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Inspiring student insights for change.


Contemporary change has challenged educators to construct methods that develop knowledge for the times. This classroom action research case study investigated an innovative strategy created to inspire student insights on the realities of a change-based environment. The strategy created a context of contemporary change in the classroom by structuring a written assignment to mimic a characteristic of complexity theory. The implications of this approach provided a new strategy for higher education instructors to create assignments that actively construct knowledge about the real-world environment of change.


We are living in a period of postindustrial times (Bell, 1973). These times have produced rapid change and complexity (Modis, 2003) and have resulted in an environment of unpredictability (Homer-Dixon, 2001). Within the context of contemporary change, educators have been challenged to construct methods that advance knowledge specifically for the times (Fullan, 1993). According to Symes and Preston (1997), to meet the challenge, educators must teach themselves to find solutions to cultivate learning for the times. Wilson (1997) suggested that the development of constructivist pedagogical methods would encourage knowledge development.

This inquiry, a classroom action research case study, investigated an innovative strategy created for the purpose of inspiring the development of student understandings and insights on the realities of a change-based environment. The strategy created a context of contemporary change in the classroom by applying a characteristic of complexity theory to the structure of a written assignment. As students completed the assignment, they negotiated through a change-based environment that advanced student understandings and insights concerning change. This approach provided a new strategy for higher education faculty to teach students about the real-world environment of change.


To create a context of contemporary change in the classroom, a written assignment was structured to mimic a characteristic of complexity theory. The characteristic was that the environment was pivotal (Doherty & Delener, 2001). A pivotal environment meant that the structures in which we work were constantly evolving and being pulled apart and refitted by change forces. In this environment, we cannot expect to work in an unchanging state or in what Keirsey (2003) called a state of "equilibrium" (p. 4).

To mimic the characteristic of complexity theory, the written assignment was adapted to a three-phased process with a changing group format. Students were placed in groups of four members. The four members were sub-divided into dyads (two-member groups). The first phase of the assignment was completed and submitted by each dyad. Thus, members 1 and 2 worked together and members 3 and 4 worked together to complete the assignment. Switching one member in each dyad to the other group for the second phase of the assignment created new dyads. The second phase required members to continue to work on the assignment as a progressive draft. This meant members 1 and 3 worked to advance the first phase assignment submitted by member 1 and members 2 and 4 worked to advance the assignment previously submitted by member 4. The third section of the assignment was completed by combining two dyads into one group of 4 members. In the third phase, members 1, 2, 3, and 4 worked together and completed the final progressive draft of the assignment. Overall, the three-phased assignment represented the characteristic of complexity theory that the environment was pivotal and one should expect to work in a constantly evolving structure.


Participants included a cohort of 135 undergraduate students enrolled in a third year course during the fall semester of 2005, two teaching assistants, and the instructor/researcher.

Data Collection Strategies

Student participants completed a guided record (written submission of opinion) for each of the three-phases of the assignment. The guided record was framed with four dimensions of reflection outlined by LaBoskey (1993). The four dimensions of reflection included (a) the purpose of the assignment, (b) the context for the assignment, (c) the procedures used to complete the assignment, and (d) the content developed for the assignment. The teaching assistants and instructor/researcher completed collaborative meetings held after each of the 3-phases of the assignment. The meetings were audiotaped and translated into text. The collaborative meeting method utilized communication as the process for an exchange of meaning (Schreiber & Moring, 2001) and a teaming model allowed members to participate on an equal basis (Fishbaugh, 1997).

Data Analysis Strategy

The data analysis strategy followed a constructivist perspective that looked at the participants' "constructed reality" (Patton, 2002, p. 132). The participant guided records and collaborative text were analyzed with a framework established with Mezirow's (1991) three types of reflection. According to Mezirow, reflection could be used to reveal understandings, learning, and the meaning of an experience through "the process of critically assessing the content, process, or premise" (p. 104). Mezirow noted the focus in content reflection was on the subject matter, whereas process reflection concentrated on the methods and procedures, and premise reflection considered the assertions, principles, and the essence of the idea or concept. The validity of the analysis was based on the constructivist view of an interpretation that was centered on the reader (Roseneau, 1992).

Findings and Discussion

The assignment created an environment whereby students completed "the essential [component] of constructivism ... that learners actively constructed their own knowledge and meaning from their experiences" (Doolittle & Camp, 1999, p. 5). In this case, the meaning and experience was on the realities of a change-based environment. Multiple findings indicated students learned and accepted the contention within complexity theory that the environment was pivotal. Students noted that the assignment simulated a real world experience of change and encouraged those involved in the assignment to adapt to the changing group members.

Students revealed the implications of changing group members to be (a) that one needed to accept, value, and adapt to new group members, (b) that communication was a key element in a change-based environment and brainstorming, debating, listening, negotiating, collaborating, and compromising were required, (c) that leadership was needed to guide the group through issues that arose due to change, and (d) that change had an impact on available time.

Students noted that when the group members changed, the dynamics of the group changed, yet progress on the assignment had to continue. One student aptly expressed that "there was a learning curve when you met the new group members." According to the students, the learning included developing a relationship between the group members, creating an environment whereby each member was allowed to fully participate, understanding the different learning strategies used by each member, building a basis of understanding, and learning to work together. Students expressed that communication was necessary to accept and value group member and to adapt to the challenge of the changing dynamics within the group.

Students indicated communication was needed to express the multiple options and the many angles from which members within the changing group viewed the assignment. The changing group required members to communicate to reveal the status of the assignment during each phase and to consider the options to advance the assignment for the next submission. Students developed an appreciation for the ability to generate a greater number of interpretations of the assignment with the addition of new group members. Exposure to multiple opinions and viewpoints generated a broader interpretation of the assignment and revealed greater options for completing the assignment. Students determined that communication that aided to create an increased number of options was valuable in a change-based environment.

Students noted the assignment format encouraged group members to brainstorm, debate, negotiate, collaborate, and to compromise to make progress on the assignment. The data revealed the students recognized the need for tolerance to listen to ideas presented from all members of the group. In addition, students needed to negotiate through conflicting ideas that were presented as well as conflicting interpretations. Students advanced their understanding of the need for compromising. However, compromising was a challenge for the majority of groups. One student expressed the "trick was agreeing to compromise and knowing how to properly negotiate your thoughts along with your partners." An analysis of the data indicated a level of trust needed to be developed within the groups for members to feel valued, to present their views, and to negotiate ideas. Students developed an understanding that communication was necessary for working in a change-based environment to present ideas clearly, listen to ideas offered by others, and to negotiate to advance the assignment.

The teaching assistants indicated that the changing group members had to communicate to adapt as they navigated through the change within the assignment. Leadership was required to work through the different perceptions and options, along with the power struggles that ensued between members. Coordinating the multiple ideas within each group was difficult, and to complicate matters, all members did not share similar values, opinions, and work habits. Leadership was needed to establish the foundations from which to work and to coordinate the ideas and directions suggested every time the group members changed. Students recognized the need for leadership to get through the change process. However, most recognized the need alter the fact. The teaching assistants suggested the assignment imbed a rotating leadership strategy to ensure students understand contemporary leadership was derived from any contributing member (Drucker, 1994). The analysis of the data indicated students found change impacted the time needed to complete the assignment. Time was necessary to get accustomed to new group members, and to negotiate the direction for the assignment. Students found change hindered the efficiency of the group to complete the assignment when compared to working in an unchanging group. There was no way around this requirement for time in order to work through the change process. Students developed an understanding that adapting to changing group members took time.

Overall, the strategy of framing a written assignment with a characteristic of change was created to inspire student understandings and insights for working in a change-based environment. The majority of students, the teaching assistants, and instructor indicated a general acceptance of the strategy as valuable. The value was that the strategy encouraged communication or a social process for managing change within the groups. Nonaka and Nishiguchi (2001) promoted that a social process that influenced thought developed knowledge. This strategy stimulated thought concerning working through the change process and students constructed knowledge for the realities of change. Students noted that the strategy to practice this learning within a classroom setting was effective. Examples of support from students included "this strategy was very effective to learn about change," "I hope I have more opportunities to improve my skills in a changing work environment," and "practicing in class was a great idea." However, not all students accepted the strategy. One example came from a student that indicated they would have preferred a situation where the group remained consistent in order to ensure that the work was completed in the easiest manner possible. Another student indicated that it was difficult to communicate with the group members as they took offence to her suggestions that their ideas were wrong. However, an overwhelming majority of students indicated the strategy was valuable.

As a result of this assignment, student insights on how to work in a change-based environment in the future were advanced. Students indicated that they learned to be open minded and positive to encourage an environment for new ideas, suggestions, and criticisms. In addition, students learned to adjust to other learning styles used by group members. The analysis of the data revealed that students indicated in the future they would actively encourage communication that stimulated an environment conducive to everyone presenting ideas and understanding everyone one of the group members' point of view. This meant taking the time to develop a greater understanding of the group members and the strengths and weaknesses of options presented to position them for advantage to complete the assignment. Overall, students revealed the opinion that the assignment strategy encouraged insight as to potential work-related changes that one must prepare for in a contemporary environment of change and uncertainty. Overall, the strategy advanced student understandings and insights for change.

Conclusions and Significance of the Inquiry

An innovative strategy was developed to meet the educators' challenge to create knowledge for contemporary change. The strategy created a context of contemporary change by framing a written assignment with a characteristic of complexity theory. The strategy aimed to develop student understandings and insights for change. The strategy was one method instructors could utilize to advance knowledge for change.

The findings revealed that student learning for contemporary change advanced. Multiple insights were developed for an environment of change that included a need to accept, value, and adapt to new group members, that communication was a key element when adapting, that leadership was needed when working through change, and that change impacted on one's time. However, knowledge development was never expected to be in a finished state. Brockbank and McGill (2003) stated that knowledge creation with constructivism was in a constant state of flux as learners continuously analyzed, adjusted, and created conclusions. Thus, research and student learning opportunities for change were not seen as fully being maximized.

This research contributed to emergent practice for adapting instruction for the times. According to English and Baker (2006), a race has begun in the area of knowledge transfer knowledge as part of the continuous development of more knowledge. English and Baker suggested that learning and sharing concepts was a necessary part of that transfer. This inquiry was part of the collective efficacy for educators in the race for greater understandings of contemporary change. In addition, this inquiry was significant in revealing understandings and insights constructed by students in an environment of change.

The implications of this inquiry provided a new strategy for higher education instructors to teach students about the real-world environment of change. However, the recommendation from this inquiry was that a concentration of research was needed on the relationship between theories of change and practice. This included the use of characteristics of theories of change to create a context of contemporary change in the classroom to aid students' understanding and insights for change. Current research has not fully explored the connections between theories of change in classroom practice for contemporary times. Additional design strategies on the use of characteristics of change in assignments are needed to advance learning.


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Cheryl Mallen, Brock University, Canada

Lorne Adams, Brock University, Canada

Mallen (ABD), is a Lecturer in the Department of Sport Management, and Adams, Ph.D., is a national teaching award winner and Athletic Director
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Author:Adams, Lorne
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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