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Paul R. Messier, President
National Learning Foundation

Posted: March 8, 1998

The Agile Learner and the National Learning Foundation

I'd like to briefly introduce you to a concept and an institution that I know will benefit you if you are concerned with work force quality, knowledge worker resources, and continuous learning.

The National Learning Foundation was created out of the White House mandate to build national awareness and develop needed 21st Century learning environments. Throughout the country, business, industry, and education are redefining themselves to meet the challenges of virtual corporations, agile manufacturing, information superhighways, and the global marketplace. As business and industry redefine themselves to meet the challenges of the new global marketplace, so has the National Learning Foundation adopted a broader, more critical mission--that of driving the formation of a 21st Century learning society. The National Learning Foundation plays a fundamental role in identifying, promoting, and creating solutions to the learning needs of individuals to relate productively and healthily in the future--to become more than lifespan learners, to become Agilearners©.

Powerful Learning Innovations - From our 1990 beginnings the National Learning Foundation (NLF) has been building a database of educational and learning innovations. Throughout this period a growing network of business, governmental, and academic collaborators have been interpreting the results of human performance studies related to stress, creativity, brain activity and mind-body linkages. In particular, brain research results clearly indicated ways to enhance learning and the nature of an effective learning environment. (see Table at bottom)

NLF sees in these innovations the power needed to address the gap between school attainment and the quality of learning needed in the workplace. To cite but one simple example, robust research results indicated that innovations providing emotionally safe, playful atmospheres enabled learners to master information more quickly and to translate more readily their learning into higher quality performance.

Workplace of the Future - In 1992, NLF began to examine more closely the requirements of the new workplace. The mood and realization of the times was "change, change, change," and to meet the persistent demands of change, corporate America was beginning to recognize that flexibility was of paramount importance. For example, industry was quickly coming to embrace virtual corporations, just-in-time management and agile manufacturing.

For the short term, NLF promoted the idea of using telecommunications technologies to help bring the realities of the workplace into the classroom through virtual site visits by students to industries and businesses. For the long run, however, NLF recognized that in order to close the school/workplace gap, a broader vision was needed concerning the skills and attributes future learners would need for success both in work and in life. This necessity led NLF to create a profile for this new kind of learner: the "Agile Learner."

The Agile Learner - In January of 1993, NLF was invited to make a presentation to The White House Think Tank on "Envisioning the Future: Education and Training," sponsored by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and organized by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). This occasion was NLF's first public presentation of the Agile Learner concept. The NLF report noted that whereas schools played the major role in educating people in the past, today's communication technologies were creating an entirely new societal learning system in which schools are but one among many powerful players.

NLF called for an examination of ways in which the new learning system could be focussed more effectively on developing the new kinds of learners needed in an age of continuous change. Such learners would require mastery of a much broader set of learning abilities and performance attributes. They would have to become Agile Learners - flexible, life-long learners who thrive on change and deal effectively with massive amounts of information.

NLF published The Agile Learner in July 1993, which interlaces basic educational, social, psychological, and managerial issues within a well grounded theoretical framework. This provocative vision has spread rapidly across the country. It is used by schools in Michigan, New Jersey, Florida, California, and Washington, D.C. It is incorporated in a multimedia production by the Global Village Schools, and its constructs became key elements in the 1994 White House Report to the U.S. Department of Labor on the emerging needs of the Agile Workforce.

Agile learners--or Agilearners--are just-in-time as well as lifespan learners that thrive on change and have the skills and attributes needed to excel in the virtual corporations of the 21st Century. They are team players who know how to manage and make information actionable. They approach their responsibilities with integrity and a sense of the common purpose. They are flexible thinkers who know how to examine basic assumptions. They are "knowledge workers" and more!

The agilearner will display significantly different attributes and skills from those rewarded today. The societal learning system, including education, must align its goals to the needs of the agilearner.

Attributes of the Agilearner Skills of the Agilearner
Personal Interpersonal Essential Performance
  • Flexible
  • Creative
  • Introspective
  • Curious
  • Imaginative
  • Adaptable
  • Aesthetically aware
  • Ambiguity tolerant
  • Acts from integrity
  • Celebrates diversity
  • Altruistically motivated
  • Effectively interdependent
    • collaborator
    • team player
  • Literacy/Numeracy
  • Mastery of technology
  • Communication
  • Negotiation
  • Systems thinking
  • Pattern detecting
  • Synthesizing
  • Analyzing
  • Experimenting
  • Problem solving
  • Decision making
  • Reflective thinking
The agilearner is a strong individual in a self-governing system--one who is not a sponge of information, but rather one who has sovereignty over information and is capable of reflection and choice.

For the agilearner, information and technology are tools used to build a life of learning. The agilearner:

  • masters information
  • thrives on continuous learning and continuous improvement
  • understands, uses, and benefits from technology

Alvin Toffler said it well in The Third Wave: "Our task is not to hunt for the mythic 'man' but for the traits most likely to be valued by the civilization of tomorrow."

Present day achievement standards fall short. According to experts, tomorrow's winners will perform substantially beyond industrial age standards.

Indicators of success in the 21st Century Learning Society include:

  • Love of learning
  • Healthy self-esteem
  • Body-mind congruity
  • Self-rescripting
  • Community consciousness

Between 1993 and 1996, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education, NLF created a series of seminars, workshops and forums on the workplace of the future and the need for a new kind of workforce - a learning workforce - an agile workforce.

Learning Cultures - Beginning in 1996, NLF began to work with labor and industry to help them move away from an emphasis on training and more toward developing an organizational context supportive of learning. This challenge centers on the development of working environments supportive of learning. The resulting corporate learning cultures can provide insights for guiding the development of the larger societal learning system. This is seen as a step leading to the development of a world-class Learning Society for the 21st Century.

In looking back, NLF feels encouraged about the facilitative role it has been privileged to play in identifying effective innovative educational models and in increasing the dialogue between the public and private sectors. A growing number of corporations have seen that the Foundation's knowledge base is a rich resource pool upon which to draw in converting from "training" programs to "learning" cultures. NLF believes that schools will also become increasingly innovative as they come to see the new and vital role they can play within the emerging Learning Society.

Research Findings Supporting Brain-Based Learning Models
1. The Brain is a Parallel Processor
  • assimilates different kinds of information simultaneously, e.g. emotional, tactile, mental, physical
  • integrates stimuli that is both within and outside of our awareness
  • most stimuli received is outside our awareness, yet all stimuli impact on learning, behavior, and thinking

2. Learning is Systemic

  • information is absorbed and stored in the body as well as the brain
  • behavior and thinking draw on information from throughout the body and brain
  • learning involves the brain and body (the mental, emotional and physical) learning that engages entire organism is enhanced

3. Each Brain is Unique

  • the "hardware" is similar but not identical
  • the "software" it generates is also unique
  • each is a different kind of learner, thinker, and conceptualizer
  • some brains savor one type of sensory information more than other types, e.g. visual, auditory, tactile, kinesthetic, gustatory, olfactory

4. The Brain is a Conglomerate

  • it is composed of separate units that govern distinct domains of activity
  • one unit can take charge of the entire brain by blocking, delaying or redirecting activities of other units
  • basic survival unit takes command under threat - "flight or fight" program takes charge
  • overt or subtle threat begets stress - activates survival program - tension
  • stress closes down higher-order-thinking units
  • security closes down survival unit and frees the brain for united action - - obtaining synergy through unity
  • the united, harmonious brain learns at accelerated pace
5. The Brain is a Regulator
  • the brain regulates blood pressure, digestion, body temperature, balance and salt level
  • the brain performs regulation functions outside awareness
  • most brain activity is devoted to regulatory functions
  • the brain uses activity set-points for the high and low limits with an OK zone in between
  • different brains = different set-points
  • demands within the OK zone = challenge; above the OK zone = stress; below the OK zone = boredom
  • the brain likes challenge and finds too much or too little dysfunctional
  • challenge above or below set-points inhibits learning

6. The Brain is a Multi-modal Memory System

  • brain stores information by: (1) logical, (2) emotional and, (3) sensorial associations
  • information received with associations to all three are most readily stored and retrieved, i.e. most useful
  • emotion-less information is most difficult to get into system
  • logical-only information usually requires rote and repetition to gain assimilation
  • brain preferences for type of association vary
  • information lacking a brain's preferred association can impair its ability to memorize

7.The Brain is a Meaning-maker

  • existing knowledge bank is used to interpret incoming information
  • brain seeks meaning and comprehension
  • linking old information to new = comprehension
  • modality associations are used in linking, i.e logical, emotional, sensorial
  • the greater the number of modality links - the better the comprehension
  • the brain plays on metaphors, analogies and similes

8. The Brain is a Self-Congratulator

  • using neurotransmitters, the brain rewards itself and the entire organism with feelings of well-being when new meaning and comprehension are achieved
  • for the brain, learning is intrinsically rewarding
As an institution we are already making a difference in the organizations we have touched - be they corporate, governmental, or academic. Please visit us at our web site to learn more about what we do and how you might benefit from being involved with us.

Paul R. Messier, Ph.D., President

Would you like to offer some thoughts or add to the dialog? Responses of general interest may be posted below. Send your comment to . IMPORTANT: Make sure the subject line of your message contains: Comment on Guest Speaker 3/98.
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From: (Lyelle Palmer) Date: Thu, 19 Mar 1998
Nice work. Concise and clear presentation. Bibliography? You can tell that I am in visual mode today.

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From: (Linda D. Gerkensmeyer) Date: Wed, 25 Mar 1998
Great presentation Paul. Keep up the good work of partnering and presenting.

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From: (Paul Messier) Date: Fri, 27 Mar 1998 Subject: Bibliography
Lyelle, Here is the bibliography.


  • Adler, R., ed. (1981), Psychoneuroimmunology, NY NY: Academic Press
  • Bennet, T.L. (1977), Brain and Behavior, Monterey CA: Brook/Cole
  • Benson, H. (1987), Your Maximum Mind, NY NY: Times Books
  • Claycomb, M. (August 1978), "Brain Research and Learning: A Review", Washington, DC: National Education Association
  • Cook, N.D. (1986), The Brain Code: Mechanism of Information Transfer and the Role of the Corpus Collosum, London, England: Methuen Press
  • Crouch-Shian, J and Shaughnessy, M.F. (1986), "Brain Research: Implications for Education", Washington, DC: US Department of Education, ERIC
  • Franklin, J. (1987), Molecules of the Mind: The Brave New Science of Molecular Psychology, NY NY: Dell Publishing
  • John. E.R. (1977), Functional Neuroscience Volume 2: Neurometrics - Clinical Applications of Quantitative Electrophysiology, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
  • Gazzaniga, M. S. and LeDoux. J.E., The Integrated Mind, NY NY: Plenum Press
  • Gazzaniga, M.S. (1988), Mind Matters, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin
  • Goode. E. (June 1968), "How the brain really works", NY NY: U.S. News & World Report
  • LeDoux, J.E. and Hirst, W. , eds. (1986), Mind and Brain: Dialogues in Cognitive Neuroscience, NY NY: Cambridge University Press
  • Litvak, S. and Senzee, A.W. (1986), Toward A New Brain: Evolution and the Human Mind, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
  • Nummela, R. and Rosengren, T. (May 1966), "What's Happening Inside Students' Brains May Redefine Teaching", Alexandria, VA: Educational Leadership
  • Oakley, D.A., ed. (1985), Brain and Mind, NY NY: Methuen Press
  • O'Reagan, B. (1990), "Mind and Body: Pathways of Linkage", Sausolito, CA: Noetic Sciences
  • Ornstein, R. and Sobel, D. (1987), The Healing Brain, NY NY: Simon and Schuster
  • Ornstein, R. (1984), The Amazing Brain, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin
  • Pert, C., "Neuropeptides: The Emotions and Bodymind" (1990), Sausolito, CA: Noetic Sciences
  • Petosa, R. and Oldfield D. (February 1985), "A Pilot Study of the Impact of Stress Management Techniques on the Classroom Behavior of Elementary School Students", Kent, OH: Journal of School Health
  • Pietsch, P. (1981), Shufflebrain, Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin
  • Pool, J.L. (1987), Nature's Masterpiece: The Brain and How It Works, NY NY: Walker and Co.
  • Restak, R. (1988), "The Brain Has A Mind of Its Own", Washington, DC: The Washington Post
  • Seyle, H. (1956), The Stress of Life, NY NY: McGraw-Hill
  • Thatcher, R.W. and John, E.R. (1977), Functional Neuroscience Volume1: Foundations of Cognitive Processes, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
  • Valle, R. S. and Von Eckartsberg, R. (1981), The Metaphors of Consciousness, NY NY: Plenum Press
  • Wittrock, M.C. (1980), The Brain and Psychology, NY NY: Academic Press
  • Young, J.Z. (1979), Programs of the Brain: Based on the Gifford Lectures 1975-7, London, England: Oxford University Press

========= Reply =========================
From: (Christine Eckerle) Date: Tue, 31 Mar 1998
This is an excellent paper. It is very timely for some of the issues we are discussing in our class currently. The class is teaching teachers how to teach online so that the college can continue to meet the needs of our lifelong learning students.

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From: (Jack Ring) Date: Wed, 8 Apr 1998
1. Suggest you consider Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences for the second layer of interpretation and association that the brain does after the first layer of sensory types.
2. The Regulator paragraph is misleading in that it alludes to only the homeostatic type of regulation. There are four types of regulation: a) none (as in Denial), b) pursuit (as the dog chases the car, or as "head them off at the pass" or as "leap to a conclusion about what they are saying"), c). homeostatic (as in regulating body temperature) and d) goal seeking (as in the inclination to learn).
3. What is the specific neurotransmitter? Many people think it is endorphins, thus are misinformed. I think it is one or more of the enkaphalons. The NIH should be able to tell us.
4. This whole description is at the intellectual level. Encourage people to notice that when they get embarrassed they feel it all over. In fact, the dilation of blood vessels starts before the 20 milliseconds that would be the delay if the signal had to originate from the brain.

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From:  (Glen John Hammond) Date: Mon, 22 Jan 2001
What you have said is great stuff.  What a wonderful synthesis.  I would also add the concept of the successful student as a goal of education with the successful student being knowledgeable, strategic, empathetic, and self-managed and teaching as maturing through these levels: activity -> content -> processes -> dispositions -> mind states [efficacy, flexibility, craftsmanship, consciousness, interdependence]-> ideals [the higher the level of instruction, the more all encompassing] [reference -Art Costa]

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