Community of Praxis

Northern College January 2003 010This blog was written to support a workshop at the Consortium for Post-Compulsory Education ‘Teacher Training and Technologies’ conference, held at The University of Huddersfield on March 1st 2013.

The title of the workshop is ‘Blended Learning:  Supporting Students in the 21st Century‘.  My intention from the start was to look at what had worked (and not worked) for Northern College’s Cert Ed/PGCE students on a programme which we have in the past couple of years begun to call ‘blended learning’.  In particular, I wanted to investigate what I had learned about mine and their emotional labour.

I think I’ve done all of that, but in the process of doing so the world has moved on and what I’m here really to talk with you about is the Community of Praxis we’ve developed, and how, and why.  I’m looking forward to hearing what you think, too, and why you think that.  I’ve found since I got involved in this stuff that people tend to take up strong opposing views, then defend them passionately, with what Bernard Williams calls a ‘fetish of assertion’.  That absolutism interests me.

The starting point for me is my value base – isn’t it for all of us, as human beings, in everything we do?  I have deeply held values around freedom, autonomy, independence, growth…all those ‘free spirit’ words which seem to appear often in education rhetoric and less commonly translate into practice, perhaps because they intrinsically rail against obedience.  For me, these values play out in a commitment to praxis – praxis as Paolo Freire defines it:  “Reflection and action upon the world in order to change it.” (Freire, 1972 p.51)  Praxis is dynamic, transformational…when done well it can be – and feel – magnificent.  Aristotle would have called this joyous reflection-into-doing, ‘eupraxia’, a term echoed by Etienne Wenger and his collaborators Richard McDermott and Williams Snyder when they identified seven principles of designing communities of practice for vibrancy and ‘aliveness’ (see Wenger, McDermott and Snyder, 2002).

Praxis matters at The Northern College because our mission of transforming communities means that we explicitly teach for social purpose – we are wanting to change the world.  On the Teacher Education programme, we select applicants who express a social purpose heart and we work with them using the Teaching for Social Purpose model (https://teachnorthern.wordpress.com/2011/12/04/hello-world/), to encourage them to explicate the four cornerstones in their own practice.  Praxis is central – theorists are our friends – we work with a continuum of private to public theory to build confidence in academic reading and criticality.  What we most want for our students is that they will think for themselves – as the Antony Burrill print in the Teacher Education classroom testifies:  “Think of Your Own Ideas.”  But thinking for yourself does not mean thinking in isolation; writing about praxis in 1958 Hannah Arendt identified ‘plurality’ alongside action and freedom as essential elements of praxis.  In fact, Arendt was thinking of the innate diversity of the individual thinker; a creative misreading of her argument allows us to put faith in the additionality of bringing together a number of individuals with a common purpose – a social purpose.

Our delivery model means that students are only physically together with their cohort every six weeks or so (for Cert Ed/PGCE) or for two intensive weeks (PTLLS); unlike other Further Education Colleges we rarely teach our own staff on these programmes and students can technically come from any part of England or Wales.  Nor do they tend to work together, though there are commonalities of role – we attract voluntary, community, social enterprise, public and Trade Union sector workers of all varieties, paid and unpaid.  For many people, teaching is just part of their remit.  Experience tells us that the student who communicates only when they are in class is the least likely to succeed, therefore online communication has been part of the package for several years.

First steps explored the use of email bulletins and text message alerts, before we started to branch out into social media.  This began, naturally, with UniLearn, useful as a repository of documents but less helpful for two-way communication; even the intensive input of three tutors and a few die-hard triers amongst the student body did not prevent tumbleweed from blowing across the discussion board.  Northern College’s VLE functioned similarly and added to the platform confusion, so we made an early decision not to use it at all.  In 2011, students began a Facebook page with multiple administrators; democratic in principle, bullying in practice – those who came to my workshop with Alison Iredale (@alisoniredale; http://www.stuffaliknows.wordpress.com) at this conference last year will remember I talked about getting my fingers burned and learning to tighten up the rules (see attached).  At that same conference, the keynote speaker James Clay (@jamesclay; http://elearningstuff.net) gave me a pool of courage that I’ve kept hold of all year:  talking about resistance to the use of social media he said yes, it can be used to bully, but so can voices and you wouldn’t expect your students to keep their mouths shut in and out of class.  So Facebook was there, at the start of the 2011 academic year and it’s still there now, with my ‘professional’ persona Lou Northern and the closed group now expanded to include programme graduates (‘Northern College Teacher Education Programme’).

During 2012, we began to explore the use of Twitter (@teachnorthern), soon building up a cohort of followers, sharing resources, ideas and news around Teacher Education.  We also began the TeachNorthern blog on WordPress (www.teachnorthern.wordpress.com), which articulates the Teaching for Social Purpose philosophy.  A LinkedIn group followed (‘Northern College Teacher Education Programme’) and 2013 has also seen me getting my head around Yammer, a sort of professional Facebook, which is being used for the new blended learning BA Education and Professional Development.   Yammer might be a development for September 2013; it felt like one platform too many to introduce this year.

Meanwhile, in class, the emphasis changed and the teaching strategy began to ‘flip’ (see Steve Wheeler at http://www.steve-wheeler.blogspot.com for an entertaining critique of the ‘flipped classroom’ debate).  In negotiation with Year 2 Certs students, practice module sessions developed into ‘Community of Praxis’ sessions, with a standard session plan and interventions planned during the opening round of each day.  We have held coaching triads, portfolio workshops, skills development input (from students and tutors), critical friendship groups, Time to Think Councils (see http://www.timetothink.com) and the old traditional tutorial, though many students prefer these via Skype in the comfort of their own homes and pyjamas.  This approach has also flavoured the Year 2 BA, where the Improving Teaching and Learning module has consisted of a half day’s input around creativity, followed by peer and individual coaching interventions.  PTLLS remains more traditional, but the new suite of qualifications due to launch in September 2013, and the possibility of ditching Level 3,  gives us the opportunity to stretch the expectation of the independent, ‘expert’ learner from the very beginning of individuals’ engagement with the programme.

How does this encourage praxis learning?  Importantly, it opens up threads of discourse in environments outside the classroom, where equality is all; individuals arrive in the Facebook group as themselves, rather than Student X on Course Y.  I’m identifiable as the teacher, but the rich mix of participants includes tutors, current and past students, tutors who are currently students, graduates who are also tutors, potential students and more.  In the confusion of that mix, we are all equals and the theorists who provide the basis for the praxis join in as individuals too…Nancy Kline is just ‘Nancy’, ‘Geoff Petty’ tends to get his full name, Gramsci makes a regular appearance (we think of ourselves as philosophers of praxis) and of course we all love ‘Ken’…democratising the awe and mystique which surrounds ‘theory’ is essential if students are going to find their own critical voice.  We are catholic in our tastes, no-one is dismissed though they may be disagreed with.

Paul Duguid, exploring the limits of the Community of Practice in the Art of Knowing (2005), defined explicit knowledge as ‘knowing what’ and tacit knowledge as ‘knowing how’.  Teacher Education is often about ‘knowing what’ at the expense of ‘knowing how’. It has many sacred cows.  You can define differentiation or embedding diversity all you like, but if you don’t know how to do it, it won’t have any impact on the people you’re teaching.  Praxis bridges the gap between the ‘what’ and the ‘how’; it converts theory to practice and the online threads of communication – along with the social element of residential education –  allow students to support one another in applying their learning for social change.  Critically, participants also generate new knowledge out of their discussions; knowledge which by being part of an online forum is already in the semi-public domain, already subject to peer scrutiny and review.

And so onto what I’ve learned, about my and my students’ emotional labour and about what worked and didn’t.

1.  Communities of Practice don’t happen just because you want them to.  I was mortified when the first ever Community of Praxis days were attended by about one third of Year 2 Certs students, the remaining two-thirds taking the opportunity to work from home on their theory assignments.  Education hegemony still defines teaching as knowledge input by the teacher; it wasn’t until I spelled out the potential benefits that numbers started to increase.  Now most students attend most of the time and grades are rising because the classroom is just one part of a web of discourse which is happening there and elsewhere and which directly impacts on students’ own tacit knowledge of how they learn.

2.  Social Media takes a huge amount of emotional labour to reach a tipping point of engagement.  This is the tutor’s responsibility and you need to be ready for it.  It may need some workplace negotiation – your organisation may not see Tweeting as a legitimate part of your daily work.  Your students may need you to be around for live-time chat when they are not in work, too, so your employment pattern may change.  Are you ready for that?  You may have to get more savvy about using the hardware, even your Smartphone.  And then you’ll find for a long time that nothing will happen if you are not there.  The Facebook group is now two years old and it’s only since the turn of the year that I’ve noticed it has gathered its own momentum, supported by unofficial group ‘champions’ who regularly post and support others.

3.  You will reach different people via different platforms.  And that is absolutely fine.  If you are clear about what the platform can offer, you stand a much better chance of enticing students to have a go.  Significantly, we have learned that the most vulnerable students are the most likely to engage via open public platforms – when they are frightened to open their emails, they will still go on Facebook.  So go there and meet them.

4.  Too many keystrokes and people lose interest.  It’s a fact.  Provide too many routes and the same will happen.  As we regularly access social media we develop neural pathways, which makes it easier for us to get back there next time.  Shifting something around, or making it over-complex, does not grow confidence.  Too many platforms and people lose interest too, so be selective.

5.  Use what’s already there.  I’m no techie, but it seems to me that Universities and Colleges spend millions on moodles and the like and the software still doesn’t come anywhere near the performativity of ‘free’ platforms like Twitter and Facebook.  And by the time the moodle is upgraded, some whizz kid in Silicon Valley has come up with the next best thing.  The public sector is littered with electronic white elephants, so try to be frugal and use what’s easily available to all who wish to engage.  There will always be people who don’t want to use the public spaces (see 6, below) and that’s fine, but it’s no reason to shy away from including them.

5.  Communties of Practice lead to new rules of engagement.  This means regularly reviewing boundaries and group agreements.  By doing this, we are assisting our students and ourselves to engage safely in 21st century communication, instead of pretending disingenuously that 20th century etiquette will serve us in this new world.  Introducing social media provides a platform with which to articulate really useful discussions around professionalism.   I see the impact ripple out into students’ online engagement and my own.  This also means new rules of engagement around classroom discussion.   Aim to explore the grey areas, the dialogic spaces, rather than setting up a series of either/or debates which mirror our unhealthy Parliament and fetish for ‘debate’.  If you are a pioneer, you will come up against resistance, so make sure you can justify to yourself that the intervention is in the interest of increasing learning impact.

6.  Be very clear about what’s compulsory.  There are all sorts of reasons why people might be politically or otherwise opposed to free social media platforms, such as Facebook.  That’s why it should never be a single conduit.  Make your expectations very clear – my students know that anything important will be emailed, anything urgent and important texted.  Figure out what’s a reasonable level of engagement and stay consistent.  The ‘equality’ argument (it’s not equal access if not everyone is using it) is a red herring, as long as there is not a single conduit that everyone is expected to participate in.

7.  Each platform needs its own purpose.  What has emerged this year is that each online space has developed its own identity; its own following and its own set of parameters.  For 2013, the course Roadmaps will make this much more explicit, to encourage students to select where they want to participate.  I’m hoping that the discussion today will inform the writing of these descriptors.  Currently, tentatively, they work as follows:

  • TeachNorthern wordpress blog to articulate the Teaching for Social Purpose philosophy
  • Twitter to bring in reading and research, to share the social purpose message
  • Email for important messages
  • Text for important and urgent messages
  • Facebook for mutual support, discussion and inspiration
  • LinkedIn for networking
  • UniLearn as a repository for materials

I’d like to finish with an activity, which I’m going to ask workshop participants to complete (but if you’re reading this at home you can try it too).  I’d like you to take a big sheet of paper and divide it into eight squares.  In each square, put a social media platform, eg Twitter, Facebook, WordPress/Blogger, LinkedIn, Yammer, Pinterest etc.  Using post-its, can you think through how each platform might enable your students to develop an effective community of practice?

Thank you.  I’d love to know what you think.

Reference List

Arendt, H (1958)  The Human Condition.  Chicago.  University of Chicago Press (book)

Duguid, P (2005)  The Art of Knowing:  social and tacit dimensions of knowledge and the limits of the community of practice  The Information Society 21:2 (journal)

Freire, P (1972)  Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  London.  Penguin (book)

Kimble, C Hildreth, P and Bourdon, I (2008)  Communities of Practice:  creating learning environments for educators.  Harvard.  Information Age Publishing (book)

Wenger, E  McDermott, R and Snyder, WC (2002) Cultivating Communities of Practice:  A Guide to Managing Knowledge.  Harvard.  Harvard Business School (book)

Wheeler, S (2012) What the flip?  (online) accessed 21.2.13 at http://steve-wheeler.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/what-flip.html (blog)

Using Facebook Safely and Professionally

Prezi from the workshop available at http://prezi.com/ffdvfl66glzp/present/?auth_key=y1uxdng&follow=zo32awppszz0

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Author: TeachNorthern

We are hard working educators with passionate interest in Teaching for a Social Purpose. Everything we've learned is through observing colleagues and students, all of whom are committed to changing the world. And reading interesting stuff. We work at The Northern College in Barnsley and its mission (and thirty-eight year history) of social transformation makes it an ideal base to face the challenges of teaching adults in 21st century England.

4 thoughts on “Community of Praxis”

  1. Great post learning is changing so is the student and what they want out the learning. Learning has truly become social. This post show’s a simple way to build learning in a way that allow the teacher act out the base of a post of my own. The point I made then is the same. Too many try to control every part of the learning in and out of class. To truly follow TeachNorthern we need to guide the learner and let go of the learning in the right way. Because in end if not the student will let go of you.

  2. Thank you Lou. I am really sorry that I am missing your workshop today. I hope this post will become a paper as you raise several insightful points about CoPs (practice and praxis). Great references too, one or two of them I haven’t noticed in my own reading as yet. You know that I am a Facebook resister and a twitter fan, and as yet I haven’t changed my mind on this. My class uses Facebook for their own discussions and peer support, and a small number actively engage with Twitter via the #pgceuco hashtag. I too have had my fingers burned on Twitter, mainly related to your point about equality. Your post has helped me to reflect on purpose and value, stripping away the non-argument about ‘platforms’ and giving me permission to celebrate greyness.
    You and I are the ‘growth hackers’ of the teacher education world. We build, we measure, we learn. I’m in very good company.

  3. Thanks Sam and Alison for your comments. Sam, you have captured exactly why freedom is important; at the heart of diversity are the conditions needed to be yourself as a teacher and a learner (all of us). When teachers try too hard to keep hold of their students’ thinking, what happens is that the thinking switches off. The qualification may still be passed! And so it’s seen as a ‘success’ in our world and that’s sad.

    Alison, I love the term ‘growth hackers’. I am going to reflect more on it, but what I see immediately is you and I hacking through the jungle of words and thoughts with our keyboard machetes and expressing with clarity what others obfuscate. And I love the notion of celebrating the greyness – yes! We are not ‘fetish of assertion’ people. Sometimes it takes me a while to see a red herring – and they litter our path – but once it’s identified, it’s out. I will use the term ‘non argument’ more frequently!

    Thank you both for taking the time to comment.

  4. A great blog post and somthing I want to reflect on, in actual fact I am now planning to use some of this and the activity with my CTLLS/DTLLS group this weekend. perhaps we can then compare results.

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