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Melissa Han

Conceptual Model of Adult Learning

Leadership for Learning
Summer 2014

Adult learning is a dynamic process where there is multiple interactions of new
knowledge within the social context and the self. Spillane (2000) terms this as situated and quasi-
cognitive perspectives. Quasi-cognitive adult learning is done through self-reflection of current
knowledge and experiences while situated learning is an active process where reflection and
feedback is done among the support of colleagues. Kelly (2006) also proposes a similar process
of reflection-in-practice by which professionals engage in a continuing dialogue with the
changing situation of their practice and draw on both their knowledge-in and their knowledge-of-
practice with one another. My visual representation attempts to capture both the situated and
quasi-cognitive perspectives to adult learning that Spillane speaks of.
The yellow line represents our current state of learning carrying with it our initial theories
and prior experiences. The dual arrows indicates that we can react to learning in different ways.
We can choose to go forward, backward, or enter the learning circle (Breen, 2011). We continue
on this yellow line in our current state of learning with a goal or purpose in mind despite the
direction we choose. As we continue on this line, events or opportunities intersect us at various
times. The red arrow marks an event, opportunity, or moment that causes a cognitive dissonance
to occur. These moments are not neutral but can be positive or negative and big or small. They
serve as opportunities for learning because for whatever reason they have grabbed our attention.
We have the choice to either enter the learning circle as indicated by the blue and green arrows.
Our choice can result in new learning or we could ignore the cognitive dissonance and remain on
the yellow line. We choose the direction we want to travel. I argue that entering the learning
circle results in the creation of new learning while choosing not to keeps our learning stagnant.
Once we enter into the learning circle, we process our cognitive dissonance and learning
begins. Learning begins from the inside out, meaning that our thinking changes first and our
actions then follow. First, we must observe our current state since the cognitive dissonance has
stopped us in our tracks. This is the time to observe our reactions, our emotions, and thoughts.
Its crucial to be honest with our observations and see things as they are in order for inward
learning and change to occur.
Next, we reflect on our observations by asking ourselves questions. We reflect on why
we reacted the way we did, why we felt the way we did, and why we thought the way we did.
Again, honest reflection is key in continuing the learning circle. We then invite our supportive
community into the process with us. We discuss our observation and reflection with others and
invite them to be honest in their response to us through challenge and support. Discussion and
interpretation of new theories are introduced in this component. I believe that this type of
collaboration enables us to continue movement from the right side of the learning circle to the
left. This component represents the situated perspective.
Learning happens when we continue from a change in thinking to an alignment of action.
We then move from the right side of the learning circle into the left. On the basis of observation,
reflection, and discussion, we create a plan that will transfer the inner change of thinking into
outward action. Lasting learning doesnt happen in complete isolation. If the plan is to succeed, a
supportive community must enter again at this stage. Its important to have at least one person to
hold us accountable and provide consistent check-in points to track or revise the development of
the plan. We need to externalize the things that have been going on internally. Once the plan is
made and the relationship of accountability is established, the action will reflect the change in
thinking that was done on the right side of the circle.
When we complete the learning circle and witness positive growth, we tend to use this
process repeatedly as we continue on the journey of learning as multiple moments of cognitive
dissonances occur. The learning then looks more like a slinky model instead of a linear one. If
we choose not to enter into the learning circle, our learning remains stagnant in the yellow lined
area and current behaviors are repeated without much growth.
It is imperative that organizations create space for individuals to pause and notice when
cognitive dissonance occurs. These spaces should be built into the culture of an organization
consistently. Leaders in the organization serve as models and facilitators of the learning circle
process. Trusting relationships that both challenge and support one another enables learners to
move through both halves of the learning circle. When organizations provide adults with
opportunities for creating, reflecting on and sharing their own knowledge with one another a
high degree of commitment, motivation, and satisfaction develops from their work. They then
identify most closely with the communities in which they are part of and become effective in
influencing others in their organization (Kelly, 2006).