It’s amazing what happens over coffee: or deterritoralising the curriculum (a #rhizo15 story 2)

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I had meant to take a break from #rhizo15 but instead found myself taking a coffee break that brought me right back.

Over coffee, at the end of a year’s teaching (my first full academic year in the job), myself and a colleague got to reflecting on how the year had gone and how we might develop things next year.  In the back of my mind was the article by @sbayne that I think was put out there by@NomadWarMachine (not @davecormier) and the task he proposed for #rhizo15 this week.

So, I don’t know to what extent this musing is a detailing of my ‘subjective’:

How do we design our own or others learning when we don’t know where we are going? How does that free us up? What can we get done with subjectives that can’t be done with objectives?

or a working out of ideas partly inspired by Sian’s article.


During the coffee chat it became clear that while happy with the main course I oversee (for me still new, to my colleague now possible tired), having made various changes to emphasise the challenges I wanted participants to engage with rather than just go through content (the content instead working as a vehicle for engaging with concepts and problems), I felt a desire to push explore the possibility of creating more open/connected/distributed forms of learning.

My recent engagement with digital scholarship and #connectedlearning has propelled me to consider other options, and to think about how I might hack my own course, hybridise it.

The stimulats, very much driven my the discussions in #tjc15 and #rhizo15, are:

  • think of resources rather than content: while remaining with the striated texture of the current course (a pre-defined syllabus and form of assessment) how might we reconfigure these so that they are more like initial sets of resources organised around difficult ideas that we face as university educators?  How do we communicate that intent and encourage a mode of engagement with them that is more akin to ‘hacking’ than consumption?
  • can aspects of the syllabus be participant driven? one idea that occurred to me as we talked was of playing with the current timetabling in order to facilitate more participant engagement and potential to generate participant relevant content.  Folks did find useful the clear signposting (and if you read my #rhizo15 story previously you know how attached I am to signposting) of key texts/resources that were organised around difficult or challenging ideas.  Rather than being tied to the fortnightly 3 hour workshop (at the end of busy days) why not have the participants work in cross-disciplinary groups (like action learning sets) to work on the key texts and find their own texts, all the time focusing on the critical questions for practice this reading produces (semester 1 is more theory focused while semester 2 is more practice focused); and have shorter workshops that model many of the ideas we promote.  I think this is about pushing my interest in practice theory further to see how it can reconfigure the current approach.  It is also about playing with the potential for learning to come out of the connections folks make within the course.
  • making emergent objectives explicit: while we will have learning objectives, the reality is that folks operate with their own emergent objectives.  They are motivated differently to participate in the course, this motivation often changing over time, and in relation to different aspects of the course.  I make the assumption that they are all strategic learners.  So why not make emergent objectives an explicit structure within the course?  This would be transient, and would help them see their own students differently, more positively.  Emergent objectives could become points for reflecting on what the course should be dealing with, what the difficult ideas and issues are, and therefore the content required.
  • disrupting my role as obligatory point of passage: and how can I dislodge myself as the obligatory point of passage, the ultimate point of authority? I have tried to break this down a little already by sharing with them my own critical reflections on the course (see here and here for examples).  But by constraining the power to archive materials in the institutional VLE a clear hierarchy is established.  I will not pretend that I am removing the hierarchy since I am after all a final arbiter, the one who, institutionally, is responsible for assessment – this Sian Bayne’s struggle to institute smooth spaces within striated institutions.  But this can be disrupted by distributing the curating role across as many participants as possible through the use of social bookmarking to share resources (as well as the VLE).  Also, could we introduce aspects of peer review?

What have I done here?  I think I have, in the doing of this post, identified an emergent objective – that is the way my participation in #rhizo15 can feed back into my thinking about my own practice as an educator; working with the play of smooth and striated space.

But also, it is subjective in that it speaks to how I want to constitute my self as practitioner – what kind of educator can I be?

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Emergent outcomes from a field of weeds – or how certainty can emerge from anxiety (a #rhizo15 story)

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I have just watched a video of @davecormier where he uses the metaphor of the ‘weed’ as an alternative to the dominant, normative models of curriculum.

In the normative idea of curriculum, curricula ideas (a mix of ontology and epistemology) are reduced to content (syllabus), and learning construed as a linear path from ignorant to knowledgeable, where the teacher is the one who knows.

This normative idea is reinforced through the technology of the Learning Objective. Having just taught a class on LOs and got the participants to re-work their courses in light of this I fell upon a different idea, that of Emergent Outcomes.  Now, I know why Biggs has developed the idea of learning objectives – its intent was to design in equity and not let teachers privilege those who already ‘get it’ and neglect those who don’t.

But it all too readily becomes a closed circuit – as many participants in my class argued.

And that’s when I came across emergent outcomes.  Emergent outcomes are conducive, I feel, to the connectivist approach and rhizomatic learning in that knowledge and learning are seen to emerge from the context of learning or practice.  As is becoming clear to me from exchanges with folks who were on #rhizo14 learning objectives are multiple, located (initially) in each individual (and we know from experience that despite setting LOs for our courses all students will have their own and develop new ones as they go through).

So, as I slowly lean in towards #rhizo15 my objectives are loose.

I have a recent experience that taught me to be open and resist the desire to place too much apparent order on events.  For a moment, during the recent #TJC15 (Twitter Journal Club) my attention was taken away from the buzz of tweets.  On turning back towards the dashboard I realised that I was ‘lost’.  But lost implied that perhaps I SHOULD have control.  But, following Jacque Ranciere, what if I simply enacted openness, rhizomatic thinking, and waited to see what happened?

I stepped back, I waited, and a cluster of words rose up to capture my attention.

Let’s hope I can maintain such equanimity.

That’s Fine in Theory – But What Use is it in Practice? More contemplations on ‘Troubling Reading’

There is nothing so practical as a good theory.

So said Kurt Lewin, claimed to be a founder of social psychology and action learning.

This statement expresses itself as a paradox because it works with the apparent duality between theory and practice, or to put it another way – education and the ‘real world’.  In this binary construction the ‘real world’ is the location of practice, of life, in contrast to the world of education and theory which takes on a deathly pallor.  Theory, then, is seen to have little use to life.  Lewin’s inversion of this makes it paradoxical, subverts the ‘common-sense’ character of the original binary opposition.

So, how then to make sense of Max Van Manen’s claim that phenomenology, that exquisite family of theory emanating from German idealism, is concerned with the ‘practice of living’?

Van Manen states this in his article titled ‘Phenomenology of Practice’.  In this fine piece of prose Van Manen lays claim to the usefulness of theory, simultaneously asserting the practicality of theory AND challenging the usefulness of a common-sense view of practice:

Thus, we wish to explore how a phenomenology of practice may speak to our personal and professional lives

 

For Van Manen theory is eminently useful and practical, enabling us to gain purchase on what our ‘practice’ may be BECAUSE phenomenology is intimately concerned with how we live, how we experience life.  But, theory is not useful if it simply promotes ‘instrumental action, efficiency or technical efficacy’.

Rather, a phenomenology of practice aims to open up possibilities for creating formative relations between being and acting, between who we are and how we act, between thoughtfulness and tact.

 

There is an ethical content to this that can often be missing from ‘theory-lite’ modes of thinking and teaching.  Here I have in mind some aspects of Action Research and Action Learning.

As noted in some earlier posts I have been engaging with these literatures in order to enrich my own professional knowledge and practice in academic development.  In one sense, our colleagues want something useful – new techniques for teaching or assessment, new skills in learning technologies, tips on how to supervise more effectively.  And yes, we try to do this.  But we also encourage them to critically reflect on this, and to some extent to deconstruct the normative content of what they claim to ‘want’.

But much Action Research and Action Learning would claim the same.  Its just that in reading some of this material I sometimes get a feeling, and it often presents itself as a feeling, of uncomfortableness.  Its almost as if I want to say: “It sounds fine in practice, but what use is it in theory?”.  What I really mean by this is that the variations of ‘reflection-on-practice’ and ‘reflection-in-practice’ bracket the social world, the world of power and politics.  There is often a distinct absence of political economy, of gender, social class and race.  This is partly an effect of the location of the practice of much of the AR/AL I have been reading – management education.

For the purpose of this entry I need to put to one side the issue of the hyperbolic claims for critical theories of education that I have been embedded within all my professional life.  I do want to say that there is a rigorous discussion within management education scholarship about issues of power and privilege.  Its just in reading about ‘how to’ do it (AR/AL) this is not so apparent.  It kind of speaks to me as the victory of practice over theory, of unconsidered life over the considered life.

And that is why this article by Van Manen is appealing to me.

Thinking of the importance we give to reflection as a methodology of professional education, Van Manen directs attention to the fact that reflection was an object of theoretical interest to Husserl.  Our ‘experience’ of the world as temporal, as linked, as coherent, is an effect of perception – that is we do not ‘experience’ the world as a series of ‘now’ which we can then differentiate in terms of past, present and future.  In asking our colleagues to ‘reflect’ on their experience of academic practice we are actually (if I understand Van Manen and Husserl correctly) asking them to bring objects into their perceptual field, to make aspects of practice intentional objects of our consciousness.  In doing this aspects of what might be considered experience ‘in the past’ or ‘in the future’ are already changed.  This is because we do not retain images of past events as fixed.  In attending to a direct event or object (lets say our use of presentation software in large class teaching) we are already framing it in relation to ‘past’ (retention) and anticipated (protension) events.  And what memories (if indeed these actually ‘exist’) we may have of previously using presentation software is transformed by brining an immediate object within our intentional gaze.  Got it?  I am not sure I have quite got it yet.

Let me try this again.

In asking our colleagues to intentionally focus on their use of presentation software now, in the past, and in the future we appear to be asking them to perceive these practices as somehow discrete entities. For Husserl and Heidegger and other phenomenologists we (as observers of temporal time) do not actually stand outside of the experience of time.  There is no separation between ‘us’ and time.  Time is a ‘taken-for-granted’, something we experience primordially and through our bodies.  The pedagogy of reflection (using learning journals for instance) jolts us out of the ‘taken-for-granted’, makes the past-present-future of using presentation software an ‘object’ that we can some how interpret ‘as if’ it was something outside of the normal flow of practice.  This is rather similar to Bourdieu’s argument that in research (as a particular social practice) we wrench events out of the flow of life and make them ‘objects of study’).  But this flow of practice is full of interpretation, or pre-understanding (of what teaching is, of what learning is, of what learning technologies are); understandings that are often unarticulated.  The jolt to the ‘taken-for-granted’ can (and I emphasise ‘can’) make us more aware (bring into consciousness) these pre-understandings and therefore the potential for creating new meaning.  The ‘meaning’ of ‘presentation software’ arises from the narrative  or story in which it is situated.  This might be a narrative that places learning technologies within a person’s sense of themselves as a particular kind of educator; or within a story of career progression that necessitates (for that person) getting ‘such and such’ a skill or certificate under their belt; or perhaps in a narrative of being ‘out-of-place’ in academia and so needing to ‘prove’ oneself through taking  up a professional development course.  It will always be this learning at this time for this person.  There is never experience in a general or objective sense. The ‘meaning’ of ‘presentation software’ therefore depends on what matters at that moment for that person.  Therefore, phenomenological theory directs us to the central importance of ‘practice’ shorn of its ‘taken-for-granted’ garb.

Is this the lesson from phenomenology?

From the phenomenological perspective there is no me and then the world I engage with, I am in the world; there is no learning technology with which I engage, me and the technology and my use of it are all incorporated in my practice.  My practice, my sense of self in this practice, cannot be captured adequately by the language of cognition alone.  Teaching, as any of us will testify if we are honest, is about mood, atmosphere, relationships – it is what Van Manen talks of as pathic (as in empathy or sympathy).  The local or private knowledge of the practitioner and the public (abstract) knowledge valued by academia are melded  into one experiential, lived sensibility of ‘doing’ teaching, of ‘doing’ learning technologies.  The ‘I’ or ‘me’ is in the practice rather than (cognitive) observer of that practice.

 

In conclusion, Van Manen says:

To reiterate, we may say that a phenomenology of practice operates in the space of the formative relations between who we are and who we may become, between how we think or feel and how we act. And these formative relations have pedagogical consequence for professional and everyday practical life.

 

 

 

[Does that make sense?  As you can see I am working this out as I go along.]

 

 

Troubling Reading – Troubled Reader

I’m on holiday, hence all the posts.

I have a number of thoughts that still need thinking through and had hoped to write a few posts to do this while taking a break from work.  However, it is the nature of my reading over the past week that forms the basis of this entry.

Basically, the stuff I have been reading has disturbed me.

No, I haven’t been sat in the corner of the sofa reading Stephen King.  Instead, I have been reading some books on Action Research.

Action Research?  And how is that disturbing?

Of course, as a topic it isn’t disturbing at all, though I have had some interesting discussions with colleagues recently about the difficulty of getting action research projects through institutional ethics committees.

It isn’t the topic itself that has proven disturbing, more the reflection on how I see myself as an academic that has proven disruptive and uncomfortable at times. And it is the reading that has prompted this reflection.

The ‘culprits’ have been ‘Doing Action Research in Your Own Organization‘ by David Coghlan and Teresa Brannick and ‘The Action Research Dissertation: A Guide for Students and Faculty‘ by Kathryn Herr and Gary Anderson.  Having completed my first semester in the new job I wanted to spend some time reflecting on how things had gone, think about how I might want to develop the role, and catch up on weak areas of knowledge.  Given that much of the teaching and learning philosophy of the programmes we run involve active learning, and given that our ‘students’ are academics involved in various forms of developmental reflection on their professional practice (that is insider researchers) there were two fields I wanted to become more familiar with – action learning and action research.

My reading began with Action Research because I am supervising students who are conducting forms of insider research, though not specifically adopting action research methodologies.  So, there is a pragmatic element to this reading.

But, there is a synergy between the reading, my current reflections, and taking this job in the first place.  And this is where my current sense of disturbance arises.

Over the past few years I have had occasion to reflect on my role as an academic, indeed to re-think what being an ‘academic’ means to me.  This has induced a dispositional shift away from what Jacque Rancière would call the ‘master explicator’.  We all know the ‘master explicator’, and indeed have been such a person, perhaps often.  The ‘master explicator’ is comfortable in their command of the knowledge they expound, and usually engage in ‘delivering’ this knowledge.  It implies a process of ‘transmission’ from one who knows to one who does not.  I am not arguing against transmission in all instances.  I am simply directing attention towards a mode of being an educator and the social relationships it carries.  It directs attention towards a particular configuration of power and knowledge.

At the level of disposition I have been moving away from this mode.  My own practice as an educator has increasingly been defined by the centrality of ‘learning’ more than ‘teaching’, and of ‘active learning’ as a preferred mode. I have written here about one such example of this approach and how it can be disruptive of assumed social relations.  This dispositional shift made me open to the job I now have.  Also, the dispositional shift is conducive to a positive engagement with action learning and action research.  So, why is it disturbing?

While there has been a dispositional shift this has not, I have found, been accompanied by a cognitive shift.

The sense of myself as an academic has been more bound up in certain knowledge and knowledge communities than I realised.  I was very comfortable inhabiting  the role of ‘critical scholar’ where that critical stance was conducted through the mode of ‘master explicator’.  Rancière makes this point in his own critique of the critical theory tradition. This tradition, which for me was framed by my alignment with the work of Bourdieu and Foucault, enables the critical scholar to take on a special role in relation to wider society.  As a ‘critical’ scholar I can see the world in a way that others cannot.  And it is my role to reveal the true nature of power. I do not deride this function of critique.  But I am perhaps much more aware of the desire inherent in this role, of the ‘honorable’ role it places on the scholar – we can see what others can’t; and our role is to help them see more clearly.  But, I asked myself, apart from speaking from such a lofty position, what does this clarity of vision lead me to DO?

I know that I my explication has had positive effects on students.  I know that I have influenced students to generate new knowledge in their professional fields that have drawn on this tradition of critique, that enables them to act in terms of raising disturbing questions.  And this questioning may lead to change.  I do not reject this.  I do not reject the role this tradition can play.  But I am aware that the ‘change’ that it can effect is often personal, and if institutional is usually small and incremental.

And yet, the ‘small’ and ‘incremental’ change offered by most practitioners of Action Research (an Action Learning) was something I often looked down upon as inadequate in face of the inequities of the world.

Sober reflection on my actual effect on the world due to my role as educator has led me to be more humble in my ambitions.  And my recent reading has made much clearer to me the dissonance between my often lofty claims for my theory heavy approach to education and my desire for education to matter, to effect change in the professional practice of my students.

I still feel that some of what I am reading lacks philosophical content.  The challenge for me is not to jettison the critical theory tradition, but rather to expand my intellectual and practical repertoire so as to induce a more creative dynamic between my cognitive and dispositional orientations.

There is much to be unpicked here.  For instance there are the obvious connections between some strands of Action Research and critical theory, in particular the influence of Habermas on many action researchers, and obviously the role of Paulo Freire in the development of Participatory Action Research.  Perhaps, more troubling for my sense of cognitive self is the pragmatist orientation of much Action Research, and perhaps the way aspects challenge my previous dependence on propositional knowledge and deductive reasoning.

I will write more on how this develops.