Review of the 21st Century' new learning theory and practice


The 21st-Century is pointing us towards three new types of learning:

        * The experiential learning we need to do to strengthen the skills we already have, especially those that are beginning to produce less than optimal results.

         * The experiential learning we need to do to develop the new skills we'll need if we're going to respond effectively to the new challenges we're facing at work and at home. 

           * The mindset reframing efforts we need to launch if we're going to alter the the basic assumptions and presumptions we're currently holding about our lives and the world that we're living in that all too rapidly are becoming outdated. 

Three types of learning: Two 'horizontal' efforts concerned with addressing real-world issues where improvement of either your personal or your professional skillsets is the order of the day; and a third 'vertical' effort that's specifically aimed at opening doorways for you that lead to the transformation of your old, outdated modes of  thinking into new mindsets that will be better suited to helping you perceive and respond to today’s and tomorrow's new challenges and opportunities .

Horizontal learning is concerned with skill building. It's for those who need to improve existing skills so they can help themselves respond to new circumstances. And it's for those who need to develop new skills that will match the increasingly complex personal or professional problems that are quickly becoming every day challenges. Horizontal learning's also for those who need to build the leadership talents they need to reach their goals, and/or achieve the recognition they believe they deserve.

Vertical learning is different. It's an approach that helps people learn how to transform their brain's architecture so they can respond more effectively to radically new situations and circumstances. It accomplishes this by helping people learn how to rewire their brains and minds so they can create for themselves new ways of thinking and feeling. It's focused on learning journeys that alter a person's neuronal architecture, especially their brain's neurobiological ways of perceiving, thinking, feeling, and expressing itself.

Together, horizontal and vertical learning are gradually becoming the foundation of the 21st Century's approach to learning. At TLO, we believe 'lived experience' is the beating heart and the driving force behind all these types of learning journeys.

experiential learning

David A. Kolb is a seminal actor in the experiential learning field. Dr. Kolb has been a leading proponent of experiential learning for more than three decades. He's an Emeritus Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. And he is the founder of Experience Based Learning Systems, Inc. (EBLS)

In 1984, Dr. Kolb proposed a learning model that championed a four-step experiential learning sequence. In his 'Cycle of Learning' model, Dr. Kolb asserted that, to be an effective learner, we must have four distinct skill sets. The first is the ability to act intentionally. The second is the ability to observe and reflect on the real-time, real-life experiences that their actions create. The third is the ability to conceptualize and re-conceptualize these experiences. The fourth is the ability to take these reconceptualizations and, in the  best sense of this word, "play" with the new experimental behaviors they're suggesting. New behaviors that seem to the individual like they may be more effective than their old habit patterns. In action, the learning cycle looks like this: Immediate action provides the basis for observation and reflection; these observations are pulled together into a conceptual ‘theory,” from which new implications for action are deduced; these hypotheses then serve as guides for “experimenting” with new behaviors in the real world, which, in turn, create new experiences. Dr. Kolb's learning cycle is pictured in this diagram. your

We believe this model is the framework that every learner naturally follows regardless of what they're trying to learn. Kolb's four step learning cycle models the processes that people instinctively use to walk themselves through their "horizontal learning activities." It's the sequence of steps and activities they have to use whether they're trying to improve existing skill sets or develop new ones. Consciously using this model strengthens and accelerates your horizontal learning efforts.

If, as learners, we shift the focus of our attention from the world outside us to the world that's inside our minds, then Kolb's four-step learning cycle shows us how to focus our learning efforts on exploring and evaluating the unconscious nature of our habitual modes of thinking, feeling, and acting. Shifting our focus of attention from outside to inside lets us use Kolb's basic learning cycle as a guide that supports our vertical learning efforts. The learning cycle stays the same. What changes is the learner's focus of attention: Attending to issues and challenges in the external world through Kolb's four-step process activates horizontal skill building; attending to the dynamics of our internal worlds through Kolb's four-step process kick-starts vertically oriented transformations.  

Two observations are relevant here. First, a careful review of Jack Mezirow's 10 phase Transformative Learning Theory reveals that Mezirow's approach to Transformative Learning is actually an expanded version of David Kolb's four-step learning cycle model. For example, Kolb's Concrete Experience step includes Mezirow's emphasis on disorienting dilemmas. Kolb's Reflective Observation step is almost identical to Mezirow's 2nd, 3rd, 4th phases (i.e. self-examinations, critical assessments, and connection recognition). Similarly Kolb's Abstract Conceptualization step covers the same territory that Mezirow's 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th transformational phases explore. Kolb's Active Experimentation step and Mezirow's 10th phase both involve the new actions a person takes that are predicated on his or her fresh perspectives and new frames of reference. Second, both Kolb and Mezirow suggest there's a significant difference between an individual's Horizontal skill building efforts and their Vertical transformative learning efforts. In every horizontal learning effort, a person's focus of attention is on their experiences in the outside world. During any vertical effort, a person's focus is essentially internal. 

self-directed learning

Perhaps the most important new 21st Century learning development is what's now being called "Self-Directed Learning."  Self-Directed Learning, both as an alternative concept and complimentary practice, is grounded in two radical propositions. First, that the hardwiring in our adult brains is not, as was once thought, highly stable and permanently fixed. Rather, it's highly malleable. And second, that our brains' hardwiring is actually constantly changing, and open to conscious influence. The new slogan that reflects these new ideas says it this way,  "We can use our minds to change our brains, and our brains to change our minds." This idea is the heart of Self-Directed Neuroplasticity and, for us, it's the one set of ideas and techniques that must become part of our 21st Century Learning approach.

Forty years ago, In Skill in Chess, Herb Simon offered us what is now one of the most famous experiential learning propositions ever published: "There are no instant experts in chess -- certainly no instant masters or grandmasters. There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) when a person has reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade's intense participation with the game." "We," Simon said, " would estimate, very roughly, that a master might spend 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions…" Decades later Dr. Simon's research was the foundation for Malcolm Gladwell's famous 2008 assertion that "it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become world class in any field." Simon's early discoveries opened the door to what's now become a learning revolution, one that's focused on the neurobiology of our brains rather than our minds' meta-cognitive dynamics.

Over time, Simon's assertion has been both validated and pared down. His assertion that “There are no instant experts in chess...” has been reframed so extensively that today it reads, "It takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice for any individual to become world class in any field." Today, we know how and why Simon's insights apply not only to chess masters in the making but also to those of us who are interested in developing new personal and professional competencies. Simon's insights about chess and chess masters were early hints that there is such a thing as "focused attention," and that it's a skill that's a crucial part of all effective learning efforts.

In 2016, K. Anders Ericsson published, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. In this book, Ericsson confirmed that, for most adults, mastering a complex set of new skills does in fact take 10,000+ hours. Simon's and Ericsson's insights about focused attention and deliberate practice, along with Kolb's insights about experiential learning, and Mezirow's propositions about transformational learning, show us how to accelerate the pace and effectiveness of an individual's learning efforts. In fact, the effective integration of Kolb, Mezirow, Simon, and Ericsson into one developmental program seems to dramatically reduce the time it takes for an adult learner to successfully translate their formal educational efforts into experiential learning experiments that let them master complex new skills in much fewer than the 10,000 hours that Simon proscribed. 

exploring new developments 

All together, what we know about Kolb's experiential learning, Mezirow's transformative learning, Simon's focused attention, and Ericsson's deliberate practice shows us that these four elements, when integrated, can create a comprehensive and flexible self-directed approach to learning. And that this approach can be tailored in specific ways that make it easy for me or you to implement valid learning experiments that complement any educational accomplishments we already own, as well as any new educational effort we may be contemplating.

Over time, this 21st Century Learning Resources section will begin to explore and discuss all the issues that are associated with Experiential and Transformational Learning, as well as the techniques and tools that Self-Directed Neuroplasticity brings to the table. In particular, we'll be exploring how you can integrate experiential learning and transformations learning together, and what developments emerge when you do. Finally, it's clear that recent developments in the "Biopsychosocial Development" field -- which advocates a dialectical perspective emphasizing the interconnectedness of an individual and his or her context --  are going to dramatically change what we know about how adult learning evolves. As well as how we should go about encouraging and supporting this kind of bidirectional development. If you have comments, requests, or questions related to anything that's piqued your interest, please reach out.