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.

 

Making the Case for a Centre for Change Studies

adaptation-823401_960_720

At the beginning of Duncan Green’s book How Change Happens, he makes the point that within universities there is no dedicated area researching and teaching about change,

‘It turns out they [academic disciplines] each operate with separate and often conflicting theories of change and there is no ‘department of change studies’ to sort it out.’  (Green, 2016)

As an employee of Oxfam, he commissioned a report considering how different disciplines understand the nature of change, it is well worth a read. The idea of a Centre for Change Studies makes a great deal of sense.

Green, as with an increasing number of academics, has found the use of complexity theory a useful lens in understanding the emerging processes inherent in change, as well as offering insights in how to influence and affect change. Complexity centres have already started to spring up in various guises within the university sector, the most famous being the Santa Fe Institute. These centres thrive on the interdisciplinary nature of their work, bringing different perspectives to bare on a single area of interest. These different perspectives, coming as they do from disciplinary starting points, offer both mutually supportive expertise and critical insight from many directions.

So why a Centre for Change Studies? Presently, a series of issues and processes are emerging which may fundamentally change the way in which we perceive and act in the world. The classification of the Anthropocene, worsening climate change and its often non-linear consequences, globalisation, social acceleration, the rise of artificial intelligence, medical and genetic advances, socio-economic inequalities within and between countries, the rise of post-democratic political systems, and signs of the beginnings of chronic resource depletion. These processes are suggestive of the possibility of radical and rapid and complex change. Many of the solutions and accommodations to these problems will and must emerge from innovations within specialist disciplines. However, understanding the processes of change and how we can understand and manage them require a specialist field drawing on expertise from many perspectives. We also need to help develop professionals to become sensitive to the complexities and processes of change, understanding these ideas and issues in ways that allow them to work more critically and assuredly within their own contexts.

At a time when the utility of academia is being called into question in some quarters, the development of a medium for researching, understanding and mitigating against the impacts of faster and more acute change processes seems like a good place to start in reconnecting with issues which have major practical and political implications.      

Holiploigy – an initial outline

As I stated in my last post, the idea sitting behind holiploigy (and hence its name) is the notion of the inherent complexity of the processes involved in helping students learn and become expert in their chosen fields of study. This involves a need to engage with, understand, apply and relate an ever larger body of concepts, knowledge, skills and competences, through a wealth of different media (the ‘holi’ – or holistic/complex). Working with students to enable this holistic understanding requires a wide range of approaches, some of which are more lecturer-led, others leading to independent and discovery-driven experiences; this wide spectrum of lecturer activity can be described as being analogous to navigation (ploigos).

Any attempt to capture the complexity of holiploigy in its entirety will fail, as will hopefully become clear as I consider some of its possible dimensions. This is because it is context driven, and will involve almost limitless combinations of activities. Different disciplines, under- and post-graduate, face-to-face, blended, or distance learning, will all lead to different practice. What appears below is an attempt to capture some of the possible central elements which act as fundamental features and processes. Such complexity reduction is bound to occur as any exhaustive model of a complex system would need to be as complete as the system itself which is not possible. However,

‘Just because a complex system is incompressible it does not follow that there are (incomplete) representations of the system that cannot be useful – otherwise how would we have knowledge of anything, however limited? Incompressibility is not an excuse for not bothering.’

Richardson and Tait (2010: 92-93)

An initial representative schematic of holiploigy is given below

holiploigy

At the centre of this conceptual framework is the interplay of a number of elements (1) which take into account assessment (2),  curriculum (3) (4), learning (5) (6) and teaching (7). These elements are experienced and shaped by the actions of tutors and students, and evolve over time, both in relation to each other, but also as a consequence of their interactions with the processes and characteristics which are positioned around this central field. Having discussed some ideas concerning learning, teaching, curriculum and assessment and their interaction in past posts, in this series I will focus on the sectors which lie around the periphery of the diagram above, and will also consider how all the elements of the holiploigic framework might play out in different practical contexts.

References

Richardson, K.A. & Tait, A. (2010) ‘The Death of the Expert?’ E:CO, 12:2, 87-97.

 

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

An Initial schematic- complexity and education

complexity and ed.jpg

This schematic is a first rough expression of trying to understand education from a complexity perspective. I’ll develop the explanation in the next few days, but the main structural character of the diagram is that concepts relating to complexity (blue) and reductionism (green) are picked out in colour. This is an attempt to position them as underlying concepts which are core to understanding how the ideas covered in the main diagram (black) interact.