Reflections on reflective thinking and practice

Posted on October 2, 2010


Action Inquiry. Action Research. Reflective Thinking. Reflective Practice. Experiential Learning. Neuro Linguistic Programming. Brain-based Learning. Like brands of soap powder, each claiming to wash whiter and brighter, these and numerous other academic packages claim to improve company and individual performance, making them more profitable and productive.

And, like soap powders, all of these packages contain essentially the same ingredients, are marketed assiduously and deal only with a partial aspect of the whole process. This is seen by many people inside and outside of academe as a sad reflection on tertiary education. But it is not. It seems broadly agreed that educational institutions reflect the societies in which they operate.

Those who now bewail the commercialisation of university education imply that there existed in the recent past, or in the past generally, some sort of “golden age” of tertiary learning. But, with notable exceptions, usually outside of the mainstream, schooling, especially at a senior level. exists to serve the economic and social demands of the dominant minority within society.

Mass schooling is, in any event, a fairly recent development, the result of the demands triggered by the industrial revolution. The demands of the perceived dawning of a “white heat of technology” era also saw the freer opening up of tertiary level schooling in Britain to all social classes.

Until the industrial revolution, schooling of any but the most rudimentary kind — if any at all — was available only to the elite, with curricula determined by the dominant group in society such as the Christian Church in Medieval Europe. Then the demand was for conformity with Biblical “truth”. It was a legacy that persisted into the 19th Century and played a part in Darwin delaying the publication of his findings.

However, it is a professed ideal of most universities that they are dedicated to the pursuit of truth and enlightenment. This is epitomised by motto inscribed in stone outside the University of Queensland in Australia: “A Place of Light and Learning.”

In a market-orientated, highly competitive and rapidly globalising world where the commercial imperative dominates, reality is a far cry from this. The demands of commerce and industry are for greater efficiency and productivity, just as the demands on medieval European universities was for Biblical conformity. Today, from a corporate viewpoint, the demand is for improved management techniques and more skilled, motivated and loyal workforces.

Conformity to the demands of the corporate world is also ensured by the fact that modern universities usually have to bid for limited public and increasingly private funding while many departments are under pressure to become “profit centres”. The pressure from the great majority of the consumers of university products, students, is also not for “light and learning”, but for qualifications and specific skills to hopefully guarantee a good job with decent pay. This too, is a reaction to the corporate world.

This is summed up by the complaint by a South African academic publisher that “People are studying for degrees, they are not reading for knowledge”. However, degree courses require a level of knowledge, but usually of a particular and often narrow discipline and the broader philosophical questions relating to the discipline and its application are usually downplayed or even ignored.

The reason for this seems, to me, obvious: such wider knowledge and questioning is of little or no use to employers who require primarily the skills. Employees who “think too much” in that they question the nature of the economy and society may end up questioning the rationale of the economic machine in which they play the role of cogs.

Journalism, journalists and the news media, are not immune from the pressures . News media is, increasingly owned and controlled by large corporations, with consequent — and growing — pressures to at least downplay truth seeking in practice in favour of propaganda for one or other cause. However, because news media (journalism) is expected by its economically necessary audience to report truthfully on realities on the ground, news media that steps too far out of line, foregoing the pursuit of truth for propaganda, may quickly lose the credibility essential for acceptance or even survival.

This is why I have argued that journalism is a special case in terms of media studies. The plethora of techniques and methodologies all packaged in various ways and making claims that by applying them, employees and the companies in which they work can become more efficient and profitable are generally not aimed at discovering underlying realities or truths. Yet seeking after, uncovering and reporting “truths” is the job description of journalism.

It is well summed up by the American journalist T. D. Allman:
“Genuinely objective journalism [is journalism that] not only gets the facts right, it gets the meaning of events right. It is compelling, not only today, but stands the test of time. It is validated not only by ‘reliable sources’, but by the unfolding of history. It is journalism that, ten, twenty, fifty years after the fact still holds up a true and intelligent mirror to events.”

As such, action research/inquiry, reflective/critical/analytical thinking and experiential learning are more a part of the day-to-day working life of any serious journalist than they would be for a person working in other media areas: the where, why and how any specific practice or discipline fits into the overall environment is the essence of journalism.

Professional practice issues for journalists dealing seriously with their work must, therefore, encompass the broader environment. This would include a view about research methodologies, their place and purpose within society.

*Originally published 05/2007

Posted in: Archive - 2007