Constructivism 12: Single Loop Learning

In Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective, Chris Argyris and Donald Schön suggest that each member of an organisation constructs their own representation of the actual, tacit, applied organisational behaviours, also called its “theory-in-use” (1978, p.16).Argyris and Schön modelled theory-in-use to investigate its three components

Table 1 Components of theory-in-use (after Liane Anderson, 1997)



Governing variables:

Those dimensions that people are trying to keep within acceptable limits. Any action is likely to impact upon a number of such variables – thus any situation can trigger a trade-off among governing variables.

Action strategies:

The moves and plans used by people to keep their governing values within the acceptable range.


What occurs as a result of an action. These can be both intended – those actor believe will result – and unintended. In addition those consequences can be for the self, and/or for others.

They developed a simple three-phase model (see Figure 1) to illustrate how each of the components of theory-in-use interacts:

Figure 1 Model explaining the process of developing theories-in-use for organisational learning

Figure 1. Model explaining the process of developing theories-in-use

This cognitive structure has implications for knowledge workers’ cognitive processes. Where the outcomes of the strategy align with what the individual wanted, then the theory-in-use is confirmed as there is a match between intention and outcome. However, a mismatch between intention and outcome may occur with unintended consequences. Outcomes may also not match, or even counter the person’s governing values. Argyris and Schön suggest two responses to this mismatch, and these can be seen in the notion of single and double-loop learning.

Single loop learning

Figure 2. Single 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.

Next Time: Double Loop Learning 



Anderson, L. (1994). Espoused theories and theories-in-use: Bridging the gap (Breaking through defensive routines with organisation development consultants). Unpublished Master of Organisational Psychology thesis, University of Qld.

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