Sense-making – moving from quality assurance to quality growth

HE is seemingly being ever more exposed to the use of metrics. This is most obviously the case in the current development of the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) where often vague, tangential datasets are to be used as a measure of the quality of teaching. One of the stated purposes of such frameworks is to offer institutions insights into how to improve their processes. However, one of the main problems with the use of any type of summative evaluation is that it might offer insights into patterns, and hence ‘what’s’, but has little to offer in terms of ‘how’ or ‘why’. Evaluations can also begin to pervert the processes they are intended to improve as they become part of the ‘accountability-complex’,

The paradox is that the accountability fervor meant to assure performance can have direct and indirect consequences that undermine it.’

(Halachmi, 2014)

A number of different approaches to programme and module evaluation have started to emerge, including the inclusion of student perspectives. Here, I outline a view which takes this as a starting point and considers the potential of a theoretical framework called Normalization Process Theory (which was developed within the health and social care area) to help develop holiploigic practice. The process I am currently developing starts from the definition of sense-making of Klein, given by Snowden,

‘Sensemaking is the ability or attempt to make sense of an ambiguous situation. More exactly, sensemaking is the process of creating situational awareness and understanding in situations of high complexity or uncertainty in order to make decisions. It is “a motivated, continuous effort to understand connections (which can be among people, places, and events) in order to anticipate their trajectories and act effectively.’

This stresses the ongoing nature of sense-making in an attempt to understand the evolving complexity of a context. In the case of a masters module, sense-making becomes a process of understanding experiences and perceptions of students as their work develops within a module, rather than waiting until the end of the module to gain retrospective perspectives.

To develop a framework for sense-making, I suggest here the use of Normalization Process Theory (NPT). This theory might not always work for sense-making activities, but where the focus is on embedding a change or process, it is ideal. NPT was developed by May and Finch (2009) as a way of understanding and assessing innovational change in health and social care contexts. It distinguishes between implementation (a relatively straight forward process), and normalization such that the innovation or change becomes embedded (a very difficult shift to achieve). It is in the gap between implementation and normalization that ‘zombie innovation’ (Wood, 2017) occurs, senior leaders believing that organizational proclamation leads to embedded day to day practice. But often, such proclamations merely lead to initial implementation, followed by ‘compliance under surveillance’ – i.e. the change will be present in official documents and assurance of practice, but not in day to day work. NPT is structured into four elements:

1.      Coherence this is the element of using a new practice which involves understanding how the new practice is different to what is currently done, and also being able to clearly understand and operationalize the aims and objectives of the new practice.

2.      Cognitive participation – this is the work individuals do to develop a collaborative approach to the change which is being undertaken. Are they able to create a successful community of practice?   

3.      Collective action – this relates to the resourcing and collective work done by a community to embed practice. It includes the development of new knowledge, understanding how the facets of a change can be brought together and generation of new practices.

4.      Reflexive monitoring – this is the appraisal work a group and individuals do to understand the processes and outputs of a change, as well as considering how localized changes might be developed further to ensure successful embedding of new practice.

By using these elements to sense how learning across a module is developed, it might be possible to understand how learning and skills are becoming embedded as the module is being experienced. This leads to the potential for changes and development in real time.

The example here is a module in an MA International Education programme. Early in the course all students complete a core research methods module. This module allows students, many of whom have never encountered research methods in their prior university experiences, to gain a foundation across approaches in education. An assignment concludes the module, based on asking students to create a research project plan, before piloting a single data collection technique and evaluating it.

Whilst the research methods module offers a positive initial experience of research methods, it is a large jump from this to a dissertation study of 20,000 words. As a consequence, those students undertaking an optional pathway in innovation and reform in education are asked to complete a research module (30 credits). They work in pairs to develop and complete a small-scale research project based on an issue relating to innovation and/or reform. Sessions are led as group tutorials, covering and developing issues the students feel they need further help with, as well as reporting back to the group on a regular basis to discussion ideas, plans and execution.

Given the challenging nature of the project for many, whilst it would be possible to evaluate the module at the end of the process, it would be far better to sense-make throughout the module. Therefore, given that the nature of the project is to help students embed new practices as they move towards their dissertation, I am currently beginning to think about the potential for NPT to act as a positive framework. The intention is to use four short questionnaires at points over the course of the module, followed by a focus group on each occasion as a way of understanding the nature of student learning and practice development. The first questionnaire, focused on issues of coherence, is given below as an example,      

npt-blog-1

The intention of this phase is to ensure that the students understand what the purpose and aims of the research project are. If students do not understand this then we are building on a poor foundation from the very start of the process. By investigating this early on I can work with the students to sense the level of confidence, knowledge and conceptual understanding on which they can baser their work in the coming weeks.

npt-blog-2

Once we have started this process, in a couple of weeks’ time, we will move on to consider and develop a sense of participants’ emerging work together, and the degree to which the taught sessions are helping them become part of a wider research community.

References

Halachmi A (2014) Accountability Overloads in M Bovens, R.E. Goodin & T. Schillemans, The Oxford Handbook of Public Accountability, Oxford University Press.

May C and Finch T (2009) Implementing, embedding, and integrating practices: An outline of Normalization Process Theory. Sociology 43(3): 535–554.

Wood P (2017) Overcoming the problem of embedding change in educational organizations: A perspective from Normalization Process Theory. Management in Education 31(1): 33-38.

 

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Navigating the complexity of education in universities – arguing for holiploigy

Introduction

In a number of previous posts I’ve tried to set out a loose framework for understanding how we might conceptualise the process of teaching, learning, etc in higher education. These posts were based on the idea that to argue for a discussion about ‘teaching and learning’ such as that in Scholarship of Teaching and Learning leads to a conceptual narrowing of the task at hand. Instead I proposed a simple diagram to outline a complex process:

ped2I argued that we should move away from ‘teaching and learning’, and back to a reformed notion of ‘pedagogy’ (1) which takes into account assessment (2),  curriculum (3) (4), learning (5) (6) and teaching (7). As such I was calling this a form of ‘complex pedagogy’ due to the idea that each of these processes was, in their own right, complex, with their interpenetration making them all the more complex. I still think that this premise is correct for work in higher education, but the use of ‘pedagogy’ still concerned me; I was quite rightly challenged by someone who argued that pedagogy, by definition, focuses on the education of children. So what are the alternatives?

If we think about the meaning of ‘pedagogy’ it is actually composed of ‘paidos’, male child in ancient greek, and ‘agogos’, meaning to lead, so pedagogy means to lead a child. Doesn’t seem quite the right conceptualisation for working with young adults in undergraduate and postgraduate environments.

Two other terms which are used to describe teaching situations are ‘andragogy’ and ‘heutagogy’. Andragogy, comes from ‘andras’ man, leading to the ideas of teaching adults, i.e. leading men, and heutagogy relating to self-determined, student-centred, or discovery learning. In all these cases there is the notion of people being led – even heutagogy still refers to this.

As a result of reflecting on these ideas, I have decided that we need to think differently about the relationships between teaching, learning, curriculum and assessment, and between lecturers and students together with the terms of the spaces (virtual and real) in which such activities and relationships take place.

Outlining holiploigy

The concept of ‘holiploigy’ attempts to capture two fundamental aspects of work in higher education. The ‘holi’ element relates to the idea that the process of higher education needs to be considered holistically, and as a series of interpenetrating complex adaptive systems. This philosophy acts at a number of scales, and across a series of ideas. Firstly, there is the idea of the complexity of knowledge and skills within a domain, and increasingly their links across domains (inter- and trans-disciplinarity). Secondly, as laid out above, it includes the idea of teaching, learning, assessment and curriculum being inextricably linked, and of a complex nature (with lecturers and students at the intersection of the four). However, around this is the complexity of learning environments and how these processes operate across them. Teaching, learning etc operate differently in a face-to-face context when compared to being online, and yet increasingly, such blends will occur within a single course. How are the complexities of this to be understood and navigated?

And this leads to the idea of ‘ploigy’, from ploigos – navigate. Agogos, as used in pedagogy, suggests a role for the lecturer as leader, being at the centre of the educative process. At higher education level, this should not be the case – all of the time. However, if we see the lecturer as merely a guide – we might begin to move towards a process of ‘learnification’ (Biesta, 2012) which is potentially damaging. Biesta (2015) suggests the need for the teacher to be more central to the process of teaching and learning, but in a way that offers an opening up rather than a narrow leading. Navigating can be thought of as a process which sometimes needs more direct action, especially when moving through complex, dangerous and difficult waters. But at other times, such navigation requires less direct intervention, and can allow for much greater freedom, whilst still being a journey with a purpose. In some cases a journey might allow for detours, extra investigations of interesting, new places, but all the time the crew and navigator are working together to chart a meaningful course. And all the time, the navigator is inculcating the crew into the art of navigation for themselves.

Therefore, over the next few posts, I’ll outline what I see as a conceptual framework for the idea of navigating the complexity of the educative process and the knowledge and skills which it is used to explore, the process or holiploigy.

 

Biesta, G.J.J. (2012) ‘Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher.’ Phenomenology & Practice, 6 (2), 35-49.  http://www.ul.ie/eps/sites/default/files/Biesta%202012.pdf

Biesta, G.J.J. (2015) ‘The Rediscovery of Teaching: On Robot Vacuum Cleaners, Non-Egological Education, and the Limits of the Hermeneutical Worldview’. Educational Philosophy and Theory http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10587

The Folly of Avoiding Complexity

HE has gone through large-scale and rapid change over the past decade. From shifts in financing, through larger student cohorts, to cuts in research funding, and most fundamental of all, the move towards marketisation. One of the results of these changes has been the emergence of fluidity within the system; the certainties of past ‘generations’ have been lost with universities now focusing as much on branding, market share, and the constant process of seeking out new markets as they do on research and teaching. As these changes have taken hold, the way universities run have also been transformed. But here, I believe, we see how universities have fallen into the siren arms of ‘efficiency’ and ‘quantification’, a view of the world they have been nudged towards by government policy. Universities have, at the same time, utterly bypassed any notion of complexity in understanding and pursuing organisational change.

Reflecting on the nature of the average university, we see a large, often diverse, culture. Most universities have a large student body numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands spread across a wide number of disciplines, each of which may well have its own particular culture, view of the academic process, and which views both research and pedagogy in distinct ways. Indeed, from my experience within any single discipline there can often be a number of differently held views regarding these issues leading to intense discussion and disagreement. Some students are full time, some are part-time, some come to the campus to learn, others learn at distance. This diversity exists at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Beyond the immediate work of the disciplines exists a seemingly ever expanding bureaucracy. Marketing departments, IT services, international offices, estates, etc. In fact, as a recent THE article stated, more than two thirds of universities employ more administrators than academics. What this description suggests are organisations which are highly complex in nature. And yet complexity as a lens for understanding anything in HE is almost wholly absent. This is folly.

I suggested at the start of this post that the social, cultural and economic contexts in which universities now operate are increasingly unstable and complex. Just one, simple example of this is the surge of Kazaks coming to the UK to study about three or four years ago. On the basis of a rapidly rising oil price the Kazakhstani government wanted to raise the quality and quantity of educators in their country and believed that one way of achieving this was to send an increasing number of educators abroad for some form of educational experience. As oil prices have dropped through the floor over the past 12 months the number of academics and teachers involved in this activity appears to be dwindling. This is just one example of the multitude of shifting contexts which universities face at any point in time and which make strategic planning extremely difficult.

So how to respond given this constant shift in contexts and the complexity of universities as organisations? What can be done to help the organisations thrive? I’m reminded here of the counterintuitive instruction that if you skid your car on ice, you should steer into the skid. To turn away will actually make the situation much worse. It seems to me that as universities find themselves in ever more complex contexts many are trying to steer away from complexity in a vain attempt to feel like they have full control of the situation. I would argue that they need to steer into the complexity instead.

In an attempt to control complexity some universities have reacted by working on the principle that what is required is greater control and monitoring from ‘the centre’. Over the past decade we have seen more and more standardisation even down to the level of dictating the style of the learning aims of modules to suit a ‘corporate view’. University websites are increasingly set out in predetermined ways to ensure ‘corporate identity’, regardless of whether or not this hampers legitimate alternatives. In some cases even core administrative and curriculum resource activities are being moved out of academic departments and into ‘call-centre style’ systems where standard approaches exist, legitimised in the name of ‘efficiency’. In such a system, it is little wonder that academics are increasingly working as casual labour in a sector with a very high relative proportion of zero hour contracts. In this administration-driven approach, academics increasingly fulfil the role of shop floor workers endlessly following predetermined protocols and systems.

As centralised systems are set up there is sometimes use of an atrophied version of systems analysis used to create the efficiencies. Each time a problem occurs it is analysed and a slight adjustment is made to the system, the idea being that all problems can be ironed out with the emergence of a very efficient ‘experience’ for users. But this is a poor ‘algorithmic ghost’ approach to the complexity of real-life. I was recently in a fast-food outlet which was great to watch. As we entered it was obvious that the efficient system was working well. However, one small incident led to the need to react outside of the system’s predetermined parameters. This meant the staff were now in a benighted netherworld which according to their efficient system algorithm shouldn’t exist. There was utter chaos for about 10 minutes until the customers themselves found a positive solution. This is the problem with efficient systems. They cut out and dispense with any flexibility, intuition or idiosyncrasy as they are thought of as being inefficient. But in complex systems the constant drive towards simplicity, standardisation and consistency can only lead towards an attempt to forge a closed system – and the main characteristic of closed systems is that they ultimately fade and die!

So what might steering into the skid look like? Firstly, complexity is not an excuse for just doing whatever you want – it is not chaotic. The work of Davis and Samarra (2006) gives a good starting point. They argue that to gain a sustainable process of emergence, we need to do away with siloed, hierarchical structures where decisions are decided by one, or a small number of, individuals who then dictate to everyone else. Instead, there needs to be the possibility and encouraging of local neighbourhood interactions where ideas are shared, discussed and developed, sometimes differently in different contexts/disciplines. Linked to this is the need for duplication and diversity. For new ideas to emerge in the future there needs to be a richness in what happens now. If all approaches are standardised and made ‘efficient’ all that happens is that new, innovative practice is choked off unless a small group of assigned individuals allow it to happen. This is why the drawing of many administrative activities to central locations will never work – the diversity and complexity of needs can be met well locally (within departments) as the complexity can be handled well at this scale as the contexts within which activities are understood are often well known. Trying to get all needs to fit one organisation-wide system will always cause more problems than it solves.

Finally, any complex system needs to have clear boundaries, limits within which individuals work, but within these agreed boundaries there needs to be a great deal of freedom. This freedom allows the opportunity to innovate, to act professionally and feel a sense of agency and worth. Therefore, the ‘centre’ of universities should focus on working across the organisation to discuss and agree on these boundaries, and to enforce and review them periodically. But at the same time, they should support academics in making sure the freedoms they have can be used positively and productively in ways the academics see as appropriate for furthering their work.

HE in the UK will no doubt see further turbulence and complexity in the coming years. I would argue that those who meet this changing context most ably will be those who steer into the skid. To avoid complexity is folly.

References

Davis, B. & Sumara, D. (2006) Complexity and Education: Inquiries into Learning, Teaching, and Research. New York: Routledge.

What do we mean by pedagogy? (Part 3) Thinking about curriculum

Curriculum is a large and complex area for study and reflection. It is the vision of education made concrete, but as such, Schiro (2013) argues that this leads to conflicting visions about what curriculum should contain or focus upon. I would argue that if curriculum is merely characterised as a list of knowledge (and possibly skills), then it has become a poor representation of a very complex set of ideas and processes. Definitions and classifications of ‘curriculum’ are numerous, but as Stenhouse (1975:1) comments,

‘Definitions of the word curriculum do not solve curricular problems; but they do suggest perspectives from which to view them.’

Curriculum can be seen as a prescribed list of knowledge and indeed there has been a resurgence in characterising curriculum in this way in some jurisdictions and in some phases of education. However, a list of content can atrophy the notion of curriculum to being that of an ‘epistemic shopping list’. This then endangers the distilling out of any notion of curriculum as action or as vehicle for agency. This may still be possible – in the right hands – but may just as easily become a prescriptive list of ‘stuff to get through’, especially if linked to narrow conceptualisations of assessment. It also makes the links between curriculum, teaching, assessment and learning potentially far weaker.

In constructing a curriculum at masters level, a consideration of the wider educational context is crucial. A report by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAAHE, 2013), What is mastersness? gives a strong indication of some of the core features of masters level study. They characterise the main ‘facets of mastersness’ as (for an explanation of how I understand the link between knowledge, understanding, concepts and skills see here):

  • Complexity: emergent understanding by the students of the provisionality of knowledge, and the interplay and integration of knowledge, skills and application with an allied mastering of conceptual complexity. Due to the nature of masters level study there should also be an emerging ability to deal with the complexity of the learning process involved in study at this level.
  • Abstraction: the emerging ability to extract knowledge and meaning from study to use in synthesising new meanings in new and applied contexts.
  • Depth: emerging use of knowledge in new contexts and in new ways, based on development of more in-depth and interdisciplinary knowledge and understanding. This also relates to an increasing capacity to reflect on knowledge and understanding in new contexts.
  • Research: the development and emergence of greater skills and capacity in research and enquiry. This includes a wider knowledge and understanding of research perspectives and methodologies beyond the narrow confines of disciplinary or undergraduate approaches, greater autonomy in initiating research foci/agendas and maturing of the resultant methodological approaches, and carrying out more critical and in-depth analyses and interpretations.
  • Autonomy: the core of this feature of masters level study is the need for learner responsibility in their own learning. This includes ability to self-organise, to identify and conceptualise problems and to locate and acquire/abstract knowledge to consider and engage with those problems.
  • Unpredictability: the understanding that knowledge is often provisional and linked to real world problems which are often complex and ‘messy’. Therefore, students need to learn to use knowledge creativity and critically to deal with real-world unpredictability.
  • Professionalism: reflection on and emergence of ethical attitudes, values and behaviour as part of professional development. Also, this is crucial in relation to the process of research itself.

These facets are important in considering the shape and approach of a curriculum at masters level, and are also central to the link between curriculum and teaching, learning and assessment. What the report makes clear is that the emphasis across the facets will contrast between different disciplines, courses, and indeed between individual students as the diversity of prior learning and experiences as students enter masters level means that they will all be on personal and often very different trajectories, even if following the same course.

As I’ve suggested in a previous post, many of the features outlined above are in keeping with the notion of an emergent curriculum (Osberg and Biesta, 2008). By providing some structure and knowledge input as the basis for individual exploration and discovery, students can begin to shape their learning and studies in ways which suit them and which also begins to aid the emergence of autonomy, research, unpredictability etc. This also moves the notion of curriculum far beyond a list of things to be learned (which often, ultimately reduce to knowledge transfer), and one which encompasses much wider educational goals.

In this characterisation curriculum becomes indivisible with teaching, learning and assessment as it includes not only consideration of what is to be taught, but also how and why. Therefore, any conceptualisation of teaching which lacks reference to curriculum is risking an impoverished understanding and discussion of how they relate as emergent and interpenetrating concepts. As suggested in an earlier post, consideration of assessment is likewise tied to these discussions. To separate out is to unravel a complex framework of ideas which have little meaning apart.

References

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2013) What is mastersness? Discussion Paper. Retrieved from: http://www.enhancementthemes.ac.uk/docs/report/what-is-mastersness.pdf [Last accessed 5/7/15]

Osberg, D. &Biesta, G. (2008) ‘the emergent curriculum: navigating complex course between unguided learning and planned enculturation.’ Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40(3): 313-328.

Schiro, M.S. (2013) Curriculum Theory: Conflicting Visions and Enduring Concerns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Stenhouse, L. (1975) An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. London: Heinemann.

What do we mean by pedagogy? (Part 2) Conceptualising assessment.

As outlined in part one of this strand of posts, I argue that we should see pedagogy as an overarching concept which positions teaching, curriculum, learning and assessment as interpenetrating systems which create a complex whole, making little sense when treated separately. Here, I want to consider how assessment might relate to other elements of pedagogy in master’s level study, particularly in education courses.

The explicit link between learning and assessment has become an increasingly accepted element of pedagogy at HE level, there is even a journal given over to the role of assessment at this level. Assessment, related to both teaching and learning, should begin at the start of a module, using diagnostic assessment to gauge and understand the complexities of prior learning within a group of students. How this is achieved is not the focus of this post, although there are a number of ways in which it can be developed. The diagnosis of prior learning is crucial as the insights gained should feed into both curriculum and teaching development, particularly challenging when working with widely diverse groups of students. By doing this, pedagogy becomes to a degree emergent, developing in response to student need rather than as prescribed by tutor assumption and preference.

Beyond initial diagnostic assessment is formative assessment, a vehicle for helping students take forward their learning, particularly through the use of targeted and well considered feedback/feed forward. The use of formative assessment is well embedded in higher educational practices, but can it be taken further? Dann (2002), working in the primary education phase, takes a view that formative assessment does not go far enough in redefining the link between learning and assessment. She argues that assessment should be fully embedded within learning, describing this as Assessent AS Learning. She sees this as a natural development of formative assessment, consisting of:

– assessment whilst teaching, leading to the directing and modification of that teaching;

– assessment by teaching, derived from an interpretation of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, where once the task has been set, the teacher gauges the amount and type of help required to ensure success and modifies teaching to give the greatest chance of this occurring.

This outline begins to blur the boundary between what counts as teaching and what counts as assessment. Indeed, this view of assessment in many ways suggests that the main focus is actually the process of teaching as informal and minute-to-minute reflection and assessment to inform the emergent direction and structure of the session itself. Hence, the interface between assessment and learning becomes dynamic, complex and collaborative; student involvement in assessment becomes a feature of learning.

The suggestion from the outline above is that there should be a clear synergy between teaching, the conceptualisation of learning and feedback discourses. The table below is a synthesis of the discussion developed by Askew and Lodge (2000) which links the role and approach of the teacher, the associated conceptualisation of learning, and the resultant tone for feedback discourse. To develop a feedback system where feedback is more informal (most of the time), and becomes an embedded element of learning, where a constant dialogue takes place to aid development and progress that is dialogic and iterative, a movement towards the Co-constructive end of the spectrum is a natural trend. In contrast, at the Receptive-transmission end of the spectrum, it can become necessary for staged, written input to make the ‘gift’ of tutor knowledge worthwhile and this may translate to a seminar room dynamic where grades begin to play a major role in feedback with little associated feed forward; students are told what the correct answers should be, with the degree of success mainly demonstrated through a summative indicator. The Receptive-transmission model can become more closely aligned with students playing only a passive role in extending their own learning.

Assessment

Masters level study, is in part, characterised by a drive towards increased independence and an ability to play a part in a community of inquiry. Given this intention, a Receptive-transmission approach seems out of place, and with it, more traditional forms of assessment. Instead, a more critical and appropriate approach is one which is co-constructive. But for this to be coherent there needs to be a synergy between teaching, views of learning and feedback/feed forward processes in both diagnostic and formative assessment.

References

Askew, S. and Lodge, C. (2000) ‘Gifts, ping-pong and loops – linking feedback and learning’ in S. Askew (ed.) Feedback for Learning, London: Routledge-Falmer.

Dann, R. (2002) Promoting Assessment as Learning: Improving the Learning Process, London: Routledge.

What do we mean by pedagogy? thinking through some conceptual frameworks. (Part 1)

‘Pedagogy: the methods and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept.’

Over the past year I’ve been involved in a research project developing masters level research methods provision with a colleague in the School of Education. Almost by default we started to refer to what we have been researching and evolving as ‘research methods pedagogies’. Informally, this became a convenient way to refer to our work. This week we ran a one day workshop, trying to open up a space-time for interested staff to reflect on their own approach to research methods and consider how they might take their own practice forward.

Towards the end of the day we asked the group to reflect on some of the ideas we had been discussing. One question we offered for consideration was ‘Is there a separate research methods pedagogy?’. This led to a lot of discussion and exposed some of the complexities concerning what we might mean by pedagogy, and how it, as a concept, fits within wider educational discussion. Following the definition at the start of this post, if pedagogy is specifically the method and practice of teaching it might be agreed that it is a generally generic activity; the context or content of the teaching might change, be it research methods, leadership, policy or inclusion but the underlying pedagogic approach remains overwhelmingly unchanged. This may characterise pedagogy as the consequence of a set of universal principles, such as the utilisation of a set of cognitive principles, e.g. working memory, etc. This opens up the potential for a reductive philosophy based on the principle that we can find the ‘most efficient process/pattern’ for embedding information and knowledge into students which apply for all aspects and contexts in teaching. From this position the idea of a ‘research methods pedagogy’ is highly problematic as it is not a unique approach which is being taken as the pedagogy is probably similar, if not identical, to any other pedagogic context taken by any individual teacher or teachers. Any difference which does occur is due to other elements of a module such as assessment or curriculum; the pedagogy is a constant.

A slightly different argument is that of Shulman’s (2005) ‘signature pedagogies’. Here, there might be commonalities between clusters of disciplines, but at the same time disciplines have particular teaching approaches which are distinct to them and which are responsible in part for the development of habits of mind within each discipline. This sees pedagogy as a hybrid, part particular to a field, part more generic. But where does research methods pedagogy fit within this scheme? Is it a generic pedagogy, similar across clusters of disciplines, or are research methods frameworks actually particular to disciplines? Does it matter? In reply to the first question, does the fact that education is an interdisciplinary field as opposed to a discipline have an impact on how we define and understand research methods pedagogy?

So pedagogy can be seen as a process focused wholly on the act of teaching, underpinned by a series of ‘universals’ relating to learning, or it can be seen as at least partially contextual at the disciplinary level. However, there is another wholly different perspective we can develop. If we go back to the initial definition of pedagogy as the method and practice of teaching, what is the true utility of such a statement if restricted by the statement? If the idea of pedagogy as teaching method is seen in isolation, taken in the context of a masters module on research methods, it becomes ultimately meaningless. If teaching is seen as a system, composed of a series of elements and relationships it can only become useful when considered as interpenetrating with other systems. Cilliers (2001: 143) states that:

‘The cross-communications between hierarchies are not accidental, but part of the adaptability of the system.’

If pedagogy is synonymous with teaching, what are the systems into which it interpenetrates? Teaching is senseless without interpenetration to learning, curriculum and assessment. These are the main systems which together go to make up the seminar-centred process of helping students to gain new conceptual understanding, knowledge and skills. And in each case, they are themselves complex systems rather than unitary features. But if we see these systems as interpenetrating and accept that they need to be treated as such, what is the overarching term for their interplay? One doesn’t exist, but I suggest that we could use the term ‘pedagogy’ as a way of identifying this interpenetrating series of systems, i.e. pedagogy as composed of:

Ped1

However, in turn, none of these systems make sense without the agency and expertise of teachers and students who make sense of the interpenetration of the systems. Hence, pedagogy might be shown diagrammatically as:

ped2

Pedagogy can be defined as the interpenetration of curriculum, teaching, learning and assessment whose contextual emergence depends on the agency of teachers and students. This then suggests that a research methods pedagogy does exist but also that any notion even of signature pedagogies at the disciplinary level are too ‘coarse-grained’ and generic if trying to understand practice and its change. Instead, characteristics, concepts and perspectives relating to each of the systems, such as curriculum design, aims, etc, the cognitive dimensions of learning, or the formative process in assessment all exist at a general level. But the character and process of interpenetration which emerges in time-space due to the agency of teachers and students leads to many and varied pedagogies which are at the same time based upon more general principles and concepts, leading to contingent and emergent pedagogic approaches. In a future post I’ll discuss how such a perspective on pedagogy might help in researching and gaining some understanding of it.

References

Cilliers, P. (2001) ‘Boundaries, Hierarchies and Networks in Complex Systems.’ International Journal of Innovation Management, 5(2), 135-147.

Shulman, L.S. (2005) ‘Signature pedagogies in the professions.’ Daedalus, 134(3), 52-59.

Some Initial Insights: Scholarship of Teaching and Learning as a basis for Lesson Study

In an earlier post I have suggested that Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) might usefully be investigated through the lens of Lesson Study. Three potentially important strands of SoTL were emphasised as being central to developing a deep, critical understanding and practice in teaching and learning. An activity led dimensional of practice which is emphasised and developed by Trigwell and Shale (2004) has many crossovers with the lesson study approach, including the desire to develop knowledge and conceptualisation of teaching and learning, and how this relates to disciplinary knowledge within given contexts, leading to an investigation, evaluation and reflection on both teaching and student learning. However, beyond this immediate practical utility, lesson study also offers the opportunity to consider the wider critical aspects of pedagogic practice. Kreber (2013) highlights the need to move beyond a simple ‘what works’ agenda to also consider questions such as why certain approaches might be used within a wider critical and moral framework. Using her consideration of Mezirow’s (1991) three forms of learning, lesson study has the potential not only to help understand and develop what is effective in teaching (instrumental learning), but also to consider why we see certain approaches as being desirable through understanding student experience (communicative learning) and through this to explore our own assumed values and norms as a basis for developing and realising alternatives (emancipatory learning). Such discussions will no doubt rely to a degree on a ‘what works’ basis, but only in the sense of using this within a ‘research aware’ sense to offer initial signals and evidence for developing rich approaches which are contextually driven. This then pointed towards the third element of our suggested model of SoTL, the need for an explicit moral dimension in practice. This is important in two ways, firstly, it asks us to consider our philosophies of teaching and learning as an iterative process embedded within collaborative discussions with others, and secondly, forces us to confront our own ethical stance as moral agents. At a fundamental level, teaching and learning is an inherently ethical task, and where we have the opportunity for open discussion with others concerning the development of teaching and learning through an approach such as lesson study, we are given the chance to consider and reflect upon our own philosophies and values. In our opinion, it is when such issues are considered and reflected upon by participants that lesson study has a potential to become transformative rather than acting as a mere instrumental activity to bring surface change.

Biesta (2014) talks of the need for teachers to develop ‘educationally wise judgements’ over long periods of time. Such judgements can only come from an engagement with, and understanding of, the wider pedagogic literature fused with the emergence of practice based on the ‘serious investment’ identified by Shulman (2000: 49). This suggests the need to move beyond instrumental and narrow ‘recipes’ to critical and more holistic praxis. Lesson study can be used as a relatively simple and ‘shallow’ approach to developing practice, if followed as a predetermined method and ‘given’ approach to developing practice. However, by fusing this method with insights from the field of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning there is huge potential for deep, critical engagement with issues of teaching and learning to act as a basis for continued development of pedagogic practice situated within the wider context of changes in the aims and practice of higher education.