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«Anna B. Adams D. Christopher Kayes The George Washington University David A. Kolb Case Western Reserve University Working Paper ORBH 12/13/04, ...»

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Diverging. The diverging style’s dominant learning abilities are concrete experience and reflective observation. People with this learning style are best at viewing concrete situations from many different points of view. The style is labeled “diverging” because it facilitates generation of ideas, such as a “brainstorming” session. People with a diverging learning style like to gather information. Research shows that they are interested in people, tend to be imaginative and emotional, have broad cultural interests, and tend to specialize in the arts. In formal learning situations, people with the diverging style prefer to work in groups, listening with an open mind and receiving personalized feedback.

Assimilating. The assimilating style’s dominant learning abilities are abstract conceptualization and reflective observation. People with this learning style are best at understanding a wide range of information and putting it into concise, logical form. Individuals with an assimilating style are less focused on people and more interested in ideas and abstract concepts. Generally, people with this style find it more important that a theory have logical soundness than practical value. The assimilating learning style is important for effectiveness in information and science careers. In formal learning situations, people with this style prefer readings, lectures, exploring analytical models, and having time to think things through.

Converging. The converging style’s dominant learning abilities are abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. People with this learning style are best at finding practical uses for ideas and theories. Individuals with a converging learning style prefer to deal with technical tasks and problems rather than with social and interpersonal issues. These learning skills are important for effectiveness in specialist and technology careers. In formal learning situations, people with this style prefer to experiment with new ideas, simulations, laboratory assignments, and practical applications.

Accommodating. The accommodating style’s dominant learning abilities are concrete experience and active experimentation. People with this learning style learn primarily from “hand-on” experience. They enjoy carrying out plans and involving themselves in new and challenging experiences. They tend to act on “gut” feelings rather than on logical analysis. In solving problems, individuals with an accommodating learning style rely on people for information more than on their own technical analysis. This learning style is important for effectiveness in action-oriented careers such as marketing or sales. In formal learning situations, people with the accommodating learning style prefer to work with others to get assignments done, to set goals, to do field work, and to test different approaches to completing a project.

To learn from its experience, a team must have members who can be involved and committed to the team and its purpose (concrete experience), who can engage in reflection and conversation about the team’s experiences (reflective observation), who can engage in critical thinking about the team’s work (abstract conceptualization), and who can make decisions and take action (active experimentation). Teams develop through a creative tension among the four learning modes. In an idealized learning cycle or spiral, the team and its members “touch all the bases”—experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting—in a recursive process that is responsive to the learning situation. Team development is thus a process in which a team creates itself by learning from its experience.

Current research Current research, involving different methodologies and different educational and workplace populations, has shown that ELT is useful in understanding team learning and performance. Studies support the proposition that a team is more effective if it learns from experience and emphasizes all four learning modes. Summarized below are studies of team member learning style, team roles, and team norms.

Team member learning style. In the first experimental study of the effect of learning styles on team performance, Wolfe (1977) examined how homogeneous three-person teams of accommodators, divergers, assimilators, or convergers performed on a complex computer business simulation compared with heterogeneous teams. The four groups of homogeneous teams had similar performance results. However, the teams that had members with diverse learning styles performed significantly better, earning nearly twice the amount of money of the homogeneous learning style teams. Similarly, Kayes (2001) found that teams made up of members whose learning styles were balanced among the four learning modes performed at a higher level on a critical thinking task than teams whose members had specialized learning styles.

Sandmire and Boyce (2004) investigated the performance of two-person collaborative problem-solving teams in an allied health education anatomy, physiology, and pathology course.

They compared a group of high abstract/high concrete student pairs with a group of abstract pairs and a group of concrete pairs. The abstract/concrete pairs performed significantly better on a simulated clinical case than the abstract pairs and slightly better than the concrete pairs, indicating the value of integrating the abstract and concrete dialectics of the learning cycle.

However, a similar study by Sandmire, Vroman, and Sanders (2000) investigating pairs formed on the action/reflection dialectic showed no significant performance differences.

Halstead and Martin (2002) found that engineering student teams that were formed randomly to include all learning styles performed better that self-selected teams. Furthermore, in her studies of engineering students, Sharp stated, “Classroom experience shows that students can improve teamwork skills with Kolb theory by recognizing and capitalizing on their strengths, respecting all styles, sending messages in various ways, and analyzing style differences to resolve conflict and communicate effectively with team members” (2001, F2C-2). In his study of a 6-week teambuilding program, Hall (1996) reported difficulty with self-selected teams that tended to group on the basis of friendship. He advocated random team assignment, concluding, “If we had taken this approach there would have been more disagreement to work through, personality clashes to cope with and conflict to resolve. The stress would have been greater, but the learning probably more profound” (1996, p. 30).

Using another approach, Jackson studied the learning styles of ongoing workgroup team members who participated in a paired team competition. The exercise was designed to require teamwork skills. Results showed that teams with a balanced learning styles performed better. In 17 of the 18 team pairs, the winning team average score was higher than that of the losing team.

Jackson concluded, “Designing teams that reflect the dynamic nature of team activities has great appeal in that it gives all team members a more equal opportunity to contribute and a more equal opportunity to be valued.... The process model advocates that different team members lead in different team activities or learning situations (2002, p. 11).

Team roles. Park and Bang (2002) studied the performance of 52 Korean industrial work teams using the Belbin team role model, which is conceptually linked to ELT (Jackson, 2002).

They found that the best-performing teams were those whose members adopted at a high level all nine of Belbin’s roles covering all stages of the learning cycle. They also found that teams with roles that matched the particular stage of a team’s work/learning process performed best.

McMurray (1998) organized his English as a foreign language classroom using ELT principles. He divided his Japanese students into four-person teams with maximally diverse learning styles. Students were assigned to one of four roles that matched their strongest learning mode: leader (concrete experience), artist (reflective observation), writer (abstract conceptualization), and speaker (active experimentation). The leader’s role was to direct classmates in completing assignments; the artist’s, to create ideas for presentations; and the writer’s, to compose messages for speakers to read. Class lessons were organized to include all four stages of the learning cycle. Classroom observations supported the idea that students benefited from the team role assignment and from accounting for learning style in the course design.

Gardner and Korth used ELT, learning styles, and the learning cycle to develop a course for human resource development graduate students that focused on learning to work in teams.

They found strong relationships between learning styles and preference for learning methods— assimilators preferred lectures, reading, writing, and individual work, while accommodators and often divergers and convergers preferred partner and group work. They advocated providing different student roles during team learning activities to develop appreciation for, and skill in, all learning styles. “Part of the class could actively participate in a role play (accommodating), while a second group observes and provides feedback to the participants (diverging), a third group develops a model/theory from what they have seen and shares it with the class (assimilating) and the fourth group develops a plan for applying what they have seen to a new situation and shares it with the class (converging)” (1999, p. 32).

Team norms. Carlsson, Keane, and Martin used the ELT learning cycle framework to analyze the bi-weekly reports of research and development project teams in a large consumer products corporation. Successful project teams had work process norms that supported a recursive cycling through the experiential learning cycle. Figure 2 shows the portrait of one such team’s progress through the learning cycle over time; letters on the diagram indicate management inputs, and numbers indicate project team activities. For example, #1 is considering what businesses the division should be in, #2 is generating nine alternatives, #3 is establishing selection criteria with marketing, #4 is evaluating the alternatives against the criteria, and #5 is assigning staff to activate three projects. Projects that deviated from this work process by skipping stages or being stuck in a stage “indicated problems deserving of management attention” (1976, p. 38).

Gardner and Korth used ELT to design a course in group dynamics, group development, and group effectiveness. They taught student learning teams to use the experiential learning cycle to improve the transfer of learning. They concluded, “The use of learning groups in conjunction with the experiential learning model enhances the learning process, reinforces the link between theory and practice, and facilitates the transfer of learning to the workplace” (1997, p. 51).

Pauleen, Marshall, & Ergort used ELT to construct and implement web-based team learning assignments in a graduate-level course in knowledge management. Students worked on projects in virtual teams. Follow-up student evaluations indicated that 75% “agreed or strongly agreed that experiential learning was a valuable way of experiencing and learning about a variety of communication channels in a team environment” (2004, p. 95); 99% found experiential learning to be more valuable than simply reading about something.

Two studies have explicitly examined team conversational learning spaces with norms that support the experiential learning cycle. Wyss-Flamm (2002) selected from a management assessment and development course three multicultural student teams who rated themselves as high in psychological safety, defined as the ability of the team to bring up and talk about difficult or potentially psychologically uncomfortable issues. Three of the teams rated themselves as low in psychological safety. Through intensive individual and team interviews, she analyzed the teams’ semester-long experience. In teams with high psychological safety, the conversations followed a recursive experiential learning cycle: differences were experienced among team members, examined through reflective juxtaposition that articulated learning, and culminated in either an integration of the differences or an affirmation of the contrast. Teams with low psychological safety tended to have early disturbing incidents that limited conversation and made the conversational flow more turbulent and conflict filled. Lingham (2005) developed a questionnaire to assess the norms of conversational space in a sample of 49 educational and work teams. He found that the more the teams supported the experiential learning cycle through norms that focused their conversation on interpersonal diverging (concrete experience and reflective observation) and task-oriented converging (abstract conceptualization and active experimentation), the better they performed, the more satisfied they were with their membership on the team, and the more they felt psychologically safe to take risks on the team.

Team learning and team development In ELT, “the process of learning from experience... shapes and actualizes developmental potentialities” (Kolb, 1984, p. 133). Theodore Mills (1967) described team learning as a reconfiguring of a group’s purpose to achieve a continually greater and more complex purpose. Developmental progression occurs as the group learns to deal with the increasingly complex demands of achieving its purpose. He described five levels of team


1. Immediate gratification. In the first stage, members of the group seek to fulfill individual needs or desires. They come together simply to meet some immediate individual need, such as attending a concert to enjoy music. There is no sustained effort at gratification.

2. Sustained conditions for gratification. In the second stage, individuals come together for gratification but develop ways to sustain the gratification. One example is a group that decides to attend concerts regularly or follow a musical group to various venues to recreate the experience. The effort to sustain gratification requires individual learning because it involves developing informal strategies and implementing mechanisms to maintain the gratification over time.

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