First an introduction to the terms:
Single-loop learning seems to be present when goals, values, frameworks and, to a significant extent, strategies are taken for granted. The emphasis is on ‘techniques and making techniques more efficient’ (Usher and Bryant: 1989: 87) Any reflection is directed toward making the strategy more effective. Double-loop learning, in contrast, ‘involves questioning the role of the framing and learning systems which underlie actual goals and strategies’ (op. cit.). In many respects the distinction at work here is the one used by Aristotle, when exploring technical and practical thought. The former involves following routines and some sort of preset plan – and is both less risky for the individual and the organization, and affords greater control. The latter is more creative and reflexive, and involves consideration notions of the good. Reflection here is more fundamental: the basic assumptions behind ideas or policies are confronted… hypotheses are publicly tested… processes are disconfirmable not self-seeking (Argyris 1982: 103-4).
Here is their illustration of the difference between the two techniques.
I've taken the liberty of modifying the chart to discuss beliefs:
I believe that most Orthodox Jews (and other traditionalist groups) engage only in "single-loop" learning. For example, given the assumptions that God is good and God wrote the Torah, they reasonably conclude the Torah is good. Fine. Here's where it gets interesting. Some piece of data comes along that appears to contradict the conclusion the Torah is good. To reference my previous post, I'll use the example of the Torah commanding the stoning-to-death of adulterous women. Most Orthodox Jews will not question the assumptions that God is good and God wrote the Torah. They will instead go back to the interpretation stage and find a way to reconcile the new data with the old assumptions.
There's nothing about single-loop learning that makes it necessarily incorrect. In fact, if we didn't use it most of the time, we'd never be able to get anything done. However, there is a great danger to depending on it to the exclusion of double-loop learning. If one of our assumptions happens to be false and we don't know it yet, we can waste a lot of time and make a lot of incorrect conclusions if we stick to single-loop learning.
It can be scary and disorienting to question one's assumptions but it's clear that sometimes it's the only way to reach a correct conclusion. I think that people who leave their faiths (or join faiths!) for intellectual reasons are more willing to ask themselves the hard questions. (Or, in some cases, life's events practically force them to ask the hard questions.)
If we're interested in the truth and in good results, I think we must frequently do a sanity check on our underlying assumptions (to the degree we are even aware of them.) Then again, if we aren't concerned with the truth and are happy with the results, it might be reasonable to not look at those assumptions. Perhaps it's unfortunate for those of us who care more about what's true than about what's useful.
Even if we don't habitually question our assumptions, I think there are some warning signs that we are engaging in single-loop learning when double-loop learning is called for. For example:
- We are having great difficulty coming to reasonable conclusions. (e.g. my husband loves me and he beats me so his beating me must be a form of his love.)
- We can reach satisfactory conclusions, but the interpretation is so convoluted that it strains credibility. (e.g. the epicycles in the Ptolemaic system of geocentrism.)
- We finds ourselves having to do a lot of interpretation too often. (e.g. my child would never use drugs and his strange behavior today was because he was stressed out. And the same was true yesterday and the day before that and the day before that...)
I guess this is all just a fancy way to describe Occam's Razor, but coming at it from a new direction is pretty interesting.