Running the River of Lifelong Learning

Betha Gutsche /
Study group at UBC Library (from Flickr)
Photo: Study group by UBC Library on Flickr

As libraries transform themselves to meet evolving needs, it is the people who work in libraries who are at the confluence of societal forces and who must act as the actual instruments of change. Change is a fast-flowing current. Though its swiftness may feel daunting, we need to find vehicles to support a continual effort to stay afloat and informed. If we don’t want to get stuck in stagnant side pools, we all have to jump in to the river of lifelong learning.

Ideas about training and learning are also evolving. Increasingly, old notions and traditions are challenged in the light of new understanding about how the brain works and experiments in new educational strategies. With staff training high on the list of imperatives in many a library strategic plan, the new approaches have implications for adult learning, for how library staff are trained, or more significantly, for how they learn. Beyond defining competencies and training needs, it is crucial to ignite the motivation to learn, to get all library staff to embrace their own sustained plunge into lifelong learning.

Cracking the Motivation Myth

In his book Drive (and TED talk), Daniel Pink tackles this standard myth: “If you reward something, you get more of the behavior you want. If you punish something, you get less of the behavior you don’t want.” Studies at places like MIT, University of Chicago, and Carnegie Mellon have all exposed the fallacy of this notion, replicating over and over the finding that for tasks that call for even rudimentary cognitive skill, "a larger reward leads to poorer performance."

[What motivates you to learn? See responses to the poll.]

The extrinsic reward and punishment system—carrot-and-stick approach—is pandemic. Many organizations tie learning goals to performance evaluation, expecting that employees will strive for positive results and potentially higher pay, or act out of fear of losing a job altogether. This may seem to work on the surface but the learning may be minimal and superficial, not the kind of learning that leads to expansive thinking and transformation for the organization. Sometimes gifts of various sizes are offered as learning incentives. One library director gave all of his staff iPads, which they could take home for personal use; he was disappointed and mystified when many of them showed little curiosity about the new devices. In another example, a training manager exclaimed in frustration, “I offered my staff $10 Starbuck’s cards if they would complete a simple tutorial. Only one person went for it. Why is that?”

Pink, backed by a host of studies, would say it is because people are not horses performing for carrots and fearing sticks. People respond to intrinsic (internal) motivations. Let’s take a closer look at the three key ingredients of genuine motivation identified by Pink— autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Autonomy: Learning Like a Baby

Dr. John Medina is a molecular biologist, whose fascination with brain science led him to publish Brain Rules (book and website), a summary of 12 things scientists now know for sure about how our brains work. Rule #12 is particularly intriguing for thinking about how to design training for autonomy: “We are powerful and natural explorers.” We have been learning since birth. Babies are not expected to sit passively and listen to lectures (except for those subjected to Baby Einstein videos). They are encouraged to explore their environment, to experiment and fail, and try again and again. Exploration breeds curiosity to explore even more. Learning is an adventure. It doesn’t become a task until a child enters the traditional classroom.

Adults generally retain a deep sense of curiosity and urge to explore, though admittedly it may not be focused on things pertaining to gainful employment. Our brains are wired for lifelong learning so that we can continually adjust to a complex and changing world. Google supports the luxury-liner version of workplace autonomous exploration with its 20 percent time policy, which allows employees to spend 20% of paid work time to pursue whatever they like as long as it is Google-related. This policy seems unattainable in the library world. The challenge is to tap into adults’ natural curiosity and allow for autonomy in a way that still accommodates the relentless demands of staff scheduling and furthers the organization’s goals.

Autonomy strategies:

  • Self-designed learning
    Set parameters of what is important to know in order to align with the library’s goals and to do a job well. Then allow staff to design their own paths to achieving the desired learning outcomes. The Toole City Library (UT) Self-Directed Achievement program transformed staff motivation to learn by asking them to set one training goal of their choice per week that can be achieved in one hour. The Whatcom County Library System (WA) offers a “Be Curious” Card to every staff member, which entitles them to take 1 hour/quarter out of their regular hours to learn something new of their choosing, something not required on a learning plan.

  • Personalization and the Flipped Classroom
    The Flipped Classroom strategy is a hot topic in K-12 education. It flips the traditional structure of in-class lecture and out-of-class homework. Students are assigned to watch an instructional video at home (either teacher-created or sourced elsewhere) for the lecture component. Back in the classroom, students work in groups to apply their learning (the “homework” piece). As a result, the teacher is freed to be more guide-on-the-side rather than sage-on-the-stage, and students receive more individualized attention. This strategy has direct application to face-to-face training in the library. It could also be applied to online training. Identify a cohort of learners, ask them to view a video or self-paced course on their own, and then bring them together to discuss the content and apply it to their work situations.

  • Digital badges
    Mozilla’s Open Badges project makes it possible for anyone to create, earn, and display digital badges as a visual, online recognition of achievements. Collecting badges to show off to supervisors or peers may seem like an extrinsic reward strategy. But think about all the former boy scouts and girl scouts you know who still speak with pride about the badges they earned and the levels they attained. There is something intrinsically fulfilling about the system. It becomes more game-like than performance requirement-like. YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) is experimenting with digital badges to stimulate learning and achievement with their members. By means of this simple and fun scheme, their goal is to improve teen library services throughout the country, which in turn empowers teens to lead more productive lives. It is worth watching the development of this inventive approach.

What these strategies have in common is that they have boundaries and structure. Autonomy does not equal anarchy. The learning is carefully choreographed to meet the organization’s needs for training while also meeting the learners’ needs for independent exploration.

Mastery: Building Confidence and Competence

We all want to master a new challenge right away, avoiding the slow, discouraging, and potentially embarrassing route to acquiring new skills. It rarely works that way. But people do doggedly pursue increasing levels of mastery in their hobbies, whether it’s sports, musical instruments, crafts, gaming, etc. When the motivation to learn comes from within, they find positive reinforcement in small increments of improvement, and they have fun in the process. The question is how to transfer this kind of personal drive to the work environment, how to make workplace learning more accessible, compelling and even fun.

[Photo: Experienced library trainers Melissa Powell, Biblioease (CO), and Maurice Coleman, Harford County (MD) Public Library, at ALA Midwinter 2013; photo by B Gutsche]

Mastery strategies:

  • 10-minute chunks
    Another brain rule from Dr. John Medina has to do with attention: “Audience attention drops precipitously at about 10-minute intervals. You must do something emotionally relevant at least every 10 minutes to regain attention.” It is the curse of many a subject matter expert or teacher to attempt to load as much information as possible into the allotted period of instruction. Although it may seem like a good idea to turn on the fire hose of information, it actually overloads the brain and undermines the receiver’s ability to absorb the knowledge. If you have one hour designated for training, trim the content and break it up into 10-15 minute chunks. Maximize attention within the chunks by clear identification of core concepts, connection of the concepts to what learners already know, and repetition of the concepts throughout the hour. Recognize the value of a 10-minute (or less) training opportunity. Watching a short video or tutorial may not even feel like training and it may be more effective to meet a just-in-time learning need.

  • Peer tutoring
    It isn’t always the experts who make the most effective teachers. One library was struggling with staff members whose fundamental computer skills were just not showing the improvement they needed for job competency. Tech-savvy staff members and volunteers tried repeatedly to conduct classes and instill essentials skills. The breakthrough came when the library decided to use the “C” students as peer tutors, that is, other staff members who were just a couple of notches higher on the technology learning curve. It turned out that these tutors had a better understanding of the hurdles faced by their peers, in addition to feeling genuine empathy for the difficulty of the challenge. Not only did the struggling learners advance, the need to teach someone else caused the peer tutors to solidify their own understanding, which resulted in advancing their skills as well.

  • Collaboration is a game strategy
    Gamification is an increasingly popular idea, one that applies game-thinking and game mechanics to non-game contexts in order to engage users and solve problems. In Game-Like Qualities, Mary-Scott Hunter of Allen Interactions suggests that collaboration is often overlooked as an element of game play. Pair people up to learn together or design training so that coworkers need to seek each other out to fill in gaps in their knowledge. One information literacy instructor felt that her students were bored by the information-seeking assignments until she restructured the assignments to be done in teams in collaborative, scavenger hunt format.

  • Fail forward
    Gamers know that failure is part of the game—not just necessary but productive. An avid gamer recently exclaimed, “This new game is great. The more I fail, the faster I learn!” But in traditional training settings, students fear failure, fear looking stupid. In thinking about ways to make failure more fun, the choose-your-own-adventure children’s books provide an intriguing model. The stories are a series of scenarios for which the reader can choose a variety of outcomes, turning passive reading into an interactive, thought-provoking learning path. The learner is much more likely to remember her ill-advised choices when the outcome is being eaten by a shark or buried in an avalanche. Imagine customer service training delivered in this fashion.

Purpose: Making a Better World

“People are natural purpose maximizers, not only profit maximizers,” Pink claims. “The companies that flourish are animated by purpose.” As utopian as it sounds, humans do aspire to higher purpose. We derive deep satisfaction from feeling part of something greater and loftier than ourselves. Educator Will Richardson recommends that we need to “support learners in doing work that is worthy of, can exist in, and can change the world.”

Libraries are in a prime position to capitalize on the intrinsic motivation of a sense of purpose. Many people working in libraries were drawn to the field precisely because of its greater purpose in a democratic society. There is an inherent passion for and emotional connection with the vision and mission of libraries. When staff members connect their incremental learning goals to the greater social good to which their work contributes, the training acquires meaning. Learning a new ILS system fuels the library’s purpose just as much as learning to advocate with elevator speeches.

Leaping the Hurdles of Established Practice

Intrinsic motivational strategies are learner-centric; the learner assumes a large share of responsibility for what and how they learn. For all of us who were schooled in the “brain dump and regurgitation” method of teaching, the shift arouses anxieties. In a recent thought-provoking discussion on the role of teachers and students, the objection was raised that students might not welcome the increased responsibility. There was a sense that, at least in academic settings, the students are paying to attend classes in order to be taught. “They are not here to teach you [the teacher].” For the teacher, discomfort comes from letting go of authority and trusting students to direct themselves; allowing learning to flow both ways undermines traditional roles as the expert source of knowledge.

The introduction of intrinsic motivational strategies does not let teachers/trainers off the hook. In fact it requires more thoughtful preparation and ongoing involvement as the supporting agent for the learners’ exploration. Rather than abandon the teacher’s knowledge and expertise, active facilitation of learning leverages it. “Through that process of facilitation, I need to be open to learning, but I also need to apply my expertise, skills and new approaches that best help my students/learners gain the most they can,” Zola Maddison observes. “Just because students say that they don’t want to be actively involved in their learning process, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apply those approaches. I’m sure if you asked them, students wouldn’t want to take final exams either.”

In the spirit of our innate urge to explore, all of us at every level and position within the library field should wade into the river of lifelong learning. We’ll find most of our colleagues running alongside, devising new and novel ways to stay on top of the flow.

For more reading on motivation and new learning trends, see the River of New Learning.

[Photo: a 12-foot long graphic of a river is covered with a flow of post-it ideas about motivation and learning strategies. The ideas were generated at Taking a New Look at Training and Learning, a highly interactive session of discovery at ALA Midwinter 2013.]

Responses from our Poll

The poll elicited some great responses from our readers. In addition to the factors listed in the multiple choice list, readers added these factors:

  • Self Satisfaction that I will be doing my best at what I do for work and my interests
  • Opportunity for promotion
  • Desire to contribute to the organization or to help the customer in new/better ways.
  • Omnivorous appetite for new knowledge
  • Learning is fun! Oh, the places you'll go! (Seuss)
  • Keeping current
  • As I am getting near retirement age, ...I kept learning to show I am still capable, able, eager and want to learn
  • Being able to speak intelligently on a subject and engage others in the conversation.
  • Sense of accomplishment

We asked readers what other comments they had about library staff training, learning, and motivation. The responses fell into five general categories.

1. Intrinsic Motivations
---The more I can learn, the easier my job is.
---Working as a librarian can be an isolated position! Having the opportunity to network with other librarians is so inspiring to me; I have to remind myself to put myself out there.
---The profession is dynamic and if you do not learn, you will be embarrassed by your patrons
---Most staff members want to learn something new; unfortunately, there are always a few that do not.
---Long ago my supervisor made it a prize to be allowed to go to conferences, etc. From then on, I went on my own time and invested in myself...I won't participate in a popularity contest to be allowed to go to a conference or workshop that helps me to become a better employee
---I love following threads of topics out to the edge of what I / we know.
---Prices, games, collaborative teams, etc. definitely turn me OFF.
---Change is the best adventure and it happens without our "permission". We can be proactive and learn beforehand... or reactive and experience frustration at the hands of change. I'd rather be "in control" of change through my own proactivity. The most important thing I know - is that there is something MORE for me to know!

2. The Need for Context and Relevance
---Library staff learning and training must be timely and directed to a specific need -- no isolated training before the actual need is evident.
---It's difficult to get excited about learning something unless there is an immediate or near-future payoff. As in: "Now I'll know how to answer those constant patron questions."
---.I find that it is really important to be up to date about new technology or new ways of learning and I hope that there will always be training available for the staff in the Libraries.
---Application is also important as is manager support.
---When a person chooses a career in information services, they must be willing to ensure that the information is the most current and relevant information possible

3. Training Format
---It seems there are no more printed manuals!! Every upgrade in technology / programs/ system seems to have a new twist - if you haven't been around the 'older' versions and no one is there to train you it is very hard to learn 'what you don't know' from webinars and tutorials no matter how detailed they are.
---I definitely like "hands on" and practical
---Pet peeves when it comes to trainings are 1. description not matching training (level is not accurate or not everything described gets covered 2. trainings listed as A-Z or everything you wanted to know and the time allotted is a mere 60 minutes.

4. Challenges of Lack of Time (Budget and Staffing)
---Reduced staffing and expanded hours has made it difficult to make time for professional development. Other agencies close for a day or half-day for staff development, but ours hasn't done this for many years. Renewing this as an annually priority would send a message to staff that continuous learning is highly valued.
---I hate having to learn a new computer program when I am up against several major deadlines.
---I find it difficult to comprehend that professionals think they need to learn only while 'on the clock.'
---I wish that we all had more time to learn. It's funny that we are lifelong learning institutions but we don't often take enough time to make sure that we have time to think and learn more ourselves.
---We have very little time. Part time staff, little overlap in hours. More work than can be done. Some do take webinars on their own time.

5. Resistance to Learning, Lack of Opportunity, Stagnation
---It is easy to be ignored in your work and months turn into years and you are doing your job the same way. You become stagnant and new ways of doing things are not available to you.
---It is motivational and respectful for learning opportunities to cover the full spectrum of public contact and support staff library as well as MLS. The message otherwise sent is a non-MLS isn't worthy of learning opportunities and that is a problem considering the benefit support staff is to our library and to libraries large and small.
---Sadly there is no motivation in our library. Everyone gets the same raises which is not based on any performance, attendance nor interest in the place.
---Truly hate staff-wide training forums. No motivation (a certificate, seriously?) and no use for or reinforcement of what we "learn"
---lack of collaboration and sharing hinders opportunities to learn from one another
---it is difficult to get some staff to recognize that they do need to continually update their skills and knowledge. I have one team member who refused to do any further training in one area because she had covered it on her MA. That was over 10 years ago and things have clearly progressed and changed since then in this field.
---Learning that effects change (which is most often what we'd like the learning to do) is threatening to some people.

Thanks to our readers for taking the time to share your thoughts!