Elements of a Successful Learning Group

Data Useful for Reflection

You can get data from all sorts of places and you can capture them in all sorts of ways. But for purposes of reflecting on your practice, make sure you have data on:

  • What you were (consciously or explicitly) trying to do
  • What you and others actually said and did
  • What you were thinking and feeling at the time
  • Those contextual factors you took into account while acting
  • The consequences (or outcomes) that concerned you most

As you start out, you will probably find it easier to spend most of your time with:

  • Written cases
  • Transcript excerpts
  • Video tape excerpts

A little dab of data ought to do you. Having some data on paper or on tape is helpful because people can more readily agree on what happened and see the data before them, reducing one level of complexity and difficulty.

As you work with one another to explore these data, however, you will necessarily generate more data. For example:

  • You will discover more as you inquire into the case writer's case or into the transcript, and you must deal with these data on-line
  • You will also generate interactions in the group that may become a “live case” that attracts your attention.

Expect that these live data will pose more challenge and therefore, keep open the possibility of coming back to them once they are transcribed.

Reflecting on action

You can use the Learning Pathways as an overarching framework to explore what happened in a case (or transcript or video). But one caveat above all others:

  • Until you develop license to make whopping attributions, start close to the data (which means)
  • Test at each rung on the ladder of inference, starting with the data you select and then building and testing each step up to your conclusions.

Also, as you are starting out, we recommend that you focus on describing and understanding what someone is doing rather than why. We are all so good at jumping to our conclusions about why people do what they do that we often overlook whether we have understood:

  • What they did
  • What they were thinking and feeling at the time
  • What contextual factors they thought they were up against
  • What they were trying to do

These are just the data that will help us develop the richest and most useful understanding of “why”. So before turning to the question of “why”, make sure you have answered these questions of “what”. Then, based on what you learn about what the other person was doing, thinking and feeling, you can together figure out the “why”.

Finally, as pedestrian as it might seem, we highly recommend frequent practice sessions in which you look at some data and use the distinctions in the Ladder of Inference to build the ability to diagnose the quality of advocacy and inquiry.

License for whoppers will be conferred once you can go up and down your own ladders of inference without missing so many rungs you systematically skid into interpersonal accidents that limit learning.

Learning Group Experiments

Another way to begin building skill in reflection is for each of you to take turns either helping a person or facilitating the group. The idea is that each of you explicitly put time and attention aside to practice something new or different. If you do try this, ask the experimenting person what they are trying to do that is new or different and take the time to debrief by considering:

  • What the person did and did not do (stay low on the ladder and avoid the temptation to simply say what you would have done differently)
  • What consequences they got and did not get (stay low on the ladder; use your own and other's reactions as data, but keep in mind that these data may say as much or more about you than the experimenter. To explore these data, make your own thinking about them explicit, i.e., say what it is about what the experimenter did or did not do that is likely to produce that impact in anyone. If you still disagree, design tests going forward to explore. Hint-Hint Corollary: do not argue back and forth at an abstract level; wastes time, energy, and produces little learning)
  • What led them to do what they did (what was the experimenter thinking and feeling at key points)
  • The implications of all of this for what they were trying to do and what they might do differently next time they experiment

Of course, these experiments might also go on outside of the group with each of you trying something new in relatively safe contexts elsewhere. You might tape or write these up after the fact (or better yet, before) and bring them to the group for reflection purposes in light of the same questions, stated above.

Suggested Reading

Argyris, Putnam, and Smith, Action Science, Chapter 12: “Developing New Frames of Reference.”
George Orwell, “The Politics of the English Language”