Saturday, July 08, 2017

Teaching Smart People How to Learn (Book 8 of 30)

Title:  Teaching Smart People How to Learn
Author: Chris Argyris

Technically, this isn't a book.  It's an article published in the Harvard Business Review but it's also published as a tiny pocket book (smaller than some smartphones).

Chris Argyris is best known for his double-loop learning concept and his work on organizational learning in general.  This article was initially published in 1991, which makes me think that a lot of the literature on organizational learning may predate the early knowledge management classics which came out in the late 1990's.

This is all about how people think, how people learn, how to get people to reflect on their experience so that they learn.  It's also about why we often fail to learn.

"...most people define learning too narrowly as mere "problem solving," so they focus on identifying and correcting errors in the external environment.  Solving problems is important.  But if learning is to persist, managers and employees must also look inward.  They need to reflect critically on their own behavior, identify the ways they often inadvertently contribute to the organization's problems, and then change how they act.  In particular, they must learn how the very way they go abut defining and solving problems can be a source of problems in its own right [hence the double loop learning]." (p. 2 of the 2008 tiny book version)
I have encountered this countless times over the past 9 years of facilitating Pause and Learn sessions (group reflection activities).  Single loop learning often results in blaming a problem on someone else, or a system, a policy.  In some cases, however, it takes only one person in the group to model self-reflection for the entire session to become more meaningful and to reach out for double-loop learning.  As the facilitator, I can't just tell the group, "okay, enough single loop learning, let's try to go for double loop now," but I can sow the seeds in the planning meeting and in setting the ground rules for the meeting as well as by using probing questions.  The key with probing questions is to trigger the double loop thinking and not trigger a defensive mechanism.

Why I like this book/article?

This doesn't age.  It's a timeless classic.  It will remain useful years from now, perhaps even more useful in time, as we get swept up in the advances of AI, cognitive computing and all types of new technological advancements that will challenge our role as humans.  As far as my lifetime is concerned, critical thinking and self-reflection will remain essential.  Perhaps robots can do single-loop learning.  But can they do double-loop learning? I don't think so.  This might be a good selling point:  Don't want your job to be taken over by robots?  You need double-loop learning.


  • Read about advances in AI, cognitive computing, etc... and build an argument for the continued value of human critical thinking skills and things like double-loop learning.
  • Develop a presentation about double-loop learning and reflective practice for incorporation into training modules.

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