Sunday, 6 April 2014

Interesting application of the work of social realist Margaret Archer to higher education and professional development

                                                (Picture of Peter Kahn, University of Liverpool)

I have found it quite frustrating to take critical realist writings and apply these to the setting of higher education and to the topic of professional development. One of the reasons for this is that the theory of critical realism is pitched at a meta-theoretical level. Furthermore, the work of social realistMargaret Archer targets social institutions and society more generally. I find the temptation to apply these theoretical writings to my work can become quite forced or pointless, and have been quite frustrated with the publications of several people who apply these theories to their work in higher education. Often they could made the same general level and common sense observations without referring to these theories at all. For this reason I would like to draw the attention of researchers wishing to apply critical and social realism to the field of education to the work of Peter Kahn from the University of Liverpool. He writes with others, but has a fairly consistent location of his work within the critical realist stable. Below is a list of a few papers which draw on the work of critical realism. The publication that I just read, and that I feel makes meaningful links with the professional development of academics in relation to reflective practice, is:
Kahn, P E, Qualter, A and Young, R (2012) ‘Structure and agency in learning: a critical realist theory of the development of capacity to reflect on academic practice’,Higher Education Research and Development 31(6) pp. 859-71.
It is a review article. Kahn et al write in favor of the view that "there is a need to consider both personal and socio-cultural factors in understanding student learning" (p. 859). Here are three general points from the conclusion (p. 868): 
Adapting perspectives from realist social theory, we contend that learning in our given context may be modelled as follows:
  1. The situations that learners confront involuntarily are objective shaped by structural and cultural factors, including the programme itself and tasks incorporated into the programme, the knowledge structures involved and the context for professional practice.
  2. Those factors possess generative powers of constraint and enablement in relation to learners' own configuration of concerns and foci for attention, as subjectively defined in relation to nature, practice and society. 
  3. Projects of professional learning or educational compliance are produced through the reflexive deliberations of learners and their contemporaneous interactions with teachers and fellow students, allowing learners subjectively to determine these projects in relation to their own capacities and objective circumstances, resulting also in variation in the creation and application of resources for the adaptation of practice. 

Given the focus of the Structure, Culture and Agency research project on the institutions as contexts and the manner in which they can influence academics to participate in their professional development, the interplay between objective circumstances and individual reflexive deliberations and projects, becomes very important.

Here are a few other publications applying the writings of Margaret Archer to higher education: 
Kahn PE (2013) ‘The informal curriculum: a case study in tutor reflexivity, corporate agency and medical professionalism’, Teaching in Higher Education, 18(6), pp. 631-642.
Kahn, P E, Qualter, A and Young, R (2012) ‘Structure and agency in learning: a critical realist theory of the development of capacity to reflect on academic practice’,Higher Education Research and Development 31(6) pp. 859-71..
Kahn P.E. (2009) 'On establishing a modus vivendi: the exercise of agency in decisions to participate or not participate in higher educatiot', London Review of Education, 7(3) 261-70.
Kahn, P.E., Young, R., Grace, S., Pilkington, R., Rush, L., Tomkinson, C. B. and Willis, I. (2008) 'A practitioner review of reflective practice within programmes for new academic staff' International Journal for Academic Development, 13: 199–211.