Tag Archives: cause and effect

Flat Learning, Vertical Learning, and Leadership Development

17 Dec

I want to contrast a couple of ways to think about learning; one that informs much of what we do, and another that I think ought to inform more of what we’re doing. The first way is to think of learning as flat, linear, time-limited, and cognitive. The second is another way to think of learning as vertical, longitudinal, all-encompassing, and continuous.

In the “flat” model, learning is essentially a two-step process: ingest information, and then, sort of magically, learn. The emphasis in the learning design and assessment is on the definition, provision, organization, and repetition of the information. Less emphasis is placed on what the learner does with that information, or on the larger contexts in which the learning happens. Learning is seen as happening in discrete, isolated bursts: a course, a workshop, a webinar. Little thought is given to how these bursts connect with the person living through them. This learning is, as it were, shallow, or almost extrinsic: it’s not really expected to penetrate to the core of the individual and change the way they understand themselves or the world, for example.

In the “vertical” model, the bursts of flat learning are still there: but they are understood to be playing out against the backdrop of a deeper, more meaningful, longitudinal change in the individual, one that encompasses all their faculties: cognition, yes, but also emotion, motivation, behavior, self-understanding, mindset, and so on. In this model growth isn’t measured in terms of external content, but rather in deep, intrinsic, qualitative changes, increased ability to handle complexity, new ways to make meaning: and these changes percolate through and connect all the aspects of the person, ultimately appearing as long term behavior change. This learning is at a deeper level: learning here registers specifically as changes in understanding the self and the world.

The flat model has advantages: it is discrete, convenient, seems measurable, feels professional, fits into systems. And it works for a lot of things. But it is also imperative to understand the deeper learning that is going on. Some challenges cannot be solved by anyone without a particular level of vertical development; no amount of “flat” learning alone will address them. Among them are the particular challenges of leadership.

As you move up the hierarchical ladder of leadership roles, you are increasingly called on to display sophisticated understandings of the complexity of the world. Content or particular technical skills in discrete processes are helpful, of course, but what becomes more and more necessary is the ability to marshal your own and others’ full faculties–including motivation, emotion, cognition, behaviors–build systems of meaning across disciplines, and construct ways to understand and make decisions in emergent, ambiguous, and diverse contexts.

This vertical development often slowly happens in the background in life; we sense it happening, especially as we look back over where we’ve been and think about the ways we used to understand things. It explains a lot of tension between people in the workplace: that between workers expecting direction, and managers expecting initiative, for instance. Just working in leadership roles and making your way through the succession of problems you face there is a kind of support of this longitudinal, qualitative development. But that’s an inefficient and unpredictable support. As with any process, it can be improved with reflection, self-awareness, consistency, and by looking for ways to “see into” what is going on. You can manage and track vertical growth in people and teams as you already manage any other workplace system. And the overhead is minimal.

So how do you “see into” and more efficiently support this necessary growth in your leaders? That I’ll talk about in my next post! But here’s the short answer: a very special kind of formative assessment paired with a more-than-lip-service culture of learning or reflective practice. And a coach.