Theories of learning: experiential learning, complexity science and complex processes of relating

Theories and Principles of Educational Practice (PGCE – L6)

Adapted from work prepared for summative assessment for my PGCE course

This essay presents the results of an analysis of a few key learning theories. Different theories and principles of teaching, learning and communication that promote inclusivity and improve the learning experience have been considered. The key school of learning considered was Experiential Learning, as understood through Kolb’s Learning Cycle, considered against learning theory from the complexity science field, and Stacey’s theory of Complex Responsive Processes of Relating, with added insights provided by Senge and Bohm. The theories have been linked to the teaching and learning environment of work based learning, defined here as organisational learning and the individuals who learn in teams within it. The overall aim of the essay was to articulate how the theories presented might improve the learning experience.

By way of a general introduction it can be said that learning takes many guises, and there is reference made in the literature to fashions of learning (Preiss and Murray, 2005), epistemological beliefs and approaches to learning (Cano, 2005), heuristics and general learning processes and principles of learning (Williams, 2005; Mazur, 2005), approaches to learning, learning strategies, cognition, cognitive style, and cognitive learning (Spicer, 2004; Edwards, 2004; Salvisberg, 2005; Hanaki, Sethi, Erev, and Peterhansl, 2005).

The place and time of learning is presented in the literature as being an ongoing pursuit, which takes place over the life course of the individual in the context of social relationships, and not necessarily by formal or continuous attachment to a learning institution. Mentioned specifically in the literature, for example, is continuous learning, training and development (El-Tannir, 2002), lifelong learning (Johnston, 1999), family learning (West, 2005), and open learning (Boot and Hodgson, 1987; Boot and Hodgson, 1988). However, this does not preclude more directed learning associated with, for example, the specific objectives of an organisation. Learning can therefore also be highly deliberate and instrumental (Zollo and Winter, 2002; Ottewill, 2003), while existing in different forms (Schuster, 2005), and being undertaken in order to effect specific changes and transformations (Wals, Caporali, Pace, Slee, Sriskandarajah, and Warren, 2004; Bowers, 2005; Tosey, Mathison, and Michelli, 2005).

Ryu et al (2005) refer to three learning processes encountered in their research: learning-by-investment, learning-by-doing, and learning-from-others (Ryu, Kim, Chaudhury, and Rao, 2005) (see also (Holtzman, 2005) on learning from doing). Under a similar umbrella, the literature also takes into account models of learning and theories of practice for informal learning environments (Hsi, Crowley, Duschl, Finke, King, and Sabelli, 2004), informal and incidental learning in the workplace (Marsick and Watkins, 1990) and situated learning (Giani and Schroeder, 2004; Lave and Wenger, 1990).

Although the key school of learning considered for this essay was experiential learning, that is presented later. Considered first, therefore, is complexity science and learning. A list was derived of 6 complexity principles that were found to be significant for the specific application to organisations and the people learning interdependently in the context of them (Webb, Wunram, Lettice, and Klein, 2005; Webb, Wohlfart, Wunram, and Ziv, 2004). These included:

  1. Self-organisation & Emergence: Organisations were understood to show self-organising behaviour in terms of the system being able to organise itself, i.e. that the single agents of the system could find a structure bottom-up on their own, without having a master-plan or observational guidance instructing them how to organise.
  2. Edge-of-Chaos: The edge of chaos was interpreted as the balance between structure and flexibility that a company would need to become robust. In complexity science, the edge of chaos, i.e. the zone between complete stability and complete chaos, was taken to represent a peak of creative productivity.
  3. Diversity: Organisations were understood to need a diverse set of agents to be successful and to enable an effective structure to emerge. In companies, this was said to mean that the right mix of people would be indispensable for innovation and creativity. Teams would not be as effective if all team members had the same strengths and weaknesses, as the combination of different abilities increases creativity and adaptability. Diversity can also refer to developing a broad range of products and considering numerous strategies, etc.
  4. History and Time: Organisations and the people interacting in them were understood to have a sense of historicity. This meant that, although the future

behaviour of an organisation could not be extrapolated from the past, the past of this system would still be important for its present and future position.

  1. Unpredictability: The notion of unpredictability implied that the development of an organisation could not be foreseen, i.e. not extrapolated from past behaviour and not calculated on the basis of linear cause-effect relationships.
  2. Pattern Recognition: Organisational and employee behaviour was understood to show patterns. In the natural sciences these patterns can, for example, be observed in a flock of birds or the complex structures of bee hives. Human beings, however, were seen to have a natural urge to identify patterns in the evolution of complex systems, which can be helpful but also dangerous in the corporate context (because the human brain tries to identify patterns even if there are no patterns).

These six complexity science principles were found to be effective in interdependent learning situations between individuals in organisations as a means by which to identify, articulate and understand problems, in terms of undergoing a change in perspective, philosophy and having consciously engaged in a learning process (Webb et al., 2005). These three areas of perspective, learning and philosophy, enhanced by sense-making enabled by the 6 principles, were found to make a substantial impact on the ability of individuals within the organisations studied to solve problems.

In the context of the application and use of complexity science principles as highlighted above, it is the value of complexity science principles in terms of language, metaphor and analogy that is acknowledged. Many analogies and

metaphors are used to elaborate ideas from complexity science, as with examples of ants, termites, birds, and bees. The term complex adaptive system (CAS) is used as a metaphor to explain a network of interrelating agents whose interactions can produce complex evolution (or learning and change between people over time). Metaphors used to explain different parts of this idea include ‘the Cambrian explosion’ (a metaphor for complex evolution), and an ‘ecosystem’ (a metaphor for a network where complex interaction takes place) (Lewin, 1999). In this sense metaphors are ‘a way of thinking and seeing things’ in the natural world, and transferring these thoughts elsewhere (Morgan 1986:12). Metaphors ‘bring new perspectives into existence’ – and in this instance a new perspective is provided for organisations (Grant & Oswick 1996:2).

The language and metaphor of complexity science principles has been recognised for its potential in enabling people to re-visualise their world (McMillan, 2004), by means of developing new ways of speaking and thinking about it, and in turn enabling new thinking to lead to new behaviour. McMillan draws on the work of Morgan (Morgan, 1986) in this context and suggests that of his eight metaphors describing organisations, the metaphor of the organisation as an organism, with links to biology and biological thinking, appear most relevant to the pursuit of linking metaphors and analogies from complexity science to organisations and work, and the experience of the individual and groups in that context. This correlates strongly, for example, with the description of bee hives, ant hills, termite mounds and bird formations as used to explain the theory of complex adaptive systems. These metaphors and analogies from the natural sciences then lend themselves to sense-making and learning about experiences of work and working in organisations. In this way, complexity science is understood to provide metaphors and analogies that give meaning to observed, experienced, and simulated reality (Fuller, 1999; Fuller, 2000; Lissack, 1999; Stacey, 2003a; Stacey, 2001; Price, 1999).

In line with this, Lissack (Lissack, 1997) reported on the initial results of research carried out within a division of a many thousand employee biotech company and within a start-up Internet content provider with fewer than 40 full-time employees. The research focussed on the use of complexity science metaphors and language by managers, Lissack explains:

“Complexity theory research has allowed for new insights into many phenomena and for the development of a new language. The use of complexity theory metaphors can change the way managers think about the problems they face. Instead of competing in a game or a war, they are trying to find their way on an ever changing, ever turbulent landscape. Such a conception of their organisation’s basic task can, in turn, change the day-to-day decisions made by management” (1997:295).

Lissack’s work, in part, inspired the research undertaken in this study, which is reported on in this thesis, but while Lissack explored how the organisations he researched would benefit from learning about complexity science metaphorical concepts in terms of in which types of tasks, he did not report on how the participants in the research made sense of their activities in their organisational context by means of the metaphorical concepts. Neither did he, as Stacey suggested, use analogies from the complexity science domain as analogies for human relating. In this instance, what is missing is Stacey’s list of 5 focus points (2003a:318):

􀂃 Focusing attention on the detailed local interaction between diverse people in the living present as patterning of experience, emergent identity and transformation

􀂃 This means communicative interaction in the form of conversation and how it patterns experience in narrative-like forms. This emphasises the importance of the informal and the narrative rather than the prescriptive and instrumental

􀂃 The importance of conflicting constraints emerging as power and the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion and the links to how people deal with anxiety

􀂃 The simultaneous emergence of continuity and novelty, creation and destruction, in the iteration of nonlinear interaction and its amplification of small changes

􀂃 The focus is on lived experience in local situations in the present, paying particular attention to the diversity of relationships within which individual and organisational identities emerge.

Stacey, who calls for a re-evaluation of how we are making sense, advocates sense-making (learning) as explaining, based on a theory of mind, self and society that provides an insightful way of translating some insights from the complexity sciences into an understanding of human acting and knowing that does not rely upon a split between the individual and the social. Instead, Stacey presents a theory of human relating based on continual social interaction of gesture and response, as depicted in the figure below. In this way Stacey puts forward a process-based view, which he describes in the following way (2003a:10):

“The process perspective takes a prospective view in which the future is being perpetually created in the living present on the basis of present reconstructions of the past. In the living present, expectations of the future greatly influence present reconstructions of the past, while those reconstructions are affecting expectations. Time in the present therefore, has a circular structure. It is this circular interaction between future and past in the present that is perpetually creating the future as both continuity and potential transformation at the same time”.

stacey gesture response

Figure: Stacey’s (2001) theory of continual social interaction

In the context of learning about complexity science in general and about the potential of decentralisation as a key lesson from the metaphor of the complex adaptive system in particular, Resnick (Resnick, 1998) advocated a mixture of observation, participation, construction, invention, and experimentation in order to develop strong intuitions and rich understanding, and he put this forward as a challenge for educators and educational developers. In line with this idea, in part, and for the purposes of this study, Kolb’s (1973; 1979; 1984) ideas concerning experiential learning and the learning cycle are of relevance and are described here in more detail.

In 1975, Kolb and Fry presented their applied theory of experiential learning (Kolb and Fry, 1975), which Kolb later elaborated upon (1984) and on which research has been carried out and expanded upon into the fields of business, management and with specific types of application made in organisational contexts (Garvin and Ramsier, 2003; Paul and Mukhopadhyay, 2004; van Reekum, 2005). Drawing from the work of John Dewey, Kurt Lewin and Jean Piaget, Kolb (1984) applied his theory of experiential learning to the fields of education, work, and adult development through a description of the process of experiential learning grounded in a model arising from research in psychology, philosophy, and physiology.

Through his model, Kolb provides a typology of individual learning styles and corresponding structures of knowledge in different academic disciplines, professions and careers. As a starting point for his developmental focus, Kolb refers to the work of the Russian cognitive theorist L.S. Vygotsky, who asserted that learning from experience was the process in which human development occurred. For Kolb, this developmental perspective formed the basis for applications of experiential learning to education, work, and adult development (Kolb 1984).

Describing humans as the learning species, Kolb grounded the need to learn in survival dependent on the ability to adapt, both in the reactive sense of fitting into the physical and social world, and in the proactive sense of creating and shaping those worlds. Kolb (1984) differentiated experiential learning theory from learning based on behavioural theories or other implicit theories, which he said underlay traditional educational methods and were based on empirical and rational/idealist epistemologies respectively. This included, for example, cognitive theories of learning that gave more emphasis to the acquisition, manipulation and recall of abstract symbols, or behavioural learning that denied the role of consciousness and subjective experience in the learning process. From this point of departure, he argued, emerged alternative prescriptions for conducting education, relationships among learning, work and other life activities, and knowledge creation. Out of this, however, Kolb proposed a holistic integrative perspective on learning combining experience, perception, cognition, and behaviour.

The key characteristics of experiential learning were defined by Kolb as:

􀂃 Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.

􀂃 This definition emphasises several critical aspects of the learning process as viewed from the experiential perspective:

􀂃 First is the emphasis on the process of adaptation and learning as opposed to content or outcomes.

􀂃 That knowledge is a transformation process, being continuously created and recreated, not an independent entity to be acquired or transmitted.

􀂃 Learning transforms experience in both its objective and subjective forms.

In elaboration of how this continual process of learning takes place, Kolb (Kolb, 1979) presented the learning cycle (see adapted representation of this, in figure below), which is based on the notion that learning is a cyclical process which needs to contain elements of each quadrant of the cycle before learning is possible. This cycle is described in the following way:

“Immediate concrete experience is the basis for observation and reflection. These observations are assimilated into a ‘theory’ from which new implications for action can be deduced. These implications, or hypotheses, then serve as guides in acting to create new experiences” (Kolb, 1973:2).

kolbs learning cycle

Figure : Kolb’s Learning Cycle

Kolb’s learning cycle became pivotal in many theories tying learning to organisational activities and organisational survival, for example, in terms of arguing in favour of giving employees time to reflect what is going on and how things could be tackled differently (Easterby-Smith, 1990:5):

“David Kolb of MIT clearly has a good point when he stresses that learning from experience should be a cyclical process involving a period of Experience followed by a separate period of Reflection. Ideally this should be followed by a chance to put all the different pieces of the puzzle together (Conceptualising) and possibly a reasonably risk-free opportunity to test out this new understanding through Experimentation. That should lead to further Experience, and so on”

Senge also set the need for the learning organisation in a slightly different context:

“From a very early age, we are taught to break apart problems, to fragment the world. This apparently makes complex tasks and subjects more manageable, but we pay a hidden, enormous price. We can no longer see the consequences of our actions; we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole. When we then try to ‘see the big picture’, we try to reassemble the fragments in our minds, to list and organise all the pieces. But, as physicist David Bohm says, the task is futile – similar to trying to reassemble the fragments of a broken mirror to see a true reflection. Thus, after a while we give up trying to see the whole together” (1990:4).

Senge therefore set about providing tools and ideas which were aimed to ‘destroy the illusion that the world is created of separate, unrelated forces’.

Following a study carried out at Lancaster University, Easterby-Smith reported that in spite of the above advice, some companies were simply more likely to enable managers to develop as a result of their experiences than others and that this seemed to be a fundamental characteristic in organisations that had succeeded in creating the conditions for learning. These companies also made a lot of use of project groups, transient structures, and encouraged people to try out new ways of working. This reinforced Easterby-Smith’s earlier pointers made in reference to the need to have flexibility in the organisational structure and the need to introduce necessary slack into the organisation so that, as mentioned above, people have time to reflect on what is going on, and how things might be tackled differently. Easterby-Smith suggested that an obsession on the part of the organisation with activity and the need to keep the product coming out at the other end was one of the biggest hindrances to organisational learning, and thus the need to refer back to Kolb’s cycle of learning, which advocated steps of action, reflection, conceptualisation and experimentation, (Easterby-Smith, 1990).

Texts providing critical accounts and considerations of the various schools of thought in the organisational learning and the learning organisation domain of particular relevance to this study include Stacey’s position outlined in the context of strategic management and organisational dynamics – a view grounded in the complexity sciences and management theory (Stacey, 2003b). Stacey (2001; 2003a), for example, asserts that organisations do not learn, but it is the people who work in them who learn interdependently through their interactions with one another. Stacey’s starting point for his critique is again the distinction between the social and individual, which he does not agree with, and also his reluctance to talk about an organisation as a reified entity – a subject also considered latterly in the organisational learning literature. Linguistic analysis of the subject of organisational learning and the learning organisation has considered the ways in which the terminology used also introduces, reifies and reinforces ontological meaning within the organisation – for example, in reference to community and culture (Yanow, 1999).

The relevance of the above to the work-related context is that work is very rarely an entirely solitary activity and is instead something which requires interaction with others to varying degrees, and that everyone as individuals has unique learning preferences, says Boyle (2005). He adds that learning how to work well with others is therefore necessary and can be improved by understanding and accepting that others are likely to have different learning preferences and characteristics from your own, and that once this happens learning with others at the level of the team or the organisation is enabled. This is important, states Boyle, because individuals are understood to learn more in dialogue with a team, than they can learn individually. In this way, teams are seen as a fundamental means by which individual and organisational learning can be mediated (Heavens and Child, 1999).

Due to the diversity of personal learning preferences therefore, it becomes important to consider the way in which learning is facilitated in the context of either self-directed learning or learning that takes place within the context of the organisation and teams more specifically. This then shifts the emphasis to tools and methods that aid or facilitate learning in those contexts.


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