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Slow Learning


An example of ‘slow learning’ occurred during a recent clean coaching session when my client, Nick, had started with an outcome of wanting ‘a vision of my own’ but, despite exploring many avenues, was not coming up with anything he was happy with.

However, during the session, Nick realised that making progress was more important to him than having a vision and so made a space in his chest for the vision to appear when it is ready and focused instead on the progress, which involves showing up differently in relationships. He sensed that all the while he was wanting to do things his way, people would not want to partner with him. With a softer attitude, there may be more opportunities for partnership and teamwork, which he values highly. With this new attitude he would also be more open to the opportunities in front of him. He decided to test out ‘softness’, to give this alternative way of being a go, and so we spent the remainder of the time working out what ‘softness’ means in terms of actual behaviours, such as being quieter and listening more.

The wisdom Nick accessed during this session – that he could create space for a vision to appear and that he could make progress while he was waiting for that to happen and that being quieter and listening more might create new possibilities – correlates well with what we need to do as clean coaches. Rather than pushing for something to occur in a session, it is better to wait and listen, to create a space where it can happen if it wants to, but to make progress nonetheless.

Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind

In “Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less”, Guy Claxton divides human predicaments into three kinds, according to the speed at which we are able to know what to do:

  • Those that demand unselfconscious, instantaneous reaction, such as when we are in danger.
  • Those that involve logic and deliberate conscious thinking (hare brain), such as constructing a blog post or figuring out why your favourite gadget isn’t working.
  • Those that require a slower, more meandering approach (tortoise mind), such as recognising your purpose in life or making sense of complex, shadowy or ill-defined situations. This third type of intelligence is associated with what we call creativity or wisdom.

Claxton argues that many of us have lost touch with the potential source of this third kind of knowing, the unconscious mind. It is often seen as a wild and unruly thing that threatens our reason and control. Our culture gives much more credence to conscious deliberate, purposeful thinking. But, he says, “We need the tortoise mind just as much as we need the hare brain.” He also says that if we want to tap into more leisurely ways of knowing we need to ‘dare to wait’ … plus we need to:

  • Spend time on uncovering what might be behind a particular question
  • Not rush into conceptualisation
  • Be content to explore more fully the situation itself before deciding what to make of it
  • Stay close to the particular
  • Be tolerant of information that is faint, fleeting, ephemeral, marginal or ambiguous
  • Dwell on details which do not ‘fit’ or immediately make sense
  • Be relaxed, leisurely and playful
  • Be willing to explore without knowing what we are looking for
  • See ignorance and confusion as the ground from which understanding may spring
  • Use the rich, allusive media of imagination, myth and dream
  • Be receptive rather than proactive
  • Be prepared to take seriously ideas that come ‘out of the blue’
  • Recognise that knowing emerges from, and is a response to, not-knowing

Learning – the process of coming to know – emerges from uncertainty

The list above – and the heading of this section – all come from Claxton’s book – and they could just as easily be part of a manual for clean facilitators. David Grove would often talk about the need to become “comfortable with not knowing”. Clean facilitators have to trust that the client’s unconscious mind, given a bit of time and space, will have some wisdom to impart – wisdom that’s tailor-made for the client and the situation they find themselves in. We have to listen rather than tell.

Phil Race, writing about post-compulsory education, has taken up this theme of ‘slow learning’ in his book, Making Learning Happen. Race argues that many topics do not fit neatly into a modular approach but can take weeks, months or even years to construct. He cites an example from physics, the ‘Second Law of Thermodynamics’, saying,

“It has to be lived with for quite a while before it begins to make sense… It is quite often some time after being able to use it successfully, and solve problems with it, that the meaning of it gradually dawns.”

Race has asked almost 100,000 people how they have learned and what has gone wrong in their learning, and has identified seven factors that underpin successful learning:

  1. Wanting to learn
  2. Needing to learn
  3. Learning by doing
  4. Learning through feedback
  5. Making sense of things
  6. Learning through teaching, explaining, coaching
  7. Learning through assessing – making informed judgments

Race points out that although these factors are presented as a numerical list, learning is not a linear process. These seven factors all impact on one another and…

“Making sense of something is accomplished little by little, in a series of iterations backwards and forwards across the various factors underpinning successful learning.”

In other words, it takes time to learn something complex – and it’s an iterative process.

So it takes time for clients to gain access to their own unconscious wisdom – and it takes time for people to learn new skills…

Clean Language is simple – just a bunch of questions – and you can start asking them immediately. You can learn tools such as Clean Set Up, Clean Feedback and One Minute Motivation in just one day of training– and you will then continue to learn from the people you use them with. The way they respond will give you feedback that will help you to refine your use of the tools. You might then read more about them or attend another workshop and this will lead you to a deeper understanding.

If you want to learn Symbolic Modelling (an in-depth clean one-to-one process) or Systemic Modelling (a clean process for working with groups), you can expect ‘making sense’ of the nuances to take a bit longer and there are bound to be a number of iterations. Going through a training in Symbolic or Systemic Modelling will give you a great foundation. You will learn the basic process and you will be able to start using it with your clients. Recording your work, transcribing it and getting feedback will give you more understanding. Repeating the training – starting from a position of knowing the material – will help you to continue your ‘making sense’ journey, as will coaching others and/or taking an assessment.

At Clean Learning we support our students to take an iterative approach to learning. I talk about this in my book, where I suggest that when you get to the end, you start again at the beginning. We also:

  • Read students’ session transcripts and give them feedback.
  • Run low-cost practice groups around the country and online.
  • Offer opportunities for students to repeat a training at very reduced rates.
  • Run regular 1-Hours Tasters – which allow anyone to engage with us on any clean-related topic.
  • Encourage practitioners to set up their own practice groups.
  • Give students assessment criteria early on.
  • Conduct assessments over time, so that people get a chance to go away and practise the skills they haven’t yet demonstrated, rather than creating a stressful pass/fail environment

We also acknowledge that we are always learning. When anyone runs an exercise called “When I’m learning at my best”, I usually bring out one of two favourite metaphors: being in a bubble or doing a jigsaw. I notice that other people often speak about contexts when they are in a lecture or class as a participant or when they are reading a book or watching a video. However, both my metaphors relate to contexts when I am writing or training others. I am learning at my best when I am helping someone else to learn – and I have learned a lot as I’ve been writing this post.

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About Marian Way

Marian Way's avatar

A highly skilled facilitator and trainer, Marian, who founded Clean Learning in 2001, has developed and delivered training across the world. She is the author of Clean Approaches for Coaches, co-author, with James Lawley, of Insights in Space and co-author, with Caitlin Walker, of So you want to be… #DramaFree.

Marian is an expert Clean facilitator, an adept modeller, a programme writer and an inspirational trainer. She has a natural ability to model existing structures, find the connections between them and design new ways for people to learn. Marian was a leading innovator within the Weight Watchers organisation, which included developing the “points” strategy, a local idea that went on to become a global innovation. She is a director of both Clean Learning and Training Attention CIC, world leaders in clean applications for corporate, educational and community development. She designs our programmes and workbooks, leads workshops and teaches on all our courses. She’s trained people in Great Britain, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Japan and the USA. Marian is also a recognised Clean Assessor.

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