Learning as a Way of Being

Describe Vaill’s distinction between learning as a means of doing and learning as a way of being, including leaderly learning.

I.First, it’s important to understand the current model of learning, which Vaill refers to as the Institutional model of learning:

 Vaill believes that the entire philosophy, practice and structure of this model is not sufficient and can hinder learning – even to the point of dysfunction.

The existing model:

Depicts learning as an institutional activity

Learning is painful, an uphill battle, a strain

Goals are is chosen by another (rather than internally-motivated)

Someone who is setting out to learn is less admirable than one who has completed a set of learning

Culturally, being a “beginner” is not good and learning must lead to the status of being accomplished, competence and mastery.

 It does not question inner learning – is it effective? What’s really evaluated? What’s the philosophy in these settings? We need to know more about learning.

In permanent white water, this kind of learning cannot hold.

These ideas about learning (forms, criteria, etc.) hinder the practice of attitudes and actions that should constitute lifelong learning.This model gets in the way of true lifelong learning.

 p. 31-32Although Vaill settled for “institutional learning,” he found three other ways to describe this model.First, “learning as a means to being. ”This is “because learning is seen to be the way a person becomes qualified, a fully competent person rather than a neophyte, rookie or beginner.”“Learning as a means to doing” also fits the model because “learning in our culture is so powerfully oriented to usefulness.”And “extrinsic model of learning” also fits because it is assumed that stimulus for learning and material “originate outside the learner; “other-directed learning” also fits because “the learner’s attention is so powerfully directed to issues and subject matter as defined by authority figures outside of the learner.”

 p. 36There are several assumptions of “good learning” in the institutional model than also can hinder learning:

The essence is goal directedness

Learner’s responsibility to value the goal

Learning goal is assumed to be outside of the learning process

Efficiency of the learning (speed, volume)


Learner must go “off-line” from where the learning should be used

p. 39 These characteristics describe a person with a substantially diminished sense of self, who is not yet an authentic being but who is going to try to learn as the means to becoming an authentic being.Being a learner is very lonely.

II.Learning as a way of being vs. means of doing

All experience is learning; it is a posture toward experience, a philosophy at the personal level.

For example, good management depends as much on good character as good behavioral skills, so there’s a spiritual element to it.This kind of learning is personal/present/continual

How does learning as a way of being work? There isn’t really a definitive, the seven modes/qualities below are part of the answer, but do not work in solo fashion but instead work together.

It is an organic quality and it is how we are naturally

p. 42Learning must be a way of being, an authentic way of living and being, thinking and learning in the world of permanent white water.Learning happens through constant change, and will be continuous, therefore a way of being.

Being refers to the whole person:

All the time, all areas of life

All levels of awareness

It’s interpersonal/connected

How does it work? There is not really a definitive.The seven modes/qualities below are part of the answer and work together, instead of in solo fashion.

There are seven qualities of Learning as way of Being:(p. 44-47 for detailed descriptions)

1)      Self-directed learning

2)      Creative learning – not pursuing a preset goal using preset methods and resources; it is an exploration and it’s inventive

3)      Expressive learning – learning occurs in the process of expressing it; white water does not offer the luxury of offline learning

4)      Feeling learning – learning in white water occurs at the level of feelings as much as ideas and skills; learning about meanings isn’t just impersonal ideas, but knowing it deeply and personally

5)      On-line learning – de-institutionalized; learning happens in all environments

6)      Continual learning – always a beginner; mastery in permanent white water is almost a contradiction in terms

7)      Reflexive learning – being a more conscious and reflective learner; more aware of one’s own learning process

III.So, what’s leaderly learning? p. 121-149, definition p. 126-127

It is learning leadership, experiential, and learner centered.

p. 133-145The current (institutional) education for managerial leadership is too subject matter-oriented vs. asking how is leading learned? Leaderly learning can be described through the lenses of the seven modes of learning listed below and it is what leaderly learning should look like.The leader must be engaged in these qualities of continual learning for the rest of their life/career:

1)      Self-directed leaderly learning – leadership is initiative before anything else.The person taking initiative is thinking (learning) what’s needed and why, thinking (learning) what kind of approach is likely to work.As a result of this self-directed process, the content of the initiative is owned by the initiator, and as they proceed, they act (learn) the early effects of the initiative on others.SD learning is modeling.The leader must be conscious that the followers need to be learners in order to understand and accept the leader’s initiative.The leader helps them to experience what they need to know vs. telling them.The leader needs to discover what acts of leadership are needed through SDL and through creative leaderly learning…

2)      Creative leaderly learning – We are often on the “process frontiers” in the world of permanent white water, and we must find ways of doing things that have never been done before without examples.Process frontier is: a new action for the organization or modification in the way something has been done before.It involves new attitudes, abilities and actions.People are feeling their way along, even if they don’t admit it to themselves.Its goals are difficult to set because it’s all new.The leader needs to learn what it’s like for the people living on the process frontier and ask themselves what kind of learning is needed there and what the organization members need to engage in that learning.The leader needs to look at what their own role is in facilitating this.This is not, however, a “how to do it” because leaderly learning is not targeted and efficient.It will be messy and there will be anxiety.“How to do it” takes away from the learning.

3)      Expressive Learning is central to leaderly learning.The combination of three qualities of managerial leadership make it expressive learning: a) the individual’s responsibility to impart purpose and direction to the system; b). their inevitably partial knowledge of the nature of the system and its environment where the purposes are pursued; c). the reactivity of others in the system to the leader’s initiatives.The leader’s actions must take into account the values and intentions of others.There is no cookbook for learning.It is best learned by expressing actions/decisions that recognize these three qualities.It’s like a performing art because the learner learns their art by performing it.

4)      Feelings can be volatile and contradictory in the learner, for example conflicts between interests of the parties involved and between the learner’s personal values and the good of the organization.Feeling cannot be eliminated, because it isn’t just rational thought that solves problems.The learner must engage in “sensing the organization as a whole and the total situation related to it.”This sensing transcends intellect and includes feeling, judging, sense, proportion, balance and appropriateness.It’s an art rather than a science and opposite of mechanical.For example, the learner can lead through curiosity, concern and in the spirit of support.

5)      On-line leaderly learning – The new leaderly learner must begin right away and be active in real situations vs. a lab setting.For example, it’s one thing to learn in a classroom how to write dismissal letters vs. writing and signing a document that might bring on a lawsuit.Perhaps switching the roles or order of classroom and real world would be good.This would mean going to class to process past online learnings and then plan new ones; to reflect on how online learning is different from the classroom.

6)      Continual leaderly learning – Most learners haven’t thought much about what lifelong learning means, and without that understanding they will not thrive.Looking at learning as a way of being as a life process is the key, as well as knowing the seven modes/characteristics of leaderly learning.

7)      Reflexive leaderly learning – As a beginner, the leaderly learner must be reflexive.By improving on the first six modes and moving back and forth between observation and improvement.It is possible to have the same negative experience over and over again if the learner does not reflect.Also managerial leaders cannot learn everything; they must pick and choose where their focus will be.But to make better choices, the leader must be consciously reflective about it.

One more note on leaderly learning: Of all the things said about the attitudes and abilities of an effective managerial learner, there are three general areas of knowledge and skill that come up repeatedly: a) technical knowledge – the technical facts of an organization; b) purposeful – includes establishing “mission” and “vision” and c) relational – making the technical and purposeful meaningful to all involved.They are interrelated, and where they are not is where the manager will not show successful leadership.So much has focused on the technical, but purposeful and relational are indispensable to technical knowledge.Perhaps the biggest challenge to leaderly learning is ongoing learnings of the interrelationships between technical, purposeful and relational.


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