Three Primary Ways We Learn (Part 1)

In the last (first) blog I introduced myself, gave a little background, and posed the
question: “What is an educated person?” This time I want to dig a little deeper into the
learning process itself, and in fact I’ll be doing that for the next few of these installments,
at least.

So, where to start? Well, for me, I always think about what I consider to be three primary
ways we learn anything. Let me be clear right from the beginning, though. I’m not saying
these are the only ways people learn, just primary ones. Also, they don’t cover the whole
process of learning everything, but they are central to most learning. They are:

metaphor (stories)

For this installment I’m going to talk about discovery. I’ll discuss the others in the next
two installments.

A good deal of what we learn, we discover on our own. This is usually obvious to people,
but most of us don’t think much about how it works, or its value, unless we have a reason
to. It’s usually only people who teach and train who actually think about how to use it
with a specific intention, as opposed to just knowing that it’s happening. Of course there
is a whole area of research and study in education on how to set up useful discoveries for
people, aimed at allowing them to learn specific useful things.

Discovery in education and training can take a number of forms, or levels, if you like.
Conceptually, the idea of creating discovery experiences is at least a hundred years old, if
not more, just in modern educational systems. But if you think about the teaching of
martial arts, yoga, meditation or art, as examples, some of these principles must go back
well over a thousand years. The pursuit, and training, in all these disciplines is filled with
discovery and teachers have been leaving open space for the discovery process, even in
the most traditional training of them. Updating these methods has even become the focus
of modern literature and film. In the film The Karate Kid, anyone who has seen it (the
original) remembers the teacher requiring the student to apply “wax on, wax off” to his
car. Only later did he show that the waxing movements were actually specific blocks to
high and low punches. An important discovery, to be sure! In fact, I don’t remember
much else about the film, because these scenes were so powerful.

At a more basic level, think about noticing a small child continually opening and closing
his or her hand, grabbing or dropping something (often breakfast … splat) to explore and
learn about physical actions and their effect (gravity, and more). This is a clear
demonstration of how fundamental discovery is in our lives. The same with hot and cold,
wet and dry, painful and pleasurable, and other essential human experiences. Later in
school, most of us can remember having had discussions set up to reveal basic truths, or
dilemmas for that matter, often leading to discovery of issues, values, morals and more.
These are the kinds of discovery that are present in everyday life, in modern societies.

In the classical literature on education, you can find the concept discussed a hundred
years ago by such luminaries as William James, John Dewey, Maria Montessori and
others. Later, Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, Albert Bandura, most notably, and others
explored these ideas more broadly, adding specific research findings to a wide variety of
learned experiences. You can even find this beautifully described in the writings of many
great scientists (fans of the discovery process, almost by definition) such as Nicola Tesla
and Albert Einstein. So many famous writers have described the centrality of discovery in
the arts as well as in life, that there isn’t much point in mentioning names.

The question in education has long been, how much to simply create experiences, in
which discoveries can naturally occur, and how much to guide or direct students into
specific experiences, that will produce predictable discoveries. This is something that
psychotherapists have wrestled with for years, as well. For example, in doing play
therapy with children there is always the question of how much to intervene or how much
to let the child learn on their own (not much different from the same arguments among
experiential therapists working with adults). I clearly remember one of my professors
exhorting us with this warning: “If I catch you doing non-directive therapy with children,
I will vomit.” This is a discussion without end, of course, because no two people will
experience, or learn from, anything we do, no matter how perfectly we design it, the
same way. With what we know about the subtle ways we communicate our expectations
and biases to others, perhaps there is no such thing as “non-directive” anyway.

In NLP training, of course, we use discovery as one of our built-in teaching modalities.
Of course we wouldn’t expect people to discover some of the major contributions in our
field such as representations systems in language, anchoring of states, or formats for
metaphor design from a simple exercise. It took the genius and careful observations of
Bandler and Grinder and others to find those things and they were building on a vast
literature, brilliant guidance and years of experience. So we design our exercises within
carefully drawn frameworks to show specific pieces of these more complicated puzzles.
An example would be the standard match-mis-match-match exercises in which, with
explanation and guidance, people can observe and detect patterns of language and body
language shifts in one person, in response to specific changes in another (if you are
unfamiliar with basic NLP training, you can ask someone who is).

I plan to talk more about all of this in future installments, but for now, a story.

The Story

Years ago I was somewhat involved in outdoor adventure learning. Two of my students
had each designed and built ropes courses out in the woods north of New Orleans, with
the help of national companies specializing in these courses. In case you’re not familiar
with this kind of course, it involves climbing into trees, walking across suspended cables
or logs, figuring out how to get yourself, and perhaps an entire group of people from one
place to another (often through unusual obstacles) and more. It’s a fun, sometimes scary,
often challenging way for people to learn about themselves, each other, group dynamics,
problem solving and more. At each of these centers they hosted school kids,
organizational groups and corporate groups, as well as occasional NLP Practitioner
courses (mine). During this period I became a certified instructor for these courses.

The instructor for the certification training was an extremely experienced, capable
trainer, with years under his belt. Perhaps most instructive was the story of his personal
journey into the adventure learning industry. When he was sixteen, he participated in a
course like this. During the course he had a terrible accident. The participants were
taking turns rappelling (descending on long ropes) down the side of a cliff. Something
unforeseen happened and created the nightmare scenario everyone involved with these
adventures dreads most. He found himself alone, stuck on a ledge, hundreds of feet up on
the side of a cliff, with no rope and no way for anyone to get to him. The ledge was just
big enough for him to stand on. Clearly if he fell he would not survive. His only chance
was to figure out a way to climb to safety.

Faced with this dilemma he went into a long and agonizing debate with himself. Should
he just step off the ledge and allow himself to die, or fight and struggle to survive. He
spent over two hours standing on a ledge with horrified onlookers unable to help.
Excruciating. Wrenching. Horrifying.

Obviously, he eventually decided to give it all he had, and somehow figured out a way to
climb to a place where he could be rescued.

But that was only part of the story. Up to that point he had always had a serious problem
with stuttering. He said his speech was very difficult much of the time, frustrating and
embarrassing. From the moment he made the decision to live, however, he never
stuttered again. This is the reason he gave for dedicating his life to the adventure training
industry. He wanted major breakthroughs for people like the one he experienced, without
the real danger. His belief was that we could set up powerful outdoor experiences for
people that would change their lives forever.

He was right, of course. However, his belief about conducting these courses was that
there should be as little intervention as possible. He didn’t believe that guiding people
very much through the elements before or during the course, or discussing their
experiences afterwards provided much benefit. In fact, he was against it because he
believed it would interfere with the natural learning available in the experience itself. His
dilemma had been personal and isolated. That, he believed, was how it should be for

The Idea

In a major sense, he was right. People all over the world have adventure training
experiences and many do have major breakthroughs in their lives, and really do make
major changes. It can be wonderful training.

The other part, though, is that we never know who will have these major experiences, or
what they will be. We certainly wouldn’t prescribe two breathtaking, life-threatening,
hours on a ledge to cure stuttering. In fact, for this kind of training to work best, it takes
very careful design and planning for each phase, with clear outcomes in mind, and
thoughtful well-trained guides. Most of the people I know in the industry of providing
these spend lots of time learning to carefully and artfully guide people well throughout
the adventure experience. Corporate groups going through these courses seldom do it for
the individual breakthroughs their employees might make. They usually have much more
specific goals, and will design the courses so that everyone will discover ways to achieve

The Value

When we discover something, the learning is powerful for a couple of reasons. First, we
did it ourselves, which makes us value it more. Second, no one has to convince us, much
less teach us about it. We know it’s true. It also often leads us to explore further.
Discovery feeds on itself. We want more. We build curiosity, simply in the process.

Some Questions for You

1. What constitutes “discovery” in your view? What does it mean? How broad is your
perspective, and how does this affect how you think about learning, in general?

2. What have been some important discoveries in your own life? Were some of these
“academic” or related to your studies or school work? How about in your personal life, or
relationships? In your work? Other areas? How did they come about? How did they
change you?

3. Have you seen or heard of major discoveries by other people in your life? Have you
ever been present to see the “aha” moment? How did you react, or respond?

4. Have you had the opportunity to actually design learning experiences for others
designed to give them specific discoveries? Adults? Children? Your own children?

5. If you were to think about some of the most important things you’ve learned in your
own life, do you think you could design experiences that would create the same learning
in others? Where would you start?

Let me know your thoughts about this. As I said, it’s a never-ending discussion.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new
We don’t receive wisdom we must discover it for ourselves.
Marcel Proust

Children are born true scientists. They spontaneously experiment and experience and
re-experience again. They select, combine, and test, seeking to find order in their
experiences – “which is the mostest? which is the leastest?” They smell, taste, bite, and
touch-test for hardness, softness, springiness, roughness, smoothness, coldness,
warmness: they heft, shake, punch, squeeze, push, crush, rub, and try to pull things apart.
Buckminster Fuller

… people have any real interest in a science, who only begin to be enthusiastic about it
when they themselves have made discoveries in it.
Friedrich Nietzsche

The offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith
that can’t give way, is an offer of something not worth having. I want to live my life
taking the risk all the time that I don’t know anything like enough yet; that I haven’t
understood enough; that I can’t know enough; that I’m always hungrily operating on the
margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn’t have
it any other way.
Christopher Hitchens


I appreciate any comments, ideas, suggestions, requests or questions you may have. I’ll
try to answer them here as best I can, or if you prefer a more private conversation, you
can send me an email, and I’ll try to get back to you as, quickly as I can, with an answer.

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