. You will notice that none are particularly surprising or complex; you have likely dealt with them all before.

  1. Lack of importance or uncertainty of importance. You will be more motivated to learn a task that you perceive to be important than one you consider trivial or one for which you have no clear sense of its importance.

  2. Difficulty in reaching a learning goal. The more difficult a learning goal is to reach, the more likely that you will create excuses and/or reasons for not reaching the goal.

  3. Stress in reaching a learning goal. You will be less motivated to reach a learning goal that you perceive to involve a lot of stress than one you believe to be stress-free.

  4. Doubts about success. Doubts about your own ability to succeed in learning a task will erode your motivation. It is much easier to be motivated about learning goals that you know you can accomplish.

  5. Lack of control. Learning something that you know you will be able to control and use is easier than learning something for which you are not sure you can control and use. For example, you may be asked to learn a new computer program, but know that you will not be able to use the program in your day-to-day work because of lack of hardware/software.

  6. Poor attitude regarding the goal. You may have developed a negative attitude regarding a learning goal because of negative past experiences with similar goals. One of the most common examples of this is people who have "math anxiety" because of difficulty in learning math at school.

  7. Lack of support from others. A real motivation killer can be the lack of enthusiasm and support for your learning from people around you. Worse yet is when others actively denigrate your learning goal (e.g., "That's a pointless thing to learn—as soon as you learn it the organization will change what it wants").

  8. Hassles. Sometimes learning can create a number of hassles in your life: higher expectations, more work, and more complexity in your work are just some examples. If you see these hassles coming, your motivation to learn may be reduced.

  9. Lack of advantages. You usually learn something because it will make you more effective in what you do or move you towards a bigger goal you want to reach. If you cannot see how a learning task will improve your performance and/or lead to bigger goals, you will likely be less motivated to learn.

Each of the above obstacles can interact with the others, which makes it difficult to deal with any one of them in isolation. For example, say you are considering learning a new word processing software package. If learning it is not very important to you, seems to be difficult, is likely to create stress, is perceived by you to be unachievable and is not something you will likely get a chance to use at work, these numerous obstacles will likely hamper your motivation to learn! However, change one obstacle—importance to you—and all the other obstacles may seem more like nuisances than barriers. Dealing with each obstacle would still be important, but by changing one you have changed the intensity of the rest.

You can deal with learning obstacles in two main ways:

Strategies for Finessing versus Removing Obstacles

Some learning obstacles are sufficiently small that it is just as easy to jump over them as it is to make efforts to remove them. In some cases, however, it is worthwhile to build "obstacle removal" into your learning action plans. Below find some strategies you may want to incorporate into your action plans for each learning obstacle.

  1. Lack of importance or uncertainty of importance. Compare the learning goal against your vision and against your job requirements; maybe it is more important than you think. If not, or if you are uncertain about its importance, talk with co-workers or your supervisor; perhaps they can see its importance in ways that you cannot. Finally, if the learning goal really is not important, reconsider whether you want it as a goal.

  2. Difficulty in reaching a learning goal. The best way to make a learning goal less difficult is to break it up into smaller, more easily achieved goals. In most cases, a difficult learning goal is one that is too broad.

  3. Stress in reaching a learning goal. Determine the specific stressors that you are expecting and develop specific steps to deal with each stressor. As above, most often learning is perceived to be stressful because too big a chunk of it has been carved out. Breaking the goal into smaller, more manageable goals is often a big stress-reducer.

  4. Doubts about success. Again, doubts about success usually arise because too large a learning goal has been set. Keep breaking the goal down until you have specific goals for which you know you can succeed.

  5. Lack of control. Develop specific plans for ensuring that you will be able to control and use what you learn. For example, if something in the organizational system is getting in the way of your ability to control, build into your action plan a discussion with your supervisor about how and when you will be able to use what you learn. Make sure this is done before you launch into learning.

  6. Poor attitude regarding the goal. This is a difficult obstacle to overcome because it may be quite a long-standing, entrenched barrier. The best way to remove this obstacle is to face it and experience success in doing so. This, of course, is easier said than done. It is possible, however, to do this if you (a) break the goal down into "bearable" goals (i.e., goals that are sufficiently small that you are comfortable facing them) and (b) build into your action plans lots of support from family, friends and co-workers. Recruiting a personal cheerleading squad may help you achieve your first goal, which will slightly alter your attitude, which will make it easier to achieve your second goal, etc.

  7. Lack of support from others. Although you can try to change the behaviour of non-supporters, it is probably easier and more effective to seek out support where it exists. In other words, build into your action plan ways to (a) avoid your detractors, at least while pursuing your learning goal and (b) find supporters for your learning goal.

  8. Hassles. Review each hassle you see coming and develop strategies for overcoming each one. For example, say you want to learn how to do word processing but you are sure that when you do everyone will ask you to do their word processing for them. Instead of not learning how to word process, you are likely better off to have a plan to develop your assertiveness skills so that you can simply say "no" to word processing requests.

  9. Lack of advantages. Research is the key here. Talk to your supervisor, to co-workers and to trainers about the potential advantages of reaching a learning goal. Trainers are a good place to start; they should be able to justify what they train in terms of improved performance, easier performance or better linkages to other learning. Do not be shy here—if you are unsure of the usefulness of a learning event, get in touch with the person(s) managing and delivering it.

Each learning obstacle is faced in a different way by each person with each learning goal. When you are doing your action planning, there is no "right" way to remove each obstacle. Get help from family, friends, co-workers, supervisors and trainers in generating ideas to overcome and/or remove obstacles. Following the "managing learning" strategies in the next section may also indirectly remove barriers for you and/or give you better ideas for removing them yourself.

(See “ToolsE2.1 Self Application: Using Obstacles to Prioritize Learning Goals.)


1Learning Obstacles
The ideas in this section originate primarily from the PLANIT computer program, developed by the Canadian Guidance and Counselling Foundation (now the Canadian Career Development Foundation).

 

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