Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 36;   September 5, 2012: Intentionally Unintentional Learning

Intentionally Unintentional Learning

by

Intentional learning is learning we undertake by choice, usually with specific goals. When we're open to learning not only from those goals, but also from whatever we happen upon, what we learn can have far greater impact.
A map of the Internet ca. January 2005

A map of the Internet ca. January 2005. Each line segment connects a pair of nodes. Learning something by accident on the way to learning something on purpose is a common experience of users of the World Wide Web, which resides on the Internet. In my view, though I certainly have no data, the Internet is likely the world's most complex support device for unintentional learning. The Web, Email, Twitter, Facebook and many other Internet-based media provide opportunities for unintentional learning. Exploiting the Internet's capability for supporting intentionally unintentional learning might someday be a well-developed and widely adopted human skill, no doubt supported by applications based on the Internet. Image courtesy OPTE.org.

We usually associate learning with the young, the naïve, or newbies. As sophisticated adults or professionals, we tend to regard ourselves more as having learned rather than as learning. The truth, of course, is that maintaining sophistication or professionalism requires continuous, lifelong learning, including learning about learning itself.

Intentional learning entails deciding to learn about something specific. We read about diseases of houseplants to try to determine what's wrong with the schefflera; we practice telling a new joke to improve our delivery; or we take tennis lessons to elevate the strategic part of our game.

In this culture, intentional learning is highly valued. We hold in high esteem achievements such as degrees and certifications, and we grant or lend resources to help those pursuing those degrees and certifications. But while we do value intentional learning, that valuing is most specific, as evidenced by the specificity of the goals of these activities. Degree-granting institutions must themselves be accredited. And the marketing literature of most training programs includes sections titled "What Attendees Learn" or "Learning Objectives" or even "Measurable Outcomes."

Even so, it's likely that most learning is unintentional. We accidentally discover keyboard shortcuts in Outlook; a colleague relates tidbits of market intelligence that explain the CEO's latest announcement; we witness a miscommunication between two colleagues and resolve never to use that particular phrasing again ourselves.

Because unintentional learning is so productive, a natural question arises: What if we intentionally create opportunities for unintentional learning? Intentional learning without specific goals offers several advantages.

Prerequisites are less restrictive
Since the goals are non-specific, prerequisites for unintentional learning in a given field of knowledge relate more to the will and ability to learn than they do to specific capabilities in that field of knowledge. This enables the learner to explore more broadly than learners who use a more conventional goal-oriented approach.
The learning is less biased
The more specific our learning goals are, the less likely we are to acquire knowledge unrelated to those goals. And that unrelated knowledge can be more useful and beneficial than what we set out to learn in the first place. Just as goals provide direction and focus, they also bias the undertaking — that's how they provide focus. And just as there is a place for goal-oriented learning, there is a place for less-goal-oriented learning.
Spectacularly beneficial discontinuities are more likely
When we open When we open our minds to intentionally
unintentional learning, sudden, disruptive,
"aha's" become more likely
our minds to intentionally unintentional learning, sudden, disruptive, "aha's" become more likely. And these unexpected insights can be the sources of the spectacularly beneficial discontinuities that lead to life-altering choices in the personal domain, or disruptive innovations in the business domain.

As this day closes, perhaps you'll reflect on what you learned today. Maybe you'll notice some things that you didn't intend to learn when this day began. And tomorrow, maybe there will be even more. Go to top Top  Next issue: Solutions as Found Art  Next Issue

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