Businessman fishing nothing from the top
ATD Blog

Are You Teaching Others to Fish or Just Stocking the Pond?

Thursday, September 24, 2020

During the last few years many organizations have focused on the modern learner and their desire for learning that is personalized for them (from a content perspective and delivery standpoint). This means what they need, when they need it, and in the amount and format they want. The convergence of new technologies and data analytics have enabled this to advance. Many talent professionals moved from designing and developing to curating content. Companies sprang up ready to sell content for every subject. Wow! Are we successful or what? We have hundreds of courses on our LMS, aggregators and integrators, and any employee can access any topic on demand at their point of need.

Then, out of nowhere, COVID-19 appeared and the world changed. Everyone was working remotely and learning new ways of operating. Senior executives who were not enamored with virtual learning formats had no other choice to adapt. Learning and development teams were called to develop, convert, or purchase courses. On-demand resources were accessed like never before. Many were frantically getting content and courses into the technology and others, without much to do or in need of guidance, were consuming the content as never before.

But in our constantly changing world where almost everyone needs to be skilled, reskilled, upskilled, or newly skilled, this question surfaces: Does this activity contribute to enhanced performance on the job? Are we teaching employees to be champion self-directed learners, or are we just stocking the pond with a huge variety of content? Even worse, as a colleague recently put it, are we building multiple ponds and giving them boats, fishing gear, and other paraphernalia then assuming that we have done our part and learning is happening because we hired smart people with credentials?

Many years ago, one of my students at Defense Acquisition University (DAU) and I were talking about a phrase that I used to start my classes. It was a slogan that summarizes what I thought my role was, and it was used as an opening slide to introduce the topic for the sessions and to signal that it was time for class to start. The slide stated:

Learning About Your Learning

Thinking About Your Thinking

Building Capacity for Improvement


During the conversation, the navy captain shared some of his ideas on learning about learning and suggested one of his favorite books, Ronald Gross’s Peak Learning (1999), which is subtitled A Master Course in Learning How to Learn. As soon as I turned the title page of the book, I was captivated by the opening quote from the futurist and author of Megatrends, John Naisbitt: “In a world that is constantly changing, there is no one subject or set of subjects that will serve you for the foreseeable future, let alone for the rest of your life. The most important skill to acquire now is learning how to learn.”

There were many aspects of the book’s content that I learned or relearned that informed my practice as a designer, developer, and facilitator for learning experiences. One concept that resonated with my earliest training was “start where they are” and validated the maxim learned from David Langford, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” It emphasizes that everyone can learn but that everyone has preferred ways of learning. Gross emphasized that the role of the learning producer was to help individuals learn what they wanted to learn when they wanted to learn it. And this, he stated, was done by assisting them with psychological and cognitive techniques for learning; providing an array of resources such as thought leader suggestions, tools, references, and readings; supporting them through coaching and feedback; and helping them with goal setting and planning.

In the almost 20 years since I read Gross’s book, the research related to learning has exploded, even having its own major in many colleges. In the world of talent, think of the books published: The Accelerated Learning Handbook, Make it Stick, Smarter Faster Better, How to Learn, and PEAK, just to name a few. One of the most attended MOOCs is Barbara Oakley’s on “Learning How to Learn.”

But as I currently listen and hear more about what organizations are doing to stock the ponds with content, I still wonder if we are teaching employees to fish? And more importantly as talent leaders, are we modeling a dynamic and robust personal learning system ourselves?


In early August, an online article entitled “The Most Fundamental Skill: Intentional Learning and the Career Advantage” caught my attention. Maybe it was because the quote from Naisbitt was still alive or maybe it was those many years of teaching at DAU and starting every class with “Learning About Learning”—and, yes, having the students see me on campus or even years later at another location and instead of opening with a “hello,” repeating the mantra. Or, maybe, it was because a personal connection with one of the authors.

In the article the authors talk about unlocking intentionality. Their research indicates that two mindsets and five core skills are needed. The mindsets that need to be nourished are a growth mindset and curiosity. The skills include setting small, clear goals; removing distractions; actively seeking actionable feedback; using deliberate practice; and practicing regular reflection.

While there is not a direct link between Gross’s book and the recent article, there are many similarities. In chapter 1, Gross talks about being open to wonderment, à la curiosity, as the foundation for being a peak learner. As one of the first steps he recommends having a learning journal to capture your reflections. He calls it a learning log, and he recommends making it two columns, specifically for repeat reviews and consideration. He states that doing this will reveal how you learn. To help you get started, use this log for reflecting on this blog. There are trigger questions in the left-hand column to answer. Within a few weeks add your thoughts to the right-hand column.

How can talent professionals build learning experiences for the modern learner that focus on helping them to fish like champions and simultaneously stock the pond with what they need to perform in their job and as learners? How could we provide constructs to foster curiosity and nourish a growth mindset? How could we include evidence-based resources and materials to enable intentionality for their learning?

Would one way be telling stories and providing examples from our personal experience? Would being a champion at self-directed learning ourselves make a difference to those we teach? Would it enhance our ability to continuously pivot to adapt to our organizations’ business goals and be more future ready for the next big thing?

About the Author

MJ leads the ATD Forum content arena and serves as the learning subject matter expert for the ATD communities of practice. As the leader of a consortium known as a “skunk works” for connecting, collaborating, and sharing learning, she worked with members to evolve the consortium into a lab environment for advancing the learning practice within the context of work, thus evolving the Forum’s work-learn lab concept. MJ is a skilled and experienced design and performance coach for work teams, as well as a seasoned designer of work-learn experiences with a focus on strategy and program management. She previously held leadership positions at the Defense Acquisition University, including senior instructor, special assistant to the commandant, and director of professional development.

Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! To get my comments into the limited 500 character space, I had to keep writing which means my comments start with my last post and work their way up :)
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
tools to help them learn more deeply, I bet we’d see impressive results. You wrap up with a great point about learning professionals needing to be champions at self-directed learners. Back in my corporate days as a learning executive, I used to tell colleagues that if we wanted the right to call ourselves learning professionals we must be professional learners. Really enjoyed reading your insights.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
the performance results we might see in the longer term. But if we embedded metacognition strategies into learning experiences and consulting interactions with learners and organizational stakeholders, I think it would be a different picture. I’m a fan of deliberate practice but to be realistic about time and budget, much of that practice has to happen outside the formal content experience. If we can better support that through networks, resources and equipping learners with tools to help the
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.