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September 06, 2004

The Learning Zone

Almost all systems, be they cultures, communities, companies, sections, or even family groups, naturally arrive at a semi-stable state, a status quo. Relationships and expectations are negotiated, perhaps not to a level of mutual satisfaction, but at least to a state that is tolerable to all the members of the system. And, much like Newton's "A body at rest tends to stay at rest", systems in a state of status quo tend to stay there until they are acted upon by some external force.


While it isn't obvious, it seems to be a critical requirement that any force triggering change in the status quo has to be 'external' to the system itself. Of course a lot depends on how we define the boundaries and members of the system. Looking a particular society from the macro level we might classify college students as members of the system, but when they stage demonstrations and force change on the society they are doing it as external entities - as outsiders from the 'establishment.'

Another critical requirement is that the relative power or urgency of the external force is large enough to overcome the natural inertia of the system - to push it out of the status quo state. This often requires repetitive triggers, or an alignment of the right circumstances.

Chaos -

At some point the need for change becomes stronger than the resisting inertia, and suddenly the system is thrown in chaos. It knows it needs to change, to do something in a different way, but it has no idea what to do. This is a very unstable state, as anyone learning to ride a bicycle for the first time could easily understand.

Integrate -

After spending some time in chaos, hunting and searching for some way to make sense out of the situation, the system will develop a rudimentary understanding - usually by trial and error, and will begin to operate in some new fashion. It is attempting to integrate what it has experienced and observed with its older view of the world.

Practice -

Once it has developed some workable, if not perfect, strategies for dealing with the new situation, it begins to practice them over and over again. Over time these evolve to the point that it just uses its new strategies without having to consciously think about them.

New Status Quo -

Given enough practice, and a level of comfort with its new circumstances, the system takes on a new status quo. Although it may be significantly different in many ways when compared to the old status quo, as far as change and inertia are concerned, it takes on exactly the same characteristics and behavior.

Although this model is extremely simplistic, it does yield some useful insights. The most dramatic insight is that learning only takes place when the system is going through the Chaos/Integrate/Practice cycle. No significant learning takes place in the two status quo states. That implies that if we value learning, then we need to find ways to welcome chaos as a necessary part of the learning process.

Another significant insight is the need for stimulus from external sources. It's impossible to lift yourself up in the air by pulling on your own bootstraps. If we are committed to learning, then we have to find ways to elicit external stimulus - to put ourselves in harm's way to some extent. Hopefully we can do this in a managed and safe manner, but not to the point that it becomes part and parcel of our own personal status quo.


September 6, 2004 | Permalink


A most insightful read on how systems and society work and change. Understanding this relieves stress. There seems to be a purpose for why things happen the way they do, how change happens and for what reasons.

Posted by: Joyce | Jan 26, 2012 11:06:38 PM

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