Learning theories: being smart doesn't mean you are always the best learner

Learning Theories and Self Awareness

Contemporary neuroscience is changing our learning theories and suggesting that, we very often act from habit; many of our responses are hardwired as we jump in to try to solve problems with very little awareness of whether what we say or do will achieve our desired results.

It is somewhat ironic that learning can become one of the first casualties of reactive busy environments; leaders and managers for a number of reasons don’t create time for reflective thinking. It is as if the default type of learning is "I'll do it later when I am not so busy."

In times of pressure and change this can become the “default setting” for many managers. This is the looking- the- other- way scenario, we place insufficient attention on seeing how we are impacting on others.

This lack of awareness prevents us from learning how to communicate more effectively or discovering better ways of thinking and we need to take this into account in our learning theories.

See how instructional design. takes account of learning theories here.

We know that effective people managers are better at influencing others and facilitating learning and change. We also know our emotional intelligence and particularly our self awareness is important in different types of learning and key in helping us to understand others.

Too often leaders lack these baseline skills to lead and learn effectively with consequent reduction in their influence with others.

but it not just about skills

According to Chris Agyris we have a built in resistance to change that can get in the way of our learning. One of the names used to describe this resistance is defensive reasoning.

and defensive reasoning is one reason that single loop and not double loop learning can become our favourite type of learning.

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Defensive Reasoning

What if we aren’t looking the other way? Does that mean we can learn more effectively as a manager? Well maybe...

The trouble can be that, if you see yourself as a successful senior manager you have all the rationalisation you need to justify keeping on doing exactly what you have been.

According to Chris Agyris (Harvard Business School) many of the most senior and “smartest“ people in organisations have become the worst learners.

He explains this by proposing that managers have two distinct theories of the world governing their behaviour.

Espoused theory which is our world view and values that we believe our behaviour is based on and is part of the beliefs we have and will share with others

Theory-in use which actually governs what we do in reality...

In other words, Argyris and Schon (1974) assert that people hold maps (or hardwiring) in their heads about how to plan, implement and review their actions.

Agyris's learning theories indicates this contributes to blocked learning for two reasons.

Few people are aware that the maps they use to take action are not the theories they explicitly espouse.

Also, even fewer people are aware of the maps or theories they do use.

This raises the question,

if people are unaware of the theories that drive their action (Theories-in-use), then how can they effectively manage their behaviour? Argyris (1980) suggests that effectiveness results from developing congruence between Theory-in-use and Espoused theory.

This might explain part of the efficacy of Executive Coaching; not only can it provide an opportunity for reflection, it can also help people reveal the Theory-in-use and to explore the gulf between Espoused theory and Theory-in-use .

This gulf is no bad thing. If it gets too wide then there is clearly a difficulty. But provided the two remain connected then the gap creates a dynamic for reflection and for dialogue.

Back to the “hardwiring” mentioned earlier.

After much research, Argyris concluded that no matter how genuinely we believe in some approach to a situation, at the first sign of threat, embarrassment or loss of face, most of us fall back on a deep-rooted, `master programme' of behaviour which has been termed defensive reasoning.

This behaviour, which is characterised by a powerful defensive attitude, and a tendency to blame others, whilst struggling to maintain control and save face, is surprisingly consistent across different cultures and classes.

This resistance to change and learning has not always been adequately explained in tradtional learning theories and it has a profound influence on our preferred types of learning.

Learn more about Agyris here

Defensive reasoning blocks learning as it encourages individuals to keep private the premises, inferences, and conclusions that shape their behaviour and to avoid testing them in a truly independent, objective fashion. It creates a reliance on one brain thinking.

This is an area where Coaching can be effective; it can foster the conditions where people feel secure enough to scrutinise their own beliefs and defensive reactions which actually empowers them to unblock their own learning.

They can begin to identify the inconsistencies between their Espoused and actual Theories of action. They can face up to the fact that they unconsciously design and implement actions that they do not intend.

Finally, managers can learn how to identify what individuals and groups do to create organizational defences and how these defences contribute to an organization’s problems.

Learning theories: Double Loop Learning

According to Agyris much of learning is stimulated by errors and mistakes.

He distinguishes between 2 types of learning

Single Loop Learning.

It is about using what is already known such as policies, procedures, prescedents to solve the problem. In a sense it is about a straightforward or incremental approach to the problem.

Double Loop Learning

Requires deeper thinking, and challenges some of the assumptions and premises. It looks behind the immediate problem and seeks alternatives in order to dramatically improve things.

Agyris's learning theory suggests that much of the defensive reasoning present in managers and leaders tends to promote single loop learning.

The focus of Argyris’ research has been to explore how organizations may increase their capacity for double-loop learning.

He argues that double-loop learning is necessary if organizations are to make informed decisions in rapidly changing and often uncertain times.

See how instructional design. takes account of learning theories here.

Read more on double loop learning theory

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The Success Delusion

Thanks to Marshall Goldsmith for the catchy title.

There is an old saying that "Success breeds success" and in the context of learning you could say being successful promotes a success mindset.

This is probably a good thing as far as our confidence goes. It is hard to imagine being successful without a success mindset, however it is just a perception of the world.

..and a perception that can lead to us perceiving ourselves through "rose tinted glasses" and over estimating our skills, experiences and results whilst conveniantly overlooking our falures and wasted time.

Fundamentally we believe that our past success is predictive of our future success.

In that sense it is a fantasy,

as how on earth can we possibly know for sure we will always be successful in the future?

This success delusion, may bolser our confidence but it can become a serious liability when things change and we need to learn new tricks and ways of dealing with things.

Modern learning theories based upon brain functioning suggest our thinking need not be fixed.

This mindset can be changed by an act of will, if people can see that their current behaviour threatens their goals or what they value.

It can also be changed by letting in other voices and views to balance the internal "success dialogue"

Finally it can be changed by learning and practicing the type of learning known as double loop thinking.

Agyris's double loop learning theory is a useful model to study the dynamics in organisations.

To support double loop learning a number of things need to be present:
Access to good quality data on issues
A culture of public debate and discussion on organisational issues
A sense of mutual goals
A balance between advocacy and questioning

See how instructional design. takes account of learning theories here.

More learning tips here

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