2-diffhead.gif (5880 bytes)


Helping Others to Learn About Complexity:

Theories of Adult Learning

The bottom half of figure 1 describes some of the key points from the modern research into how adults learn. (Knowles, 1990) Notice that the themes of information flow, mental models, emergence, and context are woven throughout these findings. Not surprisingly, adults learn best when the learning methods are consistent with the notions of complex adaptive systems.

When it comes to adult learning in organizations, there is plenty of evidence for discarding the machine and military metaphors. Perhaps a better metaphor for learning is that of sowing seeds. Successful, growing, living learning about complexity depends on the quality of the seed (the information itself), the skill of the farmer (the one guiding the learning process), the condition of the soil (the openness of the learners), and a little bit of luck in the weather (the events in the organizational context). Importantly, most farmers will admit that the seed, soil, and weather have more to do with success than the farmer.

The research on adult learning also suggests that retention of learning is a key challenge. Adults remember only about 10% of what the read and 50% of what they see and hear. But they retain around 70% of what they say themselves and about 90% of what they do. Furthermore, regardless of how the learning originally occurred, the research also indicates that retention can be further enhanced by repetition, connecting with existing knowledge, emotional intensity for the learner, and active involvement of the learner in the learning process. In other words, effective learning is action- and reflection-oriented.

The modern concept of reflective learning can be traced to philosopher John Dewey, and was further developed by several great change experts and psychologists such as Jean Piaget, Donald Schon, and W. Edwards Deming. Reflection is the "Study" phase of the Shewhart-Deming cycle of Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA). David Kolb places it explicitly in his learning cycle of Deciding-Doing-Reflecting-Connecting (leading to another cycle of Deciding...).

In application to learning about CAS, we can make the following observations about learning to learn more effectively (for more about the skill of reflection, see the Aides section of this Resource Kit):

  • We need to make time and space for reflection. It is not easy to do amid the rush and pressure of daily work life.
  • Remember Stacey's Diagram: don't agree too much or too soon.
  • Different people will take away different reflective learnings from any experience; this is natural and healthy.
  • The skill of reflection takes time to master - and you never really get there because there is always another interpretation that one could put on any collection of events. Be patient with yourself and others as reflective learning progresses.

The goal of our learning about CAS (indeed, as Kirkpatrick (1975) points out, the goal of all learning) must be about changing behaviors in our organizational context. Therefore, theories of change management are also relevant to our thinking about how to set up environments that increase the likelihood for learning.

Organizational change theory is, of course, a vast field of study that is well beyond our scope here. But figure 2 provides a simple model that summarizes the key points (Source: Dr. David Gustafson, University of Wisconsin, Madison). Change is more likely to occur when: there is tension for change, when the new way has some clear advantage over the old, when change is also embraced by others, and when people have the necessary skills to do things differently.

This suggests that learning activities about CAS should include some reflectionvi_5.gif (20387 bytes) on the gaps between our traditional mental models and the reality we actually experience in the world (tension for change). Learning activities about CAS might also profitably include some "sense-making" in the form of a re-interpretation of events through a complexity lens (effective alternative). Learning activities about CAS should be joint and shared (social support). And learning activities about CAS should leave participants with new competencies (skill building).

Figure 3 provides a final summary of key principles from the field of adult learning. Re-read these principles often as you work to spread knowledge about CAS among those with whom you interact. It is easy to fall back into old habits and mental models about how learning should happen; the principles in figure 3 are, unfortunately, easy to forget.

Figure 3: Summary of Key Adult Learning Principles
  1. No change is likely to take place unless the learner wants to change. The learner must be inwardly motivated to learn.
  2. Learning must build on an individual's present knowledge and attitudes.
  3. Different individuals will learn different things, in different ways, at different speeds.
  4. Learning is a thinking process. Responsibility for working out conclusions helps learning.
  5. Learning is an associative process. Individuals must relate the new material to previous learning and experiences.
  6. the deepest learning comes with application.
  7. Learning through understanding is better retained than learning by rote.
  8. Repetition can often help learning.
  9. Involving more senses enhances learning.
  10. Loss of learning is rapid; the "half-life" of learning is short.
  11. Learning is often resisted. It is not easy to replace comfortable, established attitudes with new ones.
  12. Learning is a cooperative and collaborative process.
  13. Learning is sometimes a painful process.
  14. Learning is emotional as well as intellectual.

NextPrevious | Return to Contents List

Copyright 2001, Paul E. Plsek & Associates,
Permission to copy for educational purposes only.
All other rights reserved.