The organizational behavior and management fields for many years have focused on performance as the primary validation touchstone for their theories and concepts. In the twenty-first century however, we have begun to see a shift in focus away from measures of organizational and managerial performance that are often limited and subject to short term manipulation at the expense of long term sustainability. In the new perspective organizations are seen as learning systems and the management process is viewed as a process of learning. Experiential learning theory (ELT) has been an advocate for and contributor to this shift in management perspective. Learning lies at the core of the management process when learning it is defined holistically as the basic process of organizational adaptation.
For the past five (5) years, our QBS team has been doing a good deal of research and practice in the arena of management education and development by mean of experienced-based learning methods. Experiential learning theory draws on the work of prominent 20th century scholars who gave experience a central role in their theories of human learning and development—notably John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, Jean Piaget, William James, Carl Jung, Paulo Freire, Carl Rogers and others—to develop a dynamic, holistic model of the process of learning from experience and a multi-linear model of adult development. It integrates those works around the following five propositions which they all share:
1) Learning is best conceived as a process, not in terms of outcomes. To improve learning, the primary focus should be on engaging people in a process that best enhances their learning. 2) All learning is re-learning. Learning is best facilitated by a process that draws out the students’ beliefs and ideas about a topic so that they can be examined, tested and integrated with new, more refined ideas. 3) Learning requires the resolution of conflicts between dialectically opposed modes of adaptation to the world. Conflict, differences, and disagreement are what drive the learning process. 4) Learning is a holistic process of adaptation. It is not just the result of cognition but involves the integrated functioning of the total person—thinking, feeling, perceiving and behaving. 5) Learning results from synergetic transactions between the person and the environment. Stable and enduring patterns of human learning arise from consistent patterns of transaction between the individual and his or her environment.
Experiential learning is a process of constructing knowledge that involves a creative tension among a set of learning modes that is responsive to contextual demands. This process is portrayed as an idealized learning cycle or spiral where the learner “touches all the bases”—experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting—in a recursive process that is responsive to the learning situation and what is being learned. Immediate or concrete experiences are the basis for observations and reflections. These reflections are assimilated and distilled into abstract concepts from which new implications for action can be drawn. These implications can be actively tested and serve as guides in creating new experiences.
The school of experiential learning describes the management process as a process of learning by managers, teams and organizations for problem solving and decision making, entrepreneurial opportunity seeking and strategy formulation. It has also had a major influence on the design and conduct of educational programs in management training and development and formal management education. To bridge gaps in learning styles, the “management educator” must respond to pragmatic demands for relevance and the application of knowledge, while encouraging the reflective examination of experience that is necessary to refine old theories and to build new ones. In encouraging reflective observation, the “teacher” often is seen as an interrupter of action – as a passive “ivory tower” thinker. This is, however, a critical role in the learning process. If the reflective observer role is not internalized by the learners themselves, the learning process can degenerate into a value conflict between teacher and the student, each maintaining that theirs is the right perspective for learning.
In ELT, the concept of deep learning describes the developmental process learning that fully integrates the four modes of the experiential learning cycle—experiencing, reflecting, thinking and acting (Jensen and Kolb 1994, Border 2007). Following Jung's theory that adult development moves from a specialized way of adapting toward a holistic integrated way, deep learning is seen as moving from specialization to integration. Integrated deep learning is a process involving a creative tension among the four learning modes that is responsive to contextual demands. This is portrayed as an idealized learning cycle or spiral where the learner "touches all the bases"--experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting--in a recursive process that is responsive to the learning situation and what is being learned.
There are key concepts from experiential learning theory (ELT)—the learning cycle, learning style, learning space, deep learning and development— that can be used to focus management as a learning process at the level of the individual, the team and the organization. They can also serve as useful tools to design and implement management education programs. Research on ELT has today reached a level of maturity around the world such that the key challenges ahead lie in the application and institutionalization of these practices in order to improve management education, learning and development.
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