The Learning Cycle, the Brain, and the Four Modes of Work

28 Jun

I am reading James Zull’s The Art of Changing the Brain.  In general, it’s great fun: Zull explains the biology of the brain in accessible ways and argues that teaching with the brain’s biology in mind has a better chance of improving learning.

His first chapter catches my attention.  Zull draws a comparison between D. A. Kolb’s Learning Cycle (see Kolb’s Experiential Learning) and the brain, suggesting that the sequence of the Learning Cycle–Concrete Experience > Reflective Observation > Abstract Hypothesis > Active Testing–has its corollary in the way information passes through parts of the brain: the sensory part of the cortex, the temporal-integrative cortex, the frontal integrative cortex, and the premotor and motor areas of the brain, respectively.

I’ve always thought the Learning Cycle’s components resonated with a lot of other activities of thought and mind.  (For instance, they seem to “map” to the “Immunity Map” process used in Immunity to Change, which also leads you through transformative stages from sensory data to a hypothesis and discrete actionable steps.)  I’m happy to see them confirmed with actual fleshy architecture (though that isn’t necessary for me to believe in them).

Thinking about both inspires me to make another association — that the Learning Cycle and the major information processing sections of the brain probably offer us a useful model of how we ought to organize ourselves in our work lives.  They give us a model of thought-in-work or of how we might manage information processing in our organizations.

That is, that you probably need four major activity modes in your own work and in your organization: the sensory or experiential mode — a way to gather a sense of the world (say, of your customer need, of evolving technology, of what other people like you are doing); the reflective mode — a way or a time to think about that input, to process it, to organize it, to relate it to other things you know; the abstract or hypothesizing mode — where you draw inferences, develop models, create meaning, add new meaning to existing models based on your data and your reflection; and, finally, the action mode, where you “test” your hypothesis, or, in other words, you do stuff.

(On a side note I should say that everything we do ought to be framed as research, designed to prove hypotheses, gather new data, and admit new information back into the learning cycle . . . such a stance has wonderful ethical advantages over the competing idea of just doing stuff for no particular longterm goal.)

The default model of work currently in force probably has one major mode: action, and even though (of course) people engage in reflection and hypotheses and experience, it feels like these things fall to the wayside.  Or are pushed out of the workplace by email or meetings or the need to seem like you’re being productive.  A consideration of work as a learning cycle or the workplace as a kind of brain offers a more balanced idea of what we ought to be doing, and it suggests the somewhat radical idea that we should carve out for the first three modes a more substantial seat at the table.

Wouldn’t it be neat to have a quarter of your time dedicated to reflection?


One Response to “The Learning Cycle, the Brain, and the Four Modes of Work”


  1. Being Creative Together « Theatrical Smoke - June 12, 2012

    […] seem to generally correspond to the Learning Cycle and areas of brain processing; see my previous post on the […]

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