Fractal Learning / Meta Thinking

There seems to be broad agreement on the urgent need to make sure that everyone (pre-work, working, and in transition) is equipped to navigate a world disrupted by radical and accelerating changes in the future of work, caused by AI and the 4th Industrial Revolution.

This urgent imperative may open up the opportunity to reinvent education, potentially utilizing recent advances in innovation frameworks, methods and practice. These suggest that learning can be radically accelerated and democratized, in part by leveraging technology and cloud-based knowledge libraries to break down silos and traditional hierarchies. As a result it can become more fundamentally flexible, iterative and self-directed (heutagogy).

The workshop outlined below is just a proof-of-concept for what we call fractal learning. It’s the roughest of drafts, sketched in response to a challenge: can we develop a “seed methodology”, a “Minimum Viable Instruction” package which starts any individual on a learning / innovating / goal-achieving journey, spiraling out from the first iterative cycle to acquire a broad and personalized toolbox of learning and problem-solving skills.

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We may be able to achieve this result by combining goal-oriented innovation practices with self-directed learning exercises, and then adding two additional layers … a robust iterative metacognitive component (“multimodal journaling”), and a just-in-time scaffolding which leans heavily on cloud access and developing search skills rather than instructional time.

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Note that we’re not very attached to any particular feature of the workshop (including the name!). Instead, we’re interested in determining whether this kind of exercise is generally plausible and potentially useful. If you have time to slog through the details, please comment, criticize, suggest, eviscerate, in general or specifically. And please feel free to adopt and use anything you feel useful … consider it open source meta-pedagogy!

Meta Thinking Workshop / Outline

Rather than focus on one specific subject, theme or pre-selected methodology, we begin by engaging each participant around an individual goal or objective they care about. They work as individuals, rather than teams, though we share observations and discussion along the way.

As each participant develops ideas about how to reach their goal, we encourage self-awareness about process and methodology, through prompted journaling and several layers of scaffolding, including a workbook, links and brief facilitated introductions to related techniques, frameworks and methodologies. The structure borrows particularly from innovation practice but also integrates self-directed educational strategies.

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Target audiences include, well … everyone. But particularly students who are having trouble fitting into traditional siloed disciplines, and those in transition between careers and fields. Also, we hope that even those familiar with some of the related frameworks might benefit from a metacognitive experience that heightens their awareness of personal cognitive processes and how some of these methods might be applied to personal goals.


Four activities in each step, roughly 5 minutes each (some variations from step to step):

  1. Individual work
  2. Journal (how did it feel / work?)
  3. Share observations with group
  4. Introduce related frameworks and methodologies


  • 7 steps, each approximately 20 minutes, with 30 minutes for intro and wrap up, about 3 hours total
  • Could be expanded by adding time to individual work periods, more group discussion, or additional iterations



  1. Make real progress on a real-world goal you choose
  2. Introduce you to important theories and methodologies for accomplishing goals
  3. Help you develop your own style and toolbox of methods
  4. Help you develop your own curriculum and learning strategy


  • We’ll be doing a series of activities based on a basic “seed method”
  • Along the way, we’ll be pointing out other methods, tools, and ways of thinking that might be useful
  • You’ll also be thinking about the process as you go … analyzing your own thinking about thinking, and asking questions to help you be more conscious of your own processes.

Meta Tools

Part of the experience is finding what search / research and meta / journaling tools help you be productive and creative. We encourage “journaling” in multiple media and suggest switching tools periodically to change your frame of reference and give you a new perspective. For example …

  • Paper journal with notes
  • Google doc with links
  • Mind mapping platform
  • Artist sketch book with images
  • Notes app on phone


  • Complete workbook available physically and online
  • Resource links to key topics
  • Example queries and keywords
  • Search engine(s), media channels (e.g. YouTube) and common aggregating sites (e.g. Wikipedia)
  • Personal laptops, tablets and/or mobile devices

STEP 1 / What Do I Want to Do?


  1. Pick something you want to do. It can be large or small, personal or work-oriented, but should be something you care about and want to work on. Write it down on a napkin.
  2. Pick two other things you might want to do, write them down on two other napkins.
  3. Line up the three napkins. Do you want to switch or revise your choice?
  4. Do a quick diagram of what you want to do on the back of the napkin.


  • Was it easier to come up with one thing to do, or three?
  • Why did you choose what you did?
  • How do you think of what you want to do? As an idea, a goal, a vision, a future state?
  • What’s a better representation of it, the words or the diagram? Did you learn anything from doing the diagram?


  • Ikigai (personal goal setting)
  • Visioning (visualizing future state)
  • Scenario building (from future studies)
  • SMART criteria (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound)

STEP 2 / What do I need to know to do it?


  1. Make a list of what you think you need to know to do what you want to do.
  2. Push yourself a bit, we want at least 10 things on the list … what else might be useful?
  3. Put 3 stars by what you think are the 3 most important things.
  4. Is there an order you need to learn them in? Put a 1, 2, and 3 to indicate the order.


  • What do you think of the list? Are you surprised by how much you don’t know?
  • Does it make what you want to do seem easier or harder?
  • Do you think you have to learn everything on the list to get started?


  • Systems thinking (what systems are involved in what you want to do)
  • Mind mapping (cluster analysis, pattern recognition)
  • Critical Path Method (defining dependencies in projects)
  • Agile mindset (iterative vs. waterfall; moving forward with partial knowledge)

STEP 3 / Where can I learn that?


  1. Start doing a web search to find sources related to your learning priorities.
  2. Collect links in a web document (e.g. google doc)
  3. Draw a quick map on paper of the different categories of sources / topical areas.
  4. What’s the least I can do in terms of research to get started? Annotate on the map.

A learning break of 5 to 30 minutes allows participants to do preliminary research, based on the map above.


  • How do I prefer to find resources?
  • How do I prefer to learn? (text, graphics, video, book, lecture, practice, etc.)
  • What’s available online vs. what might need a more structured approach or commitment (e.g. primary research, a formal course, degree or certification)?
  • How much of what I want to do requires practice in addition to learning?


  • Research methods (observation, induction and deduction, primary and secondary research, experience and intuition, experimental method)
  • Search (techniques, query methods, knowledge theory)
  • Evaluating information (author, purpose, accuracy, currency, relevance, etc.)

STEP 4 / What ideas does that give me?


  1. On large poster paper, quickly redo your “do” statement and diagram from the napkin. Make any changes you want.
  2. Think about what you’ve learned, look at different parts of the diagram, … any ideas about what might move you forward, get a piece of it done?
  3. Write some ideas down on post its and put them on the diagram where they are relevant.
  4. Push yourself, come up with 5-10 ideas as quickly as possible.


  • Was it hard to come up with ideas in this context?
  • Did being pushed, doing it quickly, help or hurt?
  • How do you normally find or produce ideas? Do you have a technique or process you frequently use?


  • Creativity theory (e.g. divergent/convergent thinking)
  • Creative thinking techniques (e.g. Thinkertoys)
  • Arts-based creative techniques (Surrealist exercises)
  • Group creativity (e.g. brainstorming)

STEP 5 / What can I try out?


  1. Go over your ideas on the diagram and think about which ones you could try out relatively soon, let’s say in the next month.
  2. You can modify the idea so it’s easier to do sooner rather than later.
  3. If you have more than one idea in that category, think of some other criteria, so you can pick one to try out. For example, which idea is the easiest (least effort) to do? Which would show results faster?
  4. Take another large piece of poster paper and write the idea in the middle.


  • Was it hard to break it down into short-term goals?
  • What kind of criteria do you normally use to select from a group of ideas or things to do?
  • Do you have a process or system that you practice regularly?


  • Agile (review iterative, etc.)
  • Design thinking (prototyping, what’s a prototype)
  • Lean Startup (Minimum Viable Product)

STEP 6 / How did it work?


  1. On the poster paper with your idea, sketch out what a “prototype” version of this would be. How would you actually try it out in the real world, ASAP with the least effort?
  2. What kind of feedback can I get quickly from my idea? Friends and family, people who might be able to help? Are there any stakeholders or gatekeepers that might have an opinion?
  3. Take a minute to imagine that you implemented your prototype.
  4. Now that it’s done, what do I think about it? Was it a success?
  5. Did I learn anything from what I tried?
  6. What about the real world, how did it react?
  7. Write down 3 possible metrics for how you would evaluate the prototype.


  • Was it hard to break it down into short-term goals?
  • What kind of criteria do you normally use to select from a group of ideas or things to do?
  • Do you have a process or system that you practice regularly?
  • What’s your favorite way to get feedback on ideas?


  • User feedback (formal and informal techniques from product testing, user design, etc.)
  • MVP launch (e.g. Lean Startup / Agile market testing concepts)

STEP 7 / What do I want to do (next)?


  1. On a third piece of poster paper, write your latest statement of what you want to do, right in the middle.
  2. Draw 3 lines in different directions from there.
  3. On one line write “FOCUS IN”, on another “FOCUS OUT”, on another “PIVOT”
  4. If you were to FOCUS IN, pick just one part of your original goal to concentrate on, what would that be?
  5. If you were to FOCUS OUT, make it a more ambitious or big picture goal, what would that be?
  6. If you were to PIVOT to something entirely different, what would that be?
  7. Pick one of the three, just for a moment.
  8. Think about the process we used to get here, and also the other processes and methods we talked about.
  9. What method do you think would be appropriate to your new goal? What kind of process would you follow? The one we followed today, or something more like one of the frameworks we discussed?


  • Show list / collage of methodologies
  • Discuss iterative / cyclical model



  • How far do you feel you’ve gotten in relationship to your original goal?
  • Do any of the frameworks we discussed seem particularly useful?
  • How do you feel about designing your own process, or your own curriculum?
  • What other skills or knowledge do you think might be useful in accomplishing your goals?

Introduce Skills Frameworks

  • Review skills recommended for the future of work / 4th Industrial Revolution (e.g. EQ, soft skills, critical thinking, flexibility, resilience, etc.


  • The objective of the workshop, as we mentioned in the beginning, was not to teach you a specific method or secret to success.
  • We hoped to connect something you want to do, something that’s important to you, with the different ways people have developed to find answers, solve problems, and create value.
  • We believe that being aware of your own process and style of solving problems is the first step to creating your personal framework and methodology, and the learning path that works best for you.
  • It’s all out there, everything we’ve referred to today, and you can easily learn more and try things out as you pursue your goals and dreams.


2 thoughts on “Fractal Learning / Meta Thinking

  1. Blaise Cornell-d'Echert

    I commented earlier in the year when I first saw this as a post in LinkedIn. Since then, continuing to think about the concept, I remain interested but uncertain. I think my original comment was about the necessity of motivation to sustain the learning, and because the cycle has rigor, I still wonder about a learner’s capacity to sustain their effort. There seems to be a similarity to Korthagen’s (2004) “onion model” of the levels of reflection. The idea of reflection and metacognition are not that far apart after all. The thing I wonder about, in the text there is mention of a workshop, and I feel as though that is a necessary component of the design. In other words, the learners or participants almost need the disciplined intervention of another (teacher, coach, whatever) to compel them to complete. It is a neat idea and I want to try it out in a professional development setting to see what kinds of changes in perceptions might occur.


    1. Editor Post author

      Hi Blaise Thanks for the feedback. I have not study the material to give an answer, however I agree that you need guidance and a sustained effort, even if a quick review, it is possible to see is a complex and heavy stuff. Have you speak to the author at LinkedIn. Send me your LinkedIn please. Best!


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