Single and double loop learning

Hello everyone!

On this blog I am going to share some information about Single and Double-loop Learning. Sooner or later, you should be able to find answers to these questions from this blog:

– What is Single-loop Learning?

– What is Double-loop Learning?

– What is Triple-loop Learning?

– Conclusion

And in addition to these, hopefully some good case-examples, pictures, videos and etc.

The next post will handle single-loop learning generally.

Stay tuned!


Updated 17.10.2014


Single-Loop Learning

”Following the rules”

Single and double-loop learning-concepts have been developed by Chris Argyris and Donald Schön. These theories are based upon “a theory of action” perspective designed by Argyris.

Single-loop learning (illustrated in figure 1 below) is one kind of organizational learning process. In single-loop learning, people, organizations or groups modify their actions according to the difference between expected and reached outcomes. In other words, when something goes wrong or does not happen like we would like, most of us would consider how the situation could be fixed. Single-loop learning can also be described like to be situation in which we observe our present situation and face problems, errors, inconsistencies or impractical habits. After that we adapt our own behavior and actions to mitigate and improve the situation accordingly.


There are few problems with single-loop learning. The biggest problem with it is that acting like that we only remove the symptoms, while root causes are still remaining. That is not a good thing because we will have new problems in the future. Instead of that we should examine, and find out the root causes and also challenge our underlying beliefs and assumptions. By using only single-loop learning we end up making only small fixes and adjustments. That is the main reason why we also need double- and triple-loop learning. These two topics will be discussed later on this blog.

The other problem with single-loop learning is that it assumes problems and their solutions to be close to each other in time and space. However, this is not true generally. In this kind of learning, individuals or groups are primarily observing their own actions and methods. This will lead to small changes in specific practices, behaviors or methods which are based on what has or has not been working before.

In summary it can be said that single-loop learning is operative level and it answers to the question “Are we doing things right?”


Double-loop learning

”Changing the rules”

The previous post was all about single-loop learning. Now it is time to consider double-loop learning. As I have described earlier, double-loop learning is a part of “a theory of action” designed by Chris Argyris. In single-loop learning characterized by the fact that we changed our action or behavior to fix or avoid mistakes. Whereas in double-loop learning we also correct or change the underlying causes behind the problematic action.

There could me many different underlying causes. Underlying causes may be, for example, organizational norms, policies, ways to work or individuals’ motives, assumptions or even informal and ingrained practices which prevent inquiry on these causes.

In double-loop learning (illustrated in figure 2 below) we are forced to think about our actions in the framework of our operating assumptions. That is an important thing because we need to start thinking and analyzing our own processes. We should ask ourselves “what is going on here?” and “what are the patterns?”. That information is needed if we want to understand the pattern. Double-loop learning will lead to deepen understanding of our assumptions and better decision-making in our everyday operations. We also need to notice that double-loop learning leads to organizational learning. That is very important because organizational learning is one of the most important factors nowadays. Without organizational learning we have serious troubles.


Basically, double-loop learning requires three skills:

  1. self-awareness
  2. honesty or candor
  3. taking responsibility

At first we need self-awareness to identify what is often unconscious or habitual. After that we need honesty or candor to recognize mistakes and discuss with other people to find out and establish root-causes. Finally we need to take responsibility for how we need to change our action or methods and how we can learn from the incident.Chris Argyris himself is described the process of single and double-loop learning in the context of organizational learning as follows:

“When the error detected and corrected permits the organization to carry on its present policies or achieve its presents  objectives, then that error-and-correction process is single-loop learning. Single-loop learning is like a thermostat that learns when it is too hot or too cold and turns the heat on or off. The thermostat can perform this task because it can receive information (the temperature of the room) and take corrective action. Double-loop learning occurs when error is detected and corrected in ways that involve the modification of an organization’s underlying norms, policies and objectives.”

In summary, by using double-loop learning we examine the underlying assumptions behind the actions and behavior and learn from those mistakes and incorrect methods. By doing this we are able to remove the root causes that makes us to behave or action in a certain, poor or costly way. While single-loop learning was more like an operative level, double-loop learning is rather a tactical level. Double-loop learning should answer to question “Are we doing the right things?”.



Triple-loop learning

“Learning about learning”

The origin of the triple-loop learning is not well-known. It is clear that triple-loop learning is inspired by Argyris and Schön (developers of single- and double-loop learning) but the term does not appear explicitly in their published works. In triple-loop learning (illustrated in figure 3 below) we learn how to learn by reflecting how we learned in the first place. In this kind of learning organizations, individuals or groups should reflect on how they think about rules and not only think that rules should be changed. Triple-loop learning helps us to understand more about ourselves or our organization. One defining for triple-loop learning is “double-loop learning about double-loop learning”.


All in all it can be said that triple-loop learning encompasses both single- and double-loop learning and much more than that. This means that triple-loop learning focuses on the ability to utilize both single- and double-loop learning. It challenges existing learning framework as well as models and assumptions. The learning goes be beyond insight and patterns to context. With triple-loop learning we get to known new ways of learning and new commitments.

This kind of learning challenges us to understand the overall picture and how the problems and solutions are linked together even when separated widely by time and place. It is also important to notice that with triple-loop learning we should able to understand how our previous actions created the conditions that led us to our current situation and problems.

Organizations can benefit from triple-loop learning in many ways:

  • The relationship between organizational structure and behavior will change fundamentally because the organization learns how to learn
  • Organization learn new ways to comprehend and change its purpose
  • Organization get a better view of understanding of how to respond to its environment
  • Get a deeper comprehension of why our organizations chose to do things we do

In summary, while single-loop learning all about correcting errors without questioning underlying assumptions and double-loop learning detects errors, questions underlying assumptions behind the actions and behavior and also learn from these mistakes, triple-loop learning is operating at a higher level; it develops the organization’s ability to learn about learning. Triple-loop learning should answer to question “how do we decide what is right?”



In generally, organizational learning is defined as occurring under two conditions. First, it occurs when an organizational reached the goals it was trying to achieve. In that case, there is a match between the proposed actions and the outcome. Second, learning occurs when we identify the mismatch between intentions and outcome and correct it. In this case a mismatch is turned into a match. These are illustrated in figure 4.


It is important no notice that organizations do not perform the actions that produce learning. Instead, it is the individuals who act as agents of organizations and produce the behavior that lead to learning. Despite this, organizations can create conditions that may, even significantly influence what individuals frame as the problem, design as a solution and so on. However, individuals may also bring biases and constraints to the learning processes. One example of constraint is human mind’s limited capability for information processing.

All in all, single- and double-loop learning are required by all organizations. It is said that organizations should try to decompose double-loop issues into single-loop issues because single-loop issues are easier to manage. That is because single-loop learning is appropriate for the routine, repetitive issues that help us to do our every day job, while double-loop learning is more relevant for the complex issues

At the very lastly, I would like to add a table (below) which will gather all of these things together. The table is drawn up by Eilertsen and London (2005) and the information of the table is based on work by Chris Argyris, Donald Schön, Ron Heifetz, Gregory Bateson, and Peter Senge.




Updated 17.10.2014

Apin Talisayon’s Weblog. (2008). D17- Single-Loop Learning versus Double-Loop Learning. (WWW). Available: . Retrieved: 27.9.2014

Argyris, C. (1999). On Organizational Learning. Cambridge: Blackwell

Argyris, C. (1990). Overcoming Organizational Defenses. Boston: Allyn and Bacon

Eilertsen, S., London, K. (2005). Modes of Organizational Learning. Kollner Group. (WWW). Available: . Retrieved: 27.9.2014


Smith, M. K. (2001, 2013). ‘Chris Argyris: theories of action, double-loop learning and organizational learning’, the encyclopedia of informal education. (WWW). Available: . Retrieved: 27.9.2014

Thorsten’s Wiki

Tosey, PC., Visser, M., Saunders, MNK. (2012). The origins and conceptualisations of `triple-loop’ learning: a critical review Management Learning, 43 (3). 289 – 305.

Wikipedia – Organizational Learning


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