Crucibles as a Metaphor for Learning and Reflection

April 15, 2008 at 9:22 pm 3 comments

I am at a Working Knowledge conference on “Judgment and Decisions” at Babson College today, organized by Larry Prusak and Tom Davenport. Bob Thomas, Accenture and Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, just spoke about “Crucibles, Judgment and Leadership”. One of his main points is that people have to learn how they learn best, and crucible experiences can be pivotal for many people.

The five key ingredients for going from novice to adept expert performer are having talent, ambition, grasp of method, a great teacher, and feedback. Practice can trump talent, as research on expert performance shows. Outstanding performers devise a personal learning strategy that goes beyond practice to understanding how they learn best – and what their passion is. One way Bob learns what people love to do is by asking what they are doing when they lose track of time – what is often called a flow state.

While this talk focused on how businesses grow leaders, I believe Bob’s insights are valid for anyone in any role, including children with learning disabilities, who are explicitly taught how they learn and strategies to accommodate their learning disability. Many people, however, never reflect on their own learning style.

Bob offered a number of examples of crucible experiences in disparate organizations. The Peace Corp drops people into a developing country and expects, with minimal training, they will not only survive, but will learn and grow. The Mormon Church’s major crucible experience is the mission all members go on, which includes dealing with rejection, learning how to resolve conflicts with the person they are on the mission with, and learning what it means to be Mormon in a non-Mormon world. Hell’s Angels’ crucible experience is the run, a long ride where the leader negotiates the passage from one location to the next, making it more challenging than last year’s run.

Tom Davenport led a discussion focused on if – and should – crucible experiences be institutionalized. He gave examples of team-building experiences such as people falling into each other’s arms and fire-walking, but it is arguable if these are crucible experiences.

Even the examples from the Peace Corps, etc., above are orchestrated in a sense. Bob showed videos of two people discussing crucible experiences and they were serendipitous ones, and also ones where it was easy to see that another person, in the same situation, would have been devastated instead of inspired. Part of what I learned from this discussion is that you can prepare people for, and to be receptive to, learning experiences, but can’t necessarily orchestrate them. I would like to better understand the role of reflection and the extent it can be encouraged or scaffolded, since that seems to me to be a major difference between how people learn from a crucible – or any – experience.


Entry filed under: e-learning. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Linda  |  June 18, 2008 at 6:15 am

    I suspect that while it’s possible to create an experience that is likely to be a crucible (e.g. Peace Corp), each individual’s level of readiness will be different and thus the power of the crucible will be different for each.

    My own most significant crucible experience happened over 20 years ago and to this day I’m still learning about it and about myself through reflecting on it. It was a profound experience which shattered my prior world view to make room for a much larger world view. I was only minimally prepared for it (in an explicit way) but apparently I was ready because down the rabbit hole I went! Fortunately for me, two mentors repeatedly encouraged me to write about it and reflect on it. I do think that reflection plays a huge role in the crucible experience. Without reflection, we might be affected by it but will not be fully conscious about how we were affected. Deep reflection and dialogue add immensely to the learning!

  • 2. deansguide  |  May 27, 2008 at 8:51 am

    Tagging your post with “Hells Angels” is a ridiculous stretch–how bad do you want traffic?

    Considering your Alexa ranking is nearly 2mil I it is still stupid to tag this article with a Hells Angels tag.

  • 3. lilashana  |  April 22, 2008 at 4:45 am

    Thank you for this note and te blog in general.

    A question – did anyone address the nature of feedback that is required? I ask both as a trained control systems engineer and an organisational learning expert. Feedback in electrical engineering is simply the signal that gets back to where it came from initially,
    They fall into two simple categories: negative (much more common and extensively studied) and positive (not so well understood and actually often misunderstood). In the organisations feedback is almost synonymous with criticism.

    What did the speaker, the cases and the audience have to say?

    Lilly Evans, UK


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Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, ScM

Lisa GualtieriLisa Gualtieri is Assistant Professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine. She is Director of the Certificate Program in Digital Health Communication. Lisa teaches Designing Health Campaigns using Social Media, Social Media and Health, Mobile Health Design, and Digital Strategies for Health Communication. Contact Lisa:


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