L16- Concepts Can Block Learning

“From the moment you teach a child the word ‘tree’ he can no longer fully experience a tree” said Anthony De Mello from India.

Concepts are fine tools for organizing and communicating our experiences of the world. Concepts and mental models also enable us to recognize what otherwise we hardly notice. Mental models are just that: models of reality. But if concepts become rigid beliefs or we equate them with reality itself, then concepts can imprison our thinking. If we invest our ego in our concepts, they become our “pet concepts” or “pet theories” and close our mind to other or new theories. We stop testing concepts against our experience and the experiences of other people. And we cease to learn. I wrote a blog on “We found the enemy: our own concepts!”

Religious and political concepts can possess and control minds. As a matter of survival, religious and political institutions preserve concepts (e.g. doctrines and beliefs) and impose sanctions on its members against thinking freely and challenging those concepts. As a result, it takes years, decades or even centuries to unlearn concepts that no longer work. Theological concepts can control our thinking and block achievement of the very purpose and essence of religion. De Mello also said,

    “The final barrier to your vision of God is your God-concept. You miss God because you think you know.”

In a doctoral defense by a graduate student at the Asian Social Institute, I sat in the faculty panel which included a monsignor (a rank between priest and bishop). At some point in the defense proceedings I pointed to the difference between “God as a concept” and “God as personal experience”. The monsignor’s subsequent remarks revealed to me his surprise at recognizing the difference seemingly for the first time.

A learning conversation is possible when people talk about their experiences, but unlikely among people attached to their respective concepts. Moshe Idel and Bernard McGinn edited such a learning conversation on “Mystical Union in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: An Ecumenical Dialogue”. Mystical union is a personal experience of God; which is different from theological concepts of God. Do you think a learning conversation is equally possible between a Jewish theologian, a Christian theologian and a Muslim theologian?

Working with mental models is one of the five disciplines of a learning organization, according to guru Peter Senge. Below is a slide from one of my presentations on organizational learning, which lists some skills in working with our own mental models.

mental models

Staying too long in a professional area of practice or in an academic discipline or in a type of work poses the danger of being stuck with the concepts in that area or type of work. One way of continuously refreshing one’s repertoire of concepts is to shift or learn a completely new area of professional practice.

It worked for me…several times.

After a bachelor’s degree in physics, I took an M.S. and Ph.D. in physical biology. The new concepts in the life sciences were completely new and different from those of the physical sciences and mathematics. After I earned my doctoral degree I practiced through consulting in environmental management, which added the human and social dimensions. Afterwards, I accepted a position in policy studies in a university think tank, which introduced me to governance and equipped me to later accept an appointment in the Philippine government as Assistant Director General for Policy of a government body that directly provides analysis and policy advice to the Philippine President. For seven years I was immersed in the real world of politics and governance. What a change! In shifting from the academe to government, the learning opportunities opened before me were literally vast! When I went back to the academe, my interests went to development and non-government organizations. I co-founded CCLFI, a non-profit foundation for organizational learning and change, knowledge management (KM) and knowledge-based development. That was 13 years ago [as of August 2011], when I practically started KM in the Philippines and at the University of the Philippines. What a learning journey!

I learned to:

  • Shift my area of professional practice several times, thus preventing me from being stuck on the concepts of one area;
  • Compare, cross-fertilize and synergize concepts of one discipline with those of another;
  • See that different principles from two or more disciplines are actually the same principle, e.g. the Weber-Fechner law in psychology is essentially the same principle as the law of diminishing marginal utility in economics, and the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics is parallel to Hawthorne effect in sociology;
  • Integrate knowledge across disciplines, e.g. see the different forms of capital across economics, ecology, psychology, organizational development, law, political science, etc. and call them “metacapital”; and
  • Discern trans-disciplinal patterns, e.g. trans-societal Megatrends #1 (see blog Q14) and Megatrend #2 (see blog Q26), or “connect the dots” across seemingly unrelated facts, e.g. the growing importance of intangibles (see blog F2).


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