Reaching for an Inflection Point

Human beings are incredibly smart and resourceful.

Every single day, we use language to construct sentences we’ve never uttered before.

Many of us drive heavy machinery at 60 miles per hour for years in rivers of other human beings in heavy machinery, without accident.

We are capable of mastering golf and chess and dancing.

We navigate from place to place; we master cooking; we build careers.

We learn how to raise our children a day at a time.

We do it by experimenting over and over until we have a deep understanding of the lay of the land (the road, the golf course) and the tools of the trade (the kitchen, the chess pieces) and how to use them in every conceivable situation. We learn some of these things from the pros, but we also learn new solutions by these experiments – things we never before imagined or were taught.

The field of Emergent Learning sprouted from an observation made by Marilyn Darling many years ago: While we each have a remarkable capacity to learn as individuals, when we try to learn together, the quality is often radically different. Especially when people are working with different agendas, different personal histories and different information, she observed that the result is sometimes not much better than what her cat learns: “I got burned on the stove, so I’m never going back into the kitchen.”

But we do sometimes break through. Maybe it’s a courageous leader who is willing to name what the Emperor is wearing. Maybe the pain of “learning the same lesson over and over” reaches a threshold, or something else just makes the stars align, but people sometimes experience an inflection point where the horizon opens up and they feel free to voice new questions and contrary ideas. A few fortunate groups find ways to sustain that new level of learning. The feeling that comes with that sea change is exhilarating.

The field of Emergent Learning has evolved out of a very simple but infinitely challenging question: What does it take to create those inflection points – where the quality of what we are capable of learning together around the things that really matter to us matches the quality of mastery we are able to reach as individuals? What does it take to sustain learning at that level? Emergent Learning is about what it takes to learn from our work, in the course of doing it; about what it takes to create a heartbeat of insight that increases our capacity to produce the results we aspire to in often very complex and changeable environments.

In Inflection Point, we want to explore what creates these qualitative shifts in what’s possible. We will share what we have learned in our work and research and new questions that are emerging. We invite those of you who have experienced an inflection point to share your stories.

Please join us.

Heidi, Jillaine, Marilyn

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One Response to Reaching for an Inflection Point

  1. Marian Urquilla says:

    I find the idea of inflection points immensely powerful. After reading your post, I find myself wondering alongside you what gives rise to inflection points and what effects do those points create in the group and in the field of learning.

    In a sense, the potential capacity to learn together is always present, but that latent capacity is often shrouded by the noise of our habits and patterns of interaction and our expectations and beliefs about how to be in groups.

    Groups can feel like dangerous places where there is much to be protected and defended, and group members can get overly focused on their individual or the group’s survival and consequently lose a sense of the work they are there to do together. Emergent learning’s structured approach to inquiry provides a container for the work of reflection and learning. The explict sequence of the quadrants gently supports joint inquiry and establishes a baseline of predictability that can lower group members’ anxiety, creating the opportunity for greater attention to the work. In addition, the guiding question organizing the emergent learning process serves almost as a mindfulness bell that calls the individual participants and the group as a whole to their intention for shared focus and work, making it more likely that members will remember and stay on the task of inquiry.

    It may be that the inflection point is the combined effect of the mindful focusing of the guiding question; the structure of the emergent learning sequence; and the collectivized, real time experience of insight. Sometimes, when I’ve facilitated an Emergent Learning Table and we’ve come to the end of the process and folks are taking stock of their work, I’ve seen groups be startled by the depth of their progress, sometimes literally asking, “how did we do that?” When they reflect, they often realize that they have just experienced group flow and they find that thrilling. Those inflection points often prove to be their own beginning, creating a portal into awareness of what learning together feels like and allowing group members and the group as a whole greater access to their own capacity. That’s when learning becomes transformational.

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