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“Learning is like rowing upstream: not to advance is to drop back.” - Chinese Proverb

By jamesheidema - Posted on 09 August 2012

The Learning Circle is a simple and practical model of effective learning. It will help you to consistently get better and better. This model describes a series of four steps for us to follow, four capacities for us to develop, and the importance of guidance in helping us learn more effectively. The steps are repeated over and over in a cyclical fashion as we progress through life and work. This repetition gives us the opportunity to get better at learning.

The Four Steps

The four steps in the Learning Circle are Reflection, Learning, Planning, and Action. The four steps of the Learning Circle are followed one after another, over and over. Each time one goes through the four steps, it is called a Cycle. While it is possible to begin an endeavour with any of the four steps, a normal situation involves starting with the Reflection step.

The Reflection step comes after the Action step and before the Learning step. Here, as an individual, we will pause in our activities and gather data, impressions, history, stories, and any other observations about the work we have done in the prior Action step. These observations then become the raw material used in the Learning step. The Reflection step is critical so that we are as aware as possible of what we have done. Skipping this step puts us in danger of not understanding the cause of our results, the risks of our methods, and undermines our learning. In order to do this effectively, we must develop and exercise the capacity for Detachment.

The Learning step comes after the Reflection step and before the Planning step. Here, as an individual, we will carefully examine the observations about the work done that were developed in the Reflection step and "discover" new insights, skills, relationships, structures, failures or any other conceptual changes. In other words, learning. If we skip this step we run the danger of our learning becoming unconscious habits, rituals or traditions that do not actually serve our long-term interests. In order to do this effectively, we must develop and exercise the capacity of Understanding. These conceptual changes that we discover then become the raw material used in the Planning step.

The Planning step comes after the Learning step and before the Action step. Here we will apply the conceptual changes developed in the Learning step. We will apply them systematically to create a new plan of action. By skipping planning, our efforts would devolve into random fits and starts of activity. In order to do this step effectively, we must develop and exercise the capacity for Vision. The plans that we create then become the basis of the activities performed in the next Action step.

The Action step comes after the Planning step and before the Reflection step. Here we carry out the plans created in the Planning step. In order to do this effectively, we must have Volition. We are plunging into the unknown. Skipping action is the surest way to generate "academic" learning in the worst sense of the word. The activities of this step then become the raw material used in the Reflection Step.

The Learning Circle is not a strict process. Rather, it is a model that we can use to become more conscious of how we are learning. In fact, most of us use this process without even knowing it. For example, if you wish to learn to cook a new dish from a cookbook, you will likely follow the steps in the Learning Circle starting with Learning. You examine the cookbook to learn what to do, and what ingredients to use. Then you plan the actual cooking which may mean realizing that you need an ingredient or a cooking tool that you do not have. Once you have a plan based on what you have learned in the cookbook, you take action. You gather your ingredients and your tools. You start mixing, cutting, heating, cooling, or whatever the recipe calls for. Eventually you have completed everything in the cookbook's instructions. You are not yet done however. You look at, taste and share what you have created. This is Reflection: you gather data and impressions about the results of your work. And then you learn: Do you like what you made? Did you make a mistake? Do you think you might be able to make the recipe better? If you shared it, you may learn that the people you shared with do not like the taste of what you have made. Then, you will plan again: do it better, or decide not to try again. You have gone through the steps of the Learning Circle.

The Four Capacities
Each capacity is both a prerequisite for taking the associated step and increased by its utilization. Our inner conditions and capabilities have an effect on our environment, and likewise, by going through the Learning Circle, we develop these capabilities:

Detachment supports the Reflection step. Detachment is like objectivity, dispassionate examination, and setting aside our ego.

Understanding supports the Learning step. Understanding includes wisdom, judgement, and search for solutions.

Vision supports the Planning step. Vision requires love, passion, and a sense of purpose.

Volition supports the Action step. Volition encompasses courage, willingness, and desire to act.

While at first we may not be strong in these capacities, by going through the Learning Circle, we will have opportunity to practice them.


Central to the effectiveness of the Learning Circle is the concept of Guidance. We can see that without guidance or education, a child would not be able to progress in the development of knowledge, skills or capacities. Likewise, as adults, guidance plays a critical role in developing our capacity. Guidance can come from within yourself. Or guidance can come from without – we can call upon experts, we can read books or web sites. Inspiration can be thought of as a form of guidance. You suddenly have an idea that seems to come from nowhere.

The Learning Cycle will help you achieve all those goals you desire in your life.

Thank you to Berteig Consulting for this method and most of the content.