The Double-Loop Learning Model

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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How do we learn from our mistakes?

Regardless of our career path, at some point we all make mistakes.

The challenge for those who choose to be teachers is, that the people they choose to be working with may get a second chance later on in life, but the stakes are too high during our formative years at school. This pressure to perform before the age of 18 leaves some of our young people behind and places undue pressure on our teaching population.

However, those who choose to be teachers, sign up for this challenge.

In a lovely little pocketbook, The Decision Book offers 50 models for strategic thinking; something I have written about before. There are some brilliant ideas inside for middle school leaders.

Inside, there is an interesting chapter on how to learn from your mistakes.

Having made many mistakes, I have also written about this before, exposing some of the fundamental things I did not do well in my life as a school leader. I was also thinking about this over the weekend, pondering on how best I could support aspiring and current school leaders to work better.

Some of the key mistakes I made were: grading lessons, designing methodologies to conduct reliable work scrutiny, failing to turn up for an observation –  thankfully, I only ever did this once in my career, and I never forgave myself.

Others include screaming at the top of my voice and failing to speak up around the leadership table at critical moments. I think all school leaders have been in this position at some point in their career. We are all human. We all make mistakes. The best wisdom I have ever received, with disclaimers, is to ‘make as many mistakes as possible, but not to commit the same mistake twice’.

What is the Double-Loop?

In The Decision Book, the chapter on ‘The Double-Loop Learning Model’ offers some advice.

Learning from our mistakes; this type of learning involves reflecting on your actions and moving forward from them. Something we all try to do. It sounds simple, but it is sometimes impossible, particularly in teaching when we are so consumed with deadlines and to-do lists.

We know in schools which promoting coaching, and protect the time for purposeful conversations, teachers perform better.

The double-loop theory is based on the work of Heinz Vonz-Foerster (an Austrian American scientist) and Niklas Luhmann (a German sociologist) – and the idea of ‘second-order observation’.

In essence, first-order observers see things as they appear to us. Second-order observers attribute what the first order observers see to how they see it.

In other words, second-order observers observe a way of observing.

Observe a way of observing…

In my observational experiences, especially when we watched back lesson observations on video, particularly zooming in on the feedback conversations provided, we would watch closely as the observer provided the feedback to a teacher.

When I conduct coaching in schools, particularly on introducing coaching culture, one of the key processes is the moderation phase. This stage involves teachers taking a turn to act as an observer of the process. It’s quite transformational. It’s important to reduce observational bias too; there’s a simple try-it-yourself CPD model to try.

Put simply, first-order observers are unaware of their own way of observing. By recognising these blindspots, second-order observers develop more knowledge to support the process. About two or three years ago in my doctoral studies, I discovered the Tuning Protocol which is an excellent academic framework for developing critical friendships. Part of the process models developing this second-order observation, and is incredibly powerful.

When it comes to making mistakes, I do wonder if more school leaders, in particular, had a coach alongside them as part of their day job.

Imagine if our school leaders were given the time to readily reflect on the choices that they make. This will at least help anticipate potential mistakes, or at least observe how mistakes are made in order to ensure they don’t happen again.

If we want to change something, it is not enough to create guidelines for colleagues. Change happens when we have time to reflect on our reasons, our objectives and values. Here lies the challenge for all teachers working in a time-poor industry…


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