How Have Competencies Evolved And What Did It Take To Get There? | Jonathan Martin | 5 Min Read

A perhaps-underappreciated aspect of Mehta and Fine’s excellent 2018 book, In Search of Deeper Learning, is its thoughtful attention to double-loop learning.  Borrowing from the work of Chris Argyris, Mehta and Fine explain that many of the schools leading the way in school reinvention are skilled in “single-loop learning,” defined as “getting better within one’s existing paradigms and goals.”  These programs establish a lofty vision, compelling philosophy, and thoroughly aligned and articulated policies and procedures for their educational design — and often are succeeding by their own lights.  At the model “No Excuses” school described by Mehta and Fine, time is rarely wasted, students are increasingly on task, and test scores are on the rise; at what they refer to as “Dewey High,” student engagement surpasses that of most schools, and student work-product exhibitions shine. 

That’s good, and at the same time, it’s not enough.  What’s required for excellence, these authors suggest,  is “double-loop learning,” which “requires questioning fundamental goals and paradigms.”  It isn’t enough to fulfill the organization’s challenging ambitions; at the very same time, those leading learning must confront the limitations of their model and ambition, and envision what lies beyond it. 

This isn’t easy– after all, as Mehta and Fine explain, schools that commit themselves to a particular thematic approach define themselves almost as much as by what they are not as by what they are — “making it difficult to incorporate part of the other into their approach.”  To their credit, however, through their thorough examination of these schools, and the penetrating interviews they conducted with the school-leaders, Mehta and Fine reveal the ways in which the best of these programs, in their view,  are engaging in double-loop learning, the ways in which they are “questioning their fundamental goals and paradigms.”  

Their model “No Excuses” school is, they explain, partially letting go of its initially strict parameters for tight classroom direction (every moment accounted for), and seeking to strengthen student self-direction and expand project-based learning for which their original vision had little room; at “Dewey High,” (which is almost certainly California’s High Tech High), “conventional data should not [any longer] be considered a four-letter word,” with testing results and college-success rates now being factored into school improvement initiatives.   (These are just the capsule descriptions of double-loop learning in these programs; the book thoroughly elaborates upon these capsules, and future columns may return…

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Jonathan Martin

Jonathan E. Martin taught at and led schools in California and Arizona from 1989 to 2012; over the past decade he has been a writer, school consultant, and professional development provider to more than a hundred schools and thousands of educators in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and New Zealand. His affiliations have included EdLeader21, OECD PISA, NWEA, NAIS, Mastery Transcript Consortium, Blackbaud, Enrollment Management Association, CWRA, and Think Through Math. He is the author of Reinventing Crediting for Competency-Based Education (Routledge Press, 2020), as well as scores of e-books, special reports, and white papers over the past 10 years. He currently directs professional learning for a global not-for-profit educational organization.