Bringing assumptions to the surface

The Reflective Practice Guide: An interdisciplinary approach to critical reflection - Barbara Bassot 2015

Bringing assumptions to the surface

’We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.’



In this chapter we will explore the area of assumptions including how they come about and why as professionals we need to understand some of the assumptions we might be making. We will examine different levels of assumptions and discuss some theoretical perspectives that can help us to understand more about how we can challenge our ways of thinking. The chapter will conclude with a model that can be used individually and in supervision to help us to reflect on how we can begin to overcome some of our limiting assumptions.

What are assumptions and how do they come about?

If we look up the word assumption in a basic dictionary we would find it defined as something that is accepted as true or certain to happen but is without proof. Assumptions are ideas and thoughts that evolve over time and become things that we then take for granted. They become so ingrained in our daily thoughts and actions that we no longer question their validity or even think about them. In some circumstances assumptions are valuable as they prevent us from needing to think about every aspect of our lives in detail. Sometimes these kinds of assumptions are referred to as working hypotheses. For example, if we had to think closely about what to do each time we did something as routine as making a cup of tea, life would be exhausting! Instead, we draw on our past experiences and make it somewhat automatically. However, other assumptions are not helpful, as they can lead to unconscious bias in our practice (Moss-Racusin, Dovidio, Brescoll, Graham and Handelsman, 2012).

Often, our assumptions are based on our personal values. Values are things that are important to us — in a literal sense they are things that we value. Our personal values are deep rooted and will often stem from our upbringing and can include things like, honesty, hard work and the importance of family. Personal values, therefore, reflect the social context of the individual and vary from person to person.

Reflective activity 7.1

Think about some of the phrases that you heard regularly when you were growing up. What do they say about your values?

Brookfield (1995: 2) describes critical reflection as a process of ’hunting assumptions’. Here, the word ’hunting’ is particularly helpful and gives us insights into how difficult a process discovering some of our assumptions can be. Hunting usually involves searching out things that are hidden beneath the surface, and sometimes the things we are hunting positively want to escape from us. Brookfield (1995: 2) describes assumptions as ’taken-for-granted beliefs about the world and our place within it that seem so obvious as not to need stating explicitly’. He describes the following three levels of assumptions.

1 ’Paradigmatic assumptions’ — these operate at the deepest level and have become so ingrained that often we simply do not think about them. They play a vital part in how we structure what we see around us and in the way we view and experience the world. Our paradigmatic assumptions inform our views of ’reality’ and ’truth’ and are so deep that we do not necessarily even recognise them as assumptions. Many people resist examining them because the process can be very challenging and at times uncomfortable. Our paradigmatic assumptions inform the two other levels shown below and lead us to think and act in certain ways.

2 ’Prescriptive assumptions’ — these are based on what we think ought to happen in particular situations. For example, we may be working hard with a particular client and may feel that they should then take action on the things we have discussed. However, there may be many reasons why they do not take any action; we are simply assuming that they should do so.

3 ’Causal assumptions’ — these inform what we expect to happen or to be the case in certain situations. For example, I tried this particular approach in this situation and the outcome was good, so I am then surprised when it does not work in a similar situation. I might assume that the reason it failed is because of a lack of engagement on the part of others. Of course, this will not necessarily be the case.

Reflective activity 7.2

Now spend some time thinking about the kinds of assumptions you make in relation to your professional learning and practice. How would you categorise these using Brookfield’s 3 levels?

Case study 7.1

Jude is a learning mentor in a secondary school and he supports students with challenging behaviour. He is currently working with a student (Melanie) who finds attending school very difficult and has frequent panic attacks. Despite lots of hard work, Jude feels that she is not making much progress. He begins to wonder if he might be expecting too much of her and decides to examine his thoughts using Brookfield’s levels of assumptions. He wrote this in his journal.

Causal assumptions — I really don’t understand it. I’ve been working with Melanie for quite a while now, but she is still having lots of panic attacks. It’s so distressing to watch and I really wonder how she will cope with everyday life. I’ve tried lots of different strategies to try and help her to calm down, but nothing really seems to work. When she gets anxious, the panic just seems to take over. I think she’s just not trying hard enough.

Prescriptive assumptions — working with Melanie is getting more and more difficult. She says she is trying the strategies we have discussed, but says they’re not working. She really should be getting better by now, but she’s just getting worse.

Paradigmatic assumptions — I want Melanie to get better because then her life will be so much easier, and I guess mine will be too. I suppose I’m finding the fact that she isn’t improving difficult because it makes me feel like I’m a failure. I’m not used to this. I’m used to being successful; people often praise me for my work, especially parents, and maybe deep down it feels like I am letting everyone down in some way. This puts pressure on me and maybe this means I put pressure on her. Perhaps I’m the one that needs to relax and listen more.

Why professionals need to understand the assumptions they may be making

Unless we give due attention to our assumptions, our professional practice could be likened to some kind of ’autopilot’. Of course, we cannot examine every detail of our working day — there is insufficient time and our working lives would then be too tiring mentally and emotionally. However, any kind of ’autopilot’ is very risky for the following reasons.

• If we fail to consider the assumptions we are making about our clients (including such things as our prejudices and stereotypes), we can find ourselves practising in a discriminatory or oppressive way.

• If we always see what we believe we see, we do things in similar ways and our practice becomes stale. We fail to see positives when our assumptions are disconfirmed and our practice stagnates.

• If we practice ’in the same way’ we lose our creativity.

• We risk going back to the area of ’unconscious incompetence’ (see Chapter 1).

How assumptions can be questioned

In many circumstances our feelings act as a guide to the assumptions we might be making and these will often be closely linked with our previous experiences. Table 7.1 shows some examples of a range of different feelings we might have in relation to particular circumstances in our professional practice, some ideas of the kinds of experiences that might prompt these and the assumptions we might make as a result in similar situations in the future. It is also important to remember that when we experience things we feel the feelings as well (see Chapter 6).

Table 7.1 Feelings we might have in relation to particular circumstances in our professional practice


It is interesting to note that it is not only negative experiences that can lead us to make assumptions; positive ones can do this too. However, this does not mean that we should somehow try to set our feelings to one side, but rather that we should pay attention to them so that we can process them (Boud et al., 1985).

Reflective activity 7.3

Now think of some work, or personal situations that you have encountered, the feelings you had and the assumptions you then went on to make. You could do this in a table or just as notes.

Case study 7.2

Theo is training to be a nurse and is on placement in a learning disability assessment unit. He is finding the placement difficult and often goes home feeling drained physically and mentally. He regularly feels discouraged by the circumstances of the patients, particularly the young adults. Some of the patients have very few visitors and some have none at all. Theo has a very supportive family and he is very close to his older brother. They have always supported one another and often speak of being best friends as well as brothers. Theo does not understand why some of the patients seem to be completely alone and he finds himself getting angry about this. He feels that parents should support their children no matter what, like his parents have always supported him, and that vulnerable people should not be left alone without the support of their family. He assumes that families who do not support their children are in the wrong and he cannot wait for his placement to end.

Argyris’ Ladder of Inference

It is fair to say that each of us at some point in time has made assumptions, jumped to conclusions, which in turn have led to particular actions. In order to challenge our assumptions, we need to understand how assumptions are made — Argyris’ (1982) Ladder of Inference is a very helpful explanation of this phenomenon. Figure 7.1 illustrates this.

Argyris argues that the Ladder of Inference works in this way. At the foot of the Ladder, we observe an event as it happens. Our human brains receive so many messages each day that we select the data we need or want at any given time. We then add meaning to that data, drawing on our current situation and our past experiences in similar situations. These meanings are drawn from the perspective of our own personal and cultural settings. From here we make assumptions and then draw conclusions about the person or the situation. These conclusions become part of our beliefs about the world and how it operates or, in other words, they become part of our worldview. The action we then take is based on our beliefs.


Figure 7.1 Argyris’ Ladder of Inference

Once we reach this point we take one of two recursive loops (see Figure 7.2). The first loop is from our beliefs (the penultimate step on the Ladder) back to the second step on the Ladder where we automatically select data. In this loop, our beliefs lead us to make similar choices from our subsequent observations. In short, we most often select the data that supports our existing beliefs and ignore the data that might refute them; we see what we believe we see.

The second loop is from taking action at the very top of the Ladder to the bottom of the Ladder (see Figure 7.2). This involves taking action to seek more observable data. But this new data is also observed through the lens of our beliefs and these prompt us to notice what we have seen previously. Hence, our approach becomes biased in favour of our previous observations. Following either of these recursive loops means that our assumptions are strengthened and our existing beliefs are confirmed and even reinforced. So, in contrast to the well-known phrase ’I’ll believe it when I see it’, both loops prompt an ’I believe it, so I see it’ approach.

Here is a very general example of how the Ladder of Inference operates.

A client you are working with behaves badly and you select data from what you observe. You only see their bad behaviour rather than anything good they might do or have done in the past. The meaning you add is that you are not surprised that they behave badly as in your experience many people you work with in this particular context behave like this. You then make assumptions about the person based on this, for example that this particular person is just like other people you meet here. From this you draw your own conclusions and come to believe that whenever you work in this particular setting, you will always deal with difficult people. These beliefs then influence your actions in the future and you go into the situation expecting people to be difficult.


Figure 7.2 Argyris’ Ladder of Inference and the recursive loops

Recursive loop 1 — based on the belief that everyone is difficult in this situation, you select data in the future and only see bad behaviour in the people you meet, thereby confirming your expectations.

Recursive loop 2 — after taking action you then seek further observable data. But your data selection is based on your existing beliefs about how people behave here and again your expectations are confirmed.

Either way you see what you expect to see rather than what actually takes place and your assumptions have won the day. However, this can be avoided in two ways. First, we need to challenge our assumptions regularly by asking ourselves some questions such as:

• Do people always behave badly here or is it simply that this is what I am used to seeing?

• When did an individual last behave badly in this context?

• What might the reasons have been for their behaviour?

• Did I play any part in prompting their behaviour, for example, by being insensitive to their needs?

Second, we can actively seek out some contrary data that will disconfirm our assumptions. For example:

• Remind yourself that the context has been difficult in the past but that this does not mean that it will always be like this.

• Look for positives.

• Make a note of each time someone behaves well in this particular context.

• Make a note of anything you felt you did that helped towards a more positive atmosphere.

These are vital steps towards working in a non judgemental way.

Reflective activity 7.4

Now think about a situation where you feel you made some assumptions. How would you now be able to avoid the two recursive loops?

Case study 7.3

Megan is training to be a Maths teacher and is on placement in a secondary school. She dreads Friday afternoons because she has to teach the bottom set and the students can be uncooperative and difficult to manage. She has observed lots of bad behaviour and usually cannot wait for the lesson to end. Her mentor has become concerned about her attitude to the class and asks her to think about some of the assumptions she is making. Emma soon realises that she expects very little of the students. The exercises and activities she chooses are often dull and do not demand very much from them. As a result, they get bored very easily and their behaviour deteriorates further. Megan decides to design more interesting and practical activities to try and engage the students more in the next lesson. She deliberately looks for any evidence of good behaviour and realises that many of the students behave well and in fact only a small number behave badly. She decides to discuss some specific strategies for working with the students who are not engaging with her lesson when she next sees her mentor.

Double loop learning (Argyris and Schön)

In Chapter 4 we examined Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle. This process involves having an experience that we later reflect on; this builds our knowledge and helps us as we prepare for the next experience. This kind of experiential learning is very valuable in professional practice and can be described as single loop learning (Argyris and Schön, 1974).

However, if we want to take our professional learning further and to engage with it at a deeper level, we need to challenge our established ways of thinking and of doing things, which in turn involves becoming aware of our assumptions. Critically reflective practice asks us to delve beneath the surface of our ideas to our beliefs and paradigms so that we can challenge our assumptions and, if necessary, adjust our habitual ways of viewing the world. In this regard Argyris and Schön’s (1974) concept of double loop learning is very useful (see Figure 7.3). Unlike Kolb’s single loop cycle, double loop learning asks us to bring our assumptions to the surface and to question the things that we take for granted. This can lead us to explore further our personal values and beliefs that lie beneath our professional practice. Through this process, our perceptions and habits can change; we become more open minded and our practice can become more creative.


Figure 7.3 Double loop learning

It is important to remember that exploring our assumptions is always challenging both personally and professionally. Taking a questioning approach can be helpful and here are some questions you could pose.

• Am I making any assumptions in this situation and if so, what are they?

• Are these assumptions valid?

• How would I justify them if I were asked to do so?

• Does this mean I am jumping to conclusions?

• Do my perceptions need to change?

• How does this affect my beliefs and how I see the world?

Such challenging can be done as part of the process of reflection following an experience as shown in Figure 7.4, but could be done during an experience too.

Reflective activity 7.5

Now think about an incident that happened recently where you felt you made some assumptions. What were they and how would you now respond to the questions posed above?

Case study 7.4

Tony is a newly qualified social worker and is working in a team providing care in the community for elderly clients. He regularly visits an 80-year-old who is being visited twice a day by carers to help him with his personal care. The client is keen to stay in his own home as long as possible as he values his independence. Whilst the client seems happy, Tony is concerned about the length of time he is spending on his own. He imagines that the client is lonely and that this could be bad for his mental health. He also thinks that it would be good if the client could get out of the house regularly and see something of the outside world. He tries to talk to the client about this, but the client assures him that as long as he has his regular visits from his carers, he is happy. He explains that one of them brings him his daily newspaper, which he loves to read and another always makes a cup of tea for both of them at the end of her visit and spends a few minutes chatting with him. Tony realises that he has assumed that the client is unhappy, when in fact he isn’t. The client is happy in his own home and feels secure there. Tony begins to understand that the client sees the world differently from him and that the most important thing is that the client is happy.

Mezirow’s seven levels of reflectivity that lead to ’perspective transformation’

In his work on transformative learning Mezirow (1978; 1981) puts forward descriptions of seven levels of reflectivity, which enable us to analyse how we approach people and situations. In particular, this helps us to think about assumptions we might be making in the light of past experiences. Reflectivity is often defined as the act of reflection, but, as indicated in Chapter 1, the terms reflection, reflectivity and reflexivity are sometimes used interchangeably, which can be confusing. The first four levels operate within our everyday consciousness, so are things that we are aware of on a regular basis — these include our feelings and personal values. The remaining three levels lie at a much deeper level and form part of our critical consciousness. At this level we become aware of the reasons why we sometimes make judgments about situations and people quickly, and in some cases why we can make these too quickly.

The seven levels are as follows:

1 Reflectivity — becoming aware of our view of things, people and situations. This also includes being aware of how we think and act in certain situations. So what do I think and feel about this person or situation and how does this affect how I behave?

2 Affective Reflectivity — not only becoming aware of our feelings in a particular situation, but also becoming aware of our feelings about how we think and act. So how do I feel about the way I think/act in these situations and am I comfortable with this?

3 Discriminant Reflectivity — questioning whether or not our perceptions about people are valid and accurate — are my perceptions correct?

4 Judgemental Reflectivity — involves becoming aware of our value judgements. These are often embedded within such things as our upbringing and can act as a guide to finding out more about our assumptions. So, what kind of value judgments might I be making?

5 Conceptual Reflectivity — questioning the constructs we use when we think about other people. So, why do I think of this person or these people in this particular way?

6 Psychic Reflectivity — recognising our prejudices and stereotypes that can make us quick to make judgements about people, often on the basis of limited information and even ignorance. So, am I just jumping to conclusions?

7 Theoretical Reflectivity — realising that the reason we make quick judgements about people is because these are based on our cultural and psychological assumptions. So, what are my assumptions about this person based on and in the light of this, should I be making such assumptions?

By exploring our thinking at each level, we can question our assumptions, in particular whether they are valid or not. This puts us in a stronger position to challenge our assumptions where we feel we cannot justify them and to reframe them where appropriate. Reaching the deepest level of Theoretical Reflectivity means that perspective transformation can happen. In other words, at this level I can begin to think about things differently.

Like many other theories, Mezirow’s work has been criticised. In the same way as learning cycles can be critiqued by asking such questions as ’do things always happen in this particular sequence?’, it is also legitimate to ask whether or not evidence for these levels can be found and whether the particular sequencing of them is accurate. In particular, Illeris (2014) argues that Mezirow’s approach places too much emphasis on a cognitive, even logical process, which does not pay sufficient attention to the impact of feelings and values on professional practice. He argues that a holistic process of ’see — feel — change’ enables us to challenge our assumptions rather than a purely rational one.

Equally, being aware of our assumptions does not then automatically imply that we take action to challenge them — as we know, taking action also involves choice. We cannot expect to be aware of our thinking at these seven levels on a daily basis, but they could give us some very useful insights into particularly challenging experiences or circumstances.

In his later work, Mezirow (2006) incorporates critical self-reflection of assumptions as a key aspect of perspective transformation. Also, by this time, he uses the helpful phrase ’habits of mind’ to illustrate that our ways of thinking are often so ingrained that they have become habitual. Habits, as we know, can be very difficult to break, but not impossible. Positive habits of mind, including being open minded, seem particularly important in relation to learning and professional practice.

Reflective activity 7.6

Now think about areas of your work and development where it is particularly important to be open minded. How might you challenge your assumptions in these particular areas?

Case study 7.5

Julia is a counsellor who has been working with a woman for a number of months. In the recent past the woman has suffered from domestic violence by her estranged husband. Julia has worked hard to build a positive relationship with the client in a congruent and non-judgemental way, but she finds it very difficult when the client says that she still loves her husband, that he is now a reformed character and that she is thinking of living with him again. During the session, Julia begins to feel anxious and irritated by the client’s apparent acceptance of her abusive husband. Following the session, Julia explores her feelings and the assumptions she thinks she might be making. She questions whether or not she is jumping to conclusions and whether her previous experiences of working with clients in situations like this means that she has just got into the habit of thinking ’this won’t work’. Ultimately, she knows that the client is responsible for her own life, but decides that during the next session she will help the client to examine the advantages and disadvantages of living with her husband again. Julia hopes that this will help her to reflect on what she could gain and lose in her current situation.

A model for challenging limiting assumptions

When we think about the effect our assumptions have on our practice, it is easy to see that they can serve to restrict the way we view people and situations. If they are based on negative stereotypes this can be particularly detrimental and even damaging to clients. Challenging the assumptions we hold that limit the way we see things is an important element of learning and development and is a vital part of becoming and remaining an effective professional practitioner.

The Career Thinking Session (CTS) model (Bassot, 2015) offers a framework for challenging our limiting assumptions and can be used in supervision (see Chapter 9) or with a trusted colleague. It is a helpful approach to use when thinking about your career and professional development. The CTS itself involves intense listening (the term Listener is used for the person who carries out the session) to the person who wants to learn more about their career and professional development (the Thinker). The Listener poses the open question at the beginning of each step and then waits until the Thinker has finished saying all they wish to say, interjecting with statements such as ’that sounds interesting, tell me more about that’ or ’I’m interested in why you said that. Can you please elaborate a bit more?’ and so on.

Adapted from the work of Kline (1999) the CTS has the following six steps.

Step 1 — ’What do you want to think about?’ Here, the Thinker expresses the thoughts and issues they have brought to the session. These might relate to things that the Thinker has found challenging in their professional practice, or something that has troubled them. Equally, it could be something that they feel very positive about that they would like to build upon. In Step 1 it is very important that the Listener does not rush in and move forward with the first idea or issue that the Thinker raises, as it is likely that anything raised initially might be (but will not always be) at a fairly superficial level of thinking. The Listener also needs to resist the temptation to try and solve the Thinker’s problem or issue by offering advice or by moving too quickly to solutions. Such solutions are likely to come from the Listener’s perspective and not from that of the Thinker and would probably result in little or no change. Once the Thinker has finished speaking and has nothing else to add, they are ready to move on to Step 2.

Step 2 — ’What do you want to achieve from the rest of the session?’ This is an opportunity for the Thinker to express what they would like to focus on in the CTS. Again, it is important that the Listener waits for the Thinker to respond. Examples of many possible responses from Thinkers in relation to issues of career and professional development could include such things as ’to understand more about the difficulties I face in this area of my work’, ’to understand more about why I find certain scenarios challenging’, ’to explore how I can be more confident in my practice’ or ’to think about adjusting my work-life balance’.

Step 3 — ’What are you assuming is stopping you from moving forward in your development?’ This encourages the Thinker to begin to think about their limiting assumptions. Kline (1999) identifies three types of limiting assumptions: facts such as ’I don’t have the relevant qualifications’; possible facts such as ’colleagues would not support me’; and bedrock assumptions about self and how life works, such as ’I’m not good enough’ or ’I’m not talented enough’. Bedrock assumptions are deep rooted and will often (but not always) take time to come to the surface and can be likened to Brookfield’s (1995) paradigmatic assumptions (see page 80). Often, they act as barriers to career and professional development and undermine someone’s confidence and self-esteem. These assumptions are deep and develop over long periods of time, often from early childhood. They are so significant that they inform our beliefs and what we see as ’truth’. Reaching the bedrock assumption and articulating it is vital. In Step 3 the Thinker needs time to identify and articulate the bedrock assumption and may in some situations be reticent to do so. The Listener needs to recognise it and remember it.

Step 4 — ’If you knew that . . . what ideas would you have towards your development?’ The ultimate goal in Step 4 is to enable the Listener to design the Incisive Question in relation to their bedrock assumption. As part of this process, the Thinker is asked to find the positive opposites to their limiting assumptions. Some of the positive opposites in relation to the examples used in Step 3 could be, ’if you knew you could study to get the required qualifications’ (fact), ’if you knew that your colleagues would support you’ (possible fact), ’if you knew you were good enough’ (bedrock) or ’if you knew you were talented enough’ (bedrock). These questions encourage the Thinker to challenge their limiting assumptions by ’turning things on their head’ and can help them to begin to think differently. It is important to emphasise that whilst the Listener can encourage the Thinker to pose relevant questions, the Thinker needs to articulate these questions in their own words. Limiting assumptions are particular to the individual concerned and are based on how they see the world, not how the Listener sees it. The Listener then asks the Thinker to identify the positive opposite to their bedrock assumption and to state this in relation to their further development. This is the Incisive Question (IQ), and is described as such because it cuts through the limiting bedrock assumption, serving to remove it, replacing it with a new, freeing assumption, which liberates the Thinker to think positively about their future. So, for example, the IQ for someone who says ’I am not talented enough’ could be ’How can I best use my talents?’ The IQ has cut through the limiting bedrock assumption, enabling the person to focus on their talents and to think about how they can use them.

Step 5Writing down the Incisive Question. The Incisive Question is very important and needs to be written down at the beginning of Step 5. Otherwise the danger is that it will be forgotten; the CTS could lose its focus and its positive impetus. Again, it must be written in the Thinker’s own words. The Listener then asks the Incisive Question a number of times until the Thinker has voiced all their new positive ideas in relation to their future development.

Step 6Appreciation. This is unusual and could be unexpected for many in professional practice. We must always remember that sharing limiting assumptions is sensitive and challenging and demands trust and openness on both sides. Kline (1999) argues that the last step of appreciation keeps people thinking and asks both participants to share a positive quality they have found in each other and that they have valued during the session. This encourages the Thinker to continue to focus on the positives in relation to themselves and their future and to keep thinking past the session itself.

Reflective activity 7.7

What are your initial thoughts on the CTS model? Could the model be helpful, and if so, how? Is there someone that you could ask to help you to try it out?


In this chapter we have considered a range of issues related to assumptions. It is important to remember that challenging our own assumptions is rarely easy and can be uncomfortable. However, if we are seeking to evaluate our practice, doing this will form a vital part of our ongoing learning and development. In the next chapter we will focus on the role of feedback in this process.


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