Triple Loop Learning

by Philip Boxer
I have always found Kolb’s experiential learning cycle a useful way of approaching the place of reflection in learning, for example in reflective learning, learning as a subversive activity, or judging the quality of development. But despite its being named as an experiential cycle, I never found it well rooted in the being of the person doing the learning. In what follows, I propose two ways of short-circuiting the cycle in order to more clearly distinguish learning rooted in the learner’s way of being. This can be done by introducing a gap between expectations and experience as an outcome from the concrete experience of the learner themselves:
cycle1
Three different kinds of response are identified to this gap, providing a useful way of distinguishing between single-, double- and triple-loop learning: [1,2]

  • Single loop: the gap is feedback to the way an existing plan is being used, improving the plan. For example in quality programmes measuring the deviation in outputs from the norm. The expectations against which the gap is identified are set by the intent behind the particular way in which the plan is being used. For example, was the treatment that had been planned for the patient carried out effectively?
  • Double loop: the gap is feedback to the efficacy of the approach itself, leading to improvements, refinements and adaptations to the approach. The expectations against which the gap is identified are set by the intent behind the formation of the approach itself. For example, were the right assumptions used in the way the care plan was itself constructed to treat these kinds of condition?
  • Triple loop: the gap is feedback on the effects generated in the situation experienced, whether or not those effects are consistent with the intent behind the approach and its application. The expectations against which the gap is identified are set by the nature of the dilemmas experienced within its larger context. For example, did the outcome for the patient suggest that a different approach needed to be adopted in the way care plans were constructed for these kinds of situation in order to address the emergent dilemmas more effectively?

The difference between double-and triple-loop is subtle here. If we approach our expectations of the concrete experience in terms of supply-side and demand-side perspectives, then it is the demand-side perspective that distinguishes triple-loop learning, placing the primary emphasis on the value deficit associated with the asymmetric demand in the situation itself, the asymmetry being understood in terms of emergent dilemmas.[3] The purpose of the ‘plus-one’ exercise is to provide a means of getting at what these dilemmas might be, and to identify their underlying impossibilites that may then drive network interventions..

Footnotes
[1]. A constructivist perspective on triple loop is to be found in Peschl, M. F. (2007). “Triple-loop learning as foundation for profound change, individual cultivation, and radical innovation: construction processes beyond scientific and rational knowledge.” Constructivist Foundations 2(2-3): 136-145.
[2]. It was Argyris who popularised double loop: Argyris, C. and D. A. Schon (1974). Theory-in-Practice: increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
[3]. To give more precision to this distinction, we will need to look more deeply into the nature of reflexive process.

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