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Theory of action in practice (Part 5 in a series)

When we translate Chris Argyris’s organisational structures into the context of school improvement, our experience has shown us that two important issues emerge.

When placing Argyris’s single and double-loop modes of learning into an educational context with its web of inter-related variables, it would be easy to assume that successful teachers use double-loop learning.  However, from our own experience and observation of our colleagues, we have found that many outstanding teachers use single- loop learning to hone their highly successful theory-in-use.

These role models often work in splendid isolation, ignored by the school’s leadership because their performance transgresses that which is required of them and regarded with bewilderment by their colleagues who are awed by their level of achievement.   On the rare occasions when quizzed by their colleagues to reveal the formula for their success, they are unable to do so.  Thus, giving credence to the myth that great teachers are born and not made.

However, our observations have led us to conclude that this is because they have internalised their theory-in-use to such an extent that they know intuitively which variables to use, how they interrelate and what resulting actions they should take.  Their highly honed approach has become implicit.  Thus, they find it difficult to explain their methods. In addition, in the early years of our work we often found that there was no shared language to enable them to do so.

These observations had major significance for our work in the late 1990s, long before we became aware of Argyris and his colleagues’ work. From these we determined that for our effective knowledge-managed approach to school improvement to be successful we would need to:

  • Identify the teachers in a school who were successful at improving the performance of their students – the outstanding teachers.
  • Assist them in making their implicit knowledge explicit.
  • Provide them with a common language to do this.
  • Provide them with the social skills to transfer this knowledge to their colleagues.
  • Create the opportunity to share this knowledge with their colleagues.

Thus, these role models would become a knowledge resource for their colleagues and provide the key to improving the performance of all teachers and by default, all students in the school.  The result, as those of you who use our approach are aware, was the first programme in the OLEVI Teaching and Learning syllabus, the OLEVI Outstanding Teacher Programme (OTP).

Teachers adopt both double and single loop learning.

Our next observation is that teachers and leaders in schools do not have a preference for either single loop or double loop learning but adopt one or the other depending upon a number of factors:

  • Their own personal preference. Some teachers are very open about their work and others are closed.
  • The degree to which they are contractually expected to know something. The greater the expectation, the more likely they are to adopt single loop learning to create their theory in use.  The lower the expectation, the more likely they are to adopt double-loop over single-loop learning.
  • The performance management approach adopted by the school. A low tolerance of failure in the school’s regime makes it more likely  that staff will adopt single loop learning.
  • The degree of collaborative learning. The greater the instances of staff working together, the more likely they are to adopt double loop learning.

We are aware that these are generalisations. However, teachers are expected to know how to tutor specific areas of knowledge to their students and failure to do so is their responsibility.  It can also follow that they might be reluctant to share their knowledge with their peers when under such pressure

These observations made us realise that if our knowledge-managed approach to school improvement was to be successful, providing a series of programmes to transfer existing knowledge and create new knowledge would only provide part of the solution. In order for knowledge transfer and creation to flourish, we would also have to create the right conditions. These we defined as the capitals – moral, knowledge, social and organisation, (Berwick, 2011).

We hope that you recognise the situation we have described, and you can translate it to your own circumstances, especially when we have identified some of the reasons why you might opt for either single or double-loop learning. Your own insights will take our ideas a stage further.

Having now described how we have translated Argyris and his colleagues’ work on a theory of action into a teaching context, in our next post we outline how, using their theory of action, they extrapolate it to define how organisations learn.

Take care and stay safe



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