Belenky et al: Is the "silenced" position a sensible extension to Perry?


This page looks at research focusing on the processes learners go through as they develop. The answer to this question is not clear-cut, and could be explained as both "yes" and "no". It seems that the "silenced" position developed by Belenky et al is a sensible extension to Perry's work on different types of learners, as the "silenced" individual could be considered an extreme "Type A" on the Perry spectrum. However, Belenky et al's work does not overcome the issue of using too narrow a participant group, suggesting it is ineffective as an extension to the original work.

Main Reference: Belenky, M.F., Clinchy, B.M., Goldberger, N.R., and Tarule, J.M., (1986). Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. USA: Basic Books.

Types of Learner

Much work has been done in psychology to investigate how people learn about learning. In other words researchers have aimed to determine the processes individuals go through to develop their understanding about themselves, and how they learn. Perry (1970) conducted pioneering work on this subject and over a 15 year period developed several stages a learner goes through: from seeing the world in terms of polar opposites, to viewing the world in a more complex manner. However, it was believed that this original work contained several flaws and was not suitable to be generalised to a wider population. Belenky et al (1986) were very influential in this field, and used similar techniques to develop methods of learning that are suitable for women. 

Perry's study

Perry interviewed a sample of white, upper-class, student males for his experiment. Using this group he developed three different types of learner that varied in how they viewed themselves, viewed their teachers, and what their overall view of knowledge was. This is expressed in the Table below.

Student in position AStudent in position BStudent in position C
Student RolePassive acceptor Realises that some responsibility rests with the student. But what? And how? Sees student as source of knowledge or is confident of finding it. Debater, making own decisions. Wants to explore contexts; seeks interconnections.
Lecturer's RoleAuthority, giving facts and know-how Authority, where there are controversies, wants guidance as to which the lecturer favours. One authority among others. Values views of peers. Teacher as facilitator or gateway.
View of knowledgeFactual; black and white; clear objectives; non-controversial; exceptions unwelcome. Admits 'black-and-white' approach not always appropriate. Sees no way to choose between alternative views. Feels insecure with these uncertainties. A matter of competing views or theories, with different supports. Evidence, not just conclusions, an important part of knowledge. Enjoys creativity, scholarly work.
View of examsRegurgitation of 'facts'. Exams are objective. Hard work will be rewarded. Quantity is more important than quality in demonstrating maximum knowledge. Quality is more important than quantity. Wants room to express own ideas, views.
Student confidence depends upon:The teacher Little confidence, high uncertainty. The student her/himself

Perry's "map" of the way students "learn about learning" has been very influential in teaching others how this skill develops. It is thought that the individuals move through these "Types" as they mature (from A to C). Although this map was developed using only the information from male interviews, it has been found that women conformed to these same patterns.

Belenky's study

Belenky et al believed that Perry's work was not relevant to women. Although women could be fitted into these male "Types", other factors may become clear if women were included at the interview stage. In order to increase the amount of information available, Belenky interviewed 135 women who varied in age, ethnicity and class. Women were gathered from both educational establishments and human service agencies (which helped women parent their children) in order to add to this variety. The interview questions included some relating directly to Perry's "Types" and as a result Belenky et al identified five epistemological categories. One of these was the "silenced" category which included women who felt powerless, as though they could not learn, and as though no one heard them or cared when they spoke.

Belenky as a sensible extension to Perry

The "silenced" woman is described as one who perceives words as weapons, and is therefore scared they will be punished for using any sort of word. They are described as seeing authorities as all powerful and they themselves are nothing other than passive and useless. This bears a striking resemblance to Perry "Type A". In Belenky et al (1986) "silenced" women are said to have a polarised view of the world. They see things as good/bad, right/wrong - again this specific quality is described as part of Perry "Type A". It therefore seems that Belenky et al's "silenced" position is a sensible extension to Perry's model as it gives an example of an extreme "Type A" individual.

Belenky as an ineffective extension to Perry

Although Belenky et al did aim to fill a gap left by the work of Perry, it seems that they have simply created the same problem at the other end of the scale. Perry was criticised for only using upper-class, white, educated men to form his "Types", and then allocating women to these same categories. It was said in Belenky et al (1986) that the women who fitted the "silenced" position grew up in great isolation, had little formal education, had usually been abused, and were all collected from the agencies (not the educational establishments). In other words they used only lower-class, oppressed, isolated women in this section of their study, and would try to apply this to men and other groups of women. Belenky et al has created the same problem they were aiming to solve within Perry's work, but at the other end of the spectrum. In this sense Belenky et al's "silenced" position is not a sensible extension to Perry's model as they did not solve the problem of using a limited sample, but merely created the same problem with another limited group of participants.

Useful References