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Strategic planning for online learning
Strategic planning for online learning

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3.2 Single and Double Loop Learning

Single and double-loop learning are concepts developed by Chris Argyris and Donald Schön (1976), in the late 1970s. Single-loop learning is a particular type of organizational learning process. When operating with single group learning, people, organizations or groups modify their actions according to the difference between expected and reached outcomes. For example, during the pandemic many pupils were locked out of their schools, this presented heads with numerous problems which required different approaches to teaching and learning. In this case, school leaders had to first evaluate the situation, then adapt behaviour and actions in order to mitigate the situation. The most substantial issue with single loop learning is that in order to resolve the most pressing issues/problems, we remove the symptoms, while root causes still remain. When engaging in this type of learning, individuals or groups focus primarily on their own actions and methods; leading to small changes in specific practices, behaviours or methods based on what is not working or the converse.

Read the information in the box below and think about how this relates to the way that you implemented digital learning during the pandemic.

Single loop learning

Research by Baxter et al, (Baxter et al., 2022) illustrates that a school leader x who did not buy into digital learning before the pandemic, still implemented it in order to resolve the problems they faced during lockdowns. However, if this digital learning was not effective due to digital poverty or lack of teacher expertise, they are unlikely to go on to create effective digital strategy for the future. This is largely because they addressed the immediate issue but not the root causes of lack of digital engagement. In other words, by using only single-loop learning we end up making small fixes and adjustments in order to resolve issues as they present themselves.

Double-loop learning is an educational concept and process that involves teaching people to think more deeply about their own assumptions and beliefs. Double loop learning involves confronting existing belief systems or schema, in order to understand assumptions (our own and others) and improve our decision making (Argyris, 1976). Since its development it has been used a great deal in research into how individuals make sense of their working environments (Weick, 1988). In relation to educational leadership, it has been aligned with change-making,(MacBeath, 1998) identity (Hallinger, 2003b) and strategy (Baxter and John, 2021a).


Jane Snow begins a new role as Chair of Governors, in a school that had just been rated as, ‘requires improvement,’ in its Ofsted inspection (Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills). During the day, she works as Head of Technical Development at a large multi-national company. During discussions about digital teaching, she feels like the expert in the room, and warms to the discussion. However, after the meeting the head approaches her and points out that what she was saying doesn’t really apply in the world of education, and that some of the governors were confused by the discussion. In effect, Jane used her existing way of understanding tech, and her assumptions, to cope in a new environment. The problem was that she needed to recognise that some of these assumptions simply didn’t work in the world of education: that grafting tech business models onto a public service was not really possible. So whilst it was good to have some grasp of tech, Jane’s very developed framework of understanding, was actually getting in the way of her seeing how things actually were in that school.

Activity 4

Timing: 25 minutes

Listen to a head teacher describing how she went about designing her digital strategy before and during COVID. Was this single or double loop learning?

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Ms Nichols Mackay began by analysing the digital baseline before she began thinking about how to implement her digital strategy. She also carried out a stakeholder analysis in order to create buy in for her plans, and create the expertise required to begin the strategy. The school was in a ‘requires improvement’ category at the time, so it was important to act relatively quickly. But by ensuring that adequate resources were in place, and that she had the (financial) support of the governors, she created an environment which was conducive to change. She identified several problems at once, lack of core equipment and the need for some teacher development, but by prioritizing hardware, the school was then in a good position to begin a pilot project. In addition, when the hardware is in place, she would then be in a better position to decide what staff development was needed in order for teachers to be creative with it in their classroom.

Baxter and John (2021) examine strategy as learning in relation to 42 semi structured interviews with Trustees and CEOs working in 8 English Multi Academy Trusts- groups of schools with an overarching senior leadership team and board of trustees. Drawing from Hallinger (2003) , they identify several elements of strategy as learning, illustrated in figure 1. Within the diagram a schema is a framework for understanding. As in the example in box 2 these schemas will enable them to quickly get to grips with what is needed in their new role, and that will be helpful. However, the new school may differ substantially from their old one, and some schemas may need to be adapted, or even reformed in order for them to do their job effectively.

Described image
Figure 6: (Hallinger, 2003b) in (Baxter and John, 2021b: ,p:294).(Hallinger, 2003a)
  • Which of these elements can you identify in the interview with Ms Nichols Mackay?

  • The head talks about teachers and their levels of understanding, (person schema) but in assessing the IT provision to be poor, she also gains information about the digital culture within the school (organisational culture). She examines the physical resources needed to implement her digital strategy (object concept schemas) and also examines what opportunities there may be to begin to implement a new digital culture (event schemas).

Research illustrates that a certain level of metacognition is needed by individuals to successfully construct and implement strategy (Balogun and Johnson, 2004; Baxter and John, 2021). This requires an examination of the underlying assumptions and or causes behind the present state of affairs, and a will to address these at a tactical level. This requires not only an ability to confront the situation, but also a candour in acknowledging this as a baseline and involving key stakeholders from the start. As you will have no doubt recognised by now, strategy as learning is very closely aligned to models of change management, which are explored in the next section.

Before you progress to Section 4, you may find it useful to make a note of the following in order to provide a good basis for starting to work on your Action grid [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   (only use this link if you haven’t already downloaded the file).

  • What assumptions am I bringing to the table?
  • What assumptions are others bringing to bear on the digital strategy?
  • How might these promote or block digital strategy?