Second Order Learning, Coaching and Change
By Alan Sieler

In The Dance of Change, Peter Senge has written: "Look ahead 20 or 30 years. Does anyone expect the next 20 years to be less tumultuous than the last 20 years? … One thing is reasonably certain: continuing challenges will tax our collective abilities to deal with them". Rapid and unexpected change has become a permanent part of the business landscape. Adapting to such change has become an integral feature of organisational life. But what is meant by "change"? Essentially, we take it to mean that our ways of doing things (practices) will no longer be effective. Our skills and strategies become less relevant, even obsolete. Change requires us to engage in different behaviour by learning different practices, skills and strategies. In short, successful change is when we are able to go about doing things differently and more effectively.

Humans have always had to adapt to changing circumstances. However, what we are faced with now is not just change. We are now dealing with change that is unprecedented in its speed and frequency. If change is about learning, then faster and more frequent change is going to require faster and more frequent learning. If this is the case, then the question is "How?" We may be able to learn new skills and strategies, but how long before these become obsolete and then what do we do?

We claim that it is imperative to move to a higher order of learning, which we will refer to as "second order learning". This form of learning is at the heart of an approach to coaching (Ontological Coaching) that is applicable for individuals, teams, business units and organisations. We will commence outlining the nature of second order learning by speaking about first order learning.

Why is it that we often find ourselves stuck in dealing with problematic circumstances (i.e. issues and breakdowns we can’t resolve)? Why do the same difficulties continue to frustrate us and limit our effectiveness in our professional and personal lives? Typically, we might respond to these questions by saying "Because others won’t change" and/or "Because we don’t know how to deal with them?" In other words we have not been successful in changing our own behaviour or the behaviour of others so that we can get more satisfactory outcomes.

This line of thinking is what we refer to as "first order learning". In this approach to learning we operate from a simple equation that our behaviour determines the results we get: behaviour/action -> results. Thus, if we want to get better results then behaviour must change. How do we change behaviour? Well, we have to think of different ways we can take action. Or, if we are not able to do that then we find someone to teach us new skills and strategies. We claim that this is our traditional approach to learning, on which systems of education and training are based. It has been, and will remain, an important approach. However, we claim that first order learning alone is no longer sufficient in times that demand rapid change. In the business world, remaining in the mindset of first order learning could result in major breakdowns.

Let’s return to the questions we posed earlier. Why is it that we often find ourselves stuck in dealing with problematic circumstances (i.e. issues and breakdowns we can’t resolve)? Why do the same difficulties continue to frustrate us and limit our effectiveness in our professional and personal lives? Our response to this question is "Because we are limited by how we are observing". This response takes us into the territory of second order learning.

The notion of the observer is central to second order learning. The only world we can possibly know is the world we observe. And the world we observe is not just what our senses tell us, it is also how we use our imagination and creativity. Thus, the world we observe is also the world of possibilities. Seeking better solutions to our problems means that we want to intervene (take action) to change what is happening. However, we cannot intervene in a world that can’t observe, and thus we are always limited by our ways of observing.

We can only take action from how we are observing; i.e. how we perceive circumstances informs us how to behave. As a different form of thinking, second order learning focuses on how the way we observe circumstances determines the outcomes we get. Thus we have a different equation: observer -> behaviour/action -> results. It is no longer sufficient to simply observe behaviour; it is important to begin to observe how we observe.

What do we mean by observing? Essentially we are referring to the interpretations we have of the situations we are in. Second order learning is about observing (i) the interpretations we have, (ii) the impact they have on our behaviour, and (iii) how to shift into more powerful interpretations (i.e. that generate more effective actions). We become observers of the structure and process of our own observing.

This leaves us with the question of "How?" Our response is "Through distinctions". We can only observe a world that we can distinguish. Our learning in life has provided us with a detailed set of distinctions, from which we observe and form our interpretations. Many times we do not observe what is in front of us because we do not have the distinctions. For example, if we are in a tropical forest with a botanist, he or she would be able to observe many features of flora that we are blind to. Our distinctions will also generate different interpretations. For example, different diagnosis and treatment of a patient by a doctor trained in Chinese medicine compared to a doctor trained in Western medicine.

A nineteenth century philosopher once said, "We don’t see how things are, we see them according to how we are". We observe from our "Ways of Being" (i.e. how we are) and second order learning is utilising distinctions to observe how our interpretations are indicative of our Ways of Being. In Ontological Coaching we work with three broad sets of distinctions to support people to observe and shift their interpretations:

  1. Language. Our language does more than describe reality, it also generates it. We can observe how we use language by observing our interpretations, for these are the private conversations ("chatter") going on continually inside our heads. A coach can show people how to observe and shift how they use language to generate more constructive realities that produce more effective actions.
  2. Moods and emotions. Easily overlooked or dismissed, these drive our behaviour. They are "predispositions for action", yet our learning has rarely supported us to see how we can shift our moods and emotions to generate better results.
  3. The body. Again, rarely acknowledged, yet crucial, for this refers to how we embody our interpretations, and the power of subtle shifts in posture and body configuration for producing more productive interpretations. Change, be it individually, a team, or organisationally, is about all three areas of language, emotions and body shifting.

In a world or rapid change and the demand for rapid learning, we claim that generative learning is indispensable. Generative learning is when the observer is able to observe and change his or her interpretations, and through this generate different and more effective ways of taking action. In other words, they become appropriately creative in coming up with suitable strategies and becomeproducers of their own competencies.

We see generative learning to be imperative in the development of a learning organisation that is sufficiently flexible and adaptive to the demands of its environment. The role of coaches in this process will be vital. These will be people who embody second order learning, capable of generating more powerful interpretations to produce more effective actions, also highly effective in developing the same capacity in others.

"The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds." 
R. D. Laing

© Newfield Institute



Coaching to the Human Soul is Alan Sieler's pioneering work in providing a brilliant articulation of Ontological Coaching. LEARN MORE »


Experience truly transformational meditation with these three CDs. LEARN MORE »


Keep up to date with the latest in ontological thinking. Receive updates on programs and events as well as articles and case studies.