Verfremdung in management education: initiating critical reflection
thesisposted on 28.03.2022, 19:15 by Temi Darief
This thesis considers the implications of introducing the concept of Verfremdung to the field of management education. While not in this specific term, but as its conceptual idea, variations of Verfremdung can be found in Socrates' irony, the Russian Formalists' literature and Bertolt Brecht's epic theatre. I pay particular attention to the latter because Brecht developed his account of Verfremdung - albeit unscholarly - with a focus on education and knowledge, and the promotion of independent thinking. The investigation of Brecht's Verfremdung then, explores the proposition that artful interventions provide interruptions, leading to learning experiences that are characterized by critical reflection and a shift of taken-for-granted assumptions. I begin with an investigation of the problematic relationship between habits/routines and traditional business school education, and consider its implications. It is problematic because, on the one hand, habits are necessary to facilitate everyday tasks, while on the other they inhibit active awareness of these actions. By emphasizing the learning of techniques and frameworks, management education contributes to the sometimes overly trusting reliance on these tools in organizational practice. I argue that this kind of instrumental training needs to be complemented with the development of critical thinking skills, which motivate and enable the questioning of existing habits. The past decade of economic and political turbulences has demonstrated that an over-reliance on established knowledge and its uncritical acceptance can have devastating effects. This observation emphasizes the need for management learners to engage in critical reflection, and I turn to Jack Mezirow's transformative learning theory to bridge Brecht's Verfremdung to the adult learning context of business schools. Mezirow ascertains that the quest for development is an inherent human capacity, and that perspective transformation is at the core of this endeavour. I explore the potential of the arts to encourage a different form of knowing, and focus on Brecht's Verfremdung in particular. The most basic objective of Verfremdung is to make the familiar appear unfamiliar. Which means in terms of management education that learning- or course-content is stripped of its instrumental simplicity and accessibility, which can act as the trigger event that stands at the beginning of the transformative learning process. By not providing pre-made explanations and established management perspectives Verfremdung creates a space for learners to shift the focus towards elements that were previously hidden. While Brecht engaged Verfremdung in the context of theatre it has proved to be a versatile concept that is not restricted to a specific form or art. Capitalizing on this adaptability of Verfremdung I explore films as its medium, arguing that visual communication provides a more immediate access to knowledge. Films also offer the familiarity that is a prerequisite for creating strangeness in a Brechtian sense. Teaching with films has become increasingly popular with educators from a range of disciplines. In management and organization studies however, two major strands have developed a more structured approach, namely film as illustration and film as thesis, which have been described as the process of illustration of essence that deviates from the often reductionist view of management textbooks. Although valuable for supplementing textbook learning, illustration of essence has a determined object of reflection - often a management concept or theory. Based on the assumption that this form of teaching/learning does not lead to critical reflection I suggest the inclusion of Verfremdung, coining it film as verfremdung. The implications of this extension are explored with a case study of an MBA change management course. By positioning Verfremdung in management education, this study rethinks the didactic differences between teaching with the arts and arts-based teaching. While the latter often already knows what it wants/needs to teach, this thesis emphasizes that Verfremdung does not provide knowledge in the traditional sense but instead invites learners to think for themselves. This insight relates back to existing assumptions about the developmental potential of Verfremdung: increases awareness, initiates activity, and motivates change. The original contribution of this thesis however, is that it provides a more differentiated view on the effects of Verfremdung in management education . While the study demonstrates that Verfremdung initiates critical reflection that leads to perspective transformation, it also highlights that this is not a cause-effect relationship. Not all business school students are prepared to accept a curriculum that targets transformational learning.