Techniques are what teachers use until the real teacher arrives a #cel260 story


Balthasar van den Bosch – A.M. Koldeweij, P. Vandenbroeck en B. Vermet (2001) Jheronimus Bosch. Alle schilderijen en tekeningen, Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam: NAi Uitgevers [enz.], ISBN 9056622196, ill. 131, p. 150. The Conjurer

We welcomed a new intake on our Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education course.  Over Tuesday and Wednesday evening 36 lecturers and post-doctoral students arrived with a range of expectations, hopes, and concerns.

Whether career progression was a motivating factor or not, all sought some support to develop their teaching skills and knowledge.  Some would arrive explicitly aiming to grapple with theories of teaching and learning.  All would hope to leave the course with new ‘tricks and tips’, practical techniques that they could employ in their classes NOW.

But ‘tips and tricks’ is a misnomer, since it suggests a separation from theory (and that theory is somehow separate from practice).  Kurt Lewin, a scholar of very practical inclinations, is reputed to have said that,

there is nothing as practical as a good theory

In outlining the curricular intention of the course we exposed the underlying constructivist philosophies of learning, modeling the method we hoped our colleagues would adopt in relation to their own practice.  Why?

The title of this post paraphrases a comment by Parker Palmer about the nature of teaching.  In his inspiring book ‘The Courage to Teach‘ he espouses a manifesto for a heartfelt practice of teaching – teaching as service (as distinct from service teaching).  Part of his thesis is that technique alone is never enough.  We can deploy the most sophisticated or engaging methods, but if they are devoid of a wider purpose they are likely to fail.  The reality is that when we experience a good teacher this wider purpose may not be clearly articulated (to us or to themselves).  So this is not a call to theory dominated teaching.  Rather it links to the questions I think Gert Biesta asks when he seeks to reprieve the language of teaching that seems often neglected by constructivist philosophies.  He asks us to think seriously about what it is we think we teach.

Because our license to practice as university teachers is the PhD (or other similar qualification) we are actually licensed to research.  We are comfortable with our domains and communities of knowledge.  Consequently, we can be mistaken in thinking that what we teach is our subject.  But, Biesta and others suggest, what we teach are views of the world and how we engage with that world.

On the course we expose the underlying constructivist beliefs in order to demonstrate how these weave in and through the techniques we use in class.  The fact that we construct the course around a small number of key concepts (rather than a list of content); that we privilege reflective modes of inquiry; that we promote dialogical engagement are all enactments of the underlying view of knowledge and the knower.  We do not do this in order to recruit them to these philosophies.  Instead, we want them to consider the authenticity of what they do.

What is meant by authenticity here?

Going back to the way we try to model the practice we encourage our colleagues to adopt, we are also hopefully modeling an authentic practice.  Its authenticity does not derive from its proximity to constructivist approaches to teaching, but to an openness to being questioned.  If we want our students to conceive of themselves as makers of the world rather than mere consumers, to be open to different perspectives, to be attentive to the values that underpin and guide their behaviours, then our teaching needs to model that in some way (and in imperfect ways).  We need to teach in ways that show the limits of our practice.


The place of love in open and engaged scholrship



The other day I took part in my first ‘Twitter Journal Club’ (#TJC15) facilitated by Laura Gogia from Virginia Commonwealth University’s AltLab.  The experience was exciting, disruptive, thoughtful.  Lots of things.  You can see the various streams here.

This TJC event occurred at a moment when I am re-thinking my sense of being an academic.  Indeed, the term academic sometimes feels awkward, especially, as Pat Thomson forcefully notes, at a time when scholarship as inquiry is increasingly being forged into the language of ‘brand’, and particularly the way academic CVs are ‘managed’ so that they contribute more directly to the (business) strategy of our institutions.  Like Pat I am about to work with a group of colleagues on developing research career strategies.  She asserts that she is not a BRAND and in doing so is working against the current flow in higher education.  Let Pat talk for herself:

Brand, narrative, what’s the difference really? Yet it still feels that the idea of a narrative is not the same as the idea of a brand. The terms come from somewhere different, and that matters. A narrative doesn’t emanate from a market even if it’s been put to work in one. And a narrative is perhaps not simply a one-thing, but is able to hold together in some tension different aspects of an academic life. It’s not homogenous. It doesn’t represent a singular product or self, if you like. And maybe the idea of narrative opens up more room for the interpreter too – the listener or reader who makes their own mind up about what a narrative means. Maybe a reader is a bit different from being a customer who buys something – or not. Maybe the interpreter is a role description which encompasses broader social and institutional politics and personal idiosyncracies.

Let me step back to the Twitter Journal Club for a moment.

In this space we co-created, we engaged in practices that were not bounded by the culture of ‘managed CVs’.  Yet, the practice was scholarly.  Indeed PRACTICE is the key term here, both in relation to the content of the paper we were discussing (such an interesting verb when used in relation to Twitter) and the activity we were engaged in.

Journal Clubs are part of ‘normal’ academic business, particularly within certain disciplines in the sciences.  One key rationale for such an activity is to bring doctoral students and faculty together around a number of central academic functions such as:

  • keep up to date with research within the discipline/field of study
  • assess students’ competencies in key academic skills
  • create a sense of belonging to a scholarly community within the institution and with a wider scholarly community.

But there was something refreshingly NOT NORMAL about our venture in the twittersphere.

Talking to some colleagues about how journal clubs are used in their disciplines/departments one theme often emerges – that it confronts students with the ‘reality’ of scholarly practice, of the “cut and thrust” of debate, of having to “defend oneself”.  Admittedly some colleagues refer to this culture as one that is not conducive to producing the kind of graduate attributes that they value, especially notions of openness and sharing of work.  Others, though, see it as a necessary part of the socialisation of students into ‘normal’ scholarly practice.

So let me focus a little bit more on PRACTICE in this context.

There is an interesting strand within scholarly reflections on PROFESSIONAL EDUCATION that are framed by sociocultural perspectives.  Again, it is best to let folks speak for themselves on this, then I will add my own spin on it:

It avoids treating material things as mere appendages to human intention and design, or as traces of human culture. Among perspectives that seem to be part of this pervasive shift, the material world is treated as continuous with and in fact embedded in the immaterial and the human. Therefore in this discus- sion, the term ‘sociomaterial’ is used to represent perspectives that are argued to form part of this shift.

Tara Fenwick , Monika Nerland & Karen Jensen (2012) Sociomaterial approaches to conceptualising professional learning and practice, Journal of Education and Work, 25:1, 1-13, DOI:10.1080/13639080.2012.644901

The idea of practice as the site of knowing questions the prevailing over-rationalist view of knowing in organisations by undercutting the idea that “individual subjects [are] the source of meaning and normativity” (Schatzki 2001, p. 12)…..Moreover, the inherent focus on knowing as a collective and heterogeneous endeavour establishes interesting connections between the site-based view and other approaches that understand cognition as a distributed phenomenon

Davide Nicolini, (2011) Practice as the Site of Knowing: Insights from the Field of Telemedicine. Organization Science 22(3):602-620.

What I take from these discussions is the idea of LEARNING as embedded and distributed in and across a wide array of practices, and that knowledge is accomplished or enacted in the contexts of practice rather than as something we transmit from our brains to our eyes, mouths and fingers through language – such as reading an academic article, writing notes, and speaking to the paper in a journal club.  Also, knowing, learning and practice are inherently collective endeavours.  Knowing as a distributed phenomena is enacted with and through the material objects our human bodies are entangled in and with.

For me, there is something distinct about the way we were coming to KNOW in the context of practice that was the Twitter Journal Club compared to how I understand journal clubs to often run.  Different kinds of knowing are constituted, different assemblages of practice cohering around the collective activities, different potential ‘selves’ enacted.

There was a beautiful symmetry in the enactments we were engaged in the other day and the content of the paper we discussed.  The paper, ‘Teacher Experiences and Academic Identity: The Missing Components of MOOC Pedagogy‘ dealt with the troubled identifications of a team of scholars in the context of what they call a hybrid MOOC.  In the paper they discuss the way they negotiated their presence in the MOOC environment; of experimenting  ‘with an ethos of scale, and with a notion of the teacher as present, but radically outnumbered’ (62); of being caught between being positioned as the locus of authority and of being lost in a distributed network of knowledgeable participants. They became aware that the teacher did not suddenly become invisible simply because the educative activity was taken out of the classroom to digital space.  Contrary to connectivist theories they saw that learning and knowledge did not simply arise out of the network, but was always and necessarily situated.  All participants came with histories, philosophies, dispositions.  The ‘network’ was a network in a particular space at a particular time, and involved a specific arrangement of concepts, theories, algorithms, terminology and material objects (that constitute the physical structure and organisation of the digital).  The specific positionings of ‘teacher’ or ‘student’ could not be prefigured by a theory but were enacted in the practices of logging in, typing, reading, as well as the keyboards, screens, cables, etc.  Our identities are performed and accomplished in the doings and sayings (including text) of the MOOC environment.

For the purpose of my discussion here, though, it is important that the paper discusses the way the practice of teaching was disrupted by the specific context of enactment – a hybrid-MOOC.  While the teaching team approached the practical task of running the hybrid-MOOC on the basis of collective knowledge (the inherited knowledge of what to do in this kind of situation – know-how), the hybrid nature of the enterprise and their particular philosophical approach (which inserted them as visible if uncertain actors in the MOOC) disrupted the usual ‘ongoingness’ of their practice.  Suddenly the know-how was not so un-thought; they had to think about what they were doing and why.

Similarly, our Twitter Journal Club was disruptive of the collective knowledge we brought to the event.  We constituted new or revised practices in-situ, in the actual typing-reading-thinking-scratching- sitting-watching; in the computational power of the algorithms that make tweeting possible.  Though each individual would bring different sets of experience of tweeting and ‘reviewing’ academic texts, we brought some collective knowledge of the core tasks.  However, the situation was different enough to make the process of doing very evident.  We were, I would suggest, making it up as we went along.  Our ‘learning’ to DO the task (a Twitter Journal Club) was distributed across a range of concepts, physical actions, and material objects that were brought together in a relatively unique arrangement.  And, of course, we will get better at it, because the more we DO it, the more certain tasks become un-thought, become part of the ongoing condition of accomplishing a Twitter Journal Club.

But what about LOVE?

Well, it just so happened that parallel to me engaging with the Twitter Journal Club I was reading a Hybrid Pedagogy article that spoke directly to the practices of ‘normal’ academic reviewing.  This led to reading HP’s policy on Collaborative Peer Review.  While some of the process, in particular making it up in-situ, was demanding, there was a real sense that all the participants CARED for each other.  We weren’t dismantling the paper.  Instead we mobilised it to generate discussion and lots of questions about PRACTICE.  While we did not make it explicit, there was a sense in which we cared for the authors of the paper, we respected their endeavour and their invitation to think.  It was  a PEDAGOGICAL activity.

I give the closing words to the authors of the HP article ‘Love in the Time of Peer Review‘:

Just as in pedagogical spaces, where we learn through peering review and peer reviewing — peer review is an opportunity to learn and teach simultaneously. In this way we transform scholarship into pedagogy and pedagogy into a form of love.

(Marisol BritoAlexander FinkChris FriendAdam Heidebrink-BrunoRolin MoeKris ShafferValerie Robin and Robin Wharton )


The Ethics of Academic Practice- 1: Reverence For Life

Watching the unfolding horror in Gaza I am reminded of my commitment to a form of academic practice that places ethics at its core.  But, apart from rhetorical claims to the moral high ground how might such an ethics inform academic practice; how might it guide a thoughtful and honest response to events such as those in Gaza as well as the ‘everydayness’ of teaching, research, and administration?

To explore this I want to look at the 5 MINDFULNESS TRAININGS  offered by the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh and the trainings are a good place to start for a number of reasons.  Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the key instigators of what has become known as Engaged Buddhism, that orientation within reformed Buddhism that seeks to engage directly with issues of poverty, equality, and justice as a means of practicing the teachings of the Buddha.  This orientation grew out of his immediate experience of war in Vietnam.  His efforts to engage in ethical practices applying Buddhist teachings led him and many other Vietnamese Buddhists to support villagers to rebuild their homes, to provide health and education in the midst of suffering, and to campaign for peace.  It was on the basis of this that Martin Luther King Jr nominated Thich Nhat Hahn for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Thich Nhat Hanh has gone on to become one of the most influential Buddhist leaders in the world.  As part of his ethic of engaged Buddhism he has sought to establish sets of principles that can guide people in their everyday lives – the 5 MINDFULNESS TRAININGS.  These are based on the original 5 Precepts established in Buddhist tradition:

  1. Not killing
  2. Not stealing
  3. Not misusing sex
  4. Not lying
  5. Not abusing intoxicants


While similar to the rules and commandments found in other religions, in Buddhism there is no ‘god’ to provide authority for such rules.  Instead they are seen as rational guides for improving the human condition.  These precepts have been reformulated as:

Reverence For Life

True Happiness

True Love

Loving Speech and Deep Listening

Nourishment and Healing

Over the following weeks I will focus on each of these ‘trainings’ in order to elaborate an ethic of academic practice.


Reverence For Life

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.


As I write Israel is unleashing its amazing arsenal of death upon one of the poorest people in the world.  This is not a war between competing combatant states.  This is an asymmetrical war of destruction.  Borrowing from the Old Testament, a text that the Jews, Muslims, and Christians of the region regard as sacred, Israel is Goliath and Gaza is David.  In this story David is unlikely to win.

The other night I was talking with an Italian Jewish friend about this horror.  While unambiguously seeing himself on the side of peace and against this current onslaught, he remarked that he had come to the opinion that Israel’s heightened ‘security’ measures over the years that had effectively made Gaza an open air prison, had created necessary calm in Israel.  I could have asked him what he thought this meant for the population of Gaza.  Instead, I asked him what this was doing to young Israelis, particularly Jewish Israelis.  I asked him what this creation of Israel as a security state was doing to those young people who had to serve in the military.  We explored the psychological and moral impact of serving in the Israel Defence Force (IDF), of what this did to young minds and souls as they had to search old women at check points, go through children’s clothes, break down doors on frightened families, shoot young boys throwing stones.  We explored how fear could so easily be transformed into hate, into constructing the people of Gaza into non-humans.  We explored how Israel, and Jewish Israelis, seemed blind to how they, like the Christians before them, were creating new GHETTOS.

The constant heightening of security measures creates prisons for both Palestinian and Israeli.  But this prison, whose walls are constructed by high calibre weapons as much as they are by concrete and wire, is aided by scientists of many kinds.  There are those involved in the development of spy technology that enable the IDF to use pinpoint accuracy (so it is said) to target particular individuals and buildings.  There are scientists who are involved in the development of weapons as well as those involved in the psychological training of soldiers, and torturers; as well as those who advise on the use of psychological warfare against the civilian population of Gaza, or ‘persuading’ the Israeli population of the correctness of these actions through the controlled use of the media.

All of these ‘scientists’ were educated in universities.  What was the moral content of their university education?  How is it that universities can produce individuals who are apparently so lost to basic human empathy and compassion?  What is it about the pursuit of knowledge that splits a person from their heart such that they see only the spirit of the technology and the beauty of the algorithm?

And how is it that universities accept funding from arms manufacturers fully aware of the human and ecological destruction they unleash on the world?  Is this why there is almost universal silence from universities despite the death toll of Gaza’s civilian population?  Have they, that is the leading academics and administrators, literally sold their souls to the devil?

Israel’s IRON DOME defence system, heavily subsidised by the USA, is only possible by the complicity of universities and their scientists.

What ethical choices are these academics making?


But we face other ethical choices in these times.  It is all too easy to CHOOSE one side against the other.  But the challenge posed by the commitment to COMPASSION is that seeing one side as lesser than the other simply perpetuates this process of dualism, of distinction.  This is not to promote some kind of dispassionate approach.  But we must always seek the path of peace whilst also speaking out against injustice where we see it, regardless of personal security.

I am appalled by what Israel is doing to the Palestinian’s.  But I also feel such pain at what is happening to those young Israelis in the IDF, to the loss of humanity they suffer each time they construe another human not as a human like them, but as ‘enemy’, as being less than human.  Each act like this dehumanises them, alters their psychology and moral framework.  I hear the pain of Palestinians as they confront the loss of loved ones, wishing harm upon all Israelis or Jews.  But the death of any Israeli will never heal the wound of losing a child in such circumstances.

As academics we need to be attentive to the moral content of our teaching, and we should be mindful of the ethical modelling that accompanies our practice.


My friend and I finished the evening not in total agreement, but in renewing a commitment to ethical practice and the search for peace.

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.







Is the Curriculum Information Rich but Knowledge Poor?



Two events this morning lie behind this entry.

The first was feedback on a student’s learning journal entry for an academic development course.  The student (academic) was raising the perennial problem of how to develop authentic assessment techniques while also delivering the required content.

The second was a symposium where similar students (more academics) were presenting the work they were doing on the use of learning technologies to enhance learning.  These technologies included the use of podcasts to provide feedback on student assessments, wiki’s to engage students in process-heavy tasks, videocasts to enhance skills development, etc.

These events prompted in me a line of reflection about academic identity, knowledge, and teaching.

As academics we are largely defined in terms of knowledge, of the epistemic tribes we belong to, our knowledge communities.  We variously describe these as disciplines and they are structured by core concepts, epistemological debates, conferences, peer-reviewed journals.  Our ‘license’ as academics is the doctorate, a training in engagement with particular knowledges and recognised knowers.  But, this is not a license to teach.  Teaching is something different all together.  Indeed, one can construct a very successful academic career without ever engaging substantively in issues of teaching and learning.

If our academic identities are sou bound up in knowledge of particular kinds, and our standing in our academic tribes often based on our successful performance with these knowledges, it is probably not surprising that our ‘teaching’ should often be described in terms of delivering knowledge.  We talk about curriculum as if it were coterminous with content, and that content was the same as knowledge.

But what passes as ‘knowledge’ is actually INFORMATION.  We throw bits of information at students, telling them that it is required content, that their professional competency, for instance, is dependent on their mastering of this content.  We do this despite the experiential and scholarly knowledge that it doesn’t work.  Students do not really come out of this process knowledgeable and certainly seldom wise.

But we continue in this vein.

So, we state, with apparent, authority, that we can’t really develop authentic assessment because it comes up against the primary need to ‘deliver’ the curriculum.

One of the many inspiring things about the symposium this morning was the fact that there are people from across all disciplines who quietly and diligently develop their craft as educators, thinking, reflecting, risking, changing, in conditions that are not always conducive to this endeavour.

So, experiencing directly the reality that students were not taking in the information and methodologies that they did REQUIRE, this colleague imagined how it could be if students used a research mode instead of the usual lab work, imagined what the possibilities would be if the classroom was flipped and students actually engaged with the information so transforming it into KNOWLEDGE.

This was just one example out of a number I witnessed this morning.

I makes me honoured to be part of such a community of scholarly educators.