The best way to share the learning principles TLO that believes are crucial to effective learning is by offering you the tenets that frame our Front-End/Back-End approach. This will let you explore our approach one principle at a time.

Principle #1: Learning Involves Attitudes, Feelings & Beliefs

When we think of learning, we think mostly of acquiring new ideas and concepts. This is a mistake. Learning is both deeper and broader than grasping new concepts or ideas. While intellectual effort is a basic component of learning, it alone does not guarantee that you will achieve the growth and/or the behavioral change you need. To learn truly, we must fully involve our perceptual, emotional, and attitudinal systems. Real learning is a form of discovery that re-focuses perceptions, assumptions, beliefs, feelings, and values. Moreover, as a process, it successfully tests this reorganization against the problems to which you must apply it. Learning, when it’s real, involves a deep and fundamental reorganization of your internal world. These internal changes are then reflected in new behavior.

Principle #2: Your Internal World Has Three Basic Parts

Nobody, especially any adult, is a blank slate. None of us — not you, not me — comes fresh to the learning of anything. Because we are adults, we hold inside ourselves pre-programmed structures of knowledge. These structures are encoded in both our memories and nervous systems, and anything “new” we want to learn must be inserted into these pre-existing, pre-programmed packets of knowledge. Everything we have known is encoded in our memories and nervous systems as complex skill-sets. These skill-sets are tightly woven combinations of feelings, attitudes, and behavioral patterns. One way of understanding this is to image these three things as linked together in a triangular fashion; Feelings at one point, attitudes at another, and behavioral pattern at the third point of the triangle. 

Each of us, inside our memories, holds millions of these triangulated complexes. As a consequence, learning becomes a task of re-sorting one or more of the tiny pieces that are tied up in each of these skill-sets. You want to learn how to sell better, so you have to alter the images that make up your selling packages. You want to learn to SCUBA dive, so you have to alter the feelings and neural patterns you associate with water, breathing, and swimming. You want to learn how to communicate with a friend, so you have to alter the images, feelings and neural patterns that you associate with Betty, Joe or Jim-Bob.

Principle #3: Learning is a Risk

Learning entails risks because, bottom line, it requires a willingness to confront your own vulnerabilities. To learn, you must risk discovering that, on the feeling side of your triangulated skill set, you are holding onto or misinterpreting the meaning of your own past experiences. To learn, you must acknowledge that you lack the insight, and perhaps the ability, to fully understand and easily control your own behavior. This discovery can be scary.

Principle #4: Learning at Work is Risky

Learning is particularly risky when it deals with personal performance at work. This is the one place where most people think that they are well experienced. It certainly is a place where you believe that others have high expectations for your competence. When you are confronted at work with the need to learn, you usually find it easier to look for gimmicks and objective principles than to risk actually becoming more aware of the limitations of your own pre-set patterns.

Principle #5: Learning at Work in Groups is Particularly Risky

People feel especially at risk when learning in groups. They feel vulnerable, because such contexts expose their privately held personal assumptions to scrutiny by significant others. In the face of such vulnerabilities, concerns over criticisms that may impact their careers crop up, and people quickly develop and deploy defenses against having their behavior criticized. Learning at work increases the risks usually associated with learning, because of the probability of a performance failure and the associated possibilities of ridicule and shame.

Principle #6: Learning is a Cyclical Process

Learning that is aimed at changing your internal skill-sets is a four-step process. If you are to be an effective learner, you must have four kinds of abilities. The first is the ability to act. The second is the ability to observe and reflect upon the experiences you have had while you were “doing? The third is the ability to conceptualize around these experiences. The fourth is the ability to experiment with new behavior that you think may be more effective than your old habit patterns. In action, the learning cycle looks like this: immediate action provides the basis for observation and reflection; these observations are pulled together into a ‘theory,” from which new implications for action are deduced; these hypotheses then serve as guides for “experimenting,” which, in turn, creates new experiences. This cycle is pictured in the following diagram:

In the first stage, you become immersed in concrete action. You just act, doing whatever is relevant to your needs. While acting, you move through your world naively,” simply storing up experiences without examining them. In the second stage, you pause, in order to observe and reflect. You examine your private experience like a jewel, looking at as many facets of it as your memory allows. The goal of this reflective search is a picture, a wholeness to your experience, which will answer the question, “What is happening here?” “What is the essence of my experience?’ If successful, you will end this stage with an image, a metaphor or an analogy. You may break this image down into smaller components, a series of facts or observations, but the is the whole image. For you, this image is the meaning of your action. In the third stage, you move into abstract reasoning. Like a detective, you try to connect the image this one set of experiences offers to other experiences that feel similar. You build a pattern, then extend it into a new theory that explains your experience. In the fourth stage, you test this new theory by playing with its implications. You pull out the implications of your new model, posing them to yourself in the form of hypotheses upon which you can act with some fresh hope for greater success. Your focus here is finding and choosing a way of testing — in action — your major hypotheses. You have developed a hunch about what new action to take to improve your performance and decided to test this hunch. At this point, you move around the loop again, to the first stage, doing whatever you must to make your hypothesis real.

Principle #7: Learning is a Repetitive Process

To really change your behavior, you must cycle through these four stages several times. Once is never enough. Again and again, you will involve yourself in a new experience, in order to observe and reflect upon it, from many perspectives. You then will create concepts that integrate your observations into a logically sound theory, then use this new theory to form behavioral experiments that promise even better returns for you.

Principle #8: Learning Requires Contradictory Skills

A close examination of this four-stage learning model reveals that its steps are polar opposites. In the process of learning, you move in varying degrees from direct, active involvement to general, analytic detachment. Everybody’s learning process thus involves a melding of the tension between opposite ways of being. There are two primary dimensions to this: The first finds concrete action at one end and detached theorizing at the other; the second dimension places active experimenting at one extreme and reflective observation at the other. You continually must choose which set of learning abilities you bring to bear in any specific learning situation.

Principle #9: Real Learning is Grounded in Real Life

Given previous propositions, this suggestion seems somewhat obvious. Yet, too often, we fail to understand the implication of this proposition. Learning is not a process that starts or stops at the classroom door. The learning described by these propositions is grounded in life. The child who sits idly watching a fly move along a window sill is busy learning. The youngster who creates chaos in the classroom may not be learning the curriculum, but at least he is learning how to create chaos. And the person who sits quietly doing nothing at least is learning how to withdraw from the world without antagonizing it. Seen in this light, learning is an ongoing activity for everyone, a pursuit most alive when it is grounded in the essential aspects of one’s own real life.

This point cannot be over-emphasized. Most often we take the narrow view of learning, assuming that we are learning only when we are in a classroom, acquiring new ideas from outside experts. It is a big mistake for us to identify our learning with “curriculum acquisition.” What you learn about yourself in the long run, will always be more important to you than what you learn from a canned classroom curriculum. The slow student is quick to learn that he is slow. Consequently, he soon learns how to mask his deficiencies, either by using his memory — so that he appears to be learning — or by defensive maneuvers, such as becoming the class clown or bully.

Principle #10: All Learning is Really Re-Learning

It is easy and tempting for all of us to think of a student’s mind as a blank piece of paper. This is not the case. Everyone enters every learning situation with some ideas about the topic at hand. Past the age of five, we are all historians, chemists and atomic physicists. To ourselves, we are experts in whatever is grabbing our attention. No matter the subject, past the age of five, none of us ever is a blank slate about anything. Depending on our backgrounds, some of the theories we hold are cruder and more incorrect than others, more or less articulate and accurate. But the validity of our theories is not the point. The point is that every adult — at all times — carries within him or her certain theories about whatever issue is being considered. These theories are your beliefs, such as they are, and you use them whenever the situation calls for you to play an atomic physicist, historian, or chemist. Given this, real learning cannot begin with the offering of new ideas. Learning begins only when the individual involved starts disposing of and/or modifying old ideas. The learning process begins only when you bring out your internal, triangulated skill-sets, carefully examine them, and begin integrating new, more refined ideas into them.

Principle #11: Re-Learning Involves Two Mechanisms

When you begin integrating new, more refined ideas and concepts into your skill-sets, you do so in two ways: substitution and integration. When you try to learn by substituting new ideas into your conception of the world, there is always the possibility that you will revert to an earlier level of understanding. My approach to learning that promotes learning by substitution reduces the likelihood that the material offered really will be assimilated into the person’s world-view, thereby making a difference in his behavior. Learning that evolves through the integration of new ideas and feelings tends to become a highly stable element of a person’s behavior.

Principle #12: Each Individual Has Preferred Ways of Learning

You have a preferred way of learning. By habit and routine, you have developed your own distinct way of approaching every learning situation. You have your own set of standard assumptions and views about what learning is, and about how you learn. Just as individuals have dominant personality styles (e.g., introvert or extrovert), they have preferred learning modes. Generally, these learning preferences emphasize one or more of the stages of the learning cycle we described earlier. Thus, some individuals, when learning, emphasize action. Others prefer observation. Still others concentrate on conceptualization or experimentation. It’s possible that you, yourself, have a balanced learning style, taking each stage of the learning cycle in turn. But, if you do, you are an exception. Most of us favor one or two of the four stages.

Principle #13: All Learners Have Weaknesses

Most of us, of course, are less than perfect in pursuing one or more of the four basic learning activities. Some of us have minds that excel at pulling disparate facts together into a coherent theory, yet are incapable of, or uninterested in, deducing hypotheses from this theory. Others are logical geniuses, but find it constitutionally impossible to surrender themselves to their own experiences, and so on. As a result of our hereditary equipment, our particular developmental history, and the demands of our current environment, we all develop learning weaknesses. Our reaction to the learning situations in which we find ourselves is consequently influenced by these gaps. Each of us enters every learning situation with already developed preferences and styles. Learning grounded on an incomplete preference pattern is likely to be less than successful.

Principle #14: The Environment Significantly Affects Your Learning

While the motivation to learn is intrinsic, the effectiveness of your learning efforts is greatly affected by the environment in which you find yourself. Thus, one of your primary responsibilities, when trying to learn, is to create for yourself a stimulating learning environment.

In creating your learning environment, keep three things in mind:

  • You should be free to explore the effects of your own actions without having to suffer long run consequences for this exploration. In this sense, an effective learning environment, at least in the beginning, is cutoff from the “real” world. If you feel that you might disgrace yourself or blight your career by failing, then your whole learning effort will be shot through with risks that are too big to digest. For a learning environment to be encouraging, you initially must be cut off from just such risks. This principle does not imply that you should never take responsibility for your actions. It suggests that, once the difficult task of acquiring a complex skill is well under way, it is appropriate to test yourself in a wide variety of serious situations. For each of us, there is a time for explorations that are risk-free, and a time for earnest efforts with real consequences.

  • Your environment should help you to form multiple perspectives toward whatever it is you are trying to learn. In other words, the environment in which you are working should encourage you to look at your activity from many different points of view.

  • A learning environment is more effective if it offers input in a way that allows you to make your own deductions and inferences. If you are going to translate what you’re learning into action, you must have the opportunity to form your own conclusions about the ideas you’re exploring.

In short, your learning environment should be “responsive” to you. It will be responsive if it:

  • · permits you to explore freely, giving you a chance to discover your own problems.

  • · informs you immediately, but benignly, about the consequences of your actions.

  • · is self-pacing, i.e., events happen within the environment at a rate largely determined by you.

  • · permits you to make full use of your capacity for discovering connections and relationships of various kinds.

  • · is structured so that you are likely to make a series of interconnected discoveries about your physical, cultural, and social worlds.


There are two real goals in learning. One is to master the specifics of real-life behavior in a particular arena, be it management, marriage, or work. The second is to learn about one’s own strengths and weaknesses as a learner, i.e., learning how to learn from experience so that you can master your own learning processes.

When your learning process are working well, you will finish each learning experiment with new insights and enhanced understandings about the task, and also with a new understanding of your own learning style. This understanding will help you to apply what you have learned in another setting, and provide you with a framework for continued learning in all sorts of contexts. Your own day-to-day experiences will become the laboratory for testing and exploring new ideas. Learning will no longer be a special activity reserved for the classroom. It will become an integral and explicit part of your work and life.