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

CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORKS

Learning is a signature trait for all human beings. From the dawn of history, learning has been a natural human talent, something that’s been hardwired into our brains and bodies. 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. This visceral awareness of ours, and the instinctive ability to react and respond that this trait creates in us was, from the beginning, what human learning’s been all about. 

Our reliance on this instinctive learning ability has served us well for eons and eons. However, 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’ trust in these natural learning talents started to fall by the wayside. Rudimentary forms of teaching emerged, especially among religious groups, where their witch doctors, shamans, and priests started teaching novitiates their community’s norms, and their newly developed abilities to read and write. 

TEACHING as learning

Around 350 BC, formal teaching centers emerged in many ancient communities. These teaching centers were sponsored and overseen by religious sects, which sponsored cathedral and 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 were essentially scholastic guilds. Eventually, at least in the Western world, 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 1685, all 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 had originally been a total reliance on our instinctive learning abilities. Gradually, the way we humans learn has become 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 had become 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 human learning abilities. In their place, we have decided that all learning requires the kind of formal education 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. 

21ST CENTURY LEARNING

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 an important part of the human learning process. Our formal educational experiences represent preliminary stepping stones, educational accomplishments that we need because, to really learn what to do and how to do it, we need to internalize new information, concepts, and theories but 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 will never, by themselves, guarantee us that we’ll successfully develop the perspectives, modes of thinking, and 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 can 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 second experienced-based component where we test out our new concepts and theories through new ways of acting.

FRONT END / BACK END LEARNING

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 learning journeys. We need learning journeys that are aimed directly at improving both what we know and 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: a “Front End” step that’s focused on acquiring new knowledge and a “Back End” step that’s concerned with translating this new knowledge into new skills.

Over the past couple of decades, educators and scholars alike have all discovered 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, 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 stay beside you through you most critical learning-journey moments. This is true because, at base, learning is a process that involves the transformation of newly acquired knowledge into complex, real-world skills. This takes time because it’s hard to create for yourself the ongoing ability to design, implement, and evaluate your own personal learning experiments. 

So, 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. Accomplishing this kind of integration only happens through the use of key learning skills. TLO’s Learning Resource Center is designed to assist you in your exploration of these propositions and ideas. Clicking any of the navigation buttons you see below will help you learn more about the ways TLO can help you develop the advanced learning skills you need to have mastered so you can acquire the knowledge that’s relevant to your growth andsuccessfully implement the learning experiments that turn this new knowledge into new skills. 

To develop the complex new skills that this century demands, we need to be capable of implementing this learning equation:

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

Over time, this resource area will explore and discuss a number of issues that are associated with 21st Century learning, especially the 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 and all of these 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.