Table 1

 Theories of how individuals and organisations learn

TermBrief description
Individuals 31
Classical conditioning32 (learning by association)Learning that takes place when two events are experienced together in space and time and become associated with each other
Operant conditioning33,34 (the carrot and the stick)A learning process in which behaviours are followed by reinforcing or punishing consequences
Cognitive learning34–36 (learning by understanding and thinking)• Modelling: learning that occurs through the observation and imitation of the behaviours and experiences of others
• Insight: learning through the “aha!” phenomena
• Latent learning: where we soak up capacity, but this only becomes apparent when used at a later time
Learning curve37 (how we learn through time)A line graph where performance is plotted against time during the learning process to study the process that learning new skills takes
Unlearning curvePreviously plotted as above mapping performance as it declines (or is established) variously speculated as a forgetting curve; an extinction curve; or a transfer of learning curve. We suggest that the unlearning process is not a simple, unitary, or unproblematic outcome of the learning process. We speculate that it is a distinct process, usually not spontaneous but appearing in various forms and a pivotal part of the management of professional practice where risk minimisation is critical.
Organisations 5, 6
Single loop learning (the feedback loop)Identification of problems in the present system, taking corrective action and returning performance to normal
Double loop learning (changing the system)In the light of persistent problems taking steps to change the whole system to tackle the causes of problems
Triple loop learning (learning to learn)Proactive attempts to identify what facilitates learning per se, and then to apply these generalised principles to help learning in other times and places