Learning cycle basics and more: Taking stock


It seems that, home page aside, the most popular post on this modest blog has been the one I wrote about ‘cycles, circles and ripples of learning’.

Finding light through a different reflection? Deep learning loops (Photo credits: Philippe Leroyer)

Finding light through a different reflection? Deep learning loops (photo credits: Philippe Leroyer)

Search engine queries confirm that a lot of people out there are looking for more on these dizzying learning cycles and loops.

That learning cycles were so popular was a discovery for me. I like the idea of learning cycles but never used the model much in KM training or discussions. The recent poll I organised to elect the topic of this stock-taking post confirmed the general curiosity for learning cycles. Following your wishes, here is a stock-taking post on learning cycles, but to keep it interesting and different I’m foraying into adjacent areas such as…

Kolb learning styles (source: www.businessballs.com)

Might as well begin with the beginning as David Kolb has theorised learning styles and experiential learning (1) which are at the cornerstone of learning loops and cycles. There are other authors upon which Kolb inspired his work but this is only a short visit to academic park.

The theory here distinguishes four distinct learning styles:

  • Concrete experience (related to feeling);
  • Reflective observation (watching);
  • Abstract conceptualisation (thinking);
  • Active experimentation (doing).

These learning styles are connected, in Kolb’s theory, through the following cyclical sequence:

Kolb's experiential learning cycle (graph credits: Businessballs)

Kolb contends that every person uses the four learning styles in different ways depending on their progression on a maturity path that spans acquisition (of basic abilities and cognitive structures), specialisation (towards a specific learning style) and ultimately integration (where other learning styles are also expressed / used in work and personal life). But he also contends that we cannot use two styles simultaneously so we opt for either doing or watching and then either for thinking or feeling.

At the intersection of these two dialectical sets of choices, Kolb places his theory of preferred learning styles, as shown in the table below:

Doing (Active Experimentation – AE) Watching (Reflective Observation – RO)
Feeling (Concrete Experience – CE) Accommodating (CE/AE), i.e. hands-on, intuitive, relying on others’ information, group-work focused… Diverging (CE/RO), i.e. making links between different approaches, interested in brainstorming. Emotional, group work-focused…
Thinking (Abstract Conceptualization – AC) Converging (AC/AE), i.e. with a practical focus, interested in technical problems/solutions, specialist/technological applications… Assimilating (AC/RO), i.e. logical, concise, interested in readings, lectures, analytical models…

This model has been elaborated on by Peter Honey and Alan Mumford. They relabelled the four preferred learning styles to use some labels that are more familiar to us:

  1. ‘Having an Experience’ (stage 1), and Activists (style 1): ‘here and now’, gregarious, seek challenge and immediate experience, open-minded, bored with implementation.
  2. ‘Reviewing the Experience’ (stage 2) and Reflectors (style 2): ‘stand back’, gather data, ponder and analyse, delay reaching conclusions, listen before speaking, thoughtful.
  3. ‘Concluding from the Experience’ (stage 3) and Theorists (style 3): think things through in logical steps, assimilate disparate facts into coherent theories, rationally objective, reject subjectivity and flippancy.
  4. ‘Planning the next steps’ (stage 4) and Pragmatists (style 4): seek and try out new ideas, practical, down-to-earth, enjoy problem solving and decision-making quickly, bored with long discussions.

I think this model has a lot to be argued with – any model that claims too quickly to show the truth is disputable, however useful that claim is to stimulate critical reviews and further researching limitations, gaps, edges of this theory.

More information can be found on the learning and teaching website, about learning styles: http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/experience.htm with some additional adaptations as briefly mentioned above. This resource also contain some links to critiques made on the Kolb model – in stock-taking posts I refrain from giving an opinion.

Chris Argyris / Donald Schön: theories of action, double-loop learning and organisational learning (source: Mark K. Smith – INFED)

The other heavyweights in learning cycles and styles are obviously Chris Argyris and Donald Schön, and in this extensive explanation by Mark K. Smith, we are touching the inner cords of learning loops and cycles. This is hard to summarise here but the starting point is the difference between theory and action and the fact that everyone has two theories of action: theories in use (governing our actual behaviour) and espoused theories (what we say we do). In popular terms this also relates to the saying: “do as I say (not as I do)”. Argyris argues that effectiveness comes from aligning these two theories of action.

Then comes learning (seen here as detection and correction of errors):

  • Single-loop learning comes from the fact that human beings, faced with adversity, just try to set the same governing variables in a different way – as a quest for efficiency.
  • Double loop learning is when we look at the governing variables (norms, policies, objectives) that guide our activities and our responses to events occurring. This is where effectiveness (as opposed to just efficiency) comes in.
  • In another article, another author explains that on the topic of organisational learning, Argyris is also referring to deutero learning as the awareness that (single and double-loop) learning must happen. This means identifying the learning styles and facilitating factors to understand the gap between targeted outcome and actual performance (not a very complexity-friendly theory really though).

Double-loop learning according to Argyris (graph credits: Deborah Kendell)

Argyris and Schön considered how to expand the capacity of organisations to engage in double-loop learning – as they saw this as crucial to adapt to fast-changing environments – but it is also inherently difficult because the reasoning process of individuals “inhibits exchange of relevant information”. In his study, Argyris compares two models of human behaviours and contends that almost everyone follows model 1, a model that promotes superficiality, not losing face, defensive relationships etc. as opposed to a more win-win focused model 2.

Of course a lot of this theory should also be taken with a pinch of salt and some distance with respect to its linearity and dual approach. But the bottom ideas stick around.

The author of this article also points to the fact that Argyris and Schön’s theory has been central to unearthing the role of facilitators (of learning), reflecting on and questioning the difference between the two theories of action, as opposed to individual / private learning.

All in all, this web page is probably one of the best introductions to Argyris’s work without digging out the books.

More on single, double and triple loop learning

On the topic of learning loops, the ‘Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development’ offers a short and to-the-point definition on this one-pager (PDF document):

  • Single-loop learning is understood here as following the rules – like a thermostat that only corrects temperature when it goes too low or too high.
  • Double-loop learning is described as changing the rules – where the focus is not on applying the rules but on using creativity and critical thinking to find out if the rules that you are applying are indeed most appropriate.
  • Triple-loop learning is simply referred to as learning how to learn, implying that not only should we think about applying the rules or changing them but we should think about the rules themselves. The authors also depict triple-loop learning as double-loop learning applied to double loop learning itself.

This reference has the merit of being short but thereby offers little value to apply the analogy to other contexts (if the examples provided do not make enough sense).

In the context of learning alliances (one of my hobby horses as I work with learning alliances and IRC wrote about it (2) and works a lot with this type of multi-stakeholder approach),

Double loop learning in learning alliances (graph credits: CIAT)

CIAT one of the CG centres who has pioneered learning alliances refers in the ILAC sourcebook (part 2 – tools and approaches, chapter 14 on learning alliances) to the importance of a double loop learning cycle to implement strategic actions, as depicted in the image (right here).

Then there is this interesting article ‘Transformational change in organisations’ by Mary R. Bast which focuses mainly on individuals (contrary to the organisational double-loop learning practice described in the figure above) and particularly emphasises triple-loop learning as the condition for transformational change, as opposed to incremental learning through single-loop learning and reframing through double-loop learning. This article borrows from Robert Hargrove’s Masterful coaching and explains that the essential contribution of triple-loop learning is that it paves the way for transformational change (3) – a process that essentially requires that we reassess our point of view about ourselves. Another interesting point made here is that transformational change can be hindered by single and double loop learning. This article covers, with explicit (and built-on) examples, the three types of learning loops and gives perhaps the best illustration about learning loops that I could find, even if it could have been written in a more simple manner.

Learning cycles, according to Wikipedia

Of course I shouldn’t afford not to mention what Wikipedia has to say about learning cycles… in this case not very much (nor to the point) as it goes on about a research-supported method for education looking successively at engaging, exploring, explaining, extending and evaluating… ah, when the wisdom of the crowd becomes the wastedump of the proud…

Learning and KM in the development sector, a KM4DEV discussion

And finally, although this wiki entry could be a bit more structured, it offers a number of very valuable insights into the topic of learning and touches upon the learning loops (particularly by Irene Guijt).

I hope that these references provide a bit more information about this topic of learning cycles. As usual, feel free to point to more relevant resources…

In the meantime, I’ll be working on my next stock-taking post, either about complexity theories or about facilitation tools and approaches. What say you?

Notes:

One of the key references that is not mentioned here but was talked about in the previous post on learning cycles is the article (PDF) that Marleen Maarleveld and Constant Dangbégnon wrote, where they refer extensively to triple-loop learning.

In-text notes:

(1) Experiential Learning: Experience As The Source Of Learning And Development was published in 1984

(2) The book that IRC authors wrote about learning alliances in the water sector is available here.

(3) Transformational change is described as: “…empowering people to transform who they are and reinvent themselves by helping them to see how their frames of reference, thinking, and behavior produce unintended consequences… to surface and question the way they have framed their points of view about themselves, others, or their circumstances with the idea of creating a fundamental shift”

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2 thoughts on “Learning cycle basics and more: Taking stock

  1. Hello Dalal,

    Thank you for your comment – feedback is ever valuable as it helps us all realise what we should keep doing and what we should adapt. I am glad this helps!
    What are you studying now?
    All the best and keep giving feedback around!
    Cheers,

    Ewen

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