A curriculum, based on the action-inquiry of collaborative script improvisation, to promote ego development and progressively increasing expert knowledge

After our two years of experience in developing and practicing a ver}' innovative, “open” curriculum at the University of Cincinnati, my colleague Hany Butler and I developed what we considered to be three critical insights:

  • 1. the importance of a leaner-centered curriculum that is not unduly restricted neither by pre-packaged courses nor by procedurally oriented learning contracts;
  • 2. the value of a learning community that supports and nurtures collaboration and continuing attention to the value of “script-improvisation”; and
  • 3. the parallels between “script-improvisation” with the qualitative research methodologies advocated by Blumer and by Glaser and Strauss ...

As I’ve discussed in the companion volume, Principles and Methods of Transformative Action Research (Bilorusky, 2021), and also previously in this book, those intellectual traditions have contributed to “transformative action research” as an approach.

We referred to this curriculum model as the “experimenting community”:

... the nature of the experimenting community is probably best captured by the concept of “script-improvisation.” The learning process involves a continuing dialectic between script and improvisation. This method avoids learning by exemplar and the rigidities of paradigms. Script-improvisation has direct implications for connecting theory and action, since such distinctions are not inherent in the learning process. The experimenting community differs from mere experience-learning in which individuals, believing they are operating without theory, may impose implicit personal theories or scripts on the world. In fact, this is the pitfail which theories are supposed to overcome. Theories and scripts bring their own pitfalls of reification and overgeneralization. By participating in the dialectic of script-improvisation, individuals learn the process of interaction between theory and action. By continuously examining and constructing scripts and theories in an action context, distortions become apparent. A parallel research methodology may be found in the works of Blumer (1969) and of Glaser & Strauss (1967) (Bilorusky & Butler, 1975, p. 152).

I also soon saw how “competency-based” approaches generally tended to be as limiting as most contractual methods:

... Although competency-based education, like contract curricula, was designed to free students from the rigidities of conventional, standardized courses, it still imposed subtle, but significant limitations on student learning. Typically, educators defined competencies narrowly, and not as useful guides and with considerable heuristic value. So, in practice, competency-based learning was not conductive to transformative action-and-inquiry, because it employed precisely defined criteria to assess student learning, rather than using “competencies” as scripts from which to improvise, and as food for thought. (Bilorusky, 1975)

Harry Butler and I went on to discuss parallels of our four models of progressively more open curricula with Loevinger’s stages of ego development. Also, over the years, I have increasingly appreciated how “the most open curriculum” is not merely "open” but incorporates some "structures" or methods that promote the processes of scriptimprovisation and collaboration both to aid ego development and the learner-centered approach of the “experimenting community” curricular model. Furthermore, like John Dewey, Harry Butler and I viewed the “content” and the “processes” of learning to be very much interconnected, and I have learned how much the curricular openness, along with the attention to script-improvisation and collaboration, not only aids the process of learnercentered education but also contributes to the learning of content and the development of greater expert knowledge and skills. Indeed, over time, I have come to value and appreciate the parallels with the Dreyfus theory of expert knowledge. That is, this approach to learner-centered education, which is not overly burdened with pre-packaged curricula or contractual procedures actively facilitates the development of expert knowledge—that is, the learning of what some people would call “content. ”

The collaborative and script-improvisational qualities of transformative action research are essential ingredients in ego development, learner-centered education, and the development of expert knowledge. The interested reader may want to read Chapter 3 of Principles and Methods of Transformative Action Research (Bilorusky, 2021) to consider the more detailed discussion of the parallels between Harry' Butler’s and my conceptualization of curricular models, with the theories of Loevinger and Dreyfus. For now, I will highlight some of our qualifying remarks about the uses of any stage theory, as well as to present a table outlining an overview of the similarities among the three theories. As I state in Principles and Methods of Transformative Action Research:

... some words of caution are in order. Stage models only apply to certain domains of experience and behavior and not to the totality of “who” people “are,” so we should not use stage models to “pigeonhole” people. Further, I am only noting some potentially useful parallels between three theoretical models—Harry Butler’s and my progression of increasingly open curricular models, Loevinger’s stage theory of ego development, and the Dreyfus brothers’ articulation of a progression of stages toward increasingly expert knowledge and skill development.

In keeping with a transformative approach to action-and-inquiry each of these models, and the parallels that seem to exist among them, arc scripts for improvisation. They are not to be seen or used as definitive frameworks to explain neatly and unequivocally human behavior and experience. As this book is aiming to emphasize, all theories should he used as “scripts for improvisation, ” as potential starting points for further inquiry-and-action. Furthermore, any one of us is likely to be operating at “more than one” stage at any given time. So, in some ways, I may take a rather conformist approach in some aspects of my life, conscientious in other ways, and once in a while experience and behave in some of the ways characterized as “autonomous” by Loevinger. Using the Dreyfus model, I may be “novice” in some area of knowledge or skill (for example, in my case, in drawing or painting with watercolor), “advanced beginner” in other areas (e.g., use of the Google Education Suite), “competent” (in driving an automobile), “proficient” (as a ballroom jazz dancer), and perhaps getting close to “expert” (in using action research). (Bilorusky, 2021)

Now, I’d like to turn to a more detailed discussion of the strong interconnections between ego development as studied and articulated by Loevinger and the development of expert knowledge as researched and conceptualized by the

Dreyfus brothers. As I do this, I want also to note the developmentally facilitative role of open curricula with a learning context that encourages collaboration and script-improvisation. (Remember, collaborative “script-improvisation” is a quality of transformative action research.) Finally, and still very much related to these several stage-like theoretical frameworks, I also suggest that there are some key emotional qualities characteristic of the living and learning that people experience in each successive stage. Table 5.1 attempts to highlight and summarize these interconnections and parallels:

TABLE 5.1 Parallels between Dreyfus Theory of Stages of Expert Knowledge, Loevinger’s

Stages of Ego Development, four curricular models, and key emotional qualities at each stage






Dreyfus/ expertise


Advanced beginner


Proficient and expert

Loevinger/ego development










usky—Curricular models

tional/ Prepackaged



Community and script-improvisation

Key emotional qualities




Commitment and finding one’s own voice

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