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Old dogs, new tricks

Steve Whittenbury

I work for a professional education company, and have personally been helping accountancy students pass their exams for nearly ten years - being able to help people unlock their potential and broaden their horizons has undoubtedly been the best part of my career so far. Recently though, I have experienced the opposite side of this relationship as, twice in quick succession, I found myself becoming a student all over again.

Firstly, I was caught by a traffic camera driving through a red light. I was given the choice of either paying a fine and having penalty points on my driving licence or agreeing to undertake a "Driving 4 Change" course instead. As my wife declined to take the points for me, I reluctantly agreed to the course.

Secondly, I decided to learn to ride a bicycle, a skill that had somehow managed to evade me for 40 years.

The parallels between these two learning experiences and my job seemed too obvious to ignore and so I thought I'd share how they have already helped to broaden my own horizons. In order to do this, it seemed appropriate to consider one of the many learning continuums used today, where people are said to learn in four stages:

  1. Unconsciously unable;
  2. Consciously unable;
  3. Consciously able; and
  4. Unconsciously able.

With riding a bike, it was not something that I was unconsciously unable to do, as every time my son asked if we could go for a ride, I would find excuses to mask what I saw as my own failings. So this process started with me all too aware of my own inability to ride a bike. My wife booked me on a course at an outdoor activity centre and after an hour or so of frustrating effort, the patience of both the instructor and me paid off and I was able to cycle 10 metres on my own.

I was overjoyed with what I had achieved and proceeded to practise in my own time over the next few days. Gradually, each time it took less and less falling off before I was able to ride again, until I got to the stage where I was able to just get on the bike and ride.

Going back to the four-stage process, I can tell when I moved from being consciously able to unconsciously able as I stopped falling over, but working out how I moved from step 3 to step 4 is more difficult - as everyone says, you never forget how to ride a bike, and I now understand what that means. There is so much going on to keep your balance and maintain momentum that you simply cannot do it consciously - you simply have to practise lots and take a leap of faith to believe that it will happen.

My "driving lesson" as I had euphemistically been referring to it turned out to be just that - dual-controls in the car, instructor in the passenger seat - however, it was a very different proposition to learning how to ride a bike. For a start, the reason I was there was because I had originally been unconscious of how unable I was to drive safely - despite only being 1.6 seconds late for the red light, I could still have caused an accident, but until the letter arrived at my house, I hadn't considered myself to be a hazard behind the wheel.

In the weeks between this happening and my lesson, I gradually accepted why I needed to be retrained and moved to consciously unable at the same time. Much of the ninety minute lesson focused on my behaviour behind the wheel, with the instructor identifying areas of development in my driving while I was doing it that would build an attitude to predict hazards in advance and reduce their likelihood or impact.

At the end of my lesson, I had become consciously able to address many of my own weaknesses - the use of a handy mnemonic helped - and was already starting to build some new skills into my everyday driving that I can see working to this day. Hopefully I can avoid any future lapses in attention and anticipation but the crucial thing that my driving lesson has shown me is that you are never complete, you can always improve, and you act on feedback consciously and unconsciously (back to step 1 then).

What lessons did I take from my own lessons that could help other learners?

  • Denial, as they say, is not just a river in Egypt - it's never too late to acknowledge your development needs, so be honest with yourself and do something before it's too late;
  • Seek help from someone you know or trust - a tutor, friend or colleague - as it's easier if you have someone else on your side than to go it alone;
  • Establish your strengths and weaknesses, construct a plan with a goals in mind and keep practising;
  • Be prepared for frustration and embarrassment - they are just part of the process, not the goal itself - you just need to have faith and believe that you can improve;
  • Remember that you are never "complete" even if you achieve your goals - it just means that you are ready to tackle whatever comes next; and,
  • Consequently, you should enjoy your success - watching my children learn how to walk made me realise just how strong that desire to walk must be for a toddler, because every time they fall over they get back up and try again until they can do it. Imagine, how amazing would it feel to have learned to do something that significant again?

Steve's previous blog
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