05 September 2010

On the irrelevance of reflection.

I'm returning to the theme of reflection. As I argued in an earlier post and paper (the paper is here) reflection is not all that it is cracked up to be. However, a couple of pieces I have just come across have another interesting and related point; actually it is becoming less and less relevant to working practice, because it is in any case being squeezed out of many jobs, along with any scope for discretion.

As Crawford (2010) --discussed here-- has pointed out in relation to much manual work, the Taylorisation of labour has relocated decision-making and discretion in the trades and crafts from the individual or team of practitioners to the managerial system. Reflection is thereby rendered fairly irrelevant.

In the Guardian on Tuesday, Aditya Chakrabortty makes a similar point, in this case applying it even to managerial level jobs--particularly in supermarkets. The article sub-title includes "There's not much call for thinking these days". His source for the supermarket material is a press-release (we'll have to wait for the full study) from the ESRC Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE) is based in Oxford and Cardiff Universities.

In rooting around their site, I came across a paper very relevant to my area of interest (teaching in post-compulsory education) Lloyd and Payne (2010). They say:

"The FE sector in England and Wales has been particularly affected by the implementation of NPM [New Public Management], with the emphasis on ‘market-testing’ and performativity. Researchers have drawn attention to the detrimental impact on lecturers’ work, including the loss of control and autonomy, and on teaching and learning itself [...]. FE lecturers in England, it is argued, have been positioned as ‘delivery agents’ of government programmes and priorities, weighed down with heavy workloads and onerous administrative demands, in a system that constricts the ‘space’ available for teacher-led innovation, creativity and improvement [...]." (p.5-6: references removed)
This of course accords well with Peter Hadfield's and my views (2009) expressed here

Lloyd and Payne go on to quote lecturers interviewed whose remarks (p.12) suggest strongly that the insistence on "reflection" has become yet another managerial stick with which to beat the staff. It has become more of an act of contrition than a professionally development process. And once it comes to be seen like this within any occupational group, it is time to ditch the idea; it's tainted and corrupted.

So has Taylorism won?

Hadfield P and Atherton J (2009) “Beyond compliance: accountability assessment and anxiety, and curricular structures to help students engage with troublesome knowledge” in C Rust (ed.) (2009) Improving Student Learning 16; Improving student learning through the curriculum Oxford; Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, pp 158-170

Lloyd C and Payne J (2010) "'We have got the freedom' A Study of Autonomy and Discretion among Vocational Teachers in Norway and the UK" SKOPE Research Paper No. 95 July 2010 [retrieved from http://www.skope.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/RP95.pdf accessed 5 Sept 2010]


  1. It is an interesting idea that just at the point where you need to have a degree to manage a supermarket, you are no longer required to be able to think to do so.

    Luckily many of today's soft subject degrees don't seem to teach you to think at all, but to acquire an apparent commitment to the concepts of "reflexivity","criticality", and an uncritical acceptance of post-modernist tripe.

    This is surely an ideal preparation for a life of unthinking conformity to the ideas of your betters. If you can swallow Derrida, you will have no problem with management school bullshit.

  2. I am afraid that the 'perfect storm' of compliance that you refer to in your and Hadfield's paper describes only too accurately the experience of the poor old middle manager in the FE/lifelong learning sector. The room for independent thought and judgement is almost entirely absent now. But, laughably, we are required to 'reflect' on our learning (even more maddeningly, we have to answer a prescribed set of questions in order to evidence our reflection)so that we can 'improve' our practice. Improve our practice in filling in forms? Only last week, I was informed by our human resources director that I was unable to undertake investigatory action in any 'safeguarding' incident as I was not 'trained.' I could only fill in the appropriate form and send it to the properly-trained 'safeguarding staff'. Now this is just odd. Clearly, I am not really allowed to reflect on things deemed beyond me,although I am required to provide evidence of my reflection to my 'professional' association,to which I am legally compelled to belong. You ask whether Taylorism has won. Of course it has! I sometimes wonder whether the emphasis on teachers as 'professionals' hasn't contributed to the triumph of the compliance culture. If we are professionals then, clearly, there must be a professional way of going about things. And so we must bow down to professional prescription on all matters educational and organisational.

  3. Anonymous9:48 pm

    Not thinking because someone is thinking for you is "brittle" when something not in the rule book occurs. Just look all around you at all the instances where this is true. Taylorism succeeds for physical labour, but is insanity in the replacement of mental labour. The question is, does this form of insanity matter? And the answer is no, the rest of us accommodate it or resist it or respond to it just like everything else.

  4. I find it amusing the assumption the "middle manager" has no ego or pride about the job he or she does. To assume it's all prescriptive has no basis in actual experience day-to-day.

    One of my favorite memories is of a former team leader of mine, years later, emphatically telling me I was his all-time favorite boss.

    People who comment when they have absolutely no experience actually supervising other people, their comments need to be taken with significant grains of salt.

    The insanity is the presumption.

    If you've never been a "boss" in a business that tries to make money, how the fuck do you presume to know what the job entails?



Comments welcome, but I am afraid I have had to turn moderation back on, because of inappropriate use. Even so, I shall process them as soon as I can.