Learning about learning, one loop at a time

Learning (ideally) happens at different levels. I am going to go into single, double and triple loop learning (based on the work of Chris Argyris and Donald Schon) to illustrate this:

At the most simple level, we do something and a result occurs (YAY). Even better if it is the one we actually had in mind. We know this because we compared and then adjusted. That is single loop learning. Action leading to result, some refinement, another round of action.

single loop

This is not a bad start, but has a few downsides. Life isn’t always that simple (sorry). Single loop learning is great for things that are pretty linear, it addresses symptoms really well, but doesn’t get at root causes. And wouldn’t it be neat to be able to address these rather than single-looping round and round the symptoms? Enter loop number two.

Here, we add something to loop one and check our assumptions that led to that action (re-starting loop 1). We then loop back from the result to the assumption. Much better. This is a reminder that reality is not divorced from our assumptions we hold about it, and that these shape our actions. We can then start to untangle things in a way that is a bit more helpful in a reality that has some degree of complexity.

double loop

Things that come in handy for that: Self-awareness, honest feedback and responsibility. Pattern recognition also helps. These are my assumptions. I worked decades to build these, I own these (and therefore I am going to be the one taking a closer look to possibly dismantle or upgrade a few of these – about time probably).

But context? I hear you say. Yes, you are of course right. None of this happens in a vacuum. Context matters. And looking at this and connecting it to our actions and learning is loop 3. The idea is that context shapes our assumptions which shape our actions (enter the other loops). The results then feed back into the context we just changed by the action we took.

triple loop

Yes, this never stops and lots of things influence or shape lots of other things. If your head is now – literally – going in circles, fear not. The positive and empowering message is, you start by changing one thing and see what that does. And then refine. This frees you up from the burden of having to know everything upfront (hardly anybody does…). It does leave you the responsibility to act though. And then reflect, loops upon loops, and then refine. Keep going. You own this…


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