Learning Agility in Children

In “The Forgotten Language of Children,” Firestone illustrates how to assist a child in developing an intrinsic desire to work.  The “Next Step” phenomenon can be described and measured as learning agility.  Learning agility occurs as people experience difficult challenges in life and then overcome them.  Learning agility can be instilled in others by facilitating the enjoyment of overcoming new problems, providing positive regard and confidence, instilling humility, placing the individual in a variety of new contexts, and never letting the individual becoming complacent in newly acquired skills. 

            “In the ordinary world people teach you things, and you have to do them exactly as they teach you.  At the Foundation our experience was our teacher.  In school only the  results mattered and what you experienced was of no interest to anyone.  Here, everything was turned upside down: only the inner experience mattered, and the results of our efforts were accepted.  The only important thing was that we tried for ourselves” (Firestone,  2008, p. 41). 

            These were the words of Risa, one of the children who remembered her years working at the Foundation in Armok.  Her words illustrate what many employers are now recognizing in their own companies.  It is not the grades the employee received in school that determined their success in business (Stanley, 2001).  It was the inner experiences of the person that shaped his subsequent learning agility and drive for overcoming difficulties (Stanley & Danko, 1996).  Stanley (2001) found that out of the MBA students he teaches, grades are not a determining factor of success.  Stanley reported that he would much rather have a student that struggled in school, but demonstrated character growth as he got back up again and pressed forward in his desire to succeed, than a student that whizzed through class barley having to study.   In Stanley’s studies of America’s top executives and millionaires, the average person learned not from the academics but the struggle and success of overcoming them.  It was the inner experience that produced learning agile businessmen (Stanley; Stanley & Danko, 1996).  Learning from experience has shown to be a greater predictor of employee success than intelligence (Sternberg, Wagner, Williams, & Horvath, 1995).  The Foundation demonstrated how to instill character growth in others by facilitating enjoyment of a challenge, supervising appropriately, facilitating humility, creating a context of learning, and putting agility in learning.

Learning Agility as a Construct

            Learning agility is a construct that Lambardo and Eichinger (2000, p.326) used to describe character traits that successful employees and executives possess.  The traits are described as the following:

            1. People Agility-Describes people who know themselves well, learn from experience, treat others constructively, and are cool and resilient under the pressures of change.

            2. Results Agility-Describes people who get results under tough conditions, inspire others to perform beyond normal, and exhibit the sort of presence that builds confidence in others.

            3. Mental Agility-Describes people who think through problems from a fresh point of view and are comfortable with complexity, ambiguity, and explaining their thinking to   others.

            4. Change Agility-Describes people who are curious, have a passion for ideas, like to experiment with test cases, and engage in skill building activities.

            Demeuse, Dai, Hallenbeck, & Tang (2008) found learning agility is found among the normal population and has a normal distribution curve.  There is no significant difference between women and men in overall learning agility scores, although women tend to score higher in people agility.  There is no significant difference between ages or ethnic groups in learning agility scores.  Learning agility has shown to be a trait that can be measured and standardized (Demeuse, et al., Lambardo & Eichinger, 2000).  These findings demonstrate the stability and usefulness of the construct in the general population. 

            Learning agility is defined as “the willingness and ability to learn from experience, and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first-time conditions” (De Meuse, Dai, & Hallenbeck., 2010, p. 120).  It is described as “learning from experience, acumen, or agility can be accomplished reliably, and that it relates to something of importance in organizations, namely one’s designation as a high potential” (Lombardo & Eichinger, 2000, p. 322).   Since the formulation of learning agility as a construct, it has been used to determine who would be positive employee for a potential hire, a potential candidate for a raise, and often in determining the better of two candidates for a single position (De Meuse et al., 2010).  It is a useful construct when assessing a person’s potential in overcoming new problems and obtaining real world success in business.

            More and more, employees, military, and clergy have been seeking to learn how to instill this character trait in others (De Meuse, 2010; McKenna, Boyd, & Yost, 2007; Wong, 2004).  Many researchers have attempted to understand the process of assisting others in developing learning agility (De Meuse).  Some of the ingredients identified are: the person must be assisted in enjoying the challenge of learning new skills, supervisors need to be encouraging and trusting, humility must be present and fostered, challenging problems must be given to the individual, and once the individual has learned a new skill-set a new problem should be given that requires a new skill-set (Lombardo & Eichinger, 2000).   The same ingredients were utilized by members of the Foundation at Armok when instilling learning agility in their young children.  The methods of the Foundation serve as an example of how to instill learning agility in others (Firestone, 2008). 

Facilitating Enjoyment of the Challenge

            The ability to learn requires that people are exposed to new tasks that move them outside of their comfort zones.  These learning experiences are best when they are real life events that provide a strong emotional experience for the individual.  It is the individual’s willingness to attempt these events that allows the learner to develop new skills needed to overcome the task (McCall, Lombardo, & Morrison, 1988).

            Willingness to develop new skills plays a large role in a person’s ability to develop learning agility.  Two people may experience the same new tasks, but only one develops new skills for overcoming the task (McCall & Lombardo, 1983).  It is the enthusiasm of learning that the person brings to the table, which facilitates the desire to learn new skills (McCall et al., 1988)

            A perfect example of how to instill this enthusiasm in others is given in Firestone’s narrative (2008, p. 36).  One man, Doug, remembers his experiences as a child at Armonk: "It felt important to do maintenance: mowing the lawns, putting together a building.  It was something we didn’t do at home.  What I didn’t like where the jobs were you did something just to keep busy.  But when you felt like you were doing what the men were doing, you had a mission and  you could define it.  It was a new think, and fun."

            In this example, Firestone (2008) illustrated how giving a person a challenge, that was deemed to be important, made the event fun and exciting.  Wong (2004) recommends that to instill learning agility in military personal, events should always be different and as true to life as possible.  Also, it is not enough to simply give mundane tasks.  Important tasks with real life consequences, and the potential for high emotions, must be given (McCauley, Ruderman, Ohlott, & Morrow, 1994). 

            In the following narrative, Firestone explained that overcoming difficult, real world obstacles validates a person and creates the context of excitement. “The children wanted intensity, and when they tasted it, life became vivid.  When something big was demanded of them, they discovered that they had something to give and felt the real satisfaction of helping.  Love of difficulty may be instinctive: overcoming obstacles validates a child’s hope of becoming a capable adult” (Firestone, 2008, p. 38).  Some people assume that people would like to avoid difficult tasks, but, as Firestone explained, it is the overcoming of difficult real world tasks that instills the excitement needed to develop learning agility (2008, p.42). 

            “The children’s hunger for reality was greater than their desire to be entertained; that was  why they came.  Today, what real experience is there for children?  Do they feel a lack, to which they cannot give voice?  They know only that sometimes they feel bored, that there’s nothing to do.  Real demands require effort and sometimes discomfort, and bring real satisfaction.  Some of the children recognize this instinctively.  For others, their experience of work helped them understand.  They wanted, needed, to overcome difficulties in order to grow."

Supervising High Potential Learners

            Employees who enter companies and demonstrate to be low potential learners do not necessarily continue to be low potential learners over time.  The low potential employees can be assisted in learning how to develop learning agility when they are give tasks that require them to gain new skills and when they are given supervisors that assist them in growing from the experience (Bray, Campbell, & Grant, 1974).

Supplying Growth Promoting Experiences

            There are two important parts in the supervisors role.  The first one, aptly described by Firestone (2008), is to always insure that the supervisee is given a new task that it just outside of the supervisee’s comfort zone and current skill set.  Firestone described the importance of always looking for the next step the person needs to take (p.43). 

            When we were perceptive enough, we could recognize the child’s needs for the next step by signs he or she gave us, and what the next step should be.  As they grew older, the   adolescents became interested in ideas, and their relationship with us needed to be based on intellect as more abstract discussion became possible.  The age of 13 or 14 brought a new phase, as the critical faculty of the children awakened.  They now were able to         examine ideas, asserting their own understanding.  We needed to honor this new capacity.

Positive Regard and Confidence

            The second part in supervising the development of learning agility in others is to provide confidence and positive regard to the supervisee (Dominick & Gabriel, 2009).  Those who seek to assist others in developing learning potential, must create an environment where the leader expresses confidence in the person.  The leader should seek to provide positive perceptions of the trainee and communicate expectations of the trainee’s ability to complete the tasks at hand (Dominick & Gabriel).

            In her book, Firestone (2008) remembered how one lady reminisced about her supervisor. She described experiencing hardships and tasks, but felt that her supervisor treated her an equal, was encouraging, and had full expectation that she could complete the tasks given (p.42). " It was always a tremendous relief to me to be free from the pressure of expectations.  There were no grades, no punishment, no blame. You felt it most in the trips when we had many hardships and adventures.  Peggy broke the rules, which was thrilling to us.  She insisted we call her by her first name; she slept on the ground; she expected meals to  be prepared by the children! She trusted us. "


            Successful executives elicit feedback about their performance, experience a greater variety of different challenges, and acquire new skills in meeting the new task, at a higher rate than unsuccessful executives (Lombardo & Eichinger, 1989).  One of the reasons successful executives exhibit a high rate of learning agility is that they are humble enough to learn from their mistakes and acknowledge the need to develop a new skill (Finkelstein, 2003). 

            Finkelstein found that high agility learners were able to accept responsibility for their mistakes and attempted to fix any problems they may have caused (2003).  Low agility learners blamed the mistakes on others or attempted to cover them up (Finkelstein).  Brisco and Hall (1999) reasoned that the individual must be able to develop self awareness in order to develop learning agility.  Self awareness give the person the ability to react to the environment in a positive manner and own responsibility for their own actions (Briscoe & Hall). 

            Firestone (2008, pp. 37-38) gave the following example about how to assist people develop humility.  In the example, the child did not want to learn a new skill, out of fear of the situation.  He tried to get out of it by doing a poor job.  The supervisor quietly communicated confidence in the child and continued to ask the child to execute the task.   When the boy completed the task, the supervisor allowed for quiet internal confidence to be the child’s reward.

                       " I had two large buckets to carry up the hill to the pump house, and it was very cold and very dark outside.  I was scared to go out on the dirt road alone and whished someone would go with me, but everyone seemed busy; so I had to go by myself.  I ran all the way to the pump house and filled the buckets from the tap as fast as I could.  Then I slipped and sloshed back to the shed.  The buckets were so heavy when they were full I thought they would tear my arms out.  When I got back, there was just a little bit of water in each bucket.  The rest had splashed all over me, and I was soaked. I thought I could get out of  carrying any more water. But Paul insisted that I go out again, and this time bring back full buckets. He told me, “Don’t look down.  If you look down, you’re changing your center of gravity  because your body follows your head.  Look straight ahead.” I hated going out the second time, but somehow I knew I had to do it.  It was just as dark and just as scary, but I was mad, and this time I wasn’t going to run.  I filled the buckets again and carried them more slowly this time.  I kept my eyes on the lights of the shed, and I tried to make my steps smooth so the water wouldn’t slosh out.  This time I came back with the buckets almost full. The team needed water, and I had brought water.  I felt the difference between talking my way out of things and actually helping.  It felt good, and for the first time that night I was happy.  Even today when carrying a cup of coffee I remember."

Creating the Context

            Contexts that provide the greatest opportunity for people to develop learning agility are those that are difficult and are different from the ones the person is used to and provide a variety of new ways to look at problems (Wong, 2004).  Firestone (2008) illustrated how each context must be tailored to suit each individual child.  In this example, Firestone gave a task that requires concentration to a child that had difficulty concentrating.  In doing so, the child had to develop the skill of concentration and the internal satisfaction of learning (p. 39-40).

                       " We were planning a Christmas party, and as we chose presents for each child, we also chose an appropriate forfeit, something they had to do to “earn” the gift.  We began a list: stand as still as a statue for five minutes, recite a nursery rhyme backwards, juggle two raw eggs.  We created more and more forfeits, each suited to a particular child.  But what would fit Wendy, an excitable talkative nine-year-old who could barely keep still? Cutting a long roll of ribbon down the center so it became two roles, was chosen. An older girl stood silently behind Wendy, ready to help if needed.  At the other end  another teenager held the roll taut.  Wendy wielded the scissors; the more she cut, the more ribbon unrolled, the more cutting was required.  Her attention concentrated, Wendy  stopped talking as she cut slowly and carefully.  The whole room hushed, but even had we talked, I think Wendy would have kept going.  Only when the spool finally ran out did Wendy look up.  She smiled proudly at the long perfect curls of ribbon on the floor around her." 

            Jobs that are high in emotion, unique, and provide a lot of variance create the environments that provide the most development for leaders (McCauley et al., 1994).  In the following example, Firestone (2008) developed a context for a child who experienced high emotional anxiety when he had to talk to new people.  It is important to recognize that in the example, after the context no longer was unique to the child, Firestone sought after a new context to place the child in (pp. 40-41).

                       " Robert was timid.  He found it hard to speak in meetings and always waited for some other child to bring observations with which he could then agree.  We decided that help for him the task would take the form of encouraging his emotional bravery to match his physical courage.  We assigned him the job of secretary for his age group, eight boys and girls form 11-13 years old.  He had to keep them informed of all our plans and the many details involved in working together: who would bring tools, who would shop for food, who had room in their cars. The following week at a meeting Robert reported: “This was the toughest thing  I’ve ever done.  I don’t know why it was so hard for me to call the kids I don’t usually hang out with.  But the funny part is, once they got on the phone and we were talking, it didn’t seem bad anymore.”  He remained secretary for many months, and it was only when he no longer dreaded making the phone calls that we switched the job to someone else."

            In developing a meaningful context, it is important that the context is a real world experience, not one artificially contrived.  Artificial contrived tasks will not bring the internal satisfaction that real world tasks will.  The real world experience has to be one that is in demand and requires completion.  Firestone (2008, p.41) explained, "One of our first tasks was to provide conditions where this moment of experience could  take place.  The children could be called to this through the right demand, not of obligation, but of a job or an adult genuinely needing their participation.  Interest and  concern were shared especially when the demand was a very big one.  The work to be  done must be authentic, not contrived."  

Putting the Agility in Learning

            One of the problems that result in agile learners ceasing to learn is that they become comfortable with themselves.  They find a niche that they are very good at, they develop a high sense of pride and comfort, and they enjoy the feeling of success so much that they do not attempt a new task that requires them to learn new skills (Freedman, 1998).

            In two studies exploring the difference between successful and unsuccessful executives, it was found that successful executives will continue to gain new skills when given new problems (McCall et al.,1988).  Unsuccessful executives frequently experience new problems, but do not gain new skills. They simply increase the old skills that have brought them success in the past.  They increase the old skills to the point that they completely rely on them and block out any attempts to utilize new ones, thus becoming their own roadblock (McCall & Lombardo, 1983).

            Firestone described how it is necessary to always keep tasks moving, so that the person does not become too complacent in his newly obtained skill (2008). “We adults could never bask in our satisfaction for long.  What worked well for children at one stage became an obstacle to their growth in the next.  We often needed to question ourselves: how was the environment we created affecting the children” (p. 41).


            Learning agility is a new construct that was developed recently to describe successful men and women in a place of business who have an ability to overcome new obstacles (Lombardo & Eichinger, 2000).  Although the construct is relatively new, the practice of instilling learning agility in others, has been utilized by the Foundation at Armok, many years before (Firestone, 2008).  The methods described by Firestone are helpful in learning how to assist people in become productive adults that have the ability and willingness to overcome new problems in new situations.  The Foundation demonstrated how to instill learning agility in others by facilitating enjoyment of the challenge, supervising appropriately, facilitating humility, creating a context, and putting agility in learning. 


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