Learning and change as development: essay notes

The following is a short essay I submitted for a Masters unit I’m doing. The brief was to critically reflect on my own development in the first weeks of the unit and to link my learning to the readings and online disussion about learning and change as development, the developmentalists and generative learning, in a developmental(ist) way.

Learning and change as development

Workplace context
I am an educational designer working in a small multi-disciplinary team of educators and developers, at a vocational education and training (VET) institution. Our team is one of three teams that make up a centralised centre for education development, which includes teacher education and curriculum development. Within my work context lie a range of ‘spaces’; one I actively create for myself as an educational designer, another for collaboration with my colleagues and with teachers, and the wider space that encompasses the machinations of the institute itself. These are not mutually exclusive, nor are they finite or static.

My role as an educational designer has changed in the eighteen months I have worked here, so much so that I have revisited many times my own definition of what an educational designer is and does (or as Minsky 2006, p.39 states, ‘what you ought’ to do). External factors have perhaps helped to bring about this revisitation; reduced funding for projects supporting innovation in education, reduced staffing so remaining staff take on the work that is left behind, and a management structure that appears inert when change is a reality. Other’s conception of my role is also a factor. Not many people have met an educational designer, nor have they worked with one. Often there is a mismatch between their assumptions or expectations of my role and my duties as I carry them out on a day-to-day basis.

Why has my role changed? While I have outlined some possible factors (and I think that not all these are external), I am still deliberating over the fact I have experienced such change in such a short time. I began my educational design career in another state in a tertiary institution and as part of a team of educational designers. The impact this has had on my own development as an educational designer is in many respects life changing. My expectations since are perhaps still tied to my growing experience and development as an educational designer back then.


Growth and development
Given my journey so far, what does it mean to grow, to develop, and in particular, to develop within a field or discipline? Why do I consider my prior experience as a fledgling educational designer ‘life changing’? How has it changed my life?

I began this subject when my interest was peaked by Bruner’s chapter ‘Knowing and doing’ (Bruner 1996). I read this chapter while flying interstate to a conference about action learning and action research. I envisaged a connection between Bruner’s work and the conference itself; the conference theme was ‘Aboriginal ways of knowing and doing’. In effect, I was preparing for the myriad conversations and connections possible at this conference and hoped that Bruner could give me a head-start. At that point, I was making a connection between rebus and action learning/action research, and ‘understanding by doing something other than just talking’ (Bruner 1996, p.151). I mulled over Bruner’s own ‘reckoning without rebus’ too (p.152), wondering how often we think things through to the point where they remain an internal dialogue and never quite manifest in action. This developed as a theme for me at the conference, and I noted a tension around ‘doing’ action research or action learning and ‘talking about’ it in theoretical terms. It was perhaps a discussion not sufficiently opened up to the delegates, rather I sensed it as an undercurrent; perhaps it was seen too much as ‘navel-gazing’ to those who wished to simply get on and ‘do it’.

By this time, I had also read Diamond’s chapter (Diamond 2005) [see also this video] and initially had trouble working out a meaningful connection, particularly one that resonated with the conference activities and my own conferencing ‘space’ at that time. Diamond initiated a fresh pathway of thinking; I had not previously engaged with a biological viewpoint of learning and development, seeing such works as dry and lacking wholistic theses about the ways we learn and grow. Diamond’s chapter encouraged me to reconsider my standpoint. The angle from which he discussed the development of cultures is perhaps left-field enough for me to take notice, to feel some dissonance in reaction to his words. I am reminded, at this point, of the subject learning guide when the teaching team ask us to keep an open mind as we approach this subject. I cynically thought that wanting others to keep an open mind meant being able to then fill our minds with your own thinking! Asking one to keep an open mind perhaps is more about wanting to seek trust from such a group. Being open is like saying ‘trust me’.

It was on re-reading Diamond’s chapter that I saw why the teaching team hoped we would be open-minded about the readings, structure and flow of the subject. In fact, it was the student’s question in Diamond’s article that helped me to remain so. Thanks to Frances’ comment in the online discussions (F. Traynor, 6/8/2007) for returning me to the quote: ‘what did the Easter Islanders say as they were cutting down the last palm tree?’ (Diamond 2005, p.420). In this, I saw a connection to phrases like ‘out of the mouth of babes’ or the ‘naïve inquirer’:

What it made me question was how we often remove ourselves from situations (perhaps to look back in on them, or to try to get an ‘objective’ view of things), and to me, hearing this student’s question made me wonder if the student was perhaps trying to place him/herself into the picture at that very moment, in the shoes of the woodcutter (M. O’Connell, online discussion, 12/8/2007).

From this point, I began my other readings with refreshed thinking. Harre’s discussion about the developmentalists, Piaget and Vygotsky, helped me to see both as people before their roles as psychologists (Harre 2006). To imagine that Vygotsky’s illness was the driver of his insatiable appetite for learning and research, or Piaget’s childhood interest in biology initiated his work with children in their environments, is enough for me to see that these are passionate learners at work. It is our context and our historical links that, perhaps, make them ‘theorists’.

I have not entirely subscribed to Piaget’s thesis that ‘cognitive development proceded (sic) along an ineluctable sequence of stages’ (Harre 2006, p.34). However, I wish to revisit his claims that developmental psychology is perhaps a larger project about ‘genetic epistemology’ and to further understand how knowledge grows (p. 35). As I see it, learning and knowledge are not one in the same, and how they interrelate is of great interest to me. Learning perhaps is the process through which we acquire knowledge. Is learning just a process? Is knowledge simply an act of acquisition? To date, I am perhaps more at ease with Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’ and the impact of one’s (social) environment on one’s learning and development. There is some correlation with Bruner’s discussion of ‘knowing as doing’. Vygotsky saw our pattern of human thought as maturing through the acquisition of language and practical skills. So too, Bruner explored ‘skills’ as being just one aspect of ‘knowing’ which he describes in terms of conventionalisation (i.e. skills as culturally formed and acceptable ‘habits’) and distribution (i.e. intelligence resides within communities rather than simply with individuals) (see Bruner 1996, pp. 153-54). In all, revisiting these theoretical positions has me stepping back into learning spaces that I perhaps didn’t appreciate in my earlier efforts to understand them.

rock art

What kinds of learning fit?
In my comments via the online discussions in this subject, I expressed some points about the creation of spaces for learning and change to take place, referring particularly to spaces in my workplace:

… people are moving away from areas [or practices] that seem unchangeable or inert – such as trying to deal with a disengaged manager or a policy that is no longer relevant. I see people creating new spaces in which to go about their business, to try to innovate ‘on the side’ or ‘at the margins’.

… I see these innovative teachers leading through new practices in new spaces that may inevitably contribute to changing and new standards. Teachers are often renowned for their passive resistance, but I often wonder to what – given the increased admin load and other ‘extra-curricula’ duties teachers take up?

So I’m not surprised too (sic) see teachers working to create new spaces for doing things that the ‘centre’ may not otherwise encourage them to do – it’s healthy subversion in many ways! What I’d like to try to do is help to find ways to legitimate the work in these new spaces, to bring them back to the centre or perhaps to move the centre to where they are! (M. O’Connell, online discussion, 12/08/2007)

In my attempt to understand the changes in my role and the context in which I ‘perform’ that role, I see that one way may be to create learning and change spaces that are supportive and safe. I anticipate the need (or perhaps my desire) to create a participative or collaborative space for this kind of development to occur. In her working paper, Schaverien asks:

Perhaps some of the very tentative student behaviour we see in conventional educational contexts (which contrasts with the higher frequency of risk-taking we note outside these contexts) can be viewed as uncertainty about exactly what teachers expect – especially when teachers have drawn up the inquiry (Schaverien 2007, p.2)

I can see this form of cautious learning in teachers I collaborate with. Perhaps tentative students are in part a product of tentative teachers? Teachers are as much a cultural production (or social construction) as are our learners. So, if I return then to the development models as discussed in Moghaddam (2005, p.143), perhaps I should continue to ask, do developmental models ‘reflect social constructions or objective universals?’ Certainly, I’d agree with Moghaddam that there is a level of concern that such stage models (by the simple fact they are ‘models’) widen the theory and practice divide; that is, how things look on paper as compared to how they manifest in one’s practice (and I’d extend this beyond a critique of Kolhberg’s model of moral development, see Moghaddam 2005, p.144-45).

There was also some online discussion around Diamond’s chapter and the anticipation of problems. Schaverien outlined that this was perhaps one aspect many students had, importantly, picked up on, and was different to problem-solving (or problem-framing) (L. Schaverien, online discussion, 4/8/2007). In a teaching ‘practice’ sense, I’d call this practice-based; that which is current. My comment about creating new spaces for learning and change perhaps relates more to practice-led notions of development [an example], or a form of ‘praxis’ as described by Bruner, but also illustrates that we perhaps need to remain critically aware of the cultural conventions that manifest in these spaces as well.

‘By entering such a community, you have entered not only upon a set of conventions of praxis but upon a way of exercising intelligence’ (Bruner p.154). My question then is, how do we engage in learning, as educators, and involve our bodies as well, so that we can practice what we preach to other learners? (M. O’Connell, online discussion, 12/08/2007)

To conclude, this is just the beginning. I have been invited into the subject learning space to develop my questioning further, and in relation to past learners who present us with models, as possibilities of understanding and practice. I’ve entered a liminal space that feels unstable and uncertain, but in keeping an open mind I trust that teachers and learners (as we all are in many ways) will help keep this learning space safe enough for me to explore these questions further.

Ferlinghetti art

Bruner, J. (1996). Knowing as doing. In J. Bruner (1996). The culture of education (pp.150-159). Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Diamond, J. (2005). Why do some societies make disastrous decisions? In J. Diamond (2005). Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive (pp. 419-440). London: Penguin Books.
Harre, R. (2006). The developmentalists. In R. Harre (2006). Key thinkers in psychology (pp.25-44). London: Sage.
Minsky, M. (2006). Attachments and goals. In M. Minsky (2006). The emotion machine: Commonsense thinking, artificial intelligence and the future of the human mind (pp. 36-65). NY: Simon and Schuster.
Moghaddam, F.M. (2005). Stage models of development. In F.M. Moghaddam (2005). Great ideas in psychology: A cultural and historical introduction (pp. 131-149). Oxford: One World Publications.
Schaverien, L. (2007). An introduction to a (biologically based) generative view of learning. Working paper, 2007.1.

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