How You Learn Is How You Live: Using Nine Ways of Learning to Transform Your Life

How You Learn Is How You Live: Using Nine Ways of Learning to Transform Your Life

by Kay Peterson, David A. Kolb


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626568709
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 04/17/2017
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Kay Peterson is founder and managing director of the Institute for Experiential Learning where she provides training, coaching and assessments to support the use of Experiential Learning and Learning Styles flexibility as a value creation strategy across industries. She is also a founding partner of Harlan Peterson Partners, where she works with individuals and organizations to develop exceptional owners, leaders and entrepreneurs.

David A. Kolb is the creator of Experiential Learning Theory, the founder and chairman of Experience Based Learning Systems, Inc., and professor emeritus at Case Western Reserve University.

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How You Learn Is How You Live

Using Nine Ways of Learning to Transform Your Life

By Kay Peterson, David A. Kolb

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2017 Kay Peterson and David A. Kolb
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62656-870-9


The Learning Way

For he had learned some of the things that everyman must find out for himself, and he had found out about them as one has to find out, through errors and through trial, through fantasy and delusion, through falsehood and his own damn foolishness, through being mistaken and wrong and an idiot and egotistical and aspiring and hopeful and believing and confused. As he lay there he had gone back over his life, and bit by bit, had extracted from it some of the hard lessons of experience. Each thing he learned was so simple and so obvious once he grasped it, that he wondered why he had not always known it. Altogether, they wove into a kind of leading thread, trailing backward through his past and out into the future. And he thought now, perhaps he could begin to shape his life to mastery, for he felt a sense of new direction deep within him, but whither it would take him he could not say.

Thomas Wolfe

There are many ways to live your life. Each of us is unique, and the life path we choose reflects this uniqueness, amplified for better or worse by luck and circumstance. Stop and think about where you are now at this moment in your life and reflect on the path you have taken to arrive here. You have likely made many good choices with consequences that have brought you happiness and success. There are also probably bad times, bad choices, and unpredictable and uncontrollable events that have challenged you greatly. Through it all you have learned from your experience and have acquired life lessons that guide you on your way. Some of these lessons serve you well, but others, often emotional beliefs born out of disappointment and pain, offer poor advice for living. As Mark Twain advised, "We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it — and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again — and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore."

Living each life experience with a learning attitude can help us extract the right lessons from that experience. The learning way is not the easiest way to approach life, but in the long run it is the wisest. Other ways of living tempt us with immediate gratification at our peril. The way of dogma, the way of denial, the way of addiction, the way of submission, and the way of habit; all offer relief from uncertainty and pain at the cost of entrapment on a path that winds out of our control. The learning way requires deliberate effort to create new knowledge in the face of uncertainty and failure, but this process opens the way to new, broader, and deeper horizons of experience.

The learning process itself is intrinsically rewarding and empowering, bringing new avenues of experience and new realms of mastery. The key is to use the process of learning as a guide. Oprah Winfrey says it well: "I am a woman in process. I'm just trying like everybody else. I try to take every conflict, every experience, and learn from it. Life is never dull." Oprah's ability to learn from experience cannot be denied: from a young girl in rural Mississippi in the 1950s to talk show host, media entrepreneur, and actress, Oprah keeps learning as she follows her ever-expanding interests.

The lessons we learn from our past experiences are not fixed rules for living but must be open to revision. Each new experience is like no other and must be experienced fully to reap its wisdom. In a life of learning the rules of the game, the rules are always changing, and our process of experiencing is the guiding star.

Experiencing as the Gateway to Learning

Without new experiences there can be no real learning. We only recombine and reiterate what we already know. Opening ourselves to new experiences and living those experiences fully with awareness in the moment is necessary for learning, renewal, and growth. Yet our habits and beliefs tend to engage automatically, turning a new experience into an old pattern of response. Ironically, what we think we know can be the greatest barrier to our learning.

The Nobel Prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman says that we actually have two selves — an experiencing self and a remembered thinking self. Our experiencing self perceives and registers our feelings and reactions to every moment of our lives. For the experiencing self, life is a succession of momentary experiences — happiness, sadness, amazement, boredom, curiosity, love, pain — that exist only in the present and are soon replaced by another feeling. In ancient Theraveda Buddhism this succession of experiences is depicted as a string of pearls. Kahneman similarly thought of this succession of experiences as a string of moments. He took a mathematical approach, calculating the duration of each of these moments:

... each of these moments of psychological present may last up to 3 seconds, suggesting that people experience some 20,000 moments in a waking day, and upwards of 500 million moments in a 70 year life. Each moment can be given a rich multidimensional description. ... What happens to these moments? The answer is straightforward: with very few exceptions, they simply disappear.

The remembered thinking self is like the string that holds together the pearls of our experiences. The pearls and the string together form the story of our lives — what we think and feel and who we are. We base all our choices on this life story, but our life story is not always the best basis for decision making. The way that we remember our experiences is very different than the active process of experiencing — our minds create illusions that impact how we remember experiences.

For example, we often give more weight to our most recent experience. This can cause us to remember an event that ended well as a positive event, even if it was filled with painful experiences. A study on vacations found a substantial difference between the vacationers' recalled enjoyment and their actual experienced enjoyment. Their recalled enjoyment, not their actual experienced enjoyment, led them to desire to repeat the vacation. Another study found that people predict they will be happier on their birthday, but their actual experience of happiness is the same as other days. Studies like these emphasize the importance of being in touch with both the experiencing and remembered thinking selves when making life decisions. Being aware of the experiencing process can help us use relevant experiences instead of illusions to guide our decisions.

The balance between the experiencing and remembered thinking selves shifts over the course of our lifetime. As children we are guided primarily by our experiencing process and as a result are spontaneous, authentic, and able to easily embrace contradiction and change. As we grow older our remembered thinking self takes charge. Our experiences are impacted by memories, beliefs, and values that are not always relevant. Carl Rogers argues that the mature adult needs to recapture the child's capacity to experience directly. He describes this as a process of "letting oneself down into the immediacy of what one is experiencing, endeavoring to sense and to clarify all its complex meanings." He explains that adults experience not only the present moment but also their memories of the past and predictions about the future, so they must strive to consciously interpret each experience anew.

Creating Ourselves by Learning

Much of who we are is determined by what we have learned from our life experiences. As we have seen, experiences matter, but we use the meaning we make of them to define ourselves. Our birth brings us into poverty or privilege, yet many have risen from the lowest to the highest rungs of society by choosing to see their conditions as a challenge while many of the most privileged have squandered their riches through indifference. Sometimes learning creates profound transformation in a person's life. By learning, doors can be opened through the barriers of class, race, gender, and ethnic identification. It can open eyes and hearts to the experience of others. It transforms the child's awkward grasp into the surgeon's skilled hand.

Some experiences are thrust upon us; some we create for ourselves. We string these experiences together like pearls to define who we are. Looking forward to the future, we see the pearls are only dreams and distant visions of our future experiences. The experience in this present moment is all that actually exists. In the present moment, we fashion a pearl of meaning to remember and choose the next experience ahead. The next experience offers new possibilities for meaning and choice, and on so on in a lifelong process of self-creation and learning.

In some spiritual traditions we humans are thought to be basically asleep, going through life in a semiconscious way, strangely disengaged from our own lives. The learning way is about awakening to attend consciously to our experiences and then to deliberately choose how they influence our beliefs and choices. The spiral of learning from experience — experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting — is the process by which we can consciously choose, direct, and control our life.

The Learning Life Force

The learning way is about awakening the learning life force that lies within all of us. It is a power that we share with all living things. The Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in their search for the defining characteristic of life discovered the process of autopoeisis, the continual process of remaking ourselves through learning from experience. The basic example of autopoeisis is the biological cell with a nucleus and boundary membrane made up of nucleic acids and proteins, and it happens at every level of a system. The bounded structures of the cell like the nucleus and membrane rely on external energy and molecules to produce the cell components that maintain these. Learning from conscious experience is the highest form of this autopoetic learning life force. Every human invention and achievement is the result of this process. The great humanistic psychologist, Abraham Maslow, described the process as "self-actualization — the human motivation to fulfill our full potential. Our learning is driven by this desire to get it right, to do better, and to reach our greatest aspirations for ourselves and the world.

We develop and grow as human beings through learning As children we acquire the basic skills we need to survive. In our early adult years we strive to find a specialization that suits our interests and gives us a place to fit in to society. But we are not done growing when we finish our formal education or even when we successfully arrive at the top of a chosen profession. In fact, we continue to grow throughout our life in a predictable pattern of adult development. In much the same way that we expand our understanding of the world from adolescence to adulthood, we can continue to expand our mental, emotional, and relational capabilities to entirely new levels of complexity and flexibility in response to the increasingly demanding world around us. Maturity in life and career should be seen as a process of unfolding rather than a status achieved once. Contemporary adult development theories describe the course of adult life as a process of learning from life challenges that culminates in what is called self-authorship — becoming the creator of one's own life story. Self-authorship describes individuals who see themselves as independent selves who are responsible for their actions and in control of their lives. They trust their experiences and build a belief system around those experiences, developing meaningful relationships and a strong sense of personal identity.

A Life of Moral Purpose

There are some who warn against trusting our experiences to guide our learning and life. They believe that focusing on personal experiences leads to self-absorption and obliviousness to the needs and concerns of others, and they argue that we should follow time-tested moral rules instead. Yet Carl Rogers maintains that our internal process of deep experiencing is a highly developed way of knowing the good, the true, and the beautiful. He believes that we developed this process through centuries of evolution, making it acutely attuned to survival not only of the individual but all of humanity. He argues that our true moral purpose is not to blindly follow the values developed by philosophers, religious and political leaders, or psychologists but rather to connect with our innate sense of morality through deep experiencing. Deep experiencing means paying attention to and learning from our experiences; doing so helps us develop as both individuals and members of communities, benefiting the whole of humanity.

Empathy, the ability to identify with others, is what drives us to act morally with others. Learning through shared experience with others is the foundation of a life with moral purpose. John Dewey describes that purpose "... to learn from life itself and to make the conditions of life such that all will learn in the process of living."

Learning as a Humble Way

To learn requires giving up the certainty that we know something. We must be open to seeing new possibilities. We must recognize that we can only drink from the ocean of experience teacup by teacup and that our previous conceptions must always be tested by new information — we must be humble learners. Being a humble learner does not mean being simple, weak, or insecure. Because the gift of learning is mastery and greater knowledge, as learners we acquire a secure self-confidence and sense of competence. Yet the openness to experience that brings new learning also prevents this self-esteem from becoming arrogance or dogmatism. Humble learners are fully aware of their talents and abilities but also know their limitations. Recognizing that they are always in the process of learning allows them to admit limitations and mistakes and be willing to learn from others.


I Am a Learner

When I look back on it now, I am so glad that the one thing I had in my life was my belief that everything in life is a learning experience, whether it be positive or negative. If you can see it as a learning experience, you can turn any negative into a positive.

Neve Campbell

I am a learner. True or false? Maybe? Sometimes? How would you answer? Many would answer false. They believe that they have what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a "fixed identity." People are born smart or dumb. The smart ones "get it," and the dumb ones never will. Others aren't sure. They got through school reasonably well and have managed to accomplish many things on the job, but they are not sure this is because of any effort they made to learn. It seemed almost automatic for them. Still others might answer, "Sometimes I am a learner." They may be specialists who can deliberately learn things about their specialty quickly and easily, but when a partner says "Let's take a dance class," they reply, "I can't dance." They adopt a fixed identity outside of their specialty.

The correct answer is true. You are a learner. Learning is almost synonymous with life itself. We share the capacity to learn with all other living things. The process of evolution is a learning process, and as humans we stand at the pinnacle of the capacity to learn. But learning is such a wondrous, powerful, and mysteriously complex process that you may not be aware of it. From the moment you entered the world, you have been learning all the time, and as a baby and young child the speed and power of your learning were enormous. Most of this learning was unconscious, occurring through a simple cycle of learning that James Zull, a biologist and founding director of Case Western Reserve University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education (UCITE), calls the exploration/mimicry learning process. This cycle uses only a limited part of the brain and the sensory and motor regions without intervening reflection and thinking. The child learns language in this way, mimicking and repeating the sounds of the mother's voice. Through this process, we learn many complex skills from walking, talking, reading, and writing to even more sophisticated expert skills, such as medical diagnosis.

In adults, the process slows somewhat because of fixed habits, skills, and entrenched beliefs. The networks established in our brains by these habits, skills, and beliefs reduce the brain's openness to learning and determine most of our behavior unconsciously and automatically. This is called "automaticity," and research suggests that as much as 90 percent of our behavior is determined in this way. It is little wonder that someone might answer "maybe," not being sure whether they are a learner.


Excerpted from How You Learn Is How You Live by Kay Peterson, David A. Kolb. Copyright © 2017 Kay Peterson and David A. Kolb. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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Table of Contents

Foreword xiii

Introduction xvii

Chapter 1 The Learning Way 1

Chapter 2 I Am a Learner 11

Chapter 3 My Learning Style, My Life Path 33

Chapter 4 Building Style Flexibility 77

Chapter 5 Learning Flexibility and the Road Ahead 103

Chapter 6 What's Next? 121

Deliberate Learning for Life

Notes 137

References 141

Appendix A The KLSI, The Kolb Learning Style Inventory: Why You Should Take the Inventory to Define Your Style 149

Appendix B The Style Sheets: The Nine Styles of Learning at a Glance 155

Index 195

About the Authors 207

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