One of the key ideas we talk about in the Learning Service book is about embracing a learning mindset. In fact, we believe that it is one of the most important factors in trying to ensure your work as a volunteer is effective. Having a learning mindset means becoming aware of and challenging assumptions and stereotypes, seeing every difficulty as a learning opportunity, and being open to new ideas and ways of doing things.

A common reaction from potential volunteers is that while they understand the importance of cultivating this mindset, they don’t understand exactly what it is or how to practice it. A learning mindset is less a task that can be achieved or mastered and is more a way of being that comes naturally over time – but at first it can be important to make a conscious effort to shift your attitudes. Here are some tips to help you get there.

Discover your own learning style

People learn in different ways. Maybe you learn best through research and reading, or maybe you need to hear something or discuss it in order for it to stick. Alternatively, maybe the only way you feel you truly learn something is by getting involved and actually doing it. Do you need structure and external motivation, or do you need to be in control of your own learning? In reality, people tend to learn in a mixture of ways, but often have a preferred style, so think about the learning experiences that you have had throughout your life and which ones have stuck with you and been most powerful, and seek out similar opportunities.

Remove mental barriers

There may be barriers in your subconscious preventing you from truly opening up to learning. Mental barriers are particularly difficult to spot so it is useful to be able to identify what they are in order to overcome or discard them. Past experiences or unhelpful labels may hinder you. Maybe you struggled at school and have since thought of yourself as not academically talented or not a good learner. Maybe you did well at school and therefore don’t want to try learning something very different and risk failure. Or perhaps you recall previously trying to learn a language, play an instrument or gain a skill and not being good at it, so you are reluctant to try again.

Remember that past experiences do not dictate the future. If you are feeling negatively towards something you feel like you should learn, or are just come up against massive mental blocks, identify what is causing resistance and try to move past these barriers. You are not dumb or tone-deaf or unathletic, and you can learn and make progress in things you find difficult. Reframe the way you think about learning – not as a mammoth task that looms ahead, or as a dreary chore, but as an opportunity to come alive, achieve your goals and engage with the world around you.

Question, question, question

We can never overstate how crucially important questions are in learning. Knowledge isn’t static, it can be continually changed and expanded by an ever-deepening series of questions. Answers are of course important, but never see an answer as an end point, or information as neutral or fixed. Cultivating a learning mindset means being comfortable with unanswered questions and thriving in the spirit of discovery.

Critical thinking and reflection

Thinking critically is to never accept information at face value, and to look from many vantage points and perspectives. Few things are black and white, most are complex and nuanced. We are drawn to information that seems to support our preconceived notions, which is a phenomenon psychologists called confirmation bias. It can therefore be important to involve others in your learning, especially those whom you know hold different beliefs to you, have different political opinions, or have vastly different life experiences. When you read an article or hear a news story, it can be useful to interrogate it. Is it true? How do I know? Whose voice is missing from the narrative? Why do I agree/disagree with the conclusions? Whom do I know that would think differently? Although this requires some effort, it can be extremely rewarding for ensuring that your ideas are well-informed.

See learning as broad

In the Learning Service book we talk about how having a learning mindset can help you in your overseas travel decisions. But it may help you to broaden your definition of “learning” to include all aspects of your daily life and relationships, as it is also through these that you can make your contribution to improving the world.

You may have heard of the theory of multiple intelligences, which rescues the concept of learning from being school-like book learning, and widens it to include such things as social intelligence and emotional intelligence. Deepening your self-awareness and practicing the attitudes you wish to cultivate also fall within our definition of a learning mindset, and while they can be important for an overseas travel experience, developing these qualities can also vastly enhance the rest of your life.