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Several recent projects have involved developing learning materials, including online resources, and the resulting discussions and experiments have offered me many new and useful questions. So I was interested in a new column from Jesse Stommel on the Hybrid Pedagogy website, describing his experience of designing MOOCs (Massive Open Online courses). He presents a variety of learning points and provocations from his most recent project – a Shakespeare course that currently has over 18,500 students enrolled from 157 countries.
As I read it, my highlighting pen was working overtime so I thought I’d signpost it to colleagues involved in constructivist learning. I was inspired, and some of you might be similarly inclined print it out and pin it on the wall, while others may find themselves shouting arguments at the computer screen – either way it should be thought-provoking.
On the heavily structured nature of most online programmes he writes:
“I remain certain that learning is not something that ought to be managed. The better we become at managing learning, the more damage we do to learning. This is the cruel irony of the learning management system. The better designed it is for doing its core function, the worse off the learning that happens inside of it”
“Learning is an encounter, not a spreadsheet …. We either critically interrogate our tools or are subject to them. There is no middle ground between these two.”
Colleagues from Personal Construct Psychology might catch a flavour of George Kelly’s writing in Stommel’s discomfort with doing the same thing twice. He sees repetitive practice as working against our own learning, while making it difficult for us to ‘encounter each learner and learning environment anew’, concluding with the bold and rather magnificent proposal that ‘the best best practice is to imperil best practices”.
“At the point that our content feels stroked and adored, we know that actual learning has stopped. Learning is at direct odds with content. In fact, learning does battle with content. If content wins, learning loses. We do, instead, in the best learning environments, grapple with content — we kill it on the road when we meet it there.”
Referring to developing content for his Shakespeare programme, he describes his goal of “creating content that was, at every turn, self-undermining”
“Ultimately, every video champions discovery more than knowing or certainty … Facts are shared, details are offered, and content is delivered. But never at the expense of questions or openings to discussion.”
Collaborating with many colleagues and describing himself as a conductor, he also references Howard Rheingold who describes the course leader as “chief learner”. He ends with a brilliant example of how expertly course content and constructivist pedagogy are woven through his work:
‘In the introduction to the course, I write,
“Shakespeare begins Hamlet with the words, ‘Who’s there?’ The question is deceptively simple, but it is one that opens a whole host of potential rabbit holes for us to tumble down. What I know is that how we begin something new is important. The first thing we say. The first question we ask. The first part of ourselves we show.”
I am, from these first words in the MOOC, showing my pedagogical hand, talking about Shakespeare and also about the nature of the course itself’
Having become discouraged by much of the content-heavy, highly-structured and over-controlled online learning I have encountered recently, I was refreshed, motivated and challenged by this short piece. I might even want to make a poster of his encouragement to ‘be always so light on our feet as to remain unentrenched’.
20 May 2015
The long and fractious election campaign currently coming to a close in the UK seems to have been characterised by an exceptionally poor quality of discussion and debate. Leading politicians, press and broadcast media have all indulged in the usual aggressive trashing of opponents’ personalities combined with extreme defensiveness about past records, generating a lot of heat but very little light and leaving nearly 40% of the electorate ‘undecided’ with just a few days to go.
So it may be a good time to promote my continuing enthusiasm for variations on Kenneth Gergen’s ‘argumentation from nowhere’. Gergen’s experiment, which I first discovered in ‘Social Construction in Context’ (2001), was derived as “an attempt to remove the grounds for either claiming assertions to be ‘one’s own’, or for viewing counter-assertions as challenges to one’s integrity”.
Gergen and his team invited a wide variety of people to contribute entries to a discussion while setting aside their personal position. The were asked to generate as many arguments as possible for either side of a polarised debate, and then to develop possible criticisms of those views. After contributing their thoughts they were able to read all the other entries, and were subsequently invited to comment again with any new alternatives, or with possible rejoinders to the views already included.
“The result is a multiplex array of discourse surrounding the issue at stake, essentially a map of possible arguments, justifications, citations of evidence and the like, on both sides of the issue”. Participants reported considerable learning and felt that the experiment helped them see the issue in more complex terms. “Of special significance, they indicate that it would be difficult to resolve the issue by simply declaring one side the winner”.
I have since worked with many discussions based on ‘argumentation from nowhere’ as an alternative to oppositional debates. Participants are asked to think of the widest possible range of stakeholders in the issue under discussion (and I think the best definition I ever heard of a stakeholder is ‘anyone who might give a damn’) generating as many views as possible that might be held by each stakeholder group. They are encouraged to consider why those views might matter to people, and what kinds of belief systems they might logically derive from, guided by the question: in what way might each of those views make perfect sense? I will usually add the aspiration that, at the end of the exercise, no-one at the table would be entirely certain of the current personal views of any of their fellow participants.
The outcome has usually been very productive as argument turns into exploration, and condemnation gives way to curiosity. People who were previously opponents can sometimes come up with ingenious supports and logics for arguments they earlier disagreed with, perhaps because the need to agree has been removed or possibly because the activity itself is an intriguing exercise in thinking. The result has generally been far more openness to alternatives, a much richer discourse to draw on, a greater acceptance of the complexity and ambiguity inherent in most debates, and an increase in sociality between both participating colleagues and and absent stakeholders.
As Gergen says of his experiment: “No, this did not mean a resolution of differences. However, it did allow for productive exploration to take place in a context in which victory and defeat were removed from view”.
A rich and constructive addition to the usual election presentations and debates. In my dreams …
4 May 2015
(photo: ECTN ‘Racconti Meditterannei’ summer school in Greece)
Last week I was sent a link to a suggestion that seems so simple and obvious that I can’t quite imagine why I haven’t thought about it in this shape before. It comes from a short article in the Spectator by Rory Sutherland who highlights the perennial problem of organisations recruiting and promoting the same types of individual every time.
He points out that finding the ‘perfect’ thing – the perfect house for example – will often lead to a somewhat bland choice because it is meeting a wide variety of needs and so ‘cannot be too weak in any one dimension‘. Choosing two homes inevitably leads to diverse choices, often complete contrasts.
“Intriguingly, in other realms of decision-making we seem not to understand this at all. For instance, in assessing job applicants or parliamentary candidates or university admissions…it is assumed that ten groups each choosing one candidate will make the same ‘optimal’ choice as one group choosing ten. They won’t.”
He highlights the default to the safe and familiar choice each time, and suggests that a commitment to tightly standardised processes which apply identical selection criteria to everyone, one person at a time, is likely to be part of the problem. His proposition is that if we chose people in batches we would make quite different choices and would ‘take a punt’ far more frequently.
It’s not such a stretch in large organisations to consider a shift towards recruiting and promoting in groups as the standard, especially in settings where commitment to diversity is high in principle but disappointingly poor in practice. Of course there would be practical difficulties – vacancies don’t arise in groups, job descriptions are highly individualised – but do we really want change?
I think this is one of those trojan-horse ideas that contains many useful provocations: why continue to recruit so many people into specialist silos when we subsequently spend so much time and effort trying to break down the walls that creates? Why not build more pools of free-floating talented professionals with flexibility to work across roles and disciplines given that so much work is project-based? Why not think about fewer, larger ‘intakes’ rather than repeated one-off recruitment processes. A useful shift in practice may not need big groups either – the article suggests choosing ten at a time, but I’d guess that just three might be the magic number in terms of making a difference.
‘Mix’ is generally an important part of how we view fairness in groups, yet is not often a key criterion in selection because of the focus on recruiting one person at a time. Selecting in groups may be a key to the long overdue shift of perspective from how well a person ‘fits’ with the status quo to how much valuable difference they will add to the group. The group selection processes I have experienced do seem to generate a much sharper awareness of the mix being created in each cohort, and even the most homogenous organisations tend to develop a more critical eye when they see themselves reflected in a group.
‘Once you understand this, the potential exists to increase the level of (social, gender, ethnic, mental) diversity….without imposing any quotas: it arises naturally once you choose people in batches.”
1st March 2015
Herminia Ibarra has recently published some interesting pieces on professional identity in the Harvard Business Review. Citing authenticity as the the prevailing “gold standard for leadership” she takes a more constructivist approach, pointing to ways in which an adherence to ‘true’ or ‘real’ self can hinder growth and development: “Because going against our natural inclinations can make us feel like impostors, we tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable.”
Viewing ourselves as works-in-progress by contrast enables us to continually evolve and reconstrue our professional identity through trying on possible selves. “That takes courage, because learning, by definition, starts with unnatural and often superficial behaviors that can make us feel calculating instead of genuine and spontaneous.”
She reminds us that “it’s OK to be inconsistent from one day to the next. That’s not being a fake; it’s how we experiment to figure out what’s right for the new challenges and circumstances we face.” She suggests that we borrow selectively from people we admire and try their behaviours on for size, developing our professional selves through a courageous process of trial and error. She maintains that active experimentation rather than introspection is the key to development, and quotes playwright Wilson Mizner: “copying one author is plagiarism, but copying many is research“.
In provocative contrast to prevailing leadership advice she advises: “Don’t stick to your story“.
In a similar vein, her latest article critiques leadership presentations, suggesting that they increasingly demonstrate a curious mix of the deeply personal and carefully staged: “Typically the speaker starts with an anecdote, preferably about a difficult experience that tested the executive and forged his or her leadership values. That’s followed up with “what I have learned” and, often, a comment on the importance of being authentic. The executive usually tries to be humorous and self-deprecating. The whole presentation has a casual, spontaneous tone — but it’s orchestrated down to the last detail.”
Her critique ranges from questioning the validity of ‘personal talk’ across cultures – “the template is deeply American” – to wondering why intimate evidence of triumph over adversity is now expected as a professional credential, while noting the irony that this particular construction of ‘authenticity’ has become just one more requirement to which a leader must now conform.
Links to the HBR:
1 February 2015
The end of the year, and an opportunity to share an essay I have just discovered by Sam Kriss in the New Inquiry. Basically (and you might think unpromisingly, but bear with me) it is a review of the 5th edition of the DSM, the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of the psychiatric profession produced by the American Psychiatric Association which is also the standard reference in the UK.
As might be expected, its publication in 2013 provoked wide-ranging comment, much of which focused on the seemingly endless proliferation of new ‘disorders’ each time it is re-published. Kriss brings exceptional flair and imagination to his review by treating the manual as a work of dystopian fiction:
A new dystopian novel in the classic mode takes the form of a dictionary of madness. Over two inches thick and with a thousand pages, it’s unlikely to find its way to many beaches. Not that this should deter anyone; within is a brilliantly realized satire, at turns luridly absurd, chillingly perceptive, and profoundly disturbing.
Colleagues in clinical psychology/psychotherapy might be interested, but so might anyone with an interest in psychiatry, literature, or cross-disciplinary criticism – it’s an excellent critique full of brilliantly quotable descriptions:
The scene this prologue sets is one of a profoundly bleak view of human beings—one in which we hobble across an empty field, crippled by blind and mechanical forces whose workings are entirely beyond any understanding. This vision of humanity’s predicament has echoes of Samuel Beckett at some of his more nihilistic moments—except that Beckett allows his tramps to speak for themselves, and when they do they’re often quite cheerful.
Rather belatedly it occurs to me that this is a somewhat bleak offering for the time of year, although in the past this week between solstice and new year was known as ‘the dark days’. Coincidentally, in the process of writing this, I’ve been sent an appropriately dystopian salutation via @NeinQuarterly:
Maybe the new year will be a good one. But the monster under your bed isn’t losing any sleep over it.
So in line with our topic I share that unfestive greeting, while personally wishing everyone a warm and happy new year!
30 December 2014
A recent RSA publication featured an interview with Theodore Zeldin, exploring the future of work. It is a short conversation covering a range of interesting topics and Zeldin’s gift, as always, is finding simple illustrations and examples to help us see things differently.
For example, on the question of working alone or in groups, he comments: We have so far believed there are only two choices: collective action or individual initiative. I have been exploring the role of the couple … couples of the mind who develop the skill of drawing inspiration from one another, in conversation or from reading, including from people with whom they disagree. Dividing people into supporters and opponents is not the only way to get nearer to the truth.
Most striking for me is his final comment, responding to Matthew Taylor’s rather left-field question: If you had to choose one idea of yours to put up in lights in Piccadilly Circus forever, which idea would it be?
Zeldin’s equally unexpected answer: I would put one word in Piccadilly Circus, and it would be ‘think’.
Just seeing the word on the page felt refreshing, and somewhat radical given the prevalent discourse in workplace consulting where ‘emotional intelligence’, ‘personal resilience’, and the unstoppable giant that is ‘mindfulness’ are currently holding centre stage.
Zeldin briefly explains his choice: ‘Reason’, the word that I would have put up in the 18th century, has discredited itself by making so many mistakes, and so we have replaced it with ‘feeling’; we aim to ‘feel good’ no matter what we think. We have developed a great resistance to thinking. Thinking is a social activity; it is allowing other people’s ideas to come into your head, mashing them up with your own and therefore becoming a more sociable person.
I find myself quite delighted by this rare enthusiasm for thinking at work, and for Zeldin’s particular social twist on it — it feels unusual, and important. His final comment: We have brains…and we are capable of doing amazing things with them, so I would like to restore thinking to its place of honour.
12 December 2014
alex swarbrick: Thanks for the post….and for the excuse to divert myself from work for a minute! I too felt refreshed seeing the word ‘think’, and then felt (yes ‘felt’) a jab about ‘emotional intelligence’, ‘resilience’ and ‘mindfulness’. Interestingly, mentioning ‘mindfulness’ to a colleague recently, his challenge was ‘but that’s a misnomer; it’s really all about mindlessness’. That shocked me, and I disagree. To me, the invitation in mindfulness is actually to be awake, to do whatever we’re doing with our full attention, in other words, with thought, in contrast to doing it ‘absent mindedly’, on autopilot. Understood in those terms, mindfulness and thinking are back together. From a PCP perspective, perhaps it could be understood as bringing our construing more into our awareness. As for emotional intelligence, I tend to think of that as a ‘thinking’ activity too; at least that’s how I introduce it to groups. It’s not about being ‘touchy feely’ so much as paying attention to how I understand myself, and make choices from that understanding; how I understand an ‘other’ and what I then combine from those understandings in pursuit of something constructive in our relationship. Again, in PCP terms, maybe there’s a hint of Sociality there, combined with a higher level of awareness of my own meaning making.
mary: Great to hear from you – and very good points well made. Zeldin’s simple suggestion that we think together did strike me as very different from the emphasis on interiority and personal deliberation that I have experienced in the emotional resilience and mindfulness approaches where working with self, with ‘felt’ material, and attending without critique have been at the heart of it. Thinking about your comments, I guess the thing I miss most in our current consulting discourse is a lack of attention to critical thinking as a constructive activity. I have worked recently with facilitators who tended to reject ‘I think’ comments asking instead for feelings. It’s really troubled me, both personally, and as a Kellyan given that we would not tend to split construing that way. A really good provocative response thank very much – and helpful for me to recognise that it’s critical thinking I’m missing. Not to the exclusion of those other approaches, but to bring our full resources back into play.
roger pierce: I agree with Alex Swarbrick that you are being too hard on EI & mindfulness by casting them in opposition to thinking. But are you querying their dominance rather than their value? In that sense I agree there is something important missing and therefore I too find Zeldin’s injunction refreshing. Our organisational structures and political systems are failing in many ways and we should indeed “put our heads together” to turn critique into action. Some hard thinking is needed. But I had you down as a fan of mindfulness: you have just told us to look at our fish!
armando magnino: I don’t know how mindfulness is used in the current fashionable work environment. I come to it from my interest (not very disciplined) in Buddhism and in particular zen meditation (zazen). I see it as the attempt to move our perception and understanding (feeling and thinking) to a meta-position. One that transcends dualism for an acknowledgement of experience: it is what it is. As Shakespeare put it “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking make it so’ … but you might as well say “…but feeling make it so”. We need feelings and thinking to function. Mindfulness just reminds us that we need to act with what Castaneda called “controlled folly”: act AS IF these decisions are important, AS IF we are conscious active agents in our lives, AS IF our ability to think and feel is critical to our functioning, while at the same times holding the awareness that we surrounded by (and part of) an unfathomable mystery. A metaphor I read in Joseph Campbell recently: two people playing a game of tennis ‘have’ to take it seriously, they have to compete to their best, act as it it really matters whether the ball hit the line or not etc. otherwise there would be no game. Mindfulness for me it’s the part that even in the midst of the most determined charged action knows that it’s just a game. Looking at the diagram of your “preference axis”, mindfulness is the point where the axis meet – the zero. No action is possible from there: to have a game you have to choose a side, you need to decide which end of the court you’re going to serve from. And the other player needs to agree to play on the other side of the net. But neither side is intrinsically better – they’re just constructs, tools to make it possible for us to live, to engage with others.
anna c: Our mindfulness training sessions are nothing like Armando describes (which sounds interesting). Mindfulness is included on every course now. 1) shut our eyes and focus on our breathing 2) empty our minds of all thoughts 3) accept things as they are and not how we would like them to be. It’s not that I think this is a bad idea and there are areas of life where it would be very useful, maybe in family relationships or for a troubled self-image for example but managing chronically under-resourced services it’s like we are being encouraged continually to ‘take our minds off it’. Maybe it’s meant well to help us, like resilience training as well, to help us personally to get through things. But it doesn’t help us see how to grapple with the problems out there.
mary: Yes, slowing ourselves down, attending to our breathing, accepting what has to be accepted – all good things. Then let’s go and read some Foucault.
As the holiday season ends and familiar routines are restored, several people have talked of feeling low at the return to ‘same old same old’. So it might be a good time to recommend Ian Leslie’s latest book Curious. It’s full of fascinating stories and nuggets of information designed to encourage curiosity and questioning, with an eye on the potential wonder to be found in what might at first glance seem unpromising and dull.
“Every question is a little bet. From a very young age children sense that any information they gather, even if it doesn’t have immediate application, may come in useful in the future. Children are scientists, experimenting on their physical environments, but they are also investigative reporters pumping their sources for secrets. By the time we are adults we have fewer questions and more default settings.”
In a section on how to stay curious, he mentions ‘the transformative power of attention’ – the potential reward to be gained from sticking with things that we initially dismiss as boring. To support his argument he attends James Ward’s ‘Boring Conference’ where people go to enthuse about a range of highly unpromising topics such as IBM Cash Registers and Double Yellow Lines, including a keynote presentation: Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area. Ian is a very engaging writer – seriously, I find myself wanting to go to the next one…
Rediscovering the inherent fascination in what has become commonplace, he cites Georges Perec’s essay An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. In this project, Perec went to the same Paris square every day focusing on ‘the infraordinary’ to find out ‘what happens when nothing happens’. He wandered about and sat for hours in and outside cafes recording what he noticed. His brilliant advice to us all: ‘question your teaspoons’.
This emphasis on paying curious attention to the over-familiar or unappealing reminded me of a lovely story told by Samuel H. Scudder, an American entomologist who studied at Harvard with the zoologist Agassiz who trained his research students in rigorous close observation and analysis.
“He asked me …whether I wished to study any special branch. I replied that while I wished to be well grounded in all departments of zoology, I purposed to devote myself specially to insects.
He reached from a shelf a huge jar of specimens in yellow alcohol.
‘Take this fish,’ said he, ‘and look at it; by and by I will ask what you have seen.’ ”
In ten minutes Scudder had seen all he could see in the fish, replaced it in the jar, and taken a lunch break.
“On my return, I learned that Professor Agassiz would not return for several hours. My fellow-students were too busy to be disturbed by continued conversation. Slowly I drew forth that hideous fish, and with a feeling of desperation again looked at it. I might not use a magnifying glass; instruments of all kinds were interdicted. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish: it seemed a most limited field. I pushed my finger down its throat to feel how sharp the teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me – I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the professor returned.
He listened attentively to my brief rehearsal of the structure of parts whose names were still unknown to me … When I had finished, he waited as if expecting more, and then, with an air of disappointment: ‘You have not looked very carefully…you haven’t even see one of the most conspicuous features of the animal, which is as plainly before your eyes as the fish itself; look again, look again!’ and he left me to my misery. Still more of that wretched fish!”
As the day wore on Scudder’s interest grew and he began to see how much he had previously missed. When the professor asked again, Scudder admitted that although he hadn’t found a clear answer he was realising how little he saw before. The professor suggested that he might be ready with an answer in the morning.
“This was disconcerting; not only must I think of my fish all night, studying without the object before me, what this unknown but most visible feature might be; but also, without reviewing my new discoveries, I must give an exact account of them the next day. I had a bad memory; so I walked home by the Charles River in a distracted state, with my two perplexities.
The cordial greeting from the professor the next morning was reassuring; here was a man who seemed to be quite as anxious as I that I should see for myself what he saw.
‘Do you perhaps mean,’ I asked, ‘that the fish has symmetrical sides with paired organs?’
His thoroughly pleased ‘Of course! of course!’ repaid the wakeful hours of the previous night. ”
Delighted and relieved to have arrived at the answer, Scudder asks the professor what he should do now. And the reply?
“Oh, look at your fish!” “
13 September 2014
liz burn: ah yes, in praise of curiosity: the antidote to frustration! 29 September
fiona duggan: what a lovely way to be gently turned around from looking wistfully at the summer fading to looking with curiosity at the months ahead….
I’ve got a suggestion for the ‘boring conference’ – I recently sat through a presentation on traffic management options as part of a university masterplan project and. much to my surprise, found it absolutely riveting! 30 September
armando magnino: In July in London I was visiting New Designers, basically a big “end of year exhibition” for design degrees from all over the country. I went to see the furniture mostly (some of the exhibitors were students of mine). But as I was going around I was struck by the creativity, energy and passion that I was seeing on all sorts of products. Ok, I am not particularly interested in IT-connected home appliances, or bee hives or bicycle design or even car design… but the people that designed those products were! They put as much effort and interest and research in their gadgets (that I hastily dismissed as “not furniture”) as I put in my work. And it struck me that probably if I put as much energy in developing an interest in other areas I could get as passionate. Ok, I like wood and working with wood and that suits me but at the same time if I made the effort to go past my initial disinterest I would find other areas and materials as interesting… Education needs to be teacher led to an extent because you can only find the passion once you really get inside a topic or a subject. As Don Sestero, my maths teacher used to say “bisogna assimilare” – it’s not about learning maths, you need to assimilate it, it needs to become part of you. And that requires time, practice and repetition. You need to build a solid base of knowledge to support your creative critical thinking. Without it all you have are ‘gut reactions’ and ‘intuitions’ – and those are only the starting points of an argument or a development process, not the result.