My learning pyramid has been challenged! My recent post on the learning pyramid received some great coverage, but a number of you reached out to challenge me: is it really a pyramid or just a triangle?
In fact, I had intended to follow up with a second blog post explaining why my learning pyramid is actually a pyramid and not just a triangle. You see, there’s a third dimension that I haven’t yet shared, but that’s critical to learning.
People as the missing dimension
What is that third dimension? Well, of course, it’s people, lots of people – in fact, the more, the better. You see, most of us are trapped in a view of learning as an individual endeavor. It’s you, off in a corner, reading a book.
Of course, some learning can occur in isolation but, if we’re really serious about learning more and learning faster, then we need to break out of that isolation. And, in the Big Shift we’re going through, we all had better be very serious about learning more and learning faster – together.
Coming together in creation spaces
So, what am I talking about? Going into larger and larger classrooms where we can all learn together? Far from it. I’m talking about something that I’ve called creation spaces, which I believe are the most powerful platform for learning.
The basic unit of a creation space is a cell, a small group of people, typically somewhere between 3 to 15 people, who come together on a very frequent basis and share a common goal to have an increasing impact in some domain. That domain could be anything from surfing really big and gnarly waves to repairing airplanes or helping unemployed people in a local community to find gainful employment. As they work together in their cells to pursue that goal, the shared commitment of the participants to have increasing impact helps them to build deep, trust-based relationships with each other. This makes it possible for each participant to ask for help from others as they each struggle to get better faster.
The ultimate power of a creation space is that it scales by connecting these small groups into an ever expanding network of other small groups where participants can reach out and learn from the experiences of other groups in the network, through shared platforms like conferences, online discussion forums and knowledge archives. Ultimately, these networks can include hundreds of thousands, even millions of participants – there’s no limit to the scaling potential.
To be clear, these creation spaces don't have to be formal organizations. In the case of big wave surfing, the local cells are the small groups of surfers that gather on a regular basis at a local surf break and work with each other to get better faster. They connect with other cells through surfing competitions, online video repositories and online communities of interest.
The interesting thing about these cells is that they embody all of the levels I identified in the knowledge pyramid – skills, knowledge, capabilities and passion. To achieve increasing impact in their domain, they must be constantly evolving their skills, based on deeper knowledge of relevant and evolving contexts, enabled by richer capabilities and driven by growing passion.
While each of us needs to be developing and deepening our learning pyramid, we’ll all learn faster if we’re coming together around shared learning objectives. We each bring different experiences and perspectives to the context we’re in (diversity is a key factor in enhancing the impact of a cell), which can lead to better and more insightful questions to drive our learning. Even more importantly, the deep trust-based relationships that emerge in these cells help the participants to challenge each other to come up with better and better approaches, while at the same time providing support and encouragement when they confront unexpected challenges.
These cells are powerful learning engines when they’re driven by a shared commitment to increasing impact. The participants in these cells are not just there to learn about something in the abstract; they’re driven by the desire to have increasing impact in the world around them. It’s exactly that commitment that makes the learning so effective – participants are constantly seeking to apply that knowledge and learning through action how to have more and more impact.
The most powerful form of learning is through action. That’s exactly why classrooms are less and less relevant to learning, especially if you’re just sitting there passively listening to a teacher, taking good notes and then memorizing the information you need to pass the exam. That may help you with acquiring some new knowledge, but it’s not the knowledge that will be most helpful in achieving more impact in the world around you.
In a previous post, I suggested that the best way to measure our net worth is through our network of relationships. In that post, I emphasized that this is not about how many “connections” we have, but rather the number and diversity of the deep, trust-based relationships we have with others. While some of these relationships will consist of family and close personal friends, a key question we should ask ourselves is whether we’ve been able to find and participate in a creation space through a cell where we have developed deep relationships that will help us to learn faster.
Coming together in cities
So, creation spaces are a key vehicle to accelerate learning. But there’s more. I’ve written before about the increasing importance of cities in our global economy. The paradox is that, in a world that’s increasingly flat where location appears to no longer matter, we’re accelerating our movement globally in larger and larger cities. Why would we do that if location no longer matters?
There are many reasons, but one key reason is that we all have an instinctive belief that we’re going to learn faster in cities than we ever could in rural areas or smaller towns and villages. Much of that learning comes through serendipity, those unexpected encounters with people that we would have never thought to look for, often from very different backgrounds, but who end up offering us some really valuable ideas about an issue or problem we’re wrestling with.
In fact, serendipity offers an important balance to those tightly knit cells I discussed earlier. It exposes us to very different perspectives and approaches that can lead us to major new insights and questions to explore. As I’ve written in The Power of Pull, we all have an untapped potential to shape serendipity – to significantly increase the probability of those unexpected encounters – through a wide range of choices we make in our lives. Serendipity is a key driver of learning.
The increasing returns effect - learning faster together
Both creation spaces and cities make it essential to focus on that third dimension of the learning pyramid – how many people are we connecting with as we pursue our learning journey? Trust me, no matter how smart and motivated you are, you’re going to learn a lot faster when you are with others.
In fact, I believe there’s a powerful increasing returns effect in learning – the more people we interact with on our journey, the more rapidly we will learn. The deeper we can make that third dimension of the pyramid – the more people we can connect with on our learning journey – the more robust and powerful that learning pyramid will become. Without that depth, the pyramid will indeed remain very weak and fragile.
The power of passion
By the way, this is one reason that I put such emphasis on the importance of the passion of the explorer at the base of the learning pyramid – it turns out that one of the key attributes of the passion of the explorer is what I call a “connecting disposition.” That connecting disposition is an urge to reach out and connect with others as we confront new challenges, rather than sitting alone in a room to try to figure it out by ourselves. It turns out, based on some research that we did, passionate explorers are twice as connected as people who do not yet have this form of passion. That’s one of the reasons that this form of passion is such a key driver of learning.
It’s also the reason why I put such emphasis on finding and cultivating passion as the foundation for the learning pyramid. Without this passion, we’ll be much less effective in building out the base of the pyramid in terms of the number of people we connect with on our learning journey.
And, please, don’t interpret me as saying that if you haven’t yet found your passion, you can’t learn. Of course you can. The best place to start is by cultivating the capabilities I identified in the second level of the pyramid, especially curiosity and emotional and social intelligence. Those capabilities will help you to explore an expanding array of domains until you finally find the domain that draws out your passion.
But, please don’t stop exploring until you’ve connected with that passion. I believe we all have that potential for passion. Just because some of us discover it earlier in our lives, doesn’t mean that it’s absent from the rest of us – others just haven’t been fortunate enough to find it yet, in part because many have given up looking for it.
The deeper meaning of pyramids
Before I finish, let me also point out that the choice of the image of a pyramid has deeper meaning. The earliest pyramids were actually the ziggurats built by the Mesopotamians, starting in the third millennium BC. These structures were believed to be dwelling places for the gods. Later, the Egyptians became famous for their pyramids and the inspiration for the earliest Egyptian pyramid was the desire to build a gigantic stairway so that the soul of the deceased pharaoh could ascend to the heavens.
What better way of thinking about a learning pyramid? Without becoming narrowly religious about it, the learning pyramid can become our stairway to achieve much more of our potential and achieve things that we might have thought to be only the province of gods. Let’s ascend together to the heavens that await us.
In a world of mounting performance pressure, we all need to expand our view of learning. It has many levels to it, but to make sure we are making progress on all the levels, we need to find others to help us and work with us on our journey. By joining together, we’ll reach heights that we would never have imagined possible. And we will turn the stress of mounting pressure into the excitement of expanding opportunity.