Learning Cycle: Systematization and Action

This is where things start to change.

My husband, Anthony, employing some of the homebrewing methods he has learned through experience and reading.


When I worked at ICADS in Costa Rica, we had a saying that “learning is shown through a change in behavior.” This means that if we really learn something new, we will do things differently. Our learning will trigger a change in real life.


This could mean that when we learn addition and subtraction, our lives will more orderly and sustainable as we are able to do math at the grocery store. Or maybe when we learn how to read, our lives will be more informed and we will learn from the experience of others who write down their insights. Or maybe we learn about an injustice that exists in the world, and we change our behavior to makes this more fair. Or maybe we learn something really practical, and it changes how we feed our families or maintain our homes or travel from Point A to Point B.


In the whole learning cycle, this change in behavior is shown as we systematize our learning, and take action based on the new understanding.


I have been sharing some learning tools with you as a part of the learning cycle. We’ve talked about creating questions, reading things, talking with people, and making observations. It’s great when all of this is “authentic,” as in, doing it in the real world.


It’s not easy to analyze and systematize our experiences – we’re experiencing things every minute of every day, and it can feel very chaotic. Today, for example: I’m being a mom, and that brings up all kind of logistical and emotional challenges. I’m also working on a conference for a group I’m involved in, which involves both interpersonal and logistical and content questions. I have also been involved in a local community group with the same questions. At the same time, I’m a human being that needs to eat, sleep, shower, etc. I’m a wife, daughter, sister, friend, citizen, neighbor, and more. How can I keep track of all of that?


Anthony's clipboard for keeping track of the fermentation process. Yes, writing things down helps!


(By the way, writing things down helps a lot. Perhaps this is why I blog. Journaling would have the same result – helping me to think out loud by writing about my thoughts and experiences, and on the blog I can get feedback from others.)


Sometimes, when all of the learning cycle elements come together, we start to have some new revelations or conclusions. We learn something. And this learning changes the way we do things. The proof is in the pudding, as they say.


Or it’s in the blueberry bread. Let me share for a moment a way that my experiential learning recently paid off in a real-world way. I have been making bread of all kinds for quite a number of years now. Yeast break, quick bread, caramel rolls, etc. Because it is blueberry season, I was making a lemon blueberry quickbread the other day. All was going fine, and I had the bread in the oven, when I re-read the recipe, which cautioned: “if the bread is browning too quickly, put some aluminum foil over the bread to finish baking.”


I have heard this before; I have read it before. I have also had so many quick bread recipes turn out burnt on the sides, and uncooked in the middle. I had sort of come to terms with this kind of bread: too dry and crunchy on the outside, too squishy on the inside.


But last week I remembered to actually follow the instruction, and I put foil over the bread. I noticed I had to bake the bread longer than the recipe stated for the middle to look cooked. After 10 extra minutes, the bread was looking pretty good, and the edges were not burnt. I inserted a metal thermometer stick and it came out clean. Not only did it come out clean, but I could feel that the bread was done in the middle. It was such a smooth motion of the thermometer stick, with a firm but spongy feel all the way down and back out again. It was a feeling I have rarely, if ever, gotten while making quick breads.


A pretty successful lemon blueberry bread, if I do say so myself. Thanks, aluminum foil.


When I told my husband, he congratulated me on the bread, but also on pairing my experience with the information I had read, in order to come out with a better finished product.


We talk about this sometimes. In his homebrewing, he has found that he can read an instruction or piece of advice about making beer, but until he has had enough experience making beer, he is unable to even process that information. Now, after almost six years of making beer, he can read a book and the information comes into focus, and it has a big impact on his process and his final product. Like my bread.


Another practice that really links experience and learning is gardening. I am struck by how it has taken me several years of gardening in pots on my patio to really learn how the plants work and what kind of sun and water they need. I now know where I need to place my tomatoes and peppers and herbs on my patio for ideal sun, water, and wind protection. I know which pots work best for which plants, how to not over or under water them, and how to best prune the herbs for maximum production. This all took a lot of trial and error!


I tried starting seeds in my home one year, and it was a terrible failure. This year, after learning from my cousin Jana about winter sewing in re-purposed milk and juice jugs and watching several YouTube videos about it, I have large and productive plants that I was able to grow from tiny seeds!


From the seed to the seedling, to the food on the table, I am humbled by my tomato plants this year, particularly. We're also loving the consistent source of so many delicious herbs to make our meals delicious.


My friend Libré, too, has been expressing her learning through gardening for decades. She learns each year as she experiments with her crops in her backyard garden, and she is learning more each day as her Living Green Garden business grows.


Libré learns from her experience, but she also reads books on gardening, watches YouTube videos from other gardeners, attends events where she can speak with other gardeners and see other gardens in action. All of the learning tools are present, and the results show it.


Remember back when I interviewed Libré and she wasn't sure if her carrots were going to make it in their repurposed bed? Here they are now, big and beautiful with amazing flowers to produce more seeds for next season.


Of course, each action will then serve as the basis for new learning, as more observations surface that we can read and talk about.


Can you think of a time that you combined your life experience with something you read, or someone you talked to, or something you observed (or all of the above) and it led to something totally new? Does thinking about learning in this way, as a cycle with various elements, change anything about the way you approach something new or challenging?


Note: The popular educators insist that the learning that we do will lead to positive social change, meaning that it will make the world more just, more equal, more sustainable for all. All of us, regardless of our social class, race, religion, or geography, get to work on this together, through thinking critically about how the world works, and taking action to make things better. I can write more about this commitment to justice in a later post.


This post in part of my series on Learning Tools, which I have honed and used in my work in study abroad and cross-cultural education both in Costa Rica and in the university classes I have taught in the US.I love using these tools in my own life, as well as in my research and activism.

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