Graphic narratives to define quality teaching in a learning organization 

This literature review was borne out of necessity to look critically at my practice and underlying assumptions as I am given more opportunities to facilitate sessions at Brock and abroad. 

Variations of my workshop were delivered for the Ontario Instructional Designers Interest Group at McMaster on March 23, 2018, Ride The Wave K-12 Teacher’s conference in Gimli, Manitoba on May 10, 2018, and an Adult Education departmental retreat on June 8, 2018. To conceptualize how the workshop could facilitate organizational change, a hypothetical workshop abstract was created to address the topical issue of Measuring Teaching Quality, geared for a diverse group of stakeholders: faculty, students, administrators, and staff. 

The concept of an interactive workshop that weaves participant involvement into the learning has often been legitimized through Kolb’s (1999) experiential learning theory (ELT). This has been reinforced in the Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW, 2017) and the National Society for Experiential Education’s Experiential Education Academy (NSEE, 2018) to name two accredited bodies operating in the post-secondary sector. The four stages of Kolb’s ELT are arranged in a circle starting with Concrete Experience and cycle through Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualization, Active Experimentation.

Kolb's Experiential Learning CYCLE
Kolb’s theory is a helpful framework to consider the various ways of knowing that consider cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains of knowledge. Kolb credits the contribution of many influential educational theorists, Dewey, Vygotsky, and Lewin to name just a few. Kolb’s Learning Style inventory is a useful tool to allow a participant to consider where they would situate themselves within learning events that are text based, contain visual imagery, auditory materials, or kinesthetic activities.  

The diversity of talents we witness from a community of learners are reinforced that some people resonate more with certain approaches more than others. One learner is a brilliant piano player while another is an excellent visual artist; yet another has a way with the written word and someone else is an adept elocutionary. We have all witnessed the emergence of these talents first hand which makes a theory like Learning Styles more compelling. However, many cognitive science researchers have repeatedly found that there is little evidence for the existence of Learning Styles (Husman & O’Loughlin, 2018) and that attempting to teach according to preferred learning style is not any more effective than any other method (Knoll, Otani, Skeel, & Van Horn, 2017).  

However, the elements of Kolb’s ELT that are grounded in Dewey, Vygotsky, and Lewin have been repeatedly reinforced with new research on learning. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST, 2017) has extensive literature within the Guidelines for Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Originally conceived as part of an accessibility project for learners with disabilities, the mounting evidence shows that a universal approach to designing learning experiences not only benefits learners with disabilities but all learners. The three guideline areas are perfectly aligned with Kolb’s assertion that for learning to be meaningful it must address the cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains. In UDL, these are described as the WHAT, WHY, and HOW; or the Recognition Networks, the Affective Networks, and the Strategic Networks. The guidelines provide evidence that good learning should include multiple means of representation, multiple means of engagement, and multiple modes of expression. 

Universal Design for Learning from Center for Applied Special Technology

In the ISW, when discussing Kolb’s ELT, the cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains of learning are often simplified to “head, heart, and hand” and learners are asked to consider these aspects in their own course design. The UDL framework of WHAT, WHY, and HOW also can be simplified to head, heart, and hand. The essential difference between Kolb’s LSI and UDL guidelines is that the literature supports a diversity of approaches and the key element that CAST is advocating is that the learner is able to choose how they access information, and is given choice on how they share their learning back. The UDL guidelines are the work of hundreds of researchers, many of which are also referenced in Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M., & Norman, M. (2010) How Learning Works.  

It may seem self-indulgent and distracting to go into depth on how an individual learns when the focus of this literature review is aimed at organizational change from an administration and leadership perspective. However, two of the five disciplines described by Senge (1990) are essentially based in the individual’s learning wheelhouse. Many of Senge’s systems thinking perspectives can be aligned with How Learning Works and UDL.  

The original intention behind this literature review was to find evidence for the use of drawing in workshops and meetings to facilitate communication and organizational effectiveness. I held an assumption that participants with visual learning style preferences would benefit from this interaction method. There was a desire to find evidence that drawing was a superior memory aid which would create meaningful concrete experiences for team learning. Some literature did not support these hypotheses (Olson, Zipp, D’Antoni, & Cahill, 2010) but rather I found that drawing is just one of the multiple means of representation, multiple modes of engagement and multiple means of expression (CAST, 2018). Ultimately, the literature review reinforced for me that the real skill of meaning-making is not in the drawing but in the facilitation. In addition to drawing, a facilitator could just as effectively use discussion, text, sticky-notes, graphic organizers, pipe-cleaners, Lego, or even playdough. That said, drawing is inexpensive and available to all and can be modified for all skill levels. It’s not the only way but it’s certainly a good way (Wammes, Meade, & Fernandes, 2015). There is compelling research that shows the efficacy of sketching for knowledge creation, knowledge documentation, and knowledge sharing (Pfister & Eppler, 2014). The strong caveat is that drawing is not in itself an effective knowledge management tool; it must be paired with skilled facilitation that respects process over product.  

Graphic representation of our learning goals

Using Senge’s five disciplines as a framework to examine the literature, it becomes apparent that this is could not be just one workshop session. For maximum effectiveness, if we are to look at Systems Thinking, Mental Models, Personal Mastery, Shared Vision, and Team Learning with the full amount of attention each of those disciplines require, there would need to be a minimum of 3 workshops. The first focusing on the individuals own mental models and progress towards personal mastery. The second articulating the shared vision and the third deepening team learning. Systems thinking must permeate all three sessions as it is the act of seeing the big picture, the forest for the trees. Like Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, the process does not stop after the team learning, there must be constant cycling through each of the disciplines to ensure new experiences, skills, knowledge, and attitudes are reflected in one’s own personal vision.  Sibbet (2011) describes this cycling as “renewal” (p.171).  

Systems Thinking 

In many systems, negative or positive reinforcement can lead to a vicious or virtuous cycle, respectively, and that is why awareness of the system, in addition to careful consideration of the other four disciplines is necessary. Recognition of this interconnectedness of each of the disciplines and their component elements is the most important premise of systems thinking.  

In every learning experience, there needs to be an activity that allows the participants to focus on the task or issue in the moment, but also a post-activity moment to reflect on the bigger picture. This is a metacognitive activity that Ambrose et al. (2010) describe as essential to the learning process to move from superficial knowing to a deeper understanding. This can be accomplished through how we organize our information as facilitators and how we encourage learners to organize information.  Pfister & Eppler (2012) found that sketching is an effective knowledge creation tool that can help participants draw connections to better understand systems. By starting with Sousanis (2012) Grids and Gestures activity, participants can see that with simple markings and use of a whole page, how component shapes can be arranged to demonstrate how the sum of the parts can be greater than the whole. Metaphorically this can be demonstrated by the “shape of your day” (Sousanis, 2012) where the whole page is the whole day and the individual chunks on the page are the component parts. This activity acts as a scaffold onto other more cogent examples of parts and whole systems thinking. In an ideal scenario, focusing on the “generative system structure allows awareness of responsive patterns of behavior” (Senge, p.53) and accurate attention to reactions to events. 

Mental Models 

Senge discusses metanoia or the shifting of the mind to new perspectives as being an essential discipline of mental models. In cognitive psychology the concepts of schemas are very much like mental models (Mayer, 2005). We know that articulating one own’s schema is a helpful metacognitive strategy that can help in the learning process (Ambrose et al., 2010). Identifying how and what someone thinks about a particular topic is an essential part of the learning process. Prior learning can help or hinder future learning this process of uncovering is important to become explicit (Ambrose et al., 2010). In addition to helping the facilitator know where the learner is in a process of new learning, it also aids in participant engagement by connecting the concepts to their own experience. Sibbet’s (2011) Visual Teams describes this as his “orientation” phase (p. 102). Senge suggests we use a visualization technique to uncover mental models to “challenge prevailing assumptions”; obtain critical feedback; and “seek relationships between ideas and people” (p. 203). Sibbet (2011) suggests drawing mental models as a way of gaining insights and working through problems. Sibbet (2011) describes many visualization techniques to draw out individual team members’ mental models, from journaling to more creating tasks like creating a cover story for a magazine about what success looks like individually.  Many of the templates Sibbet (2011) provides act as visual anchors that can germinate fruitful discussions in the other disciplines, in particular when developing the shared vision. 

Ainsworth (2006) described a conceptual framework for using multiple representations to improve learning, described as DeFT, which is an acronym for Design, Function, and Task. The use of multiple representations, like drawing mind maps to articulate mental models can reduce cognitive load, as described by Mayer’s cognitive theory of multimedia learning and Cognitive Load Theory (2005). Also described by dual coding theory, Mayer’s (2005) research shows that learning through two sensory channels is more effective than just one. In the workshop example, drawing and orally describing your mental model, working memory is optimized for learning. Ainsworth’s (2006) extensive literature research demonstrates that more is not better, and that more than two sensory channels could hinder learning. Too many images, videos, and text shown simultaneously can overload the working memory and interfere with learning. Ainsworth cautions that prescriptive approaches to multiple representations should be contextualized within particular functions and cognitive tasks. This approach is congruent to CAST’s (2018) Universal Design for Learning Guidelines that privilege user choice of modality over strict rules. 

The Learning Organization: A Lit Review

In further support of drawing as an accessible approach to maximizing the working memory, Andrade (2011) found that shading and colouring can aid concentration. In a workshop setting, this has been used as a priming activity to get participants to start to think about their mental models. At the BC Campus Festival for Learning (2018) facilitators, Dr. Motherwell-McFarlane and Mr. Toal had participants imagine their core values by drawing tight spirals on a page. This meditative drawing activity is similar to colouring in its smooth rhythmic approach. Participants were asked to think of themselves at the centre of the spiral and as they drew outwards to imagine their family, work, community, and globe. After this warm up activity, participants will be ready to start building a schema of one’s own understanding, to make their prior knowledge explicit, as is recommended by Ambrose et al (2010). This prevents misunderstandings, uncovers assumptions, and allows the facilitator to begin at the place where the participants are situated. Organizing this prior knowledge allows a group to seek common ground and make sense of complex topics. Senge (2006) describes how important it is for individuals to discover meaning and express their purpose before they can properly contribute to a team. This is also consistent with the learning principles about motivation, where Ambrose et al (2010) remind us that we need to understand the perspective of the learner who needs to see the value of the learning.  

Personal Mastery 

Closely related to mental models is what Senge (2006) describes as the discipline of Personal Mastery. Achieving mastery is also an essential part of the learning process, as Ambrose et al (2010) describe the necessity to move beyond competency to be able to integrate component skills and transfer to new settings. Where Ambrose et al. (2010), are describing mastery of certain skills and Senge (2006) is describing personal mastery within one’s work, the parallels are helpful to better understand what both are suggesting.  

Ambrose et al. (2010), describes the guided practice required to reach mastery and uses examples from drama and management classes. Through metacognition and reflection, one moves from unconscious incompetence towards conscious incompetence. With further practice and reflection, one can move towards conscious competence.  To achieve mastery, unconscious competence is the goal but cannot be achieved without a great deal more practice until a certain level of automaticity is achieved.  

The challenge of achieving this level of mastery is that it becomes difficult to remember what it was like to operate at the conscious competence level and therefore almost impossible to describe or teach the component skills from that perspective.  Ambrose et al. (2010) describe this as the problem of the “expert blind spot” (p.99). To counter this challenge, Ambrose et al suggest decomposing complex skills and knowledge to their component parts.  Senge also describes the role of the subconscious in learning and achieving personal mastery. 

From a facilitation perspective, it is important to use the prior learning assessment to determine where your participants are operating on the consciousness and competence scale. In some cases, it will require thoughtful reflection to facilitate the expert teachers to deconstruct the elements of what makes quality teaching. In other cases, novice teachers may still be struggling with what competence looks like and may still be operating at the unconscious level. Senge (2006) indicates “an effective way to focus the subconscious is through imagery and visualization” (p.166). This could be done as a mind map activity with some training on how to construct mind maps effectively (Olson et al, 2010). Metacognition allows mental models to become known and articulated which can lead to dialogue and for a collection of people, this would be what Senge (2006) calls group inquiry. 

Shared Vision 

Once individuals can articulate where they are situated in relation to the organizational topic, the next step is to encourage a team dialogue towards a shared vision. Senge (2006) says this is done through posing questions and prioritizing issues. The dialogue is essential to gain a “richer grasp of complex issues explored” (Senge, 2006, p. 247). This can be best accomplished through active listening. While not immediate, to solve problems, teams must consensus build by recognizing that diversity is strength. There must be a “free flow of conflicting ideas” which is “critical for creative thinking” (Senge, 2006p. 249). There is a real need for a skilled facilitator to “hold the context of the dialogue” (Senge, 2006, p.243). Sibbet (2011) describes the shared vision discipline through the Team Performance Model’s phases of goal clarification, trust-building, and commitment. This group inquiry into shared meaning and purpose align well with Ambrose et al. (2010) learning principles of metacognition and motivation. Building on the previous disciplines, the “creation of mental maps that guide and shape our perception and action bringing about a mutual participation between nature and consciousness” (Senge, 2006, p. 239).  

The role of the facilitator is crucial to support the team as it navigates tricky and possibly contentious terrain. Participants must be encouraged to suspend assumptions and balance inquiry versus advocacy. Senge references Schon’s reflection on learning as way to recognize “leaps of abstraction” (p.191; p303) to enable individuals to come to a shared understanding of the issues. Senge outlines possible workshop activities to recognize these leaps of abstraction such as, “What am I thinking vs What is said” (p. 196) to help articulate one’s mental model in relation to others. Senge describes this as “Espoused theory vs theory-in-use” (p. 202).   

Similar to Senge (2006) and Sibbet (2011), Brookfield (2010) describes a systems level approach to leadership that supersedes the individual leader to enable greater connections within a group to build community. Looping back to CAST’s three Universal Design Guidelines articulating a shared vision taps into the recognition network: “what” (vision); Affective network: “why” (purpose); and strategic network: “how (core values). Senge metaphorically urges teams to “paint pictures” (p. 224) and Sibbet (2011) literally provides the frameworks and visualization tools to draw conclusions. By leveraging the power of the group through open and inclusive communication, Brookfield (2010) makes a convincing argument for democratic leadership to increase individual and collective commitment. Democratic leadership, according to Brookfield (2010), is a process not a position. That means that everyone has a right to lead towards the shared vision. Also congruent to Senge (2006), Brookfield’s (2010) focus on dialogue and group inquiry is a key component towards democratic leadership for meaningful change. Democratic leaders, much like good teachers, act as facilitators in a learning organization. Good facilitators are often invisible in that their efforts are not put towards getting credit for good ideas but are instead used to build consensus and ignite meaningful and respectful dialogue around opposing perspectives. Brookfield warns that democratic leadership has the potential to over-discuss and debate the smallest of trivial issues and conversely that in its goal to seek consensus it might extinguish or diminish meaningful dissent that is required for a democracy to flourish. Allowing for a diversity of voices and resisting hierarchal structures are two examples of democratic leadership that are also important approaches in the classroom or workshop setting. Connecting back to Pfister and Eppler’s (2012) sketching for knowledge management, using visualization can reduce cognitive load for idea generation by allowing sketches to act as a place to hold the concepts while a group works through issues. sketching as a thinking tool for collective graphic memory. This holistic systems thinking approach can help achieve maximum organizational effectiveness.  

Team Learning 

After the individual mental models, personal mastery, and shared vision is articulated, the fourth discipline moves to action in Team Learning. Sibbet (2011) describes this as the “implementation phase” (p. 151). As with the other phases, Sibbet (2011) describes many visual tools available for team implementation. Visual road maps, orientation murals, and various online whiteboards are a few of the methods Sibbet (2011) suggests moving teams from shared vision to implementation. This was further explored by Miller (2017) who used the whiteboard interface of the web conferencing tool to capture words and imagery of meetings and allowed the managers to co-contribute to the whiteboard. Instead of minutes being distributed post-meeting, the minutes were enlivened by colourful drawings and words created in real time for all to see as the experience unfolded. This concrete experience into a reflective observation blends the first two elements of Kolb’s (1999) experiential learning cycle. Miller’s (2017) use of the framework provided by Pfister & Eppler (2012) is a sensible way of positioning the visualization in meetings in that in facilitates knowledge creation, sharing, and documentation. She found that this real time visualization had a positive effect on knowledge acquisition. Allowing access to the whiteboard is an open and inclusive form of communication which can enable democratization of leadership (Brookfield, 2010) and catalyze team learning. As with learning environments (Ambrose et al, 2010), the importance of ground rules for team learning (Senge, 2006) is immensely helpful.  


The literature supports an inclusive and systems-based approach to organizational development. Drawing and sketching, both on paper or online can be effective tools to leverage the wisdom found within Senge’s Fifth Discipline. Working with diverse groups and opinions will not magically build consensus through drawing activities.  However, research on learning shows that with skilled, considerate, and democratic approaches to facilitation, drawing can be one way to focus on the process of coming to a shared vision and team learning to build and maintain an effective learning organization. As teams change and develop within open systems, the continual renewal process is required to continue refining and articulating the mental models, towards personal mastery, shared vision and team learning.  



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Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M., & Norman, M. (2010). How learning works: seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco. 

Andrade, J. (2010). What does doodling do?. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24(1), 100-106. 

Brookfield, S. (2010). Leading Democratically. New Directions For Adult & Continuing Education, (128), 5-13. doi:10.1002/ace.386 

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Motherwell-McFarlane, J, & Toal, J. (2018) Stacking the Deck: A Visual Toolkit for Instructor Self-Care. BC Campus Festival of Learning Workshop Presentation. Vancouver, B.C. Retrieved from 

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Olson V., Zipp, G., D’Antoni, A.  & Cahill, T. (2010). Does the mind map learning strategy facilitate information retrieval and critical thinking in medical students? BMC Medical Education, Vol 10, Iss 1, p 61 (2010), (1), 61. 

Pfister, R., & Eppler, M. (2012). The benefits of sketching for knowledge management. Journal of Knowledge Management, 16 (2), 372-382. doi: 10.1108/13673271211218924 

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Sousanis, Nick (2015) “Grids and Gestures: A Comics Making Exercise,” SANE journal: Sequential Art Narrative in Education: Vol. 2 : Iss. 1 , Article 8. available at: 

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