🐬Are you learning as effectively as a dolphin?

Benjamin P. Taylor
2 min readMar 4, 2021


It could be the secret to success! There are two great stories…

In Hawaii, Gregory Bateson saw dolphins being trained to perform circus tricks. When trainers stopped rewarding the same old tricks, what happened?

The dolphins came up with new tricks of their own.

At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, scientists rewarded dolphins for cleaning garbage from their pools. And the number of pieces of garbage kept increasing!

A dolphin called Kelly kept a sheet of paper under a rock, so she could tear off one piece at a time.

It’s powerful to think of THREE levels of learning:

1-do our work better (single loop)

firefighters get better and better at saving people from burning buildings

2-reframe and rethink (double loop)

then they realised that it was better to *prevent* fires than save people! And began to work on that

3-change our identity (triple loop) — the self-image of the firefighter changed from macho hero (they’re still amazing people) to wanting to be great at engaging with people to help them make their houses safer

Learning can work at *all three levels* — do the thing better, do different things, AND be better…

Can you think of an example of double or triple loop learning?


By the way, I feel dolphins should *never* be kept in captivity. And the descriptions above are simplified for the sake of fitting into LinkedIn’s 1,200 characters.

The history of this is rich and I love all the intertwingling. Bateson’s ‘deutero-learning’ arose from the ‘double bind’ — a name for the psychological state when you are ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ — and the need to get to a level above that kind of ‘Catch-22’ problem. Argyris and Schon credited Bateson, and both also link back to Ashby’s cybernetic thinking. There’s also a link to Bill Torbert’s Action Inquiry which explicitly operates at these three levels (and Bill is a published cybernetician too).

Argyris’ classic paper: http://6-30partners.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Chris-Argyris-Double-Loop-Learning-in-Organisations.pdf

There is a lot more to be said about this — including whether, in such schemas, a ‘third loop’ is ever necessary…

Here’s a fun little video I made of the same text:



Benjamin P. Taylor