4 min read

I have been interested in learning for a long time. I want to know how learning takes place and how people grow in understanding. In my journey to learn about learning, I have been influenced by the writings of Jean Piaget, Danial Kahneman, Robert Greenleaf, Reginald Revans, and of course also by looking at how Jesus Christ taught his disciples.

One day, I drew the following diagram to try and pull my thoughts together into a cohesive system. I cannot claim scientific verification of this model by a long shot. It merely represents the assimilation of ideas in an attempt to represent a cohesive way of thinking about learning.

Each of the axes on the diagram represents a continuum of learning from beginning stages to more advanced stages. The x axis, along the bottom of the diagram, represents the phases of learning. We can call this the time dimension.

The Y axis (the vertical continuum along the left of the diagram) represents the focus of learning or “target of inquiry.” We can call this the space dimension.

The phases of the X axis are …

  1. Research,
  2. The formation of hypotheses (what we think is happening),
  3. A cycle of taking action based on our hypotheses and then reflecting on that action, and
  4. The integration of our learning that results from the action-reflection process with other areas of understanding we have acquired.

The levels of inquiry listed on the X axis are …

  1. Particulars: These are detailed observations of what we are investigating.
  2. Connections: These are links that we discover between what we observe and other areas of knowledge we have acquired.
  3. Systems refers to the models of reality that come into view as our linkages grow. We begin to see patterns that makes sense. In fact, our brains do this on a regular basis as we try to make sense of the world around us.
  4. Finally, we begin to relate one system with other systems to create constellations of systems. At this stage, we are considering more holistic problems and seeing the world as an integrated network of systems within systems.

The circles that rise from the bottom left of the diagram up toward the upper right of the diagram represent the level of knowledge that comes about from the intersections between the phases of inquiry and the targets of inquiry. At the first level, we merely learn about the data. Data by itself is useless. It is a minimal level of learning.

The second kind of learning is “Information.” Information is organized data. As our minds take in data, we organize it into categories. This is what enables us to make connections and develop hypotheses.

The third kind of learning is “Knowledge.” Knowledge is what we have when we find ways to use our information to achieve a practical outcome. Knowledge should be used. It has a purpose. It is sad to see some people who have acquired an abundance of information through their college and university studies, but have never found ways to put that knowledge to practical use.

Finally, the highest level of learning is “Understanding.” This is knowledge through informed experience. Notice that this is not just experience but informed experience. This is experience that has been informed by the previous processes of research, hypotheses, action, and reflection. It becomes understanding when we have experienced that our hypotheses work in the real world of actions.

The final part of the diagram I want to point out is the circular arrows pointing to the past and to the future. The process of learning never ceases. And the focus of learning bounces back and forth between looking at the past and looking toward the future. What has been, what is, and what could be.

This is where leadership comes into play. As Robert Greenleaf once said, this is the LEAD in LEADership. Leaders use their understanding — the integration of their full array of knowledge through experience — to see what is coming a step ahead of others in their organizations. They then help their organizations prepare for that future and even shape that future toward a desired outcome.

What do you think? Does this model make sense to you? I would love to get your feedback.


Graphic by Author. Copyright (c) 2017. Gregory S. Waddell. All right reserved.

Portrait of Dr. Waddell

Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.