• Creating the learning space for insider inquiry: threshold concepts in observing organisations

    Anne Graham and David Coghlan
    University of Dublin

    Research paper

    Themes: the student experience and learning

    Tuesday 2 September 2008, 09.00-10.00 in Penthouse B

    Learning is always about acquiring knowledge of something and we should always be clear about what this something is, which is also described as the ‘object of learning’ (Marton & Tsui, 2004). Marton states that the success of a learning experience can be related directly to how teachers structure the conditions of learning so that the ‘object of learning’ -  that which the student is striving to understand, can come to the fore of the learners’ awareness. Within specific disciplines, ‘threshold concepts’ described by Meyer and Land (2006) as a particular way of understanding the world, can operate like constraints or barriers to the learning progress of many students.  When understanding of these threshold concepts has been successfully ‘achieved’ significant learning progress occurs leading to new and previously inaccessible ways of thinking about something.  One could argue that is represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or perceiving something without which the learner finds it difficult to progress within the curriculum as formulated. The challenge for students and faculty is in achieving conditions of learning which enable individual students to arrive at an understanding of the fundamental assumptions which generate the threshold concept in the first place.

    ‘Inquiry from the inside’ and ‘inquiry from the outside’ are two modes of inquiry presented by Evered and Louis (1981). Typically researchers act as onlookers, and they apply a priori categories to create universal, context free knowledge. In contrast, ‘inquiry from the inside’ involves researchers immersed in local situations generating contextually embedded knowledge which emerges from experience. Experience and inquiry as from the perspective of being insiders creates the potential of developing skills that undergraduate business students can draw on in their future careers, especially those who become managers in later life.

    The structure of human knowing is a three-step process: experience, understanding and judgement (Lonergan, 1992). The cognitional operations of experience, understanding and judgement form a general empirical method, which requires i) attention to observable data, ii) envisaging possible explanations of that data and iii) preferring as probable or certain the explanations which provide the best account for the data (Coghlan, 2008).

    This paper describes an action research project on how an undergraduate business course was designed and delivered to enable final year students to learn ‘insider inquiry’ skills by focusing on both organizational dynamics (Coghlan  & Rashford, 2006) and the students’ own cognitional operations. The ‘field site’ comprised students’ own direct organizational experience.  In the current educational environment where students are encouraged to analyse organizations from a distance, i.e. in case studies, and to make prescriptive judgements about what management characters should do next in response to the problem presented in the case, it might be expected that efforts to develop insider inquiry skills and attention to their own cognitional operations would comprise ‘troublesome knowledge’ for the students (Meyer & Land, 2006). In other words, creating their own ‘real world’ experience of the concepts through the experience of “stepping into their own unique learning space” would be a threshold concept.

    Action research was adopted as an appropriate methodology as it enabled the authors to engage in cycles of action and reflection on the design and progress of the course in order to both improve the delivery of the course and the learning of the students. In this regard, this paper seeks to contribute to both the exploration of threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge in the field of business and organisational teaching and learning and to the application of action research to these fields.

    Could you supply some feedback into what the findings were?

    Research findings to date indicate that the development of ‘insider inquiry’ skills within senior sophister business students, may indeed have the characteristics of a threshold concept.  The following statements are drawn from a workshop conducted with the students on 4th March 2008 which focused on their learning experiences

    • Challenging – had to use a different mindset to my other subjects.
    • Using own experience meant that my case was always at the back of my mind whenever reading any org. work, which isn’t the case with regular academic work.
    • Goes against the grain, not used to learning this way
    • Kind of – more open now to look at situations from different point of views & understand them better.
    • Getting it is tough when you don’t even know what you’re supposed to get!

    The final stage of data gathering and analysis is not due to be completed until June 2008 however some preliminary findings are set out below in the form of a summary of a reflection on ‘insider inquiry’ in terms of the five attributes of a threshold concept noted earlier.

    Attribute Evidence


    The concept of using ‘insider inquiry’ skills defined in terms of attending to their own cognitional operations changes the student’s perception of themselves and the subject area.  As future managers, their role in organizational change requires them to integrate their own experience with that of other people and find workable solutions to complex organizational issues.


    Immersing students in local situations which require them to explore ‘inquiry from the inside’ involves the student in generating contextually embedded knowledge which emerges from their experience.  They do not return to viewing organizational change as a project, process or a  technical task as they did before.


    The scope of the organizational change process brings together a variety of disciplines and functional areas to be managed, at a number of levels of complexity.  There is no one simple answer or approach.


    Depending on the context and scale within which a proposed organization change is taking place the detailed management task will differ.  However, the nature and scale of the change at the levels of the firm help to define the boundaries and clarifies the communities of research and practice.


    Adopting an ‘insider inquiry’ approach to organizational change is taken for granted by many senior managers, consultants and practitioners.  The knowledge associated with this is tacit, and alien to students who are bound within a particular discipline.  Furthermore it is  conceptually difficult because students are asked to focus on both organizational dynamics and their own cognitional operations