Critical reflection has been elevated to the major objective of adult education in the work of Mezirow (1990).
“Perhaps even more central to adult learning than elaborating established meaning schemes is the process of reflecting back on prior learning to determine whether what we have learned is justified under present circumstances. This is a crucial learning process egregiously ignored by learning theorists.” (Mezirow, 1990:5)
He maintains that such reflection on assumptions and presuppositions (particularly about oneself) leads to "transformative learning"
"Perspective transformation is the process of becoming critically aware of how and why our presuppositions have come to constrain the way we perceive, understand, and feel about our world; of reformulating these assumptions to permit a more inclusive, discriminating, permeable and integrative perspective; and of making decisions or otherwise acting on these new understandings. More inclusive, discriminating permeable and integrative perspectives are superior perspectives that adults choose if they can because they are motivated to better understand the meaning of their experience."
(Mezirow, 1990:14 – my emphasis)
In other words, the real significance of adult learning appears when learners begin to re-evaluate their lives and to re-make them. This, for Mezirow, takes precedence over whatever it was they set out to "learn" in the first place.
Other contributors to the collection make clear that the overall project is necessarily politicised, as his indebtedness to Habermas and Freire indicates.
I have to confess to rather regretful reservations about this point, on three grounds:
- The first concerns accuracy: reflection on its own does not lead automatically to "more inclusive, discriminating, permeable and integrative perspectives". In the real world it is just as likely to lead to self-justification, self-indulgence or self-pity. I am sure that this is not what Mezirow means, but his "more inclusive, discriminating, permeable and integrative perspectives" remain ill-defined. In the Kolb model, reflection is linked to Abstract Conceptualisation, and without being a slave to Kolb, it seems true that it needs to take place in the context of a cognitive framework, which may be empowering or disempowering (excuse these waffle words, used as shorthand here), positive or pathological. As the other papers in the 1990 collection imply, that framework has to be supplied by the teacher, mentor or learning group.
- This leads on to the second reservation, which concerns the ethics of the whole process: Mezirow appeals to Habermas’ notion of the ideal communicative act to legitimate his idea, but — from an old-fashioned liberal position — I’m not convinced. Lifton (1961) describes the process of thought reform ("brainwashing") as practised by the Chinese in the Korean War, and there are disconcerting overlaps. Pity, because I should like to believe it! (In my (probably uninformed) opinion, the notion of the "ideal communicative act" is undermined by its failure to take into account the issues of process. Please argue!)
- Third: for a politicised perspective, which this is—at least implicitly—it is excessively individualistic. Social institutions do not create equal opportunities and encourage people to fulfil their potential simply because they come to realise that potential is greater than they thought. It only makes a difference when people have the opportunities to change. Otherwise their critical reflection may simply lead to the conclusion that they are on a "hiding to nothing" and to learned helplessness.
- In this respect, Ecclestone and Hayes draw attention to what they call the "dangerous rise of therapeutic education"; in British schools (2008).
And there needs to be a real, rather than merely dismissive, response to Thomas Gray’s assertion that:
“When ignorance is bliss
’Tis folly to be wise”
from "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College"
On the other hand: I taught this—without much conviction, I confess—a few years ago, and received a remarkable assignment from a student who taught, of all things, basic computer literacy. She wrote about middle-aged semi- and un-skilled people who attended her classes because they recognised the need to be computer literate for the present job market. But, she noted, what they really learned when they were there was that they could still learn. They were not stuck in the rut of no qualifications. Not many, but a significant few, took up the challenge of going on to other qualifications and higher aspirations. So it does happen— (Thanks to Lorraine Belam)
Mezirow’s work is part of a critical tradition in adult education associated also with Collins and Brookfield as well as Freire, owing its roots to Dewey on the one hand and its theoretical base to Habermas on the other.