You’re still learning like a kid

Time to learn like an adult

My relationship with learning started to change when I came to college and discovered there are other ways to acquire knowledge and skills. Other than those I was used to from school. Even so, just knowing new learning techniques didn’t help me. I had to put them to practice and become more methodical and disciplined. Easier said than done.

After years of testing different methods, I know myself better as a learner and my mission is to help others do the same. Because learning autonomy brings along freedom, happiness, and empowerment.

This piece is about 3 things:

  • How we used to learn;
  • How we’re learning now;
  • How we should start learning.

How we used to learn

Do you remember those Saturdays when we were 10? We thought we could finally sleep in late, watch cartoons and play with our friends. Then the shutters were pulled, and we woke up.

It was house chores day! Not a different a day from week-days.

Photo by rawpixel, on Unsplash

Think about it.

Our parents would tell us where to clean up. Like our teachers would tell us what to learn.

They told us what tools to use, without explaining why. Like our teachers would tell us what learning methods are most appropriate, without ever explaining why.

In the end, they would evaluate the result, without explaining the assessment criteria. Just like our teachers would establish the assessment method, and give us a grade, rarely giving us a reason why it is that low or that high.

We used to live in a parent-directed environment at home, and a teacher-directed environment at school.

As we grow up, we’re bound to do the house chores if we don’t want to live in a mess. We should also be bound to become disciplined in our learning process if we don’t want our knowledge to be a mess.

This starts with acknowledging the habits we formed in childhood and our youth years, that now work against us:

  • we don’t know how to assess our learning needs and set learning goals;
  • we don’t know how to structure our learning process and use the best methods to fit our learning objectives;
  • we don’t know how to assess our knowledge.

How we learn now

We grow up, we get through college and then we get a job. Learning never stops, so we keep it in our daily activities, but we also keep our old habits and develop new ones:

  • We learn the way we used to clean up. We have no idea where to start, how long it’s going to take or what the result should be.
  • We learn the way we used to learn. Because others say so, usually our boss and the company we work for.
  • We learn the way we buy clothes. One trend comes along, we jump in learning about it, because it’s cool and everybody does it.

We still don’t own our learning process.

How we should start learning

Like adults.

Photo by J. Kelly Brito on Unsplash

Adults have different needs than children in terms of learning.

  • They need to know. They need to understand the need to learn something. How it will benefit them if they do or how it will harm them if they don’t before they’re willing to invest time and energy in learning it.
  • The need to have their own experience taken into account. As opposed to children, in a group of adults, there’s a higher chance to find individuals with different backgrounds and experiences. This leads them to have different learning styles, paces, different needs and interests.
  • The need to gear learning to the learners’ readiness to learn. Adults become ready to learn something when they experience the need in real life situations. Since life situations are different for each individual, they become ready to learn different things at different times.

There’s a tool that meets all these needs — the learning contract.

A learning contract is a document used to assist in the planning of a learning project. It is a written agreement between a learner and an advisor, that a particular activity will be undertaken in order to achieve a specific goal or goals. Geoff Anderson, David Boud, Jane Sampson — Learning Contracts: A practical guide

How do learning contracts meet adults learning needs?

  • They need to know. Before writing a learning contract, the learner undertakes an individual learning needs assessment. Moreover, when choosing a learning objective for a contract, the first thing they should write down is “why” they are setting it, what benefits will bring them and how it fits into their overall environment.
  • The need to have their own experience taken into account. Contract learning is highly personalized. It’s yours completely, you’re writing it down, the only background important is yours. Although 5 individuals might have the same objective, their approach on how to achieve it can be as different as their backgrounds are.
  • The need to gear learning to the learners’ readiness to learn. Learning contracts provide the flexibility of letting the learner choose when to learn something, according to their readiness. Not ready to learn about Machine Learning, AI, Positive Psychology? No worries, start with the basics and you’ll get there. No one will question your decision.

How I helped a designer structure his learning process by using learning contracts

Adrian Ciulei, Creative Director @studiohumm

When an old acquaintance of mine asked for my help to design the learning environment for his design studio, I honestly had no idea where to start.

One of the requests in the brief was helping them become more disciplined in their learning process.

I turned for help to some of the greatest names in subjects such as learning organizations and adult learning: Peter Sange, Malcolm Knowles, Peter Brown, Patricia Cross, and others.

They all helped me understand what are the prerequisites of a learning environment and self-directed learning. In my research, I came across the notion of learning contracts and how scholars helped students in developing them. It was basically a breath of fresh air from the traditional teaching and assessment methods.

So this was one of the most important things I suggested they should pick up. They will start using learning contracts, and I will start being a coach in their learning process.

Working with Lavinia and using a learning contract proved to be the missing piece from my learning process. Up until then, my learning would be sporadic and lacking the necessary focus to get the job done. There were some best practices I had developed both personally and within the design studio but lacked a proper structure.
The main benefit of the learning contract was the personalized aspect of it, that came out of our 1-to-1 conversations. The process and structure of my learning objectives were entirely up to me to set, for the contract to be as efficient as possible on my working style.
Having it laid out in plain writing and in a defined timeline helped keeping myself accountable and not falling behind on my learning objectives. But even when this happened, it was much easier to look back at what went wrong and learn from it.
This way, I got some key insights about myself and the way I learn, having been practicing it for the past 6 months. And with these new learnings, I could improve my next contract to better illustrate my current state of learning.

What did I learn in the process?

  • introducing this new technique in an organization requires prior preparation. All learners must understand the reason why, the structure and they should be given advice while drafting their learning contracts.
  • different individuals need different levels of support. Some were ok with support only on writing the contract, others needed coaching afterward. As a coach, you should be available at any point in the process.
  • learners confuse learning intentions with what will be done to achieve them. “To read books about…”, “To pick up a project…” are not learning objectives since they fail to identify the learning intention. Both the learner and the guide should take the time to refine the objective.

But in the end, what I noticed, especially in the coaching process, were the improvements in diagnosing learning needs, setting objectives, research appropriate materials and overall improvement of self-directed learning skills.

In the end, the habits we had in school can shift, and we can take charge of our learning process. We just need a bit of help. :)

If you want to try learning contracts too, we put together a playbook with:

  • A list of reasons you should start using learning contracts;
  • A list of responsibilities of both learner and guide;
  • A learning contract example;
  • A learning contract template;
  • A checklist to help you if you’re using this tool for the first time;
  • A list of books on the subject.

I would love to share more learning tips with you. Follow me on Medium!


Lavinia Mehedințu is a self-directed learner, always trying to get the best out of her learning process. She dreams to change mindsets and educational systems through her work.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +423,678 people.

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