Learning loops in a theory of action (pt 4 in a series)

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The theory of action translates well into an educational sphere, something we have demonstrated over the previous three posts in this series. Now, we can delve down a layer and discuss the two types of learning described by Argyris and Schӧn. 

Single and double loop learning 

Having established that their theory of action consists of two sub-theories – theory-in-use and espoused theory – Argyris and his colleagues then described two types of learning which they call ‘single’ and ‘double loop’ and how they shape our theory-in-use. 

Single loop learning occurs when we learn within the constraints of what we know. We have: 

The actions we take are often the result of trial and error.  

A more detailed analysis of single loop learning shows that our actions are characterised by a desire to be successful in achieving the purpose we have defined.  We suppress our negative feelings and emphasise rationality.  Our main strategies are the result of a one-sided view of how we control our environment, the tasks we undertake and how we protect ourselves and others. We keep the rationale for our action to ourselves, often using unsubstantiated evidence to justify our actions.  This can lead to us making face-saving moves that leave embarrassing facts unstated. 

These manifest themselves in discouraging enquiry, making unsupported assumptions, treating one’s own views as correct, not sharing attributions and evaluation and taking face-saving actions to deflect potential failure. 

The result is that our actions are idiosyncratic and vulnerable to changes to our context. (Argyris, Putnam & McLain Smith, 1985).

Double loop learning occurs when we engage with others in order to add their knowledge to what we already know and thus potentially improve our actions. In doing this, we adopt a collaborative approach which: 

The result of which is a marked change in our theory-in-use.  

In more detail, we use evidence to inform decisions in an open way.  Making choices not constrained by our own viewpoint.  We share control with others, engaging in the design and realisation of our actions. This can result in personal views and the underlying reasons for our actions being made explicit.  Our actions are often observable and subject to the scrutiny of our colleagues. The consequence of this is that we have a broader range of choices and we feel less threatened if the actions we take are not successful, (Anderson, 1997).  Therefore our chances of selecting the right course of action are considerably enhanced. 

In the example we described in part 4, our teacher tried to find the appropriate action to resolve the issue of a disruptive class. Initially, they relied on their theory-in-use, which was the result of single loop learning.  In time, through trial and error, they might have arrived at the correct course of action. However, the gap between the outcome of their actions and the school’s espoused theory was such that the leadership of the school was considering formally intervening and our teacher experienced feelings of failure.

To prevent this, the teacher sought the advice of  a colleague, who demonstrated how to successfully deal with a similar situation. This was followed by an open dialogue. Questioned by our teacher, the colleague explained how to determine the necessary course of action to resolve problems of classroom disruption. They then worked together to devise a strategy that resulted in our teacher adopting a wider set of variables and in a different combination, prompted by the explicit description of what worked, double loop learning.  Thus the professional pride of our teacher was restored and the leadership of the school was satisfied that the espoused theory of the school was being met. 


As we have recorded before, in a collaborative learning community we seek to access knowledge from three sources: relevant research, emerging effective innovation and best practice, so that we can ensure our students receive an education that represents the wisdom of the educational community, our espoused theory.  It is a stark reality to us, from the description of single and double loop learning given above, that to achieve our espoused theory it would prove impossible without the later. Thus, one of our key roles in school improvement is to create the conditions in which double loop learning can take place. 

We hope you have been able to relate these ideas to your own work.  In our next blog we will look further at single and double loop learning in our educational context. 

Take care and stay safe 


Anderson, L. (1997) Argyris and Schön’s theory on congruence and learning (online). Available at http://www.scu.edu.au/schools/gcm/ar/arp/argyris.html.

Argyris, C., Putnam, R., & McLain Smith, D (1985) Action Science, Concepts, methods, and skills for research and intervention, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (The entire book is available for download from: Action Design: http://www.actiondesign.com/action_science/index.htm).