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Natural Learning — Exploring and Discovering; Connecting and Doing

By Denise Renton, ILG Contributor

Eight Components to Cultivate a Robust Learning Experience

It’s gardening season where I live, one of my favorite times of the year. Waiting for perennials to come up, watching for buds and leaves to appear, moving plants to more favorable locations in the yard, deciding what vegetables to plant where, all bring me joy. I’m familiar with my yard, the soil, the sun and shade, and I know what I want to cultivate and how. Friends and neighbors stop by to chat when I’m out in the yard, asking about what’s growing and sometimes looking for advice. I can respond with names of plants and their characteristics. I can offer informed suggestions.

I’m surprised sometimes at how much I actually know. When and how did I accumulate this knowledge? I’ve never taken a course on gardening. I have no formal horticultural training. Yet I know quite a bit about what will grow in my own yard and how to make it flourish.

Looking back, I’ve learned informally from other people, such as neighbors, friends, family, and nursery garden employees; resources, including books, articles, videos, blogs, apps, and online forums; and, of course, just getting out there and gardening. Have I planted a few things I wish I hadn’t? Yes. And now I know better based on the experience.

It all seems so seamless. How delightful to learn in this way — through exploring and discovering and connecting and doing. In fact, it’s how many of us learn many things.

Yet, as a learning professional, I’m often faced with one-and-done formal training requests, and admittedly, often for good reasons, including urgency, budget, and culture. I recognize that a new hire or an employee learning a new software or process will most likely need some type of formal training. (I wisely took a beekeeping course before I started that endeavor.) And I also know that organizations can’t afford to have employees learn their jobs in a meandering way over years, as I’ve done with gardening.

Learning Experience Components

I do believe, however, that we can weave simple components into a learning experience that will promote this type of natural learning and make it feel less forced and, for lack of a better word, “training-y.” These components can also provide other benefits like reinforcing learning, improving performance, encouraging accountability, and building a learning community.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Time: Spread out learning, if possible, to give learners time to absorb knowledge or practice on their own. Break sessions into smaller chunks with independent activities in between, or ask learners to apply something they’ve learned when they’re back on the job and share the experience with a manager or colleague.
  • Autonomy: Provide options that allow learners to control some of the learning experience. Give them a bucket of activities to accomplish in a certain timeframe, but let them choose the order. Ask them to do some research on their own and report back. Don’t always tell them; sometimes show them where to search and let them find!
  • Expertise: Set up “office hours” for an expert in the organization to be available to answer questions or help with issues after training takes place. Provide links to TED Talks, podcasts, blogs, videos, etc., in which experts in the field share ideas, insights, and best practices.
  • Connection: As part of a learning experience, encourage connection by including partnering or group activities outside of facilitated learning. Set up channels on messaging sites such as Slack, Yammer, or Teams to post questions and have learners share successes and insights. Build touch points between learners and managers before, during, and after learning events.
  • Just enough: Start by covering just what learners need to know about or do “in their own yard.” For those learners who may want to know or do more, provide optional activities, build optional pop-ups into e-learnings, or provide links to other resources.
  • Drive: Give learners a reason for learning! When we learn on our own, it’s because we’re driven to find out about something that interests us. Make sure learning is tied to valid and compelling reasons for the target audience to care about the topic. Create mini-marketing pieces, such as a “welcome to the learning experience” letter or video.
  • Practice: Let learners try! In facilitated sessions, build in activities designed to have learners flounder in the first round, then get better and better with subsequent rounds as they build on their experience. Have learners commit to applying one thing they learn on-the-job and report back on it.
  • Acknowledgment: Encourage learners to recognize and appreciate what they’ve learned. Whether through reflection, journaling, or sharing with others, helping learners acknowledge their growth and experience provides a sense of accomplishment and motivation to continue the learning journey.

Putting a little thought into cultivating your learning “garden” by adding some of these components can help your learners flourish!

Denise Renton is a freelance instructional designer and performance consultant. She has more  than 30 years’ experience in the training and performance improvement industry. Denise was on staff at Innovative Learning Group from 2012 to 2021.

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