Second-Order Learning Research Project


Second-Order Learning (SOL) from COVID-19 – Transformation from a Landscape Shock?


“With our new SOL project, we reflexively explore how a landscape shock may drive our transformative learning capacity as a community of research and practice.” 

Alejandra Boni, Deputy Director of INGENIO (CSIC-UPV), Scientific Lead for the project


As TIPC is a global research programme analysing systemic transformations, it is relevant to consider how Second-Order Learning (SOL) can be influenced by a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and how this SOL may have an impact on sustainability transitions. The research project is running from May to December 2020.

This research involves a sample of TIPC practitioners and researchers from  diverse context, location, responsibility, gender, disciplinary background and age. The sample was built by incorporating voluntary participation, and a variety of these characteristics.  Engaging through qualitative and virtual participatory techniques, it aims to explore how COVID-19 may contribute to a change in beliefs, assumptions and behaviours that are relevant for transformation.

Participants in the SOL Research Project taking part in the interviews on Zoom     
Mural – Tool for Digital Participatory Research

Interpretations of SOL are diverse in transitions literature[1].  For the purpose of this research, we use a combination of different approaches on SOL that comes from three strands of literature: 1) transition theory; 2) organisational learning and 3) transformative learning in education.

What is different about this project?

TIPC community research efforts are usually dedicated to how STI systems engage in transformational activities. This project focuses on how the community has been impacted by the pandemic, what has been learnt from this landscape shock, and how this impact and learning may modify our own framework to engage in our work towards sustainability transitions. As such, it opens up a huge reflexive space.

The COVID-19 Global Pandemic is a ‘landscape shock’ within sustainability transition and TIP thinking

Observing a global landscape shock with such dramatic consequences all around the world, presents a singular scenario to reflect on our own learning processes and potential modifications to our beliefs and assumptions. Our understanding of sustainability and the potential pathways to transitions may also be influenced by the Covid-19 situation. A real, dynamic and tangible situation that radically modifies daily activities and social interactions gives the opportunity for adaptation and learning. We can expect changes in our own capacity to learn in response to this particular shock, which will subsequently influence how we aim change with social, ecological and technological transformations.

Learning with Adjectives

Learning theories generally make a distinction between first order (also single loop) learning and second-order (also reflexive, double loop, deep) learning.

First order learning is the type of reflection employed during daily action, and helps actors to see as, and do as, in the earlier cases, taking place within the acquired cognitive space. Second-order learning takes actors beyond these convictions, and is often crucial in transitions. It is unlikely to happen unless special circumstances prevail. One of these circumstances is a surprise, and a course of action with unanticipated effects. Especially negative surprises may induce second order learning.

A crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic makes established courses of action and underlying convictions, no longer appropriate.  This is why it may induce SOL when reflected upon by the actors involved. A community of practice and research, which is purposefully committed to transformative change, is therefore an ideal space for exploration. Individual, community-social, organisational, regional, national and global perspectives of impact and learnings are explored with the sample. While relevant ontological, epistemological and methodological challenges arise when we become part of what we are trying to study, incorporating a more reflexive perspective is crucial at this time.

TIPC Researchers

The TIPC researchers on the project are:

  • Alejandra Boni, Scientific Lead, Deputy Director of Ingenio (CSIC-UPV), Valencia, Spain
  • Paulina Terrazas, Lead Researcher, Ingenio (CSIC-UPV), Valencia, Spain
  • Imogen Wade, Research Fellow, Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex Business School, UK

TIPC Participants

The TIPC participants in the research project come from across the network and include:

  • Jan Sandred, Sweden/Vinnova

    The SOL Research Project involves a global network of TIPC coordinating partners and members
  • Salim Chalela Naffah, Colombia/UNILA + LatamHUB
  • Geovana Vallejo Jimenez, Colombia/UNILA + LatamHUB
  • José Manuel Martín Corvillo, Spain/ Climate KIC
  • Carmen Bueno , México /IBERO
  • Geraldine Bloomfield, UK /Sussex
  • Pablo , Chile/Universidad de Talca
  • Ana Belda, Spain/ UPV
  • Matías Ramírez , UK/Sussex-Latam
  • Vicky Shaw, UK/Sussex
  • Chux Daniels, UK/Sussex-South Africa
  • Bipashyee Ghosh, UK/Sussex-India
  • Glenda Kruss, HSRC South Africa
  • Ilhaam Petersen, HSRC South Africa
  • Elisabeth Gulbrandsen, Norway/RCN
  • Josefin Lundström, Sweden/Vinnova


[1] References and Further Reading 

Argyris, C. 1991. “Teaching Smart People How to Learn”, Harvard Business Review may-june.

Argyris, C. and Schon, DA. 1996. Organizational Learning II: Theory, Method, and Practice,


Geels, Frank W. 2002. “Technological Transitions as Evolutionary Reconfiguration Processes: A Multi-Level Perspective and a Case-Study.” Research Policy 31(8–9): 1257–74.

Geels, Frank W., and Johan Schot. 2007. “Typology of Sociotechnical Transition Pathways.” Research Policy 36(3): 399–417.

Gibbs, G. 2013. Learning by Doing, A Guide to Teaching and Learning Methods. Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.

Grin, J., Rotmans, J., & Schot, J. (2010). Transitions to sustainable development: new directions in the study of long term transformative change. Routledge.

Kolb, David. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience As The Source Of Learning And Development. Prentice Hall.

Mezirow, J. 1978. Perspective transformation. Adult Education, 28(2), 100‐110.

Mezirow, J. 1991a. Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco:


Mezirow, J. 1997. “Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice.” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 1997(74): 5–12.

Schot, Johan, and Frank W. Geels. 2008. “Strategic Niche Management and Sustainable Innovation Journeys: Theory, Findings, Research Agenda, and Policy.” Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 20(5): 537–54.

Schot, Johan, and W. Edward Steinmueller. 2018. “Three Frames for Innovation Policy: R&D,       Systems of Innovation and Transformative Change.” Research Policy 47(9): 1554–67.

Schot, Johan, Paula Kivimaa, and Jonas Torrens. 2019 “Transforming experimentation: Experimental Policy Engagements and their Transformative Outcomes”, TIPC Research Report.

 Van Mierlo, Barbara, and Pieter J. Beers. 2018. “Understanding and Governing Learning in Sustainability Transitions: A Review.” Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions: S2210422417301983.