Deep Learning Ecology: Setting Conditions for Shared Learning

Consider the best training session you ever attended. What made it so good? What constitutes a good training/learning experience for you? In this week's article, Royce Holladay talks about the patterns that set the conditions for deep learning.

For me, several patterns come together to create a rich tapestry of learning:

  • The Instructor seems to care about what I am learning and what I need to learn.
  • There’s a sense of collaboration and “give-and-take” between and among the Learners and the Instructor.
  • What I learn is both true and useful, both in near-term applications for me and in my longer-term development and conceptual thinking.
  • Most importantly, I leave, having been changed in how I see the world and understand my place in it.

How do the best instructors—at all levels of learning—arrange learning time and learning space to ensure engagement that leads to increased capacity and changed performance? 

In HSD we talk about “setting conditions” to get the patterns we want. We believe that “deep” learning occurs when we take new information, make sense of it in a way that informs our decisions, and use those new ideas to take “wise” action to change our worlds. Movement toward this kind of learning is referred to as “building adaptive capacity.” We define it this way because it allows us to:

  1. See the world as it is;
  2. Name and understand the patterns we see;
  3. Respond and adapt to those patterns in ways that help us build coherence and connection across our systems.

I have been working with Leslie Patterson and other HSD Associates to identify a set of techniques and understandings that help to shape an ecology to support that type of deep learning. One of the most critical pieces is the ability for the Leader to stand in inquiry about the topic, the learners, and the environment. Looking at the HSD Definition of Inquiry, we can begin get a sense of what that ecology might be like when the Leader stands in inquiry:

  • Turn judgment into curiosity – When we, as teachers, find ourselves feeling judgmental about Learners—what they are saying, or how they see a challenge, or what they don’t seem to know, for example—we cut ourselves off from the assets and possibility that person might offer us and other Learners. If we can move to curiosity, we open a whole realm of possibility for working with that Learner and for supporting that Learner work with the rest of the class. Rather than judging the Learner, we ask them what they see or what assumptions are informing their action. If we observe all Learners without judgment, we are more likely to see how they arrive at a conclusions that don’t fit for us. As Leaders in a learning ecology, this creates a generative space for us to become both teacher and learner.
  • Turn disagreement into shared exploration – Learning groups—young students, adolescent learners, and adults in professional development groups—are rife with difference, and often we find strong disagreements at those points of difference. When we, as teachers, encounter disagreement we often engage it directly, trying to convince the student that we are correct. Or we avoid engagement by pretending the difference does not matter—even when it does. If, on the other hand, we can shift the conversation with or among students, we can find a way through the differences to explore common needs and interests. This enables us to keep exchanges open so we all learn from each other, despite our differences.
  • Turn defensiveness into self-reflection – In learning situations, it’s easy to feel defensive if we are challenged to explain our positions or when we fear that we have said the wrong thing, whether we are the teacher or one of the learners. In the same way that judgment and disagreement block generative engagements and exchanges, defensiveness will also shut us down from seeing difference as an opening to learn. When we feel defensive, if we can stop and ask ourselves:  What’s the trigger? What does it bring up? How can I step through this to learn something about myself or this other person? When we do that we can use our inquiry to build bridges to new insights and connections. What can we, as teachers, do to help our Learners explore their own defensiveness?
  • Turn assumptions into questions – Our assumptions form the bedrock of our thinking. They are the foundations for how we see and make sense of the world. At the same time, sometimes they prevent us from seeing new perspectives and opportunities to expand our world. When we find ourselves revisiting past learning or preparing for new explorations, it’s important that we remain aware of our current assumptions. We find questions that challenge, expand, or change those assumptions to help us see a broader view, and we support our students in the same way.

In the next few weeks, Leslie Patterson will share a blog article in this space to talk more about setting conditions for a deep learning ecology. Then beginning in September, she and I are offering an online Adaptive Action Lab called Learning Deep: Tools to Grow a Professional Learning Ecology. We’d love to have you join us there to explore how we can set conditions for deep learning.

In the mean time, practice standing in inquiry and let us know how it goes.

Keep in touch,


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