Learning Theories of Chris Argyr




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Learning Theories of Chris Argyris and Donald Schön

Dr Alex Tang

I. Biography

a. Chris Argyris (1923-)

Chris Argyris was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1923. He graduated with a degree in psychology (1947), a MA in psychology and economics (1949) and a Ph.D. in organizational behaviour in 1951. He taught at Yale University (1951-1971). Then he went over to Harvard University (1971- ) and is presently director of the Monitor Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

b. Donald Schön (1930-1997)
Donald Schön was born in Boston. He graduated from Yale in 1951 where he studied philosophy. He was also an accomplished pianist and clarinettist-in jazz and chamber music.

II. Major works

a. Chris Argyris
i. Impact of organization structures, control systems and management on individuals
ii. Organizational changes involving top executives
iii. Role of social scientist as both researcher and actor (action science)
iv. Individual and organizational learning (single and double-loop learning; espoused theory and theory-in action)

b. Donald Schön
i. The Learning society-among one of the first to postulate that change is constant and society need to learn to keep up
ii. Double-loop learning with Argyris
iii. The reflective practitioner especially in reflection-in and reflection –on-action

III. Espoused and Theory-in-action
This is the result of the collaborative research of Argyris and Schön. They postulated that human beings are idealistic and have a sense of right and wrong. They have a preconceived idea of the goodness they are capable of and this is what they called the espoused theory. Unknown to them, there is a ‘master program’ which everyone has which seeks to (1) remain in unilateral control; (2) maximise “winning” and minimize “losing”; (3) suppress negative feelings; and (4) to be rational in their thinking (Argris 2004). The ‘master program’ takes over whenever the person wants to do anything and will take defensive action when the status quo is disturbed. Argyris and Schön called this theory-in-action. Argyris described theory-in-action behavior as Model 1 thinking. He wants to move people from Model 1 thinking to Model 2 thinking. Model 2 characteristics include (1) reviewing valid information; (2) making free and informed choices; and (3) developing internal commitment to this way of thinking (M.K.Smith 2001). The way to develop Model 2 learning is by double-loop thinking. In a way this make sense because it explains why people claim one belief structure but often acts contrary to their belief structure. This can also be applied to spiritual formation. Moving from Model 1 to Model 2 may be metanoia.

IV. Single and Double-Loop Thinking
Argyris has a favourite illustration for single loop thinking. He noted, “Single-loop learning asks a one-dimensional question to elicit a one-dimensional answer. My favorite example is a thermostat, which measures ambient temperature against a standard setting and turns the heat source on and off accordingly. The whole transaction is binary.” (Argyle 1994)
However for double-loop thinking, he wrote,
Double-loop learning takes an additional step or, more often than not, several additional steps. It turns the question back on the questioner. It asks what the media call follow-ups. In the case of the thermostat, for instance, double-loop learning would wonder whether the current setting was actually the most effective temperature at which to keep the room and, if so, whether the present heat source was the most effective means of achieving it. A double-loop process might also ask why the current setting was chosen in the first place. In other words, double-loop learning asks questions not only about objective facts but also about the reasons and motives behind these facts."(p.64-65)
This double-looping thinking is reflective thinking. Again if applied to spiritual formation, there is always a call to be reflective in our action. Socrates is widely quoted as saying an unreflective life is not worth living.

V. The Reflective Practitioner
Schön continued from there and developed his theories of the reflective practitioner. He is interested in reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action. His main target study groups are professionals especially managers because he is interested to learn about “thinking on their feet” (M.K.Smith 2005). This has led to the concept of “framing” which is perspective building with available data. This will be of great interest as we begin to understand how learning can be enhanced by being reflective and also by framing our assessment of available data. Again in the CFC, we need to be reflective Christians with the proper framing which can only come with a deeper understanding of the word of God.

VI. Conclusion
In this brief summary of espoused theory and theory-in-action; single and double-loop learning; reflective practitioner and framing, there are a lot more scope for research into the way we learn. These are exciting theories and we need to understand them from the Christian perspective so as to discover how useful they can be in spiritual formation.


Argris, Chris. 2004. Teaching smart people how to learn. In Harvard business review on developing leaders:83-110. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.
Argyle, Chris. 1994. Good communications that blocks learning. In Leadership insights: 15 unique perspectives on effective leadership:63-73: Harvard Business Review.
M.K.Smith. 2001. Chris argryris:Theories of action, double loop learning and organizational learning. Accessed 14 Feb 2005. Available from www.infed.org/thinkers/argyris.htm.
________. 2005. Donald schon (schön): Learning, reflection and change. Accessed 21 May 2006. Available from www.infed.org/thinker/et-schon.htm.




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 "spiritual forming disciples of Jesus Christ with informed minds, hearts on fire and contemplative in actions"  


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