The theory of double-loop learning was developed by Chris Argyris and Donald Schon in the late 1970s. Their focus was on improving organizational learning to help companies improve their communication, processes and decision making (Wheeler, 2018). Argyris wrote in 1977 that double-loop learning works for “…educators at all levels of education…” not just business (Argyris, 1977). The following is the example used to explain double-loop learning.

Single-loop learning can be compared with a thermostat that learns when it is too hot or too cold and then turns the heat on or off. The thermostat is able to perform this task because it can receive information (the temperature of the room) and therefore take corrective action.

If the thermostat could question itself about whether it should be set at 68 degrees, it would be capable not only of detecting error but of questioning the underlying policies and goals as well as its own program. …Hence it might be called double loop learning.
 (Argyris, 1977)

When learners are solving a problem or correcting an error they are using knowledge and skill they have and are focused on the solution. This is single-loop learning. Double-loop learning happens when learners question why and how a problem needs to be solved and examine their underlying assumption and expectations of the problem and decision-making process. (Argyris, 1977, p. 3). An examination of why an action or solution was not chosen, or implement is an important part of double-loop learning because it helps to uncover deeply held beliefs.

Double-loop learning help learners be more creating solving problems (Cartwright, 2002) as they must examine problems with a focus on the problem and its solution rather than just the solutions. Learners must “change their habits of thinking and challenge and restructure deeply held assumptions, and act in new and unfamiliar ways” (Cartwright, 2002) Making these changes can be difficult to changes because the way people make decisions is ingrained. Learners are asked to apply what they have learned to real-life situations using case studies, discussion, debates or other reflecting activities (Freeman & Knight, 2011).

Learners may be able to reflect on their problem-solving process, assumptions and norms, but may not be able to implement the changes in their thinking. Argyris describe this as theories-in-action. He explained that people have espoused theories, which are what they say or believe and theories-in-use, what they do. (Argyris, 1977, p. 6) Theories-in-use are deeply ingrained in people, so they can be unaware of the misalignment between their what they do and what they are saying.

Double-loop learning has learners critically reflecting on why a problem needs to be solved, how their assumptions and beliefs affect their problem solving and implementation of a solution. Critical reflection has learners think about their process and how it could be done different (Barrett & Ritcher, 2010).



Argyris, C. (1977, September). Double Loop Learning in Organizations. Harvard Business Review.

Barrett, H., & Ritcher, J. (2010). Double Loop Learning. Retrieved from Reflections4Learning: 

Cartwright, S. (2002, Summer). Double-loop Learning: A concept and Process for Leadership Educators. Journal of Leadership Education, pp. 68-71.

Freeman, I., & Knight, P. (2011). Double-loop Learning and Global Business Students. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, pp. 102-127.

Wheeler, S. (2018). Learning Theory: Double-Loop Learning. Retrieved from Teach Thought : Learning Theories: 

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