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? 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 3) Thinking about curriculum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

Designing a complex curriculum-reflections on knowledge, understanding, concepts and skills

If we are to develop an emergentist curriculum, as suggested in the last post, we need to make room for the emergence of meaning within the seminar room. But in defining a process of meaning making as emergent we cannot have ready-made goals, other than perhaps a loose field of interest within which we construct our work (i.e. the link between coherence and freedom in Davis and Sumara’s (2006) conditions for emergence). One critique that might be made of this approach is that it could lead to a form of ‘radical relativism’ with individuals following any direction they feel is warranted and ending up with very little to show for their endeavour. However, this is to fundamentally misunderstand an emergentist agenda. The coherence element as a foundation for for emergence ensures limits to the field of interest, but within this admits freedom. In addition, by questioning the meaning which individuals develop, as suggested by Osberg and Biesta (2008), the teacher is required to use information and knowledge to challenge thinking and understandings through a mixture of appropriate pedagogic strategies. Thus the goals of the curriculum might not be set closely, but this does not mean knowledge is not sought. I see knowledge as central to the emergence of meaning, but how that knowledge is understood and how it also emerges in the individual needs consideration.

Knowledge is central to any curriculum. But if this is the case then knowledge itself needs defining. The definition of knowledge at one level can be very simple, being the facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education. However, this hides a very complex area of debate as the search for a definition of knowledge is a central strand of philosophical study and over millennia, has not managed to create a definitive statement which all can agree on, and which stands the test of philosophical scrutiny. The definition of knowledge is also made even more complex by the debate as to the degree to which it stands apart from, or acts an overarching term for, the notions of ‘concepts’, ‘understanding’, and ‘skills’. Each of these terms can be taken as a subset of knowledge (as a concept!). However, how they relate is again a contested area.

Van Camp (2014: 97) sees understanding is a type of knowledge, but nevertheless feels it important to distinguish it as an explicit idea, as he states,

‘To a large extent, much of the aversion to giving understanding any philosophical prominence comes from conflating concepts simply because of linguistic poverty.’

There is a debate over whether understanding is a form of knowledge or something different, and definitions of understanding themselves vary. For example, Kvanvig (2003:192) states

understanding requires the grasping of explanatory and other coherence-making relationships in a large and comprehensive body of information. One can know many unrelated pieces of information, but understanding is achieved only when informational items are pieced together by the subject in question.’

Likewise, Zagzabski (2001: 241) defines understanding as

‘involves seeing the relation of parts to other parts and perhaps even the relation of part to a whole.’

Both of these definitions see understanding as more than basic knowledge. It is characterised by a qualitatively different aspect, the development of a structure within knowledge which is relational. Van Camp (2014) suggests that this view of understanding is, therefore, incremental, and an individual can have more or less understanding depending on the degree to which relational connections have been made. He then goes on to argue that understanding is central to our development of causation,

On my account of understanding, information is better understood if it fits into that network of knowledge, and in tension with fundamental causal beliefs if it does not. So, while causation is not necessary for understanding in principle (other types of explanation, such as unification, can make connections in our knowledge), as a fundamental-perhaps native-worldview, phenomena which are not fitted to a causal framework remain conspicuously outside a comprehensive body of information, and thus not fully understood.’

Therefore, whilst understanding might be a form of knowledge, I would argue that it makes sense to retain it as differentiated from knowledge as a concept as it emphasises the explicit purpose of denoting the links and developing network of knowledge which we gain as we learn.

A simple diagrammatic way of showing this is

KandU1

Concepts are likewise difficult to define. At a very simple level concepts can be defined as mental representations of classes of things (Murphy, 2004) inside the head. Mead and Gray (2010) develop this simple definition by considering how concepts might be understood within the wider context of ‘threshold concepts’. They consider the form and role of concepts within disciplines, emphasising the difference between private and public conceptions (or mental representations). They differentiate between the concepts we have inside our own heads, which are prone to change, and those which are shared (disciplinary) and which tend to be much more stable as change here requires negotiation and debate. They see concepts is providing the ‘underlying logic’ (p.99) used to develop and structure knowledge. Perkins (2006) in his discussion of troublesome knowledge uses Foucault’s notion of ‘episteme’ (any historical period’s way of configuring knowledge), referring to ‘a system of ideas or way of understanding that allows us to establish knowledge.’ (p.41-2). Concept is therefore positioned as a logical framework or system which allows us to structure knowledge in a way that supports and promotes understanding. Concepts by this definition become the foundation on which we structure and make sense of knowledge and understanding. As such I argue that they should also be the basis for building curricula. To add to the diagrammatic structure given above, concepts can be seen as underpinning knowledge and understanding.

KandU2

Finally, there is the issue of skills. Skills again can be defined as knowledge – procedural knowledge, which is the knowledge exercised in the performance of a task. What is important here, regardless of the term used is the idea of application. Skills/procedural knowledge is concerned with the performance of something, be it driving a car (rather than just knowing how a car works), or being able to successfully search for information; procedural knowledge is therefore of a different form of knowledge when compared to declarative knowledge (knowledge about something).

In developing and enacting an emergent curriculum, I will define ‘knowledge’ as equating to declarative knowledge, which is made increasingly useful by the relational growth of understanding. How these nodes and relationships are given a structure occurs through the underpinning power of disciplinary concepts which provide the overarching logical framework for disciplinary knowledge and understanding. Finally, given that I have retained the term knowledge to refer to declarative knowledge, I use the term ‘skill’ rather than procedural knowledge to refer to the application of knowledge, understanding and concepts. Therefore, in developing the terms of an emergentist curriculum, the following conceptual diagram becomes a useful structure for thinking about the detail in developing such an approach.

KandU3

In the next post, I will consider some of the practical ramifications of defining these processes in the way presented here, and how they interact with notions of curriculum and assessment to give a coherent approach to programme development.

References

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

Kvanvig, J. (2003) The value of knowledge and the pursuit of understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mead, J. & Gray, S. (2010) ‘Contexts for Threshold Concepts (1) A conceptual Structure for Localizing Candidates.’ In J.H.F. Meyer, R. Land and C. Baillie (eds.) Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning. pp. 97-113.Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Murphy, G. (2004) The Big Book of Concepts. London: The MIT Press.

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

Perkins, D. (2006) ‘Constructivism and troublesome knowledge.‘ in J. Meyer and R. Land (eds.) Overcoming barriers to student understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. Pp. 33-47. Abingdon: Routledge.

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

Zagzebski, L. (2001) ‘Recovering understanding’ in M. Steup (ed.) Knowledge, truth and duty, pp.235-251. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Designing a complex curriculum – Building the foundations for an emergent curriculum

In the last post in this series, I outlined some thoughts on the idea of an emergent pedagogy and in particular the work of Davis and Sumara (2006) in setting out the conditions for emergence, namely,

  • 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.

To understand the basis for these elements, I want to develop a wider notion of an ‘emergent curriculum’ as a foundation for their application. The idea of an emergent curriculum has already been suggested by Osberg and Biesta (2008), who provide a potential philosophical foundation for such an approach. They begin from the idea that our knowledge emerges as we ‘participate in the world’ (p.313). If this is so, should this also be the way we consider learning within the classroom?

It is suggested that teaching has become increasingly viewed as an activity which needs to be structured around explicit goals and outcomes. Curriculum then becomes the framework by which predetermined goals are (or are not) met. An important aspect of this view of curriculum is that the meeting of specific outcomes is suggestive of a predetermined and restricted form of enculturation. From an emergent perspective, this can become highly problematic as,

‘if we hold the meaning as emergent, and we insist on a strict interpretation of emergence (i.e. what emerges is more than the sum of its parts and therefore not predictable from the ground it emerges from) then the idea that educators can (or should) control the meanings that emerged in the classroom become problematic. In other words, the notion of emergent meaning is incompatible with the aims of education, traditionally conceived. Emergent meaning-if it exists-is incompatible with the idea of education as planned enculturation.’ (Osberg and Biesta, 2008: 315)

This suggests that an emergent curriculum requires both the opportunity for meaning to merge through the act of pedagogy, but also that we support the emergence of uniqueness in each student. This, however, then suggests that the curriculum cannot be seen as a restrictive, ‘one size fits all’ structure which attempts to limit the emergence of meaning. Hence,

the first thing to notice about the curriculum as a ‘space of emergence’ is that it is not a space of common ground. Because human subjectivity emerges only when one acts with others who were different (Arendt, 1958; Biesta, 2006: 33-54), this means education only takes place where ‘otherness’ – being with others who are different from us – creates such a space. In this sense it is the plurality of the ‘space of emergence’ that educates, not the teacher (Biesta 2006: 13-32),’ (Osberg and Biesta, 2008: 324)

Hence, plurality is key. We need to move away from reducing the difference between the teacher and students as the ‘space of emergence’ suggests the need for difference. We need to ensure that students meet and encounter difference which then leads to a greater opportunity for the development of unique characters in understanding rather than a convergence. Many curriculum are designed to eradicate difference, but by encouraging and supporting difference, the frustration and difficulties which result lead to the spaces where real education occurs. This means that the curriculum approach which is fostered requires highly skilled teachers to help constantly challenge, and unsettle. As Osberg and Biesta (Osberg and Biesta, 2008: 326) state,

‘with the logic of emergence it becomes possible to understand educational responsibility as continuously complicating the scene, thereby making it possible for those being educated to continue to emerge as singular beings. Educational responsibility is about continuously reopening subjectivity, unsettling closures, and unpicking ‘destinations’.’

This gives the teacher a huge responsibility as it suggests a middle course between unguided, discovery learning and a model of knowledge transmission, whilst also understanding the ethical imperative of aiding individuals to finding greater understanding and uniqueness within a space of emergence. For an international masters course on innovation and reform it also provides an interesting basis for working to allow students to find meaning and understanding through an emergent process. With this as a philosophical foundation, in more practical terms, I see the conditions for emergence set out by Davis and Sumara (2006), outlined again at the start of this post as a useful framework for realising this ‘space of emergence’. In a future post, I will add to this consideration of the emergence of the subject, by exploring how it can be positively entwined with the emergence of concepts, understanding and knowledge.

References

Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago press.

Biesta, G. (2006) Beyond Learning: Democratic Education for a Human Future. Boulder CO: Paradigm Pulishers.

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

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