Triple loop learning and the politics of systems practice
Triple-loop learning derives from cybernetic ideas of three levels of learning introduced by Gregory Bateson in his 1972 Steps to an Ecology of Mind. The first two levels – translated in terms of single and double loops of learning respectively – have acquired significant resonance in fields of practice including cognitive sciences, action research, reflective practice, and organisational learning, particularly with the pioneering work of Chris Argyris and Donald Schön. Double-loop learning has also acquired significance in the lexicon of systems thinking and practice, possibly the most prominent exponent being Russell Ackoff. The usefulness of what Bateson refers to as learning level III and its transcription to triple-loop learning appears less evident. Bateson views level III as involving a deeper more profound learning experience. One way of distinguishing this level is that it occupies a change in Being as against a change in Doing. It invites aspects of virtue – particularly Wisdom – in being aware rather than aspects of training in doing stuff better as with acquiring Competence. ‘Operationalising’ level III in systems practice is understandably more challenging.
From a systems perspective, the essential difference between the single and double loop is that the former accepts goals as given whereas the latter involves questioning and possibly changing goals or aspirations. Such ideas resonate with purposive and purposeful systems thinking respectively. Single-loop learning is associated with what Ackoff and Emery (1972) would call goal-seeking purposive systems, whilst double-loop learning is associated with goal-searching purposeful systems. The two can be summarised by questions raised through each loop: (i) Are we doing things right? (single loop) and (ii) Are we doing the right things? (double loop).
Flood and Romm (1996) in a book entitled Diversity Management: Triple Loop Learning introduce their third loop in terms of addressing the political dimension behind learning. The question they raise is what relations of power might circumscribe particular purposes being privileged or valued, whilst other purposes are not so valued. This third dimension goes beyond looking at ‘what is the right thing’ (an essentially ethical question) towards appreciating that the right thing might appear ‘right’ because of the power invested in who espouses it (a political question). The third loop asks:
(iii) Is rightness buttressed by mightiness and/or mightiness by rightness?
This third loop of learning suggests coercive relations of power associated with either domination of (a) ‘decision makers’ – those in authority with control over resources associated with a situation – expressing ‘mightiness’; for example, through corporatism or capitalism, or conversely (b) ‘experts’ – those with particular expert judgements associated with a situation – expressing notions of ‘rightness’; for example, though economism or fundamentalisms. These expressions of coercion can sometimes be referred to in terms of (a) decisionism (power over resources such as money – plutocracy) and (b) technocentrism (power with specialist professional knowledge – expertocracy) respectively.
The relative failure of triple-loop learning to gain traction in systems practice triggers questions regarding potential loss of deeper understanding of Learning III provided by Bateson. This paper explores the potential of a wider cyber-systemic space embracing three core systems concepts – interrelationships, perspectives, and boundaries – for making explicit the value base and political dimensions of systemic learning. Using a case-study of pedagogic innovation at the Open University, triple-loop learning is explored as part of a more politically informed teaching of systems thinking in practise; retrieving in turn the virtue of wisdom.