In the midst of everything that goes on at this time of year, I almost always make December a time for reflection and planning. My birthday is at the beginning of the month; the year turns at the end of the month; and there is often something liminal about the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. In this season, my head automatically goes to the question of how next year might mark the beginning of something special – something I can create by changing approaches, making new commitments, and deepening my learning.

A Learning Syllabus

On a recent Teaching in Higher Education podcast, Bonni Stachowiak and Katie Linder talked about creating a syllabus of sorts for their personal learning goals. That idea really captured my imagination, possibly because I had just completed several graduate class syllabi and was deeply immersed in ensuring that students would not only learn about the topic at hand, but also learn to apply new concepts and skills effectively. I immediately thought: Why not leverage my course design skills to make a concrete plan for my own development? (Blinding flash of the obvious.)

I’ve since been noodling what my 2018 learning goals might be – and the list of possibilities is exciting, but daunting. I finally decided to use these questions to narrow the learning projects to which I will make an extensive commitment:

What are the most compelling differences between now-me and the future-me to which I aspire?
In her book on the learning 4.0 mindset (Unstoppable You), Pat McLagen points out that a lot of learning comes from the creative tension between who we are now and who we want to be. For long term learning, you need deep motivation – a compelling why, a “future vision that energizes you and motivates you to act.” A strongly desired future around who you are and what you want to do – one that is richly animated in your imagination – is a powerful impetus for learning and change. So I am asking hard questions about what I want to be and where I want to contribute in order to develop the most important learning goals for the upcoming year.

Oddly, this question is driving me toward a learning goal that I’m not really excited about: If I aspire to contribute more impactfully to our field, I have to get better at marketing my consulting practice offerings – and I kinda hate marketing. Sigh. But I won’t be in a position to contribute if people don’t know what I have to offer. My insight here is that it’s especially important to make a solid plan for learning goals that are important but not necessarily inherently motivating. Resource suggestions on this point are welcome.

What are the areas in which I want to continue to develop my expertise?
As a seasoned professional, there is much that I have learned that forms the basis for the value that I can add to projects and conversations. But the world changes rapidly, and my knowledge and skill base needs to be constantly updated. So I’m asking myself which areas need concerted attention – which skills are most needed by my clients, which knowledge areas most significantly inform my consulting and writing, and which might make me more productive, more nimble, or more exceptional at what I do.

The short list generated by this question includes continuing to study creativity and design thinking, the vast array of relevant learning and development theory, and professional skills like writing and presenting. My plan is to pick only one of these for the full syllabus treatment. I’ll keep the others on the radar so that I can take advantage of opportunities for learning and practice as they come up.

What piques my curiosity? What do I want to learn “for fun”?
In graduate school, my adult learning professor required us to engage in a semester-long learning project to explore learning from inside a self-directed project. I somewhat regret that I didn’t take that opportunity to learn something frivolous. (Of all things, I chose to learn Microsoft Project, which painfully confirmed that it was the wrong tool for my team at work and the wrong tool for what I had in mind as well.) If I’m going to hold myself accountable for a few learning goals this year, let one be just for fun. I’m asking myself what I’ve always wanted to learn and just never explored in any depth.

Learning to play the piano comes immediately to mind, but that may be a bigger commitment than I am willing to make at this moment. Exploring musical theatre would be interesting, and I love interior design and architecture so those areas hold appeal as well. I saw an eye-opening children’s literature illustration exhibit this past year, so that topic is also under consideration for this coveted spot. Whatever I decide, I imagine the plan would be involve reading, going to museums, and other easy-to-access activities. I would look forward to committing to something intriguing and enjoyable as part of my 2018 adventure.

A syllabus template

Once I decide on a few deliberate learning goals, I’ll use my syllabus-building skills to make a concrete plan, complete with assignments, deadlines, and rewards. I think completing three year-long plans is a do-able aspiration, especially considering they will have varying levels of difficulty and time commitment.

My personal professional development syllabi won’t look quite like my course syllabi, but there are some features I want to borrow:

A big idea
I’ll capture in words the significant outcomes and compelling reasons for pursuing each learning project.
(The concept of a “big idea” referred to here comes from Edmund Hansen’s Idea Based Learning with additional nuance provided by Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences.)

Learning goals
I’ll craft several specific outcomes that will allow me to analyze if I have made progress.

Learning activities and schedule
This section will map out a set of activities and deadlines. As with my courses, the plan will contain both learning activities AND application activities. We know, of course, that active engagement is critical, but we often leave that out of to-dos related to our professional development goals (probably because application is assumed). My expertise in learning environment design and curation will no doubt come into play here. And I enjoy crafting potent activities, so this will be a good challenge for my design skills. I bet having a schedule for all this will prove important, too – both during planning (so I can be realistic) and during execution (so I don’t forget!).

Pause points
I plan to put specific pause points on my calendar to nudge me to check myself on progress and re-assess the plan.

No rubrics or grades. But it would be nice to reward myself with something desirable if I feel deserving. In graduate school, I told myself I could buy a long-coveted pinky ring when I completed my dissertation. (I refer to it as my doctor ring.) I don’t think jewelry is the right prize here, but I’ll think of something, perhaps a special trip for my birthday weekend next December.

Doing what we do best – for ourselves

It’s always disheartening to hear learning professionals lament the lack of attention on their own learning and development needs. Often, they are pointing out lack of support from management and overfull schedules as the culprits. But I suspect that some of the problem lies in lack of inclination to devise our own learning plans in accordance with what we know about design and about how people learn. Crafting syllabi for my learning is one way I can turn my expertise toward working on my own development. It’s certainly exciting to make this commitment for 2018.

Perhaps this approach will help you, too. Feel free to borrow it and morph it to your own ends – let me know how it goes! You are welcome to contact me if you’d like help.