Learning to Learn for Architects

Learning to learn for architects

5 min read

Architecture is an industry notorious for a culture of long hours. Many, particularly young graduates, accept this condition as part and parcel of the industry. It must be normal because everyone is doing right? We convince ourselves that all the additional overtime working towards our project deadline can’t last forever. We make promises to ourselves about all the cool and exciting things that we are going to do once the project is completed. The truth is, however, that downtime never arrives, because sure enough, right after your project finishes, there is another waiting just behind. So how then can one learn? This article explores some of the research around learning and suggests a framework for architects to learn to learn.

Learners are made not born

A growing body of research is making it clear that learners are made, not born. In short, effective learning often boils down to a type of project management. To develop an area of expertise, we first have to set achievable goals about what we want to learn. Then we have to develop strategies to help us reach those goals.2 This is where Continued Professional Development (CPD) can play an important role.

‘…learners are made, not born.’

Continued Professional Development

The premise of CPD is that work-related learning and development should continue throughout your career. It is one of the key mechanisms by which high standards of professional practice and the relevance and currency of qualifications and experience are maintained. Depending on your geographic location, your professional CPD requirements will vary.

In NSW, for example, the Architects Registration Board (ARB) requires architects to complete 20 hours per year. In the UK, members of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) are required to undertake at least 35 hours per year. While this equates to only 45 minutes per week learning, all too often CPD is dismissed as a professional burden and crammed in at the 11th hour simply to satisfy regulatory compliance.

But now, more than ever, architects need to become better at learning. In the words of Arie de Geus, a business theorist, ‘the ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.’1 When we can all retrieve the same information, the key differentiator is not access to data, but the ability to make use of it; the capacity to translate the available information into useful knowledge.

Making time

The first step to learning is to set aside time for learning. I often hear people say that they are interested in learning new software, but they simply don’t have the time. While the intention is there, it simply isn’t high on their priority list. But like most things in life, there is never a good time; you need to make time. While many employers claim to promote a culture of learning, this can quickly go out the door with a looming deadline. And since we know from experience that there are always deadlines, intentions don’t match reality. It is therefore essential that you own your learning process, managing your professional growth and development. If you are waiting to be told what to learn and when to learn, you are not proactive about your learning. It is up to you to set aside the necessary time to learn.3

‘…there is never a good time; you need to make time.’

Ignoring strengths

The next step is to ignore your strengths. If you want to acquire new skills, you will, by definition, have to focus on what you don’t know rather than what you do know. All too often, I see delegates at a conference attend presentations on topics they are already proficient in. While this might demonstrate professional competence, it significantly restricts potential knowledge growth. So why not challenge yourself at the next conference to learn something completely unfamiliar. Indeed, many of the CPD regulations mandate that learning occurs across different core competencies.

Fostering a learning culture

The final step to learning must address the culture in which we learn. Vulnerability plays a big part in this. Most of us are so busy trying to demonstrate competence that we forget to learn, and we perceive asking for help as a sign of weakness. As David Weinberger famously said, when a knowledge network is working effectively, the smartest person in the room is the room itself.4 An organisation, therefore which does not promote active knowledge sharing and the permission to ask questions, is one which is destined to fail. But don’t just wait for your organisation to change – become vulnerable, ask questions and share your new knowledge. You may just spark a new learning culture in your organisation.

Buffering the effects of stress

But if professional compliance and growth isn’t enough reason to convince you to dedicate time to learning something new, consider this. Recent research suggests that embracing learning can be a more active way to buffer yourself from the negative effects of stress at work.5 The authors note that there are typically two ways people try to deal with stress.

One is to simply ‘buckle down and power through’ — to focus on getting the stressful work done. Sound familiar? The other common tactic is to retreat — to temporarily disconnect from work and get away from the stressful environment. Unfortunately, research has long established that we humans have limits in handling heavy workloads and secondly, ‘while a reprieve from work can provide temporary relief, it does not address the underlying problems that cause stress in the first place.’ By focusing on learning, we can not only help lower levels of burnout but also learn new skills and capabilities to address or even prevent future stressors.

’embracing learning can be a more active way to buffer yourself from the negative effects of stress at work.’

Spaced learning

Some employers have the attitude that they can send out employees for training for a few days of intensive training and come back proficient. Job done. The classic example of this is Revit training. Many companies still offer three- and five-day training courses. But we all know what happens when we do this – we get all geared up for a project, attend software training, come back raring to go only to find that the project has been put on hold. By the time the project starts up again, you’ve already forgotten what you learnt.

But you don’t need to be an AEC professional to know that. Just think back to all those university exams you crammed for. How much of that content do you remember? Information might be adequately stored for a short time – enough to complete an exam – but it doesn’t stick as well as it would if it had been studied over a more extended period. Research validates the claims that ‘spaced’ learning is a more effective way of remembering new information than ‘massed’ learning.6

Get learning now

What does this all mean? Basically, you should structure your learning around short and frequent sessions – just like those offered by Parametric Monkey! So get learning now. Not only will it help satisfy your CPD obligations, but it may also save your health by tempering the ill effects of stress.


1 Andersen, E. (March 2016). Learning to learn. Harvard Business Review Press.

2 Boser, U. (2 May 2018). Learning is a learned behavior: Here’s how to get better at it. Harvard Business Review Press.

3 Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (20 July 2018). Take control of your learning at work. Harvard Business Review Press.

4 Weinberger, D. (2014). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room.

5 Zhang, C. et al. (4 Sept 2018). To cope with stress, try learning something new. Harvard Business Review Press.

6 Lodge, J. (11 Oct 2018). Why block subjects might not be best for university student learning. In The Conversation.

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