Second Order Learning

By Chris Chittenden

"Learning is an assessment made by an observer comparing the capacity of effective action of an individual according to some standards in two moments in time."

... The Newfield Group

This article originally appeared in a newsletter in 1997. It has been updated in 2013.

A great deal of learning stems from a simple process. An individual takes action, whether transparent or not, that leads to some outcomes. The individual can assess those outcomes and associate the value of the action with their assessment. If the assessment is a positive one, they will most likely repeat the action in a similar situation. If the assessment is a negative one, it is likely the action will not be repeated. For example, if i put my hand on a hot surface and the outcome is pain, it is likely I would not take a similar action knowingly again. This process of learning is what is termed "First Order Learning" and is based on the premise that learning comes from observing an action and assessing the result. This is the basis of standard problem solving techniques and proves extremely valuable for resolving many breakdowns in life.

However, there can be more to learning than just assessing our actions. For example, we could question why we took the action in the first place. Here it is useful to go back to the idea of a breakdown. From an ontological perspective, we take actions to address our breakdowns in the context of our core concerns in life . In other words, what is a breakdown for me is dependent on the observer I am. What is a breakdown for me may well not be a breakdown for someone else or may be a different breakdown. Therefore the actions I see as possible are limited by my interpretation of the breakdown. This opens up another possible level of learning, what is termed "Second Order Learning", because I can now question the observer I am. I can ask myself the question, "What is it about my way of being that I see the situation this way?"

By asking this question, I also call into question my interpretation of the breakdown and can consider new interpretations of the breakdown to provide me with new possible actions and hence the possibility of learning.
For example, if I have a story that sales in my company are down because of a poor marketing campaign, then the actions I will see as possible will most likely be in the marketing domain. I am limited by the observer I am, which is manifest in my opinion about what caused the breakdown. However, if I bring in a consultant to help me with improving my sales, they might question my assessment that the breakdown is caused by the marketing campaign. If they can provide strong evidence of other factors, I may change my story about the breakdown and as a result I might take different actions and achieve a different result. Through conversations with the consultant, I can now observe more factors affecting sales and this has expanded my possible range of actions. I have new “distinctions ” and have become a different observer.

However, we do not always require other people to help us to redefine our breakdowns. As the observer I am, I will have breakdowns about certain events and not others. Hence, I can go a step further and question my way of being and how I observe. To do this, I must first develop an awareness of how I observe in the first place. From an ontological coaching perspective, this means examining my way of observing through the distinctions in the domains of language, mood, emotion and body. I can ask the question, "What is it about my use of language, my emotional life and physical being that has me see this as a breakdown?" I can look at my assumptions about how the world should be.

Let’s go back to the sales example. Let's say I have a story about myself that I have no responsibility regarding poor sales. It is not my fault but the fault someone else. Added to this, every time the possibility is raised with me that I might be contributing to the problem, I get angry. In this situation my way of being, and in particular my emotional response, limiting the possibilities I can see and where I could take new actions to address the amount of sales. It is also likely that my anger is impacting on whether others will voice their view of my role in the situation also limiting different actions organisationally.

Such limitations are born from my way of being and limiting my awareness of different options and therefore what I can choose to do differently. It is in this domain that an ontological coach comes into her or his own.

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© 1997 2013 Chris Chittenden