Assumption analysis describes the activity adults engage in to bring to awareness beliefs, values, cultural practices, and social structures regulating behavior and to assess their impact on daily activities. Assumptions may be paradigmatic, prescriptive, or causal (Brookfield 1995). Assumptions structure our way of seeing reality, govern our behavior, and describe how relationships should be ordered. Assumption analysis as a first step in the critical reflection process makes explicit our taken-for-granted notions of reality.
Contextual awareness is achieved when adult learners come to realize that their assumptions are socially and personally created in a specific historical and cultural context. Imaginative speculation provides an opportunity for adults to challenge prevailing ways of knowing and acting by imagining alternative ways of thinking about phenomena (Cranton 1996). The outcome of assumption analysis, contextual awareness, and imaginative speculation is reflective skepticism-the questioning of any universal truth claims or unexamined patterns of interaction.
Former president Ronald Reagan simply assumed that everyone he encountered would like him; this belief was part of the fabric of his personality. The results were intriguing, in that even his enemies were attracted to him socially. His arch-nemesis in Congress, Democratic leader Thomas “Tip” O’Neil, commented that while he hated Reagan’s policies, on the personal level, “I find it impossible to dislike the guy.” At the other extreme, premature cognitive commitments too often work against us. A childhood friend, whom I considered brilliant when we were kids, in his mid-forties confessed to me that he had lived beneath his potential for much of his life.
In sixth grade, he explained, his teacher belittled his work in such a way that it left him convinced he was incapable of academic learning. That conviction, which he carried throughout his teenage years and into adulthood, caused him to avoid challenging courses in junior high and high school, to stay away from college, and to settle for a job that didn’t tap his capabilities well. Only now was he beginning to revisit that assumption, and to realize just how greatly it had restricted his choices (Smith 2004).
Becoming fully aware of our default assumptions can take work, reflection and determination, and the help of a counselor or trusted friend can be invaluable in the process. Yet the task is typically not Herculean either. If our negative expectations spring from a traumatic past experience, to be sure, the task of uncovering repressed memories may be painful, and may require special help. This is the extreme case, though.
Brookfield, S. (1995) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey- Bass,
Cranton, P, (1996) Professional Development as Transformative Learning: New Perspectives for Teachers of Adults. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Smith, Blaine M (2004) Reshaping Assumptions That Shape Our Life: Damascus, MD