LESSON 17: THE LEARNING ORGANIZATION AND “ENGAGED PEDAGOGY”

The idea of the Learning Organization is easy to grasp, but challenging to implement. We aspire to have workplaces where there is an ongoing exchange of ideas, one where people learn from one another and apply that learning collaboratively and generously to challenges they face. But in order for that to occur, the ways we facilitate teaching and learning must be carefully crafted. 

                            Kolb Learning Cycle

Learning is enhanced by genuine participation, supported by an affirming environment that catalyzes innovation and welcomes questions, doubts, critiques, and ideas that emanate from the ‘edge’ of the organization: “Engaged Pedagogy.” Rather than relying upon traditional training approaches, with vast periods of lecture punctuated by occasional discussion, we must actively engage learners with the material. David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model (1974) offers an excellent approach that has been applied to many types of settings, building from its core elements:

By immediately engaging participants in the experience, they reflect upon how it relates to what they have previously learned or assumed. Reflection links the experience to abstract concepts and questions, such as “How might this be applied in my work setting?” If we provide concrete practice opportunities using realistic scenarios, learners can immediately test various responses to such questions. 

Notice how this method flies in the face of traditional teaching/learning approaches: Rather than learners passively receiving content, mulling it over, and considering how to practically apply it, they are immediately thrust into the “stretch zone” of practicing the skills required to make important connections to what they already know and do. Teachers can immediately witness this effort and adjust their approaches to what they are now hearing, students can readily see what is clear and where they are confused, and “teachable moments” naturally emerge from the collective experience. This approach also works in online learning, breaking down the content so there is frequent experimentation, practice, and synthesis. 

The Learning Organization engages learners far beyond the classroom: Learning is reinforced in on-site coaching sessions, where both experts and peers engage in reinforcing and applying classroom insights. The “test and experiment” phase of the Kolb’s cycle gets extended, leading to new experiences, reflections, and abstractions. This personalized learning is then shared with the greater workplace community through web-based resources, communities of practice, and other settings that maximize its benefits and uncover new possibilities for innovation. 

Engaged Pedagogy offers continuous practice and opportunities for learning. Through such approaches, veteran “Wisdom Keepers” within an organization can readily share their knowledge and contribute to the growth and development of the next generation of leadership. Harvesting such wisdom is essential to the innovative organization; help the next generation learn stories from which they can benefit. Making it natural for such sharing to occur paradoxically opens up new innovation channels, for much is gained by experimenting with previous approaches that may still have kernels of benefits.  

Exercise: STOP to Appreciate the Moment         

WHO: Solo/Group (optional)  

WHY: To pause, meditate, and reflect upon the world around you, so you are refreshed and re-energized to be an engaged learner.

HOW:

Step 1: Take a moment to pause and mindfully appreciate the moment. This prepares us to fully engage in learning using the Kolb cycle. The STOP Practice (adapted here from Russ Harris’s work) is an excellent way to do so:

S- Slow down your breathing; or slowly ground yourself, stretch, or press your fingers together.

T – Take note of the world around you with curiosity and appreciation, aware of all you sense (feel, hear, see, smell, taste).

O – Open yourself to make room for thoughts and feelings, allowing them to flow through you fully without judgment.

P – Pursue Values and let them guide you to your next actions. 

Then, engage in the following activity: 

Step 2: Settle yourself in a comfortable position. Focus on a single location, object, or thought and look upon it with appreciation and curiosity. 

Step 3: Journal whatever comes to mind, as spontaneously as possible, for one minute. 

Step 4: After completing this brief journaling, take another minute or two to reflect upon the things you noticed: 

  • What did you notice? 
  • How did it make you feel? 
  • Why did you notice these things or have these feelings?
  • What does it mean if you were to act on any of these insights?

For example: I am sitting in a room surrounded by photographs from an art exhibit. I focus on one photo, a picture of an open window, with flowers on the sill. I appreciate the beauty of the flowers and think back to when I first visited London as a young man and was struck by so many potted flowers in windows. They are beautiful, and they also absorb CO2, benefiting the environment. Finding beauty in the midst of dirt and urban congestion is one wonderful way people in large cities sustain their humanity and connections to the natural world. 

Step 5: Take your thinking one step further: Pick any of the suggested actions that emerged from your prior reflection. Create a way of testing or prototyping this new approach. 

What if our organization provided cut flowers throughout the building, as well as hanging baskets in public spaces? We could place small vases near copy machines, on cafeteria tables, etc. We could support the presence of art on stark walls (I’ve seen this work well), or create a simple “thank you” fund so staff can award one another flowers for a job well done (I’ve seen this work, too!). We can advocate for garden spaces on our grounds that can be tended cooperatively by staff, perhaps in partnership with a school or community group. Etc…

Step 6: Finally: Apply your thinking to a real situation or opportunity you are facing. Along with other relevant parties, reflect on the results. In turn, this may lead to other questions worth exploring. 

The point of this exercise is to experience the Kolb Learning Cycle, being actively engaged as a learner. Notice the phases as they played out here: We don’t just talk about things, we experience them, then build from that experience so discussions are meaningfully placed in the context of such learning. Whether we take this approach in a classroom, staff meeting, task force, or study group, such an engaged approach to teaching and learning is far more likely to “stick” and be memorable.

Published by Harry Webne-Behrman

Harry Webne-Behrman is a consultant, facilitator, mediator, educator living in Ottawa, Ontario. Bringing vast experience to organizational challenges, specializing in complex conflicts, Harry offers coaching and consulting to people seeking to provide leadership to their organizations and communities on a wide range of issues.

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