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Learning Cycle (“What?” “So What?” “Now What?”)

  • Use when debriefing.

  • This tool uses both Divergence and Convergence.

  • Can be used as a stand alone tool.

What and Why?

The Learning Cycle is a tool that can be used to address a challenge or debrief an experience. It consists of three phases:

  1. “What?”: Identify and define the challenge, gather information to understand its scope and context OR debrief an experience or project.

  2. “So What?”: Analyze the challenge’s significance, explore causes, patterns, and implications OR identify emerging insights after a project.

  3. “Now What?”: Generate solutions and develop an action plan to address the challenge or apply the insights.

This structured approach promotes critical thinking, analysis, and effective decision-making. It helps understand problems/ debrief experiences deeply, interpret their meaning, and develop practical strategies for resolution or improvement. This tool facilitates group reflection, builds understanding, and encourages coordinated action while minimizing unproductive debate. By progressing through the stages of collecting facts, making sense of them, and determining logical actions, misunderstandings and disagreements about the next steps can be mitigated.

Use this tool if you want to:

  • Develop a shared understanding of diverse perspectives and rationales for actions and decisions.

  • Generate learning through shared experiences and feedback.

  • Prevent repetition of mistakes or dysfunctions.

  • Avoid arguments stemming from unclear facts or interpretations.

  • Foster trust, reduce fear, and learn together through shared experiences.

Facilitation Elements

A. Sequence of Steps and Time Allocation (45 minutes)

2 mins

Invite the group to reflect on a shared experience. Explain the three step process and if the group is larger than 10-12 people, split into groups of 5-7

3 mins


Individuals work alone on “What?”:

  • What happened?

  • What did they notice?

  • What facts or observations stood out?

Invite them to:

  • Be specific - Describe the situation as completely and objectively as possible

  • Stick to the facts - Focus on what was observed/ heard/experienced

  • Avoid opinions like “I think…”

Capture output on individual post-it notes.

5 mins


Individuals share back in their groups of 5-7 key data that they captured. Each person adding what has not yet been mentioned.

8 mins


Small Group discusses “So What?”:

  • Reflect on the “What?”

  • What connections can you now make between cause and effect?

  • What do you now know that you didn’t know before?

  • What conclusions can you draw?

  • What insights come to mind?

  • Why is it important?

  • What patterns and conclusions are emerging?

  • What hypothesis can we make?

Group captures shared output on post-its or flipchart.

8 mins


Small Group discusses “Now What?”

  • Reflect on “So What?”

  • What does it tell you about:

    • What practices should you keep/continue?

    • What needs to be improved and how?

    • What can you start/do more of?

    • What can you stop/do less of?

Capture output on post-its or flipchart

15 mins


Plenary report back. Invite each group to present back their significant learning using the following summary statement:

“What we experienced/observed was (observation) _____________.

The insight we had was (learning) _______________.

As a result in the future we propose (action steps)___________________”

Capture proposed Action Steps on flipchart.

Agree on next steps/

4 mins

Debrief the activity. Invite the group to share what they experienced as a result of using this tool.

  • What did you observe or experience as a result of using this tool?

  • What insights did you have?

  • Can you see yourself using this tool? How?

B. How Groups Are Configured

  • If the group is 10–12 people or smaller, conduct the debrief with the whole group. Otherwise, break the group into small groups of 5-7.

  • Groups can be established teams or mixed groups.

C. How Space Is Arranged and Materials Needed

  • Unlimited number of groups

  • Seating for small groups of 5-7

  • Paper or Post-its

  • Pens

  • Flip chart may be needed with a large group to collect answers

Tips and Watchouts

  • Actively listen: Encourage participants to pay attention to what others are saying and actively listen to their perspectives. Respect diverse viewpoints and encourage participants to build upon each other's ideas. This fosters a collaborative atmosphere and encourages richer discussions. The aim is to relax, listen, and understand. This is not the same as agreeing, it just means that you want to really understand the speaker's view.

  • Be thorough in the "What" phase: Take the time to gather all relevant information and data related to the problem or topic at hand. The more comprehensive your understanding of the situation, the more informed your analysis and decision-making will be.

  • Dig deep in the "So What" phase: Encourage participants to go beyond surface-level observations and delve deeper into the implications and significance of the problem. Ask probing questions to uncover underlying causes, patterns, or trends.

  • Embrace creativity: During the "Now What?" phase, encourage participants to think creatively and generate a wide range of ideas and solutions. Avoid premature judgment or criticism of ideas, as this can stifle creativity and hinder the generation of innovative solutions.

  • If the focus is on action and implementation, ensure that the outcomes of the process translate into actionable steps and concrete plans. Set clear goals and assign responsibilities to turn insights into tangible results.

  • Don't overlook the importance of reflection and evaluation after completing the process. Take time to assess the effectiveness of the tool, identify any shortcomings, and learn from the experience to improve future iteration.

  • This tool can also be used in combination with the Ladder of Inference as outlined:

Informal Application

Make it the norm to debrief with the Learning Cycle, however quickly, at the end of everything.

  1. After a shared experience, ask, “What? What happened? What did you notice, what facts or observations stood out?”

  2. Then, after all the salient observations have been collected, ask, “So What? Why is that important? What patterns or conclusions are emerging? What hypotheses can you make?”

  3. Then, after the sense making is over, ask, “Now What? What actions make sense? What should we keep on doing? What should we improve? What should we stop? What should we start?”

  4. With practice, “What? So What? Now What?” will feel like a natural process.

Riffs and Variations

  • “What Happened?” ,“Why?” ,“So What Now?”: This variation simplifies the tool by removing the "Now What?" phase. It focuses on understanding what happened (What?), exploring the reasons behind it (Why?), and examining the implications or significance (So What?). This version is useful when a detailed action plan or implementation is not the primary objective.

  • This tool can also be used to debrief individual experiences. Perhaps many individuals adopted alternate approaches to the same challenge. This tool can be used by each person individually and their summary statement (“What I experienced/observed was (observation) _____________. The insight I had was (learning) _______________. As a result in the future I propose (action steps)___________________”), can be shared back with the whole group as a contribution to group wisdom. For example: This tool can be used with graduate students during mentoring sessions.


This critical thinking model was researched and developed by Rolfe et al. in 2001.

This tool is based on the work of David A. Kolb on Experiential Learning.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


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