Julius Axelrod

The image above is that of Julius Axelrod who, with Bernard Brodie, is seen as establishing paracetamol as a leading painkiller.

So, why Axelrod, why paracetamol?

A previous post introduced the idea of me using this blog to develop and rehearse my thinking leading to an academic article (hopefully), inspired by my observation of a pharmacology laboratory practical class.  The focus of this class was a test of the toxicity of paracetamol solutions.  This has a very practical rationale because paracetamol poisoning is so common, hence the importance of those dispensing the drug having a proper understanding of its adverse effects.

As I observed the students engaging in the ‘paracetamol array’ I was taken by the performative character of the activity.  The activity was ‘staged’ in the sense of being performed in a particular setting that gave the activity certain meaning.  Imagine this cluster of young people dressed in white lab coats conducting this test in the student bar?  In being wrenched from the lab its ‘meaning’ would change, there would be an ‘out-of-placeness’ about it; the authority and legitimacy of the activity as SCIENCE would be in question.  WHERE the array was conducted was important.  There was a distinct patterning to the movement of the students between paper, apparatus, chemical compound, and back to paper; or between the pairs of students working together (?) at their bench.

This notion of performance is important here as a key concept in posthuman understandings of science, indeed of helping me understand the activity as science.

So, in what sense might we say these students were engaged in science?

Let me begin with a very brief description of the setting (though I will give more detail of the activity later).

The space within which the activity took place was undoubtedly a ‘laboratory’ something like this,


with approximately 50 students wearing white lab coats.  It had all the semiotic clues that would lead most observers to conclude that what was going on in this space was science. The benches and the other non-human artefacts – measuring instruments and machines, as well as water and various chemicals function both as ‘tools’ that enable the practices of scientific endeavour (and science education in this case) but also as ‘signs’, signaling a particular meaning to the practices undertaken in this space.

This sense of scientific activity immediately begins to break down the distinctions between science as knowledge and science as practice.  And it is this latter sense of scientific endeavour that has preoccupied the work of Andrew Pickering.  Andrew Pickering draws attention to the cultural portrayal of science as primarily cognitive, certainly a conception carried in higher education:

Scientists feature as disembodied intellects making knowledge in a field of facts and observations (and language, as the reflexivists remind us)

Andrew Pickering (1995) The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, & Science, Chicago: Chicago University Press (see also here)

Through a series of studies Andrew Pickering deconstructs the cultural motifs of scientific work and demonstrates the folding together of human and non-human activity, and in going beyond ‘science-as-knowledge’ he argues that this takes us to an understanding of science-as-performance.

This performative understanding of science turns many common-sense notions on their head.  Such notions can lead us to perceive the world as one where ‘facts’ and ‘events’ are there to be found and observed respectively.  Instead, Andrew Pickering conjures up a world of agency – human and non-human.

He uses the example of the weather to illustrate this. Weather acts upon us without us willing it.  Our response to weather is not purely cognitive, but requires non-human materiality in the form of clothes and shelter.  But clothes and shelter have to be understood as not simply extensions of human thought and action, as things that emanate from a human origin (usually understood as cognition).  While cognition plays a part, our responses cannot be reduced to the purely human realm.  Also, the non-human material world does not act simply as ‘tools’ (as things to keep us safe from the weather).  The constituent elements that make up clothes and shelter will continue to ‘do things’ – that is have effects regardless of human action.  It is not the clothes and shelter that have material agency, but the physical and chemical properties of their constituent elements.  However, conjoined with human action and thought they may  have particular effects, which then impact upon human action and thought – human behaviour and thought changing as a consequence of new capabilities afforded by clothing and shelter.  It seems common-sense but for the fact that this understanding often appears missing in everyday language – including academic and scientific.

This is best illustrated with reference to the relationship between scientific knowledge and scientific apparatus/machines, and especially the concept of temporal emergence.  But before I do that I need to briefly outline the process the students followed in the lab:

 The students were required to conduct a colorimetric assay of a paracetamol solution in order to determine the therapeutic/toxic concentration.

The assay involved the students following a procedure similar to this below:

Preparation of a series of paracetamol solutions (some with known concentrations and some ‘unknown’) for comparative purposes involving processes of measuring (weighing and liquid measures), use of various apparatus (pipettes, including eppendorf pipettes, flasks, vortex machine for mixing, spectrophotometer), and a number of chemical compounds (water, sodium nitrate, sodium hydroxide).

Based on the reading from the spectrophotometer the students then had to construct a standard curve (based on Beer’s Law) and determine the concentration of paracetamol in the samples of ‘unknown’ toxicity.


Pickering’s discussion focuses on the relationship between scientific thought, practice and the apparatus (or machines) in the particular examples he investigates.  Scientific ‘machines’ work to inscribe material (non-human) agency.  He explores how in practice the development of scientific knowledge and practice operates like a ‘dance of agency’ between human and non-human with machines mediating this.

Let me try to illustrate this dance of agency as it might appear in the observed pharmacology lab by trying to distinguish between the moments of human and non-human agency:

Human Activity

  • reading array instructions
  • discussion with lab partner
  • measuring (water, paracetamol, acid, etc.)
  • dispensing solutions into test tubes
  • operating vortex machine
  • recording process and results

Human Passivity

  • waiting for the solutions to mix and settle

[during this period it is the material agency of the mixture that takes the lead and the students can do nothing but wait.]

Human Agency

  • placing samples into the spectrophotometer 

Human Passivity

  • waiting for the spectrophotometer to produce the results from the interaction between the basic materials (paracetamol) and the machine

Human Agency

  • interpreting the results from the spectrophotometer
  • charting the graph (based on Beer’s Law) and locating the toxicity of the ‘unknowns’
  • recording and reporting the results



It is within this dance of agency that something called learning occurs.

We can perhaps view this as patterned activity in the sense of a grammar of practice where this grammar does not provide us with the specifics of each articulation.  While there will be a grammar to the students’ practice in the lab, we cannot know in advance what the particular articulations of learning will be in the interaction of human/non-human.  In this regard, learning objectives simply outline the teacher’s (or scientist’s) intentions, but in the end learning will be emergent often relating to specific tasks and problems; learning cannot be predicted other than in the doing of the array. Learning is an accomplished activity rather than a simple acquisition of external knowledge or cognitive activity. Learning is something that occurs in the completeness of the doing, and embodied and situated accomplishment (this will be explored in a further post).

Temporal emergence, then,  might be seen as relating the students’ emergent learning outcomes (ELOs).  These ELOs might develop in real-time (hence the emphasis on ‘temporal’) shifting from a concentration on the knowledge domain, to the need to align their partner to the task-in-hand, to just ‘getting through the day’, to recognition of a psychological resistance to some element of the course.

As part of the temporal emergence of their learning the student might usefully be seen struggling with aligning themselves to the task-in-hand, of applying the necessary protocols (following the instructions for measuring and mixing) for the array and their conceptual understanding (of chemical processes and their practical application).  There could be an iterative relationship between the grasp of the process and their conceptual understanding.  This would mostly likely be more visible or pronounced when something didn’t work (requiring a process of reverse engineering to see what happened).

I will come back to this idea of the way the materiality of the lab and the practical actions of lab-work ‘carry’ knowledge and understanding in another post.

Here, I have tried to relay my current understanding of a complex interpretation of scientific practice through a posthuman lens and its possible application to higher education learning.

Further posts in this series will explore the materiality of lab-work and how this ‘carries’ learning; the organised nature of learning as a social activity of alignment.

In the writing of these posts I am struggling with ideas that take me beyond my habitual zones of practice.  By the time I write another iteration of this it is likely that I will have altered some of my understandings.  It should go without saying that any comments and suggestions from readers would be vital in this process.



Somewhere between the audit culture and authentic planning: explorations of learning outcomes

This is another entry from the learning journal I am keeping alongside my ‘teaching’ of a module on a Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching & Learning in Higher Education.  It parallels the kind of ‘reflective learning‘ activity the lecturer/participants are asked to engage in.  I am using it to develop my own appreciation of this new field of practice for me (academic development) and to utilise the course to help me critically reflect on curriculum design – a kind of reflection-in and on-practice.  This entry examines the module focus on learning outcomes as a contribution to the lecturer/participants undertaking a module redesign exercise.

Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes can often appear as managerial or administrative hurdles with little obvious relation to the ‘real’ job of teaching. Also, research suggests that within any one institution (or sub-unit within an institution) there can be varied approaches to an outcomes-based approach to learning and teaching. Although I am sensitive to the advantages of an outcomes approach to teaching and learning, I had not examined the learning outcomes of the courses I was co-ordinating, until now. It seems to me that an outcomes approach poses at least two key challenges for educators:

  • Are we teaching our discipline or our students?
  • Are we teaching for success or exclusion?

The first challenge refers to the tension that arises from the apprenticeship academics receive (usually the PhD) as part of their entry into academia. This is based on the discipline and subject knowledge, and specifically on research training in the discipline – not on teaching. So, we become a ‘sociologist’ or an ‘engineer’ rather than engender an approach to ‘sociological education’ or ‘engineering education’. It is no surprise then that we fall back on the ‘signature pedagogies’ we might have encountered that were teacher and content centred. We see ourselves as teaching the subject rather than educating students.

The second challenge is posed by John Biggs and his idea of ‘constructive alignment’. In his article ‘What the student does: teaching for enhanced learning’ he challenges higher education educators to face the exclusionary effect of habitual ways of teaching. Specifically he argues that much teaching assumes a student who has already mastered the threshold concepts and ways of practicing the discipline. Consequently, students who might still be operating in the liminal space of uncertainty can be ‘left behind’ or fail. Failure is then couched in terms of the student rather than teaching strategies. Biggs has proposed a particular planning technology to deal with some of these issues and to maximize the opportunity to design-in success and inclusion – constructive alignment. He asserts that by focusing on what we want students to come away with from the educative experience, rather than the subject matter we want to teach, we place learning at the centre of our activity. Furthermore, we need to plan for alignment between these outcomes and both the teaching activities and assessment methods.

Below I outline how I see the learning outcomes align with the teaching activities and assessment methods for CEL260:

Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 17.43.36

For the most part there seems to be a reasonable alignment between the teaching activities and the learning outcomes. The learning outcomes and teaching activities suggest a process of learning that would cover a number of sessions and avoid too much precision. This both allows for more nuanced focus in each session, allowing for a degree of improvisation and possible collaboration over the exact content to be engaged with (participants may drive a focus on specific issues not planned for by me as the co-ordinator).

Being broad in this way the learning outcomes cannot clearly indicate the depth or breadth of learning aimed for. For instance, the first learning outcome does not specify exactly what is meant by ‘identify’. What depth of identification is required? What range of ‘key theories’ constitutes an adequate understanding? In particular, to what extent would participants be required to understand the range of debates around teaching and learning, such as those related to learning outcomes? This specificity is largely provided by the selection of resources and the particular methods of participation utilised. Even if I were to propose a more inquiry-based or collaborative approach to developing course content, it is likely that this would be restricted. The difference would lie in the value placed on different approaches rather than on the range of content dealt with.

There are likely, then, to be emergent learning outcomes that reflect the ‘corridor of tolerance’ available. That is learning outcomes will emerge as a consequence of mine and the participants’ interests at the time, as well as the energy levels that each might have at their disposal (Hussey & Smith 2008). However, the degree of ‘diversion’ from the syllabus will be limited since each session in the module is related to all others and provides a basis for the module in semester 2.

However, the degree of deviance may be fairly broad and open up some potential for more negotiation about the actual content of each session. The whole course was configured around some key concepts – paradigm shift from teacher to student centred learning; signature pedagogies; threshold concepts/deconstructing the discipline; deep/strategic/surface learning. In that sense the actual content or subject matter is less important. It is these central concepts that provide the basis for an integrative approach to the curriculum rather than content. Consequently, I disagree with Hussey and Smith’s suggestion that for a module learning outcomes do little more than provide a list of content. This disagreement might have something to do with the nature of the course. As an academic development programme the PgCert is not tied to subject matter in the same way that a more established discipline might be. The ‘signature’ of academic development work is given more by its pedagogy than by its content matter.

For the moment, then, I am happy enough with the learning outcomes as stated. This ‘happiness’ is based in part on the understanding that there will always be emergent learning outcomes that reflect something of the particular tone of the interactions that take place. These cannot be pre-planned. But, it does raise a question for me about the degree to which the content could be negotiated.

The diagram above does raise another issue for me though. This relates to the method of assessment.

As it is currently represented the use of the reflective learning journal might appear a rather blunt instrument for assessing the specified learning outcomes. This will be looked at again when I discuss ‘assessment’. For the moment I want to generate some questions:

  • How suitable are the learning outcomes when the method of assessment stresses higher order cognitive functions?
  • What might the relationship between learning outcomes and assessment look like when you take into account both the in-class assessment and the formative feedback provided over the duration of the module?
  • What balance between ‘academic rigour’ (perhaps suggested by the first learning outcome) and professional practice development should there be on such a course, and how could this be captured in the assessment method.

There is much more detail to the assessment method than articulated in the label ‘Reflective Learning Journal’. It certainly begs the question as to what kind of reflection is demanded and how this might relate to ideas of critical thinking.

John Biggs (2012) What the student does: teaching for enhanced learning, Higher Education Research & Development, 31:1, 39-55

Kerry Dobbins, Sara Brooks, Jon J.A. Scott, Mark Rawlinson & Robert I. Norman (2014): Understanding and enacting learning outcomes: the academic’s perspective, Studies in Higher Education

Trevor Hussey & Patrick Smith (2003) The Uses of Learning Outcomes, Teaching in Higher Education, 8:3, 357-368

Trevor Hussey & Patrick Smith (2008) Learning outcomes: a conceptual analysis, Teaching in Higher Education, 13:1, 107-115

M.W. Jackson & M.T. Prosser (1989) Less lecturing, more learning, Studies in Higher Education, 14:1, 55-68