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Peer learning - Lyle Yorks & VicToria J. Marsick

Lyle Yorks and Victoria J. Marsick

 Due to the recent recognition that adult learning often occurs in a group setting, and that adult learning is seen now as a socially interactive activity (since groups can provide an effective setting for learning), many researchers have been investigating organizational learning.   For years, adult learning was seen as a solitary, or individual activity, yet for many, it occurs both individually and in groups.

Lyle Yorks, professor of education at Columbia University, and Victoria J. Marsick, professor of adult education and organizational learning in the Teachers College of Columbia University have collaborated on a chapter in Jack Mezirow and Associate's book, Learning as Transformation .

While the roots of group learning go back to Kurt Lewin and early researchers from the Tavistock Institute of England, Yorks and Marsick propose that groups can actually learn as discrete entities is fundamentally different than people learning individually within a group.

  ?Watkins and Marsick (1993, p.14) assert that ?teams, groups and networks can become the medium for moving new knowledge through the learning organization' and that such collaborative structures ?enhance the organization's ability to learn because they offer avenues for exchange of new ways of working'? (Yorks and Marsick, Ed. Mezirow, 2000, p. 254).

           Yorks and Marsick suggest two strategies that can produce transformative learning for individuals, groups and/or organizations: action learning and collaborative inquiry. ?Both strategies are concerned with learning around significant issues and have both a task and learning dimension.   The task dimension is more prominent in action learning, with collaborative inquiry focusing more on learning per se.   Our discussion surfaces contradictions that implementation of these two approaches reveal between individual and organizational transformation?   (Yorks and Marsick, Ed. Mezirow, 2000, p. 255).  

           ?Both Action Learning and Collaborative Inquiry are highly participatory and designed to foster learning from experience through cycles of action and subsequent reflection on that action.   Although not specifically developed for learning in organizations, each has been implemented within organizational contexts with the hope of enhancing organizational effectiveness? (Yorks and Marsick, Ed. Mezirow, 2000, p. 255).

Action Learning   and Transformative Learning

Action learning is a process involving a team or group working collaboratively on a project or problem-solving task.   It involves the participants not only in the joint analysis, evaluation and reflection of the task, or project, but also in ?looking at Lessons Learned? or the process of how they worked, and taking personal and group learning from that process.

           Marsick and Yorks both cite work by O'Neill, who developed a four approach theoretical model (like a pyramid) that starts with a base and evolves to the cap.  

The model:

Level 1: Tacit School            Incidental Reflection (at the base)

Level II: Scientific School            Content Reflection

Level III: Experiential School            Content and Process Reflection

Level IV: Critical Reflection School            Content, Process, and Premise Reflection (at the cap)

At the Tacit level, assumptions include that learning will happen, it will be focused on the team's task or problem and information will be provided by experts.   Information is gained by team members most often prior to the team's meeting and reflection usually occurs individually, not on a group level.   Learning also generally takes place within the previous frames of mind.

At the Scientific Level, the participants not only focus on solving the problem(s) but also include an infusion with an additional emphasis on problem resetting through periodic questioning insight into available data.   This flows from Reg Evan's, founder of Action Learning Theory, and reflects Reg's background as a physicist.

Within the Experiential School, ?practitioners emphasize the role of explicit reflection throughout the whole process. Learning coaches help the group reflect on project work and various interpersonal and managerial competencies during structured periods of reflection on action.   Goals encompass both problem solving around the project and the development of various interpersonal and managerial competencies? (Yorks and Marsick, Ed. Mezirow, 2000, p. 259).   Much of the theory in the Experiental School comes from Kolb's Learning Cycle.   This approach may increase the possibility of transformative learning through a transformation of points of view.   Lastly, the Critical Reflection School incorporates the synthesis and integration of the learning goals of the first three levels in addition to a strong emphasis on reflecting on the premises that underlie the thinking of managers and provide the basis for their habits of mind.   This additional process of learning coaches using reflection as a process point, is the fundamental difference between the Critical Reflection School and its antecedent, the Experiential School.   As Mezirow and Cranton both point out in their chapters (Mezirow and Associates, 2000), transformative learning is never a guaranteed outcome from any of the processes, all we as educators can do is to be mindful of transformative learning and its very nature, while facilitating and providing the kind of environment that can lead to, or facilitate the possibility of transformative learning.

International Foods Case

           Yorks and Marsick provide a summary of a case study on the transition of a multinational to global network organization, in their Chapter (Yorks & Marsick, Mezirow, Ed., 2000).   Competencies desired for the organization included:

Global mindset

Capacity for Innovation and Change

A Synchronous Cluster of Competencies:

           Interpersonal communication



           Conflict Resolution

           Leadership in a Culturally Diverse Work Environment

(from Yorks & Marsick, Mezirow, Ed., 2000)

The organizational leadership believed that for the members to be successful in achieving these competencies, the members would have to ?critically reassess their values, attitudes and frames of reference? (Yorks and Marsick, Ed. Mezirow, 2000, p. 261).   The organizational leadership created three ?Action Research Learning Programs? and conducted them across the world, over a three-year period.   One of the key distinguishing characteristics that made this program one that would fit the criteria for the Level IV, Critical Reflection, a state that can facilitate the possibility for transformative learning.

?In addition to addition to project work, and periodic instruction around management topics, participants also engaged in cultural experiences as the program met in different locations around the world.   Reflection and dialogue took place around these experiences as well (Yorks and Marsick, Ed. Mezirow, 2000, p. 262).   Data from seventy-one interviews and extensive field notes revealed that indeed, there was a ?pervasive pattern of transformative learning? having occurred.   Participants mentioned that individual transformative learning changes in the context of re-evaluating one's frame of reference, or former views, and possibly developing a newer frame, reinforced other participant's openness and ability to reflect and reframe, two pieces of evidence that transformative change occurred.

Collaborative Inquiry As an Adult Learning Strategy

?Both Action Research and Collaborative Inquiry are participatory, action-based inquiry methods for improving practice and developing new knowledge, especially in the fields of education, community development, and organizational studies (Brooks and Watkins, 1994).   Collaborative Inquiry takes its theoretical base from John Heron's (1981, 1985, 1988, 1996) seminal ideas about cooperative inquiry and Peter Reason and John Rowan's work (see Reason and Rowan, 1981, Reason, 1994) on participatory human inquiry.   Participation and democracy are seen as essential for meaningful inquiry into the human condition and the resolution of dilemmas, questions, and problems that are part of that condition.   Collaborative Inquiry also honors a holistic perspective on what constitutes valid knowledge (Yorks and Marsick, Ed. Mezirow, 2000, p. 266).

Issues Considering Organiztional Culture

             Collaborative Inquiry is an iterative process of alternating periods of reflection and action where a group of peers try to answer a question of mutual importance to them.   Yorks and Marsick mention that Collaborative Inquiry, due to its design and nature, is more likely to facilitate transformative learning than Action Learning, yet is more difficult for many organizations to accept.   Recent research on the nature of organizations, especially corporations, might support this, since many for profit organizations have a focus on profits, and may neglect critical factors that affect the long-term success, even survival of the organization, thus often goals are conflictual between different parts of the organization, or strategic interests for the long term suffer in poor short term goals, that hurt the organization in the long run.   Creating true democracy in the workplace is an on-going challenge.   Within the context of the organizations and people with whom Marsick and Yorks worked, the Collaborative Inquiry participation was always voluntary, while Action Research was mandatory.


Results from Yorks' and Marsick's work indicates that Action Learning and Collaborative Inquiry were both powerful methodologies for facilitating transformative learning.   ?We think that for transformative learning to occur in learning organizations, organizations must function effectively as a liberating structure that ?involves a type of organizing that is productive and educates members toward self-correcting awareness? (Fisher and Torbert, 1995, p. 7).   The question then is, ?How does one create spaces within organizations that function as liberating structures?'   We construe spaces that function as liberating structures as parallel structures, that is, alternate structures that coexist alongside those that are currently in place but that need to be reformed or transformed.   Both action learning and collaborative inquiry open up spaces for learning in the organizational context through their ability to function as liberating structures (ARL Inquiry, 1998, Yorks; 1995). 

For further information:

 Victoria Marsick


Lyle Yorks