Double loop learning

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Double loop learning
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The concepts of single-loop and two-loop learning are based on Argyris and Schon's theory of action. People make decisions and act with the intention of reaching a predetermined goal. We then analyze and assess our actions to be able to evaluate whether they were effective or whether we could do something better or faster next time to arrive at the same goal. Human action is never random and always carries with it some consequences for which we are responsible (Greenwood, J. 1998). To understand the concept of double-loop learning, it is important to understand the differences between single-loop learning and double-loop learning.

Single loop learning

People tend to follow the same pattern of behavior when it comes to the way they conduct their lives or when they are solving a problem. They repeat patterns that they have already experienced, read about, or that are similar to the situation they are currently in or the problem they are currently solving. This same pattern with the same set of rules, values, norms, goals, procedures, processes and assumptions provides them with psychological safety - or peace of mind. It is learning in a loop.

Single-loop learning is discovering and correcting mistakes but not changing the core principles and goals of the organization. Error-correction and problem-solving activities add to the knowledge base or company-specific competencies or routines without changing the fundamental nature of the organization's activities (Ractham, V. V., & Kantamara, P. 2011).

An example of single-loop learning is the function of a thermostat for heating a room. A thermostat is an electronic device that communicates with a boiler or other heating source to maintain a constant temperature in a room - e.g. 23 degrees. The aim of the thermostat is to adjust the heating temperature so that the room is always 26 degrees Celsius. In winter the temperature drops and the thermostat heats more, in summer it does not heat at all because the room temperature is sufficient (Cartwright, S. 2002).

This kind of single-loop learning has worked in the past, but no longer. The organisation and its people need to change the way they think, problem solve and implement change to keep pace with the external environment. Society and the economy are changing at an ever-increasing pace, whether it is (Ractham, V. V., & Kantamara, P. 2011):

  • globalisation,
  • new technologies,
  • the environment,
  • philosophies of life,
  • the position of minorities in society, etc. Change today is a constant state of affairs and is taking place at an alarming rate. Standards, old rules, procedures, processes and assumptions may no longer work (Ractham, V. V., & Kantamara, P. 2011).

Double loop learning

We speak of double-loop learning when not only are errors uncovered and corrected, but at the same time the underlying norms and practices, embedded patterns of behaviour, the organisation's policies and its core objectives are challenged. This process involves changing company-specific competencies or routines or the organisation's core objectives. Thus, in two-round learning, problems are solved from the inside out. Single-loop learning only detects and resolves errors, double-loop learning identifies the cause of the error and changes entrenched patterns to prevent that cause (Ractham, V. V., & Kantamara, P. 2011).

An example of double-loop learning using the thermostat example is questioning the overall goal of keeping the room 23 degrees while also questioning the use of the heater and thermostat. Isn't it healthier for the human body to stay cool over the winter and not regulate the room temperature in any way? Wouldn't it be cheaper to get a wood stove instead of using gas heat (Cartwright, S. 2002)?

An example from economic practice could be a situation where a company produces a product that has the same defect over and over again. Workers have to continuously correct the defect. However, they then begin to question the entire composition of the product and consider alternative ways of creating and producing it. Once they have questioned the basic principles of how the product is made, they develop a new way of making it from scratch during which the product does not develop defects (Argyris, C. 2004).

Double loop learning conclusion

Single-loop learning is the result of instrumental means-end reflection on human action, whereas double-loop learning is the result of reflection on the norms, values and social relationships which underpin human action (Greenwood, J. 1998). Single-loop learning involves changing methods and improving efficiency in order to achieve stated goals (i.e., "doing things right"). Two-loop learning involves changing the goals themselves (i.e., "doing the right thing") (Cartwright, S. 2002).


Author: Ivana Miškić