Teaching Proactive Learning

Excerpt from “Bridging the Skills Gap: Teaching the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent” by Bruce Tulgan (Wiley, September 2015).

Proactive learning: Keeping an open mind, suspending judgment, questioning assumptions, and seeking out information, technique, and perspective; and studying, practicing, and contemplating in order to build one’s stored knowledge base, skill set, and wisdom.

Manager: “It’s like they think they know everything because they can always find the right answer on their phones, but they don’t realize they don’t have the experience to really understand the answers they can find so easily.”

Second-wave Millennial/Gen Zer: “I don’t even need to know anything really. There is no such thing as a learning curve anymore.”

The Bridge: What You, the Manager, Need to Remember

Before any individual can possibly succeed at “critical thinking,” that person has to know some things. That way, he or she will have something—anything really—about which to think critically. Step one: Know something! Or know how to do something! Or have an appreciation for multiple competing perspectives about something—anything really.

It is almost a hackneyed truth about today’s world that we all have endless amounts of information at our fingertips available instantly all the time. Indeed, we have multiple competing answers to any question on any subject—more answers than a whole platoon could possibly master in a lifetime on any subject. It is nearly as hackneyed to say that today’s new young workforce has never known it any other way. The not quite as obvious punch line is this: There has been a radical change in the prevailing mindset on how much information a person needs to keep inside the head versus accessible through the fingertips. Nobody should be so short-sighted or so old-fashioned as to write off the power of being able to find multiple competing answers to any question about any subject any time instantly. Yet this phenomenon is also at the root of the “critical thinking” skills gap.

Critical thinking is very difficult. It requires strong thinking muscles. Like any muscles, thinking muscles don’t get strong overnight. If you’re not in shape, you start by taking walks, not distance runs. If you’ve never lifted weights, you have to start off with lighter weights and work yourself up to the heavier lifting.

Critical thinking is also a sophisticated skill set. It requires mental flexibility and agility. But if you try to stretch too much too fast without good form and good structural support, you are liable to pull a muscle. When it comes to critical thinking, stupid decisions are the equivalent of pulled muscles.

What is the best way to “build strong thinking muscles”? Exercise them regularly. That means studying information, practicing technique, and contemplating multiple competing perspectives.

What is the necessary “structural support”? Stored knowledge, skill, and wisdom.

Good news:

  • Stored knowledge is the result of studying good information.
  • Stored skills are the result of practicing good technique.
  • Stored wisdom is the result of contemplating multiple competing good perspectives.

What is “good form”? Keeping an open mind. That means suspending judgment, questioning assumptions, and continually seeking out the best new information, technique, and perspective.

That’s why proactive learning is the first of the missing basics of critical thinking.

Make Them Aware/Make Them Care

This is the message I recommend managers deliver when they are trying to convince their young employees to really care about developing good proactive-learning habits:

“Here’s why you should care of about proactive learning. Of course, the more you learn, the more you will know. But there is more to it than that: All the leading research shows that the very act of learning also strengthens your mind. If you are not actively learning, then your mind is getting weaker—just like any muscle. No matter how smart you are, if you are not actively learning, then you actually are getting a little dumber every day. You probably won’t notice. However, all the leading research says this is the case.

Even if you don’t learn anything, the very act of trying to learn is great exercise for your brain. Your mind needs regular exercise to stay in shape and get stronger.

Critical thinking skills are incredibly valuable—among the most in-demand skills in nearly every sector of the labor market. The reason they are so valuable and in demand is because they are considered to be in relatively short supply. That’s because critical thinking is a whole lot harder than it looks. Critical thinkers do not leap to conclusions—they take the time to consider various possibilities and do not become too attached to one point of view. They do not latch on to one solution—they know that most solutions are temporary and improve over time with new data. They are in the habit of trying to differentiate between reliable and unreliable sources. They carefully weigh the strengths of conflicting views and apply logical reasoning. Critical thinkers are, at once, open to the views of others and supremely independent in their own judgments.

Think of the smartest person you know. You can take this to the bank: She is probably also the most voracious learner you know. The biggest mistake that keeps a person from getting smarter is thinking that being smart is a fixed status, rather than a dynamic process. It’s sort of like the mistake overweight people make when looking at thin people: The overweight person might remark that the thin person “is lucky because he can eat whatever he wants,” whereas the thin person knows he is thin precisely because he does NOT eat whatever he wants. The smartest people are the ones who never declare victory over learning.

Yes, if you are a proactive learner, you will actually know more and more. But as soon as you take what you already know—about anything whatsoever—and declare victory, you will be on the path to getting a little bit dumber—and not just about that specific matter. That means letting go of the idea that “being smart” means you already know everything.

That’s why “proactive learning” is the first key building block for developing critical thinking skills. If you want to be really smart, act like you don’t know anything and go from there. That’s the first step to proactive learning: Keep an open mind. Then you will have lots of space to store a regular stream of new information, technique, and perspective. Study information and you will build your stored knowledge base. Practice technique and you will build your stored skill base. Contemplate different perspectives and you will build stored wisdom. Never declare victory. Keep learning.

No matter how smart you are, if you are in the habit of critical proactive learning, you will keep getting smarter. That’s what makes proactive learning the ultimate transferable skill. And unlike the hot technical skills, it will never become obsolete.

Excerpt from “Bridging the Skills Gap: Teaching the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent” by Bruce Tulgan (Wiley, September 2015). For more information, visit http://www.amazon.com/Bridging-Soft-Skills-Gap-Missing/dp/1118725646

Based in New Haven, CT, Bruce Tulgan is a leading expert on young people in the workplace. He is an advisor to business leaders all over the world, the author or coauthor of numerous books, including the classic, “Managing Generation X” (1995); best-seller “It’s Okay to Be the Boss” (2007); “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy’ (2009); “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014); and Bridging the Skills Gap (2015). Since founding management training firm RainmakerThinking in 1993, he has been a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. Follow him on twitter @brucetulgan. He can be reached at brucet@rainmakerthinking.com.


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