Those of us working at TLO know that both in and out of school, at this point in history, each one of us needs to know how to organize and pursue three key learning tasks:
* Strengthen the skills we already have, especially those that are beginning to produce less-than-optimal results for us.
* Develop new skills to respond effectively to the complex, problematic challenges we face at work and at home.
* Reframe of the basic assumptions and presumptions we currently hold about our lives and the world we live in, that all too rapidly are becoming outdated.
The first two learning tasks are what educators today call “horizontal learning.” The first horizontal learning task — strengthening existing skills — is concerned with the ways you can address real-world issues, where the task at hand is improving existing skillsets, either personal or professional. The second horizontal learning task — developing new skills — is concerned with the ways you can best address your toughest real-world issues, where the tasks at hand require you to question the concepts, models, and skillsets you learned inside your family-of-origin. The third and last learning task — reframing basic assumptions — is what educators call “vertical learning.” This task isn’t concerned with improving existing skills or developing new ones. Rather, it’s concerned with opening new perceptual and conceptual doorways that will lead you into reframing your old, outdated modes of thinking into new mindsets that are better suited to showing you when, where, and how to perceive and respond to today’s and tomorrow’s new challenges and opportunities.
In 21st century learning terms, horizontal learning is concerned with skill building. It’s an approach to learning best suited for those who need to improve the skills they already have so they can help themselves respond more effectively to the issues and problems in their everyday lives. Horizontal learning is also for those who need to develop new skills that more appropriately and effectively match up with the confusion, frustration and disappointment that comes along with failing to fix your life’s everyday problems and challenges. Finally, horizontal learning is also for those who must build the interpersonal and leadership talents needed to reach their goals and/or achieve the recognition they believe they deserve.
Vertical learning, on the other hand, is a totally different type of learning. It’s an approach that helps people learn how to alter their brain’s architecture so they, with the new neurobiological wiring they develop in the brains and bodies, can respond more effectively to radically new situations and circumstances. Vertical learning accomplishes this by showing people 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 neuronal architecture, especially the brain’s neurobiological ways of perceiving, thinking, feeling, and acting.
At TLO, we’ve discovered that every person’s “lived experiences” are the beating heart and the driving force behind all three of these types of learning journeys. Together, horizontal and vertical learning are the foundation of the 21st century’s new approaches to learning.
David A. Kolb was the first to realize that human learning is a process. One that’s helps individuals deal with their most important everyday issues, problems, and opportunities. Real learning is always primarily concerned with the methods and techniques individuals use in their efforts to figure out how to cope with and respond to the most problematic and difficult experiences in their lives. As a seminal actor in the field, Kolb has been the leading advocate for the proposition that experiential and self-directed learning is at the heart of human learning.
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, a person 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-life experiences their actions create. The third is the ability to conceptualize and re-conceptualize these experiences. The fourth is the ability to take these conceptualizations and, in the best sense of this word, “play” with the new experimental behaviors they’re suggesting – new behaviors that seem to be more effective ways of responding than their old habit patterns.
In action, the learning cycle looks like this:
1. Immediate action provides the basis for observation and reflection;
2. These observations are pulled together into a conceptual ‘theory” from which new implications for action are deduced;
3. These hypotheses then serve as guides for “experimenting” with new behaviors in the real world;
4. These new behaviors in the real world, in turn, create new experiences.
We believe Kolb’s experiential learning model describes the basic learning process that all individuals naturally follow while learning, regardless of what they’re trying to learn. Kolb’s four-step learning cycle models the sequence 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 their 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 explore and evaluate the nature of our unconscious modes of thinking, feeling, and acting. When we shift our focus of attention from outside to inside, Kolb’s basic learning sequence lets us use his four steps as a guide that supports our vertical learning efforts. The learning sequence 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 world through Kolb’s four-step process kick-starts vertically oriented transformations.
Three additional observations about horizontal and vertical learning in the 21st century are worth mentioning.
First, while it’s true that Dr. Kolb’s four-phased learning sequencer is foundational, this is only true with respect to the first two types of horizontal learning: improving existing skillsets and developing new skills for new circumstances. Vertical learning is a differenttype of learning. It’s concerned with reframing basic assumptions into a new worldview and new mindsets. As such, it’s concerned with our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings, not with what’s happening to us in the outside world. Vertical learning is concerned with what’s going on internally.
In this context, Jack Mezirow’s ideas about transformative learning improve Kolb’s four-step learning sequence. For example, Mezirow’s emphasis on disorienting dilemmas as key to transformational learning turns our attention inward. His emphasis on self-examinations, critical assessments, and connection recognition processes, as well as his emphasis on the new actions a person takes strengthens Kolb’s emphasis on critical reflection Finally, Mezirow makes it explicit that, in every horizontal learning effort, people’s attention must focus on their experiences in the outside world. while in any vertical effort, people’s focus must be internal, focused on discovering and uncovering previously unquestionable assumptions and presuppositions.
Second, one of the 21st century’s most important discoveries about human learning is the idea of “Self-Directed Learning.” Self-Directed Learning is grounded in two radical propositions, one of which brings us right back to where we started –our inborn, instinctive neurobiolocal learning talents –but this time we’re being asked to consciously understand and appreciate these into an appreciation of natural talents. Self-directed learning is based on the idea that real human learning, that is, learning that helps us develop new ways of thinking, feeling and acting, is fundamentally and primarily about the hardwiring in our brains and bodies. It’s not about what we’re taught. It’s not about what information and knowledge we acquired in school. In self-directed learning theory, real learning is all about whether our hardwiring is structured in ways that will allow us to perceive, comprehend, and respond to the complexity, interconnectedness, and pace that we’re just now beginning to live in.
Finally, the most important insight that Self-Directed Learning theory brings to the table is the proposition that the neurobiological hardwiring in our brains and bodies that’s dedicated to shaping and directing our horizontal and vertical learning efforts is not fixed. The hardwiring in our adult brains is not, as we’ve thought, highly stable and permanently fixed. Rather, it’s highly malleable. Our neural networks are not set in concrete, they can be influenced. In fact, on their own in responses to new environmental situations and circumstances, they are actually changing constantly. This means that, across our lives, no matter how old we are, our brains and our bodies’ neurological architecture are open to being consciously influenced and changed. 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.
Herb Simon launched this new approach to learning forty years ago when, in Skill in Chess, he 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’ metacognitive dynamics.
Today, Simon’s 50,000-hour assertion has been both validatedand 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 hoursof deliberate practice for any individualto 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 focused attention is 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 identified another crucial learning skill, which he called “deliberate practice,” and with it 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 insightsabout experiential learning and Mezirow’s propositionsabout transformational learning, show us how to accelerate the pace and increase the effectiveness of any 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 adult learners to successfully translate their formal educational efforts into experiential learning experiments that, when well and faithfully implemented and evaluated, let adult learners master complex new skills in much fewer than the 10,000 hours that Simon proscribed.