Friday, May 22, 2009

Metalearning and Other Ghastly Sounding Words

And I thought the word ‘metacognition’ was too heady and ghastly sounding for the blogosphere. I felt guilty about referring to this ugly term in my Middle-earth posts.

Now we have a full blown discussion about it half-way round the Globe! Tony Karrer spawned a debate on what he refers to as metalearning. As usual, he made me think, but not specifically about what he was posting about.


Wikipedia (I’m a great fan of this site) defines metacognition as:

cognition about cognition, or knowing about knowing. It can take many forms; it includes knowledge about when and where to use particular strategies for learning or for problem solving.

I had a strong hunch that metacognition was closely related to, if not the same as metalearning. I’ve since discovered that metalearning is a more specific term, though it has a range of meanings.
Metalearning in education

When it comes to educational aspects, Wikipedia quotes
Donald B. Maudsley, defining metalearning as,

the process by which learners become aware of and increasingly in control of habits of perception, inquiry, learning, and growth that they have internalized.

The above description explains the brand of metalearning I’ve become more familiar with.

Metalearning in teams

Wikipedia makes a distinction when metalearning is used in the context of performances of teams and relationships:

(T)he dynamic process whereby a system (relationship, or organization) manages to dissolve limiting dynamics such as point attractors and limit cycles that impede effective action and evolve liberating and creative dynamics represented by complex attractors whose trajectories in phase space, by never repeating themselves, can portray creative and innovative processes.

If you can make sense of that
on first reading, you’re a genius!

Having spent half an hour at least, thinking and researching the meanings behind these words and phrases, I found they took me back to a topic I’ve revisited several times on this blog in the last year. Complexity seems to find its way into everything I look at to do with successful teams and sustainable communities.

After unpacking the seemingly garbled sentence, I found that it offered a lot to do with thinking and learning involving teams and relationships. It seems that metalearning is a well established study, applied to the way teams and organisations perform.


Formerly initiated by Marcial Losada, metalearning is the study of how groups of individuals in a team contribute to its performance. Metalearning does this in a way that enables a team's thinking to evolve uninhibited, so that new ideas can emerge.

By understanding and controlling the balance between the external and internal references to do with that thinking, the results can lead to high performance in business teams. I began to wonder if this is really what Tony Karrer had in mind when he wrote his post.

The Losada Zone

The various ratios of positivity and negativity involved in human interaction that can exist, lies within what’s called the Losada Zone. Negative feedback can act as a warning signal, whereas positive feedback encourages the status quo. Losada found that high performance teams have a so-called P/N (positivity/negativity) ratio that is high (5.6), medium performance teams have a lower ratio (1.9) and low performance teams come in with a still lower ratio (0.36).

Such a ratio is a measure of and is related to the connectivity potential within a team. The Losada Line (at 2.9) signifies the lower limit, separating people who have the potential to achieve a complex understanding of others from those who have a lesser ability to do this. Those who succeed are said to be above the Losada Line, and those who fall short lie below it. The terms ‘flourish’ and ‘languish’ are used to describe the two states.

Frequent innovation
The elaborate fractal 
High performance teams possess creativity and are capable of recurrent innovation. They tend to work along the lines of complexors. Coined by Marcial Losada, the complexor describes the form of outcomes of successful teams in the recursively intricate way they emerge and evolve. Intimately mapped on to complexity theory, the characteristics of complexors resemble fractals, elaborately regenerating themselves.

Point attractors, though not the exact opposite of complexors, are outcomes that are akin to the fate of a wind-up toy. Effectively they refer to performances that decay, lead to inaction and go nowhere.

Where to from here?

It appears that metalearning applies to and can be applied to the performance behaviour of teams. Becoming aware of the need for openness and being receptive to new ideas in a way that permits these to be advantageously and
constructively considered is something that, presumably, can be learnt by members of a team or community. 
Earlier in May, Jay Cross posted Become a Chief Metalearning Officer. Having thought more about all this, I have three questions:
  • Is it possible that by managing and applying specific learning processes, a better performance can be reached in teams that are already partly on the way to attaining success?
  • Does this special type of learning lie within the province of the individual's control?
  • Can this sort of ‘management’ be controlled and executed by a manager?
If the answers to these questions are in the affirmative, perhaps we can use metalearning to help our world.

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later


Jonathan Wilson said...

Hi Ken,

I like the blog which serendipity found for me while researching a talk that I am giving to SoL UK tonight.
You end your blog asking three important questions, to which the answers are
1. "Yes, you can",
2. "Yes, but it is more a team than an individual thing; at a fractal level it is also an inidvidual thing
3. "Unsure that it can be controlled and executed by a manager, but it can be led and encouraged by anyone and everyone in a team."
I am confident because I am launching in the UK a team development tool ecently developed in Finland on Marcial Losada's research. It is called dialogue life
I think you might find it interesting
Good luck!

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Haere mai Jonathan!

Thanks for answering my questions. Of course, my intention was that they were more or less rhetorical, at least Q1 and 2.

Also, I have found your link interesting in that it pointed to suggestion that Losada's research is seen to have practical use. I'd be interested to find how it is implemented though. I'm aware that it's one thing talking about a principle but it's another putting it into practice.

Good luck with the launch of the team development tool. It looks interesting - I shall keep an eye on your site.

Catchya later

Wouter said...

Hello Ken,

Read your blog and I can add to the previous response by confirming that a manager can indeed control and execute the process. I know because I did over the last five years at Philips Electronics in the Netherlands. Without having the benefit of knowing M.Losada's work at the time I started this exercise I developed a management methodology that is based on all of the principles of MetaLearning. My role was to keep the complexity going and keep making the organisation learn. The team outperformed all other Philips teams by far. On all kind of dimensions. We saw productivity increases and employee engagement scores that were not only top-rank at Philips, but even better than "best in class"... I am now thinking of bringing this experience to other companies in Belgium and the Netherlands as I am a firm believer every manager needs to be aware of the potential that resides in himself and the team he works with.
Hope this is useful. Best regards from Belgium.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Haere mai Wouter!

It is good to know that 'theory' can result in success on its practical application.

Thanks for giving an answer to my question. Your example is a useful indicator of how metalearning can be applied as a strategy. Presumably the principles involved are transferable to other disciplines? I'm curious to learn more about this.

Catchya later