Detailed Comments from Colleagues and Users of S-O-L


Prof. Don Bannister

Sheila and Laurie’s creation of S-O-L performs a kindly, necessary and powerful act:. It rehabilitates the concept of learning.

The long decades of Behaviourism in psychology promoted ‘learning’ to the status of a dominant concept but defined it in a way which made it repressive when applied to education and unfruitful when used in psychological theorising and ·research. The idea of learning as consisting of essentially mechanical changes in task performance, brought about by practice, is characterised by that most fatal of flaws in an idea: it is uninteresting and indeed wrong. Trying to give life to this central notion of learning by attaching to it half-defined bits and pieces – ideational learning, incidental learning, selective learning, learning set, discriminative learning and so forth – helped keep boredom at bay but failed to provide us with a pathway for exploring and understanding human experience in terms of ‘learning’. The human subject remained a pale and shadowy figure, lost between the stimulus (as defined by the psychologist) and the response (as defined by the psychologist); an ‘organism’ without self-possessed point or purpose.

Thomas and Harri-Augstein would acknowledge forebears in offering a dynamic vision of learning, Fred Bartlett for one, but their particular contribution, in this book, is vividly to redefine learning in terms of the way we elaborate structures of meaning and to offer rich tools to aid that elaboration. The tools which they offer are not only brilliant techniques but represent operational definitive’s of creative learning. Many of them are imaginative developments of repertory grid method, as originally offered by George Kelly, and in developing it they have substantially extended our understanding of what can be done with the computer, by way of using it not simply as a galloping abacus but as a reflective companion.

The book’s central model of learning is the conversation – perhaps our oldest, richest and most particularly human way of learning. In using this model, they cast light on much of the everyday, yet somehow mysterious, experience we have of conversation, including its dual nature. We reflect to ourselves as well as exchanging with others, so that two conversations, one internal and one external, seem always to be taking place.

The book integrates and sings a harmonious song about areas that have traditionally   been   treated   as separate   and barely   communicating segments. Thus, the way in which the authors discuss, explore and experiment with learning, cannot meaningfully be filed in the pigeon holes of ‘cognition’ or ‘motivation’ or ’emotion’, though   no doubt   the book will be duly categorised in such ways because historically we have splintered our image of the whole person. A further set of distinctions over which the authors ride rough shod, on their way to larger goals, are the distinctions between teaching, training and therapy. These   are now old   and entrenched   distinctions to which we have attached different psychologies, different professions and different languages. Thomas and Harri-Augstein argue that when we teach a child to read, or train someone to operate a capstan lathe, or work as a psychotherapist with the psychologically distressed, we are (or ought to be) enabling them to become self-organised learners and that self-organised learning is both the pathway to particular ‘skills’ and is also that very self-mastery which lies at the heart of creative change.

Not only do the authors elaborate Kelly’s methods, they give life to many of the ideas of personal construct theory. The book seems to begin its journey from the old boundaries of ‘learning experiments’ as described by Kelly in The Psychology of Personal Constructs (p. 77): ‘the problem of learning is not merely one of determining how many or what kinds of reinforcements fix a response, or how many non-reinforcements extinguish it, but rather, how does the subject phrase the experience, what recurrent themes does he hear, what movements does he define, and what validations of his predictions does he reap?

When a subject fails to meet the experimenter’s expectations, it may be inappropriate to say that “he has not learned”; rather, one might say that what the subject learned was not what the experimenter expected him to learn’.

The book is necessarily reflexive. Its writing and the twenty years of experiment and exploration upon which it is based, is a monumental demonstration of self-organised learning.

Prof. Don Bannister
MRC External Scientific Staff, High Royds Hospital, Ilkley

Dr. David Fontana

In their challenging book the authors offer a radical approach to personal and organisational growth. Their new science of human learning uses reflective procedures called Learning Conversations to enable individuals of all ages, backgrounds and disciplines to become more aware of their own learning processes, to challenge the robots within, and those personal myths which often disable them as learners. By self-organising their learning they achieve insights resulting in improved attitudes and outcomes in study and work, greater personal confidence and innovativeness, and an enhanced capacity to learn.

This deeply personal yet systematic approach offers greater opportunities for self­ responsibility and for the development of skills, competence and creativity.

Any organisation acting as a Self-Organised Learning entity can more constructively enhance the quality of its activities, with a pay-off for individuals and the organisation as a whole. Workforce teams, project groups, managers and top executives can create learning networks and Self-Organised Learning environments to achieve higher productivity and improved job performance, quality of service and cost-effectiveness. They can creatively overcome crises and uncertainties, and meet the challenges of our rapidly changing and competitive society by evolving flexible strategies that will help to lead to more constructive alternative futures.

Individuals, teachers, trainers and managers in public and private enterprises, consultants, planners, knowledge engineers and many more will find this an invaluable compendium of new and exciting ideas and techniques that will transform their approach and achievements.

‘. . . it is a book no psychologist and no teacher should be without. It could fundamentally change the way in which we approach learning.’

Dr. David Fontana, Reader in Educational Psychology

Professor Rom Harre

Learning Conversations is a significant contribution to the theory and practice of Human Learning as this is being conversationally reconstructed within the new psychology which is now clearly emerging in various forms in many different parts of the world.

Professor Rom Harre, Oxford University

Professor Gordon Pask,

As the founder of cybernetic ‘Conversation Theory’, I commend Sheila Harri-Augstein and Laurie Thomas’s recent book, Learning Conversations, as an important and significant work to be widely read. They have added to, and independently innovated along, congruent although phrased-in-their-own-metaphor directions.

Professor Gordon Pask, System Research Ltd.
Richmond, Surrey

Users of Self-Organised Learning

Sir Bryan Nicholson

We often mistakenly regard the identification of our learning needs as the responsibility of our teacher, trainer or manager. Self-Organised Learning not only offers each of us the opportunity of recognising and structuring such needs for ourselves but enables us to adaptively construct strategies for fulfilling these effectively. The S-O-L system has enabled individuals and teams to improve their skills and competencies, and to approach the changing nature of their jobs and tasks with great confidence and motivation. It has already produced very encouraging results in the Post Office, assisting in progress towards higher productivity.

Sir Bryan Nicholson, Chairman, Post Office,
and Chairman, CBI Educational Training Affairs Committee

Andrew Taylor

This commentary is a record of my professional search for a management model which will harness the full capabilities of people in organisations to the achievement of the organisations’ goals. This search has taken place in the context of the Post Office in which I have spent my working life. The key event in this search was my introduction to Self-Organised Learning (S-O-L) in 1984, during the Centre for the Study of Human Learning’s S-O-L action research project on supervisory and managerial effectiveness.

My survey of the literature in the fields of management, learning and psychology has prompted me to identify the need for a more person-centred approach to management. The survey focuses on 5 key issues, the motivation of people to contribute to the achievement of organisational goals, responsibility and control, assumptions or myths about people, attitudes towards people, and learning for continuous improvement.

I have followed the action research paradigm in four main research projects:-

  • a trial of S-O-L in Reading Head Post office in 1985/86.
  • the use of S-O-L in the Parcel Sort Centre near Reading between 1986 and 1990.
  • a major Management Development and Productivity Improvement Programme in the Parcel Sort Centre in 1990.
  • further use of S-O-L in the Parcel Sort Centre near Reading in 1991 and 1992.

In the research I have used the key S-O-L tools, the Learning Conversation and the Personal Learning Contract, and I have deployed my own approach to people management which is based on trust, openness, support and encouragement.

The action research results have been evaluated on a multi-perspective basis taking account of the benefits to:

  • participating managers both as individuals and as teams.
  • the organisation.
  • myself, as a manager, action researcher and person.

Included in the evaluation are the results of evaluation conversations held with members of my management team at the Parcel Sort Centre. These are presented in the form of Personal Learning Biographies, which address the learner’s own as well as others’ evaluation.

A major outcome of my research is the development of a Person-Centred Model of Organisational Growth. Together the action research results and the model highlight my conclusion that, as managers and trainers, we are failing to release the potential of people in organisations to learn and grow and thereby fully participate in the achievement of organisational goals. We are not developing effective personal and group relationships based upon the motivation theories of Maslow and Herzberg, McGregor’s Theory and Rogerian concepts.

The thesis demonstrates that the systematic practice of Learning Conversations on-the-job in a variety of work based contexts transforms the attitudes of people towards work and empowers them with learning focused skills and competencies, which enable them to work more productively and effectively as individuals and as a team to meet organisational goals. This is a mutually beneficial process, enhancing the powers of the individual and the objective demands (productivity, quality of service and cost effectiveness) of the organisation. More than this, the S-O-L approach creates a structured, systematic Learning Environment which proactively encourages change and development in ways which can sustain individual development and organisational growth. This thesis identifies some of the hidden mythologies and constraints which need to be deconstructed and reconstructed in the support environment daring the change process of individual and organisational growth.

This commentary is a record of my professional search for a management model which will harness the full capabilities of people in organisations to the achievement of the organisations’ goals. This search has taken place in the context of the Post Office in which I have spent my working life. The key event in this search was my introduction to Self-Organised Learning (S-O-L) in 1984, during the Centre for the Study of Human Learning’s S-O-L action research project on supervisory and managerial effectiveness.

Andrew Taylor, Mails Manager
Royal Mail Sorting Office, Reading

A Senior Supervisor

For most of my lifelong career in the Post Office I had to learn the hard way. By the time I was a senior planning manager with special responsibility for training, I was given the opportunity to develop more skills and I became a S-O-L Coach. In many ways this transformed my life and how I did my job. I experienced many ‘Learning Conversations’ and over a period of two years I kept a diary of my thoughts and feelings as I practiced S-O-L on the job. Extracts from this diary are reproduced below for the benefit of trainers and managers who may want to find out more about S-O-L.

I have initiated several ‘Learning Projects’ as a S-O-L Coach. These have included:

  • Learning Conversations to create an awareness of the effects of ‘orderliness and tidiness’ on office performance
  • Developing, running and evaluating S-O-L workshops for newly appointed supervisors to help them research their jobs by hands-on experience.
  • Developing and testing my ‘personal problem S-O-Lving algorithm’ as a planner
  • Working with the Christmas team to develop ‘personal work plans’ to ensure the smooth dispatch of mail during this busy period.
  • Working with my full-time S-O-L Coach to support the smooth transition from the old mail letter sorting office to the new system in the new building.

Part of my Personal Learning Biography which records some of these activities is presented in the accompanying Figure Each project was judged to be successful when evaluated against S-O-L criteria and the ‘objective measures’ within my office.

My introduction to Self-Organised Learning (S-O-L)

In 1985 representatives from C.S.H.L at Brunel University visited our post office to study the work performed by postal supervisors. Their objective was to consider new methods to be used either as an alternative or as additions to the current methods being used to improve the standards of supervision.

I was one of the supervisors interviewed and I remember that I was more than a little sceptical and I questioned the purpose of the interviews. It had been one of my duties to organise training sessions and I thought that the existing sessions were quite adequate and did not involve expensive outside training. However, during the interviews with the C.S.H.L people I began to realise that there was more to it and I became more inquisitive and interested. In 1986 I attended a S-O-L course and became a part-time S-O-L Coach.

Self-Organised Learning has helped me quite considerably. In the course of my work in planning, I have to think about the work or problem and analyse it critically. It was always normal practice to perform this work by traditional methods that had been used for years and never questioned. Since attending the S-O-L course I now ask myself ‘Is there a better way or perhaps a quicker one?’ Of course, it does not necessarily follow that there is, but at least I think about it and do not just accept matters.

I have found S-O-L to be a very personal thing and if accepted it can help in many different ways, both at home and at work. It is a personality builder as it makes you more confident, you see things differently and more clearly. S-O-L should not be considered ‘an overnight success story’, but once the seeds are sown they will grow, although they grow more quickly in some people and more slowly in others because we are all individuals with our own individual pace.

I have become more aware of how I do my job, I certainly give matters more thought and I examine myself for my strengths, faults or weaknesses. I think the most noticeable change is that I find myself looking at problems on a much broader horizon. For example, I realised that our post office, along with others countrywide, was going through various inspections and fault-finding missions, all of which should improve our business. I felt, however, that insufficient thought was being given to staff motivation. My thoughts evolved into proposals which have been given to management for consideration. I credit Self-Organised Learning for my interest and insight in this matter.

Reflections: The humorous side of S-O-L

After returning home from the S-O-L course, I began to review the course and wondered if something was missing from the curriculum o£ ‘Learning to Learn’, namely ‘Learning to Think’. I was not sure exactly what I had learned and this seemed to be the general feeling among the other course participants. All of us were saying, albeit in different ways, that we were unsure of exactly how to put S-O-L into practice. We had learned a great deal on the course but because the method was completely new to us and perhaps a little strange, it was difficult to grasp.

Preparation of a Learning Programme

I began thinking about a possible Learning Programme and tried to work out a pattern we could follow. First, I thought that a meeting between S-O-L Coaches and their assistants should be set up to discuss how all the Coaches could work on the same wavelength, not necessarily in the same way, but as a team. I felt that this could make for better informed and more efficient and confident supervisors who are able to go on learning and support the learning of others on the job.

It was while I was thinking about preparing a Learning Programme and working on a flowchart that the word ‘FEAR’ came into my head. I recalled that this word had been mentioned on the S-O-L course the fear of failure, of not being as good as the next person, not really knowing the answers, when a nod of the head suggests confirmation but is really the disguise for not wanting to speak out.

I then realised that I was talking to myself-a sign of madness it is said! I found that almost for the first time in my life I was digging deep into myself, questioning, reflecting, exploring and playing with my mind.

For days and weeks I experienced a mixture of apprehension, fear and excitement. Was I going mad? Or was this the seed of the inner Learning Conversation that we had been introduced to on the course?

I have come to realise that it is possible to become a more balanced person if you can learn to think inwardly as part of the Learning to Learn techniques. There is close similarity between learning and thinking, and with the Learning Conversation method I have been made to think, by means of discussion and by asking myself questions and answering them myself.

The Enemy of S-O-L

It is hard to believe that Self-Organised Learning, which can only benefit people, can have an enemy, but it does. How many times, I wonder, does the S-O-L Coach hear the words ‘It’s just a gimmick’ or ‘It’s just one big con-somebody trying to tell us how to do our job’, and so on.

It is common knowledge that many people are adverse to change, particularly when it affects them personally. In the Post Office we are all aware of the drastic changes taking place and how things are going to differ in the future, particularly in the supervisory grades. I have found that new staff are more responsive to S-O-L simply because they are keen to receive as much help as they can to be successful in their jobs.

I have noticed that established supervisors with many years of experience seem to shy away from anything different from the norm, they prefer to carry on as they always have ‘robotishly’. If the set pattern looks like altering, you will hear a barrage of reasons as to why the new methods will not work even before anything new has been introduced! The established supervisors, set in their ways, find it hard to change.

S-O-L becomes something they do not understand, they resent anyone who tells them it will help them improve, that it will encourage them to question themselves about how they do their job. The supervisors will always reply that ‘There is only one way to learn this job, and that is with long experience the hard way!’ They are really afraid that they might reveal certain weaknesses by taking part in S-O-L. ‘It is a brain- washing technique,’ I have heard someone say, and ‘We do not need S-O-L, with our experience we know it all,’ was another comment. It is not an easy task to convince established supervisors that S-O-L can only be of benefit to them. Sometimes a supervisor may already be practicing S-O-L to some extent and not be aware of it. The enemy of Self-Organised Learning is fear in the individual.

Speaking personally, I shall continue to endeavour to transform ‘training’ and to become an enabler of change on the job.

A Senior Supervisor
Royal Mail Sorting Office, Reading