Philosophers of Praxis

This wordstorm was my preparation for speaking at Higher Education Cheshire’s Annual Conference, held at Mid-Cheshire College on 6th July 2016.  My intention? To provoke thinking and present a different view of scholarship than is, perhaps, the norm.  

I don’t do justice to some brilliant, connected Higher Education minds, academics like my pal Vicky Duckworth who could never be accused of living in an ivory tower (she’d be growing her hair ready for the long drop if she did).  Not only do I know many such thinkers, they are the very people who helped me articulate my own voice.  They are my fellow travellers, my space-to-dancers – and my friends.

When Frances Bell quite rightly called me out (in Comments, below), about Gramsci’s unhelpful binary (grassroots ‘feel’, intellectuals ‘think’) I considered softening my ranty polemic – and decided on this introduction instead.  Writing is an act of resistance, as my (HE) friend Kevin Orr often says.  If I can fire even one person up to write each time I speak, I’ll use what ever tools are (ethically) in my reach.  Enjoy the following words, and understand that I really mean we all should rise up and raise our voices.

Slide1Hello and thank you for inviting me to speak at your Scholarship Conference today.  My name is Lou and I am a Philosopher of Praxis.

My aspiration in the next twenty minutes is to convince you that you have a voice that needs to be heard in the world.  These are strange times indeed and challenging times for our profession.  And our voices are barely audible in policy or media discourse.  My belief is that this is because we do not have a professional identity as scholars.  We leave that to the folks in HE and they don’t know what our lives are like.  My session here today is about scholarship as praxis; that is, action and reflexion upon the world in order to challenge and change its oppressions.  Scholarship is thinking – yes, it’s reading – yes.  Sometimes it’s studying.  But in a praxis model, which is all I’m interested in, it’s about forming the words to speak out about something that needs to change.  It’s about writing, filming, recording – and then publishing.

Slide2

Writing 100 years ago, the philosopher Antonio Gramsci called for Philosophers of Praxis, by which he meant grassroots, activist intellectuals.  Gramsci was a man of his time and he was writing in a Marxist context; in case any political theorists get me wrong I want to be very clear that I am transplanting his idea to the here and now and that is not the standpoint from which I’m operating.  The idea is what’s of use to me and, after all, philosophy is the study of ideas; the leadership, if you like, of ideas.  Gramsci is part of my philosophical genealogy, and I am standing on his shoulders to do new thinking that is relevant for now.

Putting semantics to one side for the moment, Gramsci made the point that “the popular element” – ie us and our students – feel an experience but do not always think about it, ie reflect.  In fact, reflexive practice is what we’re all about and the best pedagogies are reflexive experiences for all involved.  So the problem here is not that we don’t think, but that we don’t write it down/film it/sound record it.  Intellectuals, on the other hand – for the sake of argument let’s say these are today’s policy makers, academics, ‘experts’ – do lots of thinking/writing but they don’t ‘feel‘ – they are not in the experience that we are in, not any more or never have been.  It’s a no-brainer that a way out of that situation is for us to start writing and publishing stuff and that both is and isn’t as easy as it sounds.

The fact is that every political movement – and let’s be right about this, the liberation of Slide4further education from the sausage factory model to something more emancipatory is a political movement – needs its intellectuals, its dissident writers.  Here are a few.

bell hooks, amazing Black feminist writer and educator.  If you haven’t read her, you should, because her pedagogy of love speaks to us all (bear in mind that she is shouting with us, not at us).  She is one of many inspirational figures – Audre Lorde, Angela Davis – who wrote women into the political landscape.  Irina Ratushinskaya was imprisoned by the Soviet regime; she wrote verses on soap, then washed the words away once she’d memorised them.  Vaclav Havel stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Slovakian politician Alexander Dubcek in Wenceslas Square at the birth of the Czech Republic, symbolic of art and politics together.  Nelson Mandela’s prison diaries gave hope to millions.  Chinese radio presenter Xinran transcribed the stories of women who told her the truth of their lives on her late night show.  Each of these writers have given birth to liberation through their words and now there is a new generation speaking through music and video to change the world: check out how many people follow Emma Watson.  Listen to Akala.  Where are our dissident writers in further education?  If you think I am stretching a point here, think of your students.  How many healthy, fulfilling lives and futures rest on the access to FE?

At the bottom left of the slide, there is the offering of me and my friends, the Dancing Princesses. Our book is inspired, two-thirds edited and half written by philosophers who are still working in FE.  Even now, though I’ve come here to do this today, I am embarrassed to be in such awe-inspiring company and even a little socially awkward at calling myself a philosopher. That’s because I am a working-class, adopted child from a town called Mexborough in the South Yorkshire coalfield and people like me aren’t philosophers, they aren’t writers (you may tell me that Ted Hughes and Margaret Drabble came from Mexborough but check out their growing up, their grammar school education, their leaving behind of their roots). What stopped me finding my voice for the longest time were untrue limiting assumptions that people like me – people from my identity groups – didn’t have anything to say.

Nancy Kline, whose Thinking Environment processes I use all the time in my work (and used at the start of the session today) says that the key obstacles in our life and work Slide6emerge from the key obstacles in our thinking – the untrue limiting assumptions that actually shape the way our brains are wired.  In a Thinking Environment, we’d identify those assumptions, speak them out loud and, like hoeing weeds in a garden, we’d see them shrivel and die, because mostly they are ridiculous.  However it feels on a day to day basis, we are privileged people in a privileged country, mediated by technology, able to get our thoughts out to others in 140 characters or more.  Finding a liberating alternative question, to barrel on past those untrue limiting assumption, is key to becoming a confident scholar.  Once this work is done, all the technical stuff will slot into place. At the end of my talk, I will ask you to ask this question of each other.

We live in an era of emerging open scholarship.  Yes, there are still academic textbooks costing upwards of £50 but they are a dying breed and, frankly, the words in them are often dead by the time they are printed.  To storm the ivory towers, we need to write/film/record things, then share them in creative commons; literally common land that anyone can access for free, for the price of crediting the creator.  This is the only way Slide7in which thought, opinion, knowledge and ideas can stop being the preserve of the ‘intellectual’ and start being the playground of the ‘popular element’ – ie us and our students.  Putting ideas into circulation means we start broadcasting, not narrowcasting to “people like us”.  It means that we connect and network with others of diverse views, challenging and sharpening our own thinking if we go into those dialogues with open minds.  It means that we collectively start to dismantle the #whitecurriculum – those unseen structures of oppression that shape our very existence.  If you do one thing after today, watch ‘Why is My Curriculum White?‘ on YouTube and then go out and find the diverse voices that are missing from your subject.

Put yourself in spaces which feel uncomfortable – otherwise, aren’t you just learning what you already know? It only takes a glance at the political shenanigans happening at the moment to know that new thinking is sorely needed.  Disrupt your own thinking through your scholarship and then disrupt the thinking of others around you.  Once you get used to it, it’s lovely! This creates a new, participatory, ecology of learning, where we are equal as thinkers.  At Northern College we don’t keep ‘theory’ at one remove.  On our Teacher Education programme, we crowd-source resources lists that are contemporary, meaningful and diverse; thinkers who we often interact with on Twitter, who are our equals as thinkers and critical friends.  We don’t ditch the whole teacher ed cannon – we love Dewey and Mezirow! – but we dump what’s not relevant any more, or not relevant to us.  Don’t Pavlov me…

…and we believe in co-production.  Because if we are equal to thinkers, our students are equal to us.  They help co-construct our curricula.  Bluntly, if you don’t think your students are your equal as human beings, you shouldn’t be in the game.

So what can you do, to become a scholar, a 21st century Philosopher of Praxis, a leader of ideas.  It’s not a zero-sum game.  If you take ideas in and you find dialogic spaces to Slide8discuss them with other open-minded people, new ideas are created, along with an activist energy that drives you through the untrue limiting assumptions of, “I can’t“, “I’m tired” and “I don’t have time.”  If you do one thing after today, I suggested you watch the YouTube video, “Why is my curriculum white?”  If you do two things, get yourself on Twitter.  Use it to get into spaces you may not normally go, spaces like @writersofcolour  Use it to open your mind to new and exciting stuff and then, as your own ideas emerge, start to record them.  Tweeting is publishing.  Shared blogging spaces are publishing.  Facebook is publishing!  I’m not saying don’t aim bigger – you should – but don’t decry the nursery slopes.  And stop thinking that the best way out is to lock yourself in an ivory tower.  Because you might just find there’s an army of philosophers heading your way.

 

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Posthuman Realness #TD16praxis

Opening Words – The Posthuman Now (Lou Mycroft) (1)

Today I have the privilege of meeting with some amazing thinkers at Northern College, for the fourth annual TeachDifferent conference.  We are hoping that the essentials of posthuman theory will provoke us into new horizons of thinking.  We are unashamedly Utopian; our country has never needed fresh thinking so desperately.

These chaotic times are when we most need ‘theory’.  Along with art (in any form), theory offers us chance to reimagine new futures, as long as we create spaces to think.  I am Image of brightly coloured stained glass in an abstract design, suggesting biological cellspropelled into tomorrow by the (partial) ‘unconference’ construction of yesterday’s #ReImagineFE conference at Birmingham City University which confirmed what I’d suspected:  there is an appetite for change and in the broken ground of post-Brexit Britain, there is opportunity too.

A couple of years ago, I had the sense that conventional further education was in its death spasm.  It’s a graphic metaphor, but the prospect of demise is often accompanied by a desperate, febrile energy and that’s how our sector has felt for some time now.  I noticed it in the response to 2014’s #FELTAG report:  panic at the thought of change, followed by a sign of relief and the toughening of resistance to any sort of innovation.  Creativity receded and it was hard to do transformational work in the months that followed.  But the rhizome is tough, and it’s endlessly patient.  We kept on keeping on and we worked the ground from underneath, subverting where we could.  Now is the time – in Rania Hafez’s words (2) – to storm the castle.

Rania’s argument is that as long as we subvert, we collude. As a natural subversive, that was hard for me to digest and I resisted her analysis for the longest time.  I have never wanted to ‘sit round the table’ with people who are unable to think Utopian thoughts.  I have always wanted to imagine new futures and I believed that was my strength.  But Rania is right.  In Dancing Princesses, she writes:

“It is time we restore our autonomy and voice, rather than persisting in living this double life that is keeping us under the metaphorical lock and key, and eroding our professionalism.”

The mood of the meeting at #ReImagineFE would agree.  In the leadership, professionalism and teacher education strands there was a new sense of agency.  Right here, right now, doom seems inevitable.  So let’s find our inner Blitz Spirit and fight to reclaim our professional self-esteem. Let’s build our own future, instead of waiting for power brokers to decide it for us.

During periods of profound historical change, there are no certainties.  As Rosi Braidotti, philosopher of the posthuman, says, “These are strange times.” And the very fact that nothing can stay the same should give us hope of a different future.

Today is all about reimagining that future.  It’s about thinking the unthinkable.  What we ask of you today is to keep in mind these two principles:

  1. Question everything.  Challenge everything you take for granted.
  2. Focus on praxis.  Turn thinking to activism.  Plan resources: money, people, time.

What we are offering you is space to think and posthuman theory to frame your thinking. Imagine spring cleaning your brain! We figure that if we can shake out the dust from old certainties, new stuff can emerge.

Three centuries ago, certainties were fixed that we still take for granted today.  These certainties came out of the Enlightenment, so it’s no surprise that they were created in the image of Enlightenment thinkers: white, European, relatively privileged men.  They are of their times and they were important at the time, not least for recognising the importance of education.  But they are not fit for now, and they leave a disturbing legacy.

This is Vitruvian Man; the image, of course, from Leonardo da Vinci’s famous sketch.  He is buff, the David Beckham of his day (he might share Beckham’s philanthropy, but probably not his working-class origins). He’s white, he’s young, he’s European, he’s physically fit, he is fair-skinned, he’s probably pretty well off (with those abs, he’s not under-fed). MiddleLeonardo's Vitruvian Man– or upper-class, if that’s not an anachronistic concept for the time. Difficult to guess at his sexuality, given his provenance; certainly by the time of The Enlightenment there was probably an assumption that he’s straight. He might have a hidden disability, but I doubt it. He’s almost certainly Christian, despite the struggles some Enlightenment thinkers had with organised religion.

But he is ‘human’. And so it follows that any individuals that don’t fit the pattern are somehow less than human. Thus begins the intellectualising of difference as ‘other’; not the root of slavery and oppression, but in some quarters the justification of it. And he is culturally internalised, particularly in places of power and amongst people who are not cognisant of the privilege they carry. When we say ‘human’, somewhere in our thinking, we see him.

Vitruvian Man is at the heart of understanding ‘othering‘. It’s his power, his privilege and his structures that have constructed the world we live in. It follows that any posthuman curriculum is focused on dismantling and rebuilding these structures. The post in posthuman refers to the ending of the Vitruvian time.  It also refers to the anthropocene  time – a new epoch where humans have themselves become a major (negative) geological force, as impactful as the Ice Age on the Earth itself. The claim is that the Earth cannot now repair itself from the damage humans have done.  Posthuman thinking is fundamentally concerned with environmental and also animal rights, as well as human welfare.  It is also concerned with breaking down those categories of ‘life’ that we take for granted.  Who said sociology is sociology? When is it not anthropology? Why did geology have to be invented? Possibly because geography did not admit the possibility of studying a history of the world.  If political thinkers had listened to historians more, we might not have seen racism becoming a significant political force again in parts of the UK. Posthumanism welcomes interdisciplinary enquiry, which takes a complex issue and brings whatever thinking is needed to bear on it, until something new is created.

Posthumanism challenges the way we use the word ‘humanity’. We persist in seeing humanity as a positive concept, a value or belief even, in the face of the real hard evidence of what ‘humanity’ does:  Auschwitz, Vietnam, Hiroshima, Bhopal, Calais, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Guantanamo, Chernobyl, the Atlantic Slave Trade, ISIS, Srebrenica, Syria, the Congo, the Gulags.Anime of androgynous superhero

What posthumanism is not doing is to call for the end of the human race in favour of some robot uprising. On the contrary, it forces us to face that we are already technologically mediated. ‘Technology’ can actually mean basic engineering, everyday affordances such as clocks and cars, printing presses, stuff we now take for granted, as we are coming to take for granted computers and mobile phones. What about hearing aids, prosthetic legs, contact lenses?  We are posthuman. We are already there.

If posthuman thinking seems very new, it’s because our frames of reference are desperately out of date, based as they are on the Vitruvian model. That’s why education is not keeping up with what the world needs, why our political systems are in crisis. Posthuman thinking is about facing up to the here and now.

The here and now is, put simply, the death of capitalism. For more than a century capitalism and Marxism (in its many forms) were locked in a battle to the death.  For 30 years, capitalism has been the victor but with the global economy in freefall, political thinkers such as Paul Mason are beginning to suggest that this is the endgame for neoliberalism, the ideology underpinning capitalism which forces us to view everything in terms of ‘us and them’: you’ll come to recognise this as a form of Vitruvian ‘othering’.   It gets quite addictive watching for these binaries: Employer vs. Worker, People vs. Profit, Traditional vs. Progressive, Leave vs. Remain, Winner vs. Loser. We take it for granted that the hierarchies of capitalism are the way of the world, that they are they only way. Posthuman thinking tries to imagine new, differently constructed futures.

It does this by moving away from the politics of identity; posthuman thinkers try to not to operate from their places of pain.  It uses affirmative action and active language to transform cultures of negativity and challenge that binary thinking that keeps us trapped in the trousers, no matter what leg we inhabit. Posthuman actions operate rhizomatically – that metaphor again – people gathering through the recognition of mutual energies, not because they are trapped in a structure together.  Activists form, leave and reform assemblages based on this activist energy, which Rosi Braidotti names, pleasingly, as ‘zoe‘, a Greek word meaning active and vigorous life.

Today’s gathering is not a conference, but an assemblage.  You are here through rhizomatic means, to gather with others and create something new.  In the workshops that follow, you will have the opportunity to identify your/our next affirmative activist step.  

 

 

Image of yarn-bombed treesThinking together, using our friend Posthuman thinking as a lens is important because it’s what drives us on through those times when going against the norm seems too much like hard work, when everyone’s moaning and you’re trying to be positive, when the bitterness rises and when you feel infected by the politics of envy or identity. There are powerful forces working hard to keep the status quo in place  – the media, political structures, the arms trade, Labour ‘rebels’, the education system – hierarchies all over the place which, if we tackled them head-on, would be impossible to beat. Sometimes it’s easier to give in and go work for The Man. But thinking together connects us to something bigger, it connects us to thinking differently and reminds us that we are not alone.

So in the spirit of hopefulness, which today is all about, I’ll leave you with Rosi Braidotti, talking about the sixteenth century philosopher from whose well she drinks:

“Once a year have your dose of Spinoza’s champagne.  He just makes me rock.”

Closing Words – Posthuman Demos (Lou Mycroft)

Demos – the people or, more precisely, the common people, have spoken loud and clear in the recent Referendum on EU Membership and ‘we’ don’t like it.  In the hidden assumptions and unseen binaries of current media discourse we see all of today’s concepts played out and fuelled by the kerosene of both wilful and ignorant misinformation.

As we have heard from Mole Chapman today, the language we use forms the thinking we do, and all the more so if we are not aware of the untrue limiting assumptions we carry with us about how the world works.  Others know this too, of course, the political spin doctors who have helped make ‘hard working families’ buy into the politics of envy – and who have rendered apologies meaningless.

So what does this mean for us as activists? As educators, we frame our professionalism through three lenses – you’ll have seen the refraction of this in the workshop themes today:

Digital Professionalism – educators who navigate and exploit the affordances of the digital age, to enhance critical thinking.

Dialogic Professionalism – educators who open up new dialogic spaces, in order to meet others as equal thinkers.

Democratic Professionalism – educators who are committed to working critically and collaboratively, to maintain the integrity of the profession.

It requires only a small twist to see how this approach could work for a more strategic activism too:

Digital Activism – activists who navigate and exploit the affordances of the digital age, to enhance critical thinking.

Dialogic Activism – activists who open up new dialogic spaces, in order to meet others as equal thinkers.

Democratic Activism – activists who are committed to working critically and collaboratively, to maintain the integrity of the demos as a whole.

The very best activism – whether words, art, physical protest, campaigning – is effective because it is eye-catching, often even newsworthy, memorable.  We can’t download amazing activist ideas into anyone’s brain, or we’d be out there doing them for ourselves. What we hoped for from today was that you might find the posthuman lens and thinking spaces effective sparks to kindle your own thinking.  We look forward to seeing the changes you make ripple out into the world.

Let’s finish with a a 21st century addition to the activist’s toolkit.  It’s time to consign the Vitruvian ‘ideal’ to the history books and move forward as a civilisation, one meme at a time.  Thank you for coming here today.

 

(1) Some words were first published on http://www.steeltrapmind.wordpress.com (Lou Mycroft’s EdD blog).

(2) Hafez, R. (2015) Beyond the Metaphor: time to take over the castle.  In Daley, M., Orr, K. and Petrie, J. Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses. London.  Trentham Books.

 

 

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

Criticality: learning to disagree

The other morning my friend and colleague @alisoniredale introduced me to Helene Ahl’s powerful critique of motivation theory (and much more), via Twitter. Alison was tweeting a challenge to our collective Certs students to take a critical look at Maslow, post-PTLLS.

Maslow is a tricky one. We know the dominance of the hierarchy of needs has been extensively contested, because Jim Atherton and Geoff Petty tell us so, but on closer inspection most critiques are pretty functional, focusing on developing, rearranging or challenging the ‘truth’ of the taxonomy. Realistically, twenty minutes classroom discussion would dig plenty of holes in the plot with Maslow, but the basic structure is sensible enough to have stood firm all these years. Maslow works most of the time and rightly maintains its place on the nursery slopes of educational theory. It provides a useful, understandable ‘in’ for students who are beginning their studies, even if it does sometimes warp their understanding of what theory is: that theory always has to be a pictorial model (and one that’s been around the block, has probably been designed by a man etc etc).

But when I’m talking about developing criticality, I’m looking for something that goes deeper than a rearrangement of Maslow’s famous model. I’m wanting us – a genuine, collective ‘us’ – to tangle with the roots of what we read, and with our own thinking.

Helene Ahl encourages the reader to do this, but I nearly miss my chance. I download the article, then perform my usual trick of scrolling straight to the conclusion (don’t try this with a Miss Marple, you’ll spoil it for yourself). What I read there brings out all my academic self-esteem jackals:

This article has reviewed motivation theory and found it to be not only a hypothetical construct with questionable empirical support, but also a body of knowledge which privileges a Western, individualistic and androcentric view of humanity, and which marginalises community, social values and women.

(Ahl, 2006 p.402)

Hmmm. There are a lot of big words in there and I don’t immediately know what some of them mean.  My choices are:  mine down into them, mindlessly dismiss them or run away from them, listening to those untrue limiting assumptions that still hang about in my bones somewhere, frightened of engaging but not understanding.   Luckily, I’ve learned that if I put my mind to unpicking the language of something that looks like a key paragraph, I can usually get to what I’m meant to understand.

I think of this key paragraph (usually in the conclusion and/or the abstract) as the Rosetta Stone that unlocks the meaning of the piece for me.  Sometimes what it reveals is nothing – an Emperor’s New Clothes.  Those articles go straight in the trash.  But Helene Ahl’s work here is a gem; an angry polemic which uncovers a profound challenge to diversity in adult education.  I appreciate that Ahls could not articulate such complex ideas using simple language.  My only barrier to understanding is that for all sorts of socialised reasons, the vocabulary of Yorkshire Lou does not match the ease and precision of Swedish Helene.

But what of my barrier to criticality?  I understand now what Helene Ahl is saying, but do I agree with it?  Firstly, I need to get over the idea that what Ahl thinks is cleverer than what I think.  I know from studying Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment that Helene Ahl and I are equals, as thinkers.  I know from my own practice that theorists are our friends.  I google Helene.  She’s a professor at the University of Jonkoping in Sweden.  I don’t even know where to put the umlauts in ‘Jonkoping’.  She’s got a fearsomely long and impressive CV.  She’s wearing a suit.  She looks really nice.  I’m sitting at my kitchen table in my nightie, my tea’s gone cold and the cat is on my lap.  Helene probably lives in one of those effortlessly stylish houses I envy so much when I’m watching Wallander.  At the other side of my table is a fearsomely tall and impressive ironing pile.  The cat whines to go out…

You get the picture.

All these assumptions – and more! – are what stop me from thinking that I have the right to disagree with what Helene Ahl has to say here.  I also have a strong cultural resistance to disagreeing with anyone at all, which might surprise those who’ve seen me shouting the odds at a football match.  This is ingrained in British culture, even before internalised oppressions on the grounds of class, gender etc start layering on.  Learning to disagree has got to be part of any academic programme of study.

That’s why a trained colleague, Angela Wright, is coming in to do a session with the TeachNorthern Year 1 Certs students on Philosophy 4 Children, or P4C.  Don’t feel immediately patronised!  P4C is a powerful process, based on Socratic questioning, which sadly didn’t thrive in its grown-up incarnation of Philosophy 4 Communities (makes me wonder why in our either/or society).  One of the many advantages of P4C is that it teaches you to have the confidence to disagree.  Despite, “disagree with the statement, not the person” appearing parrot-like on many group agreements, I’ve yet to find many adults who ARE confident in disagreeing assertively and empathically, from an open-minded viewpoint.  When I do find those individuals, they immediately become role models for me.

I teach or support the teaching of more than 200 students a year.  Over a thirteen year career that’s…lots.  Most of these students go on to teach others – that was the point of becoming a teacher educator for me, the sustainability of teaching teachers to ‘Work Hard and Be Nice to People’, as the poster by Anthony Burrill famously says.  For me, that slogan is short for work hard, think for yourself, learn to challenge (yourself too), become self-aware, be mindful…and be nice to people; all the personal qualities of the outstanding teacher.  Figuring out how to assimilate what you read (and what its agendas and biases are) with what you think, about your own context and practice, is one of the toughest asks of all.

And as for Helene Ahl’s article?  I had an emotional response to it which combined denial, connection, fear, recognition, anger…a whole bag of feelings, but I still don’t know what I think.  Sometimes, finding out what you think takes time.  And that – really – is OK too.

Ahl, Helene (2006) Motivation in Adult Education: a problem solver or a euphemism for direction and control? International Journal of Lifelong Education 25:5 385-405 (journal article, via Summon)