The Measure of Their Learning: Educating Rita:
An andragolical synopsis
A mature student on a quest to find herself was assigned a tutor to provide support as she worked her way through Open University literature courses. Rita and Frank were a study in contrasts. She was hungry to learn. He was reluctant to teach. She was an inexperienced student. He was a tenured academic. She was lower class. He was upper class. The filmmaker used sound to underscore their differences. Classical music was the aural metaphor for Frank. Popular music represented Rita. In addition, their distinctly different accents and use of language marked their positions in society. The director used architecture to accentuate their separate worlds. He illustrated Rita’s rise in status with each change of residence. Character development drove the film. Even minor characters were seen to evolve over time. The spiral narrative moved characters forward, then back, then on again imitating life. Reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, another drama about class and transformation, the film ended with an apparently permanent separation of the protagonists.
Applying the five underlying assumptions of andragogy (Merriam, 2001, p. 5) to the title character, three became readily apparent. Rita demonstrated a sense of self that was independent of her husband, colleagues and family. She proved that she was capable of directing her own learning and of drawing on her experiences as a resource. Her motivation was internal, leading her to ignore external factors such as her husband’s disapproval. Was her learning “closely related to changing social roles,” (2001, p. 5) the fourth assumption? The answer is a resounding perhaps. By pursuing Higher Education through the Open University system, Rita could be described as setting learning goals above her station, and therefore striving to change her social role. However, her roles as wife and hairdresser were well defined and stable when she returned to school. Enrollment was not a response to societal pressure, but rather to an intrinsic need. Rita belied the fifth assumption that adult learning must be problem-centered and immediately applicable. (2001, p. 5) Rita studied literature, acquiring a writing style, vocabulary and communication skill, which had no apparent application in the world in which she lived and worked.
When Willy Russell wrote Educating Rita he brought to the script his “own store of knowing” (Rossiter 1999, p. 80), a “lower middle class background” (BBC, n. d.), training as a hairdresser and his expertise as a teacher. Russell’s personal transformation from tradesman to academic informed the script and the characters.
Fulfilling Newman’s (1999, p. 33) first demand of critical thinkers to “be clear-sighted and frank about their own values, assumptions and ideologies,” this author confesses that class is a subject she finds irrelevant in a North American context. We are kept in place by economics, prejudice, fear and conditioning. Merit facilitates transfer from one economic stratum to another more readily than it does in Britain.
In recent years, the British have lowered the bar somewhat. Broadcasters speak with regional accents and working class people are protagonists in popular entertainment. It is possible to speculate that Russell’s body of work contributed significantly to the erosion, although not the eradication of, class as an impediment in Britain.
Yet, for this North American, engagement with Rita’s fight occurred, because her struggle to move from one class to another was her “core mission” (Kroth & Boverie, 2000, p. 142), which was “transformed through experience.” This author cheered as Rita overcame class prejudice, and then wept when she discovered that she had traded one set of artificial limitations for another.
Cognitive and affective learning needs
Her cognitive learning needs, as depicted in the film, were to acquire the ability to write essays and examination responses that met formal education standards; broaden her literature frame of reference to impress examiners; and to learn discrimination so that she could construct and support a written argument. In addition she had to improve her vocabulary to conform to the norms of British Higher Education.
Baumgartner (2001, p. 17) suggests that it is not enough for adults to acquire a new perspective, but that they must live the new perspective. Although Rita displayed drive, her tutor became an external source of discipline, ensuring that she incorporated into her life the knowledge that she acquired.
Rita said that she was “slightly out of step.” Although her “social clock” (Merriam, 1999, P. 69) informed her that it was time to have a baby, she used subterfuge to delay motherhood in order to “discover meself first.” The support to fulfill her affective need for change and growth came from her tutor, not her husband or her family. She looked to Frank for validation. Praise from the possessor of the knowledge, which she craved, bolstered her determination when immediate circumstances conflicted with her dreams. Rita’s affective needs were at the heart of the film, leading not only to her transformation, but that of Frank.
The teacher, student relationship of Frank and Rita
Early in the film Frank’s teaching style was depicted as a giver of knowledge “upon those whom they consider to know nothing.” (Freire, 1984, p. 104) He was a banker (1984) who allowed students to receive and store deposits of information. In one scene, Frank contemptuously dismissed attempts by his students to open a dialogue on the subject of William Blake.
Meeting Rita for the first time, Frank communicated his reluctance to accept the role of tutor. “What can I teach you?” he asked, and then stated “I know that I know nothing.” Rita believed she was overdrawn at the education bank and that Frank could deposit knowledge erasing the deficit. Supporting the idea that Frank was a deliverer of information was Rita’s comment that he fed her [intellectual hunger].
During their first encounter Rita asked Frank the meaning of assonance. His explanation was succinctly academic. His example of rhyming swan and stone clarified the concept. Rita considered his answer, then retorted that assonance was getting the rhyme wrong, responding with incredulity at the academic pretension. Frank was taken aback and forced to consider Rita’s point of view. This exchange established how each perceived their self-worth and the value they placed on education. Rita brought common sense and informal knowledge, which she valued less highly than she valued Frank’s academic standing and knowledge. Frank brought professional authority. He appeared to find Rita’s rejoinder refreshing, his estimation of her rising.
Rita began each tutoring session in search of, or delivering, a narrative, an action which. Rossiter (1999, p. 83) called an attempt to tame and understand the learning experiences that were outside “habitual patterns of thought and belief.” Rita was not satisfied with telling her own story. She insisted that Frank recount his, drawing him out with questions.
Endings, neutral zones and new beginnings
Bridges (quoted by Reeves, 1999, p. 23) proposed three phases of adult development ending, neutral zone and new beginning (author’s italics). Bridges theorized that transition does not begin until a significant end is experienced. Russell created three such developmental endings for Rita. First, she left her husband. Second, she severed her dependency on Frank by attending summer school. The third was the death of her hero worship of Trish.
In the neutral zone, (Reeves, 1999, p. 23) “old habits that are no longer adaptive are extinguished and new better-adapted patterns or habit begin to take shape.” Following the separation from her husband, Rita became a “proper student.” When she found a new flat mate following summer school, she changed her job and her circle of friends. The third neutral zone was a night of self-reflection after the attempted suicide of Trish, illustrating Rossiter’s (1999, p. 81) point that “often the developmental significance of a decision or an event is not recognized until after the fact.”
What new beginnings did Russell concoct for Rita? She began relationships with full time students of the university, accepting invitations to enter into dialogue with them. By attending summer school, where she began to ask questions and present original ideas, she gained confidence and new knowledge independent of Frank. After moving in with Trish, Rita adopted her flat mate’s posh accent and upper class perspective. Rita also honed her ability to produce papers that met formal Higher Education standards. Taylor (1999, p. 59) posits that adult development is finding a balance between separation and connection, as depicted in Rita’s third new beginning. Rita chose to be independent of Frank and to be more critical of formal education and her need for validation by the system.
Frank’s endings, neutral zones and new beginnings
Frank’s developmental endings were the dissolution of his relationship with Julia, the termination of his position as Rita’s sole source of knowledge, and his removal from the faculty. When his relationship ended with Julia he spent time with Rita in the subsequent neutral zone. The experience reduced his dependence on alcohol and rejuvenated his teaching vocation. The neutral zone following the reduction of Rita’s dependence on him was a return to the alcohol dependent, self-loathing Frank. This behaviour does not fit Bridges’ (as quoted by Reeves, 1999, p. 23) claim that the neutral zone extinguishes bad habits with new and better ones. However, it is the opinion of this author that his definition does not take into account bad habits (Mezirow’s disorienting dilemmas, 1981, p. 125) may be catalysts for new beginnings. Frank’s self-destructive behavior fueled by despair for the woman Rita had become and his role in that transformation led to his departure for Australia, where he could begin anew.
Frank, Rita and disjuncture
Writing about the practice of teaching, Taylor, Marieneau & Fiddler (2000, p. 321) remind practitioners that it is not unusual to find “some degree of disjuncture between their practices and the environment in which they are functioning.” Frank alienated himself from the university administration, developing an adversarial relationship with the Bursar. Students belittled his reputation as a teacher. However, Frank’s teaching disjuncture was of his own making, which may not be the implication of Taylor, Marieneau & Fiddler’s reminder.
Willy Russell has been described as bringing a “developed sense of the woman’s view of the world” (B. B. C., n. d.) to the plays that he has written. It is his use of disjuncture in the film that best illustrates this. Losing her sense of self, which is one of five perspectives of a woman’s way of knowing (Loughlin & Mott, 1992, p. 81), drove Rita to return to school and rely on Frank’s “authority for knowledge.”
The maturation of Frank and Rita, out of step and out of time
“The self is an unfolding story” (Rossiter, 1999, p. 62) is an apt description of the character/adult development depicted in Educating Rita. What is less clear is what constitutes maturation. For the purpose of this paper, maturation is the inclination toward and ability to reflect on one’s life experiences and the experiences of those with whom one relates. After reflection a mature person will draw conclusions, acting on the conclusions when necessary. Behind this definition is an assumption that “any developmental goal or end reflects a judgment as to what is of value in human life.” (Rossiter, 1999, p. 58)
Frank told Rita in response to her demand that he help her change, “What you have is too valuable.” He explained his fear that the process of learning, which required her to conform, would “suppress” her uniqueness. For the first time Frank showed that he had considered the impact of teaching on the development of a student. He had questioned the assumption on which the institution and his career were based. He was no longer certain that formal education and its norms were the only acceptable standards of knowing. He had changed his “internally created telos of ‘ideal’ according to which development is assessed.” (Rossiter, 1999, p. 81) The best maturation is fluid, continually evolving. Frank was on his way, but growth continued.
Rita’s cry, “I want to change,” was heartfelt. However it was not yet a sign of maturity. She did not stop to reflect on Frank’s point of view. She clung to the belief that she was deficient. Only with the acquisition of formal learning would she be able to speak “seriously, confidently, with knowledge.” Not until the final scenes, were viewers shown the mature Rita. After reflection she concluded that she had been “too hungry” to question what she had been learning. She had ended up with a load of “quotes and empty phrases.” She wanted the education too much to question anything. In the end it was having ‘choice’ that she valued more than the skills and abilities she had acquired. That was Rita’s moment of maturation.
Developmental outcomes, intentions or competencies?
While studying the developmental outcomes desired by adult educators, Taylor, Marieneau and Fiddler (2000, p. 33) discovered that professionals surveyed did not see the characteristics identified as outcomes, because “no one can ‘develop’ anyone else.” As a result the trio changed the term to “developmental intentions.” These intentions, they concluded, could be used as indicators of a learner’s growth. Using their Developmental Intentions Chart (Taylor, et al., 2000, p. 32), Rita’s developed competencies are measured.
Toward Knowing as a Dialogical Process
Of the 10 intentions listed, Rita eventually demonstrated an ability to use six of them:
- The ideas of others caused her to enquire and respond.
- She paid attention to the meta-view while being aware of the comprising parts.
- She understood that truth was relative to context and relationships.
- She could use expert opinion to critique her own experience, while using her experience to critique the experts.
- She was an observer and participator in the construction and understanding of her own reality.
- Her ways of knowing were interdependent and separate as she juggled independence and connectedness.
Toward a Dialogical Relationship to Oneself
Rita arrived at the majority of the intentions listed in this section late in the film. From the beginning she faced the fear of losing “what is familiar and safe.” (Taylor et al., 2000, p. 32), but she never met the other intentions: engagement with the “disequilibrium” that occurs when “ideas and beliefs are challenged;” analysis of her experiences, questioning her choices; and making meaning of her personal narrative. (2000, p. 32)
Toward being a Continuous Learner
Rita entered the film in the role of a continuous learner. However she had not yet developed some of the nuances, such as reflecting on her behaviour and recognizing her strengths and weaknesses as a “learner and knower.” (Taylor et al., 2000, p. 32)
Toward Self-Agency and Self-Authorship
Rita brought into the story three of the intentions listed in this section of the chart. She accepted responsibility for the choices she made. She risked action on behalf of her “beliefs and commitments.” She took action to meet her potential, while she acknowledged her limitations.
Rita failed to revise “aspects of oneself while maintaining continuity of other aspects.” (Taylor et al., 2000, p. 32) She did not distinguish between her constructs and the imposition of the forces of society and culture. However, she came to understand their impact by the end of the film. Perhaps if her character were to have a future, she would have achieved the last intention in this category, “naming and claiming what one has experienced and knows.” (2000, p. 32)
Toward Connection with Others
Rita may not have made a conscious choice to “mediate boundaries” (Taylor et al., 2000, p. 32) between her connection with Frank and her individuality, but she achieved it anyway. She certainly experienced herself “as a part of something larger.” (2000, p. 32) The remaining intentions in this category would not have been possible during Rita’s quest, as they represent contemporary thinking about education, unheard of twenty years ago:
1. “Engaging the affective dimension when confronting differences”
2. “Contributing one’s voice to a collective endeavor”
3. “Recognizing that collective awareness and thinking transforms the sum of their parts.” (p. 33)
“A mark of development,” wrote Taylor et al. (2000, p. 36) “is the capacity to see oneself, particularly one’s beliefs and ideas, from multiple perspectives.” Russell’s Rita never satisfactorily demonstrated this capability. She hovered on the edge of understanding, but it never coalesced.
A cognitive apprenticeship
According to Hansman (2001, p. 47), there are “five sequential phases” of cognitive apprenticeship: modeling, approximating, fading, self-directed learning and generalization. Cognitive apprenticeship enables academic neophytes to learn “university life and expectations.” (p. 47) In Educating Rita, Frank played master to Rita’s apprentice. As in life, Russell depicted Rita’s development as a spiral with overlapping phases, devoid of discrete endings.
Hansman (2001, p. 47) identifies two kinds of modeling: behavioural and cognitive. Rita had a number of behavioural models in addition to Frank. She learned how to behave like a proper student from Tiger, a successful full time student, who drew her into his circle of friends. From Trish, her flat mate, she acquired a new accent, an appreciation for Mahler, and a new sense of fashion. Attending summer school, she modeled her behaviour on her new professors and, one may assume, that of her new classmates, as she returned with a new look.
Her primary cognitive model was Frank, who insisted that she learn to conform to academic norms. It was he who presented her with examples of properly written papers and corrected her language and style. Frank chivvied her into attending summer school. Russell gave Rita secondary cognitive models in the characters of Tiger, Trish, and the summer school tutors.
Farmer, Buckmaster and LeGrand (1992, p. 45) discussing the choice of an appropriate model for an apprentice stated “learners learn best when they identify with the person instructing them, the models should be similar in age, cultural background and outlook to the learners.” Using their criteria, Frank was an inappropriate model for Rita. [We should remind ourselves that Educating Rita was a figment of Willy Russell’s imagination and never intended to be a case study of adult development.]
Frank assigned Rita the task of writing essays and answering possible exam questions. His comments on her work, her consideration of his comments and subsequent revisions illustrated the approximating stage of cognitive apprenticeship. Frank demonstrated scaffolding techniques when he coached Rita, providing examples of properly written papers. Summer school was the catalyst for the fading aspect of Rita’s apprenticeship to Frank. Fading was not a conscious developmental choice on the part of the master. From his actions in the film one can infer that Frank was not prepared for the fading phase of Rita’s development.
One sign that Rita had entered the self-directed learning phase was the scene in which she stood to ask a question in a summer school seminar. Working on her own she began to “practice doing the real thing, adapting what is necessary from models.” (Hansman, 2001, p. 47) A second sign of self-directed learning was her attendance at a performance of Macbeth, albeit reluctantly. When she was seen at a table in front of the television watching an Open University program, making notes, ignoring shouts from her husband as she scribbled away, a third example of self-directed learning behaviour was depicted.
How did Russell depict Rita’s generalizing by relating what she had learned to “subsequent practice sessions?” (Hansman, 2001, p. 47) The most telling moment occurred when Rita told Frank that one of the questions on her exam was about the staging of Peer Gynt. How to answer the question had been a subject of discussion during a tutorial. He asked her if she had used her original answer. Rita said no, with a touch of contempt in her delivery, demonstrating that her understanding of the question and the answer that was expected of her had broadened.
Rita’s transformed meaning perspectives and critical self-reflection
As Merriam & Heuer (1996, p. 247) suggested “individuals’ meanings of the same event can be dramatically different.” To Trish, her suicide attempt was a sensible, if disappointing choice. To Rita, who envied Trish her life, it was a stupid act of unreasonable desperation. The impact on Rita was transformative causing her to re-examine her values and choice of role models.
Another moment of transformation, totally silent, occurred when Rita encountered her former husband accompanied by Rita’s heavily pregnant replacement. Rita taking her leave of the couple turned toward the camera, a twinge of regret crossed her face. What did she regret? The question has haunted this author since she viewed the film. Did she understand, at last, that the answer to her dissatisfaction with their former life would never be found in the new life that she had adopted? It was then that Rita experienced the present moment that “is the meeting place of the past and future.” (Rossiter, 1999, p. 64)
Frank and Rita, the impact
Caffarella & Clark, (1999, p. 98) claimed that “it is commonly accepted that connectedness and interdependence are as important in the developmental process as autonomy.” At the beginning of the film, Frank’s connectedness was tenuous. He avoided social interaction whenever possible. He demonstrated obvious disdain for his students and for teaching. However, his most significant disconnect was with the activity that defined him in the eyes of others, his poetry. Rita, on the other hand, embraced connection, hounding the reluctant Frank into accepting the role of tutor.
As the film unfolded, the characters became interdependent; propping up each other’s self-esteem. Rita became Frank’s mission. Frank became an emotional surrogate for Rita, in the absence of support from her husband and parents. Over time, the degree of interdependence changed. In the beginning, Rita’s needs dominated. By the time she returned from summer school, Frank was the needier of the two. As Frank’s alcoholism progressed, Rita withdrew from the affective relationship: The greater her withdrawal, the greater Frank’s sense of emotional betrayal. Russell’s characters maintained their cognitive relationship, illustrated by a drunken Frank’s search for Rita to remind her of the time and date of her final exam.
Russell chose to have Frank challenge Rita’s assumptions and present alternative interpretations of her experience, which Merriam & Heuer (quoting Brookfield, 1996, p. 253) state are “the particular function of the facilitator.” Two significant moments of challenge occurred in the film. During their introductory meeting, Frank contemptuously suggested that Rita would not find in her studies what she sought and in the scene where he asked if she had found “the better song to sing?” Neither occasion appeared to be motivated by Frank’s application of adult development theory. Instead, his challenges appeared to be an emotional response to immediate circumstances, particularly in the second instance. In that scene Frank was responding to the grief that he felt at the death of Rita and the resurrection of Susan.
In the denouement, Frank almost missed his plane, having waited for Rita’s examination result. Did Frank believe her success would validate their tumultuous journey? When he showed her the envelope, Rita feigned disinterest. Had she come to understand that her mark would never satisfactorily represent the breadth of her education? Perhaps it was in their final act of severance that the measure of their learning could truly be taken?