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27th Annual SCUTREA conference proceedings 1997

Crossing borders, breaking boundaries : Research in the education of adults

Epistemology of groups as learning systems: a research-based analysis

Elizabeth Kasl, California Institute of Integral Studies, USA
Victoria Marsick, Columbia University Teachers College, USA

There is a growing recognition that the complex challenges created by an increasingly interdependent world are more effectively met by groups of people than by individuals working alone. This recognition spurs a quest to better understand how groups learn. To conceptualise a group as a learning system, rather than as a collectivity of individual learning systems, requires a significant shift in meaning perspective about human boundaries. Western cultural tradition is deeply rooted in concepts of self and individualism, creating habits of mind that make this shift difficult.

Current theories about learning construe the learner as an individual. Adult educators have long based their practice on the belief that individual learning is supported by group participation, but they have not conceptualised the group itself as a learner (Imel 1996) and are likely to consider 'the term group learning to be an oxymoron' (Armstrong and Yarbrough 1996, 33). Only recently have some adult educators begun to assert the importance of group learning (Armstrong and Yarbrough 1996; Cranton 1996; Dechant, Marsick, and Kasl 1993; Imel and Tisdell 1996), and to analyse how group learning is different from group dynamics (Armstrong and Yarbrough 1996; Kasl, Marsick, and Dechant in press). We contend that a theory and practice of group learning could contribute significantly to adult educators' capacity to re-envision learning for today's world.

The purpose of this paper is to begin to formulate an epistemology of group learning on which adult educators might base a pedagogy of group learning. By epistemology, we mean a description of the fundamental relationship between the knower and the known (Guba and Lincoln 1994; Heron 1996). Thus, we ask the epistemological question, 'What is the relationship between the group as a knowing system and what the group knows?' as well as the pedagogical correlate, 'How does a group as a knowing system come to know what it knows?'


Herein, we discuss our analysis of published case studies of 'group learning'. This term is often used to refer to individual learning that is supported by a group. Although important, this phenomenon was not our focus as we scanned the literature for descriptions of group learning. The definition that guided our search is that group learning is indicated when all members perceive themselves as having contributed to a group outcome, and all members of the group can individually describe what the group as a system knows.

To examine the question 'How does a group as a knowing system come to know what it knows?' we began with a set of analytic categories that we derived from learning-from-experience literature (Boud, Cohen, and Walker 1993; Schön 1983), from transformative or emancipatory learning literature (Elias in press; Group for Collaborative Inquiry 1994; Mezirow 1991), and from our own work on group learning (Dechant, Marsick, and Kasl 1993). We searched for information about multiple ways of knowing or holistic modes of engagement, and for descriptions of action, reflection, and experimentation. We remained alert to information other than our initial categories, in particular to insights into the phenomenological experience associated with the boundaries related to individual ego and group identity. We also looked systematically at contextual variables: group purpose, formation and composition, the larger system in which the group is embedded, role and process of facilitation, time frame, and the group's learning outcomes.

Many of these reports were created for purposes other than our own, so we were dependent on the richness of the author(s)' descriptions of the group's context and learning strategies. When the author(s) favoured interpretation or conceptual analysis over description, we were less able to interrogate the research report for answers to our own questions. Our selection of cases was limited by time and accessibility. Thus, we perceive our review as a beginning in the creation of an epistemology for group learning and a preliminary step in suggesting an agenda for further research.

The twenty case studies for this analysis come from reports of group learning in three different contexts. Seven describe learning in the workplace where the team has been vested with a management or problem- solving task (Brooks 1994; Gavan 1996; John 1995; Kasl, Marsick and Dechant in press; Lynn 1995; Lynn, Morone, and Paulson 1996; Marsick 1990). Two describe the learning experienced by research teams: one reporting on a health project evaluation by community-based women (Whitmore 1994) and the other reporting on our own research team (Kasl, Dechant, and Marsick 1993). Eleven describe the learning experienced by co-operative or collaborative inquiry groups (Bray 1995; De Venney-Tiernan et al. 1994; Gerdau 1995; Reason 1988; Sartor 1997; Smith 1995; thINQ in press; Traylen 1994; Yorks 1995; Zelman 1995). Group size ranged from three to twenty. With the exception of four groups, members were typically upper-middle-class professionals and were more often white than of colour. There are three cases from Great Britain, one from Australia, one from Canada, and fifteen from the United States.

Group purpose, formation, and setting

Before describing the ways in which our case study groups learned, we report on important differences associated with context. The seven workplace case studies describe the learning experiences of intact organisational work teams, cross-functional groups, or special purpose groups created to develop new products. The two case studies that describe research teams are reports of those teams' own learning about themselves as a team. The remaining eleven case studies describe the learning experienced by collaborative or co-operative inquiry groups. Collaborative/co-operative inquiry is a research method (Heron 1996; Reason 1994; thINQ in press) in which groups of individuals investigate a topic of interest to each member, through the systematic execution of a number of cycles of action and reflection during which the data gathered from each group member's personal life experience become the data for answering the inquiry question.

There are fundamental differences between organisational work teams and collaborative inquiry groups with regard to group purpose and formation. In co-operative or collaborative inquiry, group members are invited to participate and participation is voluntary; often the initiator is a peer. The norms of inquiry groups (Heron 1996; Reason 1994; thINQ in press) demand functional equality among participants and define the group's purpose as a learning endeavour. Members of the inquiry group define for themselves what the group's inquiry question will be. Topics often have practical application for the participants' professional lives or personal development. In contrast, organisational work groups are assigned a purpose by the larger organisation; participation is often also assigned.

Although seven of the eleven case studies of collaborative inquiry groups were convened in a workplace setting, these contextual differences in group formation and group purpose are critical. We speculate in a limited way about the effect of these contextual differences because of the way in which setting is confounded with formation and purpose. We imagine that when participation is voluntary, it is more likely that group members come to the table in a spirit of openness that enables them to listen well to others' points of view and to question their own frames of reference in a non defensive way. Here, voluntariness is confounded with setting. We suggest further research that studies be conducted in workplace settings when participation is voluntary, and inquiry group settings when participation is required. Of the seven organisational work group cases, six are in product-oriented, corporate settings. Of the seven collaborative inquiry groups that were convened in a workplace setting, all are in service-oriented contexts, associated either with education or health care. Thus, organisational cultural differences further confound our data.

Group learning strategies

In turning now to a discussion of learning strategies. we focus on the findings that are most directly related to the epistemology of group learning.

Action/reflection cycles
Most cases provide rich description of action/reflection cycles, although in three cases the rhythm of the action/reflection is different from what the group initiator anticipated. In these cases, groups stayed in a prolonged period of action before reflecting on what could be learned from their actions. Two of these (Smith 1995; Traylen 1994) were composed of community women for whom reflection was less comfortable than action; the third was a group of university faculty and administrators whose project began as a co-operative inquiry but soon evolved more into the shape of action research (Yorks 1995). Cases that did not show much reflection describe workplace teams (Gavan 1996; John 1995).

Finding meaning, not forcing it

Various strategies for taking a group outside analytic modes of knowing stimulated group learning. Some established norms of story-telling (Smith 1995; Treleaven 1994), some created experiential exercises (Marsick 1990; Reason 1988; Zelman 1995) or captured their learning through art and metaphor (Bray 1995; Gerdau 1995). In other cases, groups discovered that important insights grew from getting 'off task,' that is, engaging in associational thinking that on the surface seemed not to be moving their agendas forward (Kasl, Dechant and Marsick 1993; Kasl, Marsick and Dechant in press; Marsick 1990).

Keeping faith in the midst of chaos and ambiguity
Closely related to a group's capacity to appreciate the value of associational thinking is its understanding that chaos and ambiguity are intrinsic to generative learning. Premature attempts to impose order or analytic clarity can prevent the group from breaking out of limited perspectives. This capacity is much more readily achieved in collaborative/co-operative inquiry groups than in organisational work teams. Groups perceive that their managers are more interested in timely results than in generative ideas (Brooks 1994; John 1995); the nature of the problem itself channels members into routinised ways of thinking that hamper out-of-the-box thinking (Gavan 1996); group members may find it difficult to step outside a results orientation long enough to learn outside existing frames of reference, even if they are told that they can do so (Marsick 1990).

Going public
With the two evaluation teams and a few inquiry group cases, preparing to share the group's knowledge with an audience outside the group was a catalyst for learning. The process of preparing interim oral reports for outside funding agents consolidated learning for two groups of community women. Experiencing respectful appreciation from their audiences precipitated in the women new respect for the importance of their work as well as growing self confidence (Smith 1995; Whitmore 1994). When groups prepared written reports, the process of reflecting on written words uncovered differences in perspectives that had not before been visible, and served as an impetus for further learning. (De Venney-Tiernan et al. 1994; Kasl, Dechant, and Marsick, 1993; Sartor 1997; thINQ in press; Whitmore 1994). Workplace teams experienced the preparation of reports for managers or clients as an impetus for learning. In all cases, the act of going public was associated with a deadline, and therefore forced the group into an accelerated process of confirming the knowledge it had been creating.

Embracing difference, learning from conflict
All groups faced the inevitable challenges created by interpersonal conflict and individual differences. One group of community women who had been working together for some time without being able to communicate across ethnic and racial differences found that the context of collaborative inquiry helped them discuss the effect of these differences on their relationships, and then bridge them (Smith 1995). Another group struggled to cross the deep divide of class (Whitmore 1994). Several groups had a pivotal incident in their development in which the resolution of a deep interpersonal difference catalysed the group toward new levels of learning (Bray 1995; Kasl, Marsick and Dechant in press; Marsick 1990; Yorks 1995) or inhibited further learning (Brooks 1994; Gavan 1996).

Reconceptualising time
The distinction between learning and task in relation to group purpose is paramount. Groups formed primarily for the purpose of inquiry are more able to implement some of the learning strategies that facilitate group learning. When groups perceive themselves to be created to address a particular task, the pressure of task accomplishment makes group learning difficult. Workplace learning is understood primarily as a means to develop employees so that they can work more effectively in the future, or in order to produce a more innovative solution to a challenge that cannot easily be addressed by individuals who work on their own. To the often- cited tension described in the group dynamics literature between task and process, we add the tension of valuing learning for its own sake versus enhanced productivity.

This tension between learning and output is highly evident in the way in which time is experienced by the group. We suggest that group learning is enhanced when groups learn to reconceptualise time as a resource because they can then: generate ideas for which relevance is not immediately apparent; cycle back and forth between action and reflection, taking time to develop skilfulness with reflection; and create a context for shared history that leads to new ways of thinking, feeling, or acting. Research reports support our hypothesis, but also suggest that groups experience difficulty in reconceptualising time in this way if members perceive their focus primarily as getting the job done, and if nothing is done to assist members to think about time differently.

The group as a knowing system

In what way does our analysis of these twenty case studies advance our understanding of the epistemology of group learning as we define it herein? Learning groups break out of explicit and implicit views of their purpose as clearly defined, limited, and instrumental. To do so, members must often re-conceive their own understanding of self as contributor. Pedagogy can assist in this kind of breakthrough. However, this often requires that someone within the group, or attached to it as a facilitator, holds a vision of working together in broader, critical, collaborative ways; and by dint of authority that is natural or ascribed, creates a space within which members experience collaborative thinking and experimentation.

Our data show us that a group who stays together for several months can move back and forth among different purposes. At times, for example, groups might be characterised primarily by action, support, problem solving, or generative learning. We think that the dynamics of learning vary with purpose. However, once groups have begun to think deeply together, they can access these capacities even when purpose might not necessarily spur such thinking. We observe that even when the inquiry groups in our sample convened for purposes of creating instrumental learning, they also engaged communicative learning and often experienced emancipatory learning (Cranton 1996; Mezirow 1991).

Social interdependence theory has much to offer to our understanding of group learning. The epistemology of individual learning describes individual motivation and learning dynamics. The social environment plays a key role in what and how an individual learns, but the individual's success in learning goals or products affects the individual more than the group as a whole. In group learning, the system as a whole cannot benefit fully unless individuals see their fate as intertwined with the learning success of others. Group learning is enhanced when characteristics of the group, the group's task, group membership, and the environment in which the group is located motivate, enable, and reinforce social interdependence.

We began this report by observing that to conceptualise a group as a learning system, rather than as a collectivity of individual learning systems, requires a significant shift in meaning perspective about human boundaries. We conclude by observing that the cultivation of the knowing system requires attention to development of the system's full capacities capacities for analytic thinking, intuitive and somatic apprehension, affective expression, and spirit.


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