single-loop-learning

What Is Single-loop Learning? The Single-loop Learning In A Nutshell

Single-loop learning was developed by Dr. Chris Argyris, a well-respected author and Harvard Business School professor in the area of metacognitive thinking. He defined single-loop learning as “learning that changes strategies of action (i.e. the how) in ways that leave the values of a theory of action unchanged (i.e. the why).”  Single-loop learning is a learning process where people, groups, or organizations modify their actions based on the difference between expected and actual outcomes.

Understanding single-loop learning

Whether we care to admit it, every person thinks in a certain way based on their current beliefs and assumptions about the world. This thinking guides their actions (what they do) and also influences their performance (what they get). 

As the individual experiences life, they continually assess outcomes to determine whether they occurred as expected or whether there were things that could have been done differently. This form of self-inquiry may be subconscious and unstructured, or more deliberate and formal.

Argyris defined this near-constant inquiry process as the detection of error. In single-loop learning, the error results when an individual isn’t where they want to be. Put simply, a difference exists between the expected outcome and the actual outcome.

Once an error has been detected, the individual must revisit their actions (and the strategies guiding them) to assess and develop new action strategies. Importantly, this must be done without altering an individual’s core beliefs or assumptions. 

This process of developing new actions borne from the same thinking is the basis of single-loop learning. In an organizational context, single-loop learning encourages employees to consider alternative strategies that respect governing factors such as goals, values, plans, and rules.

The four steps of the single-loop learning cycle

There are four simple steps to a single-loop learning cycle:

  1. Observe current outcomes – what happened, and how long has it been occurring? 
  2. Assess possible corrections – where did the individual, group, or organization deviate from the norm?
  3. Develop action strategies based on the insights uncovered.
  4. Implement the new action strategies and then observe current outcomes to repeat the process once more.

Limitations of single-loop learning 

There are a couple of major limitations of single-loop learning.

For one, the approach only addresses the symptoms of a problem. By ignoring the problem’s root cause, it is likely to reoccur in the future. This issue is exacerbated because the approach does not consider that core beliefs and assumptions may be contributing to the problem in the first place. Many consider single-loop learning to be a band-aid solution at best, capable of producing nothing more than minor or short-term fixes.

Single-loop learning also assumes problems and their associated solutions to be close to each other in time and space. That is, the method does not consider any intangible factors that might be impacting events and processes. This means single-loop learning will rarely encourage creative or innovative solutions, instead defaulting to ideas that address deviations from more tangible actions, processes, procedures, systems, and strategies.

Key takeaways:

  • Single-loop learning is a learning process where people, groups, or organizations modify their actions based on the difference between expected and actual outcomes. It was developed by the teacher and author Dr. Chris Argyris.
  • Single-loop learning can be described in simple terms via four steps. The individual observes the outcome, evaluates possible corrections, develops action strategies based on viable corrections, and then implements them. After implementation, the loop, or cycle, starts again as the impact of the new strategy is observed.
  • Single-loop learning has two major drawbacks. For one, it addresses the symptoms of a problem without paying any attention to the root cause. It also assumes problems and their associated solutions to be close to each other in and time and space. 

Connected Learning Frameworks

Growth vs. Fixed Mindset

growth-mindset-vs-fixed-mindset
fixed mindset believes their intelligence and talents are fixed traits that cannot be developed. The two mindsets were developed by American psychologist Carol Dweck while studying human motivation. Both mindsets are comprised of conscious and subconscious thought patterns established at a very young age. In adult life, they have profound implications for personal and professional success. Individuals with a growth mindset devote more time and effort to achieving difficult goals and by extension, are less concerned with the opinions or abilities of others. Individuals with a fixed mindset are sensitive to criticism and may be preoccupied with proving their talents to others.

Constructive Feedback

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Constructive feedback is supportive in nature and designed to help employees improve or correct their performance or behavior. Note that the intention of such feedback is to achieve a positive outcome for the employee based on comments, advice, or suggestions.

High-Performance Coaching

high-performance-coaching
High-performance coaches work with individuals in personal and professional contexts to enable them to reach their full potential. While these sorts of coaches are commonly associated with sports, it should be noted that the act of coaching is a specific type of behavior that is also useful in business and leadership

Training of Trainers

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The training of trainers model seeks to engage master instructors in coaching new, less experienced instructors with a particular topic or skill. The training of trainers (ToT) model is a framework used by master instructors to train new instructors, enabling them to subsequently train other people in their organization.

Active Listening

active-listening
Active listening is the process of listening attentively while someone speaks and displaying understanding through verbal and non-verbal techniques. Active listening is a fundamental part of good communication, fostering a positive connection and building trust between individuals.

Active Recall

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Active recall enables the practitioner to remember information by moving it from short-term to long-term memory, where it can be easily retrieved. The technique is also known as active retrieval or practice testing. With active recall, the process is reversed since learning occurs when the student retrieves information from the brain.

Baptism by Fire

baptism-by-fire
The phrase “baptism by fire” originates from the Bible in Matthew 3:11. In Christianity, the phrase was associated with personal trials and tribulations and was also used to describe the martyrdom of an individual. Many years later, it was associated with a soldier going to war for the first time. Here, the baptism was the battle itself.  “Baptism by fire” is a phrase used to describe the process of an employee learning something the hard way with great difficulty. 

Dreyfus Model

dreyfus-model-of-skill-acquisition
The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition was developed by brothers Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1980. The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition is a learning progression framework. It argues that as one learns a new skill via external instruction, they pass through five stages of development: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert.

Kolb Learning Cycle

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The Kolb reflective cycle was created by American educational theorist David Kolb. In 1984, Kolb created the Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) based on the premise that learning is facilitated by direct experience. In other words, the individual learns through action. The Kolb reflective cycle is a holistic learning and development process based on the reflection of active experiences.

Method of Loci

method-of-loci
The Method of Loci is a mnemonic strategy for memorizing information. The Method of Loci gets its name from the word “loci”, which is the plural of locus – meaning location or place. It is a form of memorization where an individual places information they want to remember along with points of an imaginary journey. By retracing the same route through the journey, the individual can recall the information in a specific order. For this reason, many consider this memory tool a location-based mnemonic.

Experience Curve

experience-curve
The Experience Curve argues that the more experience a business has in manufacturing a product, the more it can lower costs. As a company gains un know-how, it also gains in terms of labor efficiency, technology-driven learning, product efficiency, and shared experience, to reduce the cost per unit as the cumulative volume of production increases.

Feynman Technique

feynman-technique
The Feynman Technique is a mental model and strategy for learning something new and committing it to memory. It is often used in exam preparation and for understanding difficult concepts. Physicist Richard Feynman elaborated this method, and it’s a powerful technique to explain anything.

Learning Organization

learning-organization
Learning organizations are those that encourage adaptative and generative learning where employees are motivated to think outside the box to solve problems. While many definitions of a learning organization exist today, author Peter Senge first popularized the term in his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organisation during the 1990s.

Forgetting Curve

forgetting-curve
The forgetting curve was first proposed in 1885 by Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist and pioneer of experimental research into memory.  The forgetting curve illustrates the rate at which information is lost over time if the individual does not make effort to retain it.

Instructor-Led Training

instructor-led-training
Instructor-led training is a more traditional, top-down, teacher-oriented approach to learning that occurs in online or offline classroom environments. The approach connects instructors with students to encourage discussion and interaction in a group or individual context, with many enjoying ILT over other methods as they can seek direct clarification on a topic from the source.  Instructor-led training (ILT), therefore, encompasses any form of training provided by an instructor in an online or offline classroom setting.

5 Whys Method

5-whys-method
The 5 Whys method is an interrogative problem-solving technique that seeks to understand cause-and-effect relationships. At its core, the technique is used to identify the root cause of a problem by asking the question of why five times. This might unlock new ways to think about a problem and therefore devise a creative solution to solve it.

Single-Loop Learning

single-loop-learning
Single-loop learning was developed by Dr. Chris Argyris, a well-respected author and Harvard Business School professor in the area of metacognitive thinking. He defined single-loop learning as “learning that changes strategies of action (i.e. the how) in ways that leave the values of a theory of action unchanged (i.e. the why).”  Single-loop learning is a learning process where people, groups, or organizations modify their actions based on the difference between expected and actual outcomes.

Spaced Repetition

spaced-repetition
Spaced repetition is a technique where individuals review lessons at increasing intervals to memorize information. Spaced repetition is based on the premise that the brain learns more effectively when the individual “spaces out” the learning process. Thus, it can be used as a mnemonic technique to transform short-term memory into long-term memory.

Blended Learning

blended-learning
Blended learning is a broad and imprecise field that makes it difficult to define. However, in most cases, it is considered to be a form of hybrid learning that combines online and offline instructional methods.

VAK Learning

vak-learning-styles-model

Lessons Learned

lessons-learned
The term lessons learned refers to the various experiences project team members have while participating in a project. Lessons are shared in a review session which usually occurs once the project has been completed, with any improvements or best practices incorporated into subsequent projects. 

Post-Mortem Analysis

post-mortem-analysis
Post-mortem analyses review projects from start to finish to determine process improvements and ensure that inefficiencies are not repeated in the future. In the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK), this process is referred to as “lessons learned”.

Instructor-Led Training

instructor-led-training
Instructor-led training is a more traditional, top-down, teacher-oriented approach to learning that occurs in online or offline classroom environments. The approach connects instructors with students to encourage discussion and interaction in a group or individual context, with many enjoying ILT over other methods as they can seek direct clarification on a topic from the source.  Instructor-led training (ILT), therefore, encompasses any form of training provided by an instructor in an online or offline classroom setting.

5E Instructional Model

5e-instructional-model
The 5E Instructional Model is a framework for improving teaching practices through discussion, observation, critique, and reflection. Teachers and students move through each phase linearly, but some may need to be repeated or cycled through several times to ensure effective learning. This is a form of inquiry-based learning where students are encouraged to discover information and formulate new insights themselves.

Related Strategy Concepts: Read Next: Mental ModelsBiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBandwagon EffectDecision-Making Matrix.

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