The Integral Learning Cycle and the Map

In a previous post I said I would go to into the metaphors within Wilber’s work combining my long-standing interest in his philosophical work with my new interest in metaphor theory.


For the (heavy duty) theoretical background to this piece, see this article by Mark Edwards on uniting the developmental and epistemological elements of Wilber’s Integral Theory.

Ken discusses three strands of knowledge—injunction (action), empiricism (experience arising from action), and confirmation/verification (knowledge sharing with the community of the adequate.  He relates those to three famous philosophers/schools of philosophy of science.  The first (injunction) is Thomas Kuhn and his work on Scientific Revolutions occurring through new paradigms–new practices.   The second, the empirical school with roots in Democritus up through Hume and to the Positivist School.  And lastly the third, verification being Karl Popper’s (justly) famous work on falsification. To which Edwards adds a crucial missing fourth:  interpretation.  Science (or here the act of understanding) always takes place within meaning and interpretative contexts.  In philosophy of science, this view is associated with Paul Feyeraband.

By adding a fourth strand, we now have a correlation between the quadrants (the dimensions of existence in lines of development) and the ways of knowing.  See the image above for Edwards’ connection of the two.

This learning cycle goes by many different names.  The first version of it I’m aware of is the Ignatian Paradigm of the early Jesuit tradition:  Action, Experience, Reflection (both philosophical-social and theological), leading to new action.  Or Kolb’s learning cycle.  Edwards’ article has a whole list of similar variations on the same fourfold theme.

Another version of which is the so-called OODA loop of military theorist John Boyd.  Observation->Orientation->Decision->Act (which leads to new Observation and the cycle starts all over again).

Correlating OODA with the quadrants (as a cycle of knowledge) lends:  Action (UR), Observation (UL), Orientation (LL), and Decison (LR). In this sense really an AOOD Loop.

The Orientation moment (the LL-interpretative strand) is the one I would like to focus on.  Going back to the notion of Wilber’s primary metaphor as map, then we have the map of AQAL as an orientating wisdom.  What Wilber in his earlier work called an orientating generalization.  One of, if not the, primary experience according to Wilber of postmodernity is that of disorientation.  Hence the need for a map.  Recall that orientation/disorientation is itself a metaphoric interpretive position (position being another metaphor).  I could have said an metaphoric interpretive impulse (over position)–notice the feeling-thought difference between impulse and position. The map as Wilber says is (using a sub-metaphor) psychoactive.  It is not simply a theory but rather an injunction-experience-theory-confirmed (all four quadrants/strands again).

But my sense has been thinking and living with these ideas for almost a decade now that there has been a tendency to see the map not as orientation but as automatic problem solver.  I’ve made this mistake many times myself.  A top-down view (which is what the integral view is) is always deeply revealing and simultaneously very seductive.  It can seduce one to think that events/life can be managed from the top-down.  The view is not the same as the action.  The orientation is not the same as the decision nor the action (going back to the language of the 4fold cycle).

What is needed is bottom-up action through the mindset of top-down view.

In other words, the decision and action phases of the cycle are not predictable via the map.  The orientation moment can certainly give clues but they are very generic.  The moment of experience needs to be one in which we let go of the map filter for a moment so that we can experience (as much as possible) with the filter intruding too much.

In other words, all the elements of the AQAL map–perspectives, quadrants, states, stages, lines, types, self—should only be brought up I think in the moment of orientation.  That is the interpretative moment.

Otherwise the de facto application of AQAL theory to any subject has generally been something like.  The way to do X integrally is to do X across all quadrants, levels, states, lines, etc.  I find this approach 1. deflating and not energizing  2. really confusing.  Saying do X across all these elements of the map simply begs the question (or at least pushes the real question back one layer still unanswered): how do you do X across all these?

Rather instead I would focus–as in holocracy–on simply what is the next best step.  What are the best practices in a certain realm–the best practice of X (holocracy being one)—attention to the experience (deep attention).  Then in the moment of interpretation bring up (quickly) the elements of the map that are of value, that will orient one to the experience with the content added by whatever the moment/context is about and then having added that integral wisdom then (hopefully) there is a judicious judgment as to what next (the decision phase) and then the application of that decision.

That action (the application of the decision) leads to a new experience which will then shed light on the decision.  Here then comes the notion of single, double, and triple loop learning.

After the new action leads to a new experience it may disconfirm the judgment–i.e. it didn’t work.

Then the inquiry (orientation/interpretation growing out of integral mindset):  why didn’t it work?

Whatever we did that didn’t work might have been right strategically but wrong tactically.  That is we might have made basically the right decision as to how to go but the wrong decision as to what to do next that would promote the strategy.  This would be a single-loop learning.  All we need to do in this case is change to a different tactical action.

Now we may interpret/exmaine the experience (which failed) and realize we have the wrong strategy.  This learning may come from multiple failures at the tatctical level and realizing we are trying to achieve something from within the wrong frame and therefore no new tactic will ever work as we have the wrong strategy.  This would be a double-loop.

And then we may even inquire into the process whereby we act-experience-interpret-decide itself.  The integral learning cycle offered here is an actual practice that leads to an experience that is interpreted (you have to share with one another what it feels like to proceed this way) that will be verified or not (i.e. “is everybody on board?  do you get this? do we find this helpful?”).  This is a triple-loop.  Learning about the learning.  Practicing on the practice itself.  Experiencing the experience itself.  Interpreting the source of all intepretations themselves.  And being confirmed (“strengthened”) in the process itself.

In other other words or in conclusion, the AQAL map does not specify content.  Not experientially or phenomenologically but also not in terms of decision making. Not really.  The process is emergent and therefore unpredictable.  What the AQAL map does do is put us in the best place of recognizing (discerning) the potential that might emerge.  It puts us in the best place for the emergent grace to happen to us.

The AQAL map is a practice not a theory alone–it itself follows the four fold learning cycle and should be taught that way as opposed to being a theory.  As such it is only one of a series of practices necessary.  It is less I think A Theory of Everything but more a Practice for Anything.  But it’s a complementary practice—or rather a practice (embedded metaphorically as a map) that orients to other practices.

In this way of approaching the work, AQAL then practices its own admonition:  it frees itself by limiting itself.

Published in: on May 23, 2009 at 9:53 am  Leave a Comment  
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