Double-loop learning and theories of action

Have you ever tried to convince yourself you’d act a particular way in a given situation only to later find yourself in this position and taking a different course? You may purport to hold beliefs that would govern your actions and guide you down one path or another, yet realise that in reality, what you would actually do is something else, entirely.

Shocked by the hike in public transport fares that came into effect on January 1, perhaps you jump on a train without touching on your Myki, taking your chances with Metro’s ticket inspectors. You decide – honest citizen you are – that if you’re unlucky enough to be caught, you’ll fess up and give the officer your details, ultimately acknowledging there’s a small chance you quite literally, will have to pay the price. But, you’re feeling lucky. The likelihood of an officer jumping on board your carriage in the middle of the day is low, and you’re wearing your lucky pants, so ‘let’s rebel and defiantly assert a position against the rising fares’.

Only two stations later, three officers are there, ready to dock you a couple-o-hundys. But, instead of speaking out against the hike while simultaneously remaining a good and honest Melbournian, you jump to say you were rushing for the train and simply had no time to Go Directly Pass Go and Collect $200, or pass the Myki machine at your home station.

While this example may be somewhat unrealistic, the principle holds. The path of action you would like to think you’d take is what Chris Argyris calls your espoused theory, the theory of action to which you give allegiance. However, what governs your actions in reality Argyris names your theory-in-use. If the consequences of your approach match your intended outcome, the theory-in-use is confirmed. But, Argyris proposes that if consequences are unintended/do not match/work against your governing values, they can be viewed as part of single or double-loop learning.

In coming to understand these theories, I drew on the Networked Media blog and came across a post by my tutor that led me to a former student’s comprehension of the same work. Combining my own extensive dot-pointing from the reading with the explanation on my peer, I will explain single and double-loop learning like this:

  • Single-loop learning exists when things are taken for granted and where strategies for managing error remain within governing variables.
  • Double-loop learning involves questioning the governing variables themselves, and subjecting them to scrutiny, thus allowing space for alteration and a shift in the way strategies and consequences are framed.

Here’s a diagram that might help, as really, a picture is worth a thousand words:

Argyris' Double-Loop Theory

Argyris also proposes two models that describe features of theories-in-use that either inhibit or enhance double-loop learning:

  • Model I involves making inferences about another person’s behaviour without checking whether they are valid, and is shaped by an implicit disposition to winning and avoiding embarrassment.
  • Model II includes the views and experiences of participants rather than seeking to impose a view on a situation, is dialogical, encourages open communication and participation, and emphasises common goals and shared leadership.

According to Argyris, Model II increases the likelihood of double-loop learning while Model I inhibits it. Furthermore, he asserts most people will espouse Model II. Argyris then contextualises the models using Organisational Learning Systems, and proposes Organisational II Learning System (O-II) as preferable to Organisational I Learning System (O-I), where the former seeks to maximise client participation with a methodology based on rationality and honesty over the latter, (self-reinforcing, inhibiting, defensive, and acts against long-term organisational interests).

Perhaps, what I will take away from analysing these learning theories, the size of these loopholes and the models above, is the importance of noticing how open we are to change, how we deal with unintended outcomes, and a greater understanding of the extent to which our values actually govern our actions as opposed to the extent to which we espouse them to have done.

Happy learning.


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