confessions of a worried teacher

critical inquiries into westernised higher education

Month: March, 2015

the neglect of ‘things’ in university learning – an initial inquiry


Models, illustrations and diagrams serve, together with mathematical signs, as basic epistemological tools in science

(Cathrine Hasse 2008 Postphenomenology: Learning Cultural Perception in Science)

Recently I had the pleasure of observing a pharmacology lab practical.  As a neophyte academic developer I felt that it was important to familiarise myself with what ‘teaching’ meant in different disciplines, and so not rely solely on my own disciplinary perspective and theory.  And this is where pharmacology comes in.

My own academic background is in education, and more specifically the sociology of education, and in recent years in the study of higher education. Although my move into academic development is requiring a re-forming of my structure of knowledge and practice, I am still operating in familiar landscapes.  Recognising that many of my colleagues who participate in our courses do not approach this domain with familiarity – of concepts, language, genre of writing, etc., I wanted to put myself in situations where I had to struggle to become familiar.

And so, I found myself in a crowded chemistry laboratory, a guest of the pharmacology department.

As I stood there observing the activity I found myself making mental notes that related to two sets of literature that I had been engaging with – practice theory & posthumanism.  I have written previously about my interest in practice theory and  how this could inform academic development.  So I was intrigued about how knowledge and learning was embedded in and across the varied practices the students were engaged in, and how this worked against a view of learning that placed undue attention on the purely cognitive.  Simultaneously I was taken with the ‘dance of agency‘ between students and the non-human – the way we might understand how ‘doing’ science may be ‘unthinkable’ without also considering the active role of the apparatus the students engaged with and the chemical compounds they relied upon in the lab activity.  That is, the way the students’ knowing and learning was essentially mediated by and entangled with apparatus, technology and chemical compounds.

As I observed the way pairs of students sought to align each other and align themselves with the apparatus, technology and chemicals, an idea slowly emerged.  And this idea is taking the form of some ‘continuous publishing‘ whereby I will use this blog to develop and rehearse my thinking with the intention of writing an article over the coming weeks.

I begin by sharing with you some initial notes from my research journal.

Snippet 1:

My approach in this paper is ‘posthumanist’ and ’emergent’ in orientation.  As such it differs in emphasis to more traditional, humanist accounts of learning in higher education.  It touches directly on constructivist theories of learning which are distinctly humanist.  As I will argue, my approach does not discount the importance of human agency in the learning process, but it does displace such agency as the final point of analytical reference.  Instead, I extend constructivist understandings so that we consider the way human actors, processes, concepts, and non-human materials are intimately related.  I argue that understanding, knowing and learning are effects of this entanglement of human, discursive and non-human.  In doing this I am deeply influenced by the practice turn in social theory, especially the idea of knowledge as embedded in practice.  Consequently, learning is viewed performatively, as an emergent quality, as something that emerges from practice and is not exterior to it.

Snippet 2:



Over the coming days I attempt to clarify my understanding of the two main literatures of posthumanism (as related to science and learning) and practice theory.  The entries will, of necessity, be disjointed, provisional, EMERGENT.

love, narrative and the academic conference


Love is not something you would immediately associate with an academic conference.  For all their vigour they can also be lonely and brutal places, which is why I have been careful in deciding where, when, and with whom I want to congregate.  Below is a ‘non-report’ from a different kind of conference experience, and takes the form of a piece of ‘flash fiction‘ written during an 8 minute window in a workshop run by Shauna Gilligan (who you can find here and here – depending on which identification suits you).

This was at the 2nd Irish Narrative Inquiry Conference, held at Maynooth University.  I might write something on my experience of the conference but for now I just want to preface the flash fiction with a short observation: rather than a series of monological deliverences, the kind of ‘look at me’ style so redolent of the academic conference, this event (for me) was more akin to community building, of nurturing existing connections, found connections, renewed connections. Sure, there was a certain absence of intellectual interrogation, but that’s fine as such conversations can occur after the event, in more negotiated spaces.  It was a sharing that, in conversations in the conference ‘between spaces’, allowed folks to reflect there (and then and then and later again) without posture.  It was a moment outside the managed CV or the managerial strategic alignment to institutional objectives.  And neither was it about boundary setting and gateways.  There was a sense of free roaming – free range academia?

So, it seems fitting that my first response to this event is to share the flash fiction, the 8 minute novel (thanks Shauna for the opportunity):

I think I hadn’t quite noticed it, Spring.  The blossom on the cherry tree caught my eye as I made my early morning coffee.  How you worried over that tree, the westerly winds blowing in from the sea.  You would rush to the kitchen window and just smile quietly when you saw the pink and white bear up.  And me? The tree was just there; a feature; but easily ignored as I busied myself on whatever project I had in mind – and it usually was IN MY MIND.  How I neglected the delicate blossom; how I failed to catch the coming storm; how I failed to run to the kitchen and check on this beautiful thing.  I sip my coffee and think on all I have neglected and how I am left OUT OF MY MIND.

In what sense is ‘waiting for the bus’ entangled in my professional practice and so a site for learning?

I am working on a small project that explores the potential for contemporary practice theories to support and possibly reframe academic development.  As part of this approach that views professional knowledge and learning as embedded in and distributed across a range of practices I am collecting images and sounds of my own practices that can be defined as professional.  Below is the first image I wish to share.

While taking in the sunrise over Galway Bay, waiting for the bus, my mind is oriented towards the varied tasks I need to accomplish over the course of the day.  In what sense is ‘waiting for the bus’ entangled in my professional practice and so a site for learning?

bus stop

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

Reflections on an emergent identity as an Academic Developer

celbracion de internet


I am a neophyte OPEN EDUCATOR, a newbie on the digital scholarship block.

My move into ACADEMIC DEVELOPMENT has come hand in hand with the challenges of networked learning, learning technologies, etc.

The  notion of openness has slowly transformed from a political stance to an emerging pedagogic practice.  As part of that I am involved in various ‘projects’ where I am experimenting with different aspects of open scholarship.  One project is my BROKEN ACADEMIC blog where I am sharing my thinking and writing on academic wellbeing.  Another involves my reflections on the process of BECOMING an academic developer through engaging in some of the learning activities of participants on one of the courses I co-ordinate.  Below is another extract from an inconsistent learning journal I am keeping alongside the lecturer/participants.  I have edited some of the detail because I have taken the decision to not mention my institution explicitly unless the meaning of the post demands it.  This space is a reflection on my practice rather than on my place of work.


What is Curriculum?

For the purpose of this Course Review Folder I will be reflecting upon one of the modules I am responsible for on the Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education….[I am referring to a module that runs in the preceding semester].


I started [here] in January 2014. This meant that my teaching began with the two other modules on this course…In that sense I ‘inherited’ the legacy of [the module] without actually experiencing it. That semester was very much one of getting through and felt like I was ‘delivering’ a course that I only had a shallow understanding of , though I did manage to introduce elements…that reflected my own interests and knowledge.

Using Fraser and Bosanquet’s framework (2006), this first semester of working on the [the module] (and the PgDip and MA) felt very much one of ‘The structure and content of a unit’ of teaching. I was dealing with getting the material ready for each week’s teaching, becoming familiar with a different way of using the [VLE] learning environment, and trying to approach my feedback on the fortnightly ‘learning journal’ entries as meaningfully as possible. The ‘curriculum’ was very much conceived, at that point, as ‘syllabus’. My overriding concern was with content and meeting the necessary requirements of the job. Much of the content was inherited. But more importantly, the job required a shift in knowledge and practice. While there was much about the ‘signature pedagogy’ of the role of academic developer that was familiar to me … the knowledge base and many practices and ‘ways of knowing’ were different enough to invoke anxiety. I was experiencing the troubling nature of the enterprise, teetering on the threshold of a new world. Reading up (to gain appreciation of the knowledge – of constructivist approaches to teaching and learning, assessment, learning outcomes, etc.) was not an issue. Becoming functionally familiar with the structure of the course was a challenge at times (a challenge of time management), but doable. What was really challenging was getting to grips with the underlying episteme of the course (Perkins 2006), of its ‘deep structure’ (Schulman 2005). What was the fundamental rationale of the course and therefore how did this translate into the expectations I communicated to the course participants?

The immediacy of the flow of experience meant that I was hardly able to even consider the curriculum in terms of the ‘structure and content of a programme of study’. That aspect really only impressed itself upon me when I had to prepare for our internal exam board in the summer. Only then did I really begin to see each unit of teaching within an overarching programme, of how each unit related to others, how participants might travel from one point to another, and how the immediate demands of the job sat within and related to university level structures and processes (registration, syllabus, exams, conferment).

Thinking of the generative ideas presented by Burnett and Coate (2005), my ‘experience’ of the course was dominated by the domain of knowledge. I was focused on what ‘I’ needed to know as well as what knowledge I perceived participants needing to be exposed to. The nascent sense of the beingness of participation in a course such as this was not really on my horizon at that point. As the weeks passed and I became more familiar with it, the practices required for full participation in the course increased in visibility.

I approached the new academic year with a desire to frame the whole programme with a coherent curricula idea. Some of this was already there. The programme I inherited had behind it a dual function to simultaneously address the technical concerns of higher education teachers and to support a paradigm shift institutionally (though admittedly this actually involved multiple paradigms). The syllabus reflected this. All modules … spoke directly to those technical concerns we all face teaching in higher education – large classes, small group work, assessment, planning, learning technologies, engagement, diversity, supervision. Much of the ‘content’ addressed these issues in terms of ‘how to’, ideas for practice, etc. But there were also other ideas on offer. Empirical, theoretical and philosophical resources were also available for participants to consider. These perhaps offered alternative perspectives on the mundane concerns we bring with us. But they also animate those concerns and reveal to us that they are not so mundane after all. Our apparently mundane issues (which we may deem technical) are always rich with nuance, possibility, and meaning. Then there was the key signature pedagogy of academic development, that of reflective learning. This was an inheritance I could subscribe to. It was pragmatic (something that attracted me to the job in the first place). It built on my desire to integrate scholarly engagement with professional development that placed practice at its heart. It was also scholarly, which, in a university, should be central to any educative activity. And it was strategic, it sought to encourage a shift in orientation that a) took teaching seriously, b) conceived teaching and learning as knowledgeable activities, and c) saw itself as engaged in institutional learning.

So, if the nature of the educative environment I was faced with between January-August 2014 resembled something like this:

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 13.53.16

what did I want it to look like, and what was the curricula intent or animating idea that would frame consideration of content, sequencing and practice?

In fact there were three animating ideas.

  • It’s not about blaming the teacher: I was conscious of Catherine Manathunga’s identification of the association between academic development work and institutional quality assurance concerns (Manathunga 2014). Specifically, I was concerned that our courses would be viewed as viewing university teachers as the ‘problem’.
  • Professional education: I was keen to conceive of what we do as a form of professional education as a way of bridging the ‘training’ and ‘educative’ aspects of the course. My hope was that the metaphors through which I viewed what we were aiming to do escaped the language of ‘acquiring’ knowledge or skills that were then ‘applied’ or ‘transferred’ to the practice context (See Boud & Hager 2012). I didn’t want to present an idea of the knowledge about teaching and learning practices as something exterior to the context of practice nor of practice as absent of theory (implicit or otherwise). Along with many others I wanted to locate our approach in relation to a practice approach to professional learning (for instance see Fenwick & Nerland 2014) that “…provides a holistic way of thinking that integrates what people do, where they do it, with whom and for what purpose.” (Boud & Hager 2012: 22). Practice (what university teachers do, where, with whom and for what purposes) becomes the ‘site’ of attention for professional education (Nicoline 2011). The site of practice (and therefore learning) is always situated socially. It happens in particular places, at particular times. It is conditioned, changeable, moving. Therefore, educative endeavors have to somehow account for this. So we need to move from thinking of knowledge as something static that is acquired to knowing that is accomplished. Also, knowing is conceived as distributed through all the myriad small acts of professional practice, as knowing-in-practice. This indexes back to earlier organizational learning work by Argyris on ‘theory in practice’ (Argyris & Schon 1974).
  • And scholarship: While aware of some of the limits of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (Boshier 2009), I was heartened by Carolin Kreber’s (2006) conceptualization of the potential of SoTL that lies in the ethics or values it conveys rather than notions of ‘best practice’. SoTL and a constructivist approach to matters of learning (and therefore teaching) are central features of academic development’s signature pedagogy, of its deep structure. But its implicit structure can be vague, or can over-emphasise a highly normative sense of what should be done. I did want to signal the broad body of knowledge that existed that could stimulate thought and reflection, offering new thresholds through which participants could travel. But rather than perceive this as linear, I have increasingly come to see it as framed more openly, where the relationship between knowledge, teaching and learning is highly dynamic, and is oriented not towards best practice but to cultivating a way of individuals orienting themselves to the world. This seems quite abstract at the moment and needs further development.

So, my aspiration was that the curriculum, following the curricula intent outlined above, would resemble something more like this:

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 13.54.42


Argyris, C. & Schon, D. (1974) A Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. Oxford: Jossey-Bass.

Barnett, R. & Coate, K. (2005) Engaging the Curriculum in Higher Education. McGraw-Hill: Maidenhead.

Roger Boshier (2009) Why is the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning such a hard sell? Higher Education Research & Development Vol. 28, No. 1, March 2009, 1–15.

David Boud & Paul Hager (2012) Re-thinking continuing professional development through changing metaphors and location in professional practices, Studies in Continuing Education, 34:1, 17-30.

Sue Clegg (2012) Conceptualising higher education research and/or academic development as ‘fields’: a critical analysis, Higher Education Research & Development, 31:5,

Fenwick T & Nerland M, (eds.) (2014) Reconceptualising professional learning: Sociomaterial knowledges, practices and responsibilities. London: Routledge.

Fraser, S, and Bosanquet, A (2006) The Curriculum? That’s just a unit outline, isn’t it? Studies in Higher Education, Vol. 31, (3), pp. 269-284

Carolin Kreber (2006) Developing the Scholarship of Teaching Through Transformative Learning, Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 6(1):88 – 109.

Catherine Manathunga (2014) The deviant university student: historical discourses about student failure and ‘wastage’ in the antipodes, International Journal for Academic Development, 19:2, 76-86.

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

Perkins, D. N. (2006). Constructivism and troublesome knowledge. In J. H. F. Meyer & R. Land (Eds.), Overcoming barriers to student understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. London: Routledge

Shulman, L. S. (2005). “Signature pedagogies in the professions.” Daedalus 134.3: 52-59.


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