Theorising Educational Practice
A paper to be presented at the
EARLI Conference SIG Invited symposium Teaching and Teacher Education: ‘Demonstrating accountability through our self-study practices as teacher educators’
St Mary’s College,
School of Education,
This is an account of an ongoing self-study which focuses on the extent to which I can improve my practice through reflection upon and analysis of my approaches to teaching and learning whilst encouraging my students to become active learners who critically engage with what they are learning. This process involves a shift in my practice towards a greater ‘fusion of my actions with my reflections’ (Freire 1973) and where McNiff & Whitehead’s (2002) concept of the living ‘I’ places me at the centre of my enquiry. It will also form the basis of the development of my ‘living educational theory’ (Whitehead 1989) which is firmly grounded in practice. Conversations with my students enabled me to elicit their perceptions of how our teaching and learning interactions could become conducive to a more democratic critically engaged collaborative scholarship.
This is an account of a self-study guided by the question: ’How do I improve my practice while trying to influence the learning of my students?’. It specifically addresses a concern which I have about the paucity of critical engagement by my students in the teaching and learning process. My theoretical framework is couched in a critical pedagogy, cogently expressed in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Freire (1973) where he promotes the idea of dialogical education and exposes the weaknesses of what he calls the ‘banking’ approach to education.
My orientation to this form of inquiry is by virtue of the congruence of the underpinning values of action research, and the principles of social justice, democracy and freedom which guide my actions as a practitioner-researcher. I value the transformative potential of education for the greater good of the wider society, not only in terms of its capacity to transmit knowledge and its ability to foster dispositions of compliance and reverence as it has been traditionally used, but also in view of the potential it provides for raising awareness and contributing to the ‘education of social formations’ (Whitehead 2004). When practised within teaching and learning in higher education contexts, a commitment to the education of social formations would lead to an inquiry into forms of pedagogy which do not simply focus on the most effective modes of transmission of propositional knowledge, but those which engage students in a critical engagement with the knowledge being imparted, by submitting it to interrogation and providing the historical context within which the specific knowledge was created in the first place, by asking simple questions such as: Why was this said? What does it mean? In what context was this said?
This is particularly important in the field of education since it continues to be used as a site for the maintenance of the status quo and the reproduction of social divisions through validating certain kinds of social and cultural capital (Bowles & Gintis 1976, Bourdieu 1982, Apple 1984).
The descriptions and explanations which I am about to give for my practice will form the basis of the creation of my living educational theory (Whitehead 1989). I wish to clarify my understanding of this concept by offering accounts which show that my practice is not a mindless process, but an activity which is oriented to reducing dissonance between my intentions and my actions (Festinger 1957). Educational practice is often the site of experiencing oneself as a living contradiction (Whitehead 1989) when our values are negated in our practice by ourselves as well as by institutional constraints. Theorising our practice will therefore necessitate conscious efforts to ensure congruence between our values and our actions and to provide accounts of shifting perceptions and changing practices.
I find McNiff & Whitehead’s (2002) self-conscious use of the ‘living ‘I’’ empowering as it places me at the centre of the research process and highlights the importance of subjective accounts to improving educational practice. This is particularly significant in light of the fact that the ‘I’ is excluded from most forms of traditional research as historically subjective knowledge has been viewed as lacking objectivity. This has shifted the research perspective from the ‘E-enquiries’ or ‘external enquiries’ to the ‘I-enquiries’ or ‘internal enquiries’ of practitioners (McNiff and Whitehead 2002).
McNiff and Whitehead (2002) suggest a set of questions to guide the process of theory generation, which I shall use in this inquiry. I must point out that I have only addressed some of the questions so far. They begin as follows:
- What is my concern?
- Why am I concerned?
- What can I do about it?
- How will I evaluate the educational influence of my actions?
So, what is my concern?
I am concerned about my students’ seeming lack of critical engagement with the topics explored during my lectures. I am concerned that not all my students are actively involved in their learning. Students evidently feel unable to submit theories to critical examination as they seem to think that they do not know enough about the subject matter to question the authority of texts. They seem to absorb material transmitted through the lectures uncritically.
This is a process which Freire (1973) described as the ‘banking’ system, whereby deposits are made by the lecturer and avidly stored by students for later retrieval during assessments. In this approach the learners are treated as ‘receptacles to be filled with information’ (Rousseau 1762).
I want to help my students explore their tacit knowledge, and their potential for transforming this tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, by situating learning in their experience so that they are in a position to relate to and contextualise what they are learning. I agree with the Freirian (1973) suggestion that people can only transform the world if they are able to name it in their own words and I want to demystify notions that theory is necessarily esoteric and separate from human experience. I wish to encourage students to interrogate text and to engage in dialogue in order to achieve what Freire (1973) calls ‘mutual humanisation’ or reflection and action in the world in order to transform it for the better. According to Freire people must challenge themselves and the world in which they live by being neither oppressor nor oppressed in a collective strife for a better world.
I wanted to find out what I could do to encourage them to become more actively involved in their learning. In order to get their views on this, I facilitated conversations with two groups of students: a first year group taking a module entitled ‘the Nature, Purposes and Politics of Education’ and a third year group taking the ‘Conscious and unconscious at Work’ module.
When asked if they always felt able to question theoretical perspectives discussed as part of the module and, if they did not feel able to do this what stopped them, a student said:
I sometimes feel nervous in case I get it wrong in front of a group of people so I hold back. I think people don’t know enough to be able to say that they don’t agree with a particular theory.
All those who took part in the discussion were asked what they thought about the above statement in response to which they indicated that it resonated with their experience.
Why am I concerned?
I believe that the passive mode of learning does very little to transform the world for a better place to live, because I believe that all need to be active participants in decisions about what constitutes a good society, and I question the validity of the assumptions upon which current educational policies are predicated which appear to foster didactic teaching and a consumerist form of learning. I am particularly referring here to instrumental approaches to education, drawn from functionalist perspectives where education is regarded as a means to specific ends, such as the preparation for the world of work.
Elliott captured this point succinctly when he stated that:
to regard learning as a process which is directed towards some fixed-end state is to distort its educative value, because what makes it educative is not its instrumental effectiveness in producing ‘knowledge’ outcomes that can be independently defined, but the quality of thinking realised in-process.
(Elliott 1985, p.233)
It is argued that theoretical perspectives on the hidden curriculum can provide analyses of the ideologies which penetrate curriculum content and shape the relationships between headteachers, teachers, students, politicians, parents and the wider society (Giroux 1983). Giroux suggested that literature on the hidden curriculum has provided the means of analysis that ‘uncover the ideologies and interests embedded in the messages, systems, codes, and routines that characterise daily classroom life’ (1983:72).
What have I done about my concerns?
As indicated at the outset, this is work in progress in terms of my attempt to improve practice and my goal to encourage students to become more critically engaged in their learning, but the distance travelled so far is significant. In order to facilitate a shift to a more dialogical approach to teaching and learning, I have done the following:
Creating dialogue within a seminar group or lecture theatre appears to be a simple process which most good lecturers or teachers should be able to do, or is it? After all a dialogue starts with asking questions which elicit responses and hopefully generate further questions. However, questions in lecture theatres may at times be met with at best monosyllabic responses and often palpable silences. This is often reinforced by structural arrangements in the lecture theatre which render group interaction difficult.
This structured alienation also conflicts with my students’ accounts that they want to be actively involved in their learning as evidenced in the focus group interviews. One of the students said: ‘My attention span is really short, so after about twenty minutes I switch off. But when I am involved in the topic being studied I am more alert, more interested and I am more likely to remember what the lecture was about.’
I divided my lectures into short ‘lecturettes’ of between 10 and 20 minutes punctuated with discussions. Huxham (2005) used the term ‘interactive windows’ to describe discussion spaces during the lectures. He said that ‘such opportunities for the flourishing of thinking often consist of short “interactive windows”, opened within the lecture to allow the fresh air of discussion and thought into the somnolent atmosphere’ (2005:18). Initially, the discussion spaces were either met with silence or drew contributions from the same students who normally participate in debates. I indicated to students that for at least 5 minutes during the discussion space I would only ask questions. As students became used to this approach, they began to ask questions, offer suggestions and interact more. Some of the students’ responses included: ‘What we did today (starting with a mini lecture and then group work exercise to illustrate some of the themes covered in the lecture) kept me interested in the topic discussed’. Another student said ‘Everyone had an opportunity to talk about the subject. Everyone interacted’.
Students were also encouraged to identify themes in texts and to interrogate the assumptions upon which ideas are based. For example a discussion arose about the tripartite system in education. In Britain the tripartite system refers to three types of schools: Grammar schools, Secondary Modern and Secondary Technical Schools. The type of school that children went to was determined by their test scores at the age of 11. The Education Act 1944 presented these tests as representing a symbol of meritocracy, but they were really divisive and led to differential outcomes along class lines. In the discussion, students were able to question Cyril Burt’s idea (the educational psychologist behind the idea of IQ tests) of ‘intelligence’ or ‘ability’, by on one hand raising questions about the validity of intelligence tests and on the other exploring whose interests such division would serve. The aim was therefore to enable students to develop their powers of critique as educators who possess the skills and knowledge to challenge and transform structural inequities (Giroux 1983).
Conversations with groups of students
The focus group interviews or conversations were conducted with twelve students in total and were recorded using a dictaphone (see transcripts attached). The questions largely focused on their perceptions of what would encourage them to become more actively involved in the teaching and learning process. One of the key themes which emerged from the focus group interviews was that students want to become more involved in their learning and that they reject didactic lecture styles. Some of the students’ comments in this regard included:
I don’t like lecture style because after about half an hour I lose interest. I prefer when I am involved in something rather than just sitting there listening. After about half an hour I am just hearing voices, that’s all. If I am involved in discussing and debating the topics I am learning, then I find it more interesting.
A second theme was about the critical engagement with text. Students were invited to comment on their willingness to interrogate theoretical perspectives explored during the lectures and if they felt unable to do this what stopped them. A selection of responses to this question seems to reveal their overall thoughts about this.
Some of the theories were out of date. You don’t always want to be the one to ask questions or argue against what is being said in case you get it wrong.
I think that part of it is that we don’t know each other very well and it would be good to get to know each other so that people don’t feel awkward talking in a large group.
I sometimes feel nervous in case I get it wrong in front of a group of people so I hold back. I think people don’t know enough to be able to say that they don’t agree with a particular theory.
The conversations with students have influenced the way I have set about inviting them to become involved in a dialogical and problem-posing education. I shall explicate the nature and extent of this mutual influence as I provide descriptions and explanations for my actions and reflections shortly.
As part of the process of encouraging students to critically engage with the literature, I have set up reading groups of three to four students who are given readings from the literature to read ahead of the lectures. In one example students were given short biographies of educational thinkers to read and produce a short summary with a commentary about the author’s educational theories.
The students then took it in turns to present their ideas to the group. On another occasion students were given a short article entitled ‘The shattered mirror, a critique of multiple intelligences theory’ (Perks 2004). This was ahead of a lecture on ‘intelligence’ or ability. The discussions during the lecture were animated and the students presented their ideas with confidence.
Some students had indicated during the focus group interview that a pre-lecture reading of relevant material would encourage their participation. A student said: ‘It would be very helpful to have articles or lecture notes before the session as it would prepare us to read material in advance and be prepared to participate in class, but it should be no more than two sides of an A4 to help people prepare’.
The use of audio visual resources also proved popular with students. I showed a video entitled ‘Class Divided’ as an introduction to issues relating to difference and alterity. When asked what would encourage them to contribute to discussions in class, one of the students commented:
I think that when different methods of teaching are used not just lectures. Like the time when we watched the video on ‘classroom divided’, it was very interesting and it led to very interesting debates. Everyone was able to comment on the video and put their views forward, even if they knew very little about the theory.
Another student said: ‘Stuff which triggers discussions where we are able to challenge ideas and things like that’.
The combination of suggestions made by students appear to point to the necessity of situating learning in their experience. This is consistent with Lave & Wegner (1991) who argued that knowledge needs to relate to immediately accessible settings and experiences and that it must involve social interaction and collaboration. I must point out at this stage that, in my opinion, involving students in active learning requires the provision of a variety of accessible resources which must be made readily available to students. The resources should also reflect a diversity of perspectives on the issues discussed. The role of the lecturer is to facilitate debate and encourage critical thinking. Students should be encouraged to develop their own lenses through which to view the world and be able to argue and defend their views with confidence.
How do I evaluate the educational influence of my actions?
In many ways, the descriptions and explanations that I have provided thus far in my account indicate how I have improved my practice and in consequence, give me grounds for believing that I may have influenced the learning of my students. I am now aware of approaches to teaching and learning which are conducive to students’ active involvement in their own learning. I realise that new insights gained as a result of this enquiry do not in themselves necessarily constitute the basis of a formula or a working model which could be applied to any teaching and learning context to create a community of active learners.
While encouraging students to become critical, I have continued to reflect on my practice. I have found Brookfield’s lenses particularly useful in the examination of my practice. This entailed descriptions of my practice in this text; the perceptions of my students captured in the transcripts and audio records of our conversations (Appendix 1 & 2) as well as relevant theoretical literature used throughout this text to support my descriptions and explanations of practice.
Other documentary evidence of improvements in the teaching-learning situation includes records of the changes to the module structure. For example, one of the modules entitled ‘Nature, Purposes and Politics of Education’ was initially validated with an assessment structure entailing an examination. This was formerly assessed through examination (70% weighting) and presentation (30% weighting) and it has now changed to the compilation of a portfolio giving students a wider scope to engage with the literature and with a greater choice of topics for students to pursue. This form of assessment is more democratic as it gives students the choice to research areas of interest to them rather than impose specific questions for them to answer during specified times in large sports halls with invigilators pacing up and down. I believe that the use of portfolios as a form of assessment is more democratic for this reason.
Additionally, the shift in my approach to teaching from lectures to dialogical collaborative learning was a precondition to students’ active involvement. This necessitated developing a democratic relationship between me and my students. Freire (1973) talked about the importance of humanising the relationship between facilitators and learners. I believe I did this through demystifying the perception of ’me’ the lecturer as the ‘fount’ of knowledge and affirming the valuable contributions that students bring to the learning and teaching context. Some of the students’ comments show that this has been achieved: ‘Well I think that we had enough discussion because I think that we could have stopped at any point and just say something and then you just carry on after that. So it’s not that we just did not have the option’. Another student commented on a session we had: ‘Today has probably been the most interesting, because it was more interactive’.
Much of what I have done in connection with this enquiry has been an expression of my embodied knowledge and values through a logical practical thinking process (Ryle, 1949). So how do I demonstrate the validity of the claims that I am making?
First of all validity is value laden, indeed Blatchford (1995) suggested that validity and value have the same etymological origin. Whilst new scholarship theorists such as McNiff (2004) acknowledge the importance of values as standards of judgment in evaluating the worth of educational inquiry, traditional researchers view validity in terms of the extent to which the instruments used in the research measure what they are intended to. Dalen expresses this as follows: “The research findings obtained from a sample of subjects can be no better than the instruments employed to collect the data” (1979:135). However, the claims that I am making are tentative. I cannot claim with certainty that I have transformed my students’ thinking. But I can say that I have influenced their learning, not through the transmission of propositional knowledge, but through encouraging them to develop their own lenses through which to see the social world.
I am in agreement with Habermas’ (1987) criteria of social validity. I have communicated my ideas comprehensibly and I know that what I said was true, sincere and appropriate. However, at this early stage of this enquiry, I have limited evidence to show that I have influenced my students’ learning, but I have began to think of other forms of collecting evidence such as visual narratives using videos. I have seen the effectiveness of such evidence on the www.Jiscmail.ac.uk/Bera-Practitioner-Researcher where video clips were made available for other action researchers to see their colleagues in action. I understand the importance of seeking and obtaining the consent of all participants before I present any such evidence.
In conclusion, my self-study examines ways of encouraging students to become active learners and to facilitate the processes by which they can become critically engaged with the literature. I used McNiff and Whitehead’s (2002) approach to the development of a living theory that is grounded in my everyday practice, one which has as a starting point an examination of the extent to which my values are congruent with my practice and my attempts to reduce dissonance or what Whitehead (1989) describes as the experience of oneself as a living contradiction when one’s values are denied in one’s practice.
I have found the experience of conducting my self-study research extremely helpful. It enabled me to work towards living my values in my practice through critical reflection. It has been equally important to elicit the views of my students on my practice through the focus group interviews as they enabled me to check my perceptions and reflections against theirs. I also think that it is important to map out the wider context within which my practice is located. This includes dialogue with others – in this case students – to ascertain their judgments of the extent to which I am influencing their learning. Hence the standards of judgment will not be determined by articulating my values alone, but through collaboration with others to achieve a consensus that the values have been transformed into appropriate critical living standards of judgement.
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Elliott, J. (1985) 'Educational Action Research' - in Bisbet, J. & Nisbet, S. (Eds) Research, Policy and Practice: World Yearbook of Education Kogan Page
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Freire, P. (1973). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.
Giroux, H. (1983) Theory and Resistance in Education: a Pedagogy for the Opposition. London: Henemann Educational Books Ltd.
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Reasons for choosing EE324 module (The conscious & Unconscious at Work)
Because I looked at the module guide and it seemed interesting, and the other ones I looked at didn’t interest me at all.
I did a psychology module last year and as this module is psychology based, I thought at least this is a lead on and nothing surprisingly new, so I chose this module.
I think the idea of communication the workplace is very interesting. I thought it would be a good skill to learn
I chose this module because I thought it was really interesting
I think the study of sociology, globalisation and themes like that that I find interesting.
Students thoughts and preferences in relation to lecturing / teaching styles
I think a balance is best between the traditional method of lecturing and note taking and also a seminar style where there is more interaction to keep things interesting. Just for variety sake to keep the interest levels high.
I would rather less traditional because I loose my concentration too quickly so it has to be interactive, otherwise I just would not pay attention.
Interaction I think keeps you more switched on and is not so boring
I think it is good not to go too much into the interaction mode because a lot of the opinions you may be listening to in the dialogues are perhaps not the accurate ones. Where as if you have a lecturer, an expert who is discussing a topic, you know that the information is more factually accurate than the hearsay that you will hear from the students.
I don’t agree with that. I think that if you have the right guide to guide you, he can stop you if you are getting a bit too far.
Progressive questioning, starting with simple questions and then as people become more involved, you could make the questions more and more difficult and start to explore the deeper areas.
Maybe group work to begin with to discuss topics in smaller groups, then give feedback to the larger group.
What we did today (starting with a mini lecture and then group work exercise to illustrate some of the themes covered in the lecture) kept me interested in the topic discussed.
Everyone had an opportunity to talk about the subject. Everyone interacted.
Students were asked if they always felt able to question theoretical perspectives discussed as part of the module and if they did not feel able to do this what stpped them?
- I think it is important to use different research findings and different theoretical perspectives to form your own view on what is accurate or not.
- I sometimes feel nervous in case I get it wrong in front of a group of people so I hold back. I think people don’t know enough to be able to say that they don’t agree with a particular theory.
- Well I think that we had enough discussion because I think that we could have stopped at any point and just say something and then you just carry on after that. So it’s not that we just did not have the option.
- Today (Groupwork) has probably been the most interesting.
- Because it was more interactive.
- Students’ thoughts about assessments
- I prefer assignments to exams, because during exams there is a lot of pressure on you for that just one day. I also like presentations because they are about the knowledge that you have in your head.
- I think that a 3000 assignment is the best form of assessment for this particular subject.
- They (exams) are just an alternative. Presentations are good as well.
- I don’t like exams. I feel under pressure during exams. I like assignments.
- I don’t mind presentations.
- I think the same about exams. They put you under a lot of pressure. With assignments you have the opportunity to ask questions. I think that presentations are good as well.
- I like assignments. I don’t think that I have enough knowledge to sit an exam for this particular module.
- I think that a combination of presentation and assignment would help take the pressure off. For example 30% presentation and 70% assignment.
- Yes I think that a combination of assignment and presentation is a good idea. The idea of an exam, cramming everything in two hours is good.
- I think that when you do an assignment you are researching the topic and learning in the process, where as if you are preparing for an exam it is just a narrow area you are looking at.
- I agree that exams are not the best method of assessment and that a combination of a presentation and assignment is good and more effective since people tend to learn far more than they would preparing for an exam.
Reasons for choosing CP101 module (The Nature, Purposes & politics of Education)
- I found it very useful as it gave us an opportunity to discuss important issues about education.
- It was interesting. Some of the stuff was a lot to take in, but on the whole, it was good.
- Would you have chosen that module if it had been an optional rather than a core module?
- The name of the module itself ‘nature purposes and politics of education’ did not particularly attract me, but once I read about what the module entailed, I liked it because I wanted to do psychology so I thought that it included an element of psychology.
- Students thoughts and preferences in relation to lecturing / teaching styles
- I don’t like lecture style because after about half an hour I lose interest. I prefer when I am involved in something rather than just sitting there listening. After about half hour I am just hearing voices that’s it. If I am involved in discussing and debating the topics I am learning, then I find it more interesting.
- My attention span is really short, so after about twenty minutes I switch off. But when I am involved in the topic being studied I am more alert, more interested and I am more likely to remember what the lecture was about.
- Students were asked if they always felt able to question theoretical perspectives discussed as part of the module and if they did not feel able to do this what stpped them?
- Some of the theories were out of date. You don’t always want to be the one to ask questions or argue against what is being said in case you get it wrong.
- I think that part of it is that we don’t know each other very well and it would be good to get to know each other so that people don’t feel awkward talking in a large group.
- I think that when different methods of teaching are used not just lectures, Like the time when we watched the video on ‘classroom divided’, it was very interesting and it led to very interesting debates. Everyone was able to comment on the video and put their views foreword even if they knew very little about the theory.
- Stuff which trigger discussions where we are able to challenge ideas and things like that.
- It would be very helpful to have articles or lecture notes before the session as it would prepare us to read material in advance and be prepared to participate in class, but it should be no more than two sides of an A4 to help people prepare.
Students’ thoughts about assessments
- I don’t mind exams. I get nervous in exams, but it is easier.
- I prefer exams. Because it was seen exams
- I liked presentations but I would have preferred to have the same lecturers observing, rather than being marked by lecturers I did not know.
- It was very successful group work since we had to present in groups of four. But Portfolios would be a better option.
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Read about the Value and Virtue in Practice-Based Research conference at York St John University, Tuesday 9th and Wednesday 10th June 2015. Go to www.yorksj.ac.uk/value&virtue for further information.
Keynote speakers: Dr Tina Cook, Northumbria University
Professor Carol Munn-Giddings, Anglia Ruskin University
Professor Julian Stern, York St John University
Professor Jean McNiff, York St John University