Leaders of learning

October 28, 2014 by Urska Zrinski

Professor Richard Elmore’s Modes of Learning Framework

Professor Richard Elmore’s Modes of Learning Framework

When we finished the 2013/2014 training season at the CEF at the end of June and the summer break was approaching, I felt inspired to go back into research about learning and to look for new or improved ways to do trainings. I joined the CEF in 2006, and since then I have designed and facilitated over 40 learning events. What I realized after a while is that I tend to design and facilitate events in a similar way that is close to or in line with my personal learning theory. As there is a whole world out there in the learning community that is growing and constantly evolving, I felt a need to push myself to test and bring to my trainings a new perspective or a strengthened understanding of how to facilitate effective and meaningful knowledge exchange.


It was at the Ljubljana airport on the way to The Hague for the OECD conference, when I discovered that Harvard X, the online learning platform of the Harvard University, was offering a massive open online course (MOOC) on learning during summer. The e-learning course “Leaders of Learning”, designed and facilitated by Professor Richard Elmore from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, gave me what I wanted: to fine-tune my own personal theory of learning, and to recognize opportunities for innovation in my own learning environment.

Professor Elmore started the course with an inspiring quote: “Learning as a social activity, as an engine of creativity and innovation, and productivity in society, is going to be exploding in the foreseeable future. And it is also going to present many, many possible alternatives for leadership and for the development of new and powerful modes of learning.” He pointed to the fact that content and knowledge providers are everywhere; learning is becoming more individualized and personalized; network or communities of practitioners are becoming new classrooms; and learning is taking place everywhere as opportunities for learning are expanding, largely as a result of digital culture, but not just because of that.

Professor Elmore developed the Modes of Learning framework which helps individuals identify their disposition toward learning or personal learning theory. He distributes modes of learning into four quadrants, using two continuum axes: hierarchical to distributed learning and individual to collective learning. Each quadrant represents what he calls an extreme version of a particular point of view about learning, while in reality most people migrate between parts of the framework and have a more nuanced learning theory. The four quadrants are the following:

  • Hierarchical individual: individuals who primarily fall into this quadrant focus on the academic content that can be measured and assessed. For them learning comes from the effort they invest in their academic work, and teachers are the ones who provide the knowledge they must acquire.
  • Hierarchical collective: individuals who primarily fall into this quadrant believe that the learner must acquire knowledge that is valued by the community, and that learning comes from working respectfully and collaboratively with others.
  • Distributed individual: individuals who primarily fall into this quadrant learn for their own benefits, to develop knowledge and skills as they want. They believe that learning is an inherent biological imperative, people never stop learning, and that sources for learning are broadly distributed throughout society, including but not limited to formal educational institutions.
  • Distributed collective: individuals who primarily fall into this quadrant learn what is of interest to them and to members of their learning network. They learn by taking both learning and teaching roles, and join different networks and communities. Success in learning for them is determined by the learning community and its members, and is based on communal interests and priorities.


Understanding one’s own theory of learning is consequential for an individual’s theory of leadership; to understand not only how one as an individual learns but also how other people learn and what effective learning looks like. As Professor Elmore says, “The fit between your theory of learning and your theory of leadership needs to be tight to find a place where your leadership can be most effective.”

Consequently, based on our own learning theory, we structure our learning environment. “It is a matter of choice of what type of organization you want to work in, what type of learning environment you want to work in. But also, you will, as a leader, be responsible for shaping that environment. So what decisions would you make for how to organize a learning environment?” points out Professor Elmore.

I think this course really made me think about how I learn, and that options for what, where, and how I want to learn are open, and it is all about choice. I fall primarily in a distributed individual quadrant where the culture of learning is a culture of play and actively seeking for new ways of learning. Apparently individuals who fall into this quadrant are also most likely to engage into online courses where they seek new knowledge and expertise. More importantly, I got a closer perspective on how different people learn when engaging in communities of practice or taking e-learning courses. As I am currently working on the design of new e-learning courses, this understanding will hopefully help me design the activities for individuals who fall into different learning quadrants to assure we can all be leaders of learning.

Note: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the CEF.