Experimentation and Reflection

Learning is more than just asking questions and getting answers (whether through social media or a search engine), there’s an active component to learning that is too often forgotten. When I look at the tools in the Top 100 tools for learning, I see some reflective tools, e.g. writing, but I may be one of the few who’s talking about diagramming tools, and I think that’s important. Not diagramming, per se, but representation tools that allow us to express our understanding.

So in my mind learning is action and reflection, with two nuances. The first notion is that the action/reflection cycle is the process, not the outcome. The outcome, technically, is a new response to the same stimuli. In short, we act and reflect to develop our ability to do something different and presumably better. The second is that this is separate from instruction, which is designed action and guided reflection.  Self-learning, however, requires self-designed action and self-guided reflection.

So, in Harold Jarche’s Seek-Sense-Share model of Personal Knowledge Management, I see two main threads under the Sense rubric: experimentation and representation.  And both are part of an ongoing learning process.

First, when we blog, diagram, sketch, model, present, or otherwise express our thinking, we’re representing. And that’s important for a couple of reasons. One is that in the process of getting concrete about our thinking, we often (even frequently) find we need to think a little bit harder, and that’s good. The second benefit, of course, is when we go beyond ‘sense’ to ‘share’, we can get feedback that can help refine our thinking.   So even a spreadsheet is a way to express our thinking.

The second element is experimentation, and that’s important too.  In learning (read: problem-solving, trouble-shooting, research, design, innovation, etc), we don’t know the answer when we start. So we need to try things.  We need to take what we’ve learned and apply it, and review the results. Either it matches our expectations, and we understand it, or it doesn’t and we’re still learning.

Now, we implicitly experiment when we have a problem and get an approach to try, try it, and then we finish when we’ve solved the problem.  For longer term learning goals, however, we typically set ourselves a goal we are trying to achieve, and then continue to pursue it. Whether to speak fluently in a new language, perform fluently on a new instrument or in a new sport, or use a new tool productively. And we work toward that goal. Some tools make it easy: DuoLingo as a learning tool gamifies your progress. Your ability to play a new song is obvious.  You may be able to run faster or further.  Or you may close more deals.

The flip side, however, is tracking your own progress. You can do it with fitness tools, or accomplishing set goals. And you may break it down more (e.g. to play this riff today, and tomorrow I’ll add that bit).  You don’t have to make it explicit, though it can help.

I’m not sure that there are many tools that are expressly for tracking individual informal learning progress (though I’m using a new task/project management tool to create my todos and then mark them when done). Still, thinking consciously about learning goals and tracking progress could be a valuable adjunct to intentional learning.

Our learning tools, then, include how we find and view information, but also how we represent our thinking and track our development. And we should at least be explicit about the process, even if we don’t explicitly use tools for all parts of it, but to be mindful of not only how well we’re learning, but how well we’re learning to learn!

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Clark Quinn

Owner at Quinnovation
Clark Quinn, Ph.D., guides organizations in developing processes and architectures to reliably deliver effective and engaging learning experiences and meet performance needs. He is the author of a number of books including Engaging Learning: Designing e-Learning Simulation Games, Designing mLearning: Tapping Into the Mobile Revolution for Organizational Performance, and most recently Revolutionize Learning & Development: Performance and Innovation Strategy for the Information Age. Clark works for clients through Quinnovation and is a Founding Principal in the Internet Time Alliance.

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3 thoughts on “Experimentation and Reflection

  1. Mark Taggart

    Very insightful, there may be tools that individuals use privately to track personal development, or they might look at the sum of the outcomes in their CV or running record… an opportunity arises for a new ‘personal learning management system’.

  2. Michelle Diehl

    Your example of writing a blog is particularly apt. Since starting mine, I have been forced to flesh out, refine and sometimes even revise my expressed knowledge. It’s a great way to shine a light on where you still have knowledge gaps or oversimplified informtion.

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