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Radical Learning – Predictor to Movement Effectiveness?

Effective movement catalysts are radical learners. This quality can be seen as a predictor to movement effectiveness. The more radically a practitioner learns and grows, the likelier he or she is to start a movement. Too many Christian workers plateau in their learning and growth. Some even decline, shockingly. One thing that distinguishes effective catalysts from non-catalysts is their degree of radical learning. Read on to find out how you can become a radical learner. In this article you’ll find doable steps forward and practical and simple tools you can start using today.

Have you ever sat in a meeting, and felt unsure whether you understood fully what was discussed? But you needed to, and you wanted to raise that, but then---something held you back from revealing your ignorance. “Oh no, I may look stupid. Or someone might think less of me, if I admit that.” Suddenly your brain began rationalizing: “C’mon. You don’t need to learn this now. You’ll have another opportunity. Play it safe. Just let the discussion continue without embarrassing yourself.” An opportunity to learn was missed!

I’ve experienced such moments. When I did, I realized I had thwarted my desire for Radical Learning, to which I claim a commitment.

Effective Catalysts are Radical Learners. They need to be. Movement ministry has a steep learning curve. Or could it be the opposite – that because they exhibit the quality of Radical Learning, effective catalysts learn so much so fast - enough that God uses them to start a movement? Could it be that Radical Learning is even a predictor of movement effectiveness? In other words, the more radically a catalyst learns, the better the chance s/he will end up starting a movement? In this article I will examine this question. You will find out the Best Practices of Radical Learning in the lives of effective movement catalysts. You’ll also find a set of proven tools, so you can accelerate your learning and grow into a Radical Learner.

The Learning and Growth Trajectory of Effective Catalysts

The following chart presents the learning and growth curve of effective movement catalysts, compared with non-catalysts. This comes from one of my studies where the pioneers I surveyed included 147 catalysts and 160 non-catalysts – a sample large enough to be representative. The vertical axis depicts pioneers’ self-rating of the key qualities; the horizontal line depicts their years in ministry.

Figure 1: Growth Curve of Catalysts Compared to Non-Catalysts

Effective catalysts continue to learn and grow throughout their ministry life. The learning and growth of other pioneers who did not catalyze a movement, in contrast, declines. Shocking! Not only do they stop learning and growing. They actually “shrink” in it. Their degree of Radical Learning is an essential factor that distinguishes both groups.

What if learning and growth could predict the long-term fruitfulness of movement catalysts?!

Radical Learning – a predictor to the long-term fruitfulness of movement catalysts?!

Radical Learning in Scripture

Consider the portrayal of Radical Learning as a central theme in the Bible. It is! The core meaning of the word “disciple” is learner. The Greek mathetaes refers to an apprentice, trainee, or student: a committed adherent to a person and their teachings. We can safely say the entire Bible describes learning from God – about him and his ways. Deciding to follow Jesus means essentially choosing to become a person committed to learning from him.

The Old Testament contains entire books devoted to the topic of learning. They are called Wisdom Literature: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. Just to pick one reference, Proverbs 1:5-6 deserves consideration:

Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance— for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise.

This exhortation to add to one’s learning addresses those who are already “wise” and “discerning.” It is the wise who are called to further increase their learning.

Leaders are learners. When we are truly yoked together with Jesus, our learning curve will be steep. We also need to model this posture to other disciples.

Radical Learning in Leadership

Leadership literature has established Radical Learning as one of the core traits characterizing effective leaders. Empirical studies have verified this. This literature usually refers to Radical Learning by the term “Openness to Experience.”

Leadership researcher Robert Hogan and colleagues (Hogan, Curphy & Hogan, 1994) conducted a general review of leadership theory, in which they specifically examined the correlation of personality and leadership effectiveness. According, to their review (Hogan et al., 1994:497),

Openness to Experience correlates positively with leadership effectiveness.

Stephen Zaccaro includes the trait of openness among four personality attributes “that differentiate leaders from non-leaders” (Zaccaro, 2007:8).

Radical Learning in Effective Catalysts – Best Practices

My own research has established Radical Learning as a quality characterizing effective movement catalysts. This leadership trait is defined as:

Posture to actively engage in experiences in an open-minded way, with the expectation that there will be something new to learn.

This quality clearly distinguishes catalysts form non-catalysts. It may well serve as a predictor to the likelihood of catalyzing of movements, since many of the other qualities of effective catalysts are developed through the practice of radical learning.

The following are practices gleaned from effective catalysts. They reported on surveys that they have incorporated these best practices into their lives, and assess them to have contributed to their movement catalyzing:

Best Practice 1 – Being Open-minded: The general Best Practice is an open outlook to life. One catalyst describes how this trait cannot be separated from who he is as a person:

“I love to be in homes, trying new foods, meeting new people, learning new cultural tips. Regardless of how long I’ve lived somewhere, the desire to explore, learn, and grow is part of who I am.”

Best Practice 2 – Constant Examination: Related to open-mindedness comes a constant desire to examine, analyze, evaluate, and improve, as permanent practices. This catalyst encapsulates the essence of this practice:

“We lived with a somewhat critical eye to what was happening in the movement. We lived with a complete contradiction…encouraged with what was going on around us and skeptical that it was nearly as good as it seemed.”

Best Practice 3 – After-action Reviews: Conducting regular after-action reviews with others after any ministry event, discipleship meeting, outreach, or training. In such reviews, the group responsible for the event debriefs with one another about how it went and what could be learned from it.

Best Practice 4 – Experimentation: Catalysts often innovate, trying out something new for a certain predefined time frame, and then evaluate. Depending on the evaluation, they either abandon the experiment or further modify it until it works well.

Best Practice 5 – Identifying Best Practices: Catalysts constantly discern Best Practices, together with their ministry teams and partners. In evaluation with others on a regular basis they ask: “What practices work? What practices bring us closer to ministry goals? What practices produce lasting fruit?” These are questions they ask subconsciously all the time in ministry activities as well as consciously in evaluation meetings with others on a regular basis.

What keeps us from learning radically?

Leadership expert John Maxwell identifies teachability as one of the “indispensable qualities of a leader” (Maxwell, 2012). He shares five main issues that keep many of us from putting Radical Learning into action.

  1. “Destination disease” – the sense of achievement leading to a sense of having arrived and having figured things out.

  2. Yesterday’s success – previous success leading to a false belief that what led to yesterday’s success will be good enough today to lead to tomorrow’s success.

  3. Taking shortcuts in learning – Everything valuable in life costs a price, including learning. Costs include: valuable time, the discipline to pause and get of the treadmill of work, facing realities that are sometimes unpleasant and might be easier to avoid. Minimizing the price that needs to be paid for learning constitutes pretending there’s a shortcut.

  4. Pride – Learning goes against the grain of pride. Our pride does not want to admit we don’t know everything, is not willing to look stupid before others, and avoids the risk of making mistakes in order to learn.

  5. Not learning from mistakes – Not making mistakes means not learning. Making the same mistakes repeatedly also means not learning. Being a radical learner means being willing to make mistakes, and viewing them as stepping stones toward more learning.

Are any of these true for you?

Here are some perspectives to overcome these postures that keep us from learning:

  1. “Destination disease” – I may have arrived somewhere in life, but what got me here won’t get me to my next destination.

  2. Yesterday’s success – I am grateful for yesterday’s success but must keep learning in order to be able to reach the next level.

  3. Taking shortcuts in learning – I am happy to pay the costs of learning and view them as investment into a more fruitful future. Taking time for learning does not slow me down; it accelerates progress.

  4. Pride – Overcoming our pride requires admitting we don’t know everything, willingness to look stupid before others, and taking the risk of making mistakes in order to learn. To check pride, I will choose to look foolish or make mistakes before others rather than miss out on an opportunity for more learning.

  5. Not learning from mistakes – Making mistakes is human, an integral part of learning; not learning from them is foolish.

Tools for Individual Radical Learning

Here are some practical tools you can use to increase your own learning. I use these tools consistently myself and have used them in my coaching of other catalysts.

Learning is accelerated for those whose lifestyle includes the Action-Reflection Cycle. They go back and forth between action and reflection, between engagement and evaluating lessons learned in that engagement.

Figure 2: The Action-Reflection Cycle

Too many in ministry live in an Action-Action Cycle, rather than an Action-Reflection Cycle. They do not pause to reflect but just rush on to the next action. They believe that more action moves them forward faster. Reality looks more like this:

The Action-Reflection Cycle can take on different forms for different people. I’ve seen the following to be most helpful:

  • Personal reflection on the simple question: What can I learn from what just happened?

  • Journaling on the question: “What have I learned today?” I do this every morning for the previous 24 hours, before I start my workday.

  • The practice of examen: Sitting down relaxed, inviting God to speak, and discerning where I had a sense of the presence of God and being alive in the day.

Tools for Team Radical Learning

1. After-Action Review (AAR)

Right after a ministry activity, take some time with the team and evaluate:

  • What went well?

  • What did not go so well?

  • What will we do differently next time?

The sooner after an action the AAR is carried out, the more effective it will be. The smaller the scope of review, the greater the likelihood of deep insights. This means an AAR is best done not only at the end of a months-long project, but repeatedly after any key action has happened.

2. After-Action Review (AAR) for Advanced Practitioners

Those who have sufficient experience with using the simpler set of questions above, can use the following questions that lead to deeper analysis and potentially deeper learning:

  • What did we set out to achieve?

  • What has actually occurred?

  • To what factors do we attribute to the difference between the two?

  • What specifically can we improve upon next time, and how?

3. Wider Project Debrief

This tool is particularly helpful because it avoids cold analysis and doesn’t focus on identifying negative issues. Therefore, it is especially useful in honor-shame cultures. It can be used to debrief a ministry event, a project, or meetings that stretch over several days.

In this debrief the facilitator asks the following questions:

  • Of the things we have been doing here, what do we want to do more of next time?

  • What do we want to do less of?

  • What do we want to stop doing?

  • What do we want to start doing?

All insights on these four questions can be recorded on a board in the following way:









Growth Path

Here are specific steps you can take, gleaned from the lives of effective movement catalysts and my own experience:

  • Increase your expectation that every experience contains something new to learn.

  • Increase your expectation that you can learn something from every person you meet, if you watch for it. View everyone as philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested: “In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.”

  • Find your preferred way to record new learnings, in order to increase retention.

  • Find your preferred approach to personal reflection and evaluation, including your preferred method and regularity (daily or weekly at a certain time).

Developing a Rhythm of Reflection

  • Continuously: What am I learning in this present experience?

  • Daily: What have I learned today?

  • Weekly: Journaling learnings or a reflection walk (alone or with spouse or friend)

  • Quarterly: Personal retreat evaluating things with distance

Self-coaching Questions

  • How open-mindedly do I enter experiences?

  • How high is my expectation to learn something in every situation?

  • How can I set this intention before meetings with people or before certain experiences? What prompt can help me remember?

  • How actively do I engage in experiences, so I experience them in a deep way?

What Are Your Thoughts?

I would love to hear from you. What are YOUR thoughts? What is your experience? Leave a comment below! If you prefer to private message me, you can use the contact form.

Learn more about the other Catalytic Qualities besides Radical Learning in my book Movement Catalysts. You can order your copy here!

If you found this helpful, please share this blog with your network!

Emanuel Prinz – Father’s Beloved & Movement Activist


John C. Maxwell. 2012. The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader: Becoming the Person Others Will Want to Follow. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Recommended Resource

John C. Maxwell. 2012. The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth. New York: Center Street.


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