Disorientation in Learning

A model I’ve used several times is Marilyn Taylor’s learning cycle. Her work is not widely published but there is a reference in this PDF on Adult Learning (see page 51). You can also read about the model in Making Sense of Adult Learning.

Taylor observed university students in classrooms, and saw a pattern of Disorientation, Exploration, Reorientation, Equilibrium. Each stage took different periods of time with each student, and not all students completed a full cycle during a formal course. The successful students were the ones who could work through the entire process and continue into another cycle. When students are shown the cycle, many get an “ah ha ” moment and realise that their confusion (disorientation) is quite normal.


According to Taylor, disorientation is a natural state in formal education:

Stage 1 – Disorientation: The learner is presented with an unfamiliar experience or idea which involves new ideas that challenge the student to think critically about his/her beliefs and values. The learner reacts by becoming confused and anxious. Support from the educator at this point is crucial to the learner’s motivation, participation and self-esteem.

Working and learning in our information-rich environments with constantly changing tools and business rules presents us with frequent periods of disorientation. As learning specialists, one of our roles should be to help people with their disorientation and exploration. Our first step should be to communicate that disorientation is quite normal. This may be a greater task than it appears because even acknowledging personal disorientation could be professional suicide in certain organisational cultures.

I think that we should be helping people adapt to life in perpetual Beta.


In information intensive work environments (which are almost everywhere), there will be longer, and more frequent, periods between disorientation and reorientation. That means that we have to be comfortable exploring options and possibilities, even though we lack a solid mental framework or easy solutions. Artists do this all the time and now it’s necessary for all of us.

12 Responses to “Disorientation in Learning”

  1. Marco Polo

    Reading this, I was reminded of Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years: A Scheme by William Perry. You can read a good introduction on Ed Nuhfer’s excellent Nutshell Notes, starting with Vol 7 issue 7 and those immediately following.
    From least mature to higher levels of undergraduates’ development these [stages of intellectual growth] are: (1) dualism; (2) early multiplicity; (3) late multiplicity; and (4) contextual relativism….The dualistic thinker has certainty that there are right and wrong answers to every problem. A “good teacher” will be seen by dualistic thinkers as one who provides absolute authority as a source of knowledge, and an ability to clearly convey “the truth.” Students see their role as receiving information and demonstrating that they have learned the right answers…. Students in early multiplicity begin to realize that some important real life questions just don’t have unique right and wrong answers. … The stage of late multiplicity arrives when students begin to discern and value good evidence as opposed to mere opinion and feelings…. Contextual relativism is reached when students are able to distinguish reliable information from the ideals of infallibility and absolute truth. At this stage, students can distinguish that, while a situation might not be suited for generating strict right or wrong solutions, there are nevertheless degrees of reasonable and unreasonable methods that can be employed, and these are likely to generate appropriate or inappropriate solutions accordingly. In short, knowledge is seen as contextual…

  2. Harold

    Perry’s model is similar to Kieran Egan’s framework. Egan, in The Educated Mind, puts forth these types of understanding for individuals and collective groups:

    1. Somatic understanding
    2. Mythic understanding
    3. Romantic understanding
    4. Philosophical understanding
    5. Ironic understanding

    More info on Wikipedia.

  3. Stephen Downes

    Taylor has been reading Kuhn, who describes scientific progress in almost exactly the same way.

    Or perhaps she’s been reading about Boltzmann mechanisms in connectionist systems, which propose a similar model (but with slightly different terminology).

    It constitutes one way people learn. There are other associationist mechanisms that contribute as well.

  4. Michael Hanley

    Hi Harold – fascinating post.

    It seems to me that Ms. Taylor’s model shares many of the characteristics of Kolb & Fry’s Four Stage Experiential model, and interestingly, I noted that the Disorientation phase of her model is similar to Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The ZPD is the liminal state between a learner’s current development level and the learner’s potential level of development.

    In terms of a learners’ cognitive development, Vygotsky’s argues that learning precedes development. As developmental processes lag behind learning processes, less experienced or developed individuals can often carry out tasks with the help of others when they could not accomplish these tasks independently.

    Would you agree that Ms. Taylor’s model illustrates a recursive process (the “aha! moment”) – as in Kolb’s and Fry’s four-stage cycle, and the concept of the ZPD?

    More importantly, have you any views on how can we as educators, can best exploit the existence of this liminal state to support learning?

    Best Regards,
    Michael Hanley

  5. Harold Jarche

    Dorothy MacKeracher, my M.Ed. thesis advisor, wrote this about Taylor’s model:

    “I sometimes introduce Taylor’s model in a course when I sense that many learners have become confused and are convinced they are not smart enough to be in the class. By introducing the model, I provide them with an easy way to re-enter the dialogue with others and share their concerns…. The most frequent response [to Taylor’s model] is: “Why didn’t you tell us this would happen? I thought I was the only one who was confused and anxious. I thought I was crazy (or stupid).”
    — MacKeracher, D. (1996). Making Sense of Adult Learning. Toronto, Ontario: Culture Concepts.


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