Emergent Understanding: Learning without Teaching

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This paper presents a method for developing understanding and employing the five learning organization disciplines {Senge 1990}, without ever attempting to teach them. This paper represents a set of emerging thoughts associated with the concepts of learning organizations, the five disciplines, teaching and learning. The paper is somewhat of an outgrowth of numerous posts on the Learning Organization mailing list as well as several previous papers:

So I begin with an idea of what I want to accomplish, with sort of an idea of what it will look and feel like when I get there, though with little idea of the actual path to be traveled during the process. And, during the journey I don't really want to introduce new concepts I want to simply build on what people already know, and make them feel amazingly well regarding how capable and talented they really are. Yes, I agree this is manipulation, pure and simple, yet I will condone manipulation when it is for your benefit, as long as you perceive it to be for your benefit.

There are five disciplines, personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, team learning, and systems thinking. Now, rather than attempt to teach each of these as concepts and disciplines, the idea is to figure out something people already know, develop the implications of what they know, and where that knowing is essentially an equivalent to one of the five disciplines.

I suppose if I really had to equate all this to something it would be to the way Mr. Miagi managed to foster the Karate Kid's learning without actually teaching. This is why I subtitled the article Learning without Teaching.

A key aspect of success in all of this might be called "The Subtle Art of Question." That is, asking questions in such a way that you are quite certain the person that is supposed to answer the question either knows, or can develop, an answer and has a good chance of being right. As questions are asked, and correct answers provided, it develops a sense of comfort on the part of the person answering, so one can begin to ask more difficult questions, which require a bit more thought. Incorrect responses can be used to develop a deeper understanding and eventually the interaction will produce an appropriate answer.

The person asking the questions must always be ready to develop a deeper understanding, and actually learn from the person answering the questions. As soon as the person leading or guiding the interactions attempts to coerce the responses in a direction considered unreasonable by the person responding the development of understanding will essentially cease and the session should be stopped.

How do you teach a fish to swim upstream? You don't! A fish already knows how to swim upstream. You just have to allow the fish to swim in relatively calm waters to strengthen itself, then allow it to swim in a gentle flowing stream, and then in progressively stronger and stronger currents. What you end up shepherding is not the learning to swim, but rather the strengthening of the natural abilities of the fish. It should be the same way with the nature of the questions posed, and the manner of interaction with the responses to those questions. You want to encourage forward movement while strengthening the character of the interaction to a point where it can sustain some sideways and maybe even retrograde movements. Yet, regain its momentum in a direction toward deeper and deeper levels of understanding of things which are essentially already understood or are readily inferred through reason.

What is desired is for the person to experience a parallel to the Taoist, "Find the path, enter the path, travel the path, become the path" in terms of data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. This is done by building on one's own personal data, developing information from the data, isolating the knowledge it contains, and then sifting out the embedded wisdom or enduring truths.

Some of which are:

  • Things happen for a reason
  • What gets measured gets done
  • All people care about something
  • Structure influences behavior
  • People always, always, always do exactly what makes the most amount of sense to them in the context of the moment, with their current understanding
  • Don't fight the system, change the rules and the systems will change itself!
  • Down to a deeper level of understanding
  • You can never do just one thing
  • React, Respond, Rethink, Recreate
    • Progress only happens when you STOP doing things
  • A process is a circle!!!
  • There are no unmotivated people, only demotivating structures.


  • Nothing New to Learn?
  • Senge, Peter (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. Doubleday Currency
Questions & Comments to Gene Bellinger

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