Spotting The ‘True Learner’

March 6, 2014

Having spent more than thirty years in business a good many of them in people development businesses I think I have developed a sure fire way of spotting good people. My idea revolves around the following statement that I wrote last year, “Ignorance is when someone is faced with a learning opportunity but doesn’t realise it, stupidity is when someone is faced with a learning opportunity but chooses to ignore it!”

I believe that a ‘true learner’ is someone that can spot a learning opportunity and then discriminate effectively to focus only on the ones that will add value to their knowledge and development, as is required right now! New hires, especially young ones are generally keen to learn, the problem is they don’t have the experience to know what is the most important thing to learn and in what order. This is why good managers and businesses develop induction training to assist with this process. If you have the luxury of a very small team and can spend a lot of time closely supervising the learning of others then you are very lucky. In my experience businesses don’t allow for this and you therefore need team members that can be self-sufficient as much as possible.

You could argue that this is all part of IQ but I believe there are a great many people with a high IQ but lack the ability to discriminate between learning opportunities. Some people are like learning sponges, sucking up data from every source regardless of usefulness to their specific job role. ‘True learners’ have the ability to know what will be useful and relevant, so they actually build their knowledge and skill set faster.

“All very well” I hear you say “but how do you spot a ‘true learner’ at interview?” My answer to that would be via questions relating to past roles and experiences. A much better method however is via practical assessment, preferably in groups. Set the group a challenge (I use one which involves making a bridge between two desks out of JUST A4 paper sheets, that can support a large pebble at the middle) and observe their thinking processes. A ‘true learner’ will listen to ideas and be able to separate the practical from the fanciful. They will have the ability to blend and merge different ideas together and they will go down less ‘blind alleys’. A ‘true learner’ is also one that thinks before acting. Planning how the resources could be used effectively before starting to fold or cut them is much better than someone that starts folding and hacking immediately, and without thought for the consequences.

It goes without saying that this type of activity in the interview process is also ideal to spot ‘team working’ and ‘communication skills’ of applicants, as well as their ‘attitude and approach’.

Cutting corners in any recruitment process is folly and expensive so next time you are hiring, remember to look for ‘true learners’.

Many thanks

Stuart Allen

Trainer & Consultant at MTD Training

(Image by stockimages at

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