‘How do systems learn?’ was the topic at a recent London gathering of the International Bateson Institute. Nora Bateson led us in an exploration of the ideas of her father, Gregory Bateson, about learning to learn.
It’s tempting to see learning as the acquisition of knowledge. So it would be possible to accumulate a pile of learning – for example, a stack of books is a pile of learning; the facts you can recall to answer questions during a quiz are components of learning seen in this way.
But we also talk about ‘organisational learning’ and ‘systems learning’, meaning more than what an individual can learn, and more than the sum of the learning of the individuals in the organisation or system. It’s not necessarily even human-centric: a tree in a forest learns where to grow in relation to other trees, the ground, the sun and every other aspect of its ecosystem. Is a learning system any system that changes? Even a stuck system has learned to be like that, so learning is not always progressive.
Learning in this sense is how a system calibrates itself to be the way it is. Learning is contextual and mutual. So it makes sense for a facilitator to check in with a group to ask, ‘What are you learning? What’s making sense to you now? What new questions are emerging?’ Learning is envisaged more as a process of making sense than adding to a fact stack; more an exploration than a result.