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local education - responses and reflections

Since Local Education was published in 1994 it has become a fixture on a number of training programme reading lists. There are several areas that practitioners and students want further information about - or responses to - and these have been approached here.

The general response to Local Education could paraphrased as follows: it has significant strengths especially in opening up conversational practice and in developing a reasonably coherent theoretical perspective, but has some methodological weaknesses and gaps in coverage. It is ambitious in its scope, attempts something that is fairly rare in respect of praxis, and does bring together a number of important strands with regard to informal and community education. In this respect it is a 'landmark book' (Nicholls 1994) that gives some grounds for optimism (Williamson 1995) - but is not without significant flaws.

This page is an attempt to ap proach some of the key questions that have been raised in feedback and in reviews.

Situating voices

First the question of voice. Jane Mace (1995) makes a number of important points about this in the text. I want to quote her at length here:

The focus on conversational practice, however, also throws into the limelight a difficulty which features in many textbooks on education and which, in this one, because of the author's chosen theme, stands out much more dramatically than it does in others. The difficulty is this: how does the author, drawing on a wide range of sources, introduce to us and evaluate those which are oral? Academic convention expects that written sources are given names and dates; and Mark Smith, who draws on an impressive array of such texts, duly cites author and date in every case. All the more stark, then is the entire omission of any identity or timing for the many quotations he uses from his interview material. True, we are told at the outset that he interviewed 30 workers in East London between 1990 and 1993; but nowhere are we given any idea of the gender, age, ethnicity or experience of these individuals - let alone of the nature and context of the conversation from which the quotation is taken. This leaves both interviewee and reader at a disadvantage, at moments when the author follows a quotation with a comment such as: 'This worker has learnt to reflect-in-action, to think things through in time to act' (p.128)
The lack of reference to the context of his conversations with these individuals (was it the first or seventh conversation they had had? Were they talking to him in a group or on their own?) at times is a serious distraction from the rest of the text.
I sympathise with this omission - which I have called a 'difficulty' - but I believe the book is weaker for it. The difficulty may reside in the authors struggle with the ethics of his research. My guess is that, like many others before him, he ran out of time to contact and check permissions with all the people he had originally interviewed: permission, not only to use what they had said, but to describe how they had said it, and to portray something of their identity. Mark Smith's solution was to anonymise. (Mace 1995: 68)

There was a major problem in this area as Jane has identified - and it does weaken the book. The problem was there from the start in the research methodology - and once on the road it was very difficult to backtrack. I reflect on this in the Notes on method which are included on adjacent pages (links at are the bottom of this page). Part of the problem is that all those who took part in the conversations are named on the opening page of the book - and then to contextual ize the quotations after the research had been completed would have been problematic given the initial research contract.

If I were undertaking a similar project again (in fact I am just about to start one) I would ask people to join the conversation as named individuals; and to write a piece for inclusion in the final write-up that describes and situates themselves. I would also want to contextualize quotations in the way that Jane suggests.

Tone

Anthony Rosie (1995) suggests that in a number of chapters the book speaks against its own premises and is far from conversation. In a similar vein, Malcolm Payne argues that in my 'desire to explain and illuminate' I achieved, at times, the opposite effect:

There is the sense of the guru speaking to us - despite the theory emanating from the conversations with practitioners; that he has not entirely heard his own messages. (Payne (1995: 105).

Yes, there was a problem here. I think this links in part with the points that Jane Mace makes above. But there is something more here. Maybe I was over-reaching myself in trying to move between the local and the global, to make connections between the thinking and actions of the practitioners involved in the research and broader social theory. There was always going to be a tension here. I could have left things more ragged and open - and I think this could have made for an interesting experience for readers. As an encounter it may well have better reflected or harmonized with the processes being explored. Looking back though, a major concern was to connect, 'the rationale and methodology of local educators with general and even universal political and moral objectives' (Derrick 1995: 224-5). It worked for some reviewers (e.g. Derrick 1995; Ireland, 1994; Redmond 1995) and not for oth ers.

Malcolm does make a further point about the over use of citations in the text. There is, according to him, a 'tendency to over-elabotate, to establish the bona fides of what are often relatively simple ideas by continual referencing and quotation' (ibid: 104-5). Well... Three things were in my mind here. First, there is the question of intellectual honesty, and the desire to give credit where it is due. For example, Malcolm has made a number of significant points about the book. Thus, in writing this I have tried to acknowledge them - they are referenced. Second, I was very conscious of who might be reading the text. It has been picked up by a significant number of workers in training - and I know from feedback that the scale of referencing has been important for them in following up arguments. Last, even 'simple ideas' need some form of substantiation.

Providing more detail about the research methodology

One of the issues that had to be addressed when preparing the material for publication was just how much to include around research methodology. In the end I went for the minimalist position - just giving the briefest of outlines - plus citing where people could get the full statement of procedures. This was a problem for one or two reviewers - in particular Anthony Rosie (1995). As he says, 'grounded theory approaches to social analysis do not release the researcher from careful and exact specification of what data were collected, under what conditions, and on what grounds analysis is proceeding'. Point taken! [You can look at the full research methodology in Local Education - some notes on method

One of the things that I did not make clear or explore in enough depth in the book was the nature of the claims I was making. What I was seeking to do was to offer a set of images, ideas and metaphors to help people to make sense of the practises explored. The research was such that I was not claiming that these are the ways in which local educators think and act. Although I was quite explicit about this from the start - and that what was being offered was couched inthe language of possibility (Smith 1994: 6) - I don't think that this was approached in enough depth in the text.

Voices from the south/political context

Mark Redmond (1995: 231) makes the point that I fail to significantly draw upon examples of the tradition and role that conversation has played in enabling emancipatory changes within societies located in other than the developing world. In significant part this is due to the fact that the research is based on the exploration of practice in East London. There is some connection made with anti-colonial struggles, local literacies, and local educational forms - but more could have bee n done in comparative terms. These are questions that I have addressed elsewhere in respect of social pedagogy and animation (1994) and critiques of northern education from the south (1994).

Malcolm Payne (1995: 105) also raises some questions about the socio-political contexts in which the work takes place. My focus on process in the text does leave some areas untouched.

Does it matter that the work is often closely managed or controlled - by organizations or the local state, for example. Where does accountability fit into the picture? Is the activity which is local education an essentially individual act by the individual educator? How important is its social policy context? Who will pay for it? And why? A re the orthodoxies which have become its stock in trade (emancipation, participation, self-determination) sufficient to sustain it?

Yes, these are ques tions that have relatively little space devoted to them in Local Education - but I thought this was justified given the amount of space I and Tony Jeffs) had already given over to such issues - especially with regard to youth work (e.g. Jeffs and Smith 1988; 1990 and Smith 1988).

Reflecting-in- and -on-action

In the book I argued that reflecting-in- and -on-action needed to be seen as overlapping or interlinked. Michael Eraut has thrown some helpful light on some of the issues surrounding Schön's theorizing of reflection-in-action. He writes of Schön (1983; 1987) as follows:

My own view is that he does not have a simple coherent view of reflection but a set of overlapping attributes; and that he selects whichever subset of attributes best suits the situation under discussion. There is insufficient discrimination between the rather different f orms of reflection depicted in his many examples; and this overgeneralization causes confusion and weakens his theoretical interpretations. (Eraut 1994: 145)

Michael Eraut is right in this I think - and in drawing attention to the impact of time - but I am not so sure of his conclusions.

When time is extremely short, decisions have to be rapid and the scope for reflection is extremely limited. In these circumstances, reflection is best seen as a metacognitive process in which the practitioner is alerted to a problem, rapidly reads the situation, decides what to do and proceeds in a state of continuing alertness. (op cit)

This line leads Michael to put on one side the notion of reflection-in-action - and to argue that there are very different processes at work in reflection-on-action.

These were central interest s in my research - but I do not think that the notion of reflection-in-action is so easily dismissed. The compexity of some of the thinking that was described as taking place on the hoof, and the extent to which time is described as 'slowing up', would appear to point to some continuing usefulness of the term. Some form of deliberation is taking place within encounters in time to influence action. The point that came strongly through the conversations I had with local educators for the book - was the extent to which reflection in and on action both took various forms - and that the degree of 'reflectiveness' varies within each. Time is a definite constraint and it may be that lack of it leads to 'thinner' rather than 'thicker' forms of reflection - but we should not under-estimate the sophistication of thinking that is occurring in practice.

Reviews of Local Education

Derrick, J. (1995) in Adults Learning , March 1995: 223 - 224.

Ireland, D. (1994) in Rapport, November 1994: 9.

Mace, J. (1995) in Open Learning 10(2): 67 - 69.

Nicholls, D. (1994) in Times Educational Supplement, September 30, 1994: 19.

Payne, M. (1995) in Youth and Policy, 48: 102 - 106.

Redmond, M. (1995) in Community Development Journal 30(2): 230 -231.

Rosie, A. (1995) in Educational Studies 21(1): 131.

Tett, L. (1995) in Concept 5(2): 25 - 26.

Williamson, H. (1995) in Young People Now, February 1995: 36 - 37.

References

Eraut, M. (1994) Developing Professional Knowledge and Competence, London: Falmer Press.

Jeffs, T. and Smith (eds.) Young People, Youth Work and Welfare, London: Macmillan.

Jeffs, T. and Smith (eds.) (1990) Young People, Inequality and Youth Work, London: Macmillan.

Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action, London: Temple Smith.

Schön, D. (1987) Educating the Reflective Practitioner, San Frascisco: Jossey-Bass.

Smith, M. (1988) Developing Youth Work, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Smith, M. K. (1995) Local Education. Community, conversation, praxis, Buckingham: Open University Press.

See: Local Education - some notes on method

© Mark K. Smith First published: May 25, 1996. Last updated January 3, 1997