Posts Tagged ‘Learning’

Written by Brecht in the early 1930s, this poem was featured (and beautifully read) recently on Radio 4’s ‘Poetry Please’, which is hosted by Roger McGough. I think it is a really powerful message, even for MBAs.

Its title is:

In Praise of Learning

Study from bottom up,
for you who will take the leadership,
it is not too late!
Study the ABC; it is not enough.
but study it!
Do not become discouraged, begin! You must know everything!
You must prepare to take command,now!
Study, man in exile!
Study. man in the prison!
Study, wife in your kitchen!
Study, old-age pensioner!
You must prepare to take command now!
Locate yourself a school, homeless folk!
Go search some knowledge, you who freeze!
You who starve, reach for a book: it will be a weapon.
You must prepare to take command now.
Don’t be afraid to question, comrades!
Never believe on faith.
see for yourself!
What you yourself don’t learn
you don’t know.
Question the reckoning
you yourself must pay it
Set down your finger on each small item. asking:
where do you get this?
You must prepare to take command now!

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Now that there is nothing material that I can do to the thesis – it just has to do its own work for a bit – I have been noticing how my thoughts explore areas of more practical application of some of the concepts, ideas and conclusions it contains.

One of these is the question as to why reflection in Personal Development should be more, not less, important as we get older.

If it is true, as Jung believed, that the purpose of the second half of life is to make sense of the first, well then that could be one explanation. And then it occurred to me that a function of the difference between decisions made lower in an organisation (typically) and those made much higher up is connected to reversibility. If organisations follow the same organismic logic of complex living systems, biologies, ecologies and so forth (that is, systems where there are complex circuits of flows of information), then this would make sense. At the bottom, it may be more than inadvisable to make decisions that result in irreversible changes, it may be impossible (i.e. the structure of the organisation will forbid it). At the top, reversible changes may be possible, but would be redundant and energy inefficient (or would be indistinguishable to lower level, adaptive changes).

In Batesonian terms this lower level decision-making is analogous to somatic change, which is like, for example, the body’s ability to regulate and adapt skin tone in reaction to sunlight, or its breathing in acclimatisation to altitude. These are changes, but the not of a parameter at a higher level. At higher, or senior levels, permanent change is much more difficult and much riskier because it could represent a loss of flexibility at a lower level. Like a lot of these meandering thoughts, I am sure it needs development, but it does feel like a significant idea.

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A couple in dialogue with nature in a rainforest pool in northern Queensland.

I’m fond of telling anyone who’ll listen not only that reflection is at the heart of Personal Development,  but also that “introspection is necessary but not sufficient” for reflection. This second assertion is prompted by observation and supported by deduction.

The observation is of the shyness exhibited by most MBAs when it comes to sharing thoughts and feelings with others in a learning context. Hardened managers who would not hesitate to chip (or butt) in with their views when it comes to business decisions turn deafeningly silent when it comes to surfacing assumptions about themselves in a collective setting. This silent tendency is even more pronounced, if that’s the right word, when the sharing requires those thoughts to be expressed in writing. This is despite an intellectual acceptance of three ideas; that telling others helps reveal our thinking to ourselves, that listening to others somehow provides a boundary and shape for our own thoughts, and that the process of writing (especially for publication to an audience) is a distillation and perhaps a transformation of our thoughts (when we speak we do not use exactly the same language structure as when we write). Anecdotally, when you have a situation where trust has been established between managers who are all committed to learning, the efficacy of dialogue for PD is very often apparent, with rapid results.

Nevertheless, these observations cannot easily explain why dialogue is a principle of PD. That explanation comes from a deduction, itself following on from the second principle (which spoke of the concept of difference), of what must necessarily be going on in dialogue, intrinsic to reflection and therefore part of the Personal Development process.

Whenever a second view or reference point is made available, and difference created, a new level is not just a possiblity but a logical necessity. Gregory Bateson used the example of binocular vision to illustrate this. On its own, each of our eyes is sensitive to information or sense data. But a single eye cannot see distance; this facility is a property of the information processed from both eyes. However, the fact that we can perceive depth in three dimensions is not simply a matter of addition. Binocular vision is at a logical level hierarchically above the levels represented by what each eye “sees” on its own. As Bateson pointed out, this is a sort of multiplication, “[in] principle, extra “depth” in some metaphoric sense is to be expected whenever the information for the two descriptions is differently collected or differently coded.” (Bateson, 1979: 70).

So it may be said that dialogue in reflection results in a depth not present in either person’s thoughts on their own. A ‘conversation’ is an idea one level removed from the individual sets of utterances that make it up. A dialogue is, then, a double description which is the relationship between components (remember that a relationship or difference between things is not a property of those things and has zero dimensions) and when we engage in a dialogue what results is a viewpoint that we could not have seen only from our introspection. At least, deductively, this is what out to be so and what we may then investigate.

The 1st principle

The 2nd principle

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I’m preparing to head south on my annual migration to the southern hemisphere for the March MBA starter workshop in Johannesburg.

As usual, I’m reflecting (pre-flecting?) on what’s to come, on how I’ll work with colleagues and new members of the MBA, what state of mind I want them to be in at various points, and so on…

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that reflection is not possible except when we are able to distinguish it as such, which means differentiating it from that which is not reflection. The two are interdependent and inextricably linked. This is how we find the outline of one, against the other. Hardly earth shattering? Maybe. Yet a crucial point precisely because we take it for granted.

So how do we know the difference, in general? This is occupying me, so I may return to this over the coming days as I blog the workshop.

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I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of pathologies in management. It’s an interesting thought, but not one often dwelt on in the context of an MBA. I think this is a mistake because it’s always the pathologies that throw light on the day-to-day normal functioning that would otherwise be camouflaged from us by the fact that, frankly, there is just nothing noticeable going on.

The term ‘pathology’ conjures images of morgues and psychiatrist’s couches, but the definition also has other meanings and applications (see below). The one under discussion here is as “a departure or deviation from a normal condition”. This  seemingly spare definition is linked, of course, to the others and it should be of interest to managers and leaders for the following reasons:

1.  Although it is suggested that there is nothing to be learnt from “a normal condition”, actually it would be better to say that there is nothing that’s easily learnt. In fact, the normal is where most of us operate, most of the time. We just do it without thinking about it. We are somewhat hard-wired to seek equilibrium and place into our sub-conscious minds as many routine aspects of behaviour as we can.

Now, ‘normality’ is, of course, a loaded term; what, exactly, is “normal”?  It is anything we don’t pay attention to, either because we don’t have to to get by, or because it has become so routine, so habitual as to be impossible differentiate.  This routine world is not open to examination because what we wish to examine and the means we have to examine it are one and the same. Only when we have at our disposal a new lens, a means of differentiating the normal, only then can we draw its outline.

2. So the study of a pathology is important as it shows us what we cannot see in the “normal”, and therefore shows us the nature of what we take for granted. To understand what we do as managers, we have to find or provoke situations which are deviant, or perhaps just a departure from the everyday. The psychiatrist Oliver Sacks has illustrated this phenomenon very well in his numerous books on deviant psychological conditions. The whole medical profession, in fact, has relied on pathology as a source of information about what must, necessarily, be the case in the world of the non-deviant.

The question of what are the pathologies of management is important not in order to validate the deviation but to show us how we work when we don’t have any problem at all. In Personal Developmnet on the MBA, I think this could be a valuable, if theoretical, starting point for all incoming managers. The challenge in education, aside from documenting cases of managerial pathology, is safely to provoke enough deviation in the course of the degree to let leaders and managers see for themselves how this works.

n. pl. pa·thol·o·gies

1. The scientific study of the nature of disease and its causes, processes, development, and consequences. Also called pathobiology.
2. The anatomic or functional manifestations of a disease: the pathology of cancer.
3. A departure or deviation from a normal condition: “Neighborhoods plagued by a self-perpetuating pathology of joblessness, welfare dependency, crime” (Time).

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Just over a year ago I undertook another month-long challenge on this blog. Rather than a different photo each day I undertook to follow a fairly long interview protocol designed to explore and reflect on my own personal narrative.

The second post of that sequence was a pre-amble, a word or two about definitions and various models of reflection, by way of setting the scene for what was to come next. The model I mentioned in that post, that of Atkins and Murphy developed in nursing training, and I have noticed that even after 12 months it still receives a steady stream of hits.Atkins and Murphy, it seems, is fairly often searched for on Google.

This prompted me to revisit that blog entry and see what I had said, and whether my thinking has changed since. As to what I wrote, I’m actually quite pleased with it – I think what I said makes some sense and holds together. At the same time, my feeling about models has changed. I’m no longer so sure that they are the be-all and end-all for understanding reflection. Do people really follow the phases, and if they don’t, well does that mean they’re not reflecting? Do we shoe-horn what is actually happening into these labels and categorisations?

I’m sure that a model can be helpful up to a point, but is also an invitation to miss both the subtlety of the learning process and the myriad elements which just don’t fit on the page or the in the paradigm of the researchers who came up with it. In the Atkins and Murphy case, ultimately it boils down to a mix of good ol’ North American pragmatism/behaviourism/scientific method (echoes of Kolb) mixed with a dash of mild critical reflection that can incorporate a questioning of underlying assumptions and inclusion of room for emotion and feeling.

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I wanted use this blog posting to draw out some lessons from one of Gregory Bateson’s essays. This may not interest anyone reading this. On the other hand, if you’re curious why anyone would want to try to make sense of Bateson’s work  (I have my own PhD related reasons), you may find this helps foster your own thoughts.

The essay in question is in “A Sacred Unity: further steps to an Ecology of Mind“, a second anthology of his various (and incredible) range of writing over many years, which was published in 1991. In the section of the book titled ‘Form and Pattern in Anthropology’ is the essay “Naven: Epilogue 1958”.

Naven was a book Bateson originally published, as a cultural anthropologist, in 1936 and which was based on his  earlier field work in New Guinea. On one level, Naven (the title names a complex ceremony of tribal bonding) constituted the results of an observational study of aspects of the kinship system of the Iatmul tribe, symmetrical and complementary schismogenesis of roles and behaviours among particular family roles. The 1936 publication included an Epilogue, a sort of reflection on his findings. The 1958 edition contained a further Epilogue which critiques and re-evaluates the earlier work and places the two kinds of schismogenesis in one balancing system (and this thought was undoubtedly influnced by the interest at that time in cybernetics and systems theory), but more importantly it is an essay into the limitations of methods of inquiry and of explanation.

These are the things I take from the 1958 Epilogue (bearing in mind that these ideas continued to be developed for a further thirty years or so):

1. “All science is an attempt to cover with explanatory devices”, a game to see how rigorously the scientist can stretch explanation to cover “the vast darkness” of the subject at hand.

2. Aside from the subject under scrutiny, science is also about learning about the process of knowing. In other words, it is about explaining epistemology, or how we know.

3. Explanation is about the fitting together of data.

4. In Bateson’s epistemology, the fitting together of data is subject to logical levels of abstraction. Raw data are always one level removed from the “world as it is”, and the re-arrangement by the researcher of that data in order to make sense of it is on a level of abstraction higher  than the data itself. If the data is the picture of the world, then research is rather like trying to put together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Further, the self-reflexive discussion of the procedures of knowing used by the researcher (that which justifies why the activity of putting together a jigsaw has any meaning at all) is itself on another level of abstraction again.

5. The labels that scientists give to explanations are just that, labels, and should not be confused with the things those labels describe. The terms used in the conclusions drawn by the researcher refer to the way that the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ has been arranged, not to what’s in the picture. 

6. In social science, explanation (theory) is recursive. Failure to discriminate between these various levels is thus cause for confusion and error.

7. Ideas are not things and words such as “learning” and “teaching” are not in themselves explanations for anything. (This may be why so many companies find it impossible to measure the effectiveness of HR training?)

8.  If we do not resist the temptation to reify them, then a lot of the theories, models, frameworks, classifications and typologies that are used in learning are simply “heuristic fallacies” when it comes to explanation.  This is a valid criticism of, for example, anyone using the Myers-Briggs Type-Indicator as an explanatory principle for behaviour or personality. This would be to confuse the device for description with the thing it describes, though the tendency to do this is very strong.

9. The study of learning and of change is actually the study of explanation not of things but of relationship between things. If learning and change are formally analogous in more areas than just social science, the value of studying what “knowing” means becomes much important for managers, since we may end up being able to explain much more.

10. We tend to think of learning as having a purpose. The idea whether change is directional and that the end of a process is its purpose (and also an explanation of the process that preceded it) is one that has occupied philosophical thought for millennia. But the explanation of the process in a system always lies outside that system (to paraphrase Einstein, we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them). 

11. In social research the reason why this is hard to demonstrate is the capacity that human individuals have to conceptualise the system that they are an intrinsic part of. This conceptualisation (or double hermeneutic?), while also making humans prone to error in logical typing, means humans agents can consciously make changes in the variables within a system in order to retain permanence and stability. At a higher logical level, however, there is learning going on about the (observed) parameters which are the boundaries of that system.

12. A categorisation of that set of behaviours and utterances (communication) that we class as “Reflection” is not an explanation of what reflection is.  “Reflection” is of a higher logical type than, say, “experience”, “ambiguity” or “dialogue” (or any one of a myriad of behaviours and utterances). As long as we know this, we will not become confused (or, not so easily) and we will not fall into the trap of “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” in our mapping of data.

13. What you describe, what you see, as a researcher is defined by the choices you make, and by rigour in coding at higher levels as well as lower ones. Alternative descriptions are possible where they are of the same logical type. Human learning, in this sense, might be just as interchangeably, defensibly and unsatisfactorily described by Kolb’s learning cycle as by Jung’s archetypes. The fact of context in human learning, however, is necessarily more than the individual, and cannot be explained by individualistic and atomistic theories.

14. Research into human learning often focuses on examining storied selves. This is fine, and constitutes a description of the self. But care is needed to avoid assuming, first, that these stories ‘exist’ outside their telling and, second, that simply  in their telling there will be a change of the order which we may label “Reflection” (i.e. learning, of the sort which changes the parameters of the self).



Bateson, G. (1958) Naven, a Survey of the Problems Suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe Drawn from Three Points of View. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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