Monday, 26 October 2015

Note taking as a learning aid

Note taking is a critical learning skill because it helps to capture the fragments of thoughts, observations and ideas that emerge as you work and learn.  I keep a small notebook to hand at all times that I only use for my learning notes.  My notebook and my blog are central to my learning.   This post is a reflection on note-taking as a learning aid using the what? so what? now what? model.


The most influential process of learning that I have experienced was the Masters in Management Learning from Lancaster University, UK that I completed between 2006 and 2008.  The expectation to explore, inquire into and reflect on my own practice was relentless, challenging and messy - messy because the process of inquiry never followed direct pathways to 'the answer'.  It felt much more like detective work, where notes became critical ways of making connections between ideas and the means of returning to specific pages in articles and the like

So what?

I was briefing a group of team leaders recently at the kick-off of a new leadership programme that I'm supervising.   The core learning resources for the programme are online and, similar to the process that I experienced during my masters, I am expecting the participants to make notes about what they are learning and noticing as they progress. The method for this is a weekly learning report that's to be shared with a mentor and also submited to the programme office.  The latter step is there solely as a means of monitoring that the reports have been done and is not an evaluation of the content.  

The note-taking is important because I want to help them to develop the confidence to follow their own learning interests and, therefore, to be able to search for resources that will address their personal and work-based learning needs, rather than following a spoon-fed agenda.  Note-taking is also important because it's a 12 week programme at the end of which each person will need to produce a personal summary of their learning highlights and impacts.  To be effective this needs to be based on solid continuous reflection.

As I briefed the group, I thought back to how it felt to be part of a learning process that demanded a formative assignment.  In the case of the masters course, this was done via an online virtual learning environment rather than a weekly report, but regardless of the approach, I remember feeling exposed by the need to share my thoughts and unsure as to whether they were good enough, or what was expected.  If this is how I felt, and I was already a mature learner, I know that what I'm asking is quite demanding.  So to help the process I thought I would make some notes about why note taking is important and how it might be done.

Now what? 

Writing is useful because it helps you...

...notice more.  You become more aware of what is happening around you and this helps to link learning and practice.  

...get ideas and thoughts out of your head.  The process of writing allows things to be put into perspective and assessed more objectively. share ideas.  Blogging is a very public form of note-taking but even if you don't want to publish, sharing notes with fellow participants opens up the possibility of others relating to your insights and prompting their own thoughts and ideas.

Use a notebook 

By this I mean a paper notebook.  Of course, if you prefer to make notes on a tablet or laptop, then OK, but a notebook is cheap and portable and it's a handy way of making brief notes about anything that emerges from the things you read or observe.  As well as written notes, note-taking can also include pictures, mind maps, colours, cutting and pasting from newspapers - anything that helps you capture what comes to mind.

Use a smartphone to make audio notes 

I sometimes find it helpful to talk through my ideas first before writing things downAs Karl Weick, the Organizational Theorist, once said, "How can I know what I think until I see what I say?"  If there is nobody available to listen, then use the recorder on a smartphone.  

Take pictures, short videos and screen grabs

Images can be very useful to bring ideas to life, especially where you are interested in showing something about how things get done in the workplace.  

Make notes continuously

My experience is to make notes as often as you can.  An approach that I often use, which I picked up from my coaching practice, is to ask myself the questions 'what am I thinking?', 'what am I seeing?' and 'what am I feeling?'  The latter two questions can be particularly useful in tapping into other aspects of our conscious and unconscious experiences.

Review, reflect, make notes

And if you do make notes then at some stage you should go back to what you have written, reflect and, as you do so, to make more notes.

However simple the concept of note-taking may seem, I have learnt never to underestimate the challenge inherent in committing our thoughts to paper.  But my encouragement, and my experience, is that the rewards of doing so are deeper learning and greater self-confidence.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Do we need management courses? - revisited 3 years on...

One of the things that I really value about maintaining a blog is that it provides me with a reference point that can used in a number of ways.  Perhaps of most value is that it enables me to return to topics that I've reflected on in the past but which, for whatever reason, have been kicked into the long grass, laying dormant until ready to be brought back into play.

I wrote this piece called 'Do we need management courses?'  just over three years ago as a reflection on several trends that I was observing at the time. I was interested in the idea that learning practice might be shifting away from courses towards bundles of resources like videos, documents and quizzes that could act as aids to learning in situ in the workplace and not in the classroom. And alongside this was a thought-provoking presentation by John Seely Brown about the cultivation of the entrepreneurial learner. Here is the link again to his presentation. 

A movement of independent learners

When I wrote the blog 3 years ago I remember doing so with a certain wistfulness.  I could detect a shift and was interested in the challenge to the status quo but could find no immediate outlet for the ideas to be applied in my practice as a leadership developer...until that is about 2 months ago.

I'm currently working on a corporate university assignment for a global organisation the core element of which is a portal that provides a range of resources: courses, videos, PDFs, presentations, handbooks and so on.  Contained within a branded corporate university wrapper, the offer is a self-development proposition that promises to solve workplace problems, increase knowledge and provide a career builder.  To encourage participation, the period either side of the launch about 4 months ago, target users were exhorted to register through an intensive communications campaign.  The take-up has been good - approximately 75% of the target group registered in the first couple of months.  However, the challenge is to sustain the intitial interest and turn the natural curiosity of the first few weeks into something that can drive itself; indeed to create a movement of independent learners.     

Necessity is the mother of invention   


Because of challenging economic conditions, the organisation has had to make some tough choices about its spending and this has affected some traditional classroom-based management training activities.  Into this space the corporate university has been able to extend its reach and provide the resources to support development in much the same way as I wrote about 3 years ago.

One of the things I'm trialling is a management development process for a group of about 20 people, the teaching for which is entirely online.  I've put together a structure - see image above - a bundle of resources to provide some starting points and a briefing for the participants and mentors.  As the participants move through the process and grow in confidence, I am expecting them to follow their interests and create their own bundles of content.  

Support and challenge

What I have found particularly interesting so far is the reaction at the end of the participants' briefing.  Asked  whether it was what they were expecting, and after a short pause, one of the group volunteered the view that 'no' it was not what he had been expecting and that it was a lot more challenging.  Challenging because of the expectation that learners: will have to make their own time to learn; make choices, as they progress through the process, as to what they want to learn; make a commitment to share their learning with a senior manager at the end of the programme.    

But alongside this challenge, the participants can see that they are being supported in the workplace by access to a mentor - not a heavy process - but an informal advisor and someone to talk to.  And I've had feedback that the participants are really valuing the chance to revisit the content as many times as they like, or to refer to it whilst they are working.  This is such an encouraging response.  

Learning from the learning

I've been candid with the pilot group, and the senior manager who is sponsoring the programme, that what we are doing here is quite experimental.  As much as I want the programme to be successful, I am also interested to learn what works and what doesn't.  I'm also interested to gauge to what extent this approach to management development is sufficient to meet the needs of the organisation.  

My hunch is that it will work and, I hope, provide the hard evidence that this mixed resource, work-based approach is superior to the classroom.  Superior because at its heart is a learning process that encourages self-discipline, self-discovery and independence. 

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