Laurie Thomas: A Tribute to a Great Teacher and a Life-Long Inspiration

In the 1960s I was a psychology student at Brunel University and we had one lecturer who was quite unconventional. He used to come in, drape his jacket over a chair, sit on the desk, throw his chalk up in the air (it was still the days of chalk and blackboards) and start a sentence three times before he settled on what he wanted to say. Thereafter, the lecture did have a discernible structure but with all sorts of byways as exciting new ideas occurred to him and he responded to what we had to say. Some of the students found him hard to follow but I thought it was fabulous. That was in part because of the image of psychology he was conveying. It was the days of Skinner, S-R theory and mice running in mazes which I found very difficult to relate to – what had that got to do with human beings trying to make sense of the complex world in which they found themselves? Laurie had just come back from a study tour in the US and he introduced us to an entirely different account of human psychology – to Carl Roger’s person-centred psychology and our journey of discovery through life, and to the personal construct  theory of George Kelly. And he didn’t like just lecturing: he wanted us to explore subjects for ourselves.  I remember an exercise in finding as many uses as possible for a matchbox as we investigated the nature of creativity. Laurie’s enthusiasms shaped my own views on psychology more than any other teacher I have encountered.

Over my years at Brunel, Laurie introduced me to a wide range of contemporary psychology and some of it I have worked with throughout my own career. He introduced me to systems theory, starting with Kurt Lewin’s field theory, and then, my own obsession, sociotechnical systems theory. And we did not always stay in the classroom. I well remember some sessions, often in a local pub, where he invited Gordon Pask to come and share his systems ideas with a group of us. Laurie and Gordon would scatter systems ideas around like confetti in a completely dazzling way.

Shortly after I left Brunel, Laurie set up the Centre of Study of Human Learning at Brunel in 1969 (later to be joined by Sheila) and it became Laurie’s life work to articulate his theories of self-organised learning in contrast to the dominant approach of ‘other organised learning’ in which teachers’ structure and deliver the learning to the learners. Not only did Laurie develop his theories of how people could enhance their learning potential, but over the years, he and Sheila developed a wide range of tools and techniques to help people with every stage of the process, from becoming more aware of how you undertake tasks to how to hold learning conversations with yourself and with others to increase the learning space within which further developments could take place. As a result, in many books and papers and in the CSHL website, Laurie has left us a rich legacy by which we can all enhance our life-long learning.

After I graduated, I started on my own journey through the academic jungle and for the next  50 years Laurie was my guiding light.  He, of course, influenced my own approach to teaching. Like every other University teacher, I was under steadily growing pressures to teach a predetermined and rigid syllabus, deepening the dominance of the ‘other-organised learning’ approach and I used Laurie’s thinking as a spur to look for ways to help students ‘learn how to learn’ and to stimulate the self-organisation of their learning. At one point we borrowed one of Laurie’s reading machines so that our students could discover that reading was not a simple linear process of proceeding from the first line to the last. For many of them this was a first step in working out their own strategy for extracting the meaning they were looking for in what they were studying.

I was also doing a lot of work with companies who were trying to introduce new technology into their working practices and, following Laurie’s lead, I used systems theories, and action research and action learning approaches to help everybody see these ventures as collective learning journeys. I remember several projects in which we used George Kelly’s Repertory Grids to understand the ‘world view’ of the different stakeholders in organisational change settings and Laurie was enormously helpful in taking us through the techniques he had developed to analyse Repertory Grids.

Laurie was also a wonderful ally as an external examiner. I had several PhD students whose theses were not a series of well-defined research studies but were more akin to emerging attempts to make sense of complex real-world phenomena. Laurie was completely at home immersing himself in the learning journeys that the students had undertaken. One student had investigated several early attempts to implement  on-line ‘distance’ learning which led to some fascinating discussions with Laurie of how this kind of technology might be used to enable people to explore for themselves new subject areas. Looking back at it now, I can see we were already sensing what an aid to self-organised learning the vast repository of knowledge in the internet could be but also what a need there would be for learners to develop the skills of self-organised learning to enable them to sort the ‘wheat from the chaff’ in the unregulated world of the world wide web. I was also able to return the complement and be the external examiner for several of Laurie’s doctoral students and, through that, I got insights into the way self-organised learning was spreading through the Post Office.

But it would be wrong to think that Laurie’s significance to me, and to his many other devotees, was as an immensely valued academic scholar. He was much more than that. To Laurie, self-organised learning was a way of life, a philosophy about what it means to be human and the excitement of engaging in a life-long learning journey to understand ourselves and our place in the world. Like so many others, I have found great meaning in this philosophy and see myself on a life-long learning journey, always aware of how little I understand and how many more exciting challenges there are still to tackle. Laurie never lost the infectious enthusiasm I first encountered at Brunel: he was always ready to take on a new learning challenge. Laurie has left us a rich intellectual legacy in his many books and papers but for those of us who were privileged to know him, he has left us something even more priceless: a philosophy of life as a continual process of discovery. a quest for self-learning that, once ignited, can never be quenched.

Ken Eason

Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Ergonomics,
Loughborough University

Director for Operations Management,
The Bayswater Institute