The New Learning Architect: A Book Review

Clive Shepherd’s latest book, The New Learning Architect, starts out where many books for training professionals end. It responds to the learning dilemma of the 21st century, “There is more to know than can possibly be taught.”

He builds his thesis around the idea that instructional designers and training professionals will need to become learning architects, people who design environments for learning—similar to the way architects design environments for living and working.

In addition to the more traditional skills of understanding requirements, audience characteristics, content and learning constraints, it is crucial for the learning architect to stay current with instructional research and the latest technologies. It is this type of critical knowledge that can turn an order taker into an innovator who can fulfill any learning requirement.

The Learning Context

Clive Shepherd, author of The New Learning Architect

The true differentiator of the new learning architect, however, is that he or she will consider the learning context, embracing the reality that learning takes place in a continuum of settings and situations from structured training to everyday experiential learning. This is a crucial philosophy to adopt, because learning in the information age may need to be highly varied and individualized.

In keeping with this approach, Shepherd outlines the characteristics of the four learning contexts as follows:

  • Formal Learning: Structured courses, content and curriculum; professional certificates, university courses
  • Non-formal Learning: Mentoring, coaching, one-on-one approaches, on-the-job training, attending conferences, self-study courses, learning through social media platforms
  • On-demand Learning: Performance support tools, job aids, Internet searches, forums and wikis
  • Experiential Learning: Occurs naturally on the job, but can be supported through job enrichment, job rotation, performance reviews, encouraging reflection, volunteer work, travel

Top-down and Bottom-up

In The New Learning Architect, we discover that the four contexts of learning are influenced by whether they are initiated from the top down or the bottom up. Yet all four can be seen through both lenses.

Top-down learning is employer driven and its purpose is to fulfill the organization’s objectives for improved performance. Ultimately, top-down learning reduces the risk of employees under-performing. Bottom-up learning is initiated by employees out of an immediate need to know something or a desire to enhance their own knowledge and skills. Although motivations vary, bottom-up learning is quick, flexible and responsive.

You will find that the book is fairly thorough in explaining all of the four learning contexts from both perspectives. But the key take away here is that when the learning architect understands the conditions that call for each type of intervention, he or she can design, support, encourage and leverage organizational resources to make the appropriate type of learning happen or to get out of the way. This entails a new approach for the learning and development role in organizations, and may shake up those that are entrenched in thinking that formal learning is the only valid approach.

I find it commendable that Shepherd has devised a paradigm in which both top-down and bottom-up learning occur in each of the four contexts. It makes sense when you follow it through.

Profiles and Stories

One last point. While taking the reader on “a tour” of this contextual model, Shepherd intersperses profiles and stories of ten learning architects. Using real-world profiles to better explore the model is a compelling technique more typical of design books than those about learning and development. It works well here and adds a rich dimension to his ideas.


I think The New Learning Architect will appeal to a wide audience. It will certainly be of interest to those who are new to the field of learning and development. Not only does it lay out a future path for this career, but it provides solid lessons in many aspects of learning design. And for the experienced training professional or manager, the book presents a useful “whole brain” paradigm that if followed, should allow us to satisfy the needs of the 21st century workforce.

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  1. Lee Bandy says

    Hi Connie,
    Thanks for the summary of this book. I’m currently reading it on my Kindle. The four contexts of learning make so much sense from a whole brain perspective. The term learning architect resonates strongly for me as an Instructional Systems Designer. Designing innovative environments for learning is exactly how I view the “systems design” part of ISD.


  2. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Lee,
    Glad you find the book worthwhile. I agree that the whole brain approach is the most effective (IMHO). Could it be any other way? I also like the term learning architect or learning experience designer for the role of most instructional designers. You’re right, it is the “systems design” part! Thanks for taking the time to add to the discussion.

  3. Paz Gonzalo says

    We, the training professionals are at a very fluctuating point. The roles we were playing so far have been blurred, and require a new configuration. Books like Clive Shepherd’s are of great help and support for those who wish to go further with this change which could be used to enhance learning and personal development.
    Thanks Connie.

  4. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Paz,
    You’re right, roles are blurring and change is coming. I’m sure things are moving slowly in some organizations, but you can sense that change is in the air.


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