Three things recently caught my attention and hit the fan at the back of my mind; this post is a representation of some of the pollackesque splatterings that resulted.
The first was the news that Knowsley Council in Merseyside is closing all 11 of its secondary schools, and replacing them with 7 'state-of-the-art, round-the-clock' learning centres. In these new centres, pupils won't attend formal classes or adhere to a timetable - instead, they will be assigned projects in the mornings and disperse into the learning centres' facilities to work on them in groups. On the surface this possibly appears to be a drastic measure, described by one 'edu-blogger' as 'The End of The Industrial Schooling System'. One motivating factor for this reinvention of secondary schooling is "lack of progress, catastrophically high levels of pupil absenteeism, stubbornly high levels of youth unemployment". The Independent's article is sketchy on details, but a PDF document produced by Knowsley Council outlines considerably more. Some interesting aspects of the document:
Democratised spaces: these include self-sufficient 'pods' as 'home bases' which facilitate year and 'vertical' (I assume this means 'cross-year') groups; learning spaces which will 'not be owned by subject specialists'; and learning 'streets' which encourage 'a busy learning and social space in which activity and interaction is a feature', where performing or visual arts play an 'integral role'. (p42)
New curriculum models: "Creating a curriculum experience that will offer the opportunity for students to develop personal, learning and thinking skills by learning through projects, understanding how they learn, reflecting upon their progress and being able to contribute their own opinions and ideas. This development is considered to be key to transforming educational practice since the explicit teaching of thinking necessitates a significant shift in pedagogy which will itself significantly transform the learning." (p50)
The second was the paper on the Consumption and Marketing Portal, Having, Being and Higher Education: the marketisation of the university and the transformation of the student into consumer. While the paper aims high in terms of locating the conflicted interests of students, academics and universities in a society which is more preoccupied with 'having' and consuming than in 'being' and reflecting, it goes to the heart of the problem of vocational education: when motives are driven by markets, interests which are at odds with bottom lines are pushed out. Realists everywhere cry out, 'but we live in a market-based society, and HE is there to help graduates function in the market-place'; blind optimists (known sometimes as Marxists, troublemakers and, even worse, 'philosophers') insist that, even if nowhere else, universities are the place in which a critique of the market must happen. A good learner must reflect on themselves and their own learning. Surely a good society should reflect critically on itself, and if the HE sector has one determining characteristic, it is that it should perform the self-analysis of society that corporations, atomised individuals and branded politicians substantially cannot.
The third piece of fan-hitting stuff came from Kaptelinin and Nardi's book, Acting With Technology - Activity Theory and Interaction Design (MIT: 2006). The authors note that some of the key aspects of activity theory are its emphasis of human intention, of people over things, of the evolving nature of human interaction with the world around them, and the cultural dynamics that arise. It is an obvious but surprisingly little-considered notion that human beings tend do things for a purpose and are not often willingly determined by the function of the technologies around them.
As part of their argument for framing one's view with a 'historical, developmental perspective' in order to consider the wider impacts of technological design, they hint at the interrelatedness of disciplines which are all too often kept rigidly separate:
"...the batteries and components of wireless devices contain arsenic, antimony, beryllium, cadmium, copper, zinc, nickel, lead, and brominated flame retardants - all toxic. Wireless devices, including cell phones, pagers, PDAs, pocket PCs, portable email readers, and mp3 music players, are being manufactured by the billions. Yet we have not designed or implemented adequate means of handling the wastes they release. Toxins leach into groundwater when wireless devices are discarded in landfills, and dioxins are created when they are incinerated. Used cell phones (and computers) are often donated to Third World countries, so the waste reaches its final resting place in the air and water of the poorest countries [...] As designers, how do we respond to these realities?" (p13)
A flippant answer to that question might be that designers won't or can't respond. A more common answer might be that the market will respond as the economics evolve, or that politicians need to take a lead, or EUs and UNs and the like ought to co-ordinate their efforts and pass resolutions.
It occurs to me that one of the characteristics of the HE system, whether at the vocationally disposed end, or at the research-led antipode of the spectrum, is that there are highly specialised areas which carve out their own niches. Spaces, whether physical, intellectual or institutional, are 'owned by subject specialists'. It is equally clear that the kinds of problems articulated by Kaptelinin and Nardi require intense collaboration between different domains of specialism.
It also seems to me that locating the domains of various activities in a much broader context would be an extremely effective way to expose consequences, and highlight otherwise hidden outcomes and impacts. If we were to try to define a more critical way of thinking, it would surely involve the ability to see beyond the local motives and imperatives of one's discipline, corporate balance-sheet, market-place, or indeed, capitalist mode of production.
Furthermore, if one broadly accepts the constructivist approach to pedagogy, in which learning takes place most effectively in problem-based activities where theoretical underpinnings are synthesised in the solution of real challenges through concrete collaborative activity, then it seems like a no-brainer to suggest that the cross-domain problem outlined by Kaptelinin and Nardi be investigated and acted upon by groups of people who each want to learn about the various domains of knowledge which deal with those issues.
Hence I imagine undergraduates collaborating in all sorts of ways: leisure industry entrepreneurs commission product designers to work on devices, using materials suggested by chemists and conservation scientists, informed by health workers' recommendations, backed up by gymnastic legal advice, with interfaces created by interaction specialists, whose lickable finish is ruthlessly marketed, while journalists investigate the vested corporate interests blocking new initiatives through recourse to IP law-suits, and political communicators and lawyers examine the necessary tactics to broker international agreements. I think it'd be a pretty cool first-year project.
Now of course, the proposal from Knowsley Council looks very appealing on paper, but it would be interesting to know how those people on the ground, the teachers, pupils and parents, feel about the overhaul of their schooling system. It has not escaped our notice, to coin a phrase, that systematic changes and corporate plans can look great on paper, while the shop-floor workers are ignored, disenfranchised and demoralised. Learning from learners sounds excellent in principle, but can in practice mean a university manned by researchers more interested in their Experian RAE score than the tedious business of drawing the attention of beginners to their own ignorance.
However, learning from learners could mean something other than the traditional research culture which encourages its practitioners to secret their investigations away from spying eyes until the triumphant scoop in a high-impact journal. It could mean the entire spectrum of academics from freshers to post-docs working 'vertically' on the kinds of real problems that require the finest minds to collaborate at the fore-front of their fields away from the commercial and electoral imperatives which so restrict many social institutions. Stephen Downes argues that a good teacher teaches by demonstration and modeling. Don't ask me what the information you need is; instead, let's find the answer together, and hopefully I can share with you my experience of finding things out, just as you bring your new way of thinking to my entrenched old habits.
Of course, it all sounds very hard, co-ordinating such large-scale integration of disciplines, activities and objectives; that's exactly why it should happen in universities while they still have a margin of space within the institution's financial dependence on public funding. It would be so time-consuming! Yes, but so much more interesting than the equally time-consuming and endless repackaging of courses into credit frameworks, or renaming of the positions in the hierarchical management structures, or the most insidious and soul-destroying of time-wasting pursuits, re-applying for your own job. It could even have the long-term benefit of encouraging generations of people going out into profit-driven market-places, short-sighted corporations and self-serving political systems, who might even find the current strictures of self-interested and myopic businesses and governments quite absurd. It looks very like the difference between delivering vocational courses which speak to and perpetuate the status quo, and an education which could actually be transformational.
I was recently told that Interactive Media Production students write the most utopian dissertations. It wasn't intended, I think, as an unsullied compliment. But I'm extremely pleased that they are, and very infectious too, thankfully.
Joe Flintham 2000 - 2015
Long form: Menticulture
Professional Services: Fathom Point