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Learning how to Learn

June 22, 2011

Never have learning capabilities been so important considering the complexity of today’s reality and the level of uncertainties one has to deal with on a daily basis. Whether a university student, an entrepreneur or a manager in a corporation—or any other human being, in fact—we all need to develop authentic learning capability in order to cope with the events in our lives and in our work environment and the need for change. As Arie De Geus (1997) long discovered, decision-making is a learning activity but, as he pointed out, conventional learning methods are not effective because they are slow; they close options; they depend on learning by experience (trial and error), instead of by simulation; and they breed fear. While I pretty much agree with these reasons, I believe there is a deeper issue with the conventional process of learning—that is, it doesn’t take full enough account of the creative, transforming, generative power of learning and the idea that much learning consists of ‘primary learning’ and occurs below the level of consciousness.

I must make it clear that the type of learning I am speaking of here has little to do with the memorization of information and accumulation of knowledge. While information and knowledge are important, they are only the means to support the learning process; they are not its outcomes. The outcomes are deep understanding, creativity and transformation. Indeed, learning cannot be passive; it involves active engagement and participation. When it is not rote, learning changes us by re-organizing our mental structures. This requires highly creative skills, which too many people lack. We need a new curriculum on ‘learning how to learn.’

To live is to learn; to learn is to create. (AM de Lange*)

No other living systems’ capacity is more important than the capacity to learn. Life depends on it. Our learning disability causes incoherence in our thought process: we are unable to see clearly, thus even less able to take actions that could improve our conditions. On an individual level, learning disability in people often translates into an inability to live a purposeful and meaningful life, while creating much anxiety, depression and unhappiness. At an organizational level as well, I would argue that the main reason for the failure and collapse of firms and social systems is due to their inability to learn. Too little focus is brought to the development of this deep learning capacity—hence the drama unfolding in front of our eyes that is jeopardizing our own survival and evolution. My intent, here, is to highlight only a few of the multi-faceted characteristics of the process of learning which leaders must embrace in order to navigate the present and co-create a better future.

Beyond analysis, learning is about synthesis and integration

There is nothing wrong with using the prevalent analytical approach to developing knowledge as long as one understands the limits of the reductionist method (analysis paralysis) both in terms of its scope and its applications. Integrative, holistic approaches to learning have the benefit of uncovering patterns in what seems contradictory and divergent. Integral learning takes place in an open system able to continuously and more fully sense the environment in order to capture emergent opportunities. It takes a complementary approach that embraces both/and thinking versus dialectical dualistic either/or thinking. Synthesis is an act of active connective creation, which finds wholeness in what had been previously fragmented.

Learning occurs in a state of “not knowing”

Nothing new enters in a mind full of certainties. New learning occurs in a state of “not-knowing” (Bohm, 1992), i.e., in an open, inquisitive and curious mind. Insights arise when living in the questions becomes more important than the answers provided and the willingness to explore a given topic from many different perspectives is present. The process of inquiry is about “making distinctions,” a concept developed by Fernando Flores; it aims at unconcealing or inventing nuances of interpretation from which breakthrough thinking emerges. Of course, one must impose a certain will and determination on the human mind for it to remain at the uncomfortable place of “not-knowing.” High levels of ambiguity always create anxiety in a mind that loves the reassurance of certainty. The process requires the courage to let go and the belief that our identity, i.e., our Self, will not dissolve in the process; identity is not what we know but who we are, in the never-ending process of “becoming.”

Embodied active learning

Learning takes place in the domain of action (i.e., in the doing) and through the experience the action creates. The act of perceiving is inherent to the learning process. Maturana and Varela (1987) assert, “[T]he phenomenon of knowing cannot be taken as though there were “facts” or objects out there that we grasp and store in our head. The experience of anything out there is validated in a special way by the human structure, which makes possible the “thing” that arises in the description…every act of knowing brings forth a world…All doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing.” Experiential learning can have a powerful impact on the reflective learner, who is awake and aware of what is happening inside and outside of him/herself, throughout the process of experiencing. As such, learning is active; it requires full participation of the individual in a live conversation (with oneself and with others), i.e., in a dynamic thinking process and set of interactions that are open, spontaneous, respectful, and inclusive of divergent perspectives.

Spontaneous emergent learning

Some learning is liminal or primary: it occurs below the level of consciousness and leaves reason aside, at least for a little while. This type of learning, which is very familiar to artists, taps into an undifferentiated level of order, i.e., a non-fragmented and seemingly chaotic world of Oneness—a world that collapses the boundaries between what is inside and what is outside. In the “Hidden Order of Art,” Anton Ehrenzweig states that “unconscious scanning makes use of undifferentiated modes of vision that to normal awareness would seem chaotic. Hence comes the impression that the primary process merely produces chaotic phantasy material that has to be ordered and shaped by the ego’s secondary process. On the contrary, the primary process is a precision instrument for creative scanning that is far superior to discursive reason and logic.” Ehrenzweig believes that creativity is highly related to the chaos of the primary process and that “[T]he creative thinker is capable of alternating between differentiated and undifferentiated modes of thinking, harnessing them together to give him service for solving definite tasks.” The learning dance and movement between differentiated and undifferentiated modes of thinking creates “flashes of understanding,” which emerge spontaneously. This direct and intuitive learning process requires a high level of awareness and openness (i.e., presence) in order to sense the Whole. It also requires the acceptance of high level of ambiguity. The resulting “primary knowing” is the source of breakthrough thinking and creativity.

Transformative generative learning

The spontaneous emergent learning described above is a ‘deep learning’ process which most often happens at the “edge of chaos,” a transitory phase created by entropy production (i.e., the generation of heat and chaos in a system that pushes the system away from dynamic equilibrium toward a paradoxical phase of simultaneous stability and unstability). As the system settles for a while at the edge of chaos, under specific conditions, the components of the system are able to adapt and self-organize and potentially create new structures and a newly realized and higher level of order—an emergent process. The result of this creative process is evolutionary in nature and increases the wholeness and complexity of the system (evolution, here, is a word to be understood as ‘increasing complexity’). For us, as humans, this process entails the letting go of old mental models and patterns of behavior; the ability to see with new eyes; and the capacity to live for a while in a deeper than normal transformative process, resulting in the development of new beliefs and worldviews. This process is irreversible (i.e., non mechanical), reflecting life itself; it provides a new and firm ground from which to develop new strategies and actions and achieve ever-higher levels of performance.

So what is authentic learning?

Authentic learning is a birthing process—a process of “becoming being.”** As such it often necessitates a midwife to facilitate its emergence. While we are all learners, we can also take the role of the midwife when the situation requires it, assuming we fully understand what it takes to give birth to a new “Self.” Unfortunately, what would seem to be so natural to human development has taken a strange turn throughout our evolution. Somehow, we have lost touch with the most fundamental and basic requirements of the process: openness, authenticity, respect for the diversity of ideas and opinions, trust, letting go, accepting ambiguity and the fact there are no right answers, and so on.

Authentic learning then is an act of deep creativity. Deep creativity is an act of authentic learning. Taken together, both capacities have the potential to elevate us to the next stage of our consciousness and evolution. Whether we are willing to learn to ‘become’ is yet to be seen. Yet, for the sake of all humanity it might be worth a try.

* Adriaan Michiel de Lange (1945-) is a South African chemist physicist and transdisciplinary scientist, who studies how thermodynamics, the base of modern complexity studies, applies to the humanities—more specifically, he suggests that entropy production must apply to the metaphysical world as well as to the process of physically knowing and learning. In the late 1990s, de Lange began sharing his theories at the forum.

** The expression “becoming being” is borrowed from AM de Lange.

Bohm, David (1992, 1994). Thought as a System. Routledge. London and New York.

De Geus, Arie (1997, 2002). The Living Company: Habits for Survival in a Turbulent Business Environment. Harvard Business School Press.

Ehrenzweig, Anton (1967). The Hidden Order of Art: A Study in the Psychology of Artistic Imagination. University Of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Maturana H. R. and Varela F. J. (1987).  The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding.  Revised Edition.  Shambhala. Boston and London.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 14, 2011 11:11 pm

    Very well put, Beatrice — a great synthesis, illuminating!

  2. Beth Foster permalink
    August 15, 2011 9:46 pm

    I am leading a Founders Group for an alternative learning environment/approach for children. Our mission is is helping kids “learn how to learn” in a deeper way that is in alignment with your essay and encourages divergent thinking. I’ve been reading books and articles on school reform and the fear over the lack of 21st Century preparation and nothing fits better than what I just read. I see so little in the way of preparing teachers or “midwives” for facilitating this process. It is pure synthesis of our emotions (thoughts), cognitive and bodily wisdom as well as this idea of emergent learning – and flashes of understanding indicating that whole learning is more physics that linear equations.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    • August 17, 2011 6:34 am

      Beth, thank you for your comment. I really empathize with your efforts to help children “learn how to learn” and the difficulties in finding ways to transform teachers in authentic learners and ‘midwifes’ so that they can themselves help children become the leaders of tomorrow. I have spent the last year, going deeper in my own learning and transformation with the help of my friend and colleague Andrew Campbell. I would be happy to pursue the conversation with you if you are interested. Feel free to drop me an email at your convenience.

      Best wishes for your work: it is so much needed!

  3. Troy Crayton permalink
    April 5, 2012 12:19 pm

    Fascinating, Beatrice, fascinating. Learning has to be understood as more than the acquisition of knowledge predicated on what is “fed” to an individual.

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