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Reflexivity and hegemony: Changing engineers

Lesley Jolly
Behavioural Studies, University of Queensland
David Radcliffe
Mechanical Engineering, University of Queensland
In this paper we report on some of the findings from a CUTSD project which was designed to find ways of promoting reflexive practice amongst engineering undergraduates. The project was one response to calls from within the profession of engineering and a review of engineering education for changes to engineering practice. Some of the desired changes included demands for engineers to be better communicators, better team workers and to have a greater sense of social and environmental responsibility. Much current engineering education and practice emphasises technical competence only. The challenge has been to find ways of ensuring technical competence with a greater awareness of contexts of practice, and we proposed that the incorporation of reflexive skills into engineering education would be one way of producing "the new engineer". As it turns out, this strategy has extensive implications for the "old engineer" also.

One of the basic tenets of reflexive practice is that one must learn to identify and question presuppositions (starting assumptions). But part of what we do as University teachers is to socialise our students to the norms of the discipline, whatever that may be. We have found this matter of learning and practicing what could be called hegemonic behaviours to be particularly salient for engineers, but suspect it is significant in all disciplines. We are interested in the extent to which reflexivity can be expected of neophytes and how and when to introduce it but we are also interested in the effects reflexive practice has on practitioners. It has become clear to us that the changing contexts that require a new kind of engineer, also require a new kind of engineering educator. Teachers, as well as students, must learn new skills.

Hegemony and the need for change

We want to begin by suggesting that, in order to think about bringing about change, we need first to understand University disciplines as hegemonies of meaning and practice. Raymond Williams (1977:109) defined hegemony as "the whole lived social process as practically organised by specific and dominant meanings and values", to which we can add the Gramscian point that such systems of organisation predispose consent to and compliance with the status quo (Knauft 1996: 187). Each discipline has its own orientation to the world in terms of its content and procedures. These orientations are hegemonic insofar as they provide dominant, taken-for-granted frameworks within which practitioners work. They are always contestable and often contested, but they persist in defining the field. Any criticism of hegemonic practice can only be understood by practitioners within the framework the discipline provides, and change tends to come slowly. When we train undergraduates we emphasise the discipline-specific nature of evidence and acceptable methodologies (meanings), as well as more subtle messages about ethical and political orientation, the use of time, and so on (values). It is not surprising then, that the academic version of the joke about how many X does it take to change a lightbulb, has the punch line "Change? What do you mean change?" We are in the business of reproduction.

In the case of engineering, the dominant meanings and values that maintain the practices of the discipline include: positivist approaches to knowledge and sets of values such as a high degree of individual competitiveness; the valuing of long work hours for their own sake; and the sacrifice of other aspects of self and life to the professional identity (Downey and Lucena 1997). The typical engineer is reported (Beder 1998) to be concerned with order and certainty and therefore to be averse to ambiguity, to have a rather narrow range of interests, to be not given to introspection and not much interested in people. These are all traits that militate against the development of the reflective professional self. There is evidence that such cultural factors are also common in the sciences (Seymour and Hewitt 1997).

And yet for many years now reviews of engineering and engineering education around the world have called for engineers to rise to the challenge of a global environment characterised by rapid social, environmental and technological change (Morgan, Reid and Wulf 1998). That is, the modern engineer is asked to deal with ambiguous and changing circumstances and in a social and environmental context. The most recent such report in Australia has been a combined review by the Institution of Engineers, Australia, and the Engineering Deans (1996). They called the document, Changing the Culture: Engineering Education into the Future and they concluded that in order to rise to this challenge engineering educators should equip their graduates, in addition to technical competencies, with:

While this list closely resembles the sort of graduate attributes now being demanded of all disciplines, engineers are under extra pressure from business to be active in a knowledge economy that requires them to create, not just respond to, change in processes and products. Clearly, in such an environment, it is not enough to train people to do things the way the discipline has always done them. We need to educate them in such a way that they can apply their knowledge and skills to bringing about change. We argue that the concept that needs to be incorporated into the students' (life-long) education is reflexivity.

Defining reflexivity

True learning occurs only through reflecting upon experiences, according to Dewey (1933). Describing reflection as a process that enables connections between the various elements of an experience, Dewey refers to reflection on experience as a learning loop that runs back and forth between the experience and the relationships being inferred (Boud, Keogh and Walker 1985). The concept of the learning loop has gained popularity through the work of Kolb (1984) and his four stage experiential learning model: 1) experience; 2) reflection; 3) generalising or theorising; and 4) planning. Therefore, the ideal experiential learner will be able to
  1. involve themselves in new experiences without bias;
  2. reflect upon experiences from multiple perspectives;
  3. integrate their observations into logically sound theories; and
  4. use these theories in decision making and problem solving.
This kind of practice is precisely what is being promoted by new accreditation processes for graduate engineers in Australia (IEAust 1997), and clearly has the potential to deliver on many of the recommendations about graduate attributes put forward by the Review. However, the profession's traditional emphasis on solving well-defined problems tends to limit the extent to which the cultural change that is required can be achieved even where reflection occurs. We wish to make a distinction here between reflection on engineering problems as phenomena divorced from the practitioner, and reflexivity as reflection on personal experience of engineering practice, which fundamentally changes the relationship between engineer and engineering. Some of the recent writing on reflection seems to us to tend in this direction.

In an oft-quoted development of the loop metaphor, Argyris (1993) distinguishes between single-loop learning and double-loop learning. Single loop learning occurs when "an error is detected and corrected without questioning or altering the underlying values of the system", whereas double loop learning occurs when errors "are corrected by first examining and altering the governing variables and then the actions". While this is certainly necessary as a first step to a true improvement of practice, rather than just local adjustment, all too often the engineer will translate this dictum in purely technical terms. Thus, students in our project very often identified the governing variables as solely technical ones, ignoring social and contextual aspects of practice such as the difficulties they had experienced in group work or their inability to seek help with their problems.

Schön (1983) also sees the learner as engaging in experience, reflection, restructuring and planning. However, he advances the notion of reflection by distinguishing between reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action. Best known for his use of the term 'the reflective practitioner', Schön postulates that our knowing is in our action, and that such knowledge is tacit. When reflecting-in-action, "There is some puzzling phenomenon with which the individual is trying to deal. As he [sic] tries to make sense of it, he also reflects on the understandings which have been implicit in his action, understandings which he surfaces, criticises, restructures, and embodies in further action". Note once again that the discussion is of action, and can easily be translated to a problem-focus rather than a self-focus.

John Cowan (1997) extended Schön's work to encompass a third reflective loop: reflection-for-action. Reflection-for-action is anticipative: here the learner "defin[es] their aspirations...[and]...establishes priorities for subsequent learning".

Figure 1

Figure 1: Cowan's (1997) "loopy diagram".

While Schön tends to use the terms 'reflection' and 'reflexive thinking' interchangeably, Darling (1998:4) uses the time at which introspection occurs to distinguish between the two: reflection occurs after an interaction whereas, like Cowan's model, reflexive processes incorporate introspection within the period of interaction. Darling (1998:3-4) further elaborates that reflection is related to self and improving future practice whereas reflexivity is a pro-active tool to simultaneously improve communication and provide insight into priorities prior to reaction. Reflexivity can therefore be seen as the application of the fruits of reflection, and a higher order skill. Our projects aim to use techniques for reflective thinking in order to develop truly reflexive practice in engineers. That is, we seek to incorporate reflection into the being of the engineer, to make it the centre of a practice that will allow for life-long responsiveness to real world circumstances, to other people and to change. In comparison with Cowan's loopy diagram our ideal focuses not on experience, as something outside the person, but on the person's attitude to experience:

Figure 2

Figure 2: Reflexivity centres on the engineer, not their experience

Achieving reflexivity

Table 1 details the scope of the project and the tools we used to achieve reflexivity through reflection. At the beginning of the project we worked only with final year students in design subjects. Since these students routinely keep a written record of the progress of their designs, journalling should have been a matter of building on existing engineering practice. We initially used standard journalling techniques coupled with training and debriefing sessions and weekly 'prompts' that both reminded the students to use their journals and gave them some hints about how they might do so. To our surprise, we met considerable resistance and it soon became plain that students needed help with the task (Jolly, Radcliffe and McLeod-Palma 1999). Our initial response was to reduce the journal writing task to a dot point log, modelled on existing practice used by the Institution of Engineers, Australia. We coupled this with a single critical incident report at the end of semester. Examples of the models provided to students can be found at: This modified approach was used with both third and fourth year students. We then used NUDIST software to analyse ninety-four critical incident analyses for students' perceptions of their behaviour (Jolly and Radcliffe 2000).

Table 1: Scope of Study

Student cohortnLearning contextReflexive tools
First-year200Team projectProcess observation, concept mapping
Third-year (Mech eng)240Individual design projectLog/journal, critical incident analyses
Fourth-years (Mech Eng)50Capstone team designEssay/paper
Fourth-years (Mfg and Mat)25Capstone team designLog/journal, critical incident analyses
Fourth-years (Chem Eng)65Capstone team designLog/journal, critical incident analyses

Although we had emphasised that critical incidents might be positive rather than negative, only seven of the ninety-four were positive. In either case, the students overwhelmingly identified issues such as communication, time management, group organisation and the assigning of group roles. These issues were often interrelated. For instance, one group noted that once they got around to assigning group roles they were able to communicate with each other better, and stay on track. A common problem related to groups' definition of the problem. Either they tried to tackle everything at once, get overwhelmed and waste time, or they focussed too narrowly on the first solution they thought of, without discussing alternatives. They also often realised that they had not made good use of the sources of information available to them, including the library, experts of various kinds and peers. This seemed to us to indicate a certain level of reflection had indeed been achieved by these students, according to Tripp's (1993) breakdown of critical incident analyses, namely:

  1. describe an incident
  2. provide a contextual explanation of the incident
  3. find a more general meaning
  4. articulate a position
Students had described their incidents well and identified the contextual factors that made them critical but were largely unable to find a more general meaning that might have an impact on their practice of engineering. It was particularly disappointing for one of the more academically gifted students to conclude that he had learned to avoid innovation as it wasted time. The students had also been surveyed before and after their project work using a variation of the Group Environment Scale (yet to be fully analysed and reported). Here too we found that their insight into a single incident or pattern of behaviour had not been internalised in the way true reflexivity demands. Starting training in reflexivity earlier in undergraduate years seemed like a reasonable response to this problem and so first year project groups began to be alerted to the need for reflection and reflexivity by incorporating the role of "process observer" into their group work (Jolly and Radcliffe 2000). This meant that every student had the job of observing and reporting on group processes over a two-week period. This sort of task falls well outside hegemonic engineering practice, and the consequent problems led to our rethinking the necessary direction of change.

We realised that in order for students to be able to learn and perform the role of "process observer", they would need modelling and guidance from their teachers. But most of the teachers (final year students, postgraduate students and engineering academics) had little idea how to proceed either. Training sessions were run to try to overcome this problem but their effectiveness was limited by the hegemony of "real engineering". There were two attitudes evident in those who came to the training sessions. One was that this was all beside the point, just "touchy-feelly" stuff, outside the scope of what engineers ought to be concerned with, which was calculation and deadlines. Other staff (the majority) came in good faith, acknowledging the demands of the various reviews of engineering education and the demands of industry. Many in this group appeared to lack confidence in their own ability to understand and model the desired behaviours. In class they were easily daunted when problems arose in group processes and, though willing, often failed to model enthusiastic engagement with the human dimension of engineering.

Of course, it would be easy to argue that we just need to keep improving the training of the teachers and there will be a gradual trickle down effect. If only we can provide the right reflexive tools, in time the engineering hegemony will be changed to value good communication and team skills, close attention to the social and environmental contexts of practice and so, on equally with technical expertise. We support that course of action, but are pessimistic about its ability to bring about substantial change in less than geological time. As well as concentrating on the practice of those just being socialised to the discipline and their teachers, we believe that a change is needed that can only be led by the most expert practitioners. Our rationale appears in the next section.

Change across generations

Table 2 summarises Benner's (1984) model of professional development as modified by Butler (1996). Benner argues that the progression to expert status starts from a position of depending wholly on rules until finally, through long experience, the rules become unconscious, though remaining the basis of practice. Butler suggests that higher orders of practice, the competence and proficiency that the world of practice demands, are arrived at only after substantial reflection on practice This reflection allows the practitioner to gain as much from experience as they do from received wisdom. He also suggests that the application of rules is not necessarily important to expert practice. This accords well with our experience described breifly above. Our understanding of what this means for the prosecution of more responsible engineering education appears in bold in the table.

It would be relatively easy to set out a teaching program for the early years, abstracting rules for journal writing, reflection and so on, but practical and theoretical problems remain. The practical one is the problem that those who are expert in one set of practices may well be novices in another, and students need to have desired outcomes modelled to them by those inside the profession. This requires teachers to share their engineering expert status with students in a setting where they are equally novice in reflecting on it and coming to reflexive conclusions. The more serious problem is that just applying a set of rules for reflection will not result in reflexivity, the changing of attitudes and orientation to the social practice of engineering. Students must be brought to believe, as those in the profession who call for change believe, that better engineering outcomes should and can be obtained. What this means is that the path to reflexivity must start at the bottom of the table with today's experts using reflection on their practice, in partnership with students, to move towards a reflexive stance with respect to the world of engineering practice.

Table 2: Moving from novice to expert.

NoviceNo experience
Sticks strictly to rules
Unable to decide which tasks most relevant
Limit expectations until experienced gained
Clarify rules
Provide clear rule statements
Reward rule use
Advanced beginnerLow level unsupervised performance
Belief in single solution
Ask for answers
Unwilling to explore problems
Help prioritising; Support understanding of context
Teach prioritising
Present problems in context
Reward risk-taking
CompetentCan analyse complex problems
Uses conscious, thoughtful, analytic reflection
Conscious planning
Lacks speed and flexibility of higher levels
Involve in decision making and planning
Move away from emphasis on detail
Demand more self-government of students
Reward innovation
ProficientIntuitive response to "big picture"
Uses experience of 'typical' events
Considers fewer options than competent person
Draw publicly on experience in context of actual problem
Avoid insistence on rules; Avoid extreme novelty
Train tutors to call on experience
Don't ask them to tutor where no experience exists
ExpertActs "by instinct"
Is unaware of rules
Document both successful and unsuccessful interventions to bring expertise into conscious knowledge
Involve instructors in reflection on their own practice

There are two ways in which we see this happening. One is through experts within the academy reflecting on their expertise with students and junior colleagues, including tutors. For complete integration it would be good to see this begin in curriculum review, using a process such as the following:

  1. Faculty reflection and planning
    At this stage academic staff will work together to reflect on past experience of developing reflexivity in students, and decide how to organise this training in the coming year. This will include deciding which level of development each class is expected to be at for each task and planning instruction and assessment accordingly. They will then share the fruits of this reflection with tutors and prepare them for their share of the training.

  2. Teaching as reflection in action
    Teaching staff will not only introduce students to tools such as the journal, but will participate in the journalling and in-class reflection themselves. This will allow for very strong modelling of reflexivity as well as fruitful reflection on actual tasks to hand. Even when dealing with situations where students are novices and therefore reliant on rules, reflection will be used to emphasise the correct application of rules and to move students towards a sense of prioritising. At another level, staff will have group meetings to reflect on the process and make any necessary adjustments during semester.

  3. Learning from the process
    For students this will be the moment when they decide on their critical incident and analyse it. Staff will help them to reflect on the process in terms of their own development as well as in terms of class objectives. Staff themselves will undertake a critical incident analysis from the point of view of the teaching experience, which will feed into the next cycle of planning.
The other way in which we have been involved in bringing reflexivity to all levels of engineering has been through our involvement (mainly that of Radcliffe) in a joint initiative between the University of Queensland and Thiess whereby students complete a semester's education while working full-time as an engineer at a mine site. Details of this program can be found at: Here students use written reflection, critical incident analysis and online and telephone discussion with staff to develop relexivity in themselves while they are actually in a workplace, as well as applying their developing reflexive skills to dealing with the workplace.

It is important to remember that engineering tasks in the real world as well as in the class will include aspects where students have some expertise. Even first year students have experience of the world which informs their basic presuppositions about engineering and which needs to be made conscious. It is therefore never too early to begin incorporating reflexivity into the curriculum, and the developmental model should not be made an excuse for clinging to a teaching program that seeks to impart rules only at any level. Nor is it ever too late to change professional practice. Old-fashioned technical expertise is still vital, and adopting reflexive habits with respect to it promises to make it even more effective in a changing but still material world.


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Institution of Engineers, Australia (IEAust) (1997). Manual for the accreditation of professional engineering courses. Institution of Engineers Australia, Australia.

Jolly, L., Radcliffe, D. and McLeod-Palma, A. (1999). Developing reflexivity in undergraduate engineers. Proceedings of 11th Annual Conference and Convention Australasian Association for Engineering Education, Adelaide, Australia, 26-29 September, 1999.

Jolly, L. and Radcliffe, D. (2000). Strategies for Developing Reflexive Habits in Students. Proceedings of American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference, St Louis, June, 2000.

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Morgan, R.P., Reid, P.P., and Wulf, W.A. (1998). The changing nature of engineering. ASEE Prism, (5), 12-17.

Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner. Basic Books, New York.

Seymour, E. and N.M. Hewitt (1997). Talking About Leaving: Why undergraduates leave the sciences. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.

Tripp, D. (1993). Critical incidents in teaching: Developing professional judgement. Routledge, London.

Williams, R. (1977). Marxism and Literature. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Contact details: Lesley Jolly, University of Queensland
Phone (07) 3381 1506 Fax (07) 3381 1523 Email

Please cite as: Jolly, L. and Radcliffe, D. (2001). Reflexivity and hegemony: Changing engineers. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 357-365. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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