How to Break, Not Bend the Rules* (Part Two)

I love the Starting Out with Your Studies session. I think it does what it was supposed to do and a bit more besides. However, my curriculum reading has inspired me to take more risks and experiment with my sessions at a more fundamental level. I initially got very caught up in the content, product, process and praxis model of curriculum development.

In my context, we teach processes. Content is scarce. Products are not produced. There’s not much that could be seen as emancipatory. So I concluded we must follow a process model. It was only when I read a little deeper that I realised we really don’t. We follow a strictly product model. The breakthrough in my understanding came when I was reading Shirley Grundy’s Curriculum: Product or Praxis? She updates Lawrence Stenhouse’s definition of the product model and expands it from simply behavioural objectives.

Grundy identifies curriculum as product approaches as rooted in the technical interest, which feeds human ambitions to dominate and control the environment and those around us. There is an obsession with control at its core: behaviour management, objectives, evaluation and formalised assessment all form part of this technicist teacher proof curriculum where if teachers follow the prescribed steps they will end up with the correct product at the end (Grundy, 1987). It makes me wonder how much of what I do is teaching students to make information “behave” and if that is really a possibility in a posthuman era (Braidotti, 2013).

This technical interest to dominate and control matter, so prevalent in natural sciences, slides into the teaching approaches adopted. Students are simply objects the teacher practices their craft on, with teachers becoming artisans or craftsmen who implement the ideas of others like a builder building a house to the specification of an architect. As a result, language using building and construction as metaphor abounds (Grundy, 1987).

Everything becomes subjected to the objectives. As Stenhouse argues there is no room for responsive teaching or take opportunities for learning that emerge (Stenhouse, 1975). This reminds me of a workshop I attended in June during our staff Health and Wellbeing Week. The workshop was supposed to be about creativity at work. It took place on the morning of Friday 24th June 2016: for many of us it was the first moment of communality since waking up to discover Britain was going to leave the European Union. The mood was bleak, the atmosphere funereal. Every single participant was numb. The air hung heavy. The facilitator could have chosen to ignore the mood, rise above it and focus on getting through the session. He didn’t. He took the time to acknowledge the atmosphere in the room, to voice his own feelings and encourage us to vocalise our own. He made it clear from the start that the previous objectives of the session were impossible to achieve. And he gave us the choice about what to do next. It was a powerful morning and produced some amazing and touching moments.

This could never have been achieved in the context of an ongoing course of study dominated by a product model of curriculum. Grundy argues that the whole way we conceptualise curriculum is dominated by this approach. Grundy touches little on content approaches but the impression she gives is that the way content is selected usually serves a product approach (Grundy, 1987). A. V. Kelly argues that since the advent of the National Curriculum in compulsory schooling, content and product models have merged into a mastery model of content. Selection is based on content approaches but then delivered using the product model (Kelly, 2004). It strikes me that content approaches are easily incorporated into checklist thinking, especially where non-behavioural objectives come into play.

In contrast to the notion of technical interest, Grundy outlines Jurgen Habermas’ theory of a practical interest closely related to hermeneutics. This centres on developing judgment and discernment. Control is not at the heart of the practical interest: understanding and meaning are. It does not depend on subjects acting upon objects but on the interaction between subjects. In a move anticipating praxis approaches, Stenhouse posits process learning as being rooted in discussion, based on questions posed by students and reflection. For Stenhouse, a teacher becomes a “resource rather than an authority” teaching students how to find the answers to their own questions (Stenhouse, 1975: 92). A striking thought for me is Stenhouse’s assertion that we need to “legitimise the search” and give approval to open ended questions without definite answers (Stenhouse, 1975: 92). Lots of my students seek very definite answers, they want a formula, a universal set of rules to follow in every given situation. In my experience, information literacy and finding information is more about judgment than sticking rigidly to rules. This is particularly the case in arts and humanities subjects, where context and discernment will always be key.

Despite an evident warmth for the practical interest, Grundy acknowledges it falls short. Without explicitly stating values and taking a neutral position, the process model runs the risk of being another tool to control and dominate. Drawing on the work of Paulo Freire, Grundy posits a praxis approach to curriculum as the heir to Habermas’ emancipatory interest. Eliding critical content, Grundy focuses largely on how students can overcome the banking concept of education inherent in the technical interest. She likens Freire’s banking concept of education to the technical interest, in contrast to the emancipatory interest which recasts the student as an “active creator of knowledge along with the teacher” (Grundy, 1987: 101). Grundy argues that “By reflecting upon their own individual and collaborative processes of learning, students were better placed to take control of the construction of their learning” but students don’t always welcome or support this (Grundy, 1987: 123).
But Grundy is at pains not to slide uncritically into progressive ideas of personalised or individualised learning. The teacher still has a role in choosing content as “liberating education is dialogical not monological” and therefore the teacher-student has “right and responsibility for contributing to curriculum content” (Grundy, 1987: 122). This avoids the risk of deprofessionalisation Rania Hafez warns of in attempts to deny the authority of teachers as subject experts (Hafez, 2015). This has never been too much of an issue for me, as I am not seen (or paid) as a teacher. I do not have a subject knowledge in the same sense as a history or science teacher for example. Being cast in Stenhouse’s “subordinate role” working with multiple subject areas we know little about with people who are more qualified than us, makes us ideally situated to engage with the Freirian concept of teacher-students and student-teachers (Freire, 2000). The type of content negotiation Grundy describes as emancipatory practice, actually suits what we do in a far more obvious way (Grundy, 1987).

Despite what I see as natural congruence between what we do and elements of the process and praxis models. there is a tendency for anything taught by librarians to conform to the technical way of thinking. What we do derives largely from training. Indeed, Stenhouse even suggests that this is a perfectly adequate state of affairs for “subordinate units” like ours that play a “service role” (Stenhouse, 1975: 81)! This is where Stenhouse and I part ways. It is certainly the case that information and skills are often learned in the context of knowledge. Therefore it could be argued they are in the service of knowledge. In the context of the 1970s, perhaps very straight forward technical knowhow about information retrieval was adequate. But we now live in what has been termed the information age. The information landscape is far more complex, fraught with ethical issues and the need for discernment. There is nothing neutral about information, the platforms that host it or the world wide web that serves it to us, as the work of critical theorists in the field of information literacy has demonstrated (Higgins and Gregory, 2013).

For those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of searching, there are very standardised and technical ways of searching for medical literature. Electronic databases for medical literature are also highly technical and require a good old fashioned demonstration if students are ever to use one effectively. Plus, in medicine and health, literature tends to be treated in a very systematic way. Papers are only to be discarded after a vigorous analysis.

Searching in the arts and humanities is far more of an art form, involving judgment and discernment. Databases for the arts and humanities tend to use one platform, which is relatively intuitive and easy to use. Advanced searches are useful but not mandated in the same way or as complicated to get technically correct as in medicine.

For much of the year, I have taught in medicine, nursing and health. Now I have the task of developing a Key Resources for Arts and Humanities session. This presents me with an opportunity. Looking over the learning objectives previously set and the material previously used, I have a lot of scope. The session is self-enrol and is being held late enough in term for new students to have discovered how our systems work by other means.

Lawrence Stenhouse criticised the objectives approach thus: objectives set an “arbitrary horizon to one’s efforts” (Stenhouse, 1975: 83). Inspired by this, and Grundy’s thinking on curriculum in relation to interests based on the work of Jurgen Habermas, I am rethinking the boundaries of the session and its purpose. I have a huge number of ideas of what we could be teaching, but why not ask the students themselves? After all, they have elected to attend, most likely because they have a problem they want to solve.

This meshes with some of the reading I have been doing that touches on problem-posing education as opposed to the banking concept of education. Theoretically this derives from Freire’s idea of praxis but I have also encountered it recently in the writings of Aaron Swartz who doesn’t reference Freire but was trying to understand from an autobiographical viewpoint, why education sucked (Freire, 2000; Swartz, 2015). Aaron Swartz interests me immensely. He was an open access campaigner who committed suicide shortly before he was due to go on trial for intellectual property violations: he was allegedly going to make public a large number of scholarly articles he downloaded from Jstor using his Harvard University library account. What piqued my interest in his critique of education is how someone who was studying as a postgrad at Harvard (and developed web innovations like RSS feeds and the Creative Commons Licence) could see education in such a negative light. He wasn’t excluded from the system, he did very well in it and outside of it, but he could see the problems (Swartz, 2015).

So I plan to build the session around problems the students pose. The methodology for doing this is somewhat tricky. My lesson plan is looking slightly bare! My plan is to create a session that is dialogic, involving conversations between teacher and student, and student to student (Freire, 2000). There are very few easy straight forward answers in information literacy, the best we can do for our students is to not pretend there are but to problematise information and sources of information. We need to be doing this through “complicated conversation” (Pinar, 2004: 8).

This complicated conversation will be one in which the students are empowered to set their own learning goals and make decisions about what we will be talking about. They will also collectively work together to decide pace, approach and teaching method. Using the community philosophy enquiry model, each student will be asked to pose a problem they would like to solve during the session with the help of the group. I will also add any problems I would like to answer, I am after all a member of the community too and this is a dialogue I am a participant in (Grundy, 1987). The community will then vote on which problems it would like to tackle in what order. We will also vote on teaching method with choices including self-directed e-learning, group discovery work or by teacher demonstration. Pace will also be voted upon with the option to try and cover a smaller number of problems posed in greater depth, or cover a larger number of problems in less depth.

I’m fully aware that much of my plan relates to the processes and does not really address values or connecting students with deeper themes within information literacy, of a more overtly emancipatory nature. As librarian philosopher Lane Wilkinson writes “It’s never subversive to stand in front of a group of college students and demonstrate how to search a $10,000 database, no matter what you’re searching” (Wilkinson, 2016). For Wilkinson, the fundamental aspect of Freire’s praxis is to be “actively engaged in a dialogue and treating students as equals and as open to learning from them as they are to learning from you” (Wilkinson, 2016). That’s what I’m hoping this session will achieve.

problems-posed-1

Postscript:

I taught this session yesterday trying to draw on the work of Shirley Grundy, Lawrence Stenhouse and Paulo Freire. I made it clear from the outset that there were no set objectives for the session, that we would create these together instead. My students were also given choices over the pace and teaching method. I asked students to complete a Critical Incident Questionnaire at the end, which I have adapted for my teaching from Stephen Brookfield’s original (Brookfield, 1995).

Looking at the students and researchers who had signed up prior to the session I was very concerned. Most of the attendees were not from the Arts and Humanities but from across the faculties. This was challenging for me and made me think twice about the problem posing aspect of what I was trying to achieve. I could not humanly cover all the databases and methodologies for searching in humanities, social, science, law and medicine. Yet I decided to continue with my plan, simply explaining at the start of the lesson, I would have to focus on general literature searching strategies and platforms, rather than anything more detail in individual subject areas. I think this helped the students pose problems in a more general, than they may have done; to look at the underlying root of their problem, rather than anything too specific. I ensured we returned to the objectives we had created together at the end. Some of some we could say we had answered, others, I had addressed but not fully answered, giving the students pointers on where to find more information.

The responses were very positive. One student picked out the pace as the most helpful thing I did: they felt it was slow enough for them to follow and consolidate their knowledge. Other students emphasised the time towards the end of the session to try out their own search concepts in the databases specific to their subjects as important. Two students picked up on sharing names at the beginning of the session and how I remembered their names and subject areas. Another student complimented how tailored the session was to each student’s research area, given the diversity within the room.

As the problems posed were fairly similar, there wasn’t any call for voting on them using the Community of Philosophical Inquiry process. The students voted for a demonstration which they followed along with on their own PCs, with time for them to explore their own subject area’s database and resources, with my support. As postgraduate students, I made the connection between searching for other people’s theses and my students uploading their own to portals like the British Library’s Ethos, as they are creating knowledge too and can make that available to future students.

I enjoyed this session and I received some very lovely comments on the CIQ responses. I think the students appreciated posing problems and answering them, plus my role as resource, rather than authority. They also appreciated my ethic of care (hooks, 1994). What didn’t quite work this time round was the democratic and collaborative aspects of the session. This was largely because we didn’t use the Community of Philosophical Inquiry method for setting objectives. I also felt the students didn’t really engage with one another as much as I had hoped. I will be thinking of ways to make sure dialogue is not just occurring between me and each student, but between students as well, in this session.

*This title is a riff on the lyric “All I learnt at school, was how to bend, not break the rules” in the song Baggy Trousers, written by Madness.

References:

Brookfield, S. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Echeverria, E. and Hannam, P. (2013). Philosophical inquiry and the advancement of democratic praxis. Journal of Pedagogy, 4 (1), 111-125. doi: 10.2478/jped-2013-0007

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Grundy, S. (1987). Curriculum: Product or Praxis? Lewes: Falmer Press.

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

Higgins, S. and Gregory, L. (2013). Information Literacy and Social Justice: Radical Professional Praxis. Sacramento: Library Juice Press.

hooks, b. (2003). Teaching Community: a Pedagogy of Hope. London: Routledge.

Pinar, (2004). What is Curriculum Theory? New Jersey: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Stenhouse, L. (1975). An introduction to curriculum research and development. London: Heinemann Educational.

Swartz, A. and Lessig, L. (2015). The boy who could change the world. New York: The New Press.

Wilkinson, L. (2016, July 13). Paulo Freire, critical pedagogy, and libraries [Weblog post]. Retrieved from https://senseandreference.wordpress.com/2016/07/13/paulo-freire-critical-pedagogy-and-libraries/

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