Abstract - University of Leeds

A reflexive critique of Learner Managed
Michael Doyle
Education Development Unit
University of Salford
This is one of a set of papers and work in progress written by research postgraduates (MPhil and
PhD) at Lancaster University's Department of Educational Research. The papers are primarily
offered as examples of work that others at similar stages of their research careers can refer to
and engage with.
‘Learner autonomy’ and ‘learner-managed learning’ (LML) are topical
educational goals and learning strategies for policy makers and practitioners,
particularly in Adult Education and Life-long Learning. This paper uses a
highly reflexive approach to address three issues central to these goals and
strategies. Firstly, it analyses the theoretical premises of LML within emerging
discourses of citizenship, progressive adult education theory and ‘autonomy’
in relation to theories of ‘risk’ and uncertainty. Secondly, it critically examines
the pedagogical assumptions underpinning practices intended to develop
LML: in particular, the use of learning contracts, experiential learning and
reflective practice. This leads into the third issue: a critique of LML practice
from an emancipatory/transformative perspective. The context of the study is
a Foundation Degree prototype in which the purpose is to use LML to promote
and develop learner autonomy. The paper concludes with an analysis of how
LML needs to be interpreted within a less instrumental, more constructivist,
relational and social theory of learning, which, through a process of reflective
dialogue, engages the learner in a critically reflective construction of meaning.
The purpose of this paper is to offer a critical analysis of teaching and learning
strategies used increasingly in higher education, which emphasise the use of
learner-managed learning (LML). The objective is not to dismiss the approach
– on the contrary, as the author is an advocate and keen practitioner of the
process. However, the paper represents a reflexive attempt to examine
conceptual and pedagogical underpinnings of this approach to adult learning.
In this respect the process represents an exercise in critical research which
Alvesson and Skoldberg (2000: 144) characterize as ‘triple hermeneutic’:
interpretive social science with a critical interpretation of “unconscious
processes, ideologies, power relations and other expressions of dominance
that entail the privileging of certain interests over others”.
The context of the study is a pilot Foundation Degree, which started in
October 2001. It was launched (DfEE, 2000a) within a New Labour ‘Third
Way’ discursive wrapper (Fairclough, 2001), which characteristically attempts
to synthesise potentially conflicting elements. In the case of the Foundation
Degree the contrast is between economic and democratic agendas, as
represented by a ‘return’ on learning which enhances student employability in
a global economy, while widening access to higher level learning. However,
the dominance of the economic and utilitarian agendas, over the democratic,
in education policy and practice over the past twenty years has been
illustrated by Coffield (1999). Nevertheless, this discursive hegemony is
contested, particularly within an androgogical and humanistic tradition of adult
learning, which stresses personal growth and transformation, learner
autonomy and empowerment.
Therefore the Foundation Degree case study provides an opportunity, in
Freirean terms (1970), to critically evaluate the potential to develop liberatory,
transformational learning within a dominant discursive framework that is
geared towards the ‘domestication’ of its students in the interests of a narrow
economically driven conceptualization of Lifelong Learning. This involves
problematizing the ‘surface and deep structures’ (Deetz and Kersten, 1983,
Frost, 1987) underlying teaching and learning strategies within LML; in other
words, the taken for granted acceptance of existence as rational and
comprehensible, as opposed to the questioning of beliefs and values upon
which the surface structures rest.
The three questions to be addressed therefore are as follows: what are the
theoretical premises on which the LML module (called Independent Learning)
and the curriculum model for the Foundation Degree are based? Secondly,
what are the pedagogical assumptions on which the LML learning process is
conceptualized and framed? The final issue concerns the efficacy of the
module in supporting processes of LML in its emancipatory conceptualization.
In addressing these issues the paper represents a critically self-reflexive
exercise; a process of ‘double loop’ learning (Argyris and Schon, 1974).
The paper is structured as follows: following contextual information on the
Foundation Degree, the curriculum model of the actual case study is
summarized and the Independent Learning Module outlined. This is then
positioned within a domesticating/emancipatory theoretical framework
involving situating the curriculum firstly within the debate on the Learning
Society (Schon, 1971, Ranson, 1998) and developments in Lifelong Learning;
secondly in terms of conceptualizations of learner autonomy within a period
described by Giddens (1990) as a ‘juggernaut of late modernity’,
characterized by ‘risk’ (Beck, 1992), and including the ‘discursive elision’ of
LML with ‘managerialism’ (Harrison 2000); and finally the conceptual roots of
the curriculum are located within the progressive premises of adult education.
The aims, learning outcomes and teaching, learning and assessment
strategies of the module, and more broadly the programme and curriculum
model, are then evaluated within this conceptual context. There is particular
emphasis on the analysis of the use of learning contracts (called learning
agreements), experiential learning and reflection in the planning and
development of student learning. These represent the assumptions being
investigated on which the LML process is conceptualized and framed.
The third issue of transformation through LML in an emancipatory sense is
then evaluated
The paper concludes with an analysis of how the module and the broader
curriculum might be interpreted within a more constructivist, social and
situated theory of learning, which through a process of reflective dialogue
could offer a less rationalistic, less individualistic, and more hermeneutic
approach, engaging the learner in a critically reflective construction of
Foundation Degree – The Context
The case study is one of twenty one selected by the Higher Education
Funding Council (HEFCE), through a bidding process for development
funding and additional student numbers. The Secretary of State for Education
and Employment undertook a consultation exercise (DfEE, 2000b) on
proposals for the introduction of a new qualification, the Foundation Degree.
This was to be a sub-degree qualification, which, in the course of time, was
expected to become the dominant qualification at this level. As a
consequence it is anticipated that institutions will re-develop existing subdegree programmes (such as HND’s) to conform with the requirements for
Foundation Degrees. It is also the Government’s intention that the bulk of any
growth in higher education will be achieved through Foundation Degrees.
Given the Government’s target of 50% of the population experiencing higher
education by the age of thirty by 2010, this indicates its priorities for higher
education and reinforces the link between higher education, economic
agendas and technical-rationalist, human resource conceptualizations and
discourses of Lifelong Learning.
The rationale for such priorities lies, in the context of a global economy, in the
shortage of and increased demand for people with intermediate-level skills,
across all sectors of the economy, who can operate effectively in posts
generically referred to as ‘higher technicians’ and ‘associate professionals’; in
‘deficiency’ conceptualizations of higher education and its graduates (Coffield,
1999); and in a perceived need to rationalize the range of qualifications below
honours degree level.
Foundation Degrees are expected to meet these needs by equipping students
with the combination of academic knowledge and technical and transferable
skills demanded by employers, while facilitating lifelong learning for the
workforce and enhancing the ‘diversity and differentiation’ (Neave, 2000) of
higher education, thus combating social exclusion. The award will attract a
minimum of 240 credits (120 each at levels 1 and 2), and will be awarded by
individual universities. The CVCP (2000) summarized the essential features
as: employer involvement; development of skills and knowledge; application
of skills in the workplace; credit accumulation and transfer and progression
within work and or to an honours degree.
Foundation Degree in Community Governance and the Independent
Learning Module
The case study is a collaborative development between a consortium of one
university, five of its associate colleges and the local authority employers
within which the colleges are located. The University will award the
Foundation Degree, with curriculum delivery largely in the local colleges. The
target students are local authority staff and a small minority of people working
with the local authorities in the delivery of policy and strategy, for example the
voluntary sector. The incentive for the employers is the policy and the funding
thrust to ‘modernisation’ (Newman, 2000):
With all the initiatives for local government either here or coming soon, “no
change” is not an option. The challenge for local government is to change
culturally, to seek new ways of working, and to reach beyond its
organizational boundaries (Improvements Development Agency, 2001)
Such change will require a major programme of learning and skills
development for local authority staff. Coupled with this, the trend in local
government is to employ fewer, more highly skilled staff who can work outside
traditional departmental hierarchic structures and who can think and operate
in a strategic way. For many Local Authorities, ‘upskilling’ the existing
workforce represents a more viable alternative to employing new staff.
The employer members of the consortium have highlighted that there are
underdeveloped opportunities for accredited study in vocationally-related
areas of modern local government. This is especially true for ‘nonprofessional’ administrative staff at and below the level of Principal Officer
Grade 5. That represents the majority of Local Authority staff, which is also
mainly non-graduate and not usually eligible for substantive secondment, for
example to traditional first degree programmes. Existing public administration
courses, for example the DMS have yet to acknowledge the new ‘facilitative’
and ‘capacity-building’ roles increasingly required of Local Authority staff.
The predominant view of the employers is that the time is appropriate for the
introduction of a new qualification, which offers a fresh approach to the issues
relating to Local Government. The strategy for regionalisation and more
community involvement in governance has put pressure on Local Authorities
to change their existing culture and way of working. It is their view that the role
of the Foundation Degree would be to support the internal staff development
required to facilitate the changes needed within Local Authorities.
The programme learning outcomes therefore have a clear emphasis on the
‘return’ to the organization in terms of its investment in human capital. Of the
five stated outcomes only one is couched in terms of the individual, rather
than the ‘organisation’, and this stresses the identification of ‘ongoing
professional development needs and strategies’. The programme has a workrelated emphasis, with learner-managed learning as its focus.
The curriculum model (Figure 1) reflects the work-based focus of the learning:
the Independent Learning (level 1) and Work-based Project (level 2) modules
(categorised as ‘Applications Modules’, reflecting the work-related, LML
context) are positioned centrally as the focus developing from the APL/APEL
and Learning Contract entry stage. The other level 1 modules are classified
as ‘Strategic’, giving a foundation propositional knowledge base, and the level
2 modules more open-ended, and classified as ‘Issues’, permitting a degree
of student choice reflecting professional interests.
The Independent Learning Module is the first taken in the whole programme.
Its key purpose is to introduce students to the rationale and practices of LML.
It is intended that after semester 1 the reflective practice and self managed
learning introduced by the module will be further developed and monitored
throughout the programme through the Personal Advisor and the use of
Personal Development Planning. The Independent Learning module learning
outcomes reflect the priority given by Dearing (1997) to LML, which he
identified as the most significant ‘Key Skill’.
In the module students negotiate the outcomes and assessment criteria for
their learning within broadly worded parameters, although within a work-based
context. This involves producing a ‘learning agreement’ (a form of learning
contract) within the first four weeks of the module and the subsequent use of
guided reflection throughout the semester. Processes of reflection are built
into the module assessment. The module itself provided the model for the
whole curriculum, and the processes of its delivery.
In contrast to the organizational emphasis of the programme learning
outcomes, the Independent Learning module aims to: ‘support students in
their development as self-directed learners in individual and group
professional contexts’; ‘develop capabilities as reflective practitioners’; and
‘develop skills of critical evaluation in their personal and professional
development.’ Specific learning outcomes therefore refer to ‘personal’ as well
as professional development through learning. The curriculum model and the
Independent Learning module are rooted in experiential models of learning
(Kolb, 1984), with the aim being the development of autonomous, selfmanaged learners. Effectively, the espoused aims of the programme are
organizational and managerial, while the curriculum model and learner
strategy are embedded in progressive, androgogical conceptualizations of
The question is whether the assumptions on which this decoding and
recoding of the programme in progressive terms are likely to deliver the aim
intended: learner autonomy. Indeed as well as questioning the
conceptualization of the ‘individual’ as learner with autonomy, it has to be
asked whether this curriculum model and the Independent Learning module
represent a classic case of what Edwards and Usher (1994), using
Foucauldian conceptualizations of Power/Knowledge, argue is a situation
where learners (and in this case workers) are being trained to exercise selfmonitoring and control within specific given parameters. If this is the case it
represents what Harrison (2000) calls a ‘discursive elision’ – progressive
discourse selectively and narrowly interpreted, used to veil managerial
For the higher education teacher a key issue therefore is whether they are
performing a domesticating or liberatory (emancipatory) function. For some
the issue may not be problematic, although this brings into question the
purpose of higher education. For Harvey and Knight if higher education is to
play an effective role:
…then it must focus its attention on the transformative process of
learning…critical reflective learners able to cope with a rapidly changing
world. (Harvey and Knight, 1966:viii)
The following section provides a conceptual matrix with which to subsequently
analyse the module and the curriculum model. It begins to map out the
theoretical premises on which the module and curriculum model is based;
essentially the first question to be addressed by this paper.
Figure 1 Curriculum Model – Foundation Degree in Community Governance
Creating a Flexible
of Workshops
to extend
beyond the
programme of
study for
Raising Standards
Quality Protects
Crime and
Asset Building
Dealing with
Up-date of
Plan leading
to final
Learning Contract and establishment of Personal Development Plan
APL/APEL Process for those students over the age of 21 and
with existing work experience. All students interviewed.
Learner autonomy and the Learning Society
Three conceptual strands to learner autonomy are outlined in this section: the
re-emergence of the concept of the individual within a discourse of
‘citizenship’; the post-modern conceptualizations of the individual dealing with
uncertainty; and traditional conceptualizations of the adult learner within
progressive perspectives. Emphases on learner autonomy have traditionally
been underpinned by humanist democratic perspectives (Rogers (1978),
Maslow (1968), Knowles (1984), Illich (1971)) rooted in ‘empowerment’, ‘selfrealisation’ and similar normative visions which have served to shape
pedagogy. The western social and ideological contexts have influenced this
positively with the focus on individualism, and the power of agency reinforced
by the counterweight growth of uncertainty and risk brought about by poststructural and post-modern change. The ‘learning society’ and the need for
‘learning systems’ (Schon, 1971) are concepts used to make sense of a
period of change.
Ranson (1998) in tracing the lineages of the learning society claims we have
reached a stage of citizenship within a learning society whose creative agency
will be the key to economic and social innovation. Reflexivity and lifelong
learning are seen as remedies to uncertainty, and Evans (1985) claims:
Reflecting on the conditions for…lifelong education has led adult educators to
develop a framework for a learning society as a society of learners, using their
learning to inform their shaping of the society in which they live and work. It
leads to pedagogy which advocates that according the learner the
responsibility to participate in shaping the purpose and process of learning is
the most effective route to motivation and personal development.
Ranson claims that the purposes and conditions for the learning society lie in
democratic politics, claiming reasoning in public discourse is the vehicle to a
learning democracy (1998). Ranson traces the roots of democratic learning to
Lindeman and Dewey. For Dewey (1958), knowledge only has meaning
through action, and Ranson sees action through citizenship as a means of
learning, or ‘becoming’; the route to ‘unfolding agency’ (Ranson 1998:19).
The discourse of learning as self-development has become central to public
policy in the UK. ‘The Learning Age’ (DfEE, 1998) stresses self-actualisation
through action, with emphases on individuals, workplaces and providers of
learning opportunities becoming more flexible. New and alternative sites of
learning are being identified (for example, work-based) as well as a growing
interest in the significance of informal learning, given impetus by the
outcomes of the ESRC’s programme, The Learning Society (Coffield, 2000).
The increasing stress on reflexivity signifies the increase in options and
choices and the necessity of decision-making in an increasing period of
uncertainty. Edwards (1998) observes that
previously structured choices and opportunities are no longer held to be as
determining of biographies as before.
The logic of modernity is contested, asserts Beck (1992), replaced by a new
modernity of ‘reflexive modernisation’. This, argues Edwards (1998):
requires social formations, organizations and individuals to change, learn to
change and change to learn.
Beck (op. cit.,) conceptualized this in the ‘risk society’, with de-standardised
structures resulting in greater individualisation (though not necessarily an
increase in agency). However, for Beck the contemporary world opens up
possibilities for individuals (not all – reflexivity and lifestyle choices are not
equally distributed; a significant issue in view of democratic perspectives
above) to reflect critically on these changes and the social conditions of their
existence, and, for Lash and Urry (1994:32) the chance to potentially change
For Giddens (1990, 1991) modernity represents a process of constantly
breaking with tradition through a reflexive monitoring to develop ‘the new’:
who we are becomes something we experience as a question to be answered
continually. For Lash and Urry the result is that:
…reflexivity transfers from monitoring the social to monitoring the self
In late modernity for Giddens reflexivity is radicalized by the plethora of
information requiring life-planning, lifestyle choices, and in the construction of
self-identity. Decision making and ambiguity also result in ‘existential anxiety’.
However, Giddens’ notion of the reflexive monitoring of the self also implies
that lifelong learning can involve personal development opportunities. Both
Beck and Giddens share the view that reflexivity of the self and the social is a
rational process, concerned with reasoned decision-making; while Edwards
(1998) contends that an initiation into the practices of reflection and
pedagogies of reflection are integral to reflexive modernization, a flexible
workforce of lifelong learners and a de-standardized workplace. Hence the
dangers highlighted by Harrison (2000) of the enmeshing of human capital
managerial discourse and learner autonomy, conceptualizations rooted in
more progressive and humanist forms. This is reinforced by Usher and
Solomon in their comment:
…with the replacement of what constitutes legitimate knowledge (as
constituted by disciplines and therefore outside the organization) to that
constituted by performance agreements (and therefore within its control), the
organization can also ensure that the ‘right’ performative things are learnt.
Consequences of framing domesticating educational (or training) practice
within liberatory discourse has been a key issue in, for example the debate
on key/core skills, by Hyland (1998), ‘performance’ by Holmes (2000), the
‘competence’ debate (Tarrant (2000), Norris (1991)), and the ‘Capability’
movement (Stephenson, 1993)
In contrast to this the progressive tradition of adult learning has established an
academic orthodoxy committed to the verification of a general theory of adult
learning which, according to Brookfield (1992):
Judged by epistemological, communicative and critically analytic criteria,
theory development in adult learning is weak and is hindered by the
persistence of myths that are etched deeply into adult educators’ minds.
Such ‘myths’, claims Brookfield (1995), promote adult learning as inherently
joyful, that adults are innately self-directed learners, that good educational
practice always meets the needs articulated by the learners themselves, and
that there is a uniquely adult learning process and form of practice. Brookfield
(1995) provides a categorization of four overlapping strands of adult learning,
which he claims constitute ‘an espoused theory of adult learning that informs
how a great many adult educators practice their craft’. The categories are selfdirected learning, critical reflection (the basis for Mezirow’s (1990,1991)
theory of transformative learning), experiential learning (usually associated
with Kolb (1984)), and more recently ‘learning to learn’ (for example, King and
Kitchener’s (1994) concepts of epistemic cognition and reflective judgement).
The Independent Learning module, and therefore the conceptual
underpinning of the curriculum model of the whole Foundation Degree has
strands of all four ‘myths’. It’s rationale can also be located in the motivation to
equip ‘citizens ‘ with the capabilities to contribute to and self-develop within
the ‘learning society’, and be equipped with the reflexive capabilities to
monitor the self in a time of uncertainty and ‘complexity’ (Fullan, 1999). This is
indeed an ambitious model of curriculum design.
The Independent Learning Module and the Foundation Degree
Curriculum Model
The module and the curriculum model for the programme are rooted in
several conceptual strands, which are translated into pedagogical practice.
The self-managed learning humanist tradition of experiential learning is linked
into a rationalist process based on the use of learning contracts. Within the
process of action planning and review of progress on the contracted learning
is harnessed the development of the learner as a reflective practitioner. These
three strands (the assumptions referred to in the second research question in
the introduction), on which the LML learning process is conceptualized and
framed, will be analysed in this section.
Learning contracts
The learning contract is used at a programme level to clarify the commitments
on the student and the colleges, and is used to monitor progress in keeping
with the Personal Development Plan (Figure 1), and ultimately the student
transcript. The Independent Learning module also uses a learning contract
(called learning agreement) in a more specific way, effectively as an action
plan. In negotiating the learning agreement for the module students are
expected to produce an action plan indicating how the agreed learning is to be
managed. The learning agreement is then used as a monitoring tool for the
student to be presented at tutorials. In principle, the process is adapted
around the Kolb Learning Cycle (1984). Superficially the process seems
rooted in a rationality and a discourse which is instrumental rather than
communicative in Habermassian terms; domesticating rather than
emancipatory in Freirean conceptualizations.
The concept of the learning contract is based on androgogical (Knowles,
1986) assumptions regarding the nature of learning and adult learners. For
Knowles the learning contract is a means of empowering the learner in the
process of learning, and is seen, in Habermassian terms, as a means of
achieving the ‘ideal speech situation’ of mutual respect, although Gosling
(2000) doubts whether this is possible in formal learning contexts. In contrast
Edwards and Usher (1994) argue that such ‘empowering’ is a form of
discursive control in Foucault’s ‘Power/Knowledge’ conceptualization. Ideally
the negotiated learning contract allows the learner the opportunity to work in
an area relevant to personal needs and interests. In this sense, learning
contracts ought to provide a means of facilitating deep learning (Marton et. al.
1984), given an assumed high level of student motivation and affective
involvement (Boud, Keogh and Walker, 1985). However, Caffarella and
Caffarella (1986) question the claims made by, for example Knowles (1980),
amongst others, that using learning contracts fosters general competencies in
independent learning
For Anderson, Boud and Sampson, learning contracts provide learning
experiences which are ‘relevant’, ‘autonomous’ and ‘structured’. They also
involve a degree of technical rationality, as their comment suggests:
By documenting plans, outcomes and assessment criteria in advance all
interested parties…can have similar expectations of the learning project.
This takes no account of the learner’s needs to develop skills in this area
(Brookfield, 1985), or that learners may not know what they need to know,
and that learning is viewed in a simple ‘input-outcome’ perspective. This was
recognized by Tough (1979) who observed that learning goals change as a
learning project progresses, regardless of the clarity of initial objectives.
In the author’s experience this is the case with LML linked into learning
contracts. Students rarely reproduce the outcomes identified in the learning
agreement as the end product. Students often re-negotiate the agreement.
Experience and processes of reflection are instrumental in these changes. An
issue beyond this paper is how this re-negotiation is perceived by students
working within a dominant learning paradigm rooted in rationality: is it, for
example, de-motivating, resulting from failure to meet initial targets, or
energizing? Of course the reflective process structured around the tutorials
may help to address this issue.
Experiential learning
Given Tough’s observation (op. cit.,) it would appear that learning contracts in
conjunction with experiential learning are contradictory. However, there is
uncertainty about the nature of experiential learning. For Eraut (1994)
experience is initially apprehended at the level of impressions, requiring a
further period of reflective thinking (the issue of time in his critique of Schon’s
(1983) ‘reflection in action’) before it is either assimilated into the existing
cognitive structure, or induces change in that structure to accommodate it.
Moon (2000) contends experiential learning can result from experience in its
broadest conceptualization, claiming, however, that it is construed,
subsequently, thorough reflection, in cognitive terms. With Kolb (1984), for
example, Moon’s interpretation is that the process of learning perpetuates
itself: the actor becomes observer, with the quality of reflection being crucial
to the quality of learning.
The Independent Learning module uses this concept of experience through
the tutorial process, which is effectively a formalized forum for the application
of the Kolb cycle of reflective observation on concrete experience, abstract
conceptualization and subsequent action planning based on the reflective
learning (Kolb’s ‘active experimentation’). Students are entitled to up to five
tutorials over the cycle of the module. Learning agreements are therefore
used with the expectation (by the tutor, not necessarily by the student) that
they will be changed. The module therefore has a rationalist framework but
practice is in many respects constructivist.
The Kolb learning cycle has had a significant impact on pegagogical thinking
and practice in LML. However, Miettinen (2000) is extremely critical of Kolb.
He claims that the four stages in the cycle are artificially separated; that they
don’t connect in any organic or necessary way. He also accuses him of
selectively citing Dewey and using a marginal piece of research to construct a
misinterpretation of him to his own advantage. For Dewey observation and
reflection are highly contextualised. Miettenen asserts that for Kolb and the
adult learning tradition experiential learning represents a kind of
…psychological reductionism that Dewey considered a misrepresentation of
his anti-dualist conception of experience (Miettenen, 2000)
The result for Miettenen is a perpetuation of something similar to Brookfield’s
‘myths’ of adult learning – rational thought and reflection linked into a belief in
every individual’s capacity to grow and learn, the progressive underpinning of
lifelong-learning. He claims the result is that:
…the belief in an individual’s capacities and his individual experience leads us
away from the analysis of cultural and social conditions of learning that are
essential to any serious enterprise of fostering change and learning in real life.
(Miettinen, 2000).
If experiential learning is essentially based on a methodological individualism,
then where, in the context of the Independent Learning module and the
curriculum model, does that leave the reflective practitioner?
Reflective practice
The module and the curriculum model make significant assumptions about the
learner. Both are premised on the methodological individualism referred to
above, which assumes a significant power of agency resting with the
individual. Yet the learner will be returning to education with former
educational experience likely to be built around a didactic paradigm, which is
likely to shape expectations of future experience on the programme and the
individual’s role in that process. Students will experience only a short
induction (two days, of which half a day is given to Independent Learning)
before the module begins, contrary to the module specification which refers to
an ‘extended induction’. Boud and Walker (1998) criticise the incorporation of
reflection, when it is only partly understood, into teaching contexts which are
not conducive to the questioning of experience. They cite situations which do
not allow learners to explore Dewey’s (1933) ‘ state of perplexity, hesitation
and doubt’; Brookfield’s (1987) ‘inner discomforts’ and Mezirow’s (1990)
‘disorientating dilemmas’. They complain that many teachers equate reflection
with thinking. They assert this has resulted in the translation of reflective
practice into
…such simplified and technicist prescriptions that their provocative
features…become domesticated in ways which enable teachers to avoid
focusing on their own practice and learning needs of students
This raises a number of questions for the module and programme. Is
reflection a tool to facilitate, or a process of, learning? Is it to be, in Dewey’s
conceptualization, a means to learning in context, or an emancipatory
‘knowledge constitutive interest’ in Habermassian critical reflection terms?
How are learners taught to reflect? Do they need to transfer and develop
through levels of learning before they have the critical tools (Perry, 1970;
King and Kitchener, 1994; Belenky et al 1986; Bateson, 1973 ; Van Maanen
1977, 1991; Mezirow, 1990; Saljo,1982; Marton et al.,1993; Moon, 2000),
experience (Kolb, 1984) or maturity (Moon, 2000) to reflect ? Do they need to
reflect in action (Schon 1983) or on action (Eraut, 1994)? Students reflect on
action through the tutorial process. How is the learning to be represented and
therefore assessed? Forty percent of the assessment for the module is given
to the reflective commentary, a summative rather than formative piece of
work. This commentary is therefore a representation of understanding of the
processes of learning. Eisner (1991) in this respect claimed that individuals
develop meaning in the process of learning and explore and develop it further
in the process of its representation.
Can the students develop reflective practitioner capabilities at this early stage
of their learning and development, or should the assessment of these learning
practices be incorporated into strategies later in the programme? Although the
programme has a work-based emphasis in the learning, the methods of
assessment and the representation of learning are structured within an
academic framework and discourse, which the students at this stage of their
development may not be aware of. Yet Usher (1985) observed that students
he worked with had difficulty using personal experience in deepening their
knowledge: he claims they had learned not to value their experience in
comparison to what they perceived to be academic or scientific knowledge.
Learning was therefore superficial as it was not being linked with existing
cognitive structures.
The module specification states:
‘Emphasis is placed on student learning and the process of reflection.
Students will be briefed, through an extensive induction, on the framework for
learning, including the definition of aims and objectives, roles, responsibilities
and expectations in the learning and assessment process.’
In being ‘briefed’ in a formal way about reflection, that is given the
propositional knowledge, the assumption in the pedagogic practice is that the
learners will translate this propositional knowledge into processes and
practice: ‘espoused’ knowledge is expected to become ‘theory in use’ (Argyris
and Schon, 1974). Yet Eraut, based on Ryle (1949), comments
Knowing how cannot be reduced to knowing that (1994:107)
In supporting the development of capabilities of reflective practice, there lies a
significant responsibility on, and an investment of trust in the tutorial process
for the module, and in the Personal Advisor (Figure 1) for the programme. The
issues and questions raised in this section of the paper relating to reflective
practice and the concept of the reflective practitioner are relevant to
discussion of this module and the curriculum programme as a whole.
However, detailed investigation of the issues raised is beyond the scope of
this paper.
LML, critical reflection and emancipation
The third issue to be addressed concerns the efficacy of the Independent
Learning module and the curriculum model in supporting processes of LML in
its emancipatory conceptualization. Such conceptualizations are rooted in
Habermas’ emancipatory knowledge constitutive interest (1971): knowledge is
developed through critically reflexive modes of thought and enquiry to
understand the self in human context with the purpose of transformation.
Mezirow (1990, 1991) has built a theory of transformative learning on
Habermas’ conceptualization of communicative learning, involving the revision
of ‘meaning structures’ through what he terms a process of ‘perspective
transformation’. His theory is built on the centrality of experience, critical
reflection and rational discourse.
In reviewing the plethora of literature on Mezirow, Taylor (2001) criticizes him
for perceiving transformation in individual, socially de-contextualised terms
involving transformation of the self with subsequent uncritical social reintegration. This is supported by Tennant (1993) who claims Mezirow
overstates agency and under-theorises the influence of the social dimension.
Hart (1990) criticises Mezirow for not recognizing the issue of power
differences that need to be addressed for critical reflection to occur in a
‘communicative’ rather than an ‘instrumental’ way. Mezirow is criticized by
Clarke and Wilson (1991) for his rationality, which is rooted in humanistic
assumptions, and is ‘a-historical and decontextualised’. Although Mezirow
subsequently attempted to address these criticisms (1991), claiming that they
misinterpreted an emphasis on self-direction and the autonomy of the
individual as a disregard for collaborative social action, and that by 1996 he
acknowledged that learning is situated in a social context, Taylor (2001) notes
that he failed to maintain the connection between the construction of
knowledge and the context within which it is interpreted.
The issue of social context and agency links Mezirow to the earlier discussion
on adult learning theory (Miettinen, 2000, Brookfield, 1995). According to
Taylor (op. cit.,), Mezirow suggests transformative learning is a process that
all cultures should aspire to, but in equating helping adult learners to learn
with acquiring more developmentally advanced meaning perspectives as the
goal of adult education, Taylor argues, that as in a constructivist perspective
theories are context specific (citing Gallacher, 1997:114), then transformative
learning ‘is a derivative of the creator’s own culture’ (Taylor, 2001:30).
There are questions therefore about whether LML should be conceptualized
in transformatory/emancipatory terms. From a cultural and contextual
perspective this has to be seen in the ways a higher education experience in
the UK is framed, and according to Brockbank and McGill (1998), recent
aspirations for learning in universities cannot be separated from the debate
about the purpose of universities. For Harvey and Knight (1996) this means
learning as a transformative process. For Barnett (1997), it is about moving on
from critical thinking to ‘critical being’, engaging students more holistically and
incorporating critical self-reflection and critical action. The issues are
essentially normative. Reflexivity seems central to these processes,
particularly in a postmodern, post-structural paradigm.
Should or can LML be emancipatory? In rationalist and universal adult
learning theory terms it can aspire to be. From a constructivist perspective the
learner will construct meanings of significance in context. Perspective
transformation, the transition of meaning systems, or developments in
cognitive structures do and will happen. However, this is likely to happen in
relational ways specific to particular contexts, rather than as a result of
unfettered agency.
LML, reflexivity, rationality and ‘judgement’
Having set the Independent Learning module and the curriculum model, and
an evaluation of the assumptions on which it is based in a theoretical context
of interpretations of learner autonomy (democratic citizens within the learning
society (Ranson, 1998, Schon, 1971); complexity, uncertainty and risk
(Giddens, 1990, 1991, Beck 1992) and adult learning theory), the final section
of this paper will attempt to construct an interpretation of the Independent
Learning module and the curriculum model in a way that reflects an attempt
by a practitioner to come to terms with the issues raised so far.
Within the debates on the purpose of higher education critical thinking, critical
being and transformation feature strongly in the prevailing discourse. The
debates on knowledge and performativity have cast doubt and uncertainty on
the nature and purposes of learning (Barnett, 1990, 1997). Brockbank and
McGill (1998) claim that the key to immunity from such influences lies in using
a rationality defined on the basis of personal reason and adopting a
pedagogic practice that enables students to challenge existing paradigms.
Under this conceptual umbrella they group ‘criticism’ (Barnett, 1990), ‘critical
reflection’ (Mezirow, 1990), ‘reflexivity’ (Beck et. al., 1994) and ‘critical
thinking’ (Brookfield, 1987).
A problem with rational perspectives is the traditional Cartesian dilemma
between thought and action, the plan and the outcome, the learning
agreement, its revisions and the actual pieces of work submitted for
assessment. The module and the curriculum model therefore need to be
placed in a frame where changes to initial thinking and planning are the norm,
and indeed, through the use of critical reflexivity within a community of shared
experience, become reality.
The Independent Learning module and the curriculum model are actually well
placed for these adaptations. The emphasis on work-based learning in the
module and the programme addresses the constructivist issue of learning in
context (Ramsden (1988), has recognized the significance of context in the
development of student approaches to learning); Clarke and Wilson’s (1991)
critique of Mezirow. Critiques of the focus on the individual learner within
studies on self-directed learning are well established. Brookfield (1984)
complained that:
…the social setting for a great deal of self-directed learning has been
ignored…the importance of learning networks and informal learning
exchanges has been forgotten.
In 1980 Brookfield drew attention to the importance of informal learning
networks to self-directed learners, and a great deal of work is currently being
done on informal learning in multiple sites of learning (Coffield, 2000, Eraut,
2000, Schuller et. al., 2001). This emphasis on networks (of course not a new
idea – Schon, 1971) within contexts reflects the significance of the social and
situated nature of learning (Lave and Wenger, 1991). The Independent
Learning module, in the outline of learning and teaching strategies, makes
reference to ‘informal peer support groups (action learning sets), on-line
discussion groups and e-mail tutor/group contacts as well as formative whole
group/tutor progress tutorials’. There is already potential in this, along with the
guidance offered by the Personal Advisor (Figure 1), to reshape the emphasis
from a rationalistic to a more negotiated, developmental and constructivist
approach. This means the process should become less instrumental and goal
related, and more developmental.
The methodological individualism of experiential learning and the concept of
the individual reflective practitioner ought to be replaced by a more social,
relational and hermeneutic process in the action learning sets. Brockbank and
McGill (1998) encapsulate this in the term ‘reflective dialogue’, a shared and
social method of developing critical perspectives and self-reflexivity. There is
more in this approach linked to Dewey rather than Habermas. Does this mean
that the approach is domesticating rather than emancipatory, in Freirean
terms? This is not necessarily the case. The approach is similar to Kemmis’
(1985) view that:
…reflection is action oriented, social and political. Its produce is praxis
(informed committed action), the most eloquent and socially significant form of
human action
Hager (2000) contends that such a Deweyan approach, based on developing
knowledge as judgement through reasoning and acting through praxis in
context combines the dualism of Cartesianism.
The module and the curriculum model therefore could continue with the
learning agreement and critical reflective dialogue within a constructivist,
hermeneutic, inter-subjective, rather than individual, rationalist Kolb-like
framework. However, the issue of power differentials in roles and relationships
impacts on the degree of inter-subjectivity and reflective dialogue possible
(Gosling, 2000), and therefore these issues would need to be identified and
addressed in the reflective process. The assessment would need to be
amended to reflect this, with greater emphasis on the process of reflection
and learning rather than the product.
The programme rationale acknowledges a workplace existence similar to that
portrayed by Beck (1992):
In particular, this requires an ability to manage uncertainty, take risks, cross
boundaries and develop different decision-making approaches in conjunction
with elected members. As a consequence of the abolition of traditional
decision-making procedures, administrators are likely to be communicating
more directly with members and the community. They are likely to be more
accountable for triggering higher-order decisions and will be expected to
manage knowledge in a much more sophisticated way.
Such a world is not based on technical rationality; rather Fullan’s (1999)
conceptualization of ‘complexity’. Reflexivity in dialogical, therefore shared
reflective practice offers a possible route to dealing with such complexity in a
way that recognizes the structural limitations on agency.
This paper represents an exercise in critical reflection, in ‘double loop’
learning (Argyris and Schon, 1974), and a ‘triple hermeneutic’ (Alvesson and
Skoldberg, 2000). The ‘deep and surface structures’ (Deetz and Kirsten,
1983) underlying LML have been problemetised, hopefully to the benefits of
the students who will experience the programme. The praxis will continue to
be subject to critical reflexivity. However, the process engaged in so far is
self-reflexive, and requires to be presented for debate with colleagues in a
process of reflective dialogue.
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