I joined an instructor-led class the other day, the first time I’ve done so in almost six months. During a break, I started a dialogue with the leader, a seasoned professional with more than twenty years experience. He asked how the class was working for me and I blurted out, “Great, but then I’m an active learner.” From his expression I knew I’d said something unusual; I’d synthesized a term as a parallel between active listening and the way I learn informally.

“Active Learning” isn’t new, of course. It’s an instructional technique that incorporates collaborative activities to encourage students to learn (see this Wikipedia entry for details). An active learner is somewhat different then, because learning is something a person does for himself or herself. WikiEducator suggests a set of activities and behaviors that an active learner exhibits, but these fall well short of what I’d meant by the term, which was completely unrelated to any formal learning activity. What I meant was the kind of learning that takes place any time, anywhere, and in any setting, including instructor-led training, if we have the right mind set.

How active listening relates to learning

To understand that I meant by “active learning,” I had to think about what I meant by active listening. When I describe this concept to classes, I explain how the listener is as much responsible for the success of communication as the sender. The listener decodes what’s being said, interprets it, and seeks feedback whenever he or she is unsure of the sender’s intent. But the true active listener does much more, analyzing the message, thinking about how the sender’s message fits into the context of the situation, and evaluating its applicability.

A depiction of Bloom's taxonomy within the cognitive domain.

A quick glance at the accompanying figure shows that my explanation of active learning more or less fits Bloom’s taxonomy within the cognitive domain. Active listening will result in learning, even if it’s only what the sender was trying to impart. But learning in this manner isn’t exclusively to spoken communication. Learning can happen every time we get together with other people, whether it’s a face to face meeting, a conference call, an online chat room, an instant message conversation, a Twitter chat, or even an instructor-led class. This is the heart of informal social learning.

Learning by synthesis

Once we accept that we can learn something from every person we meet, the word “active” takes on new meaning, due both to the frequency of the interactions and by taking that learning to the highest orders of thinking. It’s always-on, never-off learning. We do this by adopting an evaluator/synthesizer mind set, constantly working to figure out how new knowledge integrates with our own.

When we hear novel thoughts or perspectives, we contrast them with our own and think how they fit with our view of things. Hearing disagreement, looking at the source of that disagreement often yields new insight. Social interaction also can simulate recall of our own core knowledge that might otherwise have been forgotten but now has new meaning in the context of the current conversation.

Wherever new ideas come from, the evaluator/synthesizer mind runs quickly through its highest orders of thinking to create new thoughts and knowledge. Perhaps those new ideas are appropriate to the discussion at hand and shared, or they’re or stored away for another time. Either way, they’re creative thoughts, novel concepts, innovative ideas, all the result of active learning by synthesis.

Thanks for reading! @tomspiglanin


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