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The notion of assessing group dynamics as a means for appreciating team work is not new, and the pages of this journal are replete with different methods for accomplishing this in practice. An oft-mentioned example is the use of the Symlog methodology (see, for example, Keyton, 1999; Becker-Beck, 2001; Becker-Beck et al., 2005; Sjovold, 2007). Symlog has many advantages in providing an 'inside out' view of a group both in terms of the individuals' self-perception and their perception of the function of the group as a whole, and this can be in terms of the original long-hand version of the approach or in a simplified form (Bales et al., 1979; Blumberg, 2006). Symlog is a lengthy and powerful approach that has the advantage of being applied in a wide variety of contexts. Thus, there is much experience in the collation, analysis and, perhaps more critically, the interpretation of results. Thus, there are useful interpretive devices such as Symlog 'field diagrams' and 'ideal' group profiles that allow the categorisation of responses based upon extensive experience. The Symlog Consulting Group website (www.symlog.com) claims that
The SYMLOG research base contains over 1,000,000 profiles drawn from applications in twelve languages, in sixty countries, on six continents.
This is certainly an impressive resource. However, in this depth and power rests some issues of ease of application given that the quantitative assessments have to be processed. Although this can be achieved with software, it does nonetheless make the analysis somewhat cumbersome and limits the applicability of the approach in 'real time', that is, as a method that groups could apply to assess their functioning and provide guidance for improvement.
This paper describes the development of a quicker and nonspecialist approach in assessing group dynamics from the 'outside in' but also potentially from the 'inside out' by using an assessment based on a unique method called the being, engaging, contextualizing and managing (BECM) matrix. The BECM matrix means of assessment has been adapted from a systemic approach to teaching and assessment of the third-level systems curriculum at the Open University (OU) to a research tool for understanding group dynamics. The approach arises from a systems approach seeking to explore implicit group knowledge (also, see Muller et al., 2009); most specifically, it is used to understand how a group deals with issues relating to how a group
* 'is' in itself (the being of the group, e.g. is it conflicted, harmonious, confused),
* engages in its works (e.g. easy collaboration, small group splitting, noisy, industrious),
* contextualizes its ideas (e.g., draws down on previous knowledge, uses its common resources, starts with a clean sheet),
* manages its internal dynamic (e.g. is clearly led by one individual, divides up tasks, schedules its workload).
Assessments are made after observation of group function over a period. This paper will describe how and why BECM occurred and the issues that its use revealed and generated. The need for and means to achieve forms of assessment of groups are well recorded in the literature (Shadish, 1984; Scudder et al., 1994; Wheelan et al., 1998; Whiteoak et al., 2004), and Symlog is but one of a number of approaches that could be taken. However, fairly uncomplicated approaches for assessing the ways in which groups work for nonspecialists in group dynamics are far less well documented. Yet, the most powerful decision-making processes involve groups, and the need to understand the function of these groups becomes more and more critical.
The BECM matrix as used in group assessment work in 2010 is shown in Table 1. This paper is concerned with how it was developed and how it has grown from a means to assess systems students progress at the third level into a means to evaluate group dynamics within a research approach called the triple task method (Bell and Morse, 2009a, 2009b; Bell and Morse, 2010). The paper will also provide an example of its practical use within one of the work packages of a European Union (EU)-funded Framework 7 research project and how it can help with the understanding of small-group work.
Like Symlog, the BECM matrix has evolved over the years, and there are a number of different interpretations on its structure and content. However, some items remain fairly constant:
* The matrix contains four columns relating to observed behaviours in an individual or groups: being, engaging, contextualizing and managing.
* There are seven levels of behaviour, with level 7 being broadly seen as tyranny, abuse and very poor practice and level 1 pertaining to highly self-reflective and systemic practice.
* Most BECM matrices also have a summary column, providing a view of the combined behaviours at each of the seven levels.
The matrix is primarily used as a checklist to compare observed behaviour against and for the observer subsequently to gain an understanding of the current level of behaviour of an individual or group.
BEING, ENGAGING, CONTEXTUALIZING AND MANAGING IN TEACHING
In 1999, the Systems Group at the OU was developing a new third-level systems course to be called Managing complexity: a systems approach (Open University, 2000). The course was to replace an existing third-level course (Open University, 1987) and to provide students, who had already received systems learning at the second level, with further insights into systems thinking and practice. To develop the course, the academics wanted to provide it with an assessment structure, which was commensurate with the ambitions of systemic forms of enquiry. The development of the systems curriculum at the OU is described elsewhere in some detail (Bell, 2001).
The intention of the systems academics at the OU when developing BECM was to provide students with a coherent means to assess systemic behaviour. Issues around conventional assessment are well known, and the advantages of long-term assignment-based assessment over tests in terms of developing deep learning are noted elsewhere (see, for example, Ramsden, 1992; Xiaowen, 2007).
Similarly, the challenges of different types of assessment (Thome et al., 2006) are well documented. The systems group at the OU was interested in assessing systemic learning and to see how this was evidence based from the behaviour of the student. In an earlier paper, Bell and Lane described this process as being part of a learning cycle and as eductive:
So what is a 'traditional teaching system'? Teaching (or instructing as we define it here) implies a conventional linear educational system linked to hierarchical organisational relationships. The resulting education generally makes use of inductive and deductive scientific models.... By contrast it is interesting to look at what has been described as a 'learning system'. The value of learning and a system of learning was influentially described by Kolb (Kolb, 1984) and subsequently used for analysis of organisational structures by a range of business and management academics (e.g. Pedler et al., 1991). Kolb's learning cycle has also been variously adapted by others and applied to a variety of learning contexts.... In Kolb's model, learning is a process of abstract and concrete activity, building on reflection, making mental connections to related topics, making decisions, acting and then reflecting upon the consequences of action again. The relationships between the learning cycles of the various participants can be contrasted to the relationships in the conventional teaching model.... A learning cycle also assumes that there is something within the learner which has the potential to learn. This is not a new idea and is evident in the language of education itself. Education comes from educe which in turn is derived from the Latin word educere which means 'to draw forth'. (Bell and Lane, 1998, pp. 631-632)
The theory behind the assessment of systems students was that the systemic learning absorbed and developed by the student would be evident in their practice, and this in turn would be revealed in assessment tasks and subsequently analysed. Thus, BECM, as originally conceived in 2000, was primarily a means for students to learn about competence in their development as systems practitioners. Second, it was an assessment tool for tutors teaching Managing complexity: a systems approach. In an explanatory note to tutors, the OU team said the following:
The (BECM) matrix itself describes the expected outcomes evident in student work in the four key areas of:
* Managing a systems practice
* Engaging with complex situations
* Contextualising a systems approach
* Being a systems practitioner--respecting perspectives of others and stakeholders in the situation
The matrix provides you with guidance on a range of student expressions of practice in their work. We would hope to reward students who showed excellence in managing, being, engaging and contextualising in terms of the outcomes described in columns 4-7 here. The matrix is not intended to be read as a prescriptive document offering no room for personal assessment. Rather, it is intended as a guide to you indicating what we would look for at the various marking levels across assignments and project work. (Course Team Chairs letter to tutors, January 2001, the order of the four BECM elements is incidental).
Being, engaging, contextualizing and managing as an assessment tool for tutors in 2001 is shown in Table 2.
The BECM matrix was derived from the action learning cycle (ALC) already described by Bell and Lane but refined by Zimmer. Zimmer (2001), drawing ideas from Kolb (1984) and Houston (1995), defined the way in which BECM fitted within an ALC. In a series of steps, he demonstrated how the BECM approach both confirmed the logic of the cycle and enhanced student's learning. Figure 1 shows this step by step development.
Zimmer is using the expression of BECM here as a stage in progress towards demonstrating self-aware reflective practice, and this was the intention of the BECM matrix: to measure a students progress in this regard. More recently, the four activities or verbs (being, engaging, contextualizing and managing) have been used by Ison (2010) who was drawing from their application within the OU teaching, to manifest four balls, to be juggled:
The metaphor of a juggler keeping the four balls in the air is a way to think about what I do when I try to be effective in my own practice. It matches with my experience: it takes concentration and skills to do it well. But metaphors conceal or obscure some features of experience, while calling other features to attention. The juggler metaphor obscures that the four elements of effective practice are related. I cannot juggle them as if they were independent of each other. (Ison, 2010, p. 57)
Being, engaging, contextualizing and managing have also been used at the OU in postgraduate teaching. The Course Team Chair for 'Managing systemic change: inquiry, action and interaction' said the following:
For postgraduate guidance on what it means to be a systems practitioner students have a model …