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The Learning Triangle

It’s April, 1994, and I’m in U.S. Navy Boot Camp in Orlando, Florida. The weather is hot and humid, what my mom calls “air you wear.” It’s even hotter in training, because we’re learning about fire.

Fire is the greatest enemy aboard ship, so every sailor, no matter rank or role, has to learn about fire – how it starts, how it spreads, and how it can be stopped. Central to that learning is the fire triangle.

Fire needs three ingredients – oxygen, heat, and fuel. Without sufficient amounts of each of these, a fire can’t start. Fires already burning will be diminished, or even extinguished, by limiting or eliminating just one of the ingredients – take away the oxygen, the heat, or the fuel, and no more fire.

Fast forward to my work in performance improvement and Universal Design for Learning, and I’ve come to understand that learning has its own triangle – three essential elements that are required for initiating and sustaining learning: why, what, and how.

Why is our emotional connection to learning. Why gets our attention, keeps us going when the learning gets hard, and makes us proud of our improvement and hungry for more.

What is our intellectual connection to the new knowledge and skills we’re trying to acquire. That connection requires the information to be accessible in format and pace, to be readily deciphered and related to what we already know, and connected to a bigger picture so we can see how it will help us improve our performance.

How is our strategic connection, allowing us to do something new. We need adequate opportunities, tools, and supports to do something with the new knowledge and skills we’ve just taken on.. How helps us set goals for applying our new learning to improve, make plans for that improvement, locate and leverage resources in service of those plans, and modify the plans when conditions shift so we can still meet, or even exceed, our goals.

This triangle is the foundation of Universal Design for Learning, a research-based framework for performance improvement that I introduced in an earlier post. For now, just know that cognitive neuroscience has shown us that the brain needs all three of these elements – emotional, intellectual, and strategic connection in order to have deep, meaningful, lasting learning.

We know this, though we don’t act upon that knowledge with intention and fidelity. Too often we get merely the what, and not the “so what?” (why) or the “now what?” (how). In those situations, learners have to create the why and how themselves, which can severely diminish, or even extinguish, the fire of learning.

Don’t let that happen in your learning environments. Act with intention:

  1. Address the why, the what, and how – not just at the outset, but continuously through the learning experience.

  2. Consider how the why might differ for members of your audience, how some may need support for taking in and making sense of the new learning, and how you might offer options for how people will use and express what they’ve learned.

  3. Set goals and objectives for why and how as well as what.

Keep stoking the fire!

  1. Meyer, Anne, et al. Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice. 1st ed., CAST Professional Publishing, 2014.

James McKenna

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Headshot for James McKenna

I'm James

I love to learn, and l love to help others do the same. I write, I appear on podcasts, and sometimes speak at conferences. I share content here and hope you'll find it helpful. 

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