Every Experience Is an Opportunity to Learn

by Jim Rickabaugh, Ph.D.

Learning is the key to staying professionally fresh, keeping our practice sharp, adjusting to changing conditions, and maintaining our professional confidence. It expands our perspective and feeds our curiosity. Learning can also stimulate new ideas and generate new insights. When we engage in learning that challenges us, we move beyond the limits of our natural talent.

Fortunately, we have a ready resource that is immediately and continually available to us. That source is our experience. Experience is the most accessible, practical, and efficient source for learning. Our experience happens within our environment, so it is contextualized. It is connected to our actions and choices, so it comes with value and meaning. Further, it is tied to our goals and intentions, so learning that results from our experience moves us forward.

However, experience does not necessarily teach us. We can repeat the same experiences several times without learning the lessons it offers. Repeated experience can cause frustration, but frustration does not necessarily lead to learning. Learning is an intentional act and requires courage, discipline, and commitment. Unless we are willing to examine, reflect, and learn, experience offers little promise for growth and improvement. 

Of course, success can be a teacher, but finding the lessons it offers often is challenging. Was our success a result of our strategy or luck? Did our approach work because of the setting or the audience? Is it repeatable and transferable?

Remarkably, the experiences that often offer the greatest learning opportunities are less than successful. They can be painful. They can even lead us to question our ability and skills. Yet our ability to grow, improve, and learn often reside in these experiences. 

Let’s examine five types of professional experiences that, while they may be unpleasant, offer invitations for us to learn.  

An unsuccessful attempt to implement a new practice, try a new approach, or engage in a new strategy.
We can conclude that the practice is beyond us, the approach will not work with our students, or the strategy is too complex to master. Or we can examine our experience, identify what worked, what fell short, and what we can change or improve and try again. We can accept that when we take a risk it may not always pay off in the first attempt. We do not have to be afraid to learn and try again.

Experiences that involve a setback, misstep, or mistake.
We can personalize the experience and “beat ourselves up,” or we can take an objective look at the situation and realize that missteps and setbacks are usually not permanent nor a reflection of who we are. They do not have to define us. We can admit that what happened was not what we had hoped, then reflect on what we can learn to avoid repeating the experience in the future. Mistakes are not evidence that we cannot learn, adjust, and succeed in the future. 

Our response to complaints and criticism.
We need to listen to understand the nature of the complaint or criticism, but just because they were presented to us does not make them valid. We can feel shame and embarrassment, or we can evaluate the merits of what we hear and respond accordingly. Complaints and criticism can stimulate important reflection and deep thinking, if we allow ourselves to get past the emotions they can generate. Once we have analyzed what we heard, we are free to let it go, knowing that we have taken from it what is worth learning.

Circumstances that make us feel awkward or uncomfortable.
We may be in a situation that we have not experienced before, or we may have taken on a new assignment or project that demands more from us than we feel prepared to handle. The need for learning in this context may be the most obvious because our success depends on identifying what learning we need to gain. However, it can be tempting to retreat and rely on previous practices and approaches. The key is to see our current discomfort as part of our learning journey and an opportunity to focus on what we need to support our growth. 

Failure to step up or speak up.
This may be the most painful lesson to learn. We may realize that we did not stand up for what we believe in when the situation called for it. We may not have advocated as vigorously as we think we should have for someone or something that was deserving. We may not have spoken up in response to a poor decision or given guidance when it was needed. Or we may not have shared a promising idea at a time when it could have made a difference. These situations demand our courage; sometimes more than we can muster. The learning here is that exercising courage is aspirational. We do not always do what we wish we would. However, our reflection and learning can be the stimulus to make a new commitment to be courageous when it is next needed.   

Common to all these learning invitations is the opportunity to learn from adversity. An advantage they offer is that to be a learner makes it acceptable to not know everything. We can be vulnerable while also remaining confident that we will learn and succeed regardless of the circumstances we face.

Jim RickabaughDr. Jim Rickabaugh is a Senior Advisor at i4PL. Jim formerly served as the director for six years and before that as a superintendent in several districts. Dr. Rickabaugh is the author of Tapping the Power of Personalized Learning: A Roadmap for School Leaders, focused on helping principals and other educational leaders to engage their staffs in designing and implementing personalized learning ecosystems. An engaging speaker, Jim has presented on personalized learning at several national conferences including Visible Learning, ASCD, AESA, and Aurora Institute, among others.