Double-Loop Learning


Framing human learning in terms of two loops, one procedural and one reflective

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible actions and interpretations
  • Knowing is … repertoire of possible actions and interpretations
  • Learner is … self-elaborating agent (individual)
  • Learning is … expanding possibilities
  • Teaching is … reminding; challenging




Double-Loop Learning is an iterative model which posits that higher-order learning involves two processes or loops. The first loop is goal-directed, rule-based, and unreflective (and is associated with an uncritical understandings of motivations and actions). The second loop is reflective and analytical, enabling the modification of the first loop (and is associated with conscious and critical understandings). Associated discourses include:
  • Single-Loop Learning (Chris Argyris, 1970s) – learning that alters action and corrects errors by affecting routine behavior (without prompting interrogations of habits or beliefs)
  • Theory of Action (Chris Argyris & Donald Schon, 1970s) – a framework based on a conviction that, for individuals, teams, and organizations alike, there is almost always a gap between “Espoused Theory” (how agents explain their motivation and actions) and “Theory-In-Use” (the actual reasons agents act as they do). It is argued that becoming aware of and addressing such gaps requires Double-Loop Learning.
  • Triple-Loop Learning (attributed to Gregory Bateson, 1940s) – a notion embraced with Organizational Learning that is concerned with the effective use of individual-focused Single-Loop Learning and Double-Loop Learning to influence the collective – that is, to transform the norms and possibilities of an organization by deliberately influencing multiple learning units simultaneously


Double-Loop Learning is a simplified (and, perhaps, over-simplified) derivative of Second-Order Cybernetics.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Chris Argyris

Status as a Theory of Learning

Double-Loop Learning is a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Double-Loop Learning is not a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

As noted above, Double-Loop Learning is a simplified derivative of Second-Order Cybernetics, and so it could be argued to have a scientific basis through that association. It could also be argued to be a regression – that is, counter-scientific.


  • Theory of Action
  • Single-Loop Learning
  • Triple-Loop Learning

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Double-Loop Learning” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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