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  • Rikki Lee

Don't Stop Learning

You haven’t been an instructional designer or a trainer all your life, but you’ve never stopped learning—beginning at a very young age and up until today: learning how to talk, how to count, how to read, how to use computers, how to drive, how to navigate interpersonal situations, how to contribute to a team, how to use software for your job, and so on. And somewhere during that timeline, you’ve learned how to help others learn, too.

But there will come a time when you’ll stop helping, perhaps permanently—either by choice (launching a new career or retiring from your current one) or by circumstance (losing your job as a result of illness, disability, resignation or layoff). In any event, just because you’ve stopped helping others learn for your job, it doesn’t mean you should stop learning for yourself.

Why keep learning, you ask? After all, isn't it everyone's desire to spend most of their free time bingeing shows on streaming services, redecorating the house, playing poker with friends, planting a new garden, or solving Sudoku puzzles? It's like summer vacation away from school.

Well, all those leisure activities are good to some degree, but they shouldn't be overdone. Rather, the reason for continued learning is to keep your brain stimulated, so that it makes new connections or pathways among its neurons to replace previous work-related pathways. Without the unique type of mental activity you get through learning, you may become less alert, less able to focus, more fatigued, more bored and more apt to forget the important everyday details of your life—definitely not where you want to be.

With the spare time you’ll have—or at least until you’re willing or able to resume your ID or training duties—think of everything new you can learn about by reading, listening, watching and doing: social sciences (philosophy, biography, history, economics, religion, business, sociology, law and politics), physical and life sciences (geography, ecology, zoology, botany, medicine, mathematics, astronomy and technology), recreation and pastimes (exercise, meditation, hiking, dancing, games and sports), art (painting, literature, theater, music, film, television and photography), global studies (cultures, languages and travel) and a lot more.

You can live an eternity and never run out of things to learn, and even to participate in a field about which you’ve learned. Although you actually don't have an eternity, you should still spend most of your time learning. And although you might not have heard this since you were young, you still have a lot to learn.

Endless learning can also extend beyond purely personal interest. Depending on your background, skills and inclination, you can volunteer to teach others in your community.

The knowledge life cycle

But before you head to the library, classroom, dance studio, LMS or wherever you plan to do your learning, keep in mind that you won’t be able to hold onto the knowledge you’ve gained unless you’re constantly using or practicing it. Just as the people you currently train won’t remember everything they’ve learned in your classroom or online course, you won’t be able to retain all the knowledge you’re hoarding for yourself. Only those rare people with a “photographic memory” or superior mnemonic skills will be able to keep it longer.

Your own learning process will usually follow many of the 10 steps in a knowledge life cycle:

  • Step 1: Being uninformed—Not knowing what you need to learn, then discovering that you need to learn it

  • Step 2: Preparing for learning—Being directed to a pre-assessment or questionnaire to find out what you currently know

  • Step 3: Beginning formal learning—Attending classroom-based, online, on-the-job or other essential training, and gaining the knowledge

  • Step 4: Completing formal learning—Taking a post-assessment and passing it

  • Step 5: Preparing for practice—Acquiring a life application for the knowledge, such as at a job or in a social situation, and beginning to apply it but making frequent mistakes (a stage we sometimes call “unconscious incompetence”); continued training is helpful at this point.

  • Step 6: Practicing the knowledge—Using the knowledge slowly in a certain application but not yet being sure of yourself (“conscious incompetence”); refresher training is often needed.

  • Step 7: Improving through practice—Getting better at applying the knowledge (“conscious competence”) and usually achieving success; refresher training might be needed from time to time.

  • Step 8: Mastering the knowledge—Achieving easy, continuous success (“unconscious competence”), without the need of refresher training if there’s nothing new introduced to the application

If you continue to apply the knowledge, you can remain at Step 8 for many years. However, if your situation changes and you’re no longer able to apply that knowledge, you’ll begin to lose it. In time, your brain won’t be able to access the neural pathways you developed from learning to mastery, and the knowledge will begin to slowly fade away like a distant memory.

Sometimes, when the application reappears, the knowledge should return to some extent—just like riding a bike after decades of not riding one. But absent that, the final steps in the knowledge life cycle are:

  • Step 9: Forgetting—Losing the ability to practice the knowledge as a result of disuse

  • Step 10: Relearning/recalling—Regaining the knowledge through formal retraining. In some cases, you’ll need to start again at Step 3 above and work your way through Step 8.

Finally, learning most new knowledge will take much longer when you're older than when you're younger; you simply don't have the same mental aptitude to create as many additional neural pathways. But learning is always worth the effort. In fact, you’re never too old, too bored or too busy to learn, and your brain will appreciate the opportunity to try to create new pathways and master new knowledge.

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