University learning? A thousand-mile question (for discussion Tuesday, 09/12/2014, 1700)

Here is an advanced draft of the paper I was to have been giving today (9 December 2014) at Oxford Brookes University School of Education.


As well as providing locations of learning and teaching, higher education is an important focus of much political debate. This paper sets out through an open epistemological narrative inquiry to problematise an underpinning framework for good educational development practice and offers places where evidence might challenge these underpinnings.  I suggest it may be a human universal that we come with ‘frameworks’ (Popper 1996): call them contexts or identities and communities as you will; we come with a need to be useful, even if only to ourselves. To be useful requires having some power as a builder: physical, virtual or social. We co-construct our frameworks, our contexts, our “learning environments” in both physical and abstract spaces with other people. These constructions are acts of enclosure. And all acts of enclosure require force, power or violence. The conclusions I reach are that means and ends cannot be uncoupled; that the coupling of means and ends must be in part through narratives that reveal the question of purpose; and that purpose is value laden. Therefore the values argument must remain in the light and proxy arguments, illuminated. Narrative epistemology is an epistemology of openness, and is an epistemology of self-respect.

Introduction: the conundrum

Higher education is one of the great institutions of society. As well as providing locations of learning and teaching, higher education is an important focus of much political debate. Aldridge has set out the terms of the debate here:

The pressing educational debates of the moment tend not, in fact, to be debates about the most effective way to achieve a particular outcome (although they are often portrayed that way), so much as debates between competing understandings of what we are trying to achieve through the educational endeavour (Aldridge 2014).

Or, at least it is a question of outcomes in different orders. In educational improvement initiatives in higher education, as an educational developer, I find myself facing a conundrum. Why, when I believe I know what good learning is and, arguably, how to create curricula, courses and events which are designed for good learning, do I continue to experience ambiguity and anxiety in myself, colleagues and society about not only individual roles, institutions and curricula but the purpose of higher education?

Rationale for the argument: seeking conversion or preaching to the choir?

Many arguments, intended to persuade, proceed through establishing and affirming  identities in value-laden terms: … as any intelligent person can see… And, then use utilitarian steps to prefer outcomes and individuals broadly aligned with the proffered value; that is, to exercise power (rhetoric) in the service of a value: in this case, for example, “intelligence” . We affirm shared identities (academic, in our case) that assume universals and then co-opt aspects of our version of universal good (intelligence) to illustrate, with selected evidence, the utility of the constructed shared position. We seek the converted and preach to them.

It is crucial, therefore, to me, to set out the underpinnings of my version of the good in education and to offer places where the “any intelligent person” might challenge these underpinnings. Because I accept that I am seeking conversions and that I believe argument is an important part of the process of conversion. Though not the only one . I also accept that my value position is also always emerging as it is engaged with others: sometimes solidifying, and also sometimes shifting:

A liberal class can’t function in this society properly unless its leveraged by radical voices, and that’s how it best serves its cause, and the other causes it’s supposed to create spaces for to exist (Messy Reality 2014).

Method: articulated questioning

In this paper, I adopt the radical voice that supposes it has a cause to serve. I place myself in troublesome on-going, repeatedly co-opted space, which has moved across new physical and online environments, social inclusion and exclusion (Levitas 1999), through arguments for and against the digital in education and back to many of the ideas that have shaped academic discourse and institutions (Francis and Roberts 2014). But I find myself trapped in fundamental contradictions of being human.

As Bauman says:

To measure the life ‘as it is’ by a life as it should be … is a defining, constitutive feature of humanity… Human life is propelled and kept on course by the urge for transcendence. Transcendence – transgression – is the modality of human being in the world… The urge to transcend is the most stubbornly present … attribute of human existence. This cannot be said of its articulation into ‘projects’ – that is into cohesive and comprehensive programmes of change, complete with a vision of the life that the change is hoped to bring about. (Bauman 2002, 222-23)

Recognising the contradictions, I am engaged in a “project”. Whether that is as “cohesive and comprehensive” as Bauman implies of “projects” doesn’t matter. So what of “projects”? What are the antecedants of “This” and “its”? “This” is that “the urge to transcend is the most stubbornly present attribute…” and “it” is the measuring of life using a rod of “as it should be”. We articulate collections of acts of measuring into projects or activity networks using frameworks and other instruments – Fairclough (2001) calls these “discourse instruments” – marked with indicators of how life should be: maps with “X” marks the spot.

So what “cannot be said”? While the “urge to transcend” may keep human life on course, projects do not. The measurement of life using rods of what should be to make maps to guide us knocks life off course. And yet that act of measurement is a defining character of our humanity: simply living knocks our life off course. Any teleology necessarily misses the target.

It is this kind of contradiction that I am extending into the work of all educational development “projects”. I have been exercising a process of “articulated questioning” over the past months at conferences (SEDA 2014, open University 2014). This articulated questioning forms both part of what is being analysed as well as a tool by which the analysis is performed. Much, in the end, comes down to acting with power or authority: when and how to apply it. But the forceful projection of power, I suggest, will doom the endeavour and I see academic discourse as a form of forceful projection of power.

My tools for this articulated questioning emerge from Third Space theory (Bhabha 2004) and third generation Activity theory (Engeström 2001). I call my toolkit “thousand-mile questions”. In a contribution to a book chapter, “Academic literacy in the 21st century” (Ingraham, Levy, McKenna & Roberts 2007), I wrote:

… a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This aphorism is often repeated in contexts where uncertainty is impeding progress. The phrase is popularly attributed to Mao Zedong before the Long March. But, if he ever used it it would have been with full knowledge of how it would have played with his army. The phrase comes from a long tradition of Daoist thought. The “journey of a thousand miles” is not just about getting started, it is about the return to “wholeness”. The single step is the first imperfect human act that breaks the perfect whole and thus necessitates the journey. … As we so often see see, the single step is easy; the thousand-mile journey is not.

So though even having a map dooms us to being led astray, I build maps for my thousand-mile journey.

The other key component of my argument is that “…we have to note that one’s embodied cultural identity cannot help but to affect one’s epistemology. We know what we know as who we are” (Roberts 2014). As some forms of what we know are privileged in different contexts, so to are forms of what we are. Each of us is utterly particular and contingent in our knowing and being. We have diverse identities in many ways: demographically (age, sex, national origin, etc), as well as culturally and epistemologically: education tradition, world view, doer/reflector, multiple intelligence, multiliteracy, learning orientations and preferences. Each interaction with another, however mediated, is utterly unique. Bhabha (2004) writes:

we should remember that it is the ‘inter’ – the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the inbetween space – that carries the burden of the meaning of culture. It makes it possible to begin envisaging national, anti-nationalistic histories of the ‘people’. And by exploring this Third Space, we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of our selves (p. 56).

My teleology developed in opposition to the war in Vietnam and subsequent involvement in political campaigning to a left of the mainstream. There are the excluded and there are those who exclude (Žižek 2009a, pp. 47, 97-100). This is to be engaged with: “… my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries” (Haraway 1991); and corrected: “We live in a culture of job insecurity” (Klein 2001, 266); “In our dreams we have seen another world” (Kingsnorth 2003, 9).

Underpinning framework

Recently (Roberts 2014, June), I set out my principles and some practices as I saw them at that moment. Learning is:.

  • Activity (Vygotsky 1962, Engeström 2001 and many Cultural and Historical Activity Theory scholars): we do and make things in groups, using tools;
  • Experience (Dewey 1916,  Kolb 1984 and many experiential learning theorists): tutors & participants draw on their experience;
  • Dialogue (Bakhtin 1981 and post structural language writings): individuals share, negotiate, discuss and contend with texts (multimedia), self and others (peers, hierarchies). We talk together both synchronously in real time, face-to-face, chat and webinars, and asynchronously in discussion boards, social networks, the research literature and so on;
  • Reflection (Schön 1983). Reflection happens in cycles (dialogue with self and others): student life-cycles, action learning cycles, assessment and feedback cycles, etc.
  • Participation (many community development education writers) tutors also are present and engaged as participants;
  • Community (Wenger 2006 and communities of practice literature): linked to disciplines and relevant occupations in work & society (Foucault 1977); groups of people (institutions, disciplines), settings (classrooms, work-places, online, etc) have community development aspects where there are roles (teacher, student, admin), and rules (tacit and explicit);
  • Outcomes (Laurillard 2002 and contemporary QAA precepts): structured around curricula and aims, mapped, and in some cases accredited, to UK higher education or professional standards frameworks. Many curricula are underpinned by wider professional and regulatory frameworks codified in law and customary practice. Outcomes are assessed and evaluated, often by other agencies. There may, of course be many “unintended outcomes”, many of which may well be beneficial, though not necessarily expressed in the curriculum.

And for the purpose of setting out my design principles for a conference on Learning Design (Roberts 2014, November 27), I drew these principles into a solid picture, with lines, which gave a satisfying impression of solidity to a fundamentally ephemeral construct.


X marks the spot

I like to assert that each and every element of my framework is derived from solid research. But sometimes it might be possible that the elements of any framework are really only validated through frequent repetition. I explored these ideas recently (Roberts 2014, November 26):

Learners are connected and the knowledge is largely in the connections. Peer learning: dialogic, authentic participatory learning informed by a complex understanding of literacy, community and identity is effective (and may be all there really is, anyway). Emma [Mulqueeny]’s framework is woven against a background of biographical narrative, of storytelling, of her story, where storytelling quality is an important part of any truth test. Storytelling is both epistmological (having to do with the nature of how we know stuff) and ontological (having to do with the existence and qualities of stuff itself). … Storytelling is a big part of any measure of the elusive authenticity. And, Emma has data to back up her assertions. Yes, that data is in narrative form, but it is no less empirical for that. … Narrative epistemology is an epistemology of openness, and is an epistemology of self-respect.

As Seneca wrote:

“What progress, you ask, have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.” That was indeed a great benefit; such a person can never be alone. You may be sure that such a [person] is a friend to all [humanity].

Wisdom: conundrums grounded in experience

These elements of good learning practice here asserted, are derived from both practical wisdom grounded in experience and extensive research. Learning is active, dialogic, experiential, participatory, outcomes-focussed and reflective. Self-evidently, people are different; learning takes place in communities and is engaged with and through discourse technologies (Fairclough 2001, p. 175-7). There is good evidence for the benefits of dialogic, participatory learning through epistemic and suggestive feedback (Guache 2014), where deliberative reflection arises from and is a skill for distributed collaboration (Stuart-Buttle 2014).

The conundrum is, if we know this, and have for years been advocating transformative learning (Mezirow 1997) based on these and similar principles (e.g. Chickering and Gamson 1987), why do we still find learners, institutions and the curriculum in such tension, in an environment of ambiguity, anxiety, power and ideology (Morrison 2014)?

As I hope I set out in the first part of this paper, we dwell in contradiction. It is a condition of being human. And, further even within the particularity of being humans, there are articulatable positions that are in contradiction at personal, local and global scales.

As Aldridge (2014) says

If we disagree fundamentally about what we are trying to achieve in the classroom, then no amount of scrutiny of the evidence is going to lead to any sort of resolution of these big educational debates. …

What constitutes important knowledge (and let’s use that term loosely for now) is publicly contested and there is not widespread consensus.

Therefore, I argue, that understanding is theorised – sometimes explicitly. Theory is often instrumentalised as a framework, first for understanding and description; later for control and prescription  (see “actually existing” communism or neoliberalism). If we challenge theories through practice, both theory and practice may improve, while, nonetheless, being knocked off course yet again.

Spaces between

So far so simple. The desired ends at least partly determine the means used to reach them and desire is driven by what we value. I am beginning to instrumentalise my synthesis of these critical educational development themes, which I suggest are underpinned by and support threshold concepts (Meyer and Land 2003) in educational improvement initiatives. In our post-digital heterotopia (Foucault 1984), all spaces are revealed as spaces between (Meyer and Land 2003, Bhabha 2004). New learning environments, apps and the cloud are bridges between an older vision of learning spaces (Raftery and Francis 2005, Sharpe et al 2006) and a future that is continuously emergent. Though Marlene Morrison (2014) suggests that “orthodoxies based in power” have constrained research I want to suggest that ‘power’ may also be one of those threshold concepts in education improvement initiatives.

Frameworks, utility and trans-cendence, -formation, -gression

Power is a defining and constitutive feature of an ‘academy’ where the development of ‘transformative’ (i.e. ‘transcendent’) evaluation criteria is stock in trade. And, where the development and application of a framework allows the power of transcendence of that framework to some people. Of course it’s turtles all the way down. I suggest it may be a human universal that we come with ‘frameworks’ (Popper 1996): call them contexts or identities and communities as you will; we come with a need to be useful, even if only to ourselves. We have a “Language Instinct” (Pinker 1994). And, we co-construct our frameworks, our structures, our contexts, our ‘learning environments’: in both physical and abstract spaces with other people.

The conclusions I reach are that means and ends cannot be uncoupled; that the coupling of means and ends must be through the question of purpose; and that purpose is value laden.

Therefore the elements of any framework are equally expressions of values and, at least in utilitarian terms, suggest that more of these “goods” for more people may be “better” for all. So, if I call for more of these: activity, dialogue, difference, experience, reflection, community, participation and outcomes, am I expressing a universal “purpose” of education, or simply a means of asserting my values through power?


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