Structuring Transformational Learning

What is your goal with learning?  Is it enough for participants to get information, or do you want some change, some transformation, as they actually APPLY the learning?

What makes that work?

change-inside-neuronOne the reasons Six Seconds’ programs are transformational is our commitment to a rigorous approach to learning.  We come from a “constructivist” history, rooted in the humanistic school of education.  In constructivism, the goal is for learners to build (construct) meaning.  Rather than imparting information or telling them what you’ve just taught, a constructivist focuses on facilitating learners to answer their own questions and to integrate new insights.  We are also influenced by “confluent” theory, the notion that richness in learning comes from the flowing together of cognition and emotion.

In recent decades, “brain based learning” captures these schools of thought and advocates for learning that builds “hot cognition.”  Hot cognition means there is a highly activated brain state where thinking is accelerated and deepened because the learner is fully involved.   I’ve posted before about our learning philosophy, the five principles we use to guide the way we teach, coach, facilitate, mentor, and consult so that we fuel hot cognition — this is the “how” of our methodology.

In addition to that underlying “how,” we have a very specific design methodology which structures learning as a change process.  Because learning and change are so closely linked, we use our Change MAP as a structure (a good orientation to this model can be seen in the Case Study about our change program with the US Navy).  As we apply the change process to learning, we get a very powerful structure.

change_map_10-clearThe Change MAP, and our learning design method, is a spiraling cycle.  There are three phases which we present in a circle to emphasize the fact that learning (and change) require numerous iterations.  In the MAP, you can see the critically important “red lines,” the emotional transitions required to accelerate change.  These same transitions are essential for learning, because if we don’t get emotional connection, we don’t get hot cognition.  The three phases are:

  • Engage:  Create cognitive and emotional hooks to create interest, activate pre-existing knowledge, and develop a context for new learning.  At the end of this phase, participants should see the value of the subject matter and be ready for more.
  • Activate: Build capability and enroll the brain through real-time experiences that blend emotional and cognitive content; bring powerful mental models to life so participants can begin to learn and test out new concepts.  At the end of this phase, participants will have new knowledge plus a “gut level” experience of the concept.
  • Reflect:  Integrate new learning by synthesizing and concluding, so this knowledge, attitudes, and skills can be more readily applied.  At the end of this phase, participants should know what they’ve learned and a commitment to put that into action.


Iterative Cycles

These phases apply equally to a twenty-minute module, a 90 minute keynote, a five day workshop – or a three month development program (which will include hundreds of iterations of this cycle within one large “meta cycle” spanning the program).  Here’s a concrete example from our Developing Human Performance curriculum about “Leader As Coach.”  In the two-hour module, we go through the cycle at a high level:

  • Engage:  Participants identify key attributes of leaders they admire and are introduced to the importance of coaching and the concept of emotional intelligence.  They learn a simple, powerful mental model for structuring these ideas, and then see an emotionally engaging video of how this could appear in action.  At this point, they’ve activated prior knowledge (the key attributes) and begun to see the importance or value of this concept; they’ve received a “cognitive coat rack” in a robust mental model so they can structure the learning; they’ve developed some emotional energy and curiosity about the topic.
  • Trust Equation from Developing Human PerformanceActivate:  Next, participants learn some of the key skills of being a leader-as-coach and are introduced to a “trust formula” which provides a way of strengthening coaching relationships.  They do an active exercise where they move around the room having a structure conversation with other group members so they can actually put this skills into play – “real play,” not role-play.  Then they analyze the experience using the mental model from the Engage phase.  So in this phase they learned some techniques to achieve the goals that were emerging after the Engage phase, and they found how those worked – and analyzed their results using the organizing “coat rack” so the new insight is starting to integrate.
  • Reflect: Coming to a close, they practice the skills again doing an exercise where they work together to identify specific opportunities to apply the new methods.  Finally, participants synthesize their own key points and identify at least one specific action step.  In this phase they linked the learning back to the real world, decided what they could use and why, and made a decision of how to go forward.


As you can see, this overall two-hour cycle includes many small pieces – and each of these pieces is organized around the E/A/R phases.  In addition, we can zoom out to consider this module in a larger context.  Let’s imagine we’re planning a whole learning program for XYS, inc., to support organizational change.  They want more proactive teams and greater buy-in from people, so they’ve decided to shift from autocratic management. The module above could be one component:

  • Engage: We conduct a virtual classroom meeting 12 team leaders in the XYZ ops group and lay out a plan.  The 12 work groups (including the group managers) all take the Team Vital Signs (TVS) assessment.   We look at the data and, together with the site manager and HR Director, agree to focus on trust.
  • Activate: In a ½-day session, they review the Team Vital Signs data and focus on the Trust dimension of the assessment.  Then we run the Leader As Coach module described above.
  • Reflect:  Following the workshop, each manager has a planning matrix on which they draft three key improvements.  We have a 1-1 coaching session to review the TVS report and the action matrix.  The matrix documents are delivered to the ops manager.  We have another three coaching sessions with the ops manager to support her to followup on these commitments and to role model cascading the skills to the workgroup managers.


I’m not going to detail this, but we could zoom out again to look at this ops team project in the context of the change project.  In other words,  the E/A/R workflow about trust may be part of a larger iteration of the E/A/R cycle.  In the larger cycle, the Engage phase would include identifying specific hard metrics for the project, and building consensus with the ops manager, GM, and HR Director to make this a priority.  At the end of this larger cycle, the Reflect phase will look at those metrics to see ROI.  As we discuss in the book, INSIDE CHANGE, this spiraling process is key because each time around, we build momentum going into the next spin of the Change MAP.


Next Up

How can you use it?  Whether you’re a trainer, teacher, coach, operations leader, HR professional, parent, or friend you can use this framework for learning.  Where do you want to make learning stick?  What would happen if you structured the process more carefully so your group (and you) can take in new info and actually make meaning?  Think about the next keynote you’re giving, the next meeting you’re facilitating, the next car ride where you’re chatting.  How can you build momentum with these phases?

  • Engage:  Draw them in with emotion, data, and a substantive model or framework.
  • Activate: Bring it alive and make it real.
  • Reflect: Invite the participants to pull it together and commit to the next steps.

Then do it again!



To learn more about these phases and the cycle, I recommend INSIDE CHANGE.  It’s about how to make organizational change work by starting with people – so it doesn’t talk about learning design.  But following the logic of this article, you’ll see how the Change MAP applies to many different kinds of transformation.


(By the way, this article is structured in Engage, Activate, Reflect.  Can you see the phases?)

About the author - Joshua Freedman

Joshua is one of the world’s preeminent experts on developing emotional intelligence to create positive change. With warmth and authenticity, he translates leading-edge science into practical, applicable terms that improve the quality of relationships to unlock enduring success. Joshua leads the world’s largest network of emotional intelligence practitioners and researchers.

View more posts from Joshua Freedman

Comments for this article (27)

  • Interesting to compare this model with the 4-MAT system for course design. It’s a welcome reminder that there’s always more than one way to slice the pie – I like the simplicity of this model!

    • Joshua Freedman says:

      Hi Andy – to me, the conventional 3 steps (tell them what you’ll tell them… tell them… tell them what you told them) is pretty much opposite of the constructivist approach. Yes, it’s the norm, esp in business… and many people expect you to follow this structure… but it can easily kill the discovery process and ownership of learning. Imagination, wonder, and creativity are key for learning! But that said, one could change the “3 tell” words and see that in both approaches there are 3 steps in a kind of “sandwich” approach. :)

      • Hi Joshua,

        I agree – I was hoping to make the reader aware of the 4-MAT approach as an interesting comparison with the MAP, rather than advocating those conventional 3 steps. I hope the article I linked to doesn’t read that way!

        Best wishes,

  • Sunila Banerjee Mitra says:

    Dear Gentleman ,
    It was nice to speak to mr Dexter. Would be possibly out of India for 2-3 months from March 15 2012 onwards . Would be happy to work in association with you there is huge scope in India for spreading awareness and making a difference.
    Thanking You
    with regards
    Sunila Banerjee

  • Arati Suryawanshi says:

    HI! I liked the three red arrows in the FIGURE. They show the CHANGE. You are asking readers, at the end,
    Can you see the phases? Yes I can hear them …… they are ….. EAR. Thanks for sharing. Arati

  • Emelie D'Anna says:

    Hi Josh, I’d like some clarification. In the article you say hot cognition is when “thinking is accelerated and deepened”. My understanding of hot cogntion is when someone makes quick decisions, based on emotional and personal goals that influence their judgement, before fully analyzing the situation. And cold cognition is making decision from a purely intellectual perspective. With your meaning of hot cognition it seems that the emotion and intellectual are aligned in the decision making. I know that brain based learning is always evolving as we learn more about the brain, so my understanding my be outdated. Where am I off the mark?

    • Joshua Freedman says:

      Hi Emelie –
      Apparently the term “hot cognition” has been around quite some time, perhaps since the ’60s. Since society and psychology had a strong “anti-emotion” bias, it’s no surprise that some people would consider the notion of emotionally-laden thinking as flawed thinking. But now we know that there is NO thinking without emotion, so there is no “cold cognition” in the 1960s sense — without emotion there is no evaluation. In recent years work by people like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have studied what’s happening in the brain when we’re at our most engaged learning state (Csikszentmihalyi talks about “flow”). My understanding of that research is that when the brain is activated in this “emotion + cognition” way, we’re moving into that state of optimal processing.
      – Josh

      • Emelie D'Anna says:

        Hi Josh,
        Thanks for the clarification and for connecting the information regarding Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and “flow.” to a book I’m currently reading, called “Shine,” by Dr. Hallowell. He references MC’s flow. I’m going to research this. I very much appreciated your article and found it very worthwhile; especially since those topics you write about are almost always connected to other areas I’m learning about. You help me connect the dots:)

        • Joshua Freedman says:

          Hi Emelie – we just added a function so when there’s a reply you get an email – so just letting you know I replied to you on the blog!

  • Keith Arendall says:

    This was very informative. I hope you provide more of these types of communications.

  • Arati Suryawanshi says:

    Hi! There are so many good brilliant schemes prepared and designed by yet more brilliant people on the paper and remain good on paper only, not been used by educators around many places in the world.

    They say and give reasons as, problems with population, or problems with technical support, or expertise support, or financial support etc. may be they are not wrong; but There are things which are easy, understood by anyone, and integrated from creating interest to Transformation at 6 seconds.

    When 6seconds an NGO continuously and consciously working to take learning with transformation forward with PURPOSE It feels that Still there can be good days back again in education field.

    I hope this advance research will be incorporated soon with many old, new, advanced education systems around the globe. Thanks for sharing.

    • Joshua Freedman says:

      Hi Arati – I strongly agree with you: There are so many GREAT IDEAS that only have meaning on paper. The opportunity and challenge is to bring it to life… which is a learning process! :)

  • Allen Zingg says:

    I have personally seen and experienced how this approach to learning works. I am curious about how it might work in situations where increasing cognitive skills is the goal. Specifically, if there are cognitive concepts and then analytical applications (e.g., formulas, spreedsheet analysis, etc.) that need to be imparted or improved, how does this model play out. Do you have any specific examples?

    • Joshua Freedman says:

      Hi Allen – I think a common assumption is that emotionally rich learning works well for emotionally laden topics. The research from “brain based learning” is that this is true for all types of content. A good, simple book on this is Medina’s Brain Rules. Eric Jensen also has written a lot on this. Let’s take learning how to multiply fractions. A conventional approach would be to explain the rule (not the meaning) and then to have the student practice the method ’till he could repeat it on the test.
      Using the E/A/R process, we’d start by setting the context, for example by introducing a project where it was actually useful or important to multiply fractions — the goal to get the student to WANT to learn this.
      Then, we make the learning rich so it comes alive – probably by building, taking apart, something more than a worksheet!
      In “Reflect” we ensure the student knows what he knows – he applies the skill and considers how it’s useful.
      The result is we go from “memorize a rule” toward “make meaning of a concept” — and the result is that learning goes much deeper.
      Does that help?

  • Geetha says:

    The EAR cycle has given me a structure to what I was doing intuitively. Thank you Mr. Freedman!! :-)

  • Suniti Bhargava says:

    It’s all new to me,I must confess and it makes me want to E/A/R it more. How it is used with little kids is going to be interesting and challenging…

  • Cheng Koh says:

    Hi Joshua,

    Thanks for the sharing. I am doing a research on the impact of Structured Self-reflection on self-awareness and leadership performance. The Change MAP is definitely a good framework to begin and I agreed with some of them that we need to translate this to teaching and learning.

    A pity that the last workshop in Singapore, I could not attend….I wish to attend your trg….perhaps in Singapore or Malaysia…

    Hope to see you soon..

    Cheng Boon

    • Joshua Freedman says:

      Hi Cheng Boon – I’m very intrigued by that research question. In the Six Seconds’ framework, there’s also a question of competency. For example, someone could follow the MAP and do the step of reflection, but if he doesn’t have the EQ competencies to accurately identify his own behaviors and emotions, he might not get great value from this step. :) Probably we need (at least) 3 components:
      :: The sense of value + discipline to put a process of reflection into action
      :: The competencies to collect accurate and useful data in this process
      :: The business + strategic intelligence to apply the insight to do a good course adjustment
      The MAP provides the first. The second we measure with the SEI assessment, the third with the Vital Signs assessment.

      I’ll be in MY in June, and SG in Nov — hope to see you one or both! In the meantime, if you want to add an assessment piece to the research, feel free to email me or contact here.
      – Josh

  • sue says:

    Have you had any experience with those who have Aspergers? They are challenged with social and emotional intelligence.

    • Joshua Freedman says:

      Hi Sue – yes. Let me introduce you to one of the educational psychologists on Six Seconds’ team: Barbara Fatum — she would be a good person with whom to discuss this need.

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