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?'
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.
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.
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.
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.
Armstrong, J.L. and Yarbrough, S. L. (1996) Group learning: the role of the environment. In. S. Imel (ed.), Learning in groups: exploring fundamental principles, new uses, and emerging opportunities. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 71, 33-40, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Boud, D., Cohen, R. and Walker, D. (eds) (1993) Using experience for learning. Buckingham, UK and Bristol, PA: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.
Bray, J. (1995) The noetic experience of learning in collaborative inquiry groups: from descriptive, hermeneutic, and eidetic perspectives. Dissertation Abstracts International, 56 (07), 2524 (University Microfilms No. AAC95-39779).
Brooks, A. (1994) Power and the production of knowledge: collective team learning in work organisations. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 5 (3), 213-235.
Cranton, P. (1996) Types of group learning. In. S. Imel, (ed), Learning in groups: exploring fundamental principles, new uses, and emerging opportunities. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 71, 25- 32, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Dechant, K., Marsick, V., and Kasl, E. (1993) Towards a model of team learning. Studies in Continuing Education, 15 (1), 1-14.
De Venney-Tiernan, M., Goldband, A., Rackham, L., and Reilly, N. (1994) Creating collaborative relationships in a co-operative inquiry group. In P. Reason (ed), Partici-pation in human inquiry. (120-137), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Elias, D.G. (in press) It's time to change our minds: an introduction to transformative learning. Revision, 20 (1).
Gavan, C. S. (1996) Team learning within nursing teams in a home care organisation. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Teachers College, Columbia University.
Gerdau, J. (1995) Learning in adulthood through collaborative inquiry. Dissertation Abstracts International, 56 (07), 25247 (University Microfilms No. AAC95-39807).
Group for Collaborative Inquiry (1994) A model for transformative learning: individual development and social action. 35th Annual Adult Education Research Conference Proceedings. 169-174, Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee.
Guba, E. & Lincoln, Y. (1994) Competing paradigms in qualitative research. In N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln, (eds). Handbook of qualitative research (105-117), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Heron, J. (1996) Co-operative inquiry: research into the human condition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Imel, S. (ed) (1996) Learning in groups: exploring fundamental principles, new uses, and emerging opportunities. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 71, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Imel, S. and Tisdell, E. (1996) The relationship between theories about groups and adult learning groups. In S. Imel (ed), Learning in groups: exploring fundamental principles, new uses, and emerging opportunities. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 71 (15-24), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
John, S. (1995) A study of team learning in a professional services company. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Teachers College, Columbia University.
Kasl, E., Dechant, K., and Marsick, V. J. (1993). Living the learning: internalizing our model of group learning. In D. Boud, R. Cohen, and D. Walker (eds) Using experience for learning. (143-156), Buckingham, U.K. and Bristol, PA: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.
Kasl, E., Marsick, V. J., and Dechant, K. (in press) Teams as learners: a research-based model of team learning. Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, 33 (2).
Lynn, G. S. (1995) New product team learning for really new products: Apple Computer. Unpublished interim report for the Marketing Science Institute.
Lynn, G. S., Morone, J. G., and Paulson, A. S. (1996) Marketing and discontinuous innovation: the probe and learn process. California Management Review, 38 (3), 8-37.
Marsick, V. J. (1990) Action learning and reflection in the workplace. In J. Mezirow (ed), Fostering critical reflection in adulthood: a guide to transformative and emancipatory learning. (23-46), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Mezirow, J. (1991) Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Reason, P. (1988) Whole person medical practice. In P. Reason (ed), Human inquiry in action: developments in new paradigm research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Reason, P. (1994) Human inquiry as discipline and practice. In P. Reason (ed), Participation in human inquiry (40-56), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Sartor, L. (1997) Collaboration and how to facilitate it: a co- operative inquiry. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, San Francisco, CA, California Institute of Integral Studies.
Schön, D. (1983) The reflective practitioner. New York, Basic Books.
Smith, L. L. (1995) Collaborative inquiry as an adult learning strategy. Dissertation Abstracts International, 56 (07), 2533 (University Microfilms No. AAC95-39867).
thINQ (in press) Collaborative inquiry in practice: using collaborative inquiry as a strategy for learning and action. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Traylen, H. (1994) Confronting hidden agendas: co-operative inquiry with health visitors. In P. Reason (ed), Participation in human inquiry (59-81), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Treleaven, L. (1994) Making a space: a collaborative inquiry with women as staff development. In P. Reason (ed), Participation in human inquiry (138-162), Thousand Oaks: CA, Sage.
Whitmore, E. (1994) To tell the truth: working with oppressed groups in participatory approaches to inquiry. In P. Reason (ed), Participation in human inquiry. (82-98), Thousand Oaks: CA, Sage.
Yorks, L. (1995) Understanding how learning is experienced through collaborative inquiry: A phenomenological study. Dissertation Abstracts International, 56 (07), 2534 (University Microfilms No. AAC95-39884).
Zelman, A. (1995) Answering the question: 'How is learning experienced through collaborative inquiry?' Dissertation Abstracts International, 56 (07), 2534 (University Microfilms No. AAC95-39885).