Vertical Learning
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Vertical Learning

Triple-Loop Learning

In Seeking Mountains; Will Travel, I describe a vertical learner as someone who develops advanced learning skills and greater curiosity, insight, and perspective over time. With these increases in curiosity and insight, vertical learners naturally grow to learn about themselves, eventually aligning both who they are and the world around them to a set of core values.

I start with this description for two reasons. First, it explains why we should learn vertically. Second, it describes what outcomes to look for to determine if we are learning vertically. But once we know where we are trying to go, I like to switch to another description—one that explains how we are going to get there.

The other way to describe a vertical learner is as someone who uses triple-loop learning to develop advanced learning skills. The phrase “triple-loop learning” has been used by different researchers in different contexts. I am using the phrase here simply to describe a process in which mental models are applied and revised using three separate feedback loops.

Mental models

According to constructivist learning theory, we naturally make sense of our experiences by constructing mental models—internal theories we develop to explain what has happened and to predict what will happen.

Imagine you attend your first meeting at a company where you are newly hired. Early in the meeting, your boss asks you to share your thoughts on an agenda item. A colleague, who has been especially loud and vocal, promptly disagrees with your opinion. How do you respond? Do you laugh it off, fire back, or take a lower profile?

Even though this is a new position at a new company, and you have little information on your new colleagues and the company culture, you still have to decide what to do next. Sure, you could maintain a neutral stance until you can gather more information, but that is still a decision—one you’d be making because, running through your options, you think it might result in the best outcome.

Whenever we make a decision—and we make thousands of decisions every day—we use mental models. Faced with a new colleague loudly disagreeing with you in a meeting in front of your boss, you reach for theories that you’ve used to explain similar situations in the past. Maybe he’s challenging you because he’s insecure and feels the need to be the center of attention. As the new guy, you’ve been unintentionally standing in his spotlight.

Although you don’t have enough data to draw any kind of conclusion, the theory fits. Moreover, you happen to have a theory for dealing with insecure colleagues who feel the need to be the center of attention. Because you have mental models constructed over many years to understand people and office dynamics, you are able to decide on a reasonable course of action.

Fitting reality into a mental model

In constructivist learning theory, the process of fitting reality into a mental model is known as assimilation. We fit reality into existing mental models because it enables us to make sense of situations quickly, especially when we don’t have enough information to know what is really happening.

You’ve encountered loud and vocal people in meetings before. Sometimes they are insecure and feel the need to be the center of attention. But as you get to know your colleague a little better, you begin to realize this particular theory doesn’t fit. What other theories do you have to explain his behavior? Is he trying to undermine you because he feels threatened by you? Is he the type of person who simply likes to stir up drama?

Fitting reality into our existing mental models is single-loop learning. In the case of your colleague, you initially fit him into one theory. However, as you act on that theory and gather more information over time, you realize he fits another theory better. Your thinking about him changes as you fit him into different theories, but the existing theories you use to make sense of people and office dynamics in general aren’t changing.

In single-loop learning, we use feedback from the outcomes of our decisions and predictions to revise how we make sense of a situation using our mental models; however, the mental models do not change.

Revising mental models to fit reality

If you eventually discover none of your existing mental models can explain or predict your loud and vocal colleague adequately, you have a few options. You can construct a new mental model just for this one colleague; you can revise your existing mental models to try to account for these anomalies; or you can ignore and live with the errors.

In constructivist learning theory, the process of revising a mental model to account for anomalies and fit reality is known as accommodation. We don’t accommodate as frequently as we assimilate because real-world data tends to be noisy and revising a mental model to account for anomalies takes time and effort. However, if a mental model is consistently wrong and we detect patterns in the anomalies, we should revise the model.

Newly constructed mental models are almost always naive. Mental models only become robust and sophisticated after they’ve been revised over time. Trying to fit reality into our mental models, and then revising those models to account for anomalies and better fit reality, is double-loop learning.

In double-loop learning, we use feedback from the outcomes of our decisions and predictions to: (1) revise how we make sense of a situation using our mental models; and (2) revise the mental models themselves.

Revising our mental model for revising mental models

In triple-loop learning, a third feedback loop comes into play. Besides fitting reality into our mental models and then revising our mental models to better fit reality, we also revise how we revise our mental models.

Let’s say you tweak a few of your existing mental models to accommodate your loud and vocal colleague. A few weeks later, you need to tweak a few more mental models to accommodate your boss. Then, a few more for a different colleague. As time passes, things start to get a little unwieldy. In an effort to minimize the scope of each revision, you’ve stretched some of your mental models to their breaking points.

If a mental model is like a room in a house, we can only update a house so far by adding on or remodeling individual rooms. At some point, to address new requirements, we need to redesign and rebuild the entire house. While a complete redesign is a much bigger investment in time and resources than remodeling or adding on a single room, it does give us a chance lay down a new foundation with new wiring, plumbing, and HVAC systems. It also enables us to revisit old assumptions and design decisions instead of having to live with them and carry them forward.

Activating this third feedback loop means that, instead of focusing on one mental model at a time as anomalies appear, we learn to widen our scope and ask new questions. Is this set of related mental models internally consistent? Can I integrate these models into a coherent framework? Can I find a unifying theory to tie them all together? We start out revising rooms, but soon we learn to revise houses, neighborhoods, cities, and civilizations.

In triple-loop learning, we use feedback from the outcomes of our decisions and predictions to: (1) revise how we make sense of a situation using our mental models; (2) revise the mental models themselves; and (3) revise the mental model we use to revise mental models.

Self-realization and vertical learning

How does triple-loop learning lead us to self-realization? By widening the scope of mental model revision, we learn to construct more integrated and coherent models. Gaps and inconsistencies, which are easily overlooked when focusing on a single mental model, generate cognitive dissonance when trying to fit mental models together. We start to eliminate blind spots and gain insight.

As our capacity to rebuild our mental models grows, so does our curiosity and confidence. Essentially, we are learning that we can rebuild ourselves to take on any challenge—so we do. In the process, we get to decide what is in our core and what is inconsistent with our values. We become coherent and strategic.

Is there a fourth feedback loop? I don’t know. I guess it would depend if there is an even greater context we would need to change in order to revise our mental models further. I’ll let you know when I get there. :)



Developing active, sense-making, strategic mindsets to change the world

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