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Paul Matthews

People Alchemy Ltd


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Tasking for learning


Setting tasks in the learning process is fundamental to any coaching or mentoring process, says Paul Matthews. 

I have seen people get into long and protracted arguments over the difference between coaching and mentoring. What I find even more surprising, is that some people seem to take this so seriously, almost like arguing over which religion is correct. Amongst all this, they seem to have lost sight of the fact that they are simply two ways, among many, to help someone be more, do more, or have more.

In order for someone to be more, do more, or have more, there will be learning involved. Whether you are a coach or a mentor, by whatever definition you choose to use, one of your outcomes for the person you are helping will always be learning. But not just any learning; it will be learning in pursuit of some specific goal that has been agreed.

Given what we know about the way people learn, and that learning generated experientially by doing something seems to have more impact and 'stickability', setting tasks should be a core tool for any coaching or mentoring process.

Take care that the tasks you are setting have a real and defined purpose rather than just generating activity. Each task you set should be designed to achieve a specific outcome, or set of outcomes. Whatever else the tasks are designed to achieve, you should always think about the learning component.

Now that brings up another question. Should you share the learning outcome with the person you are helping? If you think it will help them achieve the learning outcome, then yes, but there is no need to be aware of the learning outcome in order to learn.

Alan Rogers sets out two contrasting approaches to learning: task conscious or acquisition learning and learning-conscious or formalised learning. The first is the kind of learning that happens when you are conscious of the task, though you may be unconscious of any explicit learning taking place. Rogers says it is “concrete, immediate and confined to a specific activity; it is not concerned with general principles”. It is going on all the time and it is how we learn to be a parent or run a home. It is a ‘side-effect of life’. It is the accumulation of experience.

Learning-conscious or formalised learning arises when there is full awareness of learning as an outcome, so it is ‘educative’ learning. The task may not be a learning task, but learning is one of the desired outputs of the task and the task is set up so that learning can take place.

When designing a task, start with the end in mind. What do you want the experience of doing the task to achieve in terms of learning and other outcomes?

Is the task to practice a skill, to reflect on a previous experience or a new concept, to stretch someone, to build a relationship, to search inwards for self-awareness?

Is the primary outcome of the task learning, or something else?

Whether you are a mentor or a coach, or you simply ignore those labels, and you just like helping people be more, do more, or have more, the way you encourage them to have experiences will have a massive impact on how successful you are.

Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, as well as management development and employee performance support. He is also the author of the brand new bestseller "Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times". Paul blogs at

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