Constructivism 13: Double Loop Learning

As we discussed last time, Argyris and Schön suggest two responses to mismatches between between intention and outcome: these  can be seen in the notion of single and double loop learning. For Argyris and Schön (1978, p.2), learning involves the detection and correction of error. In single-loop learning (see Figure 2), when outcomes do not match expectation the initial reaction of knowledge workers is to employ a different strategy from their repertoire that will bring about the required consequences within the governing variable. The change is in the action only, not in the governing variable itself.

Double Loop Learning

In double loop learning (see Figure 1.), goals or decision-making rules are modified in the light of experience. In this model, the first loop uses established or pre-existing goals or decision-making rules; the second loop facilitates their modification. Double-loop learning recognises that the way a problem is defined and solved can be a source of the problem.

Double loop learning

Figure 1. Double loop learning

Double-loop learning is used when there’s a need to change the schema or mental model a decision depends upon. Unlike single loops, this model requires an enhancement in insight and understanding, from simple and static to broader and more dynamic.

It can be argued that components of Argyris’s and Schön’s position do not conform to the Constructivist tradition, and it is possible to discern a positivist aspect to their thesis, particularly in the exposition of their notion of theory-in-use, which in my view exhibits characteristics of behaviourist patterns – for example B.F. Skinner’s ideas on operant conditioning in the strategies employed in single-loop learning. Similarly, it has been argued elsewhere (Easterby-Smith & Araujo, 1999) that Argyris’s and Schön’s work on Model I and Model II organisations relies too heavily on assumptions of what “good learning” (p.13) consists of, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this article. Nonetheless, as Finger and Asún point out in Adult Education at the Crossroads. Learning our way out:

Unlike …Kolb’s learning cycle, where one had, so to speak, to make a mistake and reflect upon it – that is, learn by trial and error – it is now possible thanks to Argyris and Schön’s conceptualization, to learn by simply reflecting critically upon the theory-in-action. In other words, it is no longer necessary to go through the entire learning circle in order to develop the theory further. It is sufficient to readjust the theory through double-loop learning.




Argyris, C. and Schön, D. (1974). Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Asún, M. and Finger, M. (2000) Adult Education at the Crossroads. Learning our way out, London: Zed Books.

Easterby-Smith, M. & Araujo, L. (1999) Current debates and opportunities. IN: Easterby-Smith, M. Araujo, L. & Burgoyne, J. (eds.) Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization: Developments in Theory and Practice, London: Sage