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


Learning is a signature trait for all human beings. From the dawn of history, learning has been a natural talent, something that’s hardwired into our bodies and brains. Our inborn neurobiological capabilities gave and still give us the ability to react and adapt to life's toughest threats and its most challenging opportunities. Our visceral awareness, and our instinctive ability to react and respond that this talent creates for us was, from the beginning, what human learning’s been all about. 

Our reliance on our instinctive learning abilities served us well for eons and eons. However, beginning with the emergence of our earliest tribal communities, our reliance on our instinctual learning talents started to wane. Eventually, with the rise of large-scale civilizations in places like Mesopotamia and Egypt, humans’ reliance on their instinctive learning abilities and talents started to fall by the wayside. Rudimentary forms of teaching emerged in these early civilizations, especially among religious groups, where witch doctors, shamans, and priests started teaching novitiates their community’s norms and their newly developing ability to read and write. 

TEACHING as learning

Around 350 BC, formal teaching centers emerged in many ancient societies. These teaching centers were sponsored and overseen by religious sects, which sponsored monastic schools, and by royal courts and quasi-scientific institutions that sponsored museums, hospitals, and observatories. By 1300, with the coming of the Renaissance, teaching as a way of learning had become widespread, and formal teaching schools like the Florentine Platonic Academy in Italy emerged from what had essentially been scholastic guilds. Eventually, the first colleges and universities evolved out of these rudimentary teaching centers. Formal colleges and universities started appearing in the West in the 11th century. The first was the University of Bologna, which was founded in 1087. The University of Paris was chartered in 1150. By 1700, learning, whether it was for children, teenagers, or adults, had been taken over by formal teaching institutions. 

What this history lesson points to is the idea that over eons’ worth of time, our approach to learning has slowly moved us, as human beings, further and further away from what originally had been a total reliance on our instinctive learning abilities. Gradually, the way we humans learn became less focused on our neurobiological capabilities and more concerned with our intellectual development, especially our ability to create, teach, and absorb new knowledge. By the 1300s, during what eventually became known as The Enlightenment, teaching became our primary means of learning, replacing “doing” as our primary approach. Regrettably, across the last several hundred years, this trend has accelerated to the point where now the Western world has seemingly lost all awareness of our instinctive learning abilities. In their place, we’ve decided that all learning requires the kind of formal education that’d you can only get in classrooms filled with students who are busy being taught by formally certified teachers. Today, learning has become synonymous with formal classroom-based education. 


During the last three decades of the 20th century, educators started noticing that teaching students prepackaged subjects like reading, writing and arithmetic, or even U.S. history or 17th century literature can’t be all there is to learning. By itself, formal classroom teaching is not the same thing as learning. The curricula we’re taught in elementary school, high school, and college are certainly important parts of the human learning process. Our formal educational experiences represent preliminary stepping stones, educational accomplishments that we need to complete because, to really learn what to do and how to do it in this new world of ours, we need to have assimilated relevant information, concepts, and theories. But, in truth, today we also need to create for ourselves new, more responsive ways doing what needs doing.

In this regard, over the last three decades, scholars have discovered that, when it comes to real learning, no matter how well our teachers have taught us, the new information, concepts, or theories that they’ve given us never will, by themselves, guarantee us that we’ll successfully develop the modes of thinking and the associated behavioral skills that we need to survive and thrive in today's volatile, complex, uncertain world. Today, in addition to the information and knowledge our teachers teach us, each of us also needs to be able to transform what we’ve been taught into things that need doing in the real world. In short, real learning — learning that’s matched to the demands confronting us today — needs both an initial educational component and a subsequent experienced-based component where we test out our new concepts and theories through new ways of behaving.


In short, today each of us needs to know how to transform the knowledge we’ve developed through our formal educational experiences into personal and professional skills. We need formal educational experiences, but we also need experience-based learning journeys that are specifically aimed at improving what we can do. To create this kind of two step learning process, we have to realize that over time any learning we attempt needs to include two essential elements; first a “Front-End” step that’s focused on acquiring new knowledge and then a “Back-End” step that’s concerned with translating our new knowledge into new skills.

Over the past couple of decades, educators and scholars alike have all discovered that this kind of learning takes time, weeks and months of hard, disciplined work. Whether you’re trying to strengthen existing skills, develop new ones, or reframe outdated beliefs, real-world learning takes time –time to explore, to think through, to practice, practice, and then practice some more. It takes the support of a trusted thought partner who knows this, someone who’s willing to stand beside you through you most critical learning-journey moments. Thought partnerships are a crucial piece of this puzzle because, at base, learning is a process that involves the transformation of newly acquired knowledge into complex, real-world skills, which is a two step process that needs learning partners because, on our own, it’s hard to create for ourselves the ongoing ability to design, implement, and evaluate our own personal learning experiments. An outside perspective can be crucial.

Bottom line, in addition to formal degrees and advanced training certificates, each of us needs to know how to leverage the knowledge we've acquired in school or at a training program into personal and professional learning journeys. We need to know how to design and implement personalized learning programs that (a) improve the essential skills we already have, (b) develop the new skills we need to succeed at work and in our lives, or (c) reframe our outdated modes of thinking so that we’re able to respond effectively to the challenges and opportunities we now face. Whether you have personal issues to address or professional goals to realize, you need to know how to integrate your “Front-End” knowledge development efforts with your “Back-End” learning experiments.  

TLO’s New Learning Formula

To develop the new knowledge and the complex new skillsets that this century is demanding, we need to be capable of implementing this new learning equation:

“Formal Education + Self-Directed Learning Experiments = Successful Personal and Professional Development”

Over time, TLO’s 21st Century Learning Center will explore and discuss the issues that are associated with 21st Century learning. Of special interest here will be our new Front End/Back End approach to learning. In this context experiential learning will be one focus. Another will be transformational learning. We’ll also look closely at the techniques and tools that Self-Directed Learning and Self-Directed Neuroplasticity bring to the table. In particular, we'll explore 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 what’s now being called the Biopsychosocial Development field, which emphasizes the interconnectedness of an individual and his or her context, need some attention. Each of these is 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.

Accomplishing this kind of integration only happens with effort and practice. TLO’s Learning Resource Center is designed to assist you in exploring these propositions and ideas. Clicking either of the navigation buttons you see below will help you learn more about the ways TLO can help you acquire the knowledge that’s relevant to your growth and successfully implement the learning experiments that turn this new knowledge into new skills. If you have comments, requests, or questions related to anything that's piqued your interest, please reach out.