Building Learning Partnerships

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Most often, Learning Partnerships involve two partners. Occasionally, they might involve three or four partners. To ensure their long-term sustainability, Learning Partnerships should never exceed seven partners. 

Whatever its size, each partnership must be built to support and accomplish four things:

  • Focus its partners' attention on the issues, concerns, and problems that the complexity of their work and the dysfunctions in their lives are creating for them.
  • Encourage each partner to question whether the complexity of the issues and problems currently troubling, frustrating, or confounding them will ever respond to simple solutions.
  • Encourage each partner to share their own lived experiences and personal expertise with their partners in ways that assertively support clarity, respect, and understanding.
  • Create an environment where the partners are neither an authority figure for the group nor a subordinate member.

The environment these four tenets create enables the partners to recognize the complexity of the issues they're dealing with. It helps the partners come to terms with why they need to bring forward, into the partnership's joint knowledge construction process, their own internal voices and, in this context, recognize, value, and support the partners' interdependent collaboration. Learning Partnerships respect the partners' deepest voices and personal experiences. In this way, the partners realize the importance of learning-to-learn ideas, techniques, and know-how in their efforts to strengthen their respective meaning-making capabilities.

Every Learning Partnership is a journey into the terrors and wonders of complexity. As suggested in TLO's October blog, Transformational Learning Basics, this journey is always a developmentally sequenced effort. Post adolescence, each partner's journey progresses through as many as four or five evolutionary stages. Supporting the sequential evolution of one's own worldview over the weeks and months that are required to challenge and reframe it is what each Learning Partnership is built to support, facilitate, and encourage.

The developmentally sequenced journeys that Learning Partnerships are built to facilitate are almost always challenging to their Learning Partners. This is because most new partners are not accustomed to the high level of vulnerability that they'll be asked to confront along the way . Nor have they been taught throughout their lives how to surrender personal control and relax into the mutual influence processes that are the touchstone of an effective Learning Partnership.

Learning about all this -- and getting accustomed to what it feels like to be both vulnerable and challenged inside the partnership -- is an essential part of each Learning Partnership's startup. The members of a Learning Partnership need to begin their journey by working their way through a distinct set of questions that, when answered, establish the partnership's context and its specific conversational rules and boundaries: There are, so to speak, "first moves" that must be made by the partners if they're going to introduce, support, and enact the four tenets summarized above. Some partners must make the first moves, others need to respond. Whoever does what, years of experience and volumes of research clearly prove that the partners' initial interactions with one another must follow a predetermined script that, for the Learning Partnership as a whole, will constitute the learning partners' "opening dance routine."

This "first dance" becomes a sequence of decisions that creates a setting for the partners. One that allows the partners to decide whether each will be safe while one is being vulnerable with the other. Each new partnership's opening dance enacts the trust-building "moves" the partners need to confirm for themselves whether their own sense of self-worth, dignity, and value is going to be "mirrored" in their new learning partners' eyes, hearts, and behaviors. Each opening dance routine creates a framework that lets each partner "confirm" whether or not they can safely trust their learning partners through the terrors and wonders of the learning journey they're about to step into.

This blog is the first of at least three more that we'll offer about building effective Learning Partnerships. Subsequent blogs will explore the five components of an effective Learning Partnership:

  • The partners' presence
  • Their frames of reference
  • The partnership's infrastructure
  • The long-term dance routines
  • The interaction cadence needed to build and sustain appropriate focus and momentum.

 Questions? Comments? Contributions? Criticisms? We welcome your input and feedback on this or any future Learning Partnership blogs. 

Experiential Learning


In 1984, Dr. Kolb proposed a learning model that championed a four step experiential learning sequence. In his model, Dr. Kolb hypothesized that, for someone to be an effective learner, they needed four distinct skill sets. The first was the ability to act intentionally. The second was the ability to observe and reflect on the real-time, real-life experiences that their actions create. The third was the ability to conceptualize and re-conceptualize these experiences. The fourth was the ability to take these reconceptualizations and, in the  best sense of this word, "play" with the new experimental behaviors these new ideas were suggesting.  

In action, these skill sets unfolded 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.

In real life, these skill sets produce these results:

  • Immediate action creates the experiential basis for personal observations and reflection;
  • These reflections allow us to pull together old assumptions into new conceptual theories, from which we can deduce new implications for action;
  • These new hypotheses then serve us as guides for “experimenting” with new behaviors in our real worlds: 
  • In turn, these new behaviors create new experiences for us, which restarts the learning cycle.

Altogether Dr. Kolb's learning cycle looks like this. 


For me, Dr. Kolb's Cycle of Learning is the framework I believe most effective learners use to move themselves through their learning efforts. Regardless of whether or not they're aware of it, they inevitably use some version of Kolb's four step learning cycle to guide their learning efforts. 

This is true, I think, because Kolb's learning cycle framework supports the three types of learning journeys that are necessary for effective living in today's world, i.e.,...

        * The experiential learning we need to do to strengthen skills we already have that are beginning to produce for us less than optimal results.

         * The experiential learning we need to do when we're faced with developing new skills we 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 experience-based learning: Two 'horizontal' efforts that are concerned with addressing current, real-world issues where either personal and/or professional improvement is the order of the day. And a third 'vertical' effort that's specifically aimed at opening doorways that lead us to the transformation of old, outdated modes of  thinking into new mindsets that will be better suited to tomorrow's new challenges and opportunities .

The horizontal learning efforts are concerned with skill building. They're for those who need to improve existing skills so they can help us respond to new circumstances. And they're 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 want to build the leadership talents they need to reach their goals, and/or achieve the recognition they believe they deserve.

Vertical learning efforts are different than horizontal efforts. Vertical learning is an approach that helps people learn how to respond effectively to radically new situations and circumstances. It accomplishes this by helping them 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, experience-based horizontal and vertical learning are gradually becoming the foundation for the 21st Century's approach to learning. At TLO, we believe 'lived experience' is the beating heart and the driving force behind both these types of learning journeys. Experientially-based learning, whether their horizontal or vertical, are the skills sets we believe are essential for anyone who wants to effectively respond to the 21st Century's startling challenges and inspiring opportunities. 

David A. Kolb is a seminal actor in the experiential learning field. For more than three decades, Dr. Kolb has been a leading proponent of experiential learning. Dr. Kolb is 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)