Education in a Changing Environment 17th-18th September 2003
Critical Reflection: the Hallmark of Masters Education.
A Case Study
Lisa Anderson, email@example.com
This paper discusses the nature of critical management pedagogy, action learning and critical reflection in the context of management education. A distinction is made between ‘content focused’ and ‘strategy based’ approaches (Giroux, 1981) as the basis of critical management pedagogy. There is also a discussion of the nature of learning at Masters-level and, in particular, students’ orientation to learning and the role of critical thinking in attaining ‘mastery’ of a particular subject. A short case study illustrates how critical thinking has been incorporated into an MSc People and Organisational Development programme, using three critical epistemologies as the basis for thinking and questioning. Assessment of the programme is highlighted as a key area for developing ‘Masters-level thinking’. Conclusions are drawn around the nature of this type of research-led teaching and the role of tutors in bringing about significant learning in this kind of environment.
Action learning is a term that is used to define a wide variety of management learning methods. It is sometimes applied to approaches which could more appropriately be described as ‘active learning’, sometimes to the process of self-managed learning and sometimes to the purist Revansesque or ‘Scientific’ (Marsick and O’Neil, 1999) approach practised in educational institutions and organisations. Essentially, in any of its guises, action learning is based on the premise that learning comes about through reflection followed by action to solve real problems (McGill and Beaty, 1996). Reflection and discussion take place in small groups facilitated by a set adviser. There is normally an equal emphasis on personal learning and organisational problem solving.
Pedler (1991) offers the following definition:
Action Learning is an approach to the development of people in organisations which takes the task as the vehicle for learning. It is based on the premise that there is no learning without action and no sober and deliberate action without learning…The method…has three main components – people, who accept responsibility for taking action on a particular issue; problems, or the tasks that people set themselves; and a set of six or so colleagues who support and challenge each other to make progress on problems.
Critical management pedagogy represents an attempt to counter the growth of positivist, technicist approaches to teaching and learning about management in UK universities. The critical school claim that this ‘management by numbers’ approach precludes an insightful and questioning approach in the face of major change in the practice of management. Post-Fordist restructuring and the associated rise of new or repackaged management thinking (e.g. HRM, TQM, and corporate culture) has brought about this need to change (Willmott, 1994). In effect, management is taught rather than learned; students largely accept the views of tutors and textbooks without question. There is a danger that university education of managers prepares them to solve problems using a set of formulae rather than giving them an ability to ‘read’ a situation and to make judgements about it. Critical management theorists also seem to deplore the fact that management is de-politicised and that the inherent conflict between organisation and employee, manager and managed is largely ignored in mainstream management education.
Management education is largely vocational; few study it for its intrinsic value. Most do so with a fair degree of instrumentality usually linked with the capacity to command a higher salary in the marketplace. This is certainly the case for many part-time Masters students who see the degree as a route to promotion.
Willmott (1997) explains how critical action learning can contribute to critical management practice:
Critical action learning explores how the comparatively abstract ideas of critical theory can be mobilized and applied in the process of understanding and changing interpersonal and institutional practices. By combining a pedagogy that focuses on management as a lived experience with theory that debunks conventional wisdom, managers can be enabled to develop habits of critical thinking…that prepare them for responsible citizenship and personally and socially rewarding lives and careers
Reynolds (1998) argues that in critically reflecting, managers become aware of a much wider environment in which they operate and begin to realise the social power relationships of the organisation and their own networks. The characteristics which distinguish critical reflection from other versions of reflection are:
It is concerned with questioning assumptions;
Its focus is social rather than individual;
It pays particular attention to the analysis of power relations;
It is concerned with emancipation (pp189-190).
Although there seems little here to differentiate critical reflection from mainstream critical pedagogy, the crucial distinction is that critical pedagogy is concerned with curriculum and critical reflection with the learning process. This follows Giroux’s, (1981) distinction between ‘content focused radicals’ who advocate a more politicised curriculum and ‘strategy based radicals’ who adopt a humanistic approach to teaching and learning by employing techniques such as experiential learning or action learning (Reynolds, 1998). Tutors may not be in a position to make a choice between the two approaches; critical academics faced with a group of 150 undergraduates will not be in a position to employ techniques that call for small group working and high tutor contact. On the other hand, postgraduate students with extensive experience of working in organisations may not want to be subjected to what might be construed as an overly politicised point of view.
Learning at Masters Level
The impetus for writing this paper came from a reflection on the learning needs of a group of students on a part-time MSc programme and in particular on the peer assessment process used on the programme, one element of which demanded an evaluation of ‘critical thinking’. Students tended to assume that this entailed criticising (i.e. finding fault) with the work and thoughts of others and for the more reflexive, themselves. Even if a student wrote a piece of work based on a theory with which they wholeheartedly concurred, they still felt obliged to point out its (sometimes wildly exaggerated) weak points.
Bateson’s (1973) taxonomy of levels of learning (with additional comments provided by Vince, 1996) was helpful in conceptualising the differences between final year undergraduate thinking (‘Learning II’) and Masters-level thinking (‘Learning III’).
Table 1.1 Bateson’s Levels of Learning
Zero learning is based on predictable or specific responses which are not subject to trial and error. Zero learning does not signify the capacity to reflect in any way to enable change. It is simply about response. Even the recognition of a wrong response would not contribute to any future skill
Learning I implies a change as a result of trial and error, within a set of alternatives. Correction does therefore have an implication for future action. In other words, this level has moved from stimulus/response to stimulus/response/reinforcement. Learning I is therefore about a process of habituation.
Learning II implies some flexibility in the potential to act as opposed to reinforcement of action. It is therefore a change in the set of alternatives from which choice is made. Learning II implies a capacity to ‘learn how to learn’, in other words, a shift of frameworks from which choices are made.
Learning III is a shift in the underlying premises and belief systems that form frameworks. Level III learning involves a capacity to ‘make a corrective change in the system of sets of alternatives from which choice is made’. In other words, the capacity to examine the paradigm or regime within which action is based.
Having identified the cognitive processes and their links with action in Masters-level action learning work, it was necessary to link this to the students’ orientation to learning. As mentioned earlier, an instrumental approach to learning and in some cases, ‘qualification earning’, may preclude any real changes in action or thinking. Dore (1976) makes this point well, even incorporating the notion of ‘mastery’ which many see as the purpose of attaining a Masters degree:
Most people when they speak of ‘education’, have in mind a process of learning –be it by disciplined training or by freer more enjoyable methods of experiment – which has mastery as its object…whether the mastery is an end in itself, or whether the knowledge is mastered for use, and whether that use is a practical one or a mere self-indulgent pleasure, it is mastery of the knowledge itself that counts. In the process of qualification, by contrast, the pupil is concerned not with mastery, but with being certified as having mastered. The knowledge that he gains, he gains not for its own sake and not for constant later use in a real-life situation – but for the once-and-for-all purpose of reproducing it in an examination. And the learning and reproducing is all just a means to an end – the end of getting a certificate which is a passport to a coveted job, a status, an income. If education is learning to do a job, qualification is a matter of learning in order to get a job.
In other words, qualification earning is superficial and short term and does not affect the person’s being in any significant way (Thomas and Anthony, 1996). Although students on this MSc programme are keen on attaining the qualification, the emphasis is on how their way of thinking and conceptualising may change as a result of being on a Masters programme.
The remainder of this paper explains how critical reflection is encouraged on the programme focusing on assessment and the ‘tools for thinking’ (McLaughlin and Thorpe, 1993) offered to students as part of the action learning process.
Background to the Programme
This Masters degree has been offered at the University for at least 12 years. It is currently called the MSc in People and Organisational Development but was originally offered as an MSc in Management Development. The title was changed to reflect the changing interests and job backgrounds of students who negotiate an individualised curriculum as the starting point of their studies. There is a strong focus on both personal and academic development; students are encouraged to view the process as a learning journey and to clearly identify where they want to be, personally and professionally, at the end of the three years of part-time study. Many former students cite the programme as one of the most significant learning experiences of their life and a good proportion make bold career choices on achieving the qualification. Most students build sound networks and friendships on the programme. Drop-outs are rare; a real community feel is engendered on the programme – students are often supported through crises by tutors and peers.
However, there are drawbacks to this approach. Before the appointment of a new course leader three years ago, there was a distinct tendency for students to take well over the allocated three-year period to complete the programme with seemingly little comeback from the university. Standards of writing were variable as some assignments and dissertations became personalised in the extreme. There was no doubt that students were gaining a great deal from the programme but much of this could have been attained by attending networking sessions with peers from other organisations.
It was at this stage that a decision was taken to examine the nature of Masters education and to focus on developing higher levels of critical reflection as the ‘hallmark’ of Masters-level thinking. In addition to this, much stricter guidelines were introduced regarding completion of the degree within three years in order to ensure a ‘level playing field’. The aim was to achieve a balance between intellectual and personal development and to ensure that students who preferred to focus on the latter met minimum standards in their written work. The inherent danger was in taking away the distinctiveness of the programme by making it just like any other Masters degree. The continued inclusion of the action learning approach has ensured that this has not happened.
Achieving Critical Reflection through Action Learning
Groups on the programme consist of 6-8 members and are facilitated by a set advisor. They meet once a month as a set and follow the normal process of ‘checking-in’ (giving a brief résumé of what has happened professionally and privately since the last meeting), deciding on priorities for that meeting (in effect, ‘carving up’ the 4-hour time slot), followed by individuals ‘presenting’ their issue (usually their assignment topic) and other members asking questions about it in order to help that individual’s learning. At the end of each student’s slot, s/he is invited to reflect, honestly, on their learning from the session and to set objectives based on this. At this surface level, the process appears to follow the ‘Experiential’ model of action learning (Marsick and O’Neil, 1999) based on Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle (1984) enabling learning at each stage of the cycle: action, reflection, theory and practice (Bunning, 1992; McGill and Beaty, 1992).
Marsick and O’Neil (1999) cite two ways in which critical reflection may be encouraged through the process of action learning:
Weinstein (1995) proposes that participants discuss their beliefs and values and how these may be changing and in so doing, become more insightful;
Marsick (1990) suggests discussing real issues and subjecting them to scrutiny from a number of perspectives allowing learners to question underlying norms and perceptions.
The approach adopted on this MSc programme has similar intentions to the second of these but goes one step further in encouraging students to consider 3 critical epistemologies, namely, Critical Social Theory, Postmodernism and Critical Realism,
which may form the basis for insightful questioning.
Many students, understandably, struggle with the concept of epistemology and the rest of the new vocabulary associated with learning and talking about it. The ideas are introduced in a tutor-led session during the first residential a month after starting the programme and tutors ensure that the discussions are continued in subsequent set meetings. Students sometimes feel rather awkward in employing these unfamiliar terms in their questions especially as they are not always totally sure of their meaning. However, initial evidence suggests that, by the dissertation stage of the programme, they are much more comfortable. So whilst the critical approach is seen as an underpinning element of learning and teaching on the programme, it is not something that can be introduced as a ‘once and for all’. It involves students ‘mastering’ the concepts and the language over the three-year period.
Students are required to produce a portfolio of work at the end of the programme. This includes a Learning Agreement, four 5000-7000 word assignments, a dissertation and a reflective ‘Learning Journey’ statement. The Learning Agreement details the personal, professional and academic objectives which the student wishes to achieve by being on the programme and the topics which s/he intends to study in order to reach them. In some cases, students arrive with a pre-determined, narrowly defined course of action. If this is the case, students are encouraged, through the action learning process, to choose a range of topics which adequately reflect the title of the degree. Learning Agreements are regularly re-visited and re-written as part of the review process.
The MSc is peer and tutor assessed. On completion of a piece of work, students choose three others in their learning set from whom they wish to gain feedback and assessment. Set advisors assess every piece of work. The benefits and drawbacks of peer assessment are well documented elsewhere (see, for example, Dochy et al, , Topping,  and Hanrahan and Isaacs, ) and many of these issues are replicated here. In particular, students find it difficult to criticise others’ work and to ultimately fail or refer it. This task often falls to the set advisor who becomes the final arbiter and therefore the most powerful member of the group. This upsets the balance of the set and of the programme in general, putting the tutor back into the familiar, traditional role of being ‘in charge’. The key to successful peer assessment here has been the clear definition and full discussion of assessment criteria. This enables students to learn from giving feedback to others and from receiving feedback on their own work.
The definition and explanation of the three critical epistemologies mentioned earlier, has been a factor in enabling students to become more confident and skilled in giving useful feedback to other members of their set. ‘Critical thinking’ no longer constitutes the ability to criticise per se but involves the discussion of issues which were previously taken for granted and the questioning of underlying assumptions. This will often involve questions of power, gender, race and language. Students are encouraged to write from a number of perspectives rather than adopting the management stance to which they are accustomed in their workplace. If other points of view are not considered in a written piece of work, peers will pick up on this and use it as a source of questions and/or feedback.
Research-led teaching does not necessarily involve tutors basing their lectures on the latest outputs. In this scenario, where there is no set curriculum, this is not always possible; if students select their own topics and questions there are bound to be areas in which tutors are not experts. This approach of research-led thinking and questioning may provide an alternative in a situation where a more humanistic style of teaching is adopted. Masters-level education should include a ‘mastery’ of a higher level of thinking than undergraduate education; this is not simply about providing ‘more knowledge’ but is about encouraging students to insightfully question the knowledge they have so far taken for granted. This is not easy for many students, particularly those who have taken a significant break from formal education.
On this programme, great care is taken to ensure that potential students fully understand the nature of the learning environment and objectives and the intellectual challenge which is offered to them. It is certainly not for everyone; although a certain degree of instrumentality in wishing to gain a Masters degree is expected, there must also be a willingness and desire to consider personal change and to consider a new way of thinking about and conceptualising organisations and the way they work. The obvious temptation to overly-reflect is countered by the action learning element and the intention, of most students, to bring about change in their organisation as a result of the work they undertake at university.
For tutors on the programme, the levels of challenge and motivation are extremely high. Situated as co-learners, they openly acknowledge that their academic knowledge, coupled with the significant organisational experience of students, produces a powerful cocktail. Everyone is an expert in some way; this is what provides the most insightful and interesting questions and conclusions. It is also something of a relief to be able to admit, in the current consumer-focused HE environment, that we too, have much to learn and that this is an integral and essential part of our working lives.
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