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How do we learn in learning laboratories? In pursuit of the optimal learning arena

Authors: Steen Høyrup Pedersen Published:

This article was originally published in Elm's predecessor media, LLinE. Steen Høyrup investigates learning labs as learning arenas supporting empowerment of employees and innovative learning. Labs facilitate transformational learning to a high degree, but cannot create all the learning conditions necessary to foster transformational learning. The present article investigates learning labs constructed and used as

This article was originally published in Elm’s predecessor media, LLinE.

Steen Høyrup investigates learning labs as learning arenas supporting empowerment of employees and innovative learning. Labs facilitate transformational learning to a high degree, but cannot create all the learning conditions necessary to foster transformational learning.

The present article investigates learning labs constructed and used as learning arenas supporting empowerment of employees and innovative learning. Lewin’s theory of learning that includes the concepts of unfreezing, changing and refreezing, is used as the overall frame for conceptualizing the learning processes characterized as transformational and innovative learning. Schein has later developed this theoretical frame and his main concepts and learning theories are applied to conceptualize the nature of the learning processes and the learning arenas that support this learning. Learning labs seem to facilitate transformational learning to a very high degree, but the labs do have shortcomings. The lab cannot create all the learning conditions necessary to foster transformational learning. Especially in the ultimate refreezing phase of learning, the lab has to be supplemented by other contexts of learning.


Today learning laboratories (labs) are used for many and very different educational purposes: labs are often used as a tool in e-learning and blended learning, to provide a social support system for the IT based learning processes. Labs are also used as a special learning setting for training skills of professionals, e.g. doctors and nurses in hospitals. The present article investigates learning labs constructed and used as learning arenas supporting empowerment of employees and innovative learning.

Empowerment in Kanter’s (1983) terms means “The involvement of employees in the innovation process as corporate entrepreneurs” (Sundbo, 1996). In this article empowerment is conceived as a learning process through which employees – individually and collectively – develop knowledge, skills and attitudes that increase individual and group potential to gain control over and influence on their workplace and working life.

Consequently, the aim of this article is to focus on educational efforts unfolded in labs – undertaken by adult educational institutions, consultants or workplaces – in which the purpose is to empower employees. The training goal is to facilitate and promote the kind of employee learning that we call transformational learning or innovative learning. In this conceptualization, learning is not restricted to be adaptive or coping learning, in which actions are made more perfect, quick and effective within the existing social context. On the contrary, transformational/innovative learning implies that something new is created: the individual creates new solutions to problems or changes aspects of the social context. This is in accordance with the core in the concepts of empowerment and innovative learning. One example of empowering employees is that employees strive and succeed in improving organizational routines and the social psychological environment of their workplace, implying an increased wellbeing of employees at work.

Research questions

The basic questions to be answered are: What is the nature of the learning arena(s) that foster this kind of transformational/innovative learning, and how can these learning processes be conceptualized? Included – as labs and cases – are two Danish developmental projects in which employees are engaged in laboratory learning (labs), constructed to empower employees through an innovative learning process. Learning concepts and learning theories are elected and applied to develop a frame of reference for conceptualizing the learning arenas and associated learning processes that are prominent in the deep learning which fosters the empowerment of employees. The questions: What works and why – in terms of learning arenas and learning processes related to employee empowerment – are basic areas to be enlightened.

Kurt Lewin’s thinking as antecedents and resources for learning labs

Lewin was basically engaged in understanding the individual and understanding change. In his theories of change the individual and the social context constitute a unified whole. Thus individual learning and social change goes together, and this relationship is reflected in Lewins’s conceptualizations of learning and basic theoretical thinking in terms of theory and practice. Lewin’s effort was both to produce general laws of group life and diagnosis of a specific situation, in terms of scientific fact-finding (Lewin, 1948, p. 204). Lewin writes that “Realistic fact-finding and evaluation is a prerequisite for any learning” (Ibid, p. 202). A tool for diagnosis and learning was the so called “change experiment”, a lab, an antecedent for the later concept of action research.  For Lewin investigation and remedial effort should be unfolded in a “community” (lab) that should study the results of its own social action (Ibid., p. Xiii). Such a lab was accomplished first time in Bethel in 1946, a lab that paved the way for later learning labs and so called sensitivity training. Later learning labs are used for supporting empowerment of employees.

Lewin’s thinking is essential in terms of the theory-practice relation. Thus Lewin’s effort was to create “a firm bridge between the concrete and the abstract, between social action and social theory” (Ibid., p. viii). Lewin wrote: “Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.” (Ibid., p. 203), and often Lewin is quoted for: “there is nothing so practical as a good theory” (Schein, March, 95, p. 1, a).Thus research has to produce social change. Lewin says: “we should consider action, research and training as a triangle that should be kept together for the sake of any of its corners” (Ibid., p. 211).
This is essential elements of Kurt Lewin’s thinking in terms of learning and labs that has further been elaborated by E. Schein as presented below.

Lewin and Schein: Basic learning processes supporting empowerment and innovative learning

Schein writes:

Though I never knew him (Kurt Lewin) personally, I have been exposed to Bavelas and McGregor, who, in my mind embodied Lewin’s spirit totally. Lewins spirit and the assumptions that lay behind it are deeply embedded in my own work. (Schein, March, 95, a).

Lewin conceptualizes learning and change in three phases: unfreezing, changing and refreezing. Schein has used this frame to develop a very precise conceptualization of learning. In the thinking of Schein – and a lot of other prominent researchers – learning is change, and this conception basically relates learning to innovation. This thinking is in line with


All learning in work is to some extent innovative in that it introduces change. (Fenwick, 2003, p. 124; Høyrup 2010, p. 151)

The point of departure for Schein is organizational learning, which connects learning to change and innovation. To quote Schein:
I will assume that any form of organizational learning is a change process of some sort. Whether we are talking about adaptive responses……or major transformations, some measurable change in the organization system is always involved. At the most general level, therefore, we must have a theory of change that encompasses all of these forms.
I will assume that any change involves the creation of something new… Any theory of change must, therefore, contain a theory of what makes it possible for a system to create something new—a new process, a new capacity to respond, a new product, or eventually a whole new structure. (Schein, Aug. 95, p.1).

The specific kind of learning named transformational learning is defined in these terms:
By transformational learning I mean a learning process that examines and evolves the present assumptions on which the organization operates, and develops new organizational practices based on new assumptions. (Schein, March 95 b, p. 1)

The concept of transformational learning corresponds to Engeström’s concept of expanded learning, Argyris & Schön’s concept of double loop learning, and Bateson’s concept of deutero-learning. This learning increases the individual’s capacity to face situations in new ways and support the development of new basic capabilities. Thus the learning has the potential to develop something new, in terms of new knowledge or new solutions to problems. This is in line with Ellström’s (Ellström, 2010) concept of developmental learning and Høyrup’s concept of innovative learning (2012).

Preconditions for learning: unfreezing, motivation and anxiety

In the field of preconditions for learning we generally find two main trends in psychological theories. One group of theories claims that man has some kind of innate drive for learning. One example is the concept “Need to know” coined by R. Harrison:

I believe there is in each of us a kind of counterforce (in relation to psychological defense, ed.) which operates in the service of learning. Let’s call it a need to know, or a drive toward competence. (Harrison, 1969, p. 68)

We can see this force in children and adults fighting to capture the world to extend their knowledge, striving for creating meaning in experiences, etc.
The perspective in the second group of theories is basically relational. The dynamo of learning is located in the interface between the individual and the social setting. Attention is paid to tension, disharmony, imbalance etc. in this relation. We find a lot of examples: Freud claims that it is the frustration of id-drives that sparks secondary processes, that is rational and problem solving thinking. Jarvis uses the concept of disjuncture, – a gap between what is called “the biology” of the individual – that is the total body of the individual’s knowledge, experiences, competencies etc. – and the demands inherent in the social environment. The state of disjuncture is characterized by a certain degree of disharmony, tension, and imbalance implying that the individual does not feel at ease. The individual is motivated to reduce the gap which means that the person enters a learning process, to return to harmony (Jarvis, 2006, p.7).

We find the corresponding way of thinking in Mezirow’s concept of “disorientation dilemma”, a spur for reflection (Mezirow, 2000).
The essential element here is Lewin’s concept of unfreezing, a concept further elaborated by Schein. For Lewin unfreezing is the initial state of learning and change, in individuals and social systems. Schein gives meaning to this concept through the concept of disconfirmation (or lack of confirmation) in daily life – in the private sphere and in working life – the individual finds himself in a field of communication, in which the communication is usually confirming. The individual’s actions, attitudes, identity etc. are confirmed by friends and colleagues, and organizational tasks, demands, pressure and routines have the same confirming effect. This is, in a way, rather comfortable for the individual, but not a spur for learning. In order for learning to occur disconfirming or simply not confirming at all, communication is necessary, which basically means that the taken-for-granted in the individual-social setting relation is challenged. The individual must come to realise that his current way of doing things is no longer working. This is not comforting to the individual, but certainly an incentive for learning.

The lab has a very fundamental learning function which is related to conceptualizing. By joining the lab, the individual leaves the confirming setting, gets rid of the consolidating forces of everyday life and enters into a different kind of social system – namely: the lab. In the lab, relations are different; demands, roles, expectations etc. are different. The taken-for-granted is challenged. This is an unfreezing situation that opens the individual to learning.

The role of anxiety in learning

Anxiety is inevitable in conceptualizing motivational dynamics of learning. Anxiety is thus an ever present and faithful companion in the learning process. Although anxiety is thus important in all phases of learning, this feeling is prominent in the initial phases of learning and consequently, it is here presented under the heading of preconditions of learning.
Schein conceptualizes two kinds of anxiety that are prominent in the learning process: Survival anxiety and learning anxiety. To quote Schein:
Survival anxiety or the anxiety that if you do not change, I will no longer be able to get along or keep my job, or maintain my sense of identity and competence.

And further:
Learning anxiety is a fundamental restraining force. It is the feeling that if we allow ourselves to enter a learning or change process, if we admit to ourselves and others that something is wrong or imperfect, we will lose our effectiveness, our self-esteem and maybe even our identity (Schein, 1995, a, p.4).

Learning anxiety comes from being afraid to try something new for fear that it will be too difficult, that we will look stupid in the attempt, or that we will have to part from old habits that have worked for us in the past. Learning something new can cast us as the deviant in the groups we belong to. It can threaten our self-esteem and, in extreme cases, even our identity.

Survival anxiety motivates for learning and can get learning started.  Learning anxiety constitutes a resistance to learning. The two kinds of anxiety correspond to Otto Rank’s two concepts: Death anxiety and anxiety of life. According to Rank’s theory, anxiety of life is provoked at birth, during which the individual leaves the symbiotic state inside uterus. This unity is broken at birth and the anxiety currently exists throughout the individual’s life. In adulthood this anxiety is activated in situations where the individual renounces a close human relation and is taking the risk of facing new and unknown situations and challenges. These instances of separation involved represent the potential for an extended autonomy which provokes the anxiety (Rank, 1941). Basically, we deal with an anxiety to renounce security. In learning situations, this is often conceptualized as resistance to learning.

In the existentialistic philosophy of Erich Fromm and Søren Kierkegaard and in the psychoanalytic thinking of Rank, anxiety is closely related to freedom and choices of life (Katzenelson, 1969). The potentials inherent in freedom are always to be found in the foreign and unknown that may provoke feelings of powerlessness and isolation. We find an anxiety – the anxiety of death – to cling to the secure and well-known sides in life. In a learning perspective, this anxiety motivates the individual for risk taking and seeking out new challenges. Consequently, anxiety of death motivates for learning. We may conclude with Schein that anxiety inhibits learning, but anxiety is also necessary if learning is going to take place at all.

In education a strong motivation for learning may be created by reducing anxiety of life/learning anxiety. This is done by creating psychological safety in the learning context.
According to the theory of Harrison (Harrison, 1966), learning processes are not supported by educational efforts to provoke or break through the defense mechanisms of the individual. According to psychoanalytic theory the individual reacts to threats of the ego by mobilizing his best defenses. This is those defenses that yield the best protection against anxiety and produce a minimum of reality disturbances. If this set of defenses are offended and consequently fail a new set of defenses are mobilized. But these defenses are less effective concerning protection against anxiety and causes bigger reality disturbances, which is not constructive for learning. Learning do not benefit from extreme pressure. What counts in learning – in relation to anxiety and defenses – is psychological safety. The lab has an important role in meeting this condition.

Psychological safety

Psychological safety is an important learning condition, an important aspect of a supporting learning environment. Psychological safety is a counter force to learning anxiety. Schein claims that unless psychological safety is created, the disconfirming information will be denied or in other ways defended against (Schein, 1995b, p. 5).
But today psychological safety is often very difficult to establish within the working organization. In the workplace, the creation of psychological safety is often very difficult, especially when you’re pushing for greater workforce productivity at the same time. Psychological safety is also dramatically missing when a company is downsizing or undergoing a major structural change, such as reorganizing in connection with e.g. merging workplaces.
In this perspective, the lab has an important function in terms of creating psychological safety in the temporary social system of learning. Schein mentions some essential elements to a psychologically safe environment (Schein, March 95, Aug. 95)

  • Opportunities for training and practice
  • Coaching and rewarding for efforts made in the right direction
  • Norms that legitimize the making of errors
  • Norms that reward innovative thinking and experimentation.

These elements underline important learning conditions. The learner needs practice fields (Schein, Aug. 1995) and the possibilities to think and act in an innovative way and opportunities for experimentation. And the learner needs feed-back in a non-threatening way. Furthermore, it is interesting that much research today indicates that the making of mistakes can be a fruitful way of learning (Woerkom, 2003). This is interesting because many work organizations, e.g. hospitals, strive to be high-reliability organizations or zero-error organizations. We learn by making mistakes but mistakes may be a disaster for the organization. Labs appear to be important learning settings in this perspective.
Psychological safety, in terms of team psychological safety – has been intensively investigated in organizational work teams that are groups that exist within the context of a larger organization.

In research conducted by Amy Edmondson (1999), Team psychological safety is defined as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. For the most part, this belief tends to be tacit – taken for granted and not given direct attention by individuals or the group (Ibid, p. 354). Empirical research shows that team psychological safety is associated with learning behavior, and supports this behavior. The reason is that people tend to act in ways that inhibit learning when they face the potential for threat or embarrassment (Argyris, 1982; Edmondson, 1999). According to Edmonson, individuals in a position to initiate learning behavior may believe they are placing themselves at risk. Edmonson conceptualizes learning at the group level as:

…an ongoing process of reflection and action, characterized by asking questions, seeking feed-back, experimenting, reflection on results, and discussion errors or unexpected outcomes of actions (Edmondson, 1999, p. 353).

It appears that the learning process conceptualized for groups in organizations are quite similar to the conceptualizing of learning in labs. It seems that team psychological safety facilitates learning behavior because “it alleviates excessive concern about others’ reactions to actions that have the potential for embarrassment or threat, which learning behaviors often have” (Ibid p. 355).

It is concluded that psychological safety is a prominent learning factor, both in the lab-setting and in the workplace.

Cognitive re-framing or redefinition

The first phase in Lewin’s conceptualization of the learning process was unfreezing in which readiness and openness for learning is created. This is also termed a process of unlearning. Being ready to learn, the individual moves to the next phase in the learning process which is changing. Departure for this change process is cognitive re-framing or redefinition or re-configuration, here used as synonyms. Schein states:
“By cognitive re-definition I mean the process of gradually transforming one’s mental model by first of all recognizing that one’s concepts are to some degree one’s own learned constructions, not some arbitrary external reality”. ..

It is here that Dialogue becomes so important as a vehicle for creating more common understanding.
Schein’s thinking may be characterized as a cognitive and constructivist approach. Our mental model is not a true copy of some kind of external reality, but is constructed by the individual through a learning process. The mental model can be transformed when the individual is open to new information and experiences, and according to Schein a changed mental model causes changed behavior.

New knowledge, new data and new experiences are the cornerstones in the process of cognitive redefinition. The individual may actively look for and be exposed to this new knowledge. According to the history and traditions of learning labs, data produced by the participants’ own actions through observation and feed-back on actual behavior, are essential.

This way of working goes back to an incident in a laboratory in Betel in 1946 managed by Lewin and coworkers (Høyrup, 1975). At the beginning of the lab period, training of participants and research (inquiry) was separated. Participants were organized in groups for discussion and were observed and investigated by researchers. The researchers kept their data for themselves; they did not make data-feed-back to participants. They did present and discuss their observations at meetings in which only researchers participated. By coincidence, one participant witnessed the researchers’ meeting and experienced the researchers’ observations and interpretations of her behavior. This incident created great dedication and in a short time, all participants joined these meetings as engaging learning episodes, in which the group self-study was born: learning and inquiry were united, actual behavior was observed and studied, feed-back on actions and reflection on actions and group processes was accomplished. By voluntarily changing the way of working in the lab, experimental and innovative processes were practiced.

This lab created this important knowledge:
An important impact of the feed-back and reflection processes was that participants became more sensitive to their own actions, and feed-back and reflection implied that criticism could be expressed in an open way and was met in a constructive way. Participants experienced that they gained an important understanding of their own behavior and the reactions of peers on their behavior and an increased understanding of problems in the group work. Today this is still conceived of as the essence of learning in labs (Høyrup, 1975).
When we state that new knowledge, new data and new experiences are the cornerstones in the process of cognitive redefinition, the Betel lab experiences accentuate the question: What kind of new knowledge, new data and new experiences are productive in the learning process? Referring to case 2, the answer is: all kinds of knowledge, both academic knowledge and practical experience- based knowledge. This is in line with the view of Schein. In labs, researchers and consultants present theoretical knowledge, and the total body of participants’ knowledge may be expressed, shared and reflected upon. Both kinds of knowledge are important in the process of cognitive redefinition.

Reflection and inquiry

Schein states that a space for reflection is an inevitable condition for learning. This is in accordance with a comprehensive body of research and learning theories. Basically the lab constitutes an arena for reflection. In general, reflection means to stop action in order to think. This means to establish the necessary distance to your own mental models, concepts, knowledge and experience in order to investigate these. In reflection, attention is paid to ongoing social processes involving yourself and your own experiences (Boud, 1985 and 2006).  Reflection may be individual or collective processes and attention and inquiry may focus on past or present actions and experiences: how can these be conceptualized, understood and interpreted? What are the implications for future actions?

Schein has not unfolded the concept of reflection very much but it is interesting that he sees reflection taking place on both an internal and an external stage. Basically, it is through reflection that the individual is getting open to impressions from the outside and can subsequently change concepts and knowledge. But reflection also means to experiment and inquire on the external stage. Both Lewin and Dewey use the concept of inquiry as a fundamental element in learning. Generally, these processes are conceived of as fundamental elements of learning.

Reflection and inquiry may be unfolded in the workplace setting. Schein states that to allow people to learn new skills at the workplace, the organization has to create some “slack”. But this is not always easy: today many workplaces strive to reduce slack to reduce costs, e.g. in terms of changing the work organization in accordance with the principles in Lean-concept. In line with this, the conditions for reflection at the workplace are very often restricted.

Establishing practice fields

Schein underlines that the individual needs a field of exercise to learn. Actually, this is a learning factor that constitutes the frame for a lot of the earlier factors mentioned: inquiry, experimentation, a space for reflection, and receiving feedback on whether the new behavior is achieving the desired results. At the same time, the field of exercise paradoxically meets two antagonistic demands:

  • Being a safe space, an arena where the learner has the possibility to make errors and experiments
  • Being an authentic environment representing the real world in which the new insight has to be implemented.

It is obvious that the lab is the best solution to the first set of demands, and the workplace is the setting for meeting the second demand. It seems impossible for one social setting to meet both kinds of demands.

Labs could be criticized for being artificial environments: Individual persons act, perceive situations, solve problems, meet demands that do not match real life situations and consequently, the learning must be questioned. But in fact, the lab does not intend to copy reality. On the contrary, the lab may be compared to the classic psychological experimental setting. To quote Steven Brown writing in terms of “Abstract Experimentalism” (2012)
Psychological experimentation with human subjects addresses the very difficult task of constructing a controlled artificial situation that can nevertheless be said to resemble some facet of a broader social reality…

In line with this, labs intend to articulate and refine phenomena important for inquiry, experimentation and learning, finding ways to unfold, expose and clarify phenomena that may not be easily recognized in daily life. This is an important aspect of labs that may be an obstacle when confronted with the demand of authenticity.

To sum up, labs facilitate transformative and innovative learning by turning these learning conditions into practice:
It supports the individual in leaving the confirming field of communication of everyday life or working life which inhibits the initiation of the learning process, and provides an alternative temporary social system that may potentially close down confirming communication and offer disconfirming communication,- i.e. questioning what is taken for granted.


  • It provides a social setting that yields optimal psychological safety to the individual to permit the learner to overcome anxiety provoked by the disconfirming communication and the forthcoming learning process.
  • It provides a comprehensive body of knowledge, experiences and academic theory – i.e. different kinds of knowledge – to the learner. The learner may actively meet, select, receive and act on this knowledge in the learning process of cognitive re-definition.
  • It provides an arena for reflection, inquiry and experimentation
  • It provides a practice field  in which the individual can learn from his mistakes without any threatening consequences


Refreezing is the last phase of learning according to Lewin and Schein. Although cognitive re-definition is a cornerstone in Schein’s concept of learning, new ideas – and new actions – are not enough for learning to occur. For Schein learning is ultimately a social process. Until new ideas and actions are embedded in the daily routines of practitioners, and have changed organizational practices, they have not really been learned! This is the core of refreezing. Learning implies the creation of something new on the individual and social/organizational level. That is why this kind of learning is transformational and innovative of nature.

In Lewin’s terms, the process of embedding new ideas and actions in the daily routines of practitioners is called re-freezing. Schein elaborates this concept of refreezing further and coins the concepts: parallel organization and learning consortium as two arrangements that can support the refreezing process.
It is a kind of paradox that after having relieved the individual from daily routines and confirming communication by taking him out of the workplace setting and welcoming him in the lab and after a lot of learning processes have subsequently been initiated and supported, we are faced with a learning problem when the learner returns to his workplace. We construct an outstanding learning arena to facilitate learning, and then we get problems. It is often seen that learners return to their workplace and articulate a lot of new knowledge and ideas for change, – but often these learners are not really welcomed. Colleagues may be suspicious, feel threatened and a lot of organizational resistance can be provoked. At best the organizational absorption of new ideas takes a very long time. How can the organization handle this problem? This is the point of departure for Schein’s learning thinking: refreezing, integrating individual learning in the organizational context, included in the concept of transformational learning, have to unfold itself in two steps; the parallel organization and the learning consortium.

Formation of a parallel organization

The organization has to establish teams, committees etc. in which transformational learning is experienced. The teams are ensured suitable frames in terms of time, space and resources. The group is not an ordinary team in the organization. On the contrary, the group has a kind of marginal status in the work organization, provided with a special space and conditions for engaging in the transformational learning process (Schein, March1995, August 1995).
The parallel system supports these learning functions


  • To create psychological safety
  • To create a field exercise
  • To provide a broad range of knowledge for the learners – to be analyzed, investigated and reflected upon – by using researchers, consultants and knowledge produced by learner’s actions, to spur the process of cognitive redefinition
  • To create the necessary conditions for testing the new knowledge and experiences. Further to provide conditions for development of new kinds of practices based on new knowledge, to be practiced in the culture of the workplace.

It looks as if Schein extends the laboratory conceived of as a temporary system in such a way that the lab is becoming part of the permanent work organization. He creates a kind of organizational hybrid: The parallel organization is part of the work organization, yet it has a marginal status. The work organization has a primary mission, a core goal to pursue, e.g. the production of goods, services, knowledge etc. The purpose of the parallel organization is to manage learning and developmental processes of the organization, given a special space and special conditions for learning and organizational development. In this way the practice fields have moved one step toward being more authentic and real.
According to Schein, the transformational learning process in step one is necessary but not sufficient to create the desired learning. Although the parallel organization ensures psychological safety, new ideas, concepts, knowledge and theories are still difficult to grasp for employees. The lenses and filters through which the new knowledge is perceived is that of the organizational culture. And it is difficult for employees to learn the new skills for implementing the new knowledge in their own organization. Even if employees overcome these obstacles, they may feel strangers in their own culture and may face difficulties in figuring out how a new organizational practice may be implemented in the old organizational culture.

A pressure toward the parallel system may arise threatening the system to be dissolved or to be involved in a learning process in which the old organizational values are prevailing (Schein, March 95, p. 4).

Consequently further elements in a learning process are necessary to support and bring further the initiated transformational learning process. This is step 2: the formation of a learning consortium.

The learning consortium: networks of organizations works together to ensure learning

According to Schein the employees in the parallel organization basically need to get in touch with and discuss with colleagues from other organizations than their own: to get in contact with colleagues that are going through similar transformative learning processes. Colleagues may meet to exchange notes, to get emotional support and encouragement, to receive advice and ultimately to receive education. But why should a researcher, an academic coach or a consultant – capable of transmitting research based knowledge – not be able to implement this training and support in relation to the parallel organization? Schein assumes that the answer is that the cultural gap between academia and the employees trying to learn is too wide. The academic professional will not be able to really understand the culture of the organization in such a way that he/she can help the employees to develop new organizational practices that both fit into the culture and at the same time have the potential to challenge the culture and thus constitute a spur for development of new values.

This is the point where the colleagues – facing equivalent problems in similar but different organizations – can be helpful. They may possess the empathy and know-how necessary to educate colleagues. Yet the consultant/academic professional is the one that creates the frames for this mutual learning in the consortium, but it is the group of colleagues that actually functions as both learners and trainers.
The learning consortium in this way turns three basic learning elements into reality, elements that constitute unique characteristics of the consortium:


  • Translation of academic/theoretical knowledge into the language of management and employees to support cognitive redefinition
  • Creation of emotional support and empathy in relation to employees to help employees overcome frustrations they have faced in the process of implementing new ideas in their own organization
  • Provide mutual training and education that helps employees to implement new ideas in the different organizational cultures that are included in the collaborative groups of organizations.

To sum up: In the two-step model of the refreezing process – that finalizes a transformational and innovative learning process – it is underlined that an organization cannot work in isolation to accomplish learning. Transformational learning is so complex that organizations have to work together in networks of organizations to create the necessary conditions of learning. On the other hand, each organization has to work independently and in a unique way to create the parallel organization conceptualized in step one, which initiates the learning process. Subsequently – in step two – employees learn collectively in networks of organizations committed to learn together.

Comparing labs and workplaces as arenas for learning

It is basic to the lab to create lack of communication or disconfirmation by including the individual in the temporary system implying that the learner leaves his daily often routinized and consolidating social setting. Workplaces have the potential to create disconfirmation: the individual can be exposed to changes in his job, in job demands, new technology, new structures etc. and consequently experience that old habits and actions do not work. This is the tough way. The “lab way” appears gentler.
The lab appears optimal to create psychological safety. Psychological safety may hardly exist at workplaces in turbulent times and times of radical changes.
Both labs and workplaces may provide and expose individuals to a broad range of knowledge and different kinds of knowledge, in terms of evidence-based knowledge, propositional knowledge and practical knowledge.

Labs appear to be superior compared to workplaces in terms of providing arenas for reflection, inquiry and experimentation. The lab is basically a space for reflection. Some workplaces offer opportunities for reflection, as an integrated part of the work process or located in specific time schemes or formal organizational events. This is the case for Kaizen events in the Lean organization concept. But often pressure for effectiveness and lack of slack in the organizations only leaves minor opportunities for reflection. It may be difficult for employees to find time for reflection in the work process when needed, and experimentation may not be welcomed.
The opportunities for the lab and the workplace to provide practice fields are a complicated issue. It appears that both the lab and the workplace have shortcomings and advantages. The lab is not intended to be a realistic copy of reality. On the contrary, the intention of the lab is to refine, cultivate and unfold some aspects of a phenomenon of concern. This may pave the way to conceptual and experiential learning. But learning also includes iterative exercises in realistic or authentic environments, to perfect skill development and to reduce problems of transfer. The workplace appears to be the most optimal learning arena for this purpose.

Further workplaces can offer organizational arrangements that support the refreezing process.

In sum, each of the two learning arenas – the lab and the workplace – provides most of the prominent conditions of learning – often in an overlapping way – and sometimes definite advantages and shortcomings are inherent aspects of the lab or the workplace as a learning arena.

Cases: two Danish developmental projects

How can learning and developmental projects unfolded in practice be interpreted in terms of Schein’s learning concepts?
In case (1) the participants are about 30 teachers from four adult educational institutions in Denmark. All four institutions ran courses for participants that are part of the daily management in private firms. All four adult educational institutions are facing a huge challenge: They want to change their educational practice. The goal of the newly initiated educational programme is that the adult students develop innovative competences that are going to be transferred to their job implying that they can support employee-driven innovation in their daily management at the workplace. Hence the adult teachers cannot rely on their existing competences and conduct training about the subject of innovation. The teachers have to develop their own competences to teach in an innovative way which means that they can create learning situations at school that are in accordance with innovative processes going on in practice. This places huge demands on the teachers: they have to change their routinized way of training and they have to change collaboration between teachers and maybe change the very structure of the educational system. The basic question in our case is: What is the nature of the learning arena that may facilitate this learning/competence development involving innovative competences?

Managerial competencies to support innovation processes in the daily work- especially employee-driven innovation – are the core element of the project. How can these processes be developed within the adult educational institution of the teachers in a frame of cooperation between the educational institution, the adult learners (students) and the firms that constitute the daily working place for the students?

The project is based on the idea that the development of the adult teachers’ and the students’ (managerial) competences in the field of employee-driven innovation are interconnected processes. The competences are consequently developed currently in a collective and interactive process.

The project presents the concept innovation camp (lab) in these terms:

The innovation camp is a method in which the participant’s total body of knowledge is exposed and shared without restrictive influence from factors such as narrow discipline view or social and cultural reservations. The purpose is to produce creative ideas and innovative solutions related to a shared challenge.
Innovation camps that support experiments by participants are thus a cornerstone in the project. Experimentation is currently accomplished in terms of planning and organizing innovation processes, including how employees are involved in the development of working processes, technology, service and articles. Some experiments focus on firms, some on adult teachers, and some experiments integrate teachers and students which imply that teachers experience organizational practice and challenges of the firms involved.

Case (2) is a developmental study named ”Improved Working Environment and Wellbeing at our Workplace” in the Capital region of Copenhagen. The purpose of the project is to improve the working environment of the workplaces involved, increase wellbeing and reduce absence due to sickness.
The target group for the development project is 15 workplaces consisting of 10 hospital departments (about 1200 employees) and five educational institutions for young people with severe psychological and social difficulties (260 employees).

Thus the primary target group includes about 630 social and healthcare workers, and additional participants are nurses, doctors and managers at hospital departments.
Project duration is 3 years and it has not finished yet.
Eight laboratories are a cornerstone in the project. In the invitation to the project, laboratories are presented this way:

The lab is an arena where all project groups (see below) from the workplaces are offered the possibility to exercise and develop skills that support the development of the workplace. The laboratories are going to be a space in which new knowledge is transmitted, hypotheses are tested, and data and experiences are collected to serve the development of the involved workplaces.

In more concrete terms: at the lab meeting, 5-12 representatives from each workplace meet for a 1-day arrangement focusing on a predetermined theme. Examples of themes are social capital, stress, workplace learning, merging processes of workplaces etc. Theoretical issues are presented by researchers and consultants. The aim is to present quite new and relevant knowledge in a mode that means that participants acquire tools and knowledge that can be applied back home. Thus an important aspect of the developmental strategy is to involve employees in the process of development. Employees encounter hard situations, fun, difficult and demanding situations at work every day. Consequently, the employees are in the best position to define what’s necessary to improve the workplace.

Organization of activities for learning and development

The cornerstone in the organization of activities is the interaction between the workplace and the lab. Further activities are included, as described below:
Lab-workplace interaction. In the project it is underlined that learning is taking place in the period of time before labs and after labs: participants prepare themselves by making clear what is expected by the next lab, problems they want help to solve, what ideas, experiences and questions they want to address. After the lab, participants typically get some “homework” in terms of problems they have to conceptualize, knowledge they have to transmit to colleagues, questions they have to put to management, etc. In between, visits to workplaces are arranged: Participants from one workplace, e.g. health staff, doctors and nurses visit a similar or different workplace to compare how work is organized, new technology used, etc., – to learn and get inspiration for improvement of their own workplace back home.

Specific workplace activities

Workplaces may invite consultants to visit the workplace. Consultants support management and employees to transfer and implement ideas, experiences generated at the labs, and frame, analyze and solve problems and strategy planning for workplace development.

Project groups at the workplace

Each at the involved workplaces establishes a local project group consisting of 4-6 employees and managers. The members of the project group participate in all the labs, they engage in “homework” in between the labs and collaborate with consultants to solve work problems and improve workplace practices. The project group informs and involves colleagues, implement evaluations of own initiatives and share knowledge and experience with the entire organization and other workplaces included in the project. In line with this, all members of the entire workplace are going to be involved in the process of improving the workplace.

Information dissemination groups

These groups will be established at each of the involved workplaces and will include representatives from management, employees and HR management. The group has the responsibility for supporting own workplace and for knowledge sharing concerning activities and experiences created at their own workplace. The group cooperates with the external consultants to support the impact from developmental activities and communication.

Network groups

To ensure follow up and continuous motivation from the labs, networks will be established. The networks consist of the local project groups from 3-4 workplaces. In the networks, participants are intended currently to give inspiration to each other.

Selected issues from the cases in the light of the learning theory

In case (2) we find a heavy pressure on the workplaces, especially the hospitals, in terms of demands for reduced absence due to sickness, merging of several hospital departments, reduction of staff and increased effectiveness at work. At the same time, the very professional role of employees is not challenged. In this case, we do not find a high level of anxiety provoked by the developmental project. Emotional life is more dominated by employees trying to help each other to find meaning in the changes imposed at the workplace, to keep up their great dedication in work, to find solutions in daily problems at work. According to our theoretical frame, the need to protect individuals to overcome anxiety is really minor. Employees apparently enjoy the time spent in the labs and behave in an open way to receive and share information and experiences. They compare ways of organizing work at home, and compare and analyze problems in the groups of the lab. On the other hand, the difficult situation in the home organization calls for something like a parallel organization and a network of learning organizations. Both of these social environments are created in the design of the developmental project. It is observed that participants enjoy visiting each other’s workplaces and learn through mutual visits. It is also observed that e.g. hospital departments do not exclusively prefer visiting other hospital departments. They also give priority to visiting educational institutions that are rather different to their own organization. The core in the learning process is mutual sharing of knowledge and experiences in organizations that are learning.

In case (1) the situation is different. At a given time in lab, teachers ask themselves in the open, if they really have the potential, in terms of skills, professional expertise and courage, to radically change their previously learned and consolidated ways of teaching, their basic teaching style. The threatening challenge is that they have to learn to create learning environments for innovative learning, a learning process that unfolds itself in a current interaction with the adult students (middle managers). Consultants interpret that the level of anxiety is ascending. The professional identity is threatened.

The teachers collectively turn attention to their own existing capabilities and help each other to investigate their own resources to meet the new challenge, to implement the new learning arenas required. They encourage each other by stating that they in fact have the resources and preconditions for moving into the learning process themselves. They find that when they share their knowledge, they really have a huge body of expertise in the field. And actually the goals and intentions of the new teaching style required, are generated by themselves, and are not provoked by a pressure from the outside. This means that anxiety is descending, and learning is going on through the process of knowledge sharing and mutual encouragement. Every teacher exposes his models, concepts and tools used in earlier education. The point of view is that innovations – according to prevailing theories – may be created through a recombination of existing knowledge. In this process of discovering and making explicit and combining each other’s strong sides and resources, the participants behave in a playful and creative way.

On the other hand, it is obvious that the development in learning style and the subsequent changes in the educational organization is not met by resistance; it is met by understanding and support from management. There is not a great need for a parallel organization, but the mutual learning process is obviously supported by the networking of the learning adult institutions involved.

The two cases are apparently very different but our understanding of observations and basic dynamics of the developmental process may benefit from application of our theoretical learning frame.

Testing the learning frame toward newer concepts and theories of competence development

The Danish senior professor Knud Illeris has recently published a book named: Competence: What, why and how? (Illeris, 2011). The aim of the book is to give a state of the art of research in the field. Illeris develops what he calls “a formula for competence development”.  Three elements are prevailing: Engagement, practice/problem and reflection. Engagement means motivation. Motivation is important for competence development. Practice/problem means that the point of departure for the learning process should not be disciplinary issues and abstract problems. The point of departure is experienced issues and problems. Finally, reflection is a core element in competence development.

How does this match our theoretical frame? According to engagement/motivation, this aspect is very much underlined in the thinking of the lab, and different kinds of motivation are made explicit. It is also obvious that practice and problems are prominent in the learning thinking. Actually, the lab extends the understanding of what kinds of problems that can be dealt with in the learning process: problems may be real, authentic and actual. But in the lab, it is also possible to engage in problems emerging from fantasy, problems in a fictitious context, and to experiment and play with problems located in the borderland between reality and fiction. This may be helpful in a creative and innovative process. Finally, is should be mentioned that reflection is absolutely in the core of the laboratory thinking. The lab is created to be a space for reflection.

M. Eraut is an internationally prominent researcher in the field of formal and informal learning often related to different kinds of knowledge and development of professional knowledge. He writes:

Indeed, the research literature on expertise consistently finds that the distinguishing feature of experts is not how much they know but their ability to use their knowledge, because that knowledge has been implicitly organized as a result of considerable experience for rapid, efficient and effective use (Eraut, 2004, p.254).

Although the subject matter seems to be adaptive learning, our development of learning theory may benefit from a connection to these research results. In the language of Schein, we have to do with a reframing of knowledge that is created by action, obviously created in an authentic context. This is contrary to the thinking of Schein. According to Schein, it is the individual’s openness to new information and knowledge that paves the way for the process of reframing. In the perspective of Eraut, the professional expertise is learned and caused by action. It is action that causes the reframing (development) of professional knowledge. Professional knowledge is the kind of knowledge that can be applied effectively in action in challenging situations. The thinking of Schein is challenged by this conceptualization of the relation between cognition (reframing) and action. Eraut’s approach supplements the thinking of Schein, and implies a more dialectical conceptualization of the relation between cognition and action in the learning process.
In the book Improving Workplace Learning Karen Evans develops different models for what she calls “expansive versus restrictive learning environments” (Fuller and Unwin in Evans et al 2006, 2006, p. 27). An excerpt of these models is presented by Høyrup ( 2010):

Expansive learning environment   Restrictive learning environment
Participation in multiple social entities inside and outside the workplace
Restricted participation in social entities inside and outside the workplace
Planned time off the job, including time for reflection
Virtually all on the job; limited opportunities for reflection
Organisational recognition of, and support for, employees as learners
Lack of organisational recognition of, and support for, employees as learners
Teamwork valued
Rigid specialist roles
Managers as facilitators of workforce and individual development
Managers as controllers of workforce and individual development
Bottom-up approaches to innovation
Top-down approaches to innovation

It appears that the learning environments described in the lab setting are very much in line with the characteristics of the expansive learning environment: in the lab approach, the learners participate in several learning environments both inside and outside the workplace. Special time for reflection and learning time outside the workplace is recognized. The workplaces commit themselves to the developmental project and by this, they accept the employees as learners. It is not quite clear what the work organization is like in the involved workplaces in terms of team organization and specialized roles but it is presumed that the adult educational institutions use team organization and are not characterized by specialized roles. On the contrary, the hospitals are presumed to use specialized roles and a team organization is not prevalent. The work organizations in these ways differ in respect to features that support learning and innovation at work.

Managerial roles in terms of excreting facilitating or controlling behavior are not highlighted in the development projects; consequently this issue cannot be enlightened. Finally, it is evaluated that the innovative processes at the involved workplaces are organized as a kind of interplay between bottom-up and top-down processes in the organization. It might be concluded that the presented frame for transformational learning supported by labs seems to include most of the factors stated in the concept of expansive learning.


What do the selected cases and learning approaches tell us about the constitutive nature of the learning process and how is this learning supported by the learning labs?
Learning is conceptualized as a unified whole of cognitive, action and social processes. Learning is fundamentally both an individual and a social process. Our investigation of the learning process has taken place as a journey starting with disconfirming communication, processes of cognitive redefinition, motivation made up by personal factors in terms of anxiety and our need to know, and relational incentives in terms of tensions and disharmonies, – and has ended up with underlining the complex process of refreezing articulating the need of learners to support each other in a mutually learning process in the context of cooperating networks of organizations. The total learning process looks paradoxical: to initiate learning, it appears that the learner in some way has to deviate from his daily way of life, but at the same time, it is necessary that the learner returns to, and is integrated into and transforms his social environment. Learning includes both these opposite movements: to create a distance to one’s daily context and to unite oneself in this environment.
It is demonstrated that the learning lab is a temporary social system and a learning arena that provides conditions facilitating many of these learning processes. It is essential for the lab to provide a space for reflection and psychological safety. But it has also become obvious that the lab has shortcomings and has to be extended:  and the learning process has to be unfolded and supported in daily and authentic environments. The parallel organization and the network of learning organizations present a movement toward bigger authenticity in the learning environment.

Finally, it is concluded that there is no such thing as one ideal learning arena. Different kinds of learning systems have to supplement each other to foster transformational and innovative learning.



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Steen Høyrup Pedersen Steen Høyrup is Associate Professor at Department of Education, Aarhus University, Denmark, and research coordinator of the European Research Network: EDI-Europe, Aarhus University. His research interests include employee-driven innovation, organizational learning and change, competence development and reflection and learning. Steen Høyrup is co-editor of this issue of LLinE Show all articles by Steen Høyrup Pedersen
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