All entries for Thursday 13 August 2009

August 13, 2009

Reflective practitioners

I've been doing some reading today. A rare luxury. Lin Norton's 2009 book Action Research in Teaching and Learning has just come in and I dipped into it to see what she had to say. Chapter 2 is entitled 'Why be a reflective practitioner?' so I thought I would reflect on that! I tend to copy out chunks from books when I'm reading. It helps me focus and gives me time to think about the content as I'm typing. I copied out a large chunk of that chapter, as I thought it had a lot that I could cogitate on, but also that might be of use to the academics I'm working with. At the risk of breaching copyright regs (no, this isn't more than 5% of the book), take a look at this.

P29 Gravett (2004) lists eight elements of what she calls transformative learning, based on the literature. To illustrate these, I have added my own examples in brackets.

1.      It needs a trigger (problem/issue) that makes us aware that the way we previously thought and acted is not adequate to deal with this issue. (Students are not attending my carefully prepared lectures, which I thought were both stimulating and exciting.)

2.      It engenders a feeling of disequilibrium or unease. (Are my lectures not that interesting? Am I a poor lecturer? What are lectures for anyway?)

3.      There is a recognition and articulation of assumptions that are largely held unconsciously. (It is essential to cover the content when designing my courses.)

4.      This is followed by a questioning and examining of out assumptions including where they come from, the consequences of holding them, and why they are important. (Is covering content what the curriculum means? If so, it means believing in the information transmission approach to teaching, which I am no longer sure I do believing. Yet this is the way it is always done in our department; indeed, this is the way I was taught, so can there really be anything very wrong in it?)

5.      There is a need for engaging in reflective and constructive dialogue in which alternative viewpoints are discussed and assessed. (I talk to my colleagues in the department who assert that lectures are the staple of the curriculum and the problem lies with this year’s cohort of students who are not as able as previous cohorts. I am comforted but not entirely convinced by this explanation, so seek the advice of the staff development unit who introduce me to the concept of teaching as learning facilitation and suggest methods such as problem-based learning or experiential learning methods. I am quite shaken by this new way of thinking about teaching as it had never occurred to me before, but now it has been explained, it seems so obvious.)

6.      Assumptions and perspectives now need to be revised to make them more discriminating and justifiable. (I now see lectures in a completely different way and while not ready to jettison them completely, I do feel able to revisit each one to make sure it fulfils my new learning-facilitation approach. This is the ‘perspective transformation’ that Kember refers to.)

7.      The need to take action arising from the revised assumptions. (I am redesigning my courses to use lectures as spaces in which students become more actively involved in the topics I am presenting. I have been given so many suggestions by the staff development unit that I fear the result might be a mishmash of innovative techniques which are exciting in themselves but which, if put together without an underlying pedagogical rationale, will possibly do more harm than good and confuse the students.
I decide to focus on using the personal response system (PRS), an electronic device where students use handsets in the lecture theatre and can vote in answer to a number of questions I pose to them. Not only will students enjoy being actively involved in this way, the technique will give me an on-the-spot way of checking their understanding about certain concepts, which I can further explain if it appears they do not understand. I am also keen to see if the PRS system will have an effect on student attendance, my original problem, as well as what I hope will be a more long-term effect on improved understanding, leading to better exam performance.)

8.      The previous seven steps will build a sense of competence and self-confidence in our teaching role.
(I am wholly respectful of the way my colleagues teach, but no longer feel that I have to accept unquestioningly that doing things differently is not to be encouraged. I feel ready to be able to defend this point of view with some solid theoretical arguments as well as with some empirical evidence of the effects of my own experimentation with a new teaching method.)

I am really interested in these steps. Number 4 attracted my attention in particular. It's something I think about very regularly, both as I prepare my own classes, workshops, learning sessions, and as I think about what, for me, education is all about. I'm writing a book entitled Spirituality, Faith and Learning which is due to be published by Ashgate next year, and I'm including a discussion about the relationship between teacher, content and learner. I think there has traditionally been an upside-down pyramid with teacher and content lying at the two apexes at the top, and student at the bottom. Recently, that configuration has been challenged, and the pyramid has either been completely abandoned in favour of a circle in which all three components constantly circle and interact, or it has been rotated so that content and student lie along the top with teacher at the bottom. In this model, teacher, although expert, becomes a facilitator or guide rather than a transmitter of information and guardian of expertise. My own reading puts this into the category of a shift towards student-centred learning. I particularly like the paper on Student Centred Learning written by O'Neill and McMahon (2005), which is available here:

Oh dear. Is this going to be another paper that is incomprehensible to people outside the discipline (see my other blogpost for Aug 13th 09)? As always, comments welcome.


Follow-up to Paper on the processes of reflection from Alison's blog

I tried something different with this paper. An MA participant and I were discussing the differences in writing at M-level in different disciplines. I thought he might find it useful to see how an academic paper in my discipline of education was composed, so I sent him a copy, suggesting he didn't focus too much on the content but looked at the style, structure, ways of composing and justifying an argument, and other aspects which I sensed would differ from his own disciplinary practice. A day later, to my amusement, dismay yet pleasure, I received the following feedback from him.

Dear Alison

Indeed questions do abound from paper, possibly more to do with content than structure however, as discussed at our meeting I am a big fan of complexity but the complexity you have introduced tends to mask the structure as I struggle with the domain specific jargon, and that's with a background in knowledge acquisition in a knowledge based engineering environment that spanned two universities as a research fellow, over a period of 6 years. So you got your own back on me there.

It's English but not as we know it, for instance I would have used in stead of your jargon:

Lacuna: "small gap"

Epistemology: "a branch of philosophy studying the nature of knowledge"

Existential: "human existence"

Selfhood: "unique identity"

Synchronically considered: "studying something at a point in time"

Diachronically: "the study of something through time"

Ontically Distinct: no idea I assume its ontologically distinct?

Internalisation: the adoption of others ideas

Objectivation: no idea what that means?

Dialectal: "linguistically"

Retrojected: something than is rejected in retrospect, I hazard a guess?

I am not sure how you can have a phenomenological meaningless experience when that is the study of conscious experience, and chow you can have a non acquiring knowledge experience unless of course you are lecturing 1st year students after a bad night at the student bar.

Alison I have abandoned this read at page five after spending 3 hours reading this, I am sorry but this is less fun than stabbing hot needles in my eyes. If this had been in plain English I might have enjoyed this, however the obverse was the case.

Hmmm. I have to take his point. The paper *is* 'specialist' and isn't written in 'plain English'. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea after all to make it available to him. Yet at the same time, his point is exactly mine: disciplines have their own way of expressing themselves. That includes language, style, structure, conventions such as referencing, arguing, going about the stuff of pushing the discipline further and advancing our understanding of it. It was maybe asking a bit much to thrust a full-blown academic paper at someone who hasn't got a background in the discipline... Lots of questions emerge.

  • What does this mean for academics from any discipline outside education who want to (or are required to) engage in post-graduate studies in education? How can we best introduce them to the conventions of the discipline? How far can we allow them to deviate from those conventions? Is it fair to expect them to pick them up almost by osmosis, having read what is often a comparatively small sample of the relevant literature?
  • Is the literature itself accessible to people from other disciplines? Although my paper was well into post-doc, professional researcher territory, so are a number of the books and papers we recommend that participants on our programmes (especially PCAPP) read and refer to. Indeed, this paper might well be included in a list of recommended texts.
  • I have other 'students' who recognise the challenges and who put a lot of effort into reading up on how to write a critically reflective essay, how to signpost, how to construct an argument, etc. But this is hugely time-consuming and they have to be extremely motivated to do this. Is there a quick way or a short cut? Probably not.

I shall go on reflecting and thinking, as well as discussing with participants about these issues. Any comments posted to this blog would be welcome!

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