I remember my maths teacher at school insisting that we explain how we went about solving a problem. It was not enough to come up with an answer. “Show your workings” he would say. Even if the answer was wrong, the way I went about solving the problem might be considered in the marks I received, and it would also give the teacher an opportunity to identify my mistake.
I have never forgotten the advice and now recognise it as an essential practice in my professional development. Some questions are of the first order. If we face an unexpected outcome or dilemma in our work it is commonplace to ask “what could I do differently?” The question invites us to step back for a moment and think about another way of doing things. This often results in a solution. However, there are times when we need to ask a second order question. Second order questions help us open up the mental map we are using, the way we “see” the situation and our objectives in it, and may lead to a change in policy or purpose.
Donald Schon and Chris Argyris developed this distinction into what they called loops of learning. What I call first order questions don’t threaten the status quo – our goals and values remain unchallenged. We just change the strategy. The learning involved in this case is what Schon and Argyris called “single-loop learning”. We may do things differently but the policy and objectives remain the same.
Second order questions however push against the boundaries, insisting on a reconsideration of the goals and values being pursued. Sometimes they open up the wider context to scrutiny. Schon and Argyris use the analogy of a thermostat. While a thermostat “knows” the temperature in a room and can switch on the heating or air conditioning, it is not capable of “knowing” the wider system (for example, if a window has been left open, or the electricity has been switched off) or how these changes in the wider system may require a different objective or policy.
So a first order question, in the case of your practice might be “in the light of the problems you face how might you change the way you respond to the situation next time?” But as a “good friend” I want to ask a “good question” (see The Goods we Need) so I’d like to invite you to think about the purpose you are pursuing in these situations. The question is intended to tease out what you are trying to achieve. What worthwhile outcomes do you (and your client) really want? How might you re-frame your understanding of the situation in order to achieve this result?
Not every question needs to do this, of course, but good questions often do.