Edev_502 Hand-in Assignment 1

Self-Authorship and Self-Constructivism in the Doctoral Journey

EdD Module 2 Hand-in Assignment 1

The need to identify initial being

Teaching is theory permeated. When we start to look for theoretical positions, we can see them in every action, in every thought, in every outcome in education. Johnson’s (2014) paraphrase of DeCarvalho (1991); “Even though your educational philosophy may not be clearly defined, it is the basis for everything you do as a teacher” accurately describes the degree to which teaching life is permeated in its own web of culture.

Figueiredo and colleagues (Figueiredo, Huet, & do Rosário Pinheiro, 2012) note that doctoral candidates ultimately need “superior cognitive structures and psychosocial features” (p. 756), and that much time is required to attain those abilities. First-year doctoral candidates in particular may feel the burden of expectation, and around a third of drop outs occur during this period (Golde, 1998). Research has focussed on issues in socialisation of students in graduate school, i.e. on the physical campus, and how universities may promote student interaction into the faculty and more secure incorporation of students into the discipline (Ali & Kohun, 2007; Golde, 2005). A possible gap in the literature is research into how doctoral candidates regulate themselves with the pressures to align to theoretical positions constructed by the course and their supervisors. The authors of the vignettes are on their own path in their journey towards a doctorate. As such, they experience pressures to align their theoretical perspectives into current dominant ideologies. The degree to which they will feel pressure may be predicted by how their initial predilections and biases match those dominant beliefs. An old adage in education is to proceed from the known to the unknown, and in this essay, I argue that a key factor in the self-authorship of doctoral identity creation is the understanding the initial state of belief, and my primary thesis centres on the need for doctoral candidates to analyse their own initial being against the tenets of the leading theoretical models of learning.

Difficulties in theoretical positioning

The current dominant framework is that of social constructivism. Much of what students on our course have to deal with is social constructivist in nature. However, many candidates have had success in learning, successes that they categorised in the vignettes with a non-constructivist theory. There may be some cognitive dissonance, some mismatch between how we have learnt and how we are encouraged to understand our future learning, place ourselves in this course, locate ourselves against this course. How we realign our notions can be an exciting change. If we engage with that change positively, we may develop some deeper insights into the nature of social constructivism. However, there remains the possibility that constructivism is not the final answer in theory. For many researchers, there is no contradiction in simultaneously holding facets of beliefs from cognitivism and constructivism as both theories derived from the same sources and questions (Svinicki, 1999). These are not competing theories, and their overlap produces more understanding and new knowledge than their separation.

However, there are contradictions involved in holding behaviourist views and cognitivist ones, for example. Either humans learn by stimulus-response feedback loops, or we learn by restructuring our schemata and other cognitive structures. At least two facets separate these views in principle. Behaviourism necessitates learning on a temporal continuum. Feedback that informs output requires time. Cognitivist views learning as potentially instantaneous, including Gestaltian moments of realisation. In this view, the time needed for learning is a matter for the individual and not a prerequisite of the learning mechanism. The second facet is the environment. Behaviourism is established on the notion that external forces impact on internal behaviour. This is denied by cognitivists who see the external influencing, but not controlling, what ultimately occurs in the mind during learning.

If a cohort member describes their learning success in behaviourist terms but currently has leanings towards cognitivist beliefs, how do they reconcile these views; do they place the action of repeated activity inside cognitivism? Has cognitivism consumed behaviourism in the cohort member’s conception, or will there be other rationales that explain the dissonance? These questions will be a part of my journey, and the other cohort members will make their own questions and discoveries.

There will be difficulties in conceptualising the current cohorts’ positioning if members fail to recognise that what we have done in the past and how we have framed that in the vignettes results in a mismatch between our perceptions of ourselves and how our future exposure to theory promotes a different sense of being. If that mismatch is realised, deeper learning becomes possible more quickly. Conversely, until any mismatch is recognized and resolved, the passage of doctoral identity formation may be a difficult, a stressful, a problematic time. Kelly’s personal construct psychology (1955, cited in Walker & Winter, 2007) offers a framework for understanding this mismatch. The individual’s personal construct of a successful learner includes their own experiences of positive learning. A key element in that construct is rooted deeply in the learning theory attached to the experience in the coding of the vignette. This is contrasted with the developing personal construct of doctoral identity which I argue—given the heavily social constructivist nature of this course—must necessarily include a strong agreement with social constructivist tenets. This forms an enculturation that may trigger crisis as well as growth.

Self-identification with a learning theory may be at the subconscious, subjective level. An imperative for doctoral candidates is the elevation of submerged, unconscious acts to the conscious, or objective level. Kegan (1982) describes the subject-object dichotomy. An objective understanding is possible when an individual differentiates a separate aspect of the environment from an erstwhile undifferentiated larger whole that encompassed that aspect. Inability to perceive psychologic boundaries of self and other clouds judgement of objective reality. Because a fish cannot perceive water, it cannot objectify water (Eriksen, 2008). Similarly, if a cohort member is embedded in their lived experience of learning success, individuating themselves from or transcending that state and moving it into the gaze of objectification will be difficult. Subjectivity represents states where the individual is “identified with, tied to, fused with” the water of the surrounding context (Kegan, 1994, p. 32, emphasis added). Eriksen (2008) adds, “[p]eople lack awareness of or behave automatically in relationship to what they are subject to” (p. 235), suggestive that vignette categorisations allude more to subjective perspectives than to separate objective differentiations.

However, recognising subjectivity in oneself and the entailing ability to scrutinise objectiveness is necessary in the doctoral path where identity is distributed (Barnacle & Mewburn, 2010), i.e. a constructed process where the individual, the university, the particular cohort and tutors and the given curriculum as well as other stakeholders play roles in shaping the meaning of the identity. Barnacle and Mewburn (2010) note that “what counts as knowledge is always subject to revision. Candidates, therefore, occupy a challenging position in the research landscape with implications for identity formation” (p. 434). Without Kegan’s objective stance, initially seeing pressures on identity creation, moving through to a control of those forces and subsequently into a desired state of being, becomes tentatious, a matter of felicity, of trial and error.


Table 1 shows the positive learning experiences categorised by learning theory. All cohort members demonstrated a single dominant theoretical orientation. Only one cohort member categorised all of her good experiences as social constructivist in orientation. Some experiences did not fit any learning theory.

Table 1.

Cohort members’ positive learning experience and the learning theory

Member Positive Experience Learning Theory / Code
Jim 1. gestalt in instrument learning

2. directed purpose

3. learning Japanese

4. help with stats

cognitivist problematic

no clear theory fit problematic

social constructivist

social constructivist

SV 1. took difficult job

2. another tough job

3. cultural challenge

social constructivist

social constructivist

social constructivist

L 1. Problem based learning

2. old mentor’s help

3. weight loss encouragement

humanist problematic

humanist problematic

humanist problematic

S 1. technology

2. feedback

3. multicultural

no clear theory fit problematic

constructivist, behaviourist social constructivist

social constructivist

C 1. good swimming technique

2. literary technique

3. swimming technique

behaviourist, cognitivist problematic

cognitivist problematic

cognitivist problematic

H 1. info presentation

2. essay writing


cognitivist problematic

cognitivist problematic

constructivist social constructivist

Note: I only note once where both the learning theory and the code are social constructivist

Development of coding themes

The thesis in this essay is that successful prior learning that was not seen to be social constructivist in orientation will present cohort members with cognitive dissonance during their doctoral journeys. Their development as independent researchers will be problematic unless they can address the inherent contradictions between the values in this course and their positive learning experiences. Accordingly, I coded for two major themes: social constructivist, which encapsulates the notion that the path to doctoral being will be smoother, and problematic, which aims to discover modes of epistemology that require careful consideration.

In using social constructivist, I do not intend to imply that positive learning experiences that fall under this code should be ignored. The argument that these fall under Kegan’s ‘subject’ indicates that much deeper analysis of these experiences will reveal further and more nuanced insights into one’s epistemology within the dominant theoretical framework of social constructivism. Conversely, problematic places these experiences directly as ‘object’ and therefore under immediate scrutiny.


I present two analyses of positive learning experiences. Both were coded problematic: the first because it did not fall under social constructivism and the second because it had no clear fit to an underlying theory. Both initial categorisations are challenged.

I labelled my own first positive experience as cognitivist following Merriam, Caffarella and Baumgartner’s placing of Gestalt theories under the general category of cognitive orientation (2007). In dealing with a problem, learners think about the various aspects involved and “[w]hen the solution comes, it comes suddenly” (Hergenhahn & Olsen, 2005, cited in Merriam et al. p. 285). These ‘a ha!’ moments epitomise Gestaltian leaps in learning, and there is no intermediate state between the problem being unsolved and solved (Merriam et al. 2007).

I went through a period of self-study on the recorder after six years of professional training at music conservatoire. The goals in these daily practice were clear, but future goals were unknown, and epistemologically unknowable during any given practice session. Initially, I worried that once I had achieved the current goal I would have no new goal to aim for. Yet, my playing was far from perfect and I knew that there had to be new practice targets. In the vignettes, I wrote that “I was fearful that I’d reach a plateau and never develop” beyond that current state. This fear was unfounded because “after a week or so … a new question and target would reveal itself to me” (emphasis added). These revelations symbolised the notion of Gestalt.

I coded this experience problematic because as it stands it has left me with a belief about learning that conflicts with the social constructivist orientation. I will look at how this belief influenced my subsequent teaching and conceptualisation about the nature of positive learning. The belief is too facile and misses too many critical components in educational theory to hold that if a student simply thinks about a problem, the answer will appear. Gestalt theorists group phenomenon sharing characteristics of proximity, similarity of form, closure and good continuation (Iguchi, Abe, Misawa, Kimura, & Daido, 2009). These elements form the theoretical divisions of a problem and subsequently the clue to answering the problem. As a teacher, without a clear appreciation of what those elements may be in language education, expecting students to have “flashes of insight” when “com[ing] to see” (Merriam et al. 2007, p. 285) is pedagogically weak. I realise now that my music education was infused with Gestalt anecdotes. Smith (1988) describes the musical inclinations of many in the early Gestalt movement which may help explain the continued use of Gestalt ideas in the conservatoire.

Historically, Gestaltists rejected the environmental emphasis of behaviourists as the primary source of learning, putting the individual’s cognition at the centre. Once cognition was fore fronted, the study of role the environment plays on cognition allowed theorists to understand the formation of complex cognitive structures and how those structures may be subdivided into component parts. In other words, previous educators’ hopes that the knowledge students need to “pick them or that they will get it and the penny will drop and things will fall into place” (Atherton, 2013) can now be analysed and presented in the syllabus more systematically. Gestalt theory represented an advance in conceptualising epistemology, but ultimately its use obfuscates rather than clarifies educational goals.

How could I then re-address and re-categorise my vignette? The first question to ask is if this experience really is a Gestalt one? A simple answer is to declare that a Gestalt answer is useful when the underlying factors are unclear. The task of clarifying those factors is a complex one and not relevant here. This task, however, is an essential one if I am to progress in my doctoral self-authorship, realising that occluded rationales are the basis for Kegan’s subjective control over the individual and need to be uncovered.

The second positive experience I described of learning PowerPoint is similar to S’s learning of technology. I coded these as problematic as neither of them, as presented, fit any learning theory model. Neither S nor myself of the respondents described how we learnt the various skills, only that we had mastered the technology. Their commonality allows for a discussion about the nature of learning skills in educational settings. The question to be investigated is if learning skills is essentially theory-free or not; teleologically, does the existence of a technology assume a purposeful usage?

Prima facie, the use of PowerPoint and Blackboard (I limit my analysis to the software I know) is not a priori predicated on any learning theory. Behaviourists may use them to promote their methods as much as social constructivists-at least in principle. Stimulus and response systems are common in computer aided learning (Svinicki, 1999) where “self-paced instruction and its derivative live on in several guises” (p. 7). My purpose for using PowerPoint was for a presentation in 2005. By then, the term presentation and PowerPoint were nearly synonymous. There was an expectation that I would deliver my PowerPoint (i.e. not my presentation) on a PC (i.e. not a Mac). In the vignette, I wrote, “I needed to use” PowerPoint. There was a degree of social expectation regarding what a presentation should look like, and the normative functioning of the environment constructed against a dialectic involving any other technological solution. Using Kegan’s subject-object distinction, PowerPoint was integrated into the environment as subject exerting an unquestioned influence over participants in the environment.

Pinch and Bijker (Bijker, Hughes, & Pinch, 2012; Pinch & Bijker, 1984) discuss how technology is socially constructed; “technological artifacts are open to sociological analysis, not just in their usage but especially with respect to their design and technical “content””(Pinch, Bijker & Hughes, 2012, p. xlii). Technology is a stakeholder in the decision making process. Its needs and abilities inform an important part of the available solution. Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) emphasises the agentive nature of technology in the decision making process (Latour, 2005), and ignoring that role means “we are failing to grant technology its own independent powers or ability to “act” or “resist” independent of human representations of those powers” (Pinch, Bijker & Hughes, 2012, p. xxv). PowerPoint and Blackboard exist not in a sociological vacuum but simultaneously as artefacts and proponents of the system in which they were conceived. Although my ultimate use of PowerPoint and Sura’s of Blackboard may not have been specifically to promote social constructivist learning methodologies, their use was socially constructed, and our sense of agency either minimised or actively enjoined with the normative during this process.

Initially, the learning experience had no clear relevance to any theory, but through analysis, it emerged that the learning of technology in order to support one’s professional life is a social construction. The discussion throws up many concealed notions that upon investigation can reveal further knowledge regarding how we interface with our environment.


This essay forms an extended reflection on the individual’s doctoral path when faced with the problematicised positioning of past experiences against future self-authorship. There are clear normative pressures at this level, yet there is an irony regarding how much critical engagement doctoral level students should have with their studies, and students need to consider carefully their attitudes to “role-taking and role-making” (Simmons, 2011).This irony is probably more severe on an EdD course than a PhD course as on the latter, there is the expectation of “the creation and interpretation of new knowledge, through original research or other advanced scholarship, of a quality to satisfy peer review, extend the forefront of the discipline, and merit publication” (QAA, 2011, p. 32). The EdD, on the other hand, requires a broader range of understanding and knowledge, and the final thesis needs to demonstrate “the creation and interpretation of new knowledge, through original research or other advanced scholarship, of a quality to satisfy peer review, extend the forefront of the discipline, and merit publication” (Doctor of Education ( Higher Education ) Thesis Handbook, 2014, p. 3, emphasis added).

I have asserted that the degree to which mismatches exist will predict identity crises on this path. I will finish by discussing my own crisis as predicted in this paper. At heart, I am a cognitivist. I see social constructivism primarily as ways of fine tuning input into the individual. Situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991) and other socially constructed theories, including connectivism (Kop & Hill, 2008), may well be locus’s for knowledge creation and storage, but as long as humans remain in their current form, not for meaning creation. That is purely a human activity.


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About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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