Who is in for triple loop learning?

Learning is hard. Hard to understand, hard to apply, hard to make consistent, hard to apply and change behaviour.

Learning about learning is a lot harder.

So when someone starts talking about ‘double loop learning’, eyes start rolling out. And when ‘triple loop learning’ splashes in a conversation, it ends in a circle of silence baked out of disbelief, compassion and impatience mixed with utter confusion…

Thing is: Are there genuine instances of ‘triple loop learning’ we can point to? There’s enough written about the theory of triple-loop learning but exceedingly little about when (where and how) it happens.

I can however think of a couple of examples:

  • People working hand-in-hand with the people involved in a given initiative to understand and evaluate their learning about what they’re trying to do – like the IKM-Emergent programme evaluation approach perhaps.
  • A community that has managed to work with all stakeholders in and around it to actually self-organise and find its own ways of dealing with its own wicked problems – possibly this was one of the objectives of the Millennium Villages.

Now the question is: can this be funded (by global development actors)? So far, very little chance, it seems. High risk, low certainty, extreme degree of complexity and abstraction (to start with).

But it’s, at the same time, remarkable that we haven’t yet put more attention to this if we want to be more efficient, more effective, more sustainable, scaled up and out and about…

How long before one funding agency, or one collective of people with a strong sense of agency, finds the boldness to just start an initiative that puts triple loop learning front and centre?

How long can we afford to stay at the surface of complex problems? When it’s too late?

Politicians discussing global warming (Isaac Cordal)
Politicians discussing global warming (Isaac Cordal)

Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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  1. Hello Pete,

    Thank you for the comment and sorry for the late reaction… And thank you very much for the excellent reference which I hadn’t come across. And I need to confess that I indeed hadn’t made my philosophical standpoint about triple loop learning as one firmly related to a conceptual ‘school’ of sorts.

    Now then:
    – I think apart from some interesting attributes of Bateson’s Learning III type (such as the fact it can’t be provoked and does not arise from a ‘written’ artefact but rather from other ordes such aesthetics) it does not strike me as being significantly different from learning about learning, since it is considering different sets of alternatives, and as such is learning about looking in other directions than double loop learning would urge us to do.
    – For me triple loop learning is precisely that other dimension of learning: A way to question the way we are learning beyond the sets of alternatives that we have for double-loop learning. It’s about e.g. shifting power hierarchies and thinking about what kind of learning (and ideas emerging from that learning) may happen with such a change. In a way, the DDD manifesto is among others trying to get at that kind of learning.
    – I don’t want to make a hierarchy of learning loops either (in the sense of single better than double etc.) because – inspired by the Cynefin framework – I think there are different learning approaches required for different issues. I just witness that global development deals with wicked problems and thus requires very strong, complex, far-reaching learning approaches that I argue could come from triple loop learning. We will still need single- and double- loop learning. At the end of the day, we need ‘learning’, full stop. Although in some ultra-simple routines, we just need to get the job done and probably not to think about it too much ha ha ha

    My second example is fictional – though I assume there might be such a real life example – and I don’t know enough what exactly happened with the Millennium Villages but I thought this could have been a good place to start looking for such real life examples…

    Hope this clarifies?

  2. Good introductory blog, Ewen. Two questions:
    1. As the reference shows, there are many definitions of triple loop learning. This excellent paper by Tosey summarises – and questions – two main strands – ‘learning about learning’ on the one hand and ‘A level that is beyond, and considered by proponents to be superior to, Argyris and Schön’s single- loop and double-loop learning in that it concerns underlying purposes and principles’. (http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/7446/8/Tosey_The_origins_and_conceptualisations.pdf). Where do you sit? Your blog implies both1
    2. Is your second example the Millennium Villages project, or another one?

    Pete Cranston

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