Innovating teaching and learning in HE: developing an HE studio

Teaching and learning are increasingly seen as central to the work of universities, particularly with the introduction of the TEF. One of the unfortunate aspects of this emerging emphasis is the over simplification (or complexity reduction) of the processes involved, as league tables, metrics and quality assurance systems kick in. This is a shift which occurred in the schools system a couple of decades ago, and has ultimately led to overly simplistic perspectives concerning the work of teachers, driven by an overbearing accountability system. As Halachmi (2014) states:

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

Teaching and learning are elements of a much wider and very complex set of nested systems. Many universities now have a dedicated institute or learning development wing which has the responsibility for developing teaching. These departments have a crucial role in developing practice, and helping academic departments in taking teaching and associated activities forward. However, universities are becoming increasingly complex organisations, and are required to meet many agendas which are both internally and externally driven. This suggests the need for an ever wider perspective on teaching.

A complexity orientated perspective would suggest that any attempt to gain a deep understanding of teaching and learning approaches, together with the creation of innovative practice, needs a broad, transdisciplinary approach. This insight has led me to the idea of an ‘HE Studio’. In the diagram below, some of the main issues such a Studio would consider are identified. They are presented in concentric rings to reflect the idea that many of the issues of interest are interdependent but exist at different scales. For example, to consider the role and nature of assessment (defined not only by the assessments undertaken by students, but sense-making and evaluation of programmes etc) not only are other processes at this scale implicated (teaching, learning and curriculum) but processes and issues at larger scales. Assessment will be impacted by organisational policies and aims, by the use of technology, and above this, by government policy decisions and, on occasion, external partnerships. This means that to develop well-considered and robust teaching and learning environments, we need to develop holistic approaches to understanding and evidencing the web of processes which contribute to seminar room practice. In addition, such a Studio would also develop innovative practices based on practical insights and wider evidence-bases. But to do this well would require a transdisciplinary approach.

he-studio

A Studio would need to capture diverse forms of evidence. Because of the interacting scales of processes involved, it would be necessary to develop qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods approaches to research. A range of perspectives would be important, from small-scale ethnographies and case studies, through programme-wide mixed methods approaches to larger-scale ‘big-data’ analysis at both organisational and sector-level scales. The development of fully transparent structured literature reviews would also play a role. I have chosen the word ‘Studio’ because the purpose of the research would be to help create foundations for innovation. It would not be a ‘laboratory’ as this would suggest a purely experimental approach, which whilst it might offer useful insight, would be deficient if used as the sole evidential base – it might be said to be necessary but not sufficient. Neither would it be an observatory as it would not be intended only to observe, measure and report. Instead, these would be an element of a wider set of practices, which aim to give rich, transdisciplinary insights which can then be used as the basis for introducing and refining new practices. Here, action research, design-based research, and where appropriate, quasi-experiments would become central.

The defining aim of an HE studio would be to consider, synthesise and create new practices in an emergent context. Process, experimentation, innovation and emerging insights would be the core focus of such work. In some quarters there appears to be an attempt to encourage the idea that teaching and learning are simple, easily defined processes which can be made efficient and understood through the use of a restricted set of (mainly) quantitative approaches. It seems to me that this ignores the inherently complex set of processes involved in teaching and learning, and the ecology of influences around them. The idea of a Studio approach is to put a varied spectrum of evidential bases at the heart of innovative development by accepting that useful insights can occur from a range of research traditions. It is how the evidence is synthesised and used as a basis for practical innovation which is important.             

Heuristics – making sense of the complexity of pedagogy

Over the course of a number of posts I have laid out a notion of pedagogy as the interpenetration of a number of complex adaptive systems (see here for the foundation of this expanded definition). Conceptually, what sits at the centre of this characterisation of pedagogy is the idea of complexity. Seminar rooms and the activities which develop within them, and the associated activities beyond (study, reading, discussion, etc) are such that we are not able to capture them in their entirety at any point in time – there are always elements which are beyond our perception. This leads to the idea that to research and understand seminar rooms and pedagogy is akin to looking onshore from a boat on a foggy day.

fog

When we observe or reflect on pedagogic activity we are only seeing some of the elements present, and rely on extrapolation, much as we might use elements of the landscape as a basis for extrapolating and imagining the detail of the whole landscape.

So if pedagogy is the interpenetration of teaching, learning, curriculum, assessment centred on the tutor and students, how are we able to make sense of the inherent complexity in these environments?

When individuals first begin to teach, they often find the process of teaching confusing, stressful, and even, on occasion, disorientating. I would argue that this is because they are faced with the complexity of the task, with little in the way of structures for sense making. However, as they begin to understand the tasks of teaching, they begin to see patterns in the activity, how various elements work together; this leads new teachers to build heuristics. Heuristics are strategies which emerge from experience, emerging out of groups of similar experiences and in this way creating sense making in complex environments. Individuals often problem-solve by using their experience of similar past events, or knowledge they have gained from elsewhere but which appear to have problem solving potential in the current situation. This allows a level of ‘patterning’ to pedagogic work, and as a result, networks of complex relationships are ‘chunked’ to simplify and make sense of practice. This is a form of ‘complexity reduction’ (Biesta, 2010) where the system is understood in simpler terms through the use of personal frameworks of understanding. However, heuristics are prone to approximation and error. This can be the result of biases and systematic errors in the frameworks which have been developed. Therefore, tutors will tend to identify elements of practice which appear not to work well, particularly through the use of reflective practice. In this framing reflective practice is a process by which the errors or approximations in heuristics are identified and developed to improve the heuristic models by which we operate.

The opening up of practice to reflection and to research is a process of reintroducing complexity, of allowing the many interpenetrating systems to become open and explicit once again – it is the conscious reintroduction of complexity as a way of trying to understand practice and process more deeply. The reflection or research is then enfolded into new heuristics which develop and allow complexity reduction to be introduced to practice once more. In this way, cycles of heuristics are developed to make sense of the complexity of pedagogy through reduction, before opening up the same complexity again in an attempt to engage in activity to change practice towards new heuristics and better practice. In this way, new practice is developed through the generation of new insights and knowledge through action (pragmatism), but in the context of interpenetrating complex systems which go to make up pedagogy. Hence, this is a complex pragmatic view of pedagogy and its emergence. In addition, the nature of heuristics is such that theory merely becomes a way of characterising those heuristics. Hence, as we go through cycles of emergent change, practice and theory become different elements or perspectives in relation to modelling and sense making sense of complexity through heuristics. Finally, going back to the image of the coastline, the emergent understanding of complexity and its enfolding into heuristics over time mean that we can blow some of the fog away – over a career, with the development of wise judgement (Biesta, 2014), i.e. the fostering of ever better and more deeply understood heuristics in practice, we extrapolate less and see more. However, we must accept that patches of fog will always remain, the complexity of pedagogic activity is such that we will never reach a clear and full understanding of it.

 

References

Biesta, G. (2010) ‘Five theses on complexity reduction and its politics’ in D. Osberg & G. Biesta (eds) Complexity Theory and the Politics of Education. Amsterdam: Sense Publishers, 5-14.

Biesta, G.J.J. (2014) The Beautiful Risk of Education. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers

 

What do we Mean by Pedagogy?Characterising learning (part 2)

‘One cannot begin to understand the true nature of human learning without embracing its interactional complexity.’ (Alexander et al, 2009: 176)

Alexander et al (2009) attempt to create a series of criteria which together characterise learning. From these principles, they then try to outline the dimensions of learning within which they argue the principles operate. One crucial part of their argument is the notion that no single theory of learning has created a fully adequate representation of learning. They identify nine foundational principles of learning:

1 Learning is change – this is inherent in learning, but has a number of possible characteristics, so can occur at group or social level as well as individual, and can be from the obvious to the imperceptible and can occur over a number of different time scales.

2 Learning is inevitable, essential and ubiquitous – to be alive is to learn as it is an inevitable process, and is also essential if we are to survive as individuals. We learn wherever we are, ‘the processes of learning are in operation whenever and wherever humans are situated.’ (178)

3 Learning can be resisted – Humans can resist learning, perhaps due to a lack of effort/interest, or from a fear of failure. If learning might lead to cognitive, social or cultural dissonance there can be also be a resistance to learning.

4 Learning may be disadvantageous – Learning can be a negative process, for example, learning how to disrupt the efforts of others, or how to cheat. Also, disadvantageous learning can take different forms, for example the learner might wish they hadn’t learned something (e.g. how veal is reared and produced), whilst in other cases, the learner might see their learning as positive even though it might have negative impacts (e.g. excessive use of social media).

5 Learning can be tacit and incidental – Much of our learning falls into the category, particularly outside of formal educational settings. This can include much of first language learning, especially in the early stages, and contextual learning.

6 Learning is framed by our humanness – learning is framed by our neurobiology, but varied between individuals leading to variation in our learning capabilities.

7 Learning is both process and product – As a process, learning is something which happens over time, whilst product is the durable change which occurs as a result of the process. Formal assessment and much research tends to focus on the product. ‘Indeed, much research in which the focus is only on learning as a product may oversimplify our conception of the learning process.’ (180) However, the same bias can occur if we only focus on the process.

8 Learning is different at different points in time – Change occurs over time, and learning is affected by where the learner is in the process. For example, the what and how of learning by young children is different to adults in part as the level or iteration and recursivity is different.

9 Learning is interactional – Learning is shaped by biological, social and cultural factors which interact in a dynamic environment. ‘Learners are influenced by, and at the same time push back, take from, change, control, and create the environment in which learning is situated.’ (180)

These principles interact to give the basis for learning, and show a complex mixture of biological, cognitive, social and cultural dynamics to the process and product of learning. However, in addition to these principles, Alexander et al argue that four dimensions of learning set the context for the principles, the ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘who’ and ‘when’ of learning.

The what of learning – Learning always focuses on something. It can be a simple focus, or a more complex one, and generally speaking as the what is developed over time, it becomes more complex. Take as an example, any academic subject, which becomes increasingly detailed, complex and abstract as expertise develops. The what includes both the process and product of learning and the increasing intricacy involved is defined as interactive complexification.

The where of learning – this is the ecological context of learning. It includes the physical, social and cultural contexts of learning and can be critical to the process of learning. In some cases, the where can lead to problems of learning becoming ‘contextually restricted

The who of learning – This covers the characteristics of the learner, the biological, cognitive, experiential and affective (including motivational) factors which are important in both the process and product of learning.

The when of learning – This emphasises the importance of time and flow of experiences in learning. Different elements of learning are most pertinently explained over different time frames, from the evolutionary to short term individual.

What the principles and dimensions of learning discussed by Alexander et al demonstrate is that learning is multi-faceted, and cannot be collapsed into a simple process, such as seeing it as synonymous with memory. As they state:

‘objects of learning become increasingly more complex and….the processes and products of learning mirror that growing complexity.’ (185-186)

This leads to the following definition of learning:

‘Learning is a multidimensional process that results in a relatively enduring change in a person or persons, and consequently how that person or persons will perceive the world and reciprocally respond to its affordances physically, psychologically, and socially. The process of learning has as its foundation the systemic, dynamic, and interactive relation between the nature of the learner and the object of the learning as ecologically situated in a given time and place as well as over time.’ (186)

Geary (2009) agrees that the what, where, who and when are important, but adds that there also needs to be the ‘why’. In the short term the why is important in relation to motivation. At a simple level, he distinguishes between the learning which takes/took place in traditional societies and cultures where the why is related to survival and reproduction. Therefore, much of learning was inherently practical and required for a quality of life. This has shifted rapidly in modern societies so that the why is increasingly related to a where, what, and when which is not in alignment with these basic needs. This shift and the complexity it brings with it needs to be considered in relation to enhancing motivation and focus on learning in educational contexts.

The characterisation of learning presented by Alexander et al, and augmented by Geary is one of complexity and interaction. They stress that these various elements should not be seen as ‘independent contributors’ to learning, in other words they cannot be isolated and measured separately – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. They describe them as facets of an intricate and fluid system. I would take this further and state that their work very clearly demonstrates learning as a complex adaptive system, one of the four interpenetrating systems which make up the concept of pedagogy.

References

Alexander, P.A.; Schallert, D.L. & Reynolds, R.E. (2009) What is learning anyway? A topographical perspective considered. Educational Psychologist, 44:3, 176-192.

Geary, D.C. (2009) The why of learning. Educational Psychologist, 44:3, 198-201.

What do we Mean by Pedagogy?Characterising learning (part 1)

Learning is a very complex area of research due to its ubiquitous presence in what it means to be human. As such, learning is a process which occurs in many different ways and in many different contexts. Here, I am interested in how we might understand learning in relation to the other elements of an expanded notion of pedagogy (i.e. curriculum, teaching and assessment) within the context of post graduate taught study.

Definitions of learning can lead to very broad statements which, whilst they might contribute are so broad as to have only limited practical utility in a pedagogic sense. Some definitions see learning as purely cognitive in nature, for example:

‘We define memory as a behavioral change caused by an experience, and define learning as a process for acquiring memory.’ (Okano et al, 2000: 12403)

Others are more holistic and move beyond the cognitive whilst retaining a central role for cognition, for example,

‘The combination of processes throughout a lifetime whereby the whole person – body (genetic, physical and biological) and mind (knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, emotions, meaning, beliefs and senses) – experiences social situations, the content of which is then transformed cognitively, emotively or practically (or through any combination) and integrated into the individual person’s biography resulting in a continually changing (or more experienced) person.’ (Jarvis, 2009: 25)

Another complexity in defining and characterising learning is its dual nature as both outcome and process. Recently, there has been a tendency to emphasise the outcome perspective of learning, stressing learning as being simply the remnant of information in long term memory. This is an important insight. However, it is deficient in that it can tend towards a downplaying of the process of learning. In pedagogic terms, the process is extremely important as it is only by considering and understanding the processes leading to the outcomes that we can begin to derive insights about processes which might aid learning. Saljo (2009: 206) makes the point in a discussion concerning the difficulty of characterising learning that:

‘The concept of learning has many potential units of analysis, all the way from the molecular level of neurochemistry, via other fields of neuroscience over to various areas of psychology, education, organization studies, and many other social sciences. These levels of inquiry, and their respective units of analysis, stand in very complex relationships to each, and to bridge between them is often a complex affair.’

This leads to a view that we need to be aware of, and consider, the many different perspectives relating to learning, something which is hard to do, and in some circumstances, may be impossible. But by questioning assumptions and attempting to work across, Saljo does reflect that:

‘Behaviors and cognitive processes no longer suffice as basic constructs for providing a coherent and interesting conceptualization of learning; there are many other issues that have to be considered such as time, situatedness, and reciprocity between individuals and cultural practices. Also, in the literature it is no longer just individuals who learn and remember but also collectives such as organizations, societies and systems of people and artefacts.’

Therefore, Saljo emphasises the multi-dimensional processes involved in learning. Cognition is central but not sufficient to understanding learning in a pedagogic sense. Interaction, situatedness and the social need to be attended to. One way of beginning to capture this multi-dimensional view of learning is through the work of Illeris (2003). He argues that what is learned in educational contexts,

‘..is a complex totality of traditional and up-to-date knowledge, orientation and overview, combined with professional and everyday life skills and a broad range of personal qualities such as flexibility, openness, independence, responsibility, creativity etc.’ (Illeris, 2003: 397)

Illeris argues that learning occurs through the fusion of an internal cognitive process and an external interactional process. Learning is seen as an internal process of acquisition which is composed of cognitive and emotional dimensions. Therefore, cognitive functions such as memory and attention are central to learning. However, their effectiveness is in part influenced by the emotional dimension of learning which includes variables such as motivation. ‘…all cognitive learning is, so to speak, ‘obsessed’ by the emotions at stake – e.g. whether the learning is driven by desire, interest, necessity or compulsion.’ (Illeris, 2003: 399). However, it is very rare that we learn through acquisition only, i.e. by ourselves with no interaction with others, be it synchronous or asynchronous. Therefore, external interaction (social, cultural and material) through participation, communication and co-operation is also extremely important.

From this consideration there is a strong suggestion that in pedagogic settings learning as a process needs to be seen as a complex process involving a number of temporal and spatial scales interacting both internally and externally to the individual. In the next post, this consideration of the nature of learning will be extended through a consideration of the work of Alexander et al (2009) and Geary (2009) who both attempt to capture an overarching characterization of learning.

 

References

Alexander, P.A.; Schallert, D.L. & Reynolds, R.E. (2009) What is learning anyway? A topographical perspective considered. Educational Psychologist, 44:3, 176-192.

Geary, D.C. (2009) The why of learning. Educational Psychologist, 44:3, 198-201.

Illeris, K. (2003) Towards a contemporary and comprehensive theory of learning. International Journal of Lifelong Learning, 22:4, 396-406.

Jarvis, P. (2009) Learning to be a Person in Society. Abingdon: Routledge.

Okano, H.; Hirano, T. & Balaban, E. (2000) Learning and Memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 97(23), 12403-12404.

Saljo, R. (2009) Learning, theories of learning, and units of analysis in research. Educational Psychologist, 44:3, 202-208.

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY PEDAGOGY? THE PARADOX OF TEACHING

Having previously outlined some thoughts concerning both assessment and curriculum, the nature of teaching within an expanded view of a masters ‘pedagogy’ needs to be sketched out. Teaching can be seen as a process drawing together curriculum and assessment, and bringing to practical fruition the philosophies and intents which reside there. Teaching is also the interface of these elements with the process of learning. Biesta (2014) reflects on the juxtaposition of teaching and leanring, emphasising the weakness of seeing learning as being the only important process in the educative sphere, and yet in this is a trend which is becoming ever more explicit within HE. Biesta identifies a broad move in education towards ‘learnification’ in society, where the process of learning is seen as the only important medium which needs to be considered. This leads to a misconceived idea of teaching as being merely a ‘facilitation’ of learning; the teacher increasingly becomes seen as having little to offer, whilst learning as a process becomes increasingly an individualised pursuit. But to see ‘learning’ as a process alone forgets the fact that it is always positioned as learning ‘about something’ (Biesta, 2014: 126), the focus not only being on the process but also the content and purpose.

In this context, I see teaching as becoming a process of considering and interpreting the interplay of purpose, content, process and need, both in initial framing and planning of a curriculum and possible approaches, but also in the subsequent emergence of pedagogic practice and experience. This distinction between starting points and emergence is important as any initial plan will require change and reflection to suit the needs and agency of the students involved; each time a particular module is encountered the day to day, minute to minute experience and process will be different as the contexts, individuals and needs will to some extent be unique and will certainly shift between groups. To say that teaching is of equal importance to pedagogy as learning is not to suggest that it should be sterile, unchanging, ‘set’, quite the reverse.

Biesta (2104) also highlights the ‘weak power’ of teaching as it is a process which cannot be impressed on individuals, but can only be offered, an offer the student must accept,

‘To receive the gift of teaching, to welcome the unwelcome, to give place to inconvenient truths and difficult knowledge, is precisely the moment where we give authority to the teaching we receive.’ (Biesta, 2014: 55 emphasis in original).

The role of the teacher is to understand and present the spectrum of content, process and experiences which allow students to grapple with the ‘learning of something’. However, there is an apparent paradox here, as whilst teaching is central to the process of learning, it should not be identified as a narrow activity, such as an advocation for ‘direct instruction’, which might be seen as putting the teacher at the very centre of the pedagogic process. This is to see teaching not as a gift offered, but a stance dictated. Teaching instead becomes the complex set of approaches which are most appropriate to meet the purpose, content, process and experience set out by the teacher(s) in planning the curriculum and associated assessments; at masters level (and perhaps well before), this is a process which will also increasingly be a joint activity with students as they become the experts in aspects of the curriculum and not only learn more independently but also act as teachers in their own right. And again, the process from start to finish will be emergent rather than set in stone.

The teaching element of pedagogy therefore needs to reflect the complexity of the process and context involved. At some points an approach which requires direct instruction, be it as a lecture etc may well be the most appropriate and useful pedagogic tool. If students need to engage with a body of knowledge this pedagogic tool may well be a useful first step. However, to begin to use, extend and utilise this knowledge may require other, flexible, research-based approaches, particularly where the new knowledge is being developed to help understand different contexts, or is merely the starting point for personal ‘lines of flight’. At the level of masters study it is untenable to believe that personal research and discovery can be dispensed with, it is the hallmark of study at this level. This does leave an interesting question as to when this form of pedagogy should enter the educative process if it is to be utilised here – undergraduate? A-level? Before?

Understanding the complexity surrounding the interplay of curriculum, assessment, learning and teaching is at the core of the role of the teacher. Knowing when to lead, when to challenge, when to stand away from the process of learning. Therefore, teaching is central but any notion that is can be simplistically defined as operating via one or two ‘archetypal’ teaching approaches is not sustainable. As the context and focus of teaching shifts it does so in relation to the curriculum, assessment and learning of the students involved. Hence, once again, the idea that this act of teaching needs to be seen as an extended series of links between these different elements of an extended view of pedagogy.

References

Biesta, G.J.J. (2014) The Beautiful Risk of Education. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers

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 4) Thinking about Curriculum 2

In my last post I suggested that the masters framework developed by the QAA for HE in Scotland (2013) offered a very useful basis for developing pedagogy. I also argued that curriculum needs to be more than a list of content, instead seeing the roles of emergence and process as crucial to the work of masters students and therefore in designing curricula. In developing this perspective on curriculum, how might a practical framework look?

priciples of curriculum design

This model is an attempt to capture the complexity and process orientation towards curriculum which is informed by the work of Knight (2001). This model starts from a position of seeing knowledge as a central element of any curriculum. Knowledge is the building blocks on which debate and argumentation are based. Therefore, it is a crucial element in constructing any curriculum. However, by itself it is not enough. Of equal importance is the structure which supports these building blocks – the explicit discussion of concepts. Threshold concepts (Meyer, Land and Baillie, 2010) have become a useful basis for developing the overarching framework for a course, and indeed modules (whilst accepting that in any given module threshold concepts for many may remain liminal). At masters level there is every chance that students will move from a core area of knowledge to pursue and specialise in particular spheres within a module. The explicit use of threshold concepts allows this process to occur within a coherent, wider ‘field’ of study; whilst individuals may begin to investigate different subject areas and contexts the concepts ensure a level of coherence and allow a common point of contact for discussion and engagement with the work of others. The use of an explicit conceptual framework also gives a general scheme for the process of learning to operate within. In this sense, the interplay of a conceptual schema (boundary settings) with individual investigation and growth (freedom) is in keeping with Davis and Sumara’s (2006) identification of factors necessary for emergence in their work on complexity theory.

If knowledge and concepts are engaged with alone however, then there is a deficit in the applied/practical use of the emerging learning. Hence, application is also important as this is where schema, a developing knowledge base and understanding are utilised and ‘tested’.

It is at the intersection of the three dimensions of knowledge, concepts and application where curriculum as process (Knight, 2001; Stenhouse, 1975) can be made real. Together, they give the possibility for emerging understanding (here used in the way I’ve interpreted Van Camp (2014) to emphasise the connection of ideas and knowledge in networks) and application based on engagement with knowledge, concepts and their application. It is in this emerging interpenetration (Byrne and Callaghan, 2014) of these systems that both new insights and new knowledge can emerge. But at this level, this is a personal journey for each student with different contexts, interests and applications driving learning. Hence, curriculum as product (Stenhouse, 1975) makes little sense as the possible outcomes are hugely diverse whilst still operating within a loose framework and from common starting points (For an example of how this model for curriculum has been used in our work so far see an earlier post & our research methods pedagogy website)

As suggested in earlier posts, to understand and develop curricula where diversity and process are key, we need to have a clear understanding of the role of assessment in aiding the emergent process model, but as I’ll also reflect upon in future posts, interpenetration has major ramifications for the way we understand learning and teaching; to reiterate, to suggest that pedagogy can be the study of teaching alone makes little sense.

References

Byrne, D. & Callaghan, G. (2014) Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences: The state of the art. Abingdon: Routledge.

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

Knight, P.T. (2001) ‘Complexity and Curriculum: A process approach to curriculum-making.’ Teaching in Higher Education, 6(3), 369-381.

Meyer, J.H.F., Land, R. and Baillie, C. (2010) Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning, (eds), Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

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]

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

Van Camp, W. (2014) ‘Explaining understanding (or understanding explanation).’ European Journal of Philosophy of Science, 4(1): 95-114.