confessions of a worried teacher

critical inquiries into westernised higher education

Tag: Teaching and Learning



Beautiful Landscape With Bridge, by George Hodan License: CC0 Public Domain

Can students take a lead on managing and promoting their own learning?

Does this have to happen in the confines of institutional virtual learning environments?

Can academics and students take back control of their digital presence?

These were all questions explored yesterday in a workshop facilitated by Jim Groom at the National University of Ireland Galway title: Student As Partner: Enhancing Student Engagement Through a Focus on Assessment As Learning in Digital Spaces.

Let me quote from the advertising text to give you a flavour of what this event sought to deal with

The Student as Producer model advocates a pedagogic approach foregrounding student voice, choice and creativity so that students can recognise themselves in a world of their own design and take responsibility for their own learning. This has broad ramifications across the institution with respect to digital technology, learning spaces, and assessment (Healy et al., 2014; Neary et al., 2015). The Domain of One’s Own initiative emphasises a partnership approach to teaching and learning, and reworks the relationships between research and teaching; producing and consuming; and educators and students (Groom & Lamb, 2014). Partnership with students, not only as learners but as teachers and assessors, can contribute to developing graduate attributes and personal learning networks that can sustain students/graduates well beyond their time in higher education.


Groom, J., & Lamb, B. 2014. Reclaiming innovation. Educause Review (June 2014).

Healey, M., Flint, A., & Harrington, K. 2014. Engagement through partnership: Students as partners in learning and teaching in Higher Education. York: Higher Education Academy.

Neary, M., Saunders, G., Hagyard, A. & Derricott, D. (2015). Student as Producer: Research-engaged teaching, an institutional strategy. York: Higher Education Academy.


It is time for me to own up to the fact that I was co-responsible for this event along with my colleague Catherine Cronin.  I am not an educational technology person so the event was conceived as an exploration of the space between different sets of ideas, specifically those of ‘student as producer’ and ‘open educational practices‘ (OEP), using Domain of Ones Own (DoOO).  Catherine has already written about her hopes for the workshop and will write refections on it shortly.   I want to focus on the elements I was mostly interested in and the thoughts I have had following working with Jim.

I was particularly interested in how ideas of students as producers (SaP) could articulate with technologies associated with open educational practices.  In the workshop I outlined SaP as covering at least three dimensions;

  • Students as researchers: students engaged in different kinds of research like activity, and presenting the outcome of their inquiries.
  • Students devising learning materials: students involved in the development of curricular materials.  For instance a project at the University of Lincoln UK involved undergraduate students producing a range of learning materials for an Introduction to Chemistry course.
  • Students as assessors: biology students at Vanderbilt University USA were engaged in devising laboratory based experiments and the assessment of these as an alternative to the traditional lab practical.

From my perspective students are engaged in assessment as learning in all of these examples.  Students not only need to know what to learn, but why  that knowledge is important (compared to alternatives), and to determine how they can learn.  When further developed students also engage in generating new knowledge and meaning.

But how does this dovetail with OEP?

One way of understanding how approaches such as DoOO align with SaP is articulated by Audrey Waters recently as concerning,

  • Students have lost control of their personal data

  • By working in digital silos specially designed for the classroom (versus those tools that they will encounter in their personal and professional lives) students are not asked to consider how digital technologies work and/or how these technologies impact their lives

  • Education technologies, particularly those that enable “algorithmic decision-making,” need transparency and understanding

(You can substitute the word “scholar” for “student” in all cases above, too, I think.)


Whether it is VLEs, Twitter, LinkedIn, Academia or other platforms, we exchange our personal data and learning outcomes and teaching materials (in the case of VLEs) in exchange for use of these proprietorial services.  DoOO offers the opportunity to control how our personal data is used and to control our digital presence.  Jim shared examples of how academics were able to fashion strong digital identities that were not confined to the institution they happened to work in at any particular moment.  This meant they could construct digital identities that were not confined to corporate priorities and branding.  The same can be done by students.  This relates to an issue raised both by Audrey Waters in her blog post and Catherine Cronin at the workshop – that the nature of VLEs and proprietorial platforms means that students and academics do not really engage with digital literacies such as protection of personal data, privacy, copyright, etc.

DoOO, for me, is attractive because it can be supportive of public and open scholarship.  Similarly, it can support students to be producers of knowledge and meaning rather than consumers.


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.


Going against the groove with a groovy beat – a #blimage story


Sheffield sits uneasily in my soul.  It is a city I love, but it is also where I have faced death in the face and just about survived.  It is a place I go back to regularly, each time finding new ways to love its energy, its independent spirit and connect with dear friends.  But it is also troubling, as I am always accompanied by ghosts of that near-ending, and of the way of being that led me to that point.

I visited Sheffield again recently.

And I found that I related to it differently (even though it was only a year since I was there last).  Sure, the ghosts were there, but I wasn’t troubled by them so much.  I let them be.  They are hungry ghosts, never satisfied, no matter the quantity of anguish I give them.  So I let them sit there.  Instead, it was the image of the record shop above that captivated my imagination because it spoke of a Sheffield that feeds my soul (as my new home of Galway does).  And it is this image I want to spend some time reflecting on.

Why an image?

Because of a challenge.

What challenge?

Well, a good colleague and friend @sharonflynn  alerted me the #blimage challenge, and well, to get on and do a post god damn it!!!!  Use an image to get thinking about learning.

And so @vinylsheffield.

In a way, this image reduced the ghosts to silence. How?  This record shop stands for much of my Sheffield, the Sheffield I love.  It doesn’t care to be like London, or other big cities nearby like Birmingham or Manchester or Leeds.  They celebrate their uniqueness, not caring much if it is out of fashion (whose fashion?).  It is its independence of spirit that attracts me (and perhaps why Galway feels so familiar).  And this independent spirit is in the water, is part of its historical DNA – no matter where people originate from.  It is Steel City, but not that imagined by so many folks, who imagine it incorrectly as being about hot furnaces and sheets of glowing steel.

Instead, it has always been a creative place, a maker space, a place of crafts and imagination.

And this spirit lives on in a multitude of creative acts that belie the national story of conservative revolution, austerity, and the industrial (and social) decline of the North of England (they still vote Labour there you know).

What has this got to do with learning you may ask.

Well, it speaks to the learning or the philosophy and politics of education I try to embody and inhabit (though not always, and not always successfully).  Its about an idea of education that is more like the independent spirit of places like Sheffield and Galway, the insistence that the hungry ghosts of neo-liberal depression need not be fed, and that we can just get on and do it our own way, thank you very much.

The hungry ghosts seem to tell us that we are always failing, always not meeting the target or outcome, always in need of improvement (continuous improvement), that only excellence is enough.  We know that often we are forced to feed these ghosts.  We do so reluctantly.  But there are too many in education who do so willingly, actually believing in the bullshit (really, what was the point of their education?).  The independently spirited education I favour encourages folks to see the bullshit for what it is, and to encourage them to be creative, to be their own makers, to share, to believe in generosity.

On this recent trip I was able to inhabit Sheffield with a new spirit of freedom.  I was able to share in the generosity of my friends, enjoy the creativity of the city’s inhabitants, to marvel at the free spirits – and yes, of course, the fine beer.  The ghosts were there.  I nodded to them.  But ignored them.  I was in no mood to feed them.

And what does this have to do with a record shop?  There is a struggle in Sheffield (as everywhere) to resist the onslaught of corporate thinking and its astonishing lack of imagination and soul.  This record shop, like many other created and creative spaces in the city stands against that desert like logic (I know deserts are not lifeless or without feature but you know what I’m getting at).  It is apparently ‘out of step’, yet, so right!

I leave you with two examples of the spirit I enjoy.

Who would have thought that Northern English Brassband culture could become this:

And in Galway we groove our nights away with abandon regardless of the performative culture:


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.


the unsettling headiness of #rhizo15


(image: A network diagram showing the distributive nature of Stephen Downes’ and George Siemens’ CCK08 course, one of the first MOOCs and the course that inspired the term MOOC to become adopted. Source:

The pre-rhizo15 cMOOC chatter builds up and a sense of unease wraps itself around me.

This is another step into the digital scholar space, the #connectedlearning space, the #connectivist space that I have ventured into over the past few (only a few?) months, and which is having a transformative effect on my practice and conceptualisation of my professional identity.

Already there are some good pointers as to how to approach this different mode of educational engagement.  Dave Cormier (is he the instigator/facilitator?) has blogged and produced a neat video on ‘managing’ engagement with #rhizo15 and cMOOCs more generally.

Yet there is still that unease, that nervousness, that “maybe I’ll leave this one till next year” feeling.

I know this anxiety well, and the aversion to unfamiliar situations well.  In my everyday teaching, which is overwhelmingly f-2-f these days I deal with this by building in lots of ‘signposting’ for course participants.  I justify this, reasonably, as providing some clarity of direction so that participants can get to grips with the difficult stuff they will encounter.  This is reasonable, but I know it is me transferring my own sense of panic in new situations.

I take a deep breath and steel myself for the adventure (it will be an adventure won’t it?).

So, what’s the source of my unease?

The lack of an explicit, GIVEN syllabus and objectives provokes both desire and aversion in almost equal measure.  Desire because it is liberating (more on this in a moment).  Aversion because my inner voice is screaming: “BUT WHERE’S THE MAP? WON’T YOU GET LOST? WON’T YOU MAKE A FOOL OF YOURSELF BY NOT GETTING THE RULES OF THE GAME?”.  And of course, that’ s cMOOCs for you, that’s ‘connectivism’.

And yet…and yet am I not also irritated by the (over)abundance of course ‘content’ that yearly I seek to reduce believing, knowing that a richer strain of educational engagement can often emerge when we (learner/teacher participants) are challenged with the invitation/threat of open space?  There has been an intuitive understanding of connectivism that has driven me to open my teaching to more uncertainty (or at least less definitiveness), an approach that has sometimes led to conflict.  It is an approach that underpinned my more creative days as a community educator/artist where I used drama techniques with adults with intellectual disabilities in creating rich and powerful narratives about their lives where all the content and action came from them, and not a learning objective in site.

I have stated that my approach to this uncertain terrain is that of the dérive, a concept that has has guided me over the past year or so professionally and intellectually.


I will meander through this new landscape, slowly picking out the features that resonate with (or frighten) me, and begin to see the social structure of this ‘openness’ – that is see the rules-walls-and-public-spaces.  I will explore the contours of this connectivist mode, and try to grasp (which is impossible) the rhizomatic metaphor, of enjoying its inbetweeness:

‘rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.’ (Deleuze & Guattari ‘Capitalism and Schizophrenia’)


Some useful ideas emerging on #rhizo15


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.

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.


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.


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.


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:

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

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.]



Helen Kara

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Thesis Talk / Trácht ar Thráchtais

Tea biscuits and chat for PhDers / Deis chainte dóibh siúd atá i mbun thaighde iarchéime


research education, academic writing, public engagement, funding, other eccentricities.

the (research) supervisor's friend

Just another site

The Research Whisperer

Just like the Thesis Whisperer - but with more money

The Thesis Whisperer

Just like the horse whisperer - but with more pages


John Field's blog

ag foghlaim

learning, teaching, designing and hacking Irish higher education

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