Literature review on Critical and Reflective learning

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The following literature review will focus on the concept of critical and reflective learning. Critical and reflective learning is used the world over in various academic institutions and in professional practice. Firstly it would be imperative that critical reflection is defined. Following on from this a discussion shall take place around the various frameworks and theories offered by various theorists on the subject. Finally a critical review of the underlying thinking which underlies much of the policy making process in Ireland will be undertaking.

There are various definitions used to explain the process of critical reflection. At a very basic level, critical reflection (CR) occurs when and individual questions either their own ideas or the ideas of another. However as Van Woerkom (2010) suggests there are many different schools of thought on what is involved in the critical reflection process. For example the ideological form of critical reflection would focus on challenging and questioning dominant or unjust ideologies. The psychoanalytical school of CR is focused more on the individual and involves the reframing of personal issues or problems. The analytical model of CR is the process of mentally analysing arguments in the hope of guiding ones beliefs or actions. Finally the pragmatist constructivism school of CR relates to the evaluation of various forms of information in an attempt to provide a solution, while at the same time recognising that the solution itself is open to further questioning (Van Woerkom, 2010). What seems obvious from these definitions is the fact that the questioning and reflection of a perceived reality at both a societal and personal level are fundamental in each process. Furthermore it seems apparent that the issues that each school is addressing can all impact upon one another. For instance it could be argued that the psychological wellbeing of an individual could be greatly influenced by the dominant ideology within a society. Addressing only the psychological issues with the psychoanalytical approach may prove fruitless, if societal influences causing psychological distress are not addressed. Various theorists have dissected the critical reflection process on a much deeper level.

Dewey in ((1933, in Boud et al,1994)suggests that reflection is the process of an individual recapturing their experience, thinking about it and assessing it. He believed that reflection was initiated by an inner uneasiness caused by an individual becoming disillusioned with their current reality. Reflection may also be instigated by a positive experience. The individual may wish to learn what worked in the positive experience, in order to repeat the behaviour that brought about the positive experience. Dewey's main focus was centred on the notion that reflection is a highly rational exercise which is based in an evidence based approach which focused on skills and attitudes. However as various authors suggest Dewey's focus on skills and attitudes is limited and fails to allow for the affective (emotional) element involved in the learning process ( Boud et al, 1994, Rawson, 2000). Another limiting aspect of Dewey's theory was the presumption that one would first have to make a mistake in order to learn from it.

Kolb & Fry (1975) believed that for effective learning to occur the learner would have to complete a cycle of learning, broken down into four stages: Concrete experience, observation and reflection, forming abstract concepts, testing them in new situations. In essence, an individual begins the learning process by becoming involved in a new experience, which they then reflect upon internally in order to make sense of the experience. The individual then hypothesises about different theories and then applies such theories in new situations. It should be noted that an individual may start in any stage and switch between these stages. And many learners may only use two of the stages, depending upon their learning style (Kolb & Fry 1975 ).

Donald Schon (1995) has built upon Deweys concept by introducing the idea of double looped learning. He suggested that the majority of learning in everyday life occurred at a level where individuals used previous held values and assumptions to inform their present action (single looped learning). However Double Looped learning involves a deeper level of reflection where individuals question these values and assumptions and subject them to critical investigation. . Agryis (1999) uses an analogy of how a thermostat responds to room temperature by turning on the heat if the room gets to cold and turning it off when it gets to warm. The thermostat responds by receiving signals from the room temperature. He contended that this equated to a human being receiving positive or negative signals about their actions and then changing their actions (Single loop learning). Going back to the thermostat analogy, double looped learning would ask the question, why the room got too hot or cold in the first place. The same goes for human beings when they question the underlying assumptions which informed their actions in the first place. Such learning is not limited to the individual and such learning could be applied to organisations and society (Agryis, 1999),

However as Rawson (2000) suggests, many institutions seem to treat intellect as absolute and don't allow for the questioning necessary in the critical reflection process. He goes on to suggest that society works on a basis of having power over, rather than power with. He believed that such an approach was evident in many educational institutions. He advocates the notion of learning to learn where the relevance of various aspects of knowledge continued to be questioned and challenged. Rawson argues that knowledge is not a final product and contends that the meaning and understanding process is more important than the end product. His analysis is closely linked with the teachings of Paulo Friere.

Friere's (1998) CR theory was rooted firmly in the ideological school of thought. He believed the educational system served to reproduce the status quo which was influenced by the dominant ideological discourse. He was of the opinion that educators should challenge the status quo through challenging students to question the dominant discourse, which he believed served to reproduce inequalities. He stressed the importance of dialogue within the education system, as he believed without dialogue; true education could not take place. Hooks (1994) captures the notion of education without dialogue when she speaks of her experience as an undergraduate and graduate student. She suggests that the majority of lecturers used the classroom as an avenue to exert their view of the world upon students. Friere (1998) did not advocate a non directive approach to education, however he did stress it should be the process and not the student that should be directed. Friere (1998) recognised that each student had their own unique life experience and contended that the students experience was invaluable in the learning experience. Very basically Friere (1998) was of the opinion that education was more about enabling students to question and challenge the commonly held knowledge within society. Meizrow (1994) also spoke about reflection in terms of transformation.

Mezirow (1994) described reflective learning as a process in which the learner has to consider or reconsider certain assumptions they may hold about themselves or the world. He argued that the most effective reflection occurred when the learner discovers their assumptions to be in some way weakened. It causes the learner to look at reasons why their assumptions have caused them to reach decisions or to react in a certain way and to maybe re-evaluate their assumptions. He explained that when the learner accepts that their past assumptions may have been incorrect they have created a 'transformative space' and within that space they can be open to engaging in new-found knowledge. This, he believes, can lead to a deeper level of reflective practice. As mentioned earlier emotions can play an important part in such a process

Boud et al (1994) suggest that past experiences can greatly determine an individual's ability to learn in new situations. If learning was only centred in the transfer of knowledge from one individual to another, learning would be a smooth occurrence and each individual would take in knowledge with minimal difficulty. However emotions such as anxiety can cause difficulties for those who are participating in new learning experiences. The majority of individuals will experience anxieties when faced with new learning. However for some the anxiety can be overwhelming and deeply affect the learning process. So how individuals learn is greatly influenced by emotion (Boud et al, 1994).

In conclusion it can be seen that there are many areas of both personal and societal life which could benefit from the process of critical reflection. The whole notion of learning to learn seems to be an approach which encourages independent and self-directed learning. While there are many schools of thought on the process of CR, they all seem be directed at questioning the underlying assumptions and discourses which inform both individual and societal actions. It seems obvious from the various readings that critical reflection is often frowned upon as something which upsets the status quo of organisations.


The subject that I have chosen to reflect on is how the Irish society continues to apply past solutions to present problems. If we look to the recent recession it is clear that the Irish government continue to take the approach of promoting competition and neo liberal policies as a solution to the current economic conditions. As Coulter & Coleman (2003) argue the dominant discourse in Irish society suggests that the economy is the mechanism which will bring about the greatest good for everyone concerned.   They contend that such a discourse is constructed by everyone within society.  Some discourses are so dominant that they almost seem to be natural and many fail to question them.  If we look to the Celtic Tiger in Ireland, there were various commentators suggesting that the country was in danger of a serious financial and economic crisis. Back in 2007 Bertie Ahern famously made the remark, that those who were moaning and cribbing about how the economy was being run should commit suicide (Stafford, 2010).  The moaners and cribbers he was referring too were economists who were warning about the economy not being stable and the future crash of the economy.  Even though these economists were correct in their predictions the majority of Irish society sided with Bertie Ahern. As Friere (1998) suggests, the need to question dominant knowledge is a must, however in the Irish case when the dominant knowledge was questioned the individuals were ridiculed.   This fundamental aspect of Irish society needs to change. 

Even in the current recession the government continues to suggest that the only way recover from the economic downturn is to remain competitive in the global world. The dominant thinking involved here is just returning to the dominant thinking of the past which suggests the economy is going to correct all the ills of the country.  Even the EU/IMF bailout underwent very little critical analysis. The same commentators who were warning of the economic crisis during the Celtic Tiger collapse were all suggesting that there were alternatives which could have being taking. However just like the Celtic Tiger era, the government chose to follow a path without considering the long-term consequences. As Storey (2010) argues IMF bailouts in other countries have had disastrous consequences for those countries. By nature these bailouts seem to be extremely undemocratic. For example the IMF (an unelected external body) has a major influence on the development and implementation of national policy. There was no referendum on this bailout and the general Irish public had very little say on whether or not the bailout was applied for. The presence of undemocratic rule seemed to be evident in Ireland a number of years before the IMF arrived in town. For instance the first referendum on the Lisbon Treaty was rejected by the Irish people, however the Irish government held a second referendum asking the question in a different way. Compared to other countries there was very little protest in relation to the bailout or austerity measures which were been implemented. Even when it was apparent that the government were lying for a number of days in relation to applying for a bailout, there was very little public outcry. While pole ratings suggested that the government were dropping in popularity, the level of protest was minimal. The question has to be asked, why the Irish public are so passive in relation to situations which will have serious consequences for their lives. One explanation could be the lack of social solidarity. For instance Bauman (2000) argues that in modern society individuals are now defying their identity through the consumption of various goods and products. He argues that this creates a lack of social solidarity and creates a more individualistic society. It could be argued that the Celtic Tiger has created a society of consumers who are only concerned about their own needs. The Celtic Tiger period in Ireland is often seen as a period where individuals and groups were living extravagant and affluent lifestyles. It seems as though individuals in society are now more worried about their own needs and have very little concern for others. This may change once the true impact of the austerity measures hits home for various groups and individuals. It seems very evident from the recent budget that the most vulnerable in society are going to pay the highest price for the mistakes of the elite.

It seems apparent that it is the underlying thinking and ideology in Irish society which needs to undergo a critical reflection. Both those in power and society as a whole need to consider what kind of society they want for both themselves and future generations. If the lack of protest in Ireland is anything to go by it seems as though individuals in Irish society have become self-interested and have very little concern for the more vulnerable in society. It may be worth introducing the process of critical reflection at an earlier age in schools in an attempt to create independent thinkers who are capable of challenging dominant discourse at both organisational and political level. However from my own experience of various social care settings and the education system such an ideal does not seem high on the agenda. It may suit those at the top to have a society which follows and does not question. Or it may be, that those at the top do not question their own motives. Either way, if Ireland wishes to learn from the mistakes of the past, some form of questioning needs to occur at a societal, governmental and individual level. The recent recession provides a space for such questioning. Whether such questioning materialises at the level suggested in this reflection remains to be seen.