Sue Clegg

  • Critical readings: progress files and the production of the autonomous learner

    Sue Clegg, Sheffield Hallam University, UK

    Conceptual paper

    Theme: Implementing and managing change and innovation

    This paper considers the development of progress files as part of the broader discourse of lifelong learning. Progress files are part of a strategy ‘intended to strengthen the capacity of individuals to reflect upon their own learning and achievement and to plan for their own personal education and career development’ (QAA, 2001). The model of the student being produced in this discourse is that of the individual, rational, actor orientated towards employment. There is now a considerable literature critiquing this notion of the lifelong learner (Coffield, 1999). Moreover, as Edwards and Usher (2000) have pointed out, this notion of ‘autonomous/self-directed/flexible lifelong learners’ is displacing the idea of the ‘enlightened student’. They argue that ‘Shifts within education, such as shifts towards open learning, outcomes-based assessment, etc therefore provide the possibility for disturbing the pedagogical practices for the formation and maintenance of other disciplines and, with that, the subjectivities of learners’ (Edwards and Usher, 2000 p 55). We might, therefore, expect tensions between these newer discourses based on a constructed, flexible self and disciplinary discourses involving more traditional notions of studenthood and the academy as a community of scholars.

    While academic identities based on discipline have become a subject of protracted negotiation (Henkel, 2000) they nonetheless, constitute important ways in which academics see themselves and their students. Ways of writing the self through reflective journals and in personal development files cannot, therefore, be considered as either neutral or transparent (Strathern 2000). On the contrary it raises the questions of what sorts of selves are being presented. These concerns may seem far removed from practical pedagogy, but the need for ‘explicitness’ underlying QAA guidelines rest on problematic assumptions about the nature of persons and the meta-cognitive capacity for learners to reflect on their own learning. The reflective practice literature has debated many of these issues for decades. A number of authors, including Tomlinson (1999), have criticised the cognitivist strain within much reflective practice, and Claxton (1998, 2000) has commented on the value of ‘not always knowing what one is doing’. The sort of cognitivist, self interested, rationalism underpinning the idea of progress files may be rather more difficult to enact that at first appears. One way of understanding what students produce is as a particular form of writing which seeks to model itself on the new orthodoxy.

    Progress files may thus be thought of as one of the practices producing a new type of autonomous, reflective learner as part of broader shifts in higher education. Critical perspectives can thus alert us both to some of the difficulties students may experience, and also to tensions inside the profession. Academics may think it wise, therefore, to adopt a rather more critically reflective stance towards their own practice than that which appears to underpin some of the current thinking on progress files.


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    Claxton, G (2000) The Autonomy of Intuition, in: Atkinson, T and Claxton, G (Eds) The Intuitive Practitioner on the value of not always knowing what one is doing (OUP, Buckingham).
    Coffield, F (1999) Breaking the Consensus: lifelong learning as social control, British Educational Research Journal, 25, pp 479–499.
    Edwards, E and Usher, R (2000) Globalisation and Pedagogy: Space, place and identity (Routledge, London).
    Henkel, M (2000) Academic Identities and Policy Change in Higher Education (Jessica Kingsley, London).
    Strathern, M (2000) The Tyranny of Transparency, British Educational Research Journal, 26, pp 309–321.
    Tomlinson, P (1999) Conscious Reflection and Implicit Learning in Teacher preparation, Part 1: recent light on an old issue, Oxford Review of Education, 25, pp 405–424.
    Tomlinson, P (1999) Conscious Reflection and Implicit Learning in Teacher preparation, Part II: implications for a balanced approach, Oxford Review of Education, 25, pp 533–544.
    QAA, Guidelines for Progress Files, (Accessed 13.1.03)