Double loop learning

Double loop learning - a room thermostat

Chris Argyris has spent his life researching how to work with Senior Managers, smart people and, generally, those who are in a position of power in organizations. His focus is on helping these people learn. During his research, he has uncovered principles that can help the majority of adults learn more effectively. This has implications on training courses you might go on or those that you might send your staff on to.

His big insight is that adults need to have control over what they’re learning and why. It seems obvious, but many training courses already decide those things for you. Much of the ‘training from the back of the room’ philosophy brings these ideas to life and flips the classroom around to focus on what the participants want to explore and support that using material, discussion and exercises that can bring to light the answers in a practical way.

This requires what he calls a ‘double loop’. To help put this into concrete terms, think about a thermostat that controls the heat of your home. Let’s say you set the temperature to 19 degrees Celsius (66 Fahrenheit). Once set, the thermostat spends it’s time trying to control your heating system to stay within range. That’s a single loop. A double loop might start with something that says ‘keep people at a comfortable temperature’. We would need to understand what is comfortable, why they’re comfortable, what might make them uncomfortable and what triggers that. This means the temperature might fluctuate from 18 degrees to 22 degrees. Maybe someone is exercising. Maybe someone took off their jumper. These elements would cause change that a single loop process couldn’t deal with.

In this way, learning is about finding the right questions to ask. As you learn something new, you might find yourself changing the questions subtly or maybe asking completely new questions. This is the key to the double loop.


In your current work, are you asking the right questions? Based on what you’re learning, does it make sense to shift the questions you’re asking?