Second-order Learning Systems

  • Andrew MitchellEmail author


Projects designed to respond to complex and wicked problems, such as sustainability and international development, may be significantly supported by a developmental evaluation approach that supports practitioners to optimise their experiential learning to innovate under complex conditions. However, as Mitchell argues, while developmental evaluation supports learning under complexity, it has yet to articulate an epistemological framework which accounts for how learning occurs under dynamic and uncertain circumstances. To address this, Mitchell draws on enactive cognitive science concepts to understand how we participate in constructing our own experience, and uses these insights to interact orthogonally with project practitioners to facilitate projects in becoming second-order learning systems, to learn both how to learn and the conditions under which such learning holds as relevant and valid.


Cognition Orthogonal interactions Structural coupling Linguistic domains/systems Language Observer 


  1. Allen, P. M. (2010). What is the science of complexity? Knowledge of the limits to knowledge. In A. Tait & K. A. Richardson (Eds.), Complexity and knowledge management: Understanding the role of knowledge in the management of social networks (pp. 3–22). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishers.Google Scholar
  2. Anderson, H. (2012). Collaborative relationships and dialogic conversations: Ideas for a relationally responsive practice. Family Process, 51(1), 8–24. Scholar
  3. Anderson, H., & Goolishian, H. A. (1988). Human systems as linguistic systems: Preliminary and evolving ideas about the implications for clinical theory. Family Process, 27(4), 371–393. Scholar
  4. Andringa, T. C., Van Den Bosch, K. A., & Wijermans, N. (2015). Cognition from life: The two modes of cognition that underlie moral behavior. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(April), 1–18. Scholar
  5. Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1978). Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.Google Scholar
  6. Ashby, W. R. (1957). An introduction to cybernetics. London: Chapman & Hall.Google Scholar
  7. Ashby, W. R. (1958). Requisite variety and its implications for the control of complex systems. Cybernetica, 1(2), 83–99. Available at:
  8. Axelrod, R., & Cohen, M. D. (2000). Harnessing complexity: Organizational implications of a scientific frontier. New York: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  9. Bamberger, M., Vaessen, J., & Raimondo, E. (2016). Complexity in development evaluation. In M. Bamberger, J. Vaessen, & E. Raimondo (Eds.), Dealing with complexity in development evaluation: A practical approach (pp. 1–25). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  10. Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine Books.Google Scholar
  11. Bateson, G. (1979). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. New York: Bantam.Google Scholar
  12. Baumer, F. L. (1977). Modern European thought: Continuity and change in ideas, 1600–1950. New York: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  13. Benford, R. D., & Snow, D. (2000). Framing processes and social movements: An overview and assessment. Annual Review Sociologic, 26, 611–639. Scholar
  14. Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1971). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Harmondsworth: Penguin University Books.Google Scholar
  15. Bopry, J. (2001). Convergence toward enaction within educational technology: Design for learners and learning. Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 8(4), 47–63.Google Scholar
  16. Briggs, J., & Peat, F. D. (1989). Turbulent mirror: An illustrated guide to chaos theory and the science of wholeness. New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  17. Buchanan, B. (2008). Onto-ethologies: The animal environments of Uexküll, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.Google Scholar
  18. Burns, D., & Worsley, S. (2015). Navigating complexity in international development: Facilitating sustainable change at scale. Rugby: Practical Action Publishing.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Cappuccio, M., & Froese, T. (2014). Introduction. In M. Cappuccio & T. Froese (Eds.), Enactive cognition at the edge of sense: Making sense of non-sense (pp. 1–36). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  20. Carman, J. G. (2007). Evaluation practice among community-based organizations: Research into the reality. American Journal of Evaluation, 28(1), 60–75. Scholar
  21. Carpenter, S., Walker, B., Anderies, J. M., & Abel, N. (2001). From metaphor to measurement: Resilience of what to what? Ecosystems, 4, 765–781. Scholar
  22. Checkland, P., & Scholes, J. (1990). Soft systems methodology in action. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley.Google Scholar
  23. Colombetti, G. (2014). The feeling body: Affective science meets the enactive mind. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Combs, A., Burneko, G., Goerner, S., Brown, T., & Guenther, H. (2002). The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. A book review and commentary. Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 9(2), 83–91.Google Scholar
  25. Coveney, P., & Highfield, R. (1995). Frontiers of complexity: The search for order in a chaotic world. London: Faber and Faber.Google Scholar
  26. Cress, D. M., & Snow, D. (2000). The outcomes of homeless mobilization: The influence of organization, disruption, political mediation, and framing. American Journal of Sociology, 105(4), 1063–1104. Scholar
  27. Crompton, T., & Kasser, T. (2009). Meeting environmental challenges: The role of human identity. Godalming: WWF-UK.Google Scholar
  28. Daft, R. L., & Weick, K. E. (1984). Toward a model of organizations as interpretation systems. Academy of Management Review, 9(2), 284–295. Scholar
  29. Dallos, R. (1997). Interacting stories: Narratives, family beliefs, and therapy. London: H. Karnac Books.Google Scholar
  30. Dallos, R., & Urry, A. (1999). Abandoning our parents and grandparents: Does social construction mean the end of systemic family therapy? Journal of Family Therapy, 21(2), 161–186. Scholar
  31. Davidson-Hunt, I. J., & Berkes, F. (2000). Environment and society through the lens of resilience: Toward a human-in-ecosystem perspective. International Association for the Study of Common Property Conference, Indiana University, Indianapolis.Google Scholar
  32. De Jaegher, H. (2013). Rigid and fluid interactions with institutions. Cognitive Systems Research, 25–26, 19–25. Scholar
  33. De Jaegher, H., & Di Paolo, E. A. (2007). Participatory sense-making: An enactive approach to social cognition. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 6(4), 485–507. Scholar
  34. Deleuze, G. (1988a). Foucault (S. Hand, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  35. Deleuze, G. (1988b). Spinoza: Practical philosophy (R. Hurley, Trans.). San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books.Google Scholar
  36. Dennett, D. C. (1991). Consciousness explained. Boston: Little, Brown.Google Scholar
  37. Derrida, J. (1978). Writing and difference (A. Bass, Trans.). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  38. Di Paolo, E. A. (2014). Foreword. In M. Cappuccio & T. Froese (Eds.), Enactive cognition at the edge of sense: Making sense of non-sense (pp. xi–xv). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  39. Di Paolo, E. A., Rohde, M., & De Jaegher, H. (2010). Horizons for the enactive mind: Values, social interaction, and play. In J. Stewart, O. Gapenne, & E. A. Di Paolo (Eds.), Enaction: Toward a new paradigm for cognitive science (pp. 33–87). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  40. Dunkley, R. A., & Franklin, A. (2017). Failing better: The stochastic art of evaluating community-led environmental action programs. Evaluation and Program Planning, 60, 112–122. Scholar
  41. Efran, J. S., Lukens, M. D., & Lukens, R. J. (1990). Language, structure, and change: Frameworks of meaning in psychotherapy. New York: W. W. Norton.Google Scholar
  42. Elkaïm, M. (1990). If you love me, don’t love me: Constructions of reality and change in family therapy (H. Chubb, Trans.). New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  43. Fazey, I. I. (2010). Resilience and higher order thinking. Ecology and Society, 15(3), 22.Google Scholar
  44. Fodor, J., & Pylyshyn, Z. W. (1988). Connectionism and cognitive architecture: A critical analysis. In S. Pinker & J. Mehler (Eds.), Connections and symbols (pp. 3–71). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  45. Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings (1972–1977) (C. Gordon, Ed.). New York: The Harvester Press.Google Scholar
  46. Funtowicz, S., & Ravetz, J. (2003, Febuary). Post-normal science. Ecological Economics, 1–10.
  47. Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  48. Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  49. Hobson, K., Hamilton, J., & Mayne, R. (2014). Monitoring and evaluation in UK low-carbon community groups: Benefits, barriers and the politics of the local. Local Environment, 21(1), 124–136. Scholar
  50. Hobson, K., Mayne, R., & Hamilton, J. (2016). Monitoring and evaluating eco-localisation: Lessons from UK low carbon community groups. Environment and Planning A (Forthcoming). Scholar
  51. Hoffmeyer, J. (2008). Biosemiotics: An examination into the signs of life and the life of signs. Chicago, IL: University of Scranton Press.Google Scholar
  52. Holling, C. S. (2001). Understanding the complexity of economic, ecological, and social systems. Ecosystems, 4(5), 390–405. Scholar
  53. Hukkinen, J. (2012). Fit in the body: Matching embodied cognition with social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society, 17(4).
  54. Hukkinen, J. (2014). Model of the social-ecological system depends on model of the mind: Contrasting information-processing and embodied views of cognition. Ecological Economics, 99, 100–109. Scholar
  55. Humphreys, C. (1962). Buddhism (3rd ed.). Middlesex: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  56. Hutchins, E. (1996). Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  57. Ison, R. (2010). Systems practice: How to act in a climate-change world. London: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Jackson, M. C. (2001). Critical systems thinking and practice. European Journal of Operational Research, 128(2), 233–244. Scholar
  59. Jeffrey, P., & Seaton, R. A. F. (2004). A conceptual model of “Receptivity” applied to the design and deployment of water policy mechanisms. Environmental Sciences (Journal of Integrative Environmental Research), 1(3), 277–300.Google Scholar
  60. Kauffman, S. A. (1991). The sciences of complexity and “Origins of Order” (SFI Working Paper: 1991-04-021 SFI).Google Scholar
  61. Klein, G., Moon, B., & Hoffman, R. R. (2006). Making sense of sensemaking 1: Alternative perspectives. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 21(4), 70–73. Scholar
  62. Kravchenko, A. (2006). Cognitive linguistics, biology of cognition and biosemiotics: Bridging the gaps. Language Sciences, 28(1), 51–75. Scholar
  63. Krippendorff, K. (2002). Afterword. Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 9(2), 95–96.Google Scholar
  64. Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  65. Lettvin, J. Y., Maturana, H. R., McCulloch, W. S., & Pitts, W. H. (1959). What the frog’s eye tells the frogs’s brain. Proceedings of the IRE, 3(1), 1940–1951. Scholar
  66. Lewin, R. (1992). Complexity: Life at the edge of chaos. New York: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  67. Lyon, P. (2004). Autopoiesis and knowing: Reflections on Maturana’s biogenic explanation of cognition. Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 11(4), 21–46.Google Scholar
  68. Lyotard, J.-F. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge (G. Bennington & B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  69. Macy, J. (1991). Mutual causality in Buddhism and general systems theory: The dharma of natural systems. New York: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  70. Maturana, H. R. (1978a). Biology of language: The epistemology of reality. In G. A. Miller & E. Lenneberg (Eds.), Psychology and biology of language and thought: Essays in honor of Eric Lenneberg (pp. 27–63). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  71. Maturana, H. R. (1978b). Cognition. In P. M. Hejl, W. K. Köck, & G. Roth (Eds.), Wahrnehmung und kommunikation (pp. 29–49). Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
  72. Maturana, H. R. (1988a). Ontology of observing: The biological foundations of self consciousness and the physical domain of existence. Conference proceedings of the American Society of Cybernetics (pp. 1–41). Available at:
  73. Maturana, H. R. (1988b). Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument. The Irish Journal of Psychology, 9(1), 25–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Maturana, H. R. (1991). Response to Jim Birch. Journal of Family Therapy, 13, 375–393. Scholar
  75. Maturana, H. R. (1999). The organization of the living: A theory of the living organization. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 51, 149–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Maturana, H. R., & Poerksen, B. (2004). From being to doing: The origins of the biology of cognition (Trans. W. K. Koeck & A. R. Koeck). Zutphen: Carl-Auer Verlag.Google Scholar
  77. Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1980). Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1992). The tree of knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding (Rev. ed.). Boston: Shambhala.Google Scholar
  79. Maturana, H. R., & Verden-Zöller, G. (2008). The origin of humanness in the biology of love (P. Bunnell, Ed.). Exeter: Imprint-Academic.Google Scholar
  80. Maturana, H. R., Yáñez, X. D., & Muñoz, S. R. (2015). Cultural-biology: Systemic consequences of our evolutionary natural drift as molecular autopoietic systems. Foundations of Science, 1–48. Scholar
  81. McGann, M., De Jaegher, H., & Di Paolo, E. A. (2013). Enaction and psychology. Review of General Psychology, 17(2), 203–209. Scholar
  82. Mendez, C. L., Coddou, F., & Maturana, H. R. (1988). The bringing forth of pathology. The Irish Journal of Psychology, 9(1), 144–172.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Merchant, C. (2005). Radical ecology: The search for a livable world (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  84. Midgley, G. (2000). Systemic intervention: Philosophy, methodology, and practice. New York: Kluwer Academic and Plenum Publishers.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Mingers, J. (1995). Self-producing systems: Implications and applications of autopoiesis. New York: Plenum Press.Google Scholar
  86. Mingers, J., & White, L. (2010). A review of the recent contribution of systems thinking to operational research and management science. European Journal of Operational Research, 207(3), 1147–1161. Scholar
  87. Mitchell, M. (2009). Complexity: A guided tour. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  88. Morton, T. (2010). The ecological thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  89. Mowles, C. (2014). Complex, but not quite complex enough: The turn to the complexity sciences in evaluation scholarship. Evaluation, 20(2), 160–175. Scholar
  90. Norberg, J. (2004). Biodiversity and ecosystem functioning: A complex adaptive systems approach. Limnology and Oceanography, 49(4, part 2), 1269–1277.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Ostrom, E. (2007). A diagnostic approach for going beyond panaceas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(39), 15181–15187.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Pahl-Wostl, C., Sendzimir, J., & Jeffrey, P. (2009). Resources management in transition. Ecology and Society, 14(1), 46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Pangaro, P. (2011). Invitation to recursioning: Heinz von Foerster and Cybernetic Praxis. Cybernetics & Human Knowing, 18, 200–203. Available at:
  94. Paschen, J. A., & Ison, R. (2014). Narrative research in climate change adaptation: Exploring a complementary paradigm for research and governance. Research Policy, 43(6), 1083–1092. Scholar
  95. Pask, G. (1996). Heinz von Foerster’s self organization, the progenitor of conversation and interaction theories. Systems Research, 13(3), 349–362.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Patton, M. Q. (2011). Developmental evaluation: Applying complexity concepts to enhance innovation and use. New York: The Guildford Press.Google Scholar
  97. Petitmengin, C. (2009). Editorial introduction. In C. Petitmengin (Ed.), Ten years of viewing from within: The legacy of Francisco Varela (pp. 7–19). Exeter: Imprint-Academic.Google Scholar
  98. Polasky, S., Carpenter, S. R., Folke, C., & Keeler, B. (2011). Decision-making under great uncertainty: Environmental management in an era of global change. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 26(8), 398–404. Scholar
  99. Ponting, C. (1993). A green history of the world: The environment and the collapse of great civilizations. New York: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  100. Posner, M. I. (Ed.). (1991). Foundations of cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  101. Powell, J. H., & Bradford, J. P. (2000). Targeting intelligence gathering in a dynamic competitive environment. International Journal of Information Management, 20(3), 181–195. Scholar
  102. Proulx, J. (2008). Some differences between Maturana and Varela’s theory of cognition and constructivism. Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education, 5(1), 11–26.Google Scholar
  103. Richardson, K., & Cilliers, P. (2001). What is complexity science? A view from different directions. Emergence, 3(1), 5–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  104. Scoones, I., Leach, M., Smith, A., Stagl, S., Stirling, A., & Thompson, J. (2007). Dynamic systems and the challenge of sustainability, 1. Brighton. Available at:
  105. Senese, G. B., & Page, R. (1995). Simulation, spectacle, and the ironies of education reform. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.Google Scholar
  106. Shotter, J. (1993). Conversational realities: Constructing life through language. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  107. Shotter, J. (2009). Moments of common reference in dialogic communication: A basis for unconfused collaboration in unique. International Journal of Collaborative Practices, 1(1), 31–39. Available at:
  108. Shotter, J. (2012). More than cool reason: “Withness-thinking” or “systemic thinking” and “thinking about systems”. International Journal of Collaborative Practices, 3(1), 1–13. Available at:
  109. Smith, M. (2001). An ethics of place: Radical ecology, postmodernity, and social theory. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.Google Scholar
  110. Smolensky, P. (1988). On the proper treatment of connectionism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 11(1), 1–23. Scholar
  111. Spencer-Brown, G. (1973). Laws of form. New York: Bantam.Google Scholar
  112. Spinoza, B. (1992). Ethics: Treatise on the emendation of the intellect (2nd ed.) (S. Shirley, Trans.). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  113. Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in life: Biology, phenomenology, and the sciences of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  114. Tognetti, S. S. (1999). Science in a double-bind: Gregory Bateson and the origins of post-normal science. Futures, 31(7), 689–703. Scholar
  115. Varela, F. J. (1987). Laying down a path in walking. In W. I. Thompson (Ed.), Gaia: A way of knowing: Political implications of the new biology (pp. 48–64). Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press.Google Scholar
  116. Varela, F. J. (1992). Whence perceptual meaning? A cartography of current ideas. In F. J. Varela & J. P. Dupuy (Eds.), Understanding origins: Contemporary views on the origins of life, mind and society (pp. 235–263). Amsterdam: Kluwer Academic.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  117. Varela, F. J. (1999). Ethical know-how: Action, wisdom and cognition. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  118. Varela, F. J., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (1991). The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  119. von Foerster, H., & Broecker, M. S. (2010). Part of the world: Fractals of ethics—A drama in three acts (B. Anger-Díaz, Trans.). Urbana and Champaign: University of Illinois.Google Scholar
  120. von Uexküll, J. (1982). The theory of meaning. Semiotica, 42(1), 25–82.Google Scholar
  121. von Uexküll, J. (1992). A stroll through the worlds of animals and men: A picture book of invisible worlds. Semiotica, 89(4), 319–391.Google Scholar
  122. Waldrop, W. M. (1992). Complexity: The emerging science at the edge of order and chaos. London: Viking Penguin.Google Scholar
  123. Weick, K. E. (1987). Organizational culture as a source of high reliability. California Management Review, 29(2), 112–127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  124. Weick, K. E. (1991). The nontraditional quality of organizational learning. Organization Science, 2(1), 116–124. Scholar
  125. Weick, K. E., & Roberts, K. H. (1993). Collective mind in organizations: Heedful interrelating on flight decks. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38, 357–381.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  126. Wenger, E. (2010). Communities of practice and social learning systems: The career of a concept A social systems view on learning: Communities of practice as social learning systems. Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, 225–246. Scholar
  127. Westmark, T., Offenberg, L., & Nissen, D. (2011). The complexity of listening—Listening for complexity: Narrative consultancy work in organisations. Explorations, 1, 21–35.Google Scholar
  128. Wheeler, W. (2006). The whole creature: Complexity, biosemiotics and the evolution of culture. London: Lawrence & Wishart.Google Scholar
  129. White, L. (1967). The historical roots of our ecologic crisis. Science, 155(3767), 1203–1207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ADAPT ManagementLeicesterUK

Personalised recommendations