Printer Friendly

A systemic framework for case-based classroom experiential learning.


The systems movement approached the 21st century with education very much on its mind (Udas, 1998). It was argued that the higher education system appears ill-equipped for contemporary challenges (Jenlink, 2001). Public committees, charged by government with inquiring into the future of education, were criticized for laying out a vision of this future in questionable, archaic or simplified terms (Banathy, 2001; Horn, 2004). Their understanding, it was argued, not only does not match, but contradicts the contemporary and foreseeable dynamism inherent in the world for which graduates are supposed to be prepared (Banathy, 1999). What is more, the very idea of the systems approach, and the skills required to develop systems thinking appeared to be poorly understood by the inquirers (Ison, 1999)--to the extent that the approach appeared to be understood in terms opposite to what system theorists would conventionally agree (Weil, 1999).

As the first decade of the new century unfolds, broader educational concerns, insights and recommendations continue to be of interest to systems thinkers, as evidenced in this journal as well as in Systemic Practice and Action Research. These include ethnography of the role of the teacher (Makhanya, 2002), implicit advantages of experiential learning (McIntyre, 2004), the application of SSM as an educational methodology (Chujo and Kijima, 2006), the manner in which systems thinking can contribute to reforming environmental education (Simon, 2006) and the use of Miller's living systems theory in designing student evaluations (Ahari, 2006). The interest demonstrated by system theorists complements wider efforts, such as those from the National Research Council (Bransford et al., 2000), the American Psychological Association (Lambert and McCombs, 1997) and a number of other scholars (Mentkowski and Associates, 2000; Keeton et al., 2002; Zull, 2002).

This paper contributes to the discussion by addressing how the gap between theory and practice may be managed in the classroom; prior, that is, to a real-world experience such as an internship. Addressing this issue is important because it perceptibly influences real-world practice. For instance, Williams and Dickson (2000) argue that classroom exercises, designed 'to combat the problems caused by a lack of experience', contribute to enhancing students' learning experiences and their abilities to tackle real-world messy problems. They contend that cases, in particular, go a long way to furnishing skills useful to a future real experience. They highlight that case-based exercises further the development of key process skills such as: group work, project work, the handling of methodological issues and the development and use of problem structuring skills to handle problems that have not been pre-formulated and that may have quite diverse structures. For Williams and Dickson, such skills arise because case-based learning allows for combining analytical abilities with simulated interventionist attempts which require the management of multifarious decisions. Students can thus be introduced to the impact of social dynamics on successful problem resolution--an impact of importance, as discussed by Eden (1982)--in a controlled environment which can prepare them to think and decide more intelligently when they finally confront the socio-political dynamics of real-world decision making. The need for such preparedness is evidenced in inquiries into higher education such as the 1997 National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education in the UK (Peters, 1999).

Williams and Dickson suggest that the learning processes afforded to students by case-based classroom instruction reflect the learning modes of David Kolb's (1984) learning cycle. Since this cycle is the engine of Kolb's experiential learning theory, Williams and Dickson are in effect recommending case-based classroom experiential learning. Although experiential learning as a general approach is increasingly perceived as advantageous (Pelton, 1996; AACSB, 2006), the question is: how exactly does classroom use of cases enable experiential learning?

This paper will present the two general types of cases designed for use in the classroom. It will discuss how each type implies a particular instructional approach and will outline the learning consequences of each approach. In doing so, it will be shown how each instructional approach on its own proves to be educationally deficient. The paper then draws from a systems thinking epistemology to argue that when the two instructional approaches are combined, emergent educational benefits arise. Based on this understanding, the paper presents a systemic framework for case-based classroom experiential learning. Although Kolb's learning cycle informs the discussion, it is not accepted at face value but critically examined with resultant insights into its structure. The paper concludes with a critical review of the proposed framework which can serve to guide instructors.


There are two general categories of cases: live cases and classroom-confined cases. The former engage students with the community (Kennedy et al., 2001; Heim et al., 2005), and are thus not strictly confined to the classroom. Harvard Business School is best known for the effective use of the latter (Barnes et al., 1994). This latter category is of interest here. Within this category, there are two types of cases available for pedagogic use in the classroom: demonstration cases and problem cases (Bocker, 1987).

Demonstration cases, as the term suggests, demonstrate real world practice. In other words, they are illustrative devices of the practical application of concepts, theories and processes. They belong to an instructional approach, which oscillates between conceptual focus and practical illustration (or, equally, lecture and illustrative example), an approach known as deductive (Bocker, 1987; Corner and Corner, 2003).

Though well-established, this approach is not without its critics. Dewey (1938, p. 19-20) and Kolb (1984, p. 5) put it well, if not polemically: in fostering a learning discipline of passive absorption, the deductive approach is perceptible as one which demands, and all too frequently acquires, a static classroom context, in which it imposes knowledge through the medium of inert pedagogic materials, with the aim of drilling isolated skills and techniques that can prepare the student for a possible experience in some remote future.

In system theoretical terms, the deductive approach tends toward trapping students in a closed learning system whose prefabricated and predefined tendencies in turn prefabricate and predefine students' own abilities to epistemologically engage with situations, with concepts and with concepts in situations. Students, in this approach, remain detached recipients and digesters of information: in the first instance of theory and concepts and, in the second, by way of a demonstration case of theory and concepts in merely illustrative context.

The deductive approach, in other words, does not actively engage students in a problematic context. At best, pedagogic and learning possibilities remain largely within the theoretical side of the didactic spectrum. This being the case, students might well find the concepts interesting on paper. They might even appreciate in principle the concepts' relevance. It is doubtful, however, whether such appreciation empowers students to use/apply the concepts in practice. In their jobs, for instance, students might opt to hire experts or consultants as a more attractive and less risky option than their actually attempting to apply concepts based upon largely theoretical learning. At the limit, the deductive pedagogic approach ultimately seals the fate of an entire field: on the one hand, its application potential rests in the hands of a few specialists/ consultants; on the other, the field remains as merely an interesting topic in academia.

The critique of the deductive approach paints a rather bleak picture for effective teaching. The entropic tendencies of this closed epistemological system point to sterile learning whose relevance is minimal to the ever-changing open system of real world problems. The critique calls for an approach which facilitates active absorption on the part of the student within a dynamic classroom context in which knowledge is discovered through the medium of enterprising pedagogic materials which can holistically provide integrated skills and techniques. The critique, in other words, seeks an open epistemological system whose structure can allow continual learning in keeping with the ever-changing open system of real-world problems.

It would appear that what is called for is simply to stand the deductive approach on its head. Thus, instead of the aforementioned demonstration cases, problem cases become the norm. These offer problems to be solved that are drawn from the real world. Such cases are described by Bocker (1987) as 'open ended', placing the burden of analysis and decision making on the student. They allow for the realization of three basic determinants: it is the student who must identify the critical issues in the case, decide what methods are appropriate and use them, and ultimately interpret the results of analysis and suggest a plan of implementation (Bell and von Lanzenauer, 2000; Cochran, 2000). The student's active involvement in the open-system messes which constitute open-system reality (Ackoff, 1979) facilitates the learning of problem-solving rules, techniques and/or approaches. Instead of absorbing theory, the tendency is for the student to learn from practice. Such an instructional approach is referred to as inductive. Its substitution of largely theoretical learning in favour of a more enterprising approach avoids students getting trapped in some closed epistemological (or learning) system. This substitution is, however, equally problematic.

Basing student learning on the open-system world does not, of itself, counteract closedsystem learning. In other words, the inductive instructional approach does not avoid an entropic trap. The driver of knowledge is, of course, replaced: instead of theory, it is now praxis. Praxis facilitates learning from engagement. Such engagement is appreciated as an open system. It is therefore presumed that learning itself will avoid a closed system fate. Such an assumption is misguided. By making learning a function of engagement, the tendency is for it to be sourced in, and hence largely determined from, this very engagement. Due to this, learning tends to lack any contact with itself, any epistemological self-referentiality. There is no theory building that could offer the generic lesson from praxis. Inductive instruction, therefore, spells the same closed-system fate as the deductive approach, only this time it is a fate into entropic exhaustion philosophically known as skepticism.

In brief, where deductive pedagogy inhibits practice, inductive pedagogy inhibits theory; or, equally, whilst the former approach inhibits the ability to deal with particulars, the latter inhibits knowledge from taking advantage of generalities. At best, the theoretical tendencies of the deductive approach suggest the construction of hypotheses, but the approach fails to provide an empirical outlet for testing them. Equally, the practical tendencies of the inductive approach suggest a synthetic explanation of its results, but the approach fails to provide the necessary theoretical facilitation. Neither approach in itself provides an effective learning system. The dilemma of pedagogy is that its potential appears to be stilted by two determinable, entropic learning routes: the deductive and the inductive. What is required is a system which simultaneously facilitates learners' deductive engagement with a multitude of phenomena (instead of only a limited number) as well as learners' inductive engagement with particular instances of phenomena (instead of remaining ignorant about such instances).


A clue as to the construction of such a system lies with Kolb, a leading theorist and practitioner of experiential learning. Kolb favours 'a holistic integrative perspective on learning' (1984, p. 21) which systemically links both instructional approaches--he calls this 'interactionism' (1984, p. 101). His thesis is based on the inseparability between learning and epistemology (1984, p. 37):
   [T]o understand knowledge, we must understand
   the psychology of the learning process,
   and to understand learning, we must understand
   epistemology--the origins, nature,
   methods and limits of knowledge.

Kolb (1984, p. 18) finds support for this thesis in Piaget, in whose research he sees an inquiry into 'the relationship between the structure of knowledge and how it is learned'. Indeed, Kolb (1984, p. 37) goes so far as to extensively cite from Piaget's (1978) American Psychologist article, in which 'it is impossible to dissociate psychology [read: learning] from epistemology'. Notwithstanding Piaget, however, learning is, in essence, the process of acquiring knowledge, and the field concerned specifically with processes of acquiring knowledge is epistemology. This is a sufficient reason to appreciate the inseparability between learning and epistemology.

If epistemology is to guide an interactionist treatment of deductive and inductive pedagogy, however, it must first provide the epistemological equivalents of these learning approaches, and then show how they may interact. The epistemological equivalents must, furthermore, betray the entropic tendencies inherent in either pedagogic mode. From a wider perspective, the epistemological equivalents must also serve as the determinable structure of epistemology in the same way that deductive and inductive learning set the determinable structure of pedagogic approaches. In essence, epistemology must betray an inherent structural dualism, each of whose two elements betray entropic tendencies.

Epistemology has been historically delineated into the incommensurable (Merleau-Ponty, 1964, p. 51) and inescapable (Lovejoy, 1996) dualism of empiricism and rationalism; a dualism which has been traditionally marked out in geographic terms: the British empiricism of Locke, Berkeley and Hume versus the continental (European) rationalism of Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza. This delineation is by no means defunct--see, for example, the debate between linguist Noam Chomsky and empiricists, such as Nelson Goodman, concerning the existence of innate ideas (Solomon, 1998, p. 152; Chomsky, 2000, p. 46-74). This dualism serves as the foundational, determinable structure to which all epistemologies (at least in the Western philosophical tradition) may be traced.

It is not difficult to match epistemological dualism to its pedagogic equivalent. Deductive pedagogy, with its theoretical tendencies, suggestion of hypothesis-construction, but lack of empirical ground upon which to test them, reflects rationalism. Inductive pedagogy, marked by practical tendencies, and suffering from a lack of theoretical facilitation which could fulfil its suggestion for synthetic explanation, reflects empiricism.

A systems approach to epistemology, moreover, confirms that rationalism and empiricism each betray the entropic tendencies of deductive and inductive approaches, respectively. Georgiou (2007) has analysed these tendencies in depth and labelled them dogmatism and bounded rationality, respectively. Drawing from von Bertalanffy's (1968) foundational principles, and triggered by Checkland's (1981a) explicit concerns for an epistemology for system theory/ systems thinking based upon the idea of emergent property, Georgiou has also detailed the incommensurability and inescapability of epistemology's two structural modes. His analysis uncovers critique as the essential activity of consciousness that enables knowledge to develop from both structural modes, whilst serving to temper the entropic trap of each mode when it is followed singularly. Accordingly, systems thinking embraces the two epistemological modes as moments (instead of detachable pieces) of a system that enables the development of knowledge. In essence, human epistemological engagement with the world, through systems thinking, involves an epistemological dialectic that functions with only two, ever-opposed and yet necessary moments. It is for consciousness to switch from one mode to the other, through active critique, in order not to risk being overwhelmed and completely determined by the entropic effects of either. As such, epistemology provides a dual determinable structure--but neither consciousness, nor human epistemological engagement with the world, nor the development of knowledge needs to be determined by this structure. Through the exercise of critique, the risk of being determined by epistemology's determinable structure is alleviated.

If, therefore, in keeping with its inseparability to learning, epistemology is to guide the pedagogic enterprise, systems thinking provides a systemic epistemological structure that can orientate the design of experiential learning. It calls for the maintenance of both deductive and inductive learning, and for their connection through some critical activity attributed to consciousness. Kolb provides a model along these lines although, as will be shown, it cannot be taken at face value.

To begin with, Kolb delineates two learning modes: a deductively induced learning mode, which he terms abstract conceptualization, and an inductively induced learning mode, which he terms concrete experience. Table 1 situates these Kolbian learning modes within the above discussion. For instance, abstract conceptualization is traceable to a rationalist epistemology whose theoretical tendency suggests hypothesis construction, and for which demonstration cases are the pedagogic norm. By contrast, concrete experience is traceable to empiricism, whose practical tendencies suggest synthetic explanation, and for which problem cases are the pedagogic norm.

A conjoining relation forms the basis of Kolb's learning theory. Drawing upon the work of Lewin (1951), Kolb finds that the two poles of deductive and inductive learning can be related as follows (Kolb's terms are given in brackets): reflection (reflective observation) upon empirically acquired knowledge (concrete experience) enables theoretical development (abstract conceptualization) of such knowledge, whilst practical experimentation of ideas (active experimentation) enables the acquisition of empirical knowledge (concrete experience). The learner is thus involved in a mutually informative and complete learning/epistemological process. It is illustrated in Figure 1.

Kolb refers to it as a cycle. However, that term is perhaps inaccurate. The focus of Figure I is on the type of knowledge ultimately acquired, be it empirical or rationalist. Deductive learning is based upon rationalism and hence promotes theoretical knowledge, whilst inductive learning is based upon empiricism and hence promotes learning from praxis. In this configuration, only two Kolbian learning modes are emphasized: empirical concrete experience and rational abstract conceptualization. These are conjoined by activities in reflective observation and active experimentation. Kolb views these latter two activities as learning modes in themselves, thus reducing all four of the cycle's elements onto one dimension. This view is problematic for two reasons.


First, if the relationship between learning and epistemology is to hold, reflective observation and active experimentation must each be assigned to an epistemological theory--in each case, a theory that differs from empiricism and rationalism. Kolb provides no discussion of this problem.

Second, Hunsaker (1981) points out that reflective observation and active experimentation form a secondary dimension that rests upon the primary dimension of abstract conceptualization and concrete experience. The secondary status of the former is due to the concerns of reflective observation and active experimentation, namely, passive interpretation of concrete experience and hypothesis testing of abstract conceptualisation, respectively. Indeed, despite his attempts to equally treat all four as distinct learning modes, reflective observation and active experimentation are always discussed by Kolb in relation to abstract conceptualization and concrete experience, namely, as transformation processes that lead from one pole to the other (Kolb, 1984, p. 51-58, 112). This is exactly the role of critique as employed by Georgiou (2007) in his epistemology for systems thinking.

Kolb's accordance of equal status to all four learning modes has influenced the design of his Learning Styles Inventory, an instrument designed to measure people's preferred learning modes. A conclusion as to which one of the four learning modes a particular person prefers depends upon answers to questions that reflect all four modes. This implies treating all four modes as substantially equal in purpose and meaning. If the understanding above is correct, however, only two learning modes provide knowledge, whilst another two act as facilitating transformers of that knowledge. There is an unmistakable qualitative difference between something that provides knowledge and something that transforms it. Their treatment, by Kolb, as substantially equal appears misguided, and Hunsaker notes that 'it has been suggested that the fault may lie in the construction of the instrument, that the choice of terms is confusing and confounding since one is actually ranking two independent dimensions using four dependent scores' (italics added).

The concern--not only in this paper, but also for Kolb--is that pedagogy not fall into the entropic abyss of either deductive or inductive learning, given that its constitution is based upon the two incommensurable, yet inescapable, determinable epistemological modes, respectively. A cycle provides no insight as to how each epistemological mode is transcendable, whilst simultaneously being necessary and entropic. But if abstract conceptualization and concrete experience are treated as necessary moments of a learning system that enable knowledge, and if reflective observation and active experimentation are incorporated as the activities that enable the use of these epistemological modes, and that simultaneously serve to temper their entropic tendencies, then Kolb's learning cycle is appreciable as a learning system whose epistemological foundations are to be found in systems thinking.

No matter whether the cycle or the systems interpretation is used to understand Kolb's proposed learning process, his model of experiential learning has received general support as an explicative device, as evidenced by its widespread dissemination in learning forums and media. The reason is that it serves to highlight that, whatever the critique of the deductive approach, the value of theoretical learning evident therein cannot be minimized. As such, instead of standing the deductive approach on its head, and in keeping with the lessons of epistemology, Kolb links it to the inductive approach, thereby tempering each approach's entropic tendencies. However, only the systems interpretation explicitly recognizes that the entropic tendencies of each epistemological mode are tempered through the employment of a critical activity constituted (in Kolb's case) by reflective observation and active experimentation-and not through a couple of other learning modes that would then require their own associative epistemological theory. As such, system offers a more accurate idea of the relationships involved, and a relevant question for future research concerns the extent to which systems thinking can further inform the theoretical basis for Kolb's interactionism.


In essence, then, Kolb presents a learning system constituted by two moments, deductive and inductive pedagogic approaches. Qua interrelated moments, these two approaches enable the realization of an emergent property: experiential learning. Significantly, learning depends on the praxis of relating these two moments. That is, without active experimentation or reflective observation, the two pedagogical approaches reduce to detachable pieces, independent of each other and liable to their entropic ends. The heart of experiential learning lies in reflectively observing concrete experience and actively experimenting with abstract conceptualizations. The original foundation for learning, in other words, lies in the relation between deductive and inductive pedagogy. As discussed above, this mirrors Georgiou's argument that the foundation for the development of knowledge and for the possibility of human epistemological engagement with the world rests in the relation between dogmatism and bounded rationality as governed by critique.

Now, deductive learning may include demonstration cases as illustrative devices. As such, these are not necessary for such learning per se. A problem case, on the other hand, is an integral tool for the furtherance of classroom experiential learning. For, given the contextual limitations of the classroom, the problem case is that which provides the experiential catalyst. The problem case is the key part without which the instructional system could not give rise to the emergent property classroom experiential learning.

If problem cases are to be included in Kolb's experiential learning system for the purposes of furthering classroom experiential learning, they must therefore be included as empirical means for attaining some degree of concrete experience and hence inductive learning. Indeed, inductive learning and problem cases must be intimately related within the wider interrelations of the experiential learning system. One such possible integration is provided in Figure 2.

In this systemic framework, deductive instruction provides an initial platform, for example in the form of a lecture explicating certain concepts, which leads to an initial degree of deductive learning. This initial deductive learning serves to inform the tackling of a problem case. Upon setting to work on the problem case, a certain degree of inductive learning takes place. Indeed, there is natural learning feedback between the problem case and inductive learning, thus constituting a sub-system of the wider instructional/ learning system. The learning incurred within this sub-system serves to inform and enhance the initial deductive learning--hence the feedback to deductive learning. Such feedback may not only reinforce the initial deductive learning but serve to question it, leading to further deductive and, consequently, inductive understanding. Further conceptual material is introduced through additional deductive instruction and, with each new set of concepts, inductive learning begins to practically appreciate their interrelations and their systemic use. Consequently, after the initial iteration, the parts of the system begin to act less as distinct stops within a learning route and more as systemic interrelations which inform and question each other in the interests of advancing learning and its applications. As such, classroom experiential learning begins to emerge and is strengthened with each opportunity to learn deductively, inductively and through a problem case, simultaneously. When learning can no longer be distinctly recognized as either deductive or inductive, the students may be said to have internalized it or 'thought it in' (Bell and Margolis, 1978). At this point, knowledge forms part of the learner's conceptual apparatus for not only perceiving, but also for dealing with, reality. Hence, the transition from apprentice to expert begins.


The advantage of this systemic instructional framework is that it promotes a learning balance between general/theoretical principles and experiential influence or, in other words, a didactic-experiential blend (Bell and Margolis, 1978). This combats one of the dangers of experiential learning, whereby excessive experiential influence could leave learners without reference points from which to derive meaning and relevance from the experience. Indeed, the framework points toward the realization of some key objectives for experiential learning (Certo, 1976; Kayes, 2002) to facilitate learning via theory and experience; to apply theory (through an experiential exercise) in such a way which can raise questions about the theory itself and thus serve to clarify or elaborate conceptual (deductive) learning; to enable learner engagement in a dialectical inquiry process and to provide for a holistic and integrative learning experience. It has been due to such desired objectives that experiential learning, especially since the work of Kolb (1984), has spread across the university disciplines: from political science (Brock and Cameron, 1999) to statistics (Hakeem, 2001), to economics (Truscott et al., 2000), to international relations (Lantis, 1998), to marketing (Bridges, 1999), to operations management (Ammar and Wright, 1999) and so on. In the field of systems thinking, and based upon the experience of one of the authors of this paper, classroom experiential learning that employs problem cases has served to inform theory as well as provide evidence of quality practical work from students (Georgiou, 2006, 2008). Still, there are two issues that temper enthusiasm for adopting case-based classroom experiential learning. The first concerns the reliance on problem cases themselves. The second concerns evaluation.


To begin with, as discussed earlier, the adoption of problem cases in the classroom serves to prepare students for real world experience. In other words, problem cases are preparatory tools, and must not therefore be viewed as effective substitutes for real world experience. Although they may enable enhanced understanding of the application of concepts in contexts ('how do I use this tool in a problem'), they serve as mere introductions to the rich complex dynamics of real world contexts per se (McCarthy and McCarthy, 2006) and to the shock with which such dynamics are sometimes greeted by students (Elam and Spotts, 2004). On the other hand, the preparatory significance of case-based classroom experiential learning means that it should at least expose students to cognitive conflict, and the dynamics that give rise to team psychological safety and synergistic knowledge development (Mu and Gnyawali, 2000). Indeed, when working on problem cases based on a framework such as the one in Figure 2, such issues are emergent properties of the learning system that require equally dedicated facilitation from the instructor. In other words, notwithstanding the demands and learning responsibilities placed upon students, the success of case-based classroom experiential learning will significantly depend upon the degree of instructional effectiveness (Shuman and Hornaday, 1975; Certo, 1976).

Related to this, the use of problem cases might not enable students to immediately appreciate the value of dealing with messy problems because classroom experiential learning is focused more on process than on regurgitating well-defined content (Kayes, 2002), requiring a new learning paradigm of the students. The process requires the gradual fostering, by the instructor, of new conceptual frameworks which can promote students' skills of inquiry, self-esteem and self-directedness aimed at enhancing their abilities to use and alter knowledge in innovative ways in order to enable insight rather than remain passive absorbers of instruction (Bell and Margolis, 1978). This runs counter to many management degrees (from Bachelors through to MBA) which trade on substantive factual material and tend to disregard teaching how to think in problematic situations (Fellers, 1996; Checkland, 2000; Bennis and O'Toole, 2005), giving rise to what Adams and Zanzi (2004) highlight as 'the missing link' in management training. Behind effective case-based classroom experiential learning, therefore, lies a more profound challenge: to develop curricula which balance necessary factual content with equally necessary mental training and development for dealing with real world complex problems. In this respect, the simultaneous use of multiple experiential techniques is recommended (Hamer, 2000; Saunders, 1997).

Issues such as this are conceivably manageable: instructional facilitation can be developed through experience and proper guidance; curricula can be designed which enhance the role of process management; and, the framework in Figure 2 can be expanded to include multiple experiential techniques. Moreover, simply presenting to students the ideas behind a framework such as Figure 2, both as a rationale for course design as well as a model of the learning process, can go a long way in building appreciation of the learning task that faces them--now and in the future--as well as serving to suggest how they might improve on their own learning (Sugarman, 1985).


What is more problematic is the question of evaluation. A recent review on assessing experiential learning effectiveness (Gosen and Washbush, 2004) notes that although published empirical research supports the notion that experiential learning is effective, 'the studies showing these results reflect a long-standing trend of not meeting the highest of research design and measurement standards ... thus any conclusion about the effectiveness of these teaching approaches must be tentative'. A greater cohesion in evaluation standards may be difficult, given theoretical differences among researchers and pedagogists, methodological difficulties in comparing different experiential designs, the impact of variable institutional constraints and student populations and the questionable possibility of measuring affective and behavioural change (as opposed to purely cognitive development) (Saunders, 1997). Kolb goes as far as to suggest that proper evaluation processes cannot arise until an educational institution undergoes holistic change (Kolb and Kolb, 2005). Short of this utopian challenge, a (selective) survey of the management literature reveals the following popular devices:

* Debriefing and feedback sessions (Belasco et al., 1973; Firat and Kumcu, 1994; Lantis, 1998; Truscott et al., 2000; Hunt and Laverie, 2004; Heim et al., 2005).

* Class participation/attendance measurements (Shuman and Hornaday, 1975; Bridges, 1999).

* Tests, exams and papers (Shuman and Hornaday, 1975; Firat and Kumcu, 1994; Lantis, 1998; Bridges, 1999; Young, 2002).

* Student journals or memoranda (McMullan and Cahoon, 1979; Firat and Kumcu, 1994; Hernandez, 2002; Young, 2002).

* Questionnaires/surveys/Likert scales (Firat and Kumcu, 1994; Levasseur, 1996; Frontczak, 1998; Mu and Gnyawali, 2000; Kennedy et al., 2001; Hernandez, 2002; House, 2002; Elam and Spotts, 2004; Polito et al., 2004; Heim et al., 2005; McCarthy and McCarthy, 2006).

* Student projects (Drea et al., 1997; Speece, 2002; Elam and Spotts, 2004).

* Student presentations (Bridges, 1999).

* The use of control groups (Hamer, 2000; Hakeem, 2001).

* Peer group evaluations (Hernandez, 2002).

* The effective use of modelling (Georgiou, 2008).

In general, triangulation through the use of multiple assessment tools is advised, along with instructors' professional judgments on student development. Clearly, evaluating any experiential learning exercise is a non-trivial affair. Kolb (1981) provides a neat summary of the challenge:
   Experiential learning theory can no more be
   proven invalid solely by an analysis of [its]
   internal characteristics than it can be proven
   valid by such an analysis. Validation of a
   theory is a complex process accomplished by
   concurrent, predictive and/or construct validation
   of operational measures of variables in
   the theory against external criteria predicted by
   the theory as well as by more qualitative
   judgments concerning the theory's ability to
   raise interesting and practical questions for
   investigation. In addition, it is preferable that
   variables in the theory be addressed by
   different methods in order to separate irrelevant
   method variance from variance in the
   construct being measured.

The challenge is not alien to systems thinking, for Checkland (1981b, p. 241) has commented on the evaluation of soft systems methodology (SSM) in similar terms. Much like SSM, experiential learning is a methodology and, as such, cannot claim the status of a scientific finding with the promise of confirmation through repeatability. This is exacerbated by the fact that experiential learning addresses, and is applied in, pedagogic settings which, of their very nature, are human activity systems (as opposed to natural systems like, say, the reaction between metals and acid). Paraphrasing Checkland, it is difficult to conclude whether, in a particular situation, learning is enhanced through an experiential approach as compared to some alternative and, equally, it is difficult to judge failure of experiential learning since no rigorous criteria exist for adhering to it competently.

One looks to systems thinking for answers in evaluating the effectiveness of SSM. The evaluation of the effectiveness of experiential learning sets very similar challenges. These challenges are rendered all the more relevant when, as done in this paper, experiential learning is not only understood through, but also appears to be founded upon, an epistemology designed especially for systems thinking. There can be no question that systems thinking is a relevant guide for pedagogy.


The systems field is justifiably concerned with developments in education; not only with the teaching and dissemination of its own field in curricula, but especially with the results of public inquiries which make recommendations on the future of education. A common thread which unites the inquirers, their critics and academics in general is the concern to effectively prepare students for the real world. In the context of these intertwined discussions, the present paper has focused on what can be done in the classroom in order to prepare students for their future epistemological engagement with the world-prior, that is, to even an intermediate real-world experience such as an internship. Case-based classroom experiential learning has been discussed as one fruitful approach. A systemic framework for practicing this approach has been presented, contextualizing the deductive and inductive instructional approaches in respective epistemological positions. It is intended that the framework act as a guide to those instructors/ trainers who wish to add case-based classroom experiential learning to their teaching repertoire. It is also a framework that is based on an epistemology for systems thinking. It thus provides a distinctly systems thinking approach to the pedagogic enterprise. The discussion has also pointed to the demanding efforts required of instructors and students alike. Finally, the issue of evaluation has been highlighted as problematic and rendered relevant to systems thinking.


This paper is based on research sponsored by the Escola de Administracao de Empresas de Sao Paulo of the Fundacao Getulio Vargas.


Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). 2006. Eligibility Procedures and Accreditation Standards for Business Accreditation--adopted 25/4/2003, revised 1/1/2006. Retrieved 25/12/

2006 from business/STANDARDS.pdf.

Ackoff R. 1979. The future of operational research is past. Journal of the Operational Research Society 30(2): 93-104.

Adams SM, Zanzi A. 2004. Course preparation for management consultants. Journal of Management Education 28(6): 655-673.

Ahari P. 2006. A living systems analysis of student design projects at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH). Systems Research and Behavioral Science 23(3): 419-428.

Ammar S, Wright R. 1999. Experiential learning activities in operations management. International Transactions in Operational Research 6(2): 183-197.

Banathy BH. 1999. Systems thinking in higher education: learning comes to focus. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 16(2): 133-145.

Banathy BH. 2001. We enter the twenty-first century with schooling designed in the nineteenth. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 18(4): 287-290.

Barnes LB, Christensen CR, Hansen AJ. 1994. Teaching and the Case Method: Text, Cases, and Readings. Harvard Business School Press: Boston.

Belasco JA, Glassman AM, Alutto JA. 1973. Experiential learning: some classroom results. Academy of Management Proceedings 235-241.

Bell CR, Margolis FH. 1978. Blending didactic and experiential learning methods. Training and Development Journal 32(8): 16-21.

Bell PC, von Lanzenauer CH. 2000. Teaching objectives: the value of using cases in teaching operational research. Journal of the Operational Research Society 51(12): 1367-1377.

Bennis WG, O'Toole J. 2005. How business schools lost their way. Harvard Business Review 83(5): 96-104.

Bocker F. 1987. Is case teaching more effective than lecture teaching in business administration? An exploratory analysis. Interfaces 17(5): 64-71.

Bransford JD, Brown AL, Cocking RR. 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind Experience, and School. National Academy Press: Washington DC.

Bridges E. 1999. Experiential learning and customer needs in the undergraduate marketing research course. Journal of Marketing Education 21(1): 51-59.

Brock KL, Cameron BJ. 1999. Enlivening political science courses with Kolb's learning preference model. PS: Political Science and Politics 32(2): 251-256.

Certo SC. 1976. The experiential exercise situation: a comment on instructional role and pedagogy evaluation. Academy of Management Review 1(3): 113-115.

Checkland P. 1981a. Rethinking a systems approach. Journal of Applied Systems Analysis 8: 3-14.

Checkland P. 1981b. Systems Thinking, Systems Practice. Wiley: Chichester.

Checkland P. 2000. Soft systems methodology: a thirty year retrospective. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 17(S1): S11-S58.

Chomsky N. 2000. New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Chujo H, Kijima K. 2006. Soft systems approach to project-based education and its practice in a Japanese university. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 23(1): 89-105.

Cochran JJ. 2000. Introductory business OR cases: successful use of cases in introductory undergraduate business college operational research courses. Journal of the Operational Research Society 51(12): 1378-1385.

Corner J, Corner PD. 2003. Teaching OR/MS using discussion leadership. Interfaces 33(3): 60-69.

Dewey J. 1938. Experience and Education. Kappa Delta Pi: Indianapolis.

Drea JT, Singh M, Engelland BT. 1997. Using experiential learning in a principles of marketing course: an empirical analysis of student marketing audits. Marketing Education Review 7(Fall): 53-59.

Eden C. 1982. Problem construction and the influence of OR. Interfaces 12(2): 50-60.

Elam ELR, Spotts HE. 2004. Achieving marketing curriculum integration: a live case study approach. Journal of Marketing Education 26(1): 50-65.

Fellers JW. 1996. People skills: using the cooperative learning model to teach students "people skills". Interfaces 26(5): 42-49.

Firat AF, Kumcu E. 1994. The marketing channel game "Dis-Para-Sim": an experiential learning exercise. Marketing Education Review 4(Summer): 21-30.

Frontczak NT. 1998. A paradigm for the selection, use and development of experiential learning activities in marketing education. Marketing Education Review 8(Fall): 25-33.

Georgiou I. 2006. Managerial effectiveness from a system theoretical point of view. Systemic Practice and Action Research 19(5): 441-459.

Georgiou I. 2007. Thinking Through Systems Thinking. Routledge: London.

Georgiou I. 2008. Making decisions in the absence of clear facts. European Journal of Operational Research 185(1): 299-321.

Gosen J, Washbush J. 2004. A review of scholarship on assessing experiential learning effectiveness. Simulation and Gaming 35(2): 270-293.

Hakeem SA. 2001. Effect of experiential learning in business statistics. Journal of Education for Business 77(2): 95-98.

Hamer LO. 2000. The additive effects of semistructured classroom activities on student learning: an application of classroom-based experiential learning techniques. Journal of Marketing Education 22(1): 25-34.

Heim GR, Meile L, Tease J, Glass J, Laher S, Rowan J, Comerford K. 2005. Experiential learning in a management information systems course: simulating IT consulting and CRM system procurement. Communications of the Association for Information Systems Issue 15: 428-463.

Hernandez SA. 2002. Team learning in a marketing principles course: cooperative structures that facilitate active learning and higher level thinking. Journal of Marketing Education 24(1): 73-85.

Horn RA. 2004. The impact of Bela H. Banathy's research on an educational scholar-practitioner. Systemic Practice and Action Research 17(4): 297-305.

House JD. 2002. The motivational effects of specific teaching activities and computer use for science learning: findings from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). International Journal of Instructional Media 29(4): 423-439.

Hunsaker JS. 1981. The experiential learning model and the learning style inventory: an assessment of current findings. Journal of Experiential Learning and Simulation 2(3): 145-152.

Hunt SD, Laverie DA. 2004. Experiential learning and the Hunt-Vitell Theory of ethics: teaching marketing ethics by integrating theory and practice. Marketing Education Review 14(Fall): 1-14.

Ison R. 1999. Applying systems thinking to higher education. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 16(2): 107-112.

Jenlink PM. 2001. Designing educational systems for the twenty-first century. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 18(4): 283-285.

Kayes DC. 2002. Experiential learning and its critics: preserving the role of experience in management learning and education. Academy of Management Learning & Education 1(2): 137-149.

Keeton MT, Sheckley BG, Griggs JK. 2002. Efficiency and Effectiveness in Higher Education. Kendall/Hunt: Dubuque, IA.

Kennedy EJ, Lawton L, Walker E. 2001. The case for using live cases: shifting the paradigm in marketing education. Journal of Marketing Education 23(2): 145-151.

Kolb D. 1981. Experiential learning theory and the learning style inventory: a reply to Freedman and Stumpf. Academy of Management Review 6(2): 289-296.

Kolb D. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Prentice-Hall: New Jersey.

Kolb AY, Kolb D. 2005. Learning styles and learning spaces: enhancing experiential learning in higher education. Academy of Management Learning & Education 4(2): 193-212.

Lambert NM, McCombs BL (eds). 1997. How Students Learn: Reforming Schools Through Learner-Centered Education. American Psychological Association: Washington DC.

Lantis JS. 1998. Simulations and experiential learning in the international relations classroom. International Negotiation 3(1): 39-57.

Levasseur RE. 1996. People skills: launching a cooperative learning team. Interfaces 26(6): 112-116.

Lewin K. 1951. Field Theory in Social Sciences. Harper and Row: New York.

Lovejoy AO. 1996. The Revolt Against Dualism: An Inquiry Concerning the Existence of Ideas. Transaction Publishers: New Brunswick. [First published in 1930 by The Open Court Publishing Company, Chicago[.

Makhanya MS. 2002. What do teachers do? A qualitative analysis of the role of the teacher. Systemic Practice and Action Research 15(2): 123-144.

McCarthy PR, McCarthy HM. 2006. When case studies are not enough: integrating experiential learning into business curricula. Journal of Education for Business March 81(4): 201-204.

McIntyre J. 2004. Facilitating critical systemic practice (CSP) by means of experiential learning and conceptual tools. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 21(1): 37-61.

McMullan WE, Cahoon A. 1979. Integrating abstract conceptualizing with experiential learning. Academy of Management Review 4(3): 453-458.

Mentkowski M. Associates. 2000. Learning That Lasts: Integrating Learning, Development and Performance in College and Beyond. Jossey Bass: San Francisco, CA.

Merleau-Ponty M. 1964. Phenomenology and the Sciences of Man, trans. J. Wild. Collected in M. Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, The Philosophy of Art, History and Politics, J.M. Edie (ed.). Northwestern University Press: Evanston, IL. [Reproduced from the course given by Merleau-Ponty at the Sorbonne in 1950/51 Les sciences de l'homme et la phenomenologie.] 43-95.

Mu S, Gnyawali DR. 2000. Synergistic knowledge development in cross-major student groups: an empirical examination. Best Paper Proceedings of the Academy of Management. C1-C6.

Pelton JN. 1996. Agenda for 21st century educational reform. The Futurist 30(6): 20-25.

Peters G. 1999. A systems failure view of the UK national commission into higher education report. Systems Research and Behavior Science 16(2): 123-131.

Piaget J. 1978. What is psychology? American Psychologist 33(7): 648-652.

Polito T, Kros J, Watson K. 2004. Improving operations management concept recollection via the Zarco experiential learning activity. Journal of Education for Business May 79(5): 283-286.

Saunders PM. 1997. Experiential learning, cases, and simulations in business communication. Business Communication Quarterly 60(1): 97-114.

Shuman JC, Hornaday JA. 1975. Experiential learning in an entrepreneurship course. Academy of Management Proceedings. 436-438.

Simon S. 2006. Systemic educational approaches to environmental issues: the contribution of ecological art. Systemic Practice and Action Research 19(2): 143-157.

Solomon R. 1998. The Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy, 5th edn. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace.

Speece M. 2002. Experiential learning methods in asian cultures: a Singapore case study. Business Communication Quarterly 65(3): 106-121.

Sugarman L. 1985. Kolb's model of experiential learning: touchstone for trainers, students, counselors, and clients. Journal of Counseling and Development 64(4): 264-268.

Truscott M, Rustogi H, Young CB. 2000. Enhancing the macroeconomics course: an experiential learning approach. Journal of Economic Education 31(1): 60-65.

Udas K. 1998. Participatory action research as critical pedagogy. Systemic Practice and Action Research 11(6): 599-628.

von Bertalanffy L. 1968. General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. George Braziller: New York.

Weil S. 1999. Re-creating universities for 'beyond the stable state': from 'Dearingesque' systematic control to post-Dearing systemic learning and inquiry. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 16(2): 171-190.

Williams T, Dickson K. 2000. Teaching real-life OR to MSc students. Journal of the Operational Research Society 51(12): 1440-1448.

Young MR. 2002. Experiential learning = hands-on + minds-on. Marketing Education Review 12(Spring): 43-51.

Zull JE. 2002. The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Stylus: Sterling, VA.

I. Georgiou (1) *, C. Zahn (1) and B. J. Meira (2)

(1) Fundacao Getulio Vargas, Brasil

(2) UNICAMP & UESB, Brasil

* Correspondence to: Dr I. Georgiou, Fundacao Getulio Vargas (FGV), Escola de Administracao de Empresas de Sao Paulo (EAESP), Departamento de Informatica e Metodos Quantitativos (IMQ), Rua Itapeva 474 (9 andar, sala 901), Bairro Bela Vista, Sao Paulo 01332-000, SP, Brasil.

Table 1. Aspects of deductive and inductive learning

                  Deductive             Inductive
                  learning              learning

Epistemology      Rationalism           Empiricism
Tendency          Theoretical           Practical
Suggests          Hypothesis-           Synthetic
                    construction          explanation
Kolbian           Abstract              Concrete
  learning mode     conceptualization     experience
Case type         Demonstration         Problem
COPYRIGHT 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Research Paper
Author:Georgiou, I.; Zahn, C.; Meira, B.J.
Publication:Systems Research and Behavioral Science
Date:Nov 1, 2008
Previous Article:Firm systems thinking: unifying educational problem solving.
Next Article:Systems intelligence--the way forward? A note on Ackoff's 'Why Few Organizations Adopt Systems Thinking'.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters