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Authority and learning

A great deal of learning takes place in a social context, whether that be the family or the classroom or the work-group (hence social constructivism and situated learning). It is thus subject to social pressures which, while they may not appear directly relevant to the subject matter to be learned, influence underlying attitudes and perspectives affecting motivation, the value and priority to be given to academic work, and so on. This page refers to three classic studies in this area:


Defining the Situation

T S Eliot claimed that "mankind cannot bear very much reality" (I thought of amending that on the grounds of sexism, but then my partner told me it was exactly right). Be that is it may, neither sex can bear much ambiguity or meaninglessness. Frankl built a whole school of psychotherapy on "Man's (there it is again) search for meaning". John Keats spoke of the need to cultivate "negative capability" or the ability not to jump to conclusions, a theme later taken up by W R Bion. But this desire to find an "answer" is very strong, and can easily lead to inappropriate learning.

McHugh's (1968) fascinating and frequently amusing book recounts an experiment in which subjects were introduced to a supposedly new form of counselling. They were told that the counsellor who would be working with them was very skilled and very wise. They were invited to describe a problem or dilemma to the “counsellor”, whom they could not see and with whom they could only communicate by intercom., and to ask ten questions, each of which had to be capable of being answered with a “yes” or a “no”. After they had heard the answer to each question, they should reflect aloud on what they made of it, before formulating the next question. What they did not know was that the “counsellor” was simply an experimenter working down a predetermined list of randomly-generated “yes” and “no” answers. The transcripts of the “interviews” show how the subjects struggled to make sense of the answers they received, and how few of them realised or were prepared to concede that the entire process was meaningless. Moreover, a considerable proportion reported that the experience had been helpful in clarifying their problems! 

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