THEORIES OF LEARNING Few trainers and educators have explicit theories of learning in the sense of a coherent articulated set

of concepts used in their training practices. Most of them base their work on a set of guiding beliefs, acquired from experience of technically oriented training on training methods. Early learning theory in management development drew heavily on the concepts produced by psychologists who dealt initially with child learning and later with produced by psychologists who dealt initially with child learning and later with operative skills training. The list produced by Burgoyne and Stuart (1977) sets out what they called “Schools of thought on learning theory”: • • • • • • • Conditioning Trait modification Information transfer Cybernetic Cognitive Experiential social influence Pragmatic

While a great deal of management education was clearly driven by a cognitive theory of learning, the more adventurous parts of management education and most of the training world operated – consciously or unconsciously – using experiential learning theory. Unfortunately, some interpretations of experiential theory do not appreciate the extent to which it embraces cognitive processes as well as simple actions which could be described as experience. The first theorist to influence a changed approach to management training was Malcolm Knowles (1985). Although his books were concerned with adult learning not managerial learning as such, his description was powerfully realistic for people working with managers. He describes traditional processes of teaching children, and indeed the extension of these into higher education, as pedagogy. He originally placed the effective processes of adult learning as andragogy (the theory of adult learning) – in opposition to pedagogy. Later he came to regard the two models as parallel rather than antithetical. The main features of his theory are: • • The learner is self-directed but has a conditioned expectation to be dependent and to be taught. The learner comes with experience, which means that for many kinds of learning, adults are themselves the richest resources for one another, and also that there is a wide range of experience in most groups of learners. They are ready to learn when they have a need to perform more effectively in some aspect of their lives. For the most part adults do not learn for the sake of learning; they learn in order to be able to perform a task, solve a problem, or live in a more satisfying way.

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In some respects the two major theoretical expressions of Reg Revans (1980) link Knowles and our next theorist, David Kolb. Revans identified a difference between what he described as programmed knowledge and the questioning approach. Programmed knowledge (P) is learning from what someone else had learned, this information being provided in the form of books, papers, studies, lectures. Questioning (Q) is learning from your own processes of action and reflection. This led him to focus for learning purposes on real work instead of on the delivery of programmed knowledge or simulations of managerial work. Like Knowles, Revans said essentially that managers are less interested in being taught than they are in resolving problems and learning from that resolution. This focus led Revans to the creation of the process he called “action learning”. Revans also produced a Theoretical statement of learning as an example of the scientific approach. This was his “system beta”, involving the assembly of data, the development of a theory, experimentation, the comparison of results derived from the experiment, and the final evaluation of the theory. While Revan’s action-learning approach has become increasingly popular, his “system beta” has been less influential than the more explicit experiential learning theory advanced by David Kolb (1984). Kolb’s unique contribution was not the learning cycle, which consists of a continuous process of concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation, but the view that individual differed in their propensity to learn at different stages of the learning cycle – the concept of learning styles. Through his learning styles inventory (LSI), it is possible to identify an individual’s preferred approach to learning: accommodators, divergers, assimilators, and convergeers. Accommodators give greatest emphasis to doing things, carrying out plans and tasks, and getting involved in new experience they adapt to changes in their immediate circumstances. Divergers have imaginative ability and awareness of meaning and values. They use different perspectives and organize many relationships into a whole. They respond well to situations requiring alternatives ideas and implications. Assimilators rely on inductive reasoning and the ability to create theoretical models, assimilating disparate observations into an integrated explanation. Convergers use problem-solving and practical application of ideas focusing knowledge to produce single answer solutions to specific problems. Kolb has not proposed an alternative to cognitive or behavioral theories of learning. He combines experience, perception, cognition and behavior in one theory. Thus his definition of learning is “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience”. That transformation is achieved through the learning cycle. Since Kolb’s definition insufficiently recognizes the crucial issue of whether learning involves doing as well as knowing, we would suggest the following definition. “A learner knows something he or she did not know earlier, and can show it. A learner is able to do something she or he was not able to do before.”

The questions of how and why mangers learn are closely connected, and in turn lead to the question what they learn. Perhaps the most interesting theoretical distinctions here are those concerned with different types of learning. Argyris (1982) distinguishes between single-loop learning and double-loop learning. Pedler and Boydell (1986) talk about the difference between learning which involves increases in knowledge or an existing skill, and development. They describe the latter as “a different state of being or functioning”. This is very closely to double-loop learning, which involves challenging the present rather than merely improving performance in it. For Argyris single-loop learning is appropriate for routine and programmed issues, whereas double-loop learning causes individuals to look at values and assumptions, and to change the nature of the organizational worlds. Other writers outside the managerial field have also described different levels.

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