Those of us working at TLO know that, at this point in history, every one of us needs to know how to organize and pursue three key learning tasks: We need to know how too…
* Strengthen the skills we already have, especially those that produce less-than-optimal results for us.
* Develop the kinds of new skills that are capable of responding effectively to the complex, problematic challenges we’re beginning to facing at work and at home.
* Reframe the basic assumptions and presumptions we currently hold about our lives and the world we live in that are becoming outdated.
The first two learning tasks are concerned with skill building. The first task — strengthening existing skills — is concerned with the ways you address real-world issues. The issue is taking the existing skills you already have, whether they’re personal or professional, and improving them so that they match a broader set of circumstances . The second task — developing new skills — is concerned with adding the skills you need to address your toughest real-world issues. The challenges and problems that have persistently confounded you either at work or in your life. This is where you need to question the concepts, models, and skillsets that you learned inside your family-of-origin. The third and last task — reframing basic assumptions — isn’t concerned with improving existing skills or developing new ones. Rather, this third task is concerned with opening new perceptual and conceptual doorways that will lead you into reframing your old, outdated modes of thinking. The issue here is developing new mindsets that are better suited to perceiving and responding to today’s and tomorrow’s new challenges and opportunities.
In 21st century learning terms, the first two learning tasks are concerned with skill building. Each is an approach to learning that’s 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. And they’re 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. These two tasks are for those who must build the interpersonal and leadership talents needed to reach their goals and/or achieve the recognition they believe they deserve.
The third learning task 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. It 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 a person’s “lived experiences” is the beating heart and the driving force behind the two skill building tasks. The third learning tsk is strictly concerned with reframing your world view and its associated mindsets. Together, together, these three learning tasks are this century’s key learning tasks.
David A. Kolb was the first to realize that lived experiences are the foundation of all learning. Real-world learning is always primarily concerned with the methods and techniques that individuals use in their efforts to figure out how to cope with and respond to their most problematic and difficult experiences. 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. Horizontal learning is focused on improving our performance in the outside world. Vertical learning is a different type of learning. It’s concerned with reframing basic assumptions into a new worldview and new mindsets. As such, it’s concerned with our internal perceptions, thoughts, and feelings, not with what’s happening to us in the outside world. In contrast to horizontal learning, 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 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 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 brain’s hardwiring is structured in ways that will allow us to perceive, comprehend, and respond to the complexity, interconnectedness, and pace that’s characteristic of the world we’re living 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.