confessions of a worried teacher

critical inquiries into westernised higher education

Tag: constructivism

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

Baltasar_van_den_Bosch_001

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

UO_Chemistry_Lab

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:

notes

 

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.

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

References

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.

 

Didaktik, Bildung and the Beautiful Risk of Education – Reflections on troubling reading.

I am ‘teaching’ on a Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Eduction.  As part of this the participants (academic colleagues from within my own institution)  are required to maintain a reflective learning journal.  I have decided to maintain my own learning journal and, unlike the participants, I make this open to all on the course.  It sits somewhere between modelling how to ‘do’ reflective writing for professional learning and being honest about the fact that I do not have all the answers ( I am not a master explicator).

I share my second entry here as it pick sup on earlier comments I have made on troubled reading.

  • WHAT DO I ALREADY KNOW ABOUT TEACHING LARGE GROUPS?

In coming to organising this particular session I am very conscious that I do not have much experience of large group teaching. Almost all of my teaching has been on post-graduate courses and consequently involved small cohorts. What I do have, and share with many of the students on this particular course, is my experience of being a student and experiencing the ubiquitous ‘lecture’. It is important to outline the context of my higher education because the experience of any educational event is largely determined by the particularities of the course, student demographic, location, etc.

I entered higher education in my mid-20s and so came in as a ‘mature’ student. I had no intention of going to university. I had not enjoyed school and only went back to study A Levels (senior cycle in the Irish system) because the bottom had just fallen out of the economy in the part of England I lived. Literally, the industrial landscape disappeared with the large smelting plants and metal works being erased from the skyline. The air quality improved but we were left with few jobs. So, I went back to school but with no plan as to what this might lead to. I didn’t complete my studies and left as soon as I found work. For a number of years I moved from one undemanding job to another, traveled a little, and ended up, by accident, on a community project. This altered my perception of what was possible to BE in life, brought me into the company of people who had been to university, and who encouraged me to consider this option for myself. The withdrawal of funding, during another economic slump, in the 1980s offered me the opportunity to go to college. My choice was to train to be a teacher (I am still trying to work out how I came to that decision). I felt I ‘should’ do something more vocational, and this was a better option than one or two others at the time.

So ‘lectures’ were part of the repertoire of learning experiences, but not the main one. Lectures do not rise up in my memory as important learning experiences. They were mostly boring. An example will illustrate my recollection of the lecture during my undergraduate studies. Being and education degree we had a lot of lectures on psychology. The main lecturer turned up on time. He used acetates (this was pre-powerpoint and widespread use of computer technology), and he provided us with handouts. But, the handouts were usually faded because they had been printed off years before and had been stacked up on his windowsill – hence the fading from the sun. The handouts simply repeated his lectures. My response was to strategically miss his lectures and read the books instead. I spent a lot of time in the library. But maybe this is in part the response of a mature student. The research and anecdotal evidence suggests that mature students are often keen but also strategic in their approach to learning. This particular lecturer relied upon delivery of information but with little space for reflection or engagement. This contrasted with the science lecturers (I eventually opted for arts as my specialty). They had a clearly articulated view of what they were doing. They saw school science as being about students behaving like scientists, engaging in activities were ‘science like’, to think like scientists. And so this was the view they took with us as well. I only had these folks in the first two years because we specialised in our third year, but they had a big impact on me. Their lectures were interactive, they got us to think not just about the process of teaching (the how) but also the ‘why’ and therefore the ‘what’. Sure, there was a good deal of information transfer, but my overriding impression is not of that.

When I came to take on lectures while working as a researcher I was ill-equipped. I had spent years working in community settings where ‘lecturing’ would see you heading straight for the exit door. I had taken in a view that any worthwhile learning came through ‘working with’ people. But how was I to do that when I did the occasional lecture to 200-300 undergraduates. I was often called in to do set piece lectures on ‘gender and education’ or ‘social class and education’ or ‘race and education’. These were stand alone, not even sitting within a wider programme that focused on these topics. Nobody advised me. I was given a timetable and that was it. But, maybe because of the community-based work and because of the need to ‘engage’ people who were unsure about why they were taking part in our activities, I had an intuitive understanding that I needed to capture the audiences attention. So, I used a lot of visual material. Computer-based presentation software was by now becoming common. So I used that. But I also used a lot of video. This meant video tape – so the process of identifying which segments to use was time consuming compared to now and the technical aspect was often beyond the scope of any individual teacher and required a lot of assistance from technicians.

Intuitively I also found myself using a lot of questions. But my skill at this was limited, and so often failed to encourage discussion (let alone obvious reflection). I think what I did take from my community-based work was that you had to be clear about what the key issues were you needed to build your activity around. This should frame the content and form of the activity.

The truth is that I made it up as I went along and with hardly any feedback.

However, these formative experiences did feed into further reflection when teaching became much more a fundamental part of my work in higher education. But I would say that I still have a tendency to try and cover too much ‘content’ without enough thought about matching the pace of a teaching session to the deep structure or deep learning I want to encourage. There is a sense in which I feel that unless I ‘give’ students a lot of ‘content’ then somehow I have failed them.

  • WHAT HAVE I LEARNED ABOUT LARGE CLASS TEACHING?

My reflection here operates in relation to: reflective description and analytical reflection.

Descriptive reflection

In selecting the core materials for this session I relied upon discussions within the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL). So, the articles approach the issue of large group teaching is mostly framed by constructivist assumptions. This doesn’t mean that lectures are rejected. Phil Race’s chapter, for instance, approaches it in a pragmatic fashion, providing really useful tips for structuring lectures. But, as with the three articles, there is a general perspective that lectures are ill-suited for cultivating deep learning. And it is this primary concern with ‘learning’, and specifically learning understood in cognitive terms, which points to the underpinning constructivist philosophy. Constructivism, as I pointed out in Session 1, also underpins much of academic development as a field of practice. And so, this assumption fed through into the selection of videos as supplementary material.

Analytical reflection

The constructivist presumption is that we can organize ‘learning’ experiences in such a way that we can lead students towards deep learning. But can we, and should academic developers, make that suggestion (no matter how subtle) at all? I am unsure. I have been enmeshed in the constructivist presumption for so long that it is difficult to imagine stepping outside of that.

The main challenge for me at the moment is my engagement with discussions of Bildung/Didaktik and the work of Gert Biesta.

There is a lot of similarity between the constructivist approach and that of Bildung/Didktik. Two recent texts I have read (‘Restrained Teaching: the common core of Didaktik’ by Stefan Hopman & ‘Microlearning and (Micro)Didaktik (On Microlearning)’ by Norm Friesen). Both stress the importance of the ‘learner’ and ‘learning’ and not just ‘teaching’; that learning is best understood as an active engagement with content; and sometimes a radical critique of content led ideas of curriculum. But didaktik is concerned mostly with teaching and the teacher, rather than the learner. Hopman’s article challenges some of my presumptions about leading students towards deep learning. He argues that in the didaktik approach teaching and learning are viewed as autonomous of each other, and the content of teaching does not ‘lead’ towards any particular outcome. From this perspective, my selection of particular content (core materials) does not necessarily carry the meaning I might wish students to adopt/learn.  The meaning of any educational interaction will be determined by the relationship between particular students, with particular teachers, with particular content, and particular environments. One example is that a student from a Quaker tradition will engage with the study of war with a particular perspective separate from that of the teacher’s intention. Following this, I have to make (the almost obvious) assumption that students on this course will construct their own meaning within the didaktik triangle (student-teacher-content). But more than this, the idea of bildung provides a much broader conception of the purpose of education than that often captured in concepts of ‘curriculum’ or ‘instruction’ or ‘teaching’. Bildung, in its reduced sense, is about the cultivation of the whole person and introduces into teaching/learning the idea that teaching should be aimed at assisting the student to engage with learning in a way that enables them to enter the world. I think I will come back to this in future entries.

Gert Biesta approaches the issue of education very much with bildung/didaktik as his cultural background. In a series of texts he has argued against the dominance in Anglo-American educational discussion of ‘learning’, and so challenges many of the presumptions of the kind of constructivism that has animated my own practice (and many of the ideas students will meet in this course). He argues for the reclaiming of the importance of ‘teaching’. But what he means by this is contrary to the idea of teaching as ‘control’ or primarily about the delivery of content. His argument for the reclamation of teaching (as different from learning) is that in his conception of education the role of the teacher is to bring something new to the didaktik triangle. Also, similar to bildung, he stresses that real education is full of ‘risk’ in that what happens in education escapes our attempts to control it. Now this potentially challenges some of the ideas that will be dealt with in Semester 2, particularly that of ‘learning outcomes’.

There is much more here for me to examine.

Biesta, G. (2014) The Beautiful Risk of Education, London: Paradigm

Friesen, N. (2006), ‘‘Microlearning and (micro)didaktik’’, paper presented at Micromedia and eLearning 2.0: Getting the Big Picture, June 8-9, Innsbruck, available at: http://learningspaces.org/n/papers/microdidaktik.doc

Hopmann, S. (2007 ) Restrained Teaching: the common core of Didaktik, European Educational Research Journal, 6(2): 109-124

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