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,      


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.


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.


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.


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.

Lesson Study as a way of Enabling Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

In the last post I tried to sketch out a possible model of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning which I think would be a positive foundation for developing pedagogy in HE. If such a framework is to be realised at a practical level, then ways of engaging in structured activity and/or research are vitally important. One approach, which at its centre is based on creating an understanding of the interplay of teaching and learning, is that of Lesson Study

An overview of Lesson Study

Lesson Study is a long established teacher-led collaborative approach which focuses on improving both the professional learning of teachers and student learning. The approach is founded on the principle that a collaborative process between teachers has the potential to bring new insights and professional development to their work. The collaboration, in its most basic form, is structured around collaborative planning, leading to the execution of the teaching session by one of the team, whilst the others observed, followed by an evaluative process where all of the team helped to deconstruct and understand what has been experienced and observed during the teaching session. Initially, Lesson Study is centred on identifying areas of difficulty in student learning, leading to the identification of a specific ‘learning challenge’. This challenge might take the form of a particular approach or skill that students often struggle with, such as the writing of a first long written assignment, a concept such as understanding ‘ontology’ within a research methods course, or it may deal with an area of subject content. The critical foundation for choosing a learning challenge however, is that it should be based around a focus which will bring development in student learning, rather than being a focus on expanding the teaching repertoire of the Lesson Study group. It should be stressed that learning challenge needs to focus on a relatively specific area of activity, and therefore if a group has a particular interest in the notion of threshold concepts it would require such large-scale concepts to be broken down into more specific units.

The learning challenge acts as the basis for developing a ‘research seminar’, or workshop/practical/lecture (from here. This breath of different teaching and learning context will be referred to as a session for ease) which tackles the chosen focus. Most sessions will only be one or two hours long, although there is no reason why longer sessions could not be considered in using lesson study. The group meets to discuss the chosen learning challenge and from this discussion to build a detailed plan of the seminar, which is to be taught. The discussion should centre around a deep consideration of which factors the group believe often responsible for the challenge occurring and how these factors can be best considered and taught during the course of the session. This can then provide the basis for a relatively detailed plan for a session, which outlines the order and nature of activities to be undertaken during the session, preferably with some notion of timings. Once this element of the planning has been achieve, the group then use their knowledge of the students who will be involved in the session to predict the types of observable response, and student learning for each stage of the session. At the core of this process is the discussion which the Lesson Study group develops as consideration and alternative ideas are shared and debated.

Once the research session has been planned one member of the group then acts as the session teacher, whilst the others in the group act as observers. A crucial aspect of Lesson Study is that observation is focused upon students as opposed to the lecturer. This means that observers are often located at either the sides or the front of the teaching session rather than at the rear as it is important that they can observed student reactions. During the taught session observers make detailed notes on the student reactions to the activities plans, including any similarities and differences to those responses which were expected at the planning phase. After the research session has concluded, the teacher in observers then meet as a group and evaluate what has been experienced. Once again, it is important within the philosophy of Lesson Study that the evaluation focuses on the learning of the students rather than the teaching of the lecturer and hence all members of the group, including the teacher should be equal participants in discussing the degree to which they believe students have overcome the learning challenge which they have chosen to focus upon. Where possible, the group can also amend the session. They have planned taking lessons from their observations, and repeat the lesson with a parallel group. If possible, another member of the group teaching on this occasion with the remainder of the members once again observing. This gives a basic Lesson Study cycle, as shown below


Lesson Study has been used as a method for improving student learning and teacher pedagogy. For well over 100 years. It originated in Japan in the latter part of the 19th century where it initially grew as an informal, teacher led approach based on developing professional dialogue, and from there developed into a more formal and national-scale approach to teacher development. This long-term development in the use of Lesson Study in Japan, has led to an national culture of teachers, self-improvement driven by the use of the technique across the school sector, and also in some University contexts.

Due to the apparent utility of Lesson Study, the technique began to spread to other education systems in Asia, including China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Indonesia. In addition, after the publication of a book called The Teaching Gap (Stigler and Hiebert, 1999) Lesson Study has also been increasingly adopted in the USA, and latterly within parts of Europe, including England, Norway, and Spain. The method has been used predominantly within a school-based context, both primary and secondary, but has also been used in a number of different contexts within initial teacher education; its use within higher education has been very limited as outlined below.

In school-based lesson study groups can be quite large, with between four and seven teachers, although triads are also relatively common. In these contexts and groups may also make use of an external consultant or academic acting as a ‘more knowledgeable other’(reference). The intention here is for an individual to act as a critical friend and source of expert knowledge concerning particular areas of pedagogy. However, it is not mandatory element of the process to have such an external presence.

Lesson Study’s spread to England also brought some additions to the basic process, pioneered by Peter Dudley (2012, 2014a, 2014b). Two major elements that were developed through his work were the focusing of the observational element of the cycle, and also a greater inclusion of student reflection relating to the learning that occurs within the research session. He argues that an attempt to observe all students within the group (within a school context this might typically be approximately 30 students) leads to a dilution of the quality of the observations made. Therefore, he suggests that each observer should only attempt to observed two or three students, but to do this in detail. As a consequence, he also suggests that during the planning meeting, the chosen students for observation should be identified and that notes developed on the expected learning reaction of students should focus on those individuals who were chosen to take part in the observation. This then requires thought concerning those students who are to act as a sample, leading to the notion of ‘archetype’students, i.e. individuals who share common traits with a wider group of individuals within the session. This might be based on ability, language acquisition or any other element of student learning which is relevant to the learning challenge.

The degree to which learning can be deemed to be an observable act depends upon how learning as a process is defined. Nuthall (2007) discusses the complexity of the process of learning which he sees as being reliant on both interactions with the teacher and with other students as well as individual processes, some of which might be observed (what he calls the semi-invisible layer), but others of which will not, as they are internal mental processes (the invisible layer). Likewise, Illeris (2007) identifies three dimensions to learning, the social, emotional and cognitive. Once again, much of the process of learning is internalised and is not observable. This means that any attempt to draw conclusions on the learning of students through observation alone will always be at best partial and at worst wholly inaccurate. Therefore, Dudley suggested the use of student interviews after the conclusion of a session to allow the Lesson Study group to gain direct insights into student reflections upon their own learning over the course of the session. Taking these two additional elements together, gives as a more nuanced and slightly different approach to Lesson Study, summarised below.


Lesson Study, therefore, becomes a potentially powerful tool for focusing on challenges which students face within their learning and the development of potential insights and solutions to help overcome those challenges. However, whilst lesson study has proved popular within education at a school-age level, there is far less use of this approach at university level.

Some research into lesson study does exist at university level, predominantly from the USA. Cerbin and Kopp (2006) outlining in detail the approach they have used, developed one of the most extensive uses of the technique through their College Lesson Study Project (CLSP). At its most extensive as reported by them, 150 faculty across a number of subjects were involved in the use of lesson study. At the centre of their approach technique is the idea of an emphasis on how students learn rather than what they learn and doing so by an approach they call ‘cognitive empathy’, which involves putting themselves in the role of the students during the planning phase in an attempt to understand the learning experience from that perspective. As such, they see a crucial element of the planning phase as being the development of sessions which make student thinking ‘visible’. Cerbin and Kopp (2006: 254) believe that lesson study is a very positive approach to building pedagogic knowledge as it ‘encompasses the full complexity of teaching and learning in the context of a single lesson.’

Some researchers (Becker et al, 2008; Alvine et al, 2007) focus their studies on what they learn from being involved within the lesson study process, both in terms of student and faculty learning. Alvine et al (2007) stress that lesson study is a very positive method for introducing pedagogic issues to young lecturers and postgraduates involved in instruction as it helps them understand some of the basic approaches and issues relating to pedagogy. This is a view supported by work completed by Dotger (2011) working with graduate teaching assistants (GTA) in an American earth sciences faculty. Here, there was evidence that GTAs gained both new professional skills and shifting identity through their involvement in lesson study which moved beyond belief that subject knowledge was sufficient to prepare and execute well considered learning experiences. Evidence from this research also highlighted that lesson study encouraged the development of a teaching community amongst the GTAs and led them to begin to consider their work from a more learning focused perspective. However, Demir et al (2012) found that lesson study was less well received by a small number of maths and science faculty who struggled to understand the philosophy of the approach and who also found it difficult to realign their thinking to consider learning from the perspective of the students. Even though the participants found the use of lesson study beneficial experience, Demir et al (2012) believe it to be important to help faculty understand the philosophy behind the approach, as well is securing a greater amount of time for them to engage with the process.

In a rare research project beyond the USA Christiansen et al (2007) working with Danish undergraduate pharmacy students found that the use of lesson study improved student course evaluations, whilst also helping to create a more community-led approach to teaching amongst lecturers. They report that by being involved in lesson study lecturers drew more on each others’ experiences and begun to create a shared base of knowledge about teaching which ultimately led to a better learning experience for students.

These studies demonstrate that there is a great deal of potential in using lesson study within higher education, but that the approaches taken need to be contextually relevant and sustainable. Below, we suggest one potential basic framework for developing lesson study at University level, but only as an outline structure which needs to be debated and moulded to particular local contexts.


Alvine, A.; Judson, T.W.; Schein, M. & Yoshida, T. (2007) ‘What Graduate Students (and the rest of us) Can Learn From Lesson study.’ College Teaching, 55(3), 109-113.

Becker et al (2008) ‘A college lesson study in calculus, preliminary report.’ International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 39(4), 491-503.

Cerbin and Kopp (2006) ‘Lesson Study as a Model for Building Pedagogical Knowledge and Improving Teaching.’ International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. 18(3), 250-257. 

Christiansen, F.V.; Klinke, B. & Nielsen, M.W. (2007) ‘Lesson study as a format for collaborative instructional change.’ Pharmacy Education, 7(2), 183-185.

Demir et al (2012) ‘Constraints to Changing Pedagogical Practices in Higher Education; An example from Japanese lesson study.’ International Journal of Science Education, 34(11), 1709-1739.

Dotger (2011) ‘Exploring and developing graduate teaching assistants’ pedagogies via lesson study.’ Teaching in Higher Education, 16(2), 157-169.

Stigler, J., and Hiebert, J., (1999) The teaching gap: Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom. New York: The Free Press.

Designing a Complex Curriculum – The Case of Innovation and Reform 3 – emergent pedagogy and learning.

In my last post I outlined some of the main characteristics of complexity, and in particular, of complex adaptive systems (CAS). Hardman (2011) stresses that it is not a sustainable position to assert that something is a CAS without any particular evidence other than an impression of complexity. In the case of higher education pedagogy and contexts is seems reasonable to suggest that a characterisation as a CAS does work. Why? The argument here is based on the underlying characteristics of post-graduate pedagogic contexts. Taking Cilliers’ (1998) notion of a CAS the table below outlines an argument for seeing pedagogy in post-graduate study as indeed complex.

CAS element Reflection
  1. A large number of elements with many interactions
By considering the number of students, the technology they use and the multitude of spaces inhabited together with tutors and resources, it becomes clear that there are a large number of elements within a postgraduate seminar group. Any attempt to observe a seminar session demonstrates a large number of interactions which also extend spatially and temporally beyond the face-to-face ‘event’ as students continue to engage with learning in different ways and in different locations, both pre-and post-session.
  1. Non-linear interactions
The interactions which occur during the process of learning are not predictable and ‘linear’. Discussion and learning will not follow a strictly predetermined form or path. Different interactional media will occur both between participants and between them and the various resources, media and spaces they use. As a consequence, for any given individual, elements of work which are expected to have a ‘core’ role in learning may actually have little impact, whilst a brief informal chat may be crucial in opening up the understanding of the concept or area of knowledge. As such, the process of learning needs to be seen as non-linear.
  1. Interactions leading to feedback loops
As the students attempt to engage and learn there may be the emergence of positive and/or negative feedback loops. Discussion, for example, may lead a student to begin to make connections between elements of a sub-topic, and even between topics, leading to a positive feedback loop which brings rapid development of understanding as a consequence of synthetic insight. Alternatively, a resource or activity may actually confuse a student leading to a more general questioning of their understanding of the topic, in turn generating anxiety and a lack of learning. Predicting such fluctuations in the learning process are often not possible to predict bringing a level of uncertainty to the learning process.
  1. Interactions with the environment, making the identification of system boundaries difficult
The fluidity of student use of space within a typical postgraduate course leads to difficulties in deciding the unique characteristics and boundaries of particular systems. Due to the often intertwined nature of systems the nature and permeability of boundaries between each of them and the environment become blurred and hard to detect with any certainty. For example, in any given week, a student may engage with academic learning in a number of spaces, such as libraries, cafes, lecture theatres, seminar rooms and study-bedrooms within which they may make greater or lesser use of technology, reference to physical materials and/or discussion and completion of given planned activities. How a system within such fluid contexts is identified and characterised within this network of processes and where the environment begins is difficult to determine. In addition systems may be flexible both spatially and temporally as a result of this interplay of elements.
  1. Open to interactions with the environment
As suggested in the point above, the multisite nature of learning spaces and the flexibility in content development in postgraduate learning leads to constant interaction with the ‘environment’.
  1. System far from equilibrium, needing constant energy flow
As a system, teaching and learning requires constant energy input. In this case energy can be characterised as taking the form of information. If this energy flow is suppressed, or does not exist in the system, it would begin to break down, stagnating as a result of a lack of constant information input for use in learning. Energy can be found from within the system and in interaction with the environment but must be present as a flow to maintain the open nature of the system.
  1. Importance of history and past processes on the form of the present
The history of the system is important as past processes such as prior teaching activities, prior learning and experiences of individuals and the use of resources, etc, all play a part in informing and producing the current system, sometimes in unexpected and surprising ways.
  1. Each element acting only on local information rather than information of the whole system
The elements of the system, and particularly people, predominantly act on local information rather than through an understanding of the whole system at any point in time.

If learning and teaching systems are accepted as demonstrating the characteristics of a CAS, certain processes and features will be present. Firstly, the history of the system provides a foundation for the emergent form of the system. Reflection, experience, etc informs the learning and innovation of the present. A simple example of this is the impact that the differential prior learning of students has on interaction within the present and from here to the emergence of new knowledge, skills and conceptual understanding within and beyond the seminar room.

Secondly, Biesta (2010) considers the nature of complexity reduction within learning and teaching contexts which in simple terms is the differential impact of the imposition of various structures on the pedagogic process. For example, the imposition of a given curriculum or pedagogic approach within a formalised teaching and learning context is an example of the reduction of complexity as coherence becomes dominant over freedom, leading to a diminishing of emergence. Alternatively, an approach where students are left to make individual decisions concerning these important features may lead to freedom over coherence, which in its own right might be detrimental to learning. Consequentially, the degree of complexity reduction for any given context needs to be considered carefully so as to maximise the emergence of student learning. Sullivan (2010) considers the idea of emergent learning in relation to three small scale case studies and emphasises that the level of complexity within each context was dependent upon the degree to which the teacher controlled or encouraged independent approaches to learning.

Where complexity reduction is excessive. It may have a negative impact as there is a tendency to simplify through an exclusive focus on ‘knowledge’ and the use of single pedagogic approaches regardless of appropriacy to stated intentions, etc. However, complexity reduction can also be positive as all postgraduate courses require some form of structure, the use of supporting online materials which focus on stated aims, questioning frameworks and timetabled sessions. However, these are only positive if they do not destroy the complexity, instead making energy transfer into the system structured and efficient. In this way single agents may be aided in moving away from potential chaos (i.e. a surfeit of unstructured information) and into more productive states of engagement. Such teaching and learning becomes centred to a degree on creating environments and systems which allow enough flexibility to steer away from stagnation whilst not allowing for unstructured, overwhelming and therefore chaotic exposure to information.

Within post-graduate contexts, teaching and learning occur across a number of spaces, both formal and informal but also in individual and group situations, and within virtual, physical, personal, social and academic spaces. With such a variety of contexts and free access to large volumes of information descent into chaos is a distinct possibility. As the interactions occur within the system emergence can arise under certain circumstances. Emergence leads to features which are more than the sum total of elements and processes leading to their creation. Davis and Samarra (2006) argue that such emergence occurs as a result of the interaction of three tensional dyads:

  • decentralised control and neighbour interactions: learning is developed in the interaction between the personal and social. Individual and collective interests should be mutually supportive rather than inherently competitive and it is the interaction between neighbours which allows for the development and emergence of new ideas and perspectives. However, to allow the development of rich neighbour interactions, it is essential that learning is not controlled from a single point; any learning-based group must be given a level of decentralised capability.
  • internal diversity and redundancy: systems need to be able to react in different ways to different situations to ensure a diversity of insights to aid innovative solutions to problems. However, for such diversity to be present there needs to be a level of duplication within the system, such as shared responsibility and interests. It is this duplication which allows for easy interaction within the system and for elements to compensate for inadequacies which reside there.
  • Freedom and coherence: within any system there must be potential for the exploration of possibilities resulting in the opportunity for personal agency and the diversity identified above. However, whilst this inclusion of freedom is central to the emergence of learning, complex systems are not chaotic and require a level of coherence to orientate the activity of the actors within the system. Coherence imposes a loose framework within which individuals are able to operate freely whilst creating frameworks for coherence.

It is the holding of these various tensions within a relatively stable field which allows for the development of an emergent pedagogy and learning. In addition, this set of processes leads to the need for the use of a mixed approach to pedagogy. More transmissive approaches may well be the most appropriate when setting the basic foundation for study. By ensuring that targeted, focused information is given to students in the first instance(i.e. the temporary imposition of more acute complexity reduction) students are exposed to information in a coherent way, but the introduction of greater interaction and diversity within the pedagogic system allows for an emergent pedagogy in the longer run. However, to constantly reduce to a transmissive level potentially leads to the ossifying of the system, with the boundary between environment and system becoming impermeable leading to a closed system and ultimately decay. Therefore, more discovery, enquiry and collaborative-based approaches are needed. The above discussion leads to a preliminary schematic of a complex adaptive learning system which provides a conceptual model for enabling the development of a complexity led curriculum model.

complex learning and teaching contexts


Biesta, G. (2010) ‘Five Theses on Complexity Reduction and its Politics.’ in D. Osberg & G. Biesta (eds.) Complexity Theory and the Politics of Education.  Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. pp.5-13.

Cilliers, P. (1998) Complexity and Postmodernism: understanding complex systems. London: Routledge.

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

Hardman, M. A. (2011) ‘Is Complexity Theory Useful in Describing Classroom Learning?’ in B. Hudson, & M.A. Meinert (eds.) Beyond Fragmentation: Didactics, Learning and Teaching in Europe. Opladen and Farmington Hills: Verlag Barbara Budrich.

Sullivan, J.P. (2010) Emergent Learning: The Power of Complex Adaptive Systems in the Classroom. Saarbrücken: Lambert Academic Publishing

Collaboration and pedagogic literacy

The idea of collaboration as a core element in the development of pedagogic expertise is a relatively recent idea within an HE context. In Shulman’s (1993) short paper on pedagogic solitude he highlights the fact that collaboration between academics is common place – in the case of research. However, when it comes to pedagogy he argues that most activity is carried out behind closed doors. His ideas around the concept of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning are meant as an antidote to this. More recently, Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) have developed the concept of Professional Capital as a framework for professional and pedagogic growth. They start from the position of arguing that there are three messages from educational research evidence which need to be considered when taking forward the process of pedagogy:

  1. Teaching like a ‘pro’ means continuously inquiring into and improving one’s own teaching
  2. Teaching like a ‘pro’ means planning and improving teaching often as part of a wider professional team
  3. Teaching like a ‘pro’ means being part of the wider teaching community and contributing to its development.

From a consideration of these ideas emerges a simple ‘equation’,

Professional Capital = Human Capital + Social Capital + Decisional Capital

  • Human Capital – the valuable knowledge and skills that can be developed in teachers. One example might be the idea of Pedagogic Content Knowledge (Shulman, 1986, 1987) where explicit consideration is given of how to ensure the use of the most appropriate pedagogies for explaining and teaching any particular subject knowledge within any given context.
  • Social Capital – quality and quantity of interactions between teachers to understand and develop pedagogic understanding and insights.
  • Decisional Capital – the opportunity to make authentic and professional decisions about pedagogic approaches.

The argument is made within their work (Hargreaves and Fullan, 2012) that collaboration between teachers can have a major positive impact on pedagogic practice. By adding the argument of Shulman (1993) that pedagogic practice has to be communal so as to allow others to discuss and evaluate the claims which are made for improving practice, a process of inquiry, reflection, discussion and evaluation begins to emerge as a process for collaborative work.

Little (1990) identifies a spectrum of collaborative practice from ‘weak’ collaboration, based on the exchange of ideas and anecdotes, through a sharing of materials and strategies, to a ‘strong’ form of collaboration which involved joint work including planning, teaching and inquiring together. However, some forms of collaboration can have a negative impact. Again, Hargreaves and Fullan identify collaborative problems such as ‘Balkanisation’ where separate and competitive groups begin to develop within an organisation which can lead to a lack of communication and a temptation to begin to look for power. Collaboration is not necessarily a universal good.

Understanding the development of professional learning through collaboration has tended to occur through the lens of social learning theories, the most often used being Situated Learning (Lave and Wenger, 1991) and Communities of Practice (Wenger, 1998). In the latter, collaboration is a process of creating and sustaining professional and cultural norms, often through shared language and practices. When new members join a community, they start at a ‘peripheral’ position, slowly migrating to the core as they become inculcated into the dynamics of the community. In Communities of Practice, mutual engagement, interaction and thinking together (Wenger 1998), are all important concepts. Wenger (2000, 227) describes such collaboration as ‘doing things together, talking, producing artefacts’ to encourage and develop shared meaning. The result of engagement and working together is a ‘joint enterprise’ (Wenger 1998, 73) making it possible to produce shared resources or a ‘shared repertoire’ (Wenger 1998, 73). However, collaborative activities are complex. As I’ve suggested in an earlier post, we must never lose sight of the fact that individuals will collaborate for different reasons and will take different insights from collaborative activities, we need to avoid the narrowing impact which ‘group think’ can bring.

So where do these insights take us? Collaboration can be a potent element in the growth of pedagogic understanding. Our own research on Lesson Study (Cajkler et al 2013, 2014; Wood & Cajkler, 2013a, 2013b) is producing a growing body of evidence that teachers find the opportunity to work together over a period of time in authentic problem-solving situations a liberating and positive experience. Our own experience of conducting cycles of Lesson Study on our practice with international master’s students has led not only to small-scale insights concerning points of learning and teaching in specific contexts, but has also led to much more fundamental and larger-scale reflections on curriculum, research and academic practice. However, I would argue that the literature and our evidence also suggest that certain characteristics of collaborative working might be important if it is to be truly useful:

  • Authenticity. The collaboration needs to emerge amongst practitioners who have a genuine reasons to work together. Imposition of collaboration in terms of group membership and pedagogic focus from outside is likely to inhibit any growth in pedagogic understanding and practice.
  • Decisional capital. Linked to authenticity, the group need to have a level of freedom to make professional decisions about the direction and development of their work. Again, the imposition of restrictive external frameworks will stunt utility. An example might be the advocating of a pre-determined view of ‘excellent’ pedagogic practice – surely this must be the work of the group to decide through discussion, experimentation and reflection?
  • Time and emergence. If a group is to generate new insights into their pedagogic work, they need time to discuss, plan, execute and evaluate. Time constraints, particularly those which require some form of identifiable outcome in a limited timeframe, for example, improvement of results by one additional ‘level’ over one half-term or semester may well collapse the opportunity for true pedagogic growth. I still find it amazing how often we are told that it is difficult to make time for collaborative work by more senior managers during endless meetings which focus on data, policies and paperwork. There needs to be an understanding that policies and data are marginal to affecting pedagogic change; this can only come from sustained focus on transforming practice through authentic collaborative endeavour, a process of emergent insight best engaged with over long periods of time.
  • Sharing and evaluating. As Shulman (1993) made clear, collaborative pedagogic work is of little additional use if it is not then shared more widely, rather it will merely lead to pedagogic Balkanisation rather than pedagogic solitude – hardly a transformative step forward. Time needs to be made to regularly share ideas and reflections from  collaborative work. This ensures that positive insights are made more widely available within a ‘pedagogic community’ but also allows for scrutiny, ‘positive critique’ and a sustained emergence not only of pedagogic literacy but also research literacy and research practice.
  • The relationship between the group and the individual. As highlighted earlier in this post, I have already made the case for understanding that individuals within a collaborative group will bring and take different insights from the process. This should be expected as they may have different values, attitudes and philosophies, different beliefs concerning pedagogy, and they will almost certainly be at different points in the growth of their pedagogic literacy. As such they will integrate different ideas into their emergent practice as a consequence of working with others.

Collaboration is essential to aiding the growth of pedagogic literacy, emerging through professional engagement and the use of research (both literacy and practice) to inform and generate pedagogic insights. However, merely stating that collaboration is essential without thinking about the dynamics and links to other elements of teacher growth does not ensure that it is a positive process for change.


Cajkler, W. Wood, P. Norton, J. and Pedder, D. (2014) Lesson study as a vehicle for collaborative teacher learning in a secondary school. Professional Development in Education (

Cajkler, W.; Wood, P.; Norton, J. & Pedder, D. (2013) ‘Lesson Study: towards a collaborative approach to learning in Initial Teacher Education?’ Cambridge Journal of Education, vol. 43(4), pp. 537-554.

Hargreaves, A. and Fullan, M. (2012) Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School. New York: Teachers’ College Press.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning. Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

Little, J.W. (1990) ‘The persistency of privacy: Autonomy and initiative in teachers’ professional relations.’ Teachers College Record, 91(4), 509-536.

Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15, 4-14.

Shulman, L. S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57, 1-22.

Shulman, L.S. (1993) ‘Teaching as Community Property: Putting an End to Pedagogical Solitude.’ Change, 25 (6), 6-7. (

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (2000) Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems. Organization 7(2), 225-246.

Wood, P. & Cajkler, W. (2013a) ‘Understanding Learning – Exploration of the use of Lesson Study as an approach to developing learning with International Masters students’ European Conference on Educational Research, Istanbul, 10-13 September 2013

Wood, P. & Cajkler, W. (2013b) ‘Fast to Slow: Encouraging exploratory dialogue through the use of Lesson Study’ Third International Conference on Value and Virtue in Practice-Based Research Influencing Policy through Enhancing Professionalism, York, 9-10 July 2013

Between Collaboration and Agency – developing pedagogic literacy

In the first post of this series I made the observation that ‘writing is a linear construct which is attempting to describe and explain a networked concept. Therefore, whilst we attempt to make links between ideas and posts, this cannot be exhaustive.’ I therefore thought it would be interesting not to focus on one of the levels of pedagogic literacy for this post, but to consider the tensions and links which exist in between two elements of the concept, the ‘individual’ and the ‘collaborative’. Shulman (1993) in identifying the presence of ‘pedagogic solitude’ calls for the development of communities of researcher-teachers who are willing to discuss, share and publish their work on pedagogy, resulting in his idea of ‘Teaching as Community Property’. But pedagogy at HE level is diverse, not only by discipline, but context and complexity.

The idea of developing dialogue and critically appraised pedagogic insights all within a community of pedagogues fit within the theoretical framework which Lave and Wenger (1991) call situated learning, central to the development of a Community of Practice (later to be developed further by Wenger (1998)). In Communities of Practice, mutual engagement, interaction and thinking together (Wenger 1998) are all important guiding concepts. These show themselves through mutual engagement in which collaboration is explained as ‘doing things together, talking, producing artifacts’ (Wenger, 2000: 227) to encourage and develop shared meaning which in turn can lead to a shared repertoire of pedagogy; here the social is the unit of analysis and the level at which learning is believed to occur.

Collaboration has become an increasingly popular tenet of professional development and learning. It has an obvious attraction as it gives, as Shulman suggests, a positive opportunity for sharing, critiquing and developing pedagogic ideas and approaches; it is at the heart of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. But is all collaboration positive? Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) position and contextualise collaboration explicitly within their theory of Professional Capital. The case that they make is that if we are to enable the growth of critical, professional teachers then they need to develop their understanding and practice through three ‘channels’:

Professional Capital = Human Capital + Social Capital + Decisional Capital

Here, the growth of the individual (Human Capital) through the development of valuable knowledge and skills is seen as best achieved through collaboration (Social Capital) within a context where they can make authentic and meaningful judgements (Decisional Capital) to develop and innovate their shared practices. However, Hargreaves and Fullan do stress that there are different forms of collaboration some of which can be identified as negative, such as Balkanisation (where separate groups develop within the organisation who compete against each other) or Contrived Collegiality (where the work of groups is formal and driven from the centre) as these do not allow for professional growth and authentic development.

We therefore need to consider the tensions which may exist between the collaborative or social and the agency of the individual. We all bring unique perspectives, knowledge and experiences to pedagogic development and we need to ensure, within collaborative contexts, that the agency of practitioners is retained, each taking what they value from collaboration rather than feeling pressured to agree to a ‘group-approach’. Going back to the notion of situated and social learning developed by Lave and Wenger (1991), learning is regarded as a social construct. Individuals learn through group interaction. This emphasises learning as a change in identity over the generation of explicit ‘knowledge’. However, this focus on the social can lead to the danger of losing the agency of the individual, as Billett (2007: 59) states:

‘….. data from workplaces of different kinds, over time, consistently emphasises the importance of dualities that comprise both contributions or affordances of the workplace and the bases by which individuals elect to engage with what is afforded them and the relationships between them.’

The agency of the individual needs to be seen as relational to the group; the development of both is negotiated, leading to the need to understand both the life history of the individual and the nature of the negotiation. Even in developing collaborative approaches individuals will bring personal meanings and experience, and likewise will take away different lessons from the collaboration. Again, Billett (2007: 65) argues:

‘While a phenomenon may have some common meaning, its construal by individuals will be shaped by particular sets of values, subjectivities and the discourses to which they have access.’

In considering the development of pedagogic literacies, there is both personal and collaborative growth, but these occur in tension. In understanding the development of pedagogic literacy collaboration is important, but we must accept that individuals will take different lessons and insights from working together. Hence, all individuals will develop unique literacies. Learning and development exists neither solely within the individual or the group but within and between them.


Billett, S. (2007) Including the missing subject: placing the personal within the community. In Communities of Practice: Critical Perspectives, Hughes, J.; Jewson, N. & Unwin, L. (eds.), Abingdon: Routledge, 55-67.

Hargreaves, A. and Fullan, M. (2012) Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School. New York: Teachers’ College Press.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning. Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

Shulman, L.S. (1993) ‘Teaching as Community Property: Putting an End to Pedagogical Solitude.’ Change, 25 (6), 6-7. (

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (2000) Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems. Organization 7(2), 225-246.