“On-Fire” Learning

The other day I commented on a blog post and referred to something called “on-fire” learning. It was a phrase that erupted from my nonconscious mind and, as the words left my fingertips, I knew I had to reflect more on what I meant by that.

On-fire learning is what the self-directed active learner does at every turn and with every opportunity, zealously looking to grow with each new experience and encounter, always seeking to improve performance. As Harold Jarche wrote, “Learning is Everywhere,” whether it results from struggling with a challenge, overcoming an obstacle, dealing with a conflict, or understanding why something has failed. On-fire learning is an informal and often social learning style, a personal attitude that reflects more passion than anything a formal training program is likely to stimulate.

The Learning Fire Triangle

In many ways, the metaphor of fire as learning is perfectly appropriate. An often-quoted phrase goes, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Timothy Pychyl discusses this at length in Psychology Today, including what he calls the, “fire triangle of motivation:” competence, autonomy and relatedness.

I see the metaphor somewhat differently from Pychyl. Just as fire is a chemical chain reaction between fuel and oxidizer that requires an ignition source to get started, so too is self-directed, “on-fire” learning.

  • The fuel for the learning fire is the set of new experiences from which learning results. The individual finds the lessons in the experiences, then evaluates, adapts, and merges them with his or her own to synthesize new knowledge. Because fuel is consumed in the process, keeping the learning fire burning requires constantly finding new experiences and learning the lessons therein. This isn’t a problem for the on-fire learner, however, because these experiences are literally everywhere he or she looks. Add online social media to the mix and this learning fire can spread quite rapidly.
  • A person’s existing knowledge and experiences are the oxidizer of the learning fire, and a surplus is required to keep it burning. Unlike a conventional fire where the oxidizer is consumed at the flame front, the learning fire generates new knowledge in the process, so there’s always a surplus to keep the fire burning.
  • Conventional fires need an ignition source to get started. This is where the metaphor gets personal, because while every person in the workplace has existing knowledge and new experiences to learn from, it seems not all fires get started. Many appear to be reluctant learners or maybe just don’t realize when they’re learning.

I can point to a specific series of events that ignited my on-fire learning mentality. Do you remember yours? How do we bring that spark to our co-workers? How can we catalyze their self-directed learning?

The Learning Fire Tetrahedron

The fire triangle is intended only to describe at a very high level how fires start, can be prevented, or extinguish as fuel is consumed or oxygen is cut off. A slightly more advanced model known as the fire tetrahedron also accounts for the chemical reaction of the fire itself. How is this important in the context of fire as a metaphor for learning?

The action of a fire suppressant is to inhibit the chemical chain reaction of the fire, suppressing or extinguishing it. In the workplace, “learning fire” suppressants are sadly often present: unnecessary conflict, demoralizing interactions, lack of appropriate motivation, unproductive practices, and even bad social media policies, to name a few. Any and all of these can stifle creative thought and inhibit learning.

There’s much to draw out of this metaphor of fire as learning (including the idea that sometimes we need to unlearn some of what we “know”), but I’ll conclude for now by noting that managers in organizations would do well to examine their policies and management practices with this in mind. It’s more important than ever to make sure we’re all doing everything possible to catalyze employee learning and, just as importantly, not inhibit on-fire learning.

Thanks for reading! @tomspiglanin


The image of fire is from Wikimedia commons and released to the public domain. The fire triangle image was adapted from Wikimedia commons artwork by user Gustavb. The fire tetrahedron image was adapted from Wikimedia commons artwork by user Gustavb and released to the public domain.

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One Response to “On-Fire” Learning

  1. Steve says:

    I really like the metaphor for fire to describe learning. I see one of the sides of the triangle as “discovery opportunity”.

    http://elearningdevnews.wordpress.com/2009/02/10/access-learning/#comment-699

    The suppressant metaphor works well in this reference as well.

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