Gillian Squirrell


It's All About the Learning

Learning is fundamental to the coaching process and so working towards those individually crafted or team set goals and aspirations.

Learning is fundamental to developing a number of skills, competencies and heightening attributes which are flagged in this website: leadership of self and others, developing robust resilience, negotiating change processes and working with the process of reflection.

The learning we're exploring here is not conceived of in the more narrow terms of programs offered by educational institutions and training providers. Rather we're talking about the domains of more informal learning. Which is not to nay say that the learning may not be quiet deliberate. There are definite understandings and skills to be developed for using Tiny Habits, to engage is purposeful reflection and to work in the HorsePowered programs, but the learning in all these modalities encourages individuals and teams to become open to working with the unexpected, with emergence and to be open to outcomes. 

Reconceptualizing oneself as an adept learner is a key to all the possibilities that arise through coaching and the various professional and personal development opportunities outlined in this website. 

The Process of Learning

The process of learning is endlessly fascinating. There are a number of. ompeting theories from the more outadated behaviorism, through social constructiveism, social learning theory, my favored ones are experiential learning (see working with the horses), multiple intelligences and situated learning and communities of practice. 

What is deemed important as 21st century learning and skills is poles apart from essential knowledge and skills of 60 years ago. Now systems and critical thinking, flexibility, adaptability, leadership and self-direction feature on the list. Learners stay nimble. 

Everything that happens in a coaching session, during faciltiation and training is all about the learning process. Change requires learning/unlearning and yet at times of challenge and change we may cling to what is known and constant, to what is comfortable and reassuring, while affirming a commitment to learning and change. Often a change and some learning go in lock-step and then in a new normal the old resurfaces. Coaching supporting learning strengthens and supports change behaviours and can challenge regression to older norms. 


Yes, that's right. A key element in learning is unlearning. 

Unlearning is not the same as forgetting something or dismissing it, it is more proactive. It is a recognition that the mind map, mindset or bias that one holds about something is no longer helpful. It is the process of stepping away from it and developing a new one. This is hard.

Usually we bolt new things we learn on to some framework of what we already know.  I know this because I often taught this as a study skill for literature reviews. This however means that the new material is added to the old, often because it supports the old material, and what we know. A process of additive learning. Importantly we interpret new data through the lens of the old. So really, how new, does this make the new material?  We tend to add to what we know with something that confirms what we know (confirmation bias) and reject outright something which contradicts what we know. Not to do so would be unsettling. Unsettling and embracing the unknown is disconcerting.

We may need to make a paradigm shift if we really want to make some changes and that does mean confronting our trusted, comfortable and worn mental maps.

Unlearning is not easy. We need to both recognize the old mind set or mental map and know that we need to step away and develop a new one to receive new data. 

A practical example of the process of unlearning is that of Destin Sandler trying to ride a bike that no longer has a handle bar which turns in the same direction of the wheels. So if you want the wheel to turn left the handle bars need to be turned to the right. Not so easy. This will make sense if you check out his TED Ed talk here

We are aided in all forms of learning and change by the neuroplasticity of our brains, we can make new links, we just have to resist the ease and pull of the old. This is harder in crisis situations when newer learning caves to old, and when attitudes of which we are only dimly aware are reflected in our behaviors. This takes us again to the importance of reflection to surface assumptions, and how we approach issues and problems (Jack Mezirow). One way to really work with reflection and with unlearning is through a process called action learning.            

Action Learning

A concept and practice that originated with Reg Ravens in the 1940's who while working with his fellow astrophysicists determined that their research was so esoteric that while it was hard to help one another with particular details they could help one another through a process which tapped individual's own understandings, insights and tacit knowledge. So, action learning was born.  It is a learning process which has been used across a variety of types of organization and in bringing individuals together.

Action Learning is a structured process which does much to support reflection and unlearning, developing and refining mental maps.  A brief outline as to how this works follows below.

In brief an Action Learning set is a facilitated and confidential space where the facilitator, who does not contribute to the discussions, ensures the group process works.  Each Set is composed of 4-8 individuals who bring to it a genuinely complex issue to which they do not know the answer.  For example, exploring a time of transition in work or personal lives.

Each set member takes a turn as the Problem Holder.  In this role each Set member describes and explores their issue.  They are deeply and actively listened to by the other Set members.  As they feel themselves heard the Problem Holder may start to re-explore the issue for themselves, surfacing other thoughts or interpretations they were not aware of or did not make space for.  After an agreed time group members ask questions.  These are real questions, not advice or telling the Problem Holder what they would say or do in the other's shoes.  This is harder than it sounds.  Questions  come from a place of deep curiosity and openness.  

The Problem Holder listens, just listens, from a place of openness and curiosity.  They do not engage, answer, censor or defend.  In listening they sit open to what is being said.  The questions and inquiries will push the Problem Holder to reflect, perhaps to re-state their problem, focus on an aspect of or generate a solution.  The diversity of the group members means the Problem Holder will be engaging with their issue from a number of different perspectives.  The Problem Holder may also have gained insight into their issue as they deeply listen to other Set members' issues.

At the close of each Problem Holder's time talking about their issue they will, in light of what has been said, formulate some actions they want to take before the next meeting.

The Action Learning set meets several times, usually once a month.  Between meetings each member undertakes actions and brings the result of their actions back to the group.  Through this cycle of exploration, questioning, call to action, taking action, reflection and analysis the Set members move position, understanding more about the issues they face and ways to re-frame or resolve what they are working on. 

It is a process of framing, re-framing, questioning assumptions and perspectives and trying on new perspectives.  It is a process of experimentation and testing.  Being a member of a Set and accountable to a Set means individuals often go deeper into an issue and take more risks and actions than they would do alone.  For many Set members it is a profound experience.  Action Learning is a powerful tool. 

Sets meet for an agreed period usually over 4-6 months.  Sets are limited to 4-8 people and may be face to face or virtual, they last between 2 - 3 hours depending on the number of people in the set.