Making connections and respecting differences: Reconciling schemas for learning and group process

In the fall of 1996 in Columbus, Ohio I attended the meetings of the International Society for Exploring Teaching Alternatives (ISETA) for the first time. I was encouraged to connect with this group after “experiencing” a presentation by the current ISETA president, Ken Brown, on experiential learning, in which he elicited the audience’s involvement in ways that exemplified his topic. My path to attending Ken Brown’s presentation began when I prepared a portfolio on my teaching two years ago (Taylor 1995). This led me to become more self-conscious about how I have been teaching and learning to teach, and by seeking out others who write and talk about teaching/learning processes I have gained many new ideas and encouragement.

At the ISETA meetings I encountered several different schemas for thinking about learning and/or group process: Kolb’s learning styles (via Tania Reese), Jungian/ Myer-Briggs personality types (via Susan Moncada), and Focused Conversations from the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA, via Ken Brown). Before I jumped into using these in my teaching I wanted to explore the interrelationships among these and some other schemas. This thought-piece summarizes my exploration. So far, this has been mostly conceptual, which says something about my own learning preferences.

Having received initial responses to a draft of this thought-piece, I am now more aware of the wealth of experience other have made available concerning a wider number of schemas learning preferences and their interrelations (Woods 1996). I decided not, however, to keep my thoughts to myself until I had more experience to ground them. I think that the picture I sketch below is richer and has more practical implications for what I might call “supportive learning in collective endeavors” than typically result from using schemas regarding individual learning preferences. In particular, the “re-evaluative” emphasis that emerges below provides, I think, new avenues for or angles on using learning preferences in classes and other groups.

In Focused Conversations (Spencer 1989) a group, which could be a class, a grass roots activist organization, or a business, addresses some challenging or difficult situation by proceeding through four stages:

1. Objective (getting the facts)

2. Reflective (eliciting feelings and associations)

3. Interpretive (consider the meaning and significance)

4. Decisional (formulating a decision or an action)

Participants who jump quickly to a decision or interpretation are encouraged to spend more time on the earlier stages, to be careful to separate facts from feelings, and to recognize at each step the different assessments of other participants. The result is not necessarily a consensus, but because the group shares a common pool of experiences of the situation, decisions reached by a group tend to be acted upon. In an educational setting, these steps could be expressed as: 1. What happened? 2. What feelings did this evoke? 3. What have you learned? 4. How can you use it?

The four stages of a Focused Conversation correspond in one reading to the four points or stages on a cycle of learning, in which learners move from experiences to concepts which open them up to new experiences (Kolb 1984):

1. Concrete Experience (CE) = Objective

2. Reflective Observation (RO) = Reflective

3. Abstract Conceptualization (AC) = Interpretive

4. Active Experimentation (AE) = Decisional.

In another reading, however, the Kolbian stages are equated to learning styles, based on the recognition that some people’s style leads them to one stage over or before others. In other words, unlike a Focused Conversation, the Concrete Experience/ Objective stage would not necessarily come first for all people.

One way to reconcile these two readings would be to counsel people on the diversity of learning “preferences.” First, of course, people have to identify or discover their preferences, and recognize that there are people with different preferences. Then, at each stage of a learning process, people have to be respectful and patient of others and of themselves, especially if this stage is not their preferred one. In the spirit of Focused Conversations, some unexpected learning experiences and improved group outcomes will result from resisting the tendency people have to jump to and begin with their preferred stage in the cycle.

Kolb’s learning preferences (as I will now call them) can be aligned on two axes:

I. Intake: CE at one pole, AC at the other

II. Processing: AE at one pole, RO at the other.

(This alignment is possible presumably only because people are rarely (never?) high on both AE and RO; similarly for CE and AC.) These two axes corresponds to two of the four divisions of Jungian/ Myers-Briggs personality types (Jensen and DiTiberio 1989):

I. Ways of taking in information: Sensing vs. INtuition = CE<->AC

II. Ways of focusing one’s energy: Extravert vs. Intravert = AE<->RO

This correspondence looks neat, with the qualification that, in practice, Kolbian preferences are more changeable than M-B types (Woods 1996). In any case, there are two other two Jungian/M-B divisions, namely:

III. Ways of approaching tasks in the outer world: Judging vs. Perceiving

IV. Ways of making decisions: Thinking vs. Feeling

What has happened to them in Focused Conversations and Kolbian learning preferences?

Before attempting to answer that question, I want to introduce the particular incarnation of Jungian/M-B types that I first encountered in teaching writing “through the curriculum.” In this context, the four M-B divisions become four contrasts in writing preferences (LeGendre, n.d.):

I. Conceptual focus: Factual vs. Theoretical

II. Ways of generating ideas: Active vs. Reflective

III. Time/idea management: Focused vs. Inclusive

IV. Attitudes toward audience: Objective vs. Personal

These labels and divisions warrant elaboration, but for the purposes here I want only to mention two things:

i) I advise students to use information about their writing preferences along the following lines: These preferences are not idiosyncratic; you have strengths that can be defined and capitalized on, and weaknesses that can be identified and addressed. Do not typecast yourself. You will find certain assignments and certain teachers difficult and others more congenial, but you will miss out on a lot of learning of you simply avoid what/who appears difficult (LeGendre n.d.)

ii) This advice could let me off the hook leaving it to students to adjust to whatever kind of teaching is dished out. But it is not meant to; instead, I have come to acknowledge that my courses emphasize Abstract Conceptualization (following my theoretical preference). More and more I work with teaching assistants and peer groups to create learning situations and a learning community that balances my emphasis and supports students who have preferences different from me. In the future I plan to make more use of Focused Conversations to resist my tendency (evidenced in this very contribution to Connexions) to move quickly from a text or a situation to Abstract Conceptualization.

Let me now return to the question of the Jungian/M-B types apparently missing from Kolbian learning preferences. I have two suggestions for reconciling the different schemas:

i) Prior to a Focused Conversation, work is done in establishing the very arena in which the group is to operate. That work might correspond to axis III, Ways of approaching tasks in the outer world (Judging vs. Perceiving), or, equivalently, Time/idea management (Focused vs. Inclusive). Similarly, there is more to be done than the group just deciding and acting; there are connections to be made with audience and potential co-actors. That might correspond to axis IV, Ways of making decisions (Thinking vs. Feeling), or, perhaps more clearly, attitudes toward audience (Objective vs. Personal).

ii) The two Kolbian axes are a simplification of personality types, so it makes sense that other dimensions of personality can be identified. (There are sixteen permutations of the Jungian/M-B types alone, and hundreds if additional schemas are considered; Woods 1996) We should extend to include the other two non-Kolbian dimensions the general advice given above about how to use knowledge of one’s learning preferences. That is, be respectful and patient of others or of yourself when proceeding through a less preferred learning stage (or step in a Focused Conversation). In such a space of patience and respect for differences, there will often be some unexpected learning experiences and connections made. In this spirit, it is important that preferences are not used as static and self-reinforcing labels.

A non-ISETA connection in Columbus helped me think more about the issue of attending to differences in the ways people move through the world. Brenda Dervin, in the Department of Communication at Ohio State, has developed a “Sense-Making” approach to the development of information seeking and use. Given its diverse applications and implications (Dervin 1996) one might even call it a paradigm. One finding from Sense-Making research is that people make much better sense of seminar presentations and other scholarly contributions when these are accompanied by contextual information along the following lines:

a) The reason(s) I took this road is (are)…

b) The best of what I have achieved is…

c) What has been particularly helpful to me in this project has been…

d) What has hindered me, what I have struggled with has been…

e) What would help me now is…

The same thinking leads to recommendations about forms of response that presenters learn most from — and listeners also. The following format both acknowledges different voices and facilitates connections:

a) I appreciated…

b) I learned…

c) I wanted to know more about…

—–

d) I struggled with…

e) I would have been helped by…

f) My project connects with this in the following way(s)…

—–

g) I disagreed with…

h) I think the presenter should consider…

I see a strong relation between such questions and Focused Conversations, but the relation is not obvious. The questions do not map readily onto steps in a Focused Conversation, and instead seem to emphasize the interpretive or reflective levels. Nevertheless, experience with Sense-Making suggests that the process enables people to re-evaluate their customary or habitual responses, to acknowledge without becoming blocked by the emotional valences in scholarly interaction. Appreciations, for example, can be given more directly or “objectively,” with less distortion by premature interpretations and evaluations. It is in this re-evaluative sense that Focused Conversations and Sense-Making appear to me to be allied. In this spirit, I chose the order and grouping for the eight questions above to form an analog of a Focused Conversation; a, b, c corresponding to step 1; d, e, f, step 2; and g, h, step 3.

Of course, it is easier to propose Sense-Making formats for contextualization and responses than it is to get colleagues to use them. One of the advantages we have when teaching is that students are more willing than colleagues to go along with our experiments in group process. Once students have experienced processes such as Focused Conversations and Sense-Making, they generally appreciate their value. Or, one might say, they then have concrete experience that can disturb any pre-judgements and pre-interpretations.

Let me draw connections with one last schema. Soon after returning from Columbus I came across cognitive psychologist, Martin Seligman’s, Learned Optimism. As an alternative or complement to both psychotherapeutic and psychopharmaceutical treatments for depression, Seligman advocates the “ABCDE” method for overcoming pessimistic or negative thought patterns that lead to depression:

A. Identify some current situation of apparent Adversity.

B. Spell out your Beliefs and feelings about your role in causing the situation.

C. Spell out the Consequences.

If the picture drawn through A, B, and C is bleak,

D. Dispute B and C: Check the evidence — is it factually correct or complete? Consider alternative causes, especially specific, non-personal, changeable ones. Consider less bleak implications or consequences. Is the belief, even if true, helpful in this situation?

This disputation usually allows the depressed person to move to the last step

E. Become Energized and pursue a course of action against the now-lessened adversity.

In Seligman’s A, B, C we see a quick slide from facts, through feelings and interpretation to the non-action that characterizes depression. However, D, like Focused Conversations, takes one back to reevaluate the situation, move more carefully through the steps, and entertain alternative facts, feelings and interpretations. The result, E, is usually an action that is do-able.

To me, all these schemas begin to fit together and I am now looking forward to experimenting with them in my future teaching. Yet, in the past I have sometimes overwhelmed my students with conceptual schemas, regarding both the course content and its learning processes. My challenge now is to provide more time, space, and support for my students to articulate their concrete experiences, feelings, associations, and interpretations of course material and activities. The integration of these different stages of the learning conversation should strengthen their confidence in becoming critical thinkers. And this should soften the inevitable anxieties that arise when they have to respond to new situations knowing that the teacher will not act as the final arbiter of their success (Taylor 1995).

In this spirit of not getting ahead of myself — or of not letting my AC get ahead of my CE, RO and AE –, I welcome from ISETAns and other readers concrete experiences, gut-responses, and interpretations that might complement or complicate this attempt at conceptual reconciliation. Finally, I hope the Sense-Making contextualization at the start and end of this thought-piece was not too subtle to be helpful. In any case, I would also be very pleased if readers sent me Sense-Making responses.

Peter Taylor (an NIPT, with a very high Kolbian AC; see text for explanation)

Acknowledgements

This thought-piece was published in “Connexions,” ISETA newsletter, March & July 1997.  The thinking expressed in this piece had been furthered by the comments of Ken Brown, Gwen Mills (then a student at Cornell University), and Don Woods (editor of “PS News, A Sharing of Ideas about Problem Solving”; email him for subscription information at woodsdr@mcmaster.ca). And, of course, I was greatly stimulated by attending the ISETA meetings. (Information about ISETA, now ISETL, is available online.)

Literature Cited

Dervin, B. (1996). “Chaos, order, and sense-making: A proposed theory for information design,” in Robert Jacobson (ed.) Information Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Also available (as of 21 May 1996) at http://edfu.lis.uiuc.edu/allerton/95/s5/dervin.draft.html.

Jensen, G. H. and J. K. DiTiberio (1989). Personality and the Teaching of Composition. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning. Englewood Cliffs. NJ: Prentice-Hall.

LeGendre, B. n.d. “Exploring your writing preferences.” Mimeo, Cornell University Writing Workshop, Ithaca, NY.

Seligman, M. (1991). Learned Optimism. New York: A. E. Knopf.

Spencer, L. J. (1989). Winning Through Participation. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt.

Taylor, P. J. (1995). http://www.faculty.umb.edu/peter_taylor/portfolio-TOC.html

Woods, D. R. (1996) “Student learning styles,” PS 104. Newsletter printed by the Department of Chemical Engineering, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

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