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Answer these Yes/No questions:

  1. Is all learning re-learning?
  2. Is all learning rooted in conflict between the old and the new?
  3. Is learning about redefining our place in the world?

When people answer “yes” to these questions they often have an idea of which type of learning they are considering: after all learning the capital of Tanzania or learning Algebra doesn’t necessarily force you to re-think your place in the world. And while I certainly have met many people whose lives were changed by particularly vibrant math teachers, for most folks, math class didn’t lead to dramatic self-reevaluation. In contrast, when it comes to leadership development, the statements above are always answered in the affirmative. And when asked what real learning is all about the word that comes to my mind is often “conflict.”

People often view conflict as a problem which can be “managed” and possibly redirected to their advantage. Another group of people dare to say that conflict is an opportunity for learning. They can see that its occurrence provides a chance for discovery and therefore believe that conflict should be embraced rather than avoided when it presents itself. I dare say – with David Kolb, the father of experiential learning – something even more unconventional: without a competency to deal effectively with conflict, we can’t be good learners.

Kolb defined learning as the “process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience” (Kolb 1984: 41).

My experience as a leaders’ coach is that true, deep, real learning is best conceived as a process, not in terms of outcomes. To improve learning, the primary focus should be on engaging participants in a process that best enhances their learning —which includes feedback on the effectiveness of their learning efforts. When we immerse ourselves in that process and assume a beginner’s mind – or one that is open to learn rather than focused on trying to look smart –we face a conflict between what we know to be true and what appears in our experience to be true. Often in a form of a “disorienting dilemma.”

In these terms, all learning is re-learning, an attempt to deal successfully with conflicting ideas. Such learning is best facilitated by a process that draws out and make explict through reflective work the learners’ beliefs and ideas about a topic so that they can be examined, tested, and integrated with new, more refined ideas.

This process is the resolution of conflicts between dialectically opposed modes of adaptation to the world; it assumes an ability to deal with conflict without irritable reach or extensive frustration; without hiding the differences and with the ability to continue to function in their presence, which – as we know – is not always easy. Ultimately conflict, differences, and disagreement drive the learning process,  as in the process of learning, one is called upon to move back and forth between opposing viewpoints and ideas while using different modes of reflection, action, feeling and thinking.

What could you learn and accomplish with an improved ability to manage conflicting ideas about yourself and the world?