Who is the 'responsible learner'? Viewing learning careers through social narratives and recursive methodology

Sue Webb*, Simon Warren

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingBook chapterResearchpeer-review


When Edgar Faure argued in his UNESCO report ‘Learning to Be’ that lifelong education should be ‘the master concept for educational policies in the years to come for both developed and developing countries’ (UNESCO 1972: 82), could he have envisaged the way this concept would be appropriated and adapted in all types of societies over the last three decades, irrespective of their different stages of development or ideological bases? There has been a strong Eurocentric dimension to this policy migration, assimilation and accommodation. Many of the influential policy documents have been produced by the European Union (EU) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). These have framed much of the conceptualisation of lifelong learning policy globally (Field 2006; Preece 2006; Warren and Webb 2007: 6). Given this, arguably, it is useful to examine the policy effects of these texts in one of the countries close to the European policy hub, in other words, to focus on England. Specifically, this chapter explores the meanings of a policy construct, ‘responsible learners’, who are exhorted by current lifelong learning policy discourse to use learning in order to work upon themselves and become more amenable to the demands of a globalised world. The focus is on understanding what ‘responsible learners’ look like empirically. It asks the question what practices and understandings do social actors engage in when undertaking lifelong learning. A sub-question to this is: can these practices and learners’ identities be understood in terms of reflexive agency or are there structural constraints on their practices that lead to a reproduction of the social order? We explore these questions in the context of a small empirical study of adults choosing to return to formal education in England, and more specifically we focus upon the decision-making process and learning career of one adult learner. The chapter is informed by the growing literature on learning career (Bloomer and Hodkinson 2000; Crossan et al. 2003). We present a case study of the experiences and learning career of one adult learner, ‘Jenny’, developed through iteration between two interviews conducted at different stages of her engagement with formal learning. Our analysis of these interviews is informed by our theoretical concerns, an analysis of policy discourse and policy effects, and interviews with her course tutor, her course director and a practitioner from a regional Further/Higher Education partnership – a research model that elsewhere we have termed recursive methodology (Warren and Webb 2009). Beginning with Jenny’s story, we identify specific turning points and key moments in her narrative and move to map these to theoretical understandings of changes in the gender division of labour, especially the gendered construction of the care economy, before returning to an enriched narrative of Jenny’s situated practices. We continue enrichment of the analysis by continually oscillating between Jenny’s original representation of herself, further representations she makes and the policy construction of the field of post-compulsory education and training; the institutional habitus of the further education college Jenny attends; and the strategies employed by the college in response to the policy regime (Webb and Warren 2007). Through this learner’s story of transition we reveal the material conditions for the constitution of her identity and by stressing the contingent and historical location of this formation we glimpse the possibility of alternative futures in her learning career.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationResearching Transitions in Lifelong Learning
EditorsJohn Field, Jum Gallacher, Robert Ingram
Number of pages15
Publication date1 Jun 2009
ISBN (Print)0203875176, 9780203875179
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2009
Externally publishedYes

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