Some of us may have heard about double-loop learning, and wondered what it meant beyond the jargon phrase, and others may not have heard of it at all! In this episode, we’re going to unravel double-loop learning and explain how we might use it as enablers of change.
When thinking about agricultural innovation, the drive for improvement is important. However, it’s not just about discovering solutions; it’s also about refining the way we approach problem-solving. Enter “double-loop learning,” a concept developed by Chris Argyris, an organisational trainer, in the 1980s.
But first, let’s check what we mean by single-loop learning. Single-loop learning involves responding to problems in a reactive manner and adjusting decisions based on received feedback. However, this approach maintains a fixed perspective, relying on static assumptions and mental models. On the other hand, double-loop learning is about stepping back from the immediate feedback loop. It’s about questioning the assumptions and mental models that underpin our actions. By doing so, we often are able to work out more innovative and adaptable approaches.
Chris Argyris likens single-loop learning to the simplest of feedback loops—a thermostat that triggers a heater to turn on or off as a preset temperature limit is reached. Using this analogy, double-loop learning is imagining that the thermostat starts questioning the necessity of that temperature setting, based on a broader context and surrounding conditions. Double-loop learning means asking about the assumptions that define the logic for the pre-set temperature.
Double-loop learning was initially conceived to understand organisational learning, but it isn’t confined to just organisations. It can be useful for individual learners too. Double-loop learning requires intentional reflection and challenging of assumptions. This distinction between single and double-loop learning corresponds to the concept of fast and slow thinking—the need to consciously detach from automatic responses to engage in deeper learning.
To be able to engage in double-loop learning, we need to start integrating some new practices into our work. To help us get started, here are some practical strategies for embedding double-loop learning in our extension practices.
- Step back, reflect, and reframe. Instead of just reacting to feedback, put aside time to reflect on our assumptions and mental models. This goes beyond reflecting on behaviour; it’s about reflecting on why we might be behaving in particular ways. This is sometimes described as a paradigm shift.
- Acknowledge resistance. Recognise that resistance is a natural response, both in organisational learning and on a personal level. Double-loop learning requires effort and it isn’t comfortable. It might also challenge vested interests or the status quo.
- Seek external input. To challenge assumptions, we sometimes need to draw on diverse ideas from sources beyond our individual experience. This is where it’s helpful to use a variety of mental models and collaborate with diverse teams.
- Use retrospectives to aid reflection processes. In team and organisational contexts, employ processes like retrospectives to encourage double-loop learning. These structured reflection opportunities help uncover what has worked, challenges faced, and underlying lessons. We can use the four L process where participants share what they liked, what they learned, what was lacking, and what they longed for in terms of improvements.
We haven’t discussed a retrospective before, so let’s quickly cover that. This is a structured process aimed at reflecting on past experiences, identifying what worked well, what could be improved, and figuring out actionable insights for future practice. The success of a retrospective session hinges on creating a safe space for open and honest communication. To do this effectively, we need to encourage active participation from all stakeholders and foster an environment where feedback is valued and used for positive change.
We hope these four strategies give some ideas for using double-loop learning in practice. Embracing double-loop learning gives an opportunity to improve our problem-solving. By continuously challenging assumptions and engaging in reflective practices, we can encourage a culture of innovation and growth. As enablers of change we think this is a useful tool that helps us and the work we’re involved in.
We’ve explored double-loop learning and its potential to transform our approach as enablers of change. Now, we’re eager to hear from you! Share your experiences with double-loop learning, along with any valuable tips and fresh ideas you might have. This isn’t a one-sided conversation—we invite you to take part in the discussion by leaving a comment below.
Your insights build the conversation, and we’re grateful for your participation in this Enablers of Change discussion. Stay connected by subscribing to our newsletter for updates on new episodes. If you found this episode useful, consider sharing it with your colleagues so they too can contribute to the discussion.
Argyris, C. (1977). Double loop learning in organizations. Harvard business review, 55(5), 115-125.
Coudel, E., Tonneau, J. P., & Rey-Valette, H. (2011). Diverse approaches to learning in rural and development studies: review of the literature from the perspective of action learning. Knowledge Management Research & Practice, 9, 120-135. Available online.
Gribbin, J., Aftab, M., Young, R., and Park, S. (2016) Double-loop reflective practice as an approach to understanding knowledge and experience., in Lloyd, P. and Bohemia, E. (eds.), Future Focused Thinking – DRS International Conference 2016, 27 – 30 June, Brighton, United Kingdom. https://doi.org/10.21606/drs.2016.310