Archive for the ‘*Research’ Category

Language, learning and change in adult contexts

What does language have to do with learning and change in adult and work based learning contexts?

This short essay covers some thoughts about the use of language in relation to ‘learning and change’ (also the title of my Masters subject).

Watercommunication Language plays a central role in learning as both seek to develop understanding and make sense of the world. Language enables us to interact with others in a shared process of making meaning. We use language to describe our reality and to communicate our sense of the world to, and with, others. In this same process, we also communicate who we are; that is, we construct not only our reality but also our ‘self’. When we learn we are engaged in a process of developing our understanding, attempting to make sense of something new or unknown to us. As described in the subject learning guide, ‘learning means getting access to new ways to mean’, so we not only learn new things but refine our learning process at the same time, or ‘learn how to learn’. Change then, is impacted by our efforts in learning new ways to mean; that is, to step from the known to the unknown (learning) and then to mark the transformation (change) from something unknown to known.

In an adult or work based learning context, language plays a significant role in one’s learning, as much as it does in early childhood development and learning. A workplace contains a specific profession (such as auto-mechanics), which involves language and discourse highly characteristic of that profession. The role of apprenticeship (a key component in the training and development in para-professions and trades) is in effect an initiation into the culture, context and discourse of a para-profession or trade. An apprentice, or ‘initiate,’ learns far more than the skills spelt out in a training package or work placement; I am certain that if one was to compare the language and demeanour of a third-year apprentice to a first-year, one would note significant difference. A third-year would use language and terminology with more authority and confidence and perhaps even embellish this with a greater experience than what you’d expect from a first-year, who would use the language more tentatively (and perhaps at times inappropriately).

It is important to also mention that teachers in the adult learning field are also challenged by language and discourse. Often a teacher in auto-mechanics is firstly an auto-mechanic prior to becoming a teacher. In fact, ‘becoming a teacher’ is as much an initiation for them as becoming an auto-mechanic is for their apprentices! It is this aspect of teaching in adult learning that is of most interest to me, being an educational designer and staff developer in a vocational education and training (VET) institute. In this short essay I wish to reflect on the VET teacher in relation to the overarching question:

What does language have to do with learning and change in adult and work based learning contexts?

Contributions from the research literature
I had not fully or explicitly considered the role of language in learning, prior to reading Painter (1989). Painter’s view of the role of language in learning is that we scaffold learning through the progression of our language development. While Painter refers to language development in children, this no doubt can be continually applied into adulthood. We can then add Halliday’s thinking about learning as a semiotic process, where he posits an approach to learning theory informed by language, where “theory would be based on natural data … in context, not in a vacuum; observed, not elicited” (1993, p.94), because “the process of language development is still a continuous learning process” (ibid, p.93). Again this highlights the inherent relationship between language and learning.

Just as Painter refers to scaffolding, Halliday uses the phrase ‘magic gateway’ (see p. 98) to discuss ways in which we might explicitly use language forms and interactions to develop strategies for learning. It is interesting that in adult learning approaches we engage in experiential learning approaches quite explicitly yet don’t seem to engage strategies informed by language. It is as if we assume adults have fully developed their language and it needs no further attention.

On reading Solomon (2003), this is not the case. Solomon discusses the role of portfolios in textually producing ourselves as worker-learners, as she outlines the use of portfolios in a higher education work based learning program. Solomon (2003, p.76) considers portfolio development as a pedagogical tool for learning in the program, and as a narrative text, and suggests that

portfolios can be understood as a site where learners reflexively create a life story of themselves by drawing on available social and cultural resources.

or the bubbles above my headShe then endeavours to answer a series of questions about how (and what) we can learn about the worker/learner, and indeed, importantly for me, when a learner or a worker becomes a ‘worker/learner’. The VET teacher is an ideal expose of the worker/learner, given they are in the unique position of being dual-professions as I call them. That is, VET teachers are firstly industry professions and secondly teaching professionals and need to constantly reconcile the two roles.

The scaffolding referred to by Painter (1989) is also evident in Solomon’s discussion around the work site as a site for learning; the academy explicitly frames the work site as a learning site, ‘reconstituting it as a learning experience’ (2003, p.79). This notion forces me to reconsider what we mean by informal learning (taken to mean learning that occurs in less formal settings, such as social and public settings, workplaces or otherwise), where we perhaps think too much about the physical setting and not enough about the frameworks that manifest or account for sites for learning. Reflection helps describe the learning encountered through the learner’s (work based) experience. Reflection is textually produced so thus involves written language. Solomon discussed the ways in which this reflective process is scaffolded (pp.79-83).

My reflections
Having worked through the literature in this module, I see some connection with aspects I would associate with in adult learning and work based learning contexts; namely reflection and the writing process involved in journaling, and in the development of portfolios. Reading the literature in this module has opened up some questions to me:

(1) Does a child’s internalisation of interactions (to produce models for speaking and writing, as described in Painter, 1989 and Halliday, 1993) pose a correlation to an adult’s learning in the process we call reflection?
(2) Does the textual production of oneself through the development of a portfolio adequately capture the discursive and dialogic processes adult learners engage in when they are learning in a workplace context (Solomon, 2003 and Kerka, 1996)?
(3) Is it possible to reconfigure adult learning spaces in ways similar to that proposed by Painter, to draw more deliberately on learners’ (and teachers’) interactions in talking and writing, especially in professional contexts (such as business administration, plumbing, hairdressing and other vocations)? Would this reconfiguration enhance what we have come to know as reflection, and also enhance the understandings about portfolio development for learning and assessment in adult learning settings?

Everyone told me what I should be - TurtbluLiteracies (Macken-Horarik 1996) and contemporary learning settings which include information and communication technologies (ICTs) is a highly debated topic. The shift from commonsense to uncommonsense, or systematised, language (see Halliday 1993, pp.93-4) fits with this debate, given the rate of change in technology-enriched learning environments: portfolios are now e-portfolios, work based learning is often supplemented with online components, and one’s reflection can be recorded for ‘playback’ via online forums, emails, electronic documents, and audio and video clips. For example, I have found that new ICTs like blogs and wiki provide me with a greater space in which to write that potentially widens my audience (and thus my critics) to enable me to broaden and deepen my ideas as I ‘script’ them in the writing process. I have always kept a journal from a young age and now find that these web based tools complement my journaling in a positive way, extending my writing and discursive and dialogic processes at the same time. In addition, I have also found that I take copious amounts of notes knowing I can revisit (and thus re-use or re-organise) these (e.g. on a wiki) whenever and wherever I may be. Consequently, I feel as if my vocabulary, as well as my understanding of topics, is being enriched more deeply and more broadly than ever before. It seems that while we privilege experiential learning processes in adult learning settings we don’t necessary make the language development process as explicit.

What I’ve found incredibly interesting in this module is my journey of understanding as it has been reframed through a consideration of the role of language in learning. Speaking and writing in adult learning settings are manifested in textual practices such as portfolios, essay writing and structured discussion. I would contend that while language and learning share much, so too do text and identity in parallel, as posited by Solomon (2003, p.87) in her closing remarks:

Our focus here has been on the textual practices [used in a higher education Work-based Learning program], suggesting that these practices are an interesting pedagogical site to explore the way learners produce themselves as worker-learners.

Forming our identity is a key part of making meaning. Our ongoing development of language is also a key component to expressing our identity as well as new understandings and knowledges, and we can discuss our experiences and how we grow and change as a result.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1993. Towards a language based theory of learning. Linguistics and Education 5, 93-116.

Kerka, S. 1996. Journal writing and adult learning. ERIC Digest No.174. Retrieved 08/09/2007 from (ID: ED399413).

Macken-Horarik. M. 1996. Literacy and learning across the curriculum. In R. Hasan and G.Williams (Eds), Literacy in Society. London: Longman.

Painter, C. 1989. The role of interaction in learning to speak and learning to write. In J.R. Martin and C. Painter (Eds), Writing to mean: Teaching genres across the curriculum. Applied Linguistics Association of Australia, Occasional Papers 9. Sydney: University of Sydney, pp.62-97.

Solomon, N. 2003. Writing portfolios in work-based learning programs: Textually producing one-self. In C. Chappell, C. Rhodes, N. Solomon, M. Tennant and L. Yates (Eds), Reconstructing the Lifelong Learner: Pedagogy and Identity in Individual, Organisational and Social Change. London: Routledge.

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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In the pipeline: musings on innovation and evaluation

Design is in everything we make, but it’s also between those
things. It’s a mix of craft, science, storytelling, propaganda, and
Erik Adigard

I haven’t posted in a while. My head is stuck in a range of things at the moment, so thought I’d share a little of what’s been going on.

One of our key staff members has left and consequently there’s a big hole where he once was – makes me wonder sometimes about the art of succession and also how timing can really suck! It’s also seen the never-ending tension between teaching and learning and technology bubble to the surface once again. More on that another time!

Which brings me to my next ongoing reflection; that of evaluation. We are currently evaluating a possible replacement for our institution’s online learning environment. For me, this has thrown up a heap of thoughts about learning management systems (aren’t they supposed to be dying?), and the evaluation process itself (and what that’s supposed to mean). I wonder if we are evaluating the right thing in fact? Is it really the technology we should be evaluating? We’ve attempted a participative evaluation process and it will be interesting to delve into the mechanisms in more depth at some point to tease out the implications of this. Already I’m seeing some aspects which require managing the tensions between organisation-level input and grassroots-operational input. Nothing new there I guess, but in terms of change mamagement, what have we learned and how far have we moved?

I’ve come across some interesting reading around this, which has led me to read more about emergent design. I began with Dave Pollard’s post on designing for emergence, which prompted me to search for readings and articles on emergent design and how it’s been used in various projects and organisations. I found a couple of projects, one run in Thailand by MIT and a Sydney based project, both of which discuss emergent design in some form. I’ve also bumped into Roger Clarke’s oft-quoted and well known work, Diffusion of innovations (3rd ed.) (1983). How relevant is Clarke’s work in our education design practices today?

The notion of emergent design (i.e. Guba and Lincoln and naturalistic inquiry) is something I am looking into as I develop my research proposal for a Masters, and it has also impacted on my view of the role of education design in learning settings. I’m about to read this article on design models as emergent features in the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology (2006).

Apologies if this sounds all a bit oblique – I will be posting with more substance and detail shortly, but was keen to put some words down as to how these processes have impacted my work flows in the last few weeks.

I will be writing more about evaluation, emergent design and strategic levels of innovation in due course.

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M-learning content, practices and emerging standards

Mobile learning (m-learning) content developers are advised to consult and use the general VET e-standards found on this website in combination with these specific m-learning recommendations.
* Mobile audio
* Mobile video
* Wireless data connectivity
* Mobile content
Further background information and support is also available.

m-learning – Recommended Standards – E-standards for Training

The m-learning standards project Leonard, John and I have been involved in, is now finalised with the launch of the standards Report, teacher’s Guide and other resources on the E-standards website.

The process has been an interesting one, especially given the rapid growth in the area of mobile technologies and their use in teaching and learning. As we compiled the Report and the Guide there were already new tools, models and reports coming out! It highlights that standards are usually preceded by practice, because innovation and experimentation waits for no one!

As is stated in the Guide itself:

Henry Lichstein (2002) claimed that standards follow practice, not lead it. So, you are encouraged to use the m-learning standards and this Guide to assist you in decision making around m-learning but don’t let them constrain you in experimenting and trialling new ideas and strategies in teaching with technology. Your new practices may well inform the standards of the future (pp.4-5).

And a big thank you to the reference group for keeping us on our toes, keeping things real and mostly keeping the project on track with what is really important, that is, teaching and learning!

Intuitive human computer interaction

Back in 2005, Jeff Han appeared on TED Talks and demonstrated some touch screen prototypes soon to come ‘out of the lab’. In light of Apple’s release of the iPhone, we will no doubt see more of this touch screen technology in the market and I hope in education over the coming decade!

Han demos image manipulation using hand gestures directly on the screen.

One comment I picked up from his talk here was about the $100 laptop – that perhaps we should be looking beyond the current trend and form in which our computing takes and begin to look at future possibilities in terms of accessibility and usability in human-computer interaction (HCI).

100 dollar laptop design

Image: Media Laboratory

The design of the laptop, Han would say, still restricts us to using physical and material components like a stylus or keyboard. Han’s point is that we can remove the interface altogether so no ‘handbook’ is required and intuition reigns. Han speaks from a priviledged position though, although an egalitarian one – we need to start somewhere don’t we? I wonder what Iqbal Quadir would think of this, along with the new iPhone? :o)

I recommend viewing Han’s TED Talk – what do you think about this as a future for human-computer interaction in terms of greater access and usability for HCI, especially in less-priviledged parts of the world?

Also, for me, I certainly see how this parallels designing learning spaces and blending approaches (physically and otherwise) to enhance learning and engage learners and teachers alike. Rather than shutting in the world of computing – and our learning – it places technology squarely within our everyday lives so that we can celebrate our modernity (to poach a phrase from Alain de Botton’s TV series)!

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