Teaching Organizational Learning, Part 1

Chris Argyris, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, has made significant contributions to the development of organizational learning theory and experiential learning.

Any company that aspires to succeed in the tougher business environment …must first resolve a basic dilemma: success in the marketplace increasingly depends on learning, yet most people don’t know how to learn. What’s more, those members of the organization that many assume to be the best at learning are, in fact, not very good at it.

(Argyris, C. 1991)

Over the next few posts (taking digressions where appropriate) I will examine the significance of his work (focusing in particular on single-loop and double-loop learning) on organizational learning systems.

Today however, I will begin by reminding you of the basis for Chris Argyris’ work: Constructivism.

In her comprehensive reference text Psychology of learning for instruction, Marcy Driscoll describes Constructivism as having

…multiple roots in psychology and philosophy, among which are the cognitive and developmental perspectives of Piaget, the interactional and cultural emphases of Vygotsky and Bruner, the contextual nature of learning, the active learning of Dewey, the epistemological discussions of von Glasersfeld and the paradigm and scientific revolutions of Thomas Kuhn.

(1994, p.375)

Constructivism is an approach to learning based on the premise that cognition, or learning, is the result of mental construction: it is an active process in which learners construct new ideas, skills and behaviors based upon their prior and current knowledge, behavior and skill assets. The learner transforms information, constructs knowledge, and makes decisions based upon extant cognitive structures or mental models. These cognitive structures – what Roger Schank calls “scripts” in his Dynamic Memory Model (1982) – provide meaning and organization to experiences and allow the individual to go “beyond the information given” (Bruner, 1974).

Even though there are numerous interpretations of constructivism, several central concepts inhabit all constructivist theories. Cunningham and Duffy (1996) identified two major similarities that are the foundation of all constructivist thought. They are that “learning is an active process of constructing rather than acquiring knowledge” and “instruction is a process of supporting that construction rather that communicating knowledge” (1996, p.172). Bruner’s 1966 text Toward a Theory of Instruction described the key principles of constructivism (p.225):

Table 1 Principles of constructivism




Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the student willing and able to learn

Spiral organization


The content must be structured so that it can be grasped by the learner.


Material must be presented in the most effective sequences.


“Going beyond the information given” – Instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation and or fill in the gaps

Extending from these basic constructivist principles as well as from the work of other key figures in the constructivist school, Driscoll (1994) outlines five conditions for learning (p.382-3). Very much like the multiple approaches and interpretations that exist in constructivism, a number of conditions must be met for the approach to be implemented in the organizational learning context. It is useful to elaborate briefly on these conditions, as they are relevant to the learning approach discussed in the rest of this series of posts.

…and I will do this next time.



Argyris, C. (1991) Teaching Smart People How to Learn. Harvard Business Review Reflections 4(2). [Internet]. Available from: https://hbr.org/1991/05/teaching-smart-people-how-to-learn [Accessed 12 October 2017]

Bruner, J. S. (1974) Going Beyond the Information Given. New York: Norton.

Cunningham, D. J. & Duffy, T. M. (1996) Constructivism: Implications for the design and delivery of instruction. IN: Jonassen. D. H. (Ed.), Handbook of Research for Educational Communications and Technology (pp. 170- 198). New York: Simon & Shuster Macmillan.

Driscoll, M. P. (1994). Psychology of learning for instruction. Boston, MA. Allyn & Bacon.

Schank, R. (1982) Dynamic Memory: A Theory of Reminding and Learning in Computers and People. Cambridge University Press.


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