Knowledge, Power and Learning

Author(s) Paechter et al
Publisher Paul Chapman Publishing in association with the Open University Press
Published 2001
Pages 256
ISBN 0761969373
Reviewed by John Hilsdon
Plymouth University
Review published 1 December 2004

This edited work brings together papers from twelve different authors and functions as a key text for a level two Open University course. The themes of the title are explored in relation to socio-cultural contexts ranging from school classroom learning, vocational and adult education settings, to work-based learning. These papers share concerns arising from the growth in significance of communications and information technology in the context of moves towards 'lifelong learning' and the increasing influence of employment-related interests in all forms of education in the UK. In terms of philosophy, theory and methodology, a unifying factor in this collection is a broadly postmodern perspective - a questioning of the notion of an objective kind of knowledge. The work of Foucault, in particular his treatment of power, is referred to frequently throughout the book. Knowledge is seen as fundamentally inseparable from the power relations and social context in which it arises. In the introduction, Carrie Paechter expresses her hope that awareness of such a perspective will contribute to the understanding of knowledge, power and learning and will lead to changes in the interactions between teachers and learners.

The kinds of changes she hopes for are implied rather than explicitly laid out. The book does not take the form of a programme for reform. Rather, the chapters present their arguments and evidence in a range of ways, such that the overall impact is of an accumulation of brief, introductory (and complementary) perspectives rather than of the development of a particular argument.

One of the themes raised relates to issues of gender and the gendering of knowledge. For example, forms of knowledge seen as masculine (principally in the sciences) are seen to take precedence, and a greater share of the school curriculum, over forms seen as feminine (knowledge of self and of relationships). In the workplace, it is argued that internalised, gender-related belief structures influence how male workers, in particular, self-police to ensure that long working hours are adhered to, despite causing family and relationship problems, and being socially disadvantageous.

A critique of 'student-centred' approaches to learning raises questions of how learners' identities are constructed and the implications of this for assumptions about, and the articulation of, learner needs. Questions about the concept of needs encourage us to consider whether a deficit model of learners may be underpinning some of our common conceptions. Forms of open learning, where learners negotiate their needs collectively, are suggested as potential alternatives. Allied to this, a conception of research as story telling - where experienced reality can be legitimately presented as knowledge; of learning in the context of communities of practice; and of learning organisations where the emphasis is on empowering work-learning activities, all provide models where social relationships are put at the heart of enterprises involving more democratic regimes of knowledge and power.

The volume concludes with chapters emphasising the role of experience in learning. This involves an examination of the personalisation of knowledge and the role of ownership in motivation and skills development; the importance to learning of the communication and sharing of experience; and the promise of computer technology to assist in these endeavours.

This book will stimulate thought in any reader and could be of interest to academics in all subjects, or to educational developers - although it may be of particular use to students of cultural studies, education and communications.