On Identity, Learning, and the Fear of Change

On Identity, Learning, and the Fear of Change:

What My Six-Year-Old Taught Me About Learning Culture

Yesterday while I was watching my kids play outside, the older of my two girls got a little too rough with her younger sister. I addressed her behavior and asked her to change it, to which she bristled as children often do. She became indignant and, internalizing my discipline, asked if my husband and I wanted her to change who she was. As a learning professional with years of experience in Early Education, I realized that this moment was an important one for her. While I do not want her to internalize discipline to the point that it creates self-doubt, I do want her to learn appropriate ways to interact with others. So, I handled the situation as best as I could, both encouraging her in her identity while challenging her to practice empathy when considering her behavior toward her sister. 

What does that story have to do with learning, and change?  

In our current climate, there is a lot of talk about change, especially as it relates to online learning and COVID-19. Our own website here at LEARNsynx has produced several helpful articles, infographics, and resources for that exact purpose (which you should definitely check out!). Many learning professionals who were already doing remote learning are excited about how these changes will affect our industry, and every industry, as e-learning becomes more prevalent and necessary.  

On the opposite side of that coin, many people in other industries, especially Early Education for example, are hoping that our current situation will help people to realize exactly how much humans rely on face-to-face, in person interactions to meet our social and emotional needs. I know I’ve seen those needs for my own young children who have not been able to play with anyone their own age for more than two and half months now. 

While there is some divide, it should not come as any surprise. Any change will have supporters and detractors. That is a fact of the human existence. What we should discuss then is what to do with the tension that comes when a change happens. The answer is: we learn. 

Learning and change have always been and will always be an inseparable pair. Arguably the entire point of learning something new is to affect some sort of change in behavior. Though many scholars value knowledge for knowledge’s sake, almost all human knowledge is useful for something. We learn so that we can grow, improve, and ultimately, change. In fact, some would say that taking in information without making any change would not be defined as learning at all.  

Likewise, when we encounter change, we almost always have the opportunity to learn something from it. The lesson may not be pleasant, wanted, or immediately discernible, but if you wait long enough, time will typically bring the lesson, and its benefits, to light. In some circumstances, the change is optional, and we choose whether we want to adopt it into ours lives. Other times, the change is required, sometimes even forced, and we must accept it or accept the consequences of rejecting it. Either way, the opportunity to learn is ready and waiting for us to reach out and grab it. 

The question my indignant but perceptive six-year-old posed to me while experiencing her own inner tension was this: if I agree to learn, and I accept change, does that change who I am? Do learning and change affect my identity?  The answer is quite philosophical and depends on how you define yourself. Do you see yourself as the sum of your actions? Do you see yourself as having intrinsic value outside of your behaviors? Those answers are personal to you and won’t be covered in this post!  

What I will say is this – I love and value my daughter for who she is, regardless of how she treats her sister. But I also hope very deeply for her that she becomes more kind, empathic, and adaptable as she learns to interact with others and the world around her. Whether she sees those qualities as intrinsic to her identity will ultimately be up to her.  

There is a takeaway for learning professionals in all of this. By teaching, training, and instructing, our end goal is to affect our learners’ behaviors. Maybe that sounds easy enough. However, it is often quite challenging because humans so closely associate changes in behavior with changes in identity. Rich learning experiences can only be successful in an environment that cultivates and confirms learners’ confidence in themselves – a culture where learning can both challenge and support learners in a way that feels safe to them.  

A learning culture, much like good parenting, is not perfected overnight. But your organization will see the rewards of the work by developing employees who are not just compliant with change and learning, but comfortable with them as methods for improvement and growth, both personally, and professionally.   

For tips on coping with COVID-19, or any big change in your life, see our infographic inspired by the Enneagram.
For more information on developing your personal learning culture, see our
article on lifelong learning by our Marketing Coordinator Liz Gerlach. 

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