Reflective Cycles and Reflexive Learning Principles: Teaching Ethics from the Learner Outward1

Reflective Cycles and Reflexive Learning Principles: Teaching Ethics from the Learner Outward1

Michael Nancarrow, Will Rifkin
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-510-6.ch023
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Ethics learning takes root when it draws on learners’ experiences of encounters with others, a strategy that is a foundation of adult learning processes generally. These experiences, the authors have found, can be voiced by students and managers in training and then analyzed from an ethical perspective when a safe environment has been established. A safe environment emerges through a process of incremental disclosures by the teacher and the learners. Establishing such an environment represents part of the first of what they have identified as three “cycles” of increasing awareness and understanding. In the first cycle, the teacher not only elicits but legitimates the experiences and perspectives of the learner. Second, learners are introduced to the relevant context for ethical management as being the human community and not merely the organization for which they work. Third, learners are guided to instituting a pragmatic vision for ethical action and management, a vision that recognises inescapable human frailty in themselves and others. The authors also emphasize core ethical themes of values, integrity in decision-making, and, for the public sector manager, a responsibility to serve the public interest. Such an experientially-based and highly contextualised learning process builds a student’s or manager’s capacity for both reflection-in-action and for ongoing ethical dialogue with others. Such dialogue can then enable the manager to lead organizational learning around ethics in business.
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Our Teaching Context

We draw heavily on experience, dating from the mid-1990s, as described in Nancarrow and Rifkin (1998). We present what we have found to be effective approaches to learning about the practical application of principles of applied ethics. These approaches have been used in our consulting and our teaching of business ethics for graduate and undergraduate students in management in Australia. One such course, an undergraduate subject in business ethics, typically had thirty-five to forty students in their third and final year of a bachelor of commerce program. The subject was an elective, which meant that it attracted students with a keen interest in ethics but also those with an opening in their timetable at the scheduled class time (most students commuted from off campus to this regional, government-funded university).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Authenticity: This term refers to having a drive to be honest about one’s motivations and actions. In an ethics context, it has relevance as it often seems easier to lie or conceal the truth in difficult situations.

Learning Cycle: Many versions of learning cycles for individuals and for organizations have been described by psychologists, social psychologists, and organizational theorists. The basic idea of a learning cycle emerges from the sense that people (and organizations, some argue) go on learning after they have gained a particular insight. Their new learning involves certain phases that seem to repeat each time a cycle occurs. Each theory about a learning cycle sounds pretty plausible, but that plausibility that rarely stands up to careful scrutiny in particular situations (or so the empirical research suggests). Nonetheless, such cycles resonate with experience sufficiently that teachers find the descriptions to be a useful tool for planning classes and for reflecting on how students are progressing.

Experiential Learning: While most learning in schools and universities seems to be based on being lectured to and reading in books or online, experiential learning refers to processes that require us to do something other than reading or listening. Psychologists have identified a number of steps involved in learning from experience. It is a process that occurs outside formal educational settings, such as in teaching one’s self a new hobby.

Reflexivity: As we use the term “reflexivity” here, it refers to a process like reflection but more oriented to consideration of how one’s society has created certain traditions of thought and action. The relevant question here is not so much “Why do I personally think this way?” but “How do people in my society come to think this way?”

Community Of Practice: A community of practice is much like what used to be known as an occupational community. That is, police officers would belong to an occupational community, a collection of individuals who share certain values and practices based on the nature of their work. A community of practice does not have to be limited to widely recognized professions, though, as it has been applied to classrooms, collections of academics who share their knowledge about teaching in similar ways, and insurance claims processors.

Reflection: Reflection is a process where one considers one’s actions and thoughts. It is a fancy term for focused thinking both about a topic and about one’s reactions to a topic or idea or event.

Probity: Probity is another word for integrity that has connotations for acting in the public sphere. Where saying that someone has integrity often applies to how they handle personal and professional situations with care, consistency, and honest, probity tends to apply only to professional situations. Furthermore, probity tends to apply to people who work for government, as it signifies a certain standard of behavior when placed in a publicly responsible position.

Organizational learning: Organizations seem to have some characteristics of living beings, which should not seem outlandish given that they are made up of collections of human beings. One characteristic that many theorists have suggested is an ability to learn and change. For example, a century-old company might gain the capacity to integrate modern information technology, such as Apple iPads (which may seem like yesterday’s technology by the time that you read this chapter), into its daily work. That process of purposeful, systemic change that seems to emerge over time is called “organizational learning.”

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