Incremental Learning – the real continuous learning

When people talk about “continuous learning” or “lifelong learning” they often mean by that term “continuous education” or “continuous training”, i.e. regularly attending courses or programmes, but in this article I want to show how continuous learning is, in fact, a process of incremental learning, i.e constantly adding to one’s knowledge and expertise over time. I also want to show how this is a key aspect of learning that can be enabled and supported in the workplace.

First of all, let’s recap on some of the features of a training course or educational event.

  1. It is a one-off block of learning. It is generally measured in hours, days weeks or, months, and has a start and end date, e.g. a training day or a 3-month online course or programme. It happens in a defined place or space, for instance in a classroom or training room, or an online course or in a virtual training event.
  2. It is instructional. The content has been designed in a logical sequence so that it takes the learner through the material in an organised way. starting with the fundamentals and then building upon that, It tends to provide a complete and comprehensive coverage of a topic (at least at the required level).
  3. Working through the “block of learning” may be a purely passive experience for an individual (e.g. listening to broadcast information or clicking through a series of slides of an online course), although there might be some interactive elements e.g. carrying out online activities, or working with others on collaborative tasks.
  4. It often concludes with a test of learning comprehension.
  5. The learning process is usually managed by an instructor or even a system (LMS)  that tracks and monitors that the individual has completed the block of learning and passed any required tests. The learning process is often (but not always) supported by someone to help the learner understand the content.

Once the block of learning is over, however, that’s pretty much it, it’s a one-and-done experience. So in a “continuous training” view of the world,  an individual then moves onto another next block of instruction either to acquire more knowledge on the same or to receive some instruction on a different topic.

But continuous, incremental learning is different as we can see when we compare it below.

  1. It is an ongoing process of learning. It is not measured by the amount of time it takes. It has no start or end date because learning never ends. It happens little-by-little, day-by-day, and knowledge and experience builds up over time.
  2. It happens in all settings as people do their jobs, browse on the Web, carry out their daily lives, and interact with their friends, family, colleagues and other contacts.
  3. Although incremental learning can happen by chance (as a by product of doing something else) an individual also proactively seeks out relevant activities and experiences to help them learn. Although these may be complete in and of themselves, an individual has to actively make the connection with what he/she already knows in order to learn from it, it’s not just about doing lots of things!
  4. Success is measured in different ways, e.g. (in the short term) through improved job performance and (in the longer term) through career progression.
  5. The individual manages their own continuous learning. It’s a personal or professional decision and choice about what is to be learned and how it is best achieved. Generally, there is little or no support for this type of learning, the individual is entirely on their own.

Continuous, incremental learning is not seen as the traditional way to learn at work, so little emphasis or even value is given to it, so that only what is taught is seen as important or valid. Although one response might be to design some stuff to underpin it; this is not the total answer, rather managers and L&D have a different part to play in (1) promoting, (2) enabling and (3) supporting incremental learning. Here is some key messaging:

(1) Promoting – new mindsets – Workers need to understand what the term continuous learning really means

Learning is as a continuous process not just a series of one-off events but something that happens all the time, in all contexts – on the job, on the Web, and in daily life. In other words, learning doesn’t just happen through instruction but through information, interactions and experiences. It doesn’t just come in nice neat packages (courses) but through diverse activities and experiences – either by choice or by chance. Learning doesn’t have a start or end date; learning never ends.

(2) Enabling – flexibility and autonomy – Workers need to understand what it means for them in practice

Learning agility (or learnability) is a vital skill for today’s workplace; it is the capacity to keep learning and developing new skills and expertise, even if they are not obviously linked to one’s current job. It is therefore up to everyone to take more responsibility for their own learning and development – not just wait to be taught. Everyone needs to be proactive and learn something new every day – in the way that suits them best.

(3) Supporting – new opportunities and skills – Workers need to understand that this is valued and also what help is available

Continuous learning is a key way of learning in the modern workplace. Managers will support their team members to ensure they get the most out of their daily work experiences. L&D will help individuals discover the wide world of learning opportunities open to them as well as help them develop the modern learning skills they will need to thrive.

Organisations are beginning to recognise that learning and development in today’s world is more than providing training and online courses, and that they now need to offer a more flexible approach to continuous learning at work. So, if you would like to find out more how you can help your people, then in the upcoming workshop,  Enabling and Supporting Self-Learning and Self-Development, running 15 June – 4 July 2020, we’ll be looking at this topic in greater depth. Here is the agenda:

  • Week 1: Fostering learning agility or learnability
  • Week 2: Encouraging a daily self-learning habit
  • Week 3: Building modern learning skills
  • Week 4: Curating learning opportunities
  • Week 5: Running a learning campaign
  • Week 6: Adopting a formal process of continuous self-development

Click this link to find out more about how the workshop runs and how to sign up.

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Jane Hart

Jane Hart helps organisations and learning professionals modernise their approaches to workplace learning - through public workshops and bespoke consultancy. She is the Editor of the Modern Workplace Learning Magazine, and is the author of a number of books including Modern Workplace Learning 2020 as well as the resource for individuals How to become a modern Learner. Jane was the 2018 recipient of the ATD Distinguished Contribution to Talent Development award. You can contact Jane at