a changing selection of ideas, articles & links relevant to constructivist education
“We teach at our best … when we invite our students to explore with us the internal logic, complexity, and beauty of the subject matter we teach, whether it’s organic chemistry or the contemporary Japanese novel” Adam Rosenblatt
– a paper full of hope and ideas: on beauty and classroom teaching
“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.” Jesse Stommel
A selection of learning points from a course with 18,500 students
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Some recent projects have involved developing online learning resources, a process which has raised many new and useful ideas and questions. This recent column from Jesse Stommel on the Hybrid Pedagogy website describes 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 Jesse’s piece, my highlighting pen was working overtime, so I thought I’d signpost it to colleagues involved in constructivist learning, since his comments about course design seem relevant across all levels and types of education.
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.”
On best practice, he takes an approach that PCP colleagues will recognise, expressing discomfort with doing the same thing twice. He sees repetitive practice as working against our own learning, 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.”
On developing content for his Shakespeare programme, he describes his goal of “creating content that was, at every turn, self-undermining”.
“Ultimately, every [piece] 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”.
Jesse 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’.
Read Jesse’s article here: 20000 person seminar
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‘The air turns giddy with possibility’ – Louise Gluck
Over the last few years, I have been exploring ideas about constructivist teaching and what it might mean to be a constructivist teacher, curious about the extent to which active co-created experience might replace the reiteration of approved texts and established practices, particularly in higher education.
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Creating a lively laboratory with an emphasis on students’ work-in-progress feels increasingly challenging in the current landscape of hyper-specification and metric evaluation. As the requirement for pre-designed learning outcomes becomes routine, even at advanced levels, we seem to have reached the point where attempts at pedagogic engineering sail past all possible limits of human anticipation and prediction.
Looking up a reference for the poet Louise Glück recently, I fell into re-reading several of her essays (Proofs & Theories 1999 Carcanet). I had forgotten how much she has to say about teaching. She writes beautifully and critically about her teaching self, and addresses reiterative teaching with a poet’s lively exactness.
Describing the pressure towards the didactic, she warns of the lure of ‘the teacherly, the wise’, and reminds us how it soothes the fragile ego to align our voice with ‘the great voices whose perceptions have been internalised as truth’. It’s a sharp observation: how very secure and self-assured we feel arriving as a teacher with a set of slides full of theoretical ‘truths’, and how very vulnerable we can feel leaving home without them.
She dislikes the teaching of past learnings, describing such experience as ‘not perception, but the sensation of perception’s endurance’, which misses the essential ‘sense of immediacy, volatility… the air of query or postulate or vision’.
When old established learnings are displaced by novel perception, she celebrates the ‘actively felt’ rushing in, as ‘the air turns giddy with possibility’, adding that ‘nothing has been destroyed that continues to be prized – rather, space is added’.
She ends with an inspiring flourish: ‘I prefer teaching as a means to encounter the not fully realised, the sporadically wonderful’.
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“While play involves discovery within safe limits, creative activity involves taking loose comprehensive structures and tightening them” – George Kelly
a usefully different way of looking at creativity…
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An arts education network (www.earlyarts.co.uk) have been exploring constructions of creativity and play by asking their network members about their preferred focus. The results seem largely to depend on work sector – with ‘creativity’ in the foreground in arts settings, and ‘play’ in early years education. Their report notes the prevailing cultural association of creativity with product, and playfulness with process. They also suggest that creativity ‘sits higher in the unspoken hierarchy’, while playfulness is ‘something we don’t seem to have much time to do, either as parents or professionals’.
George Kelly wrote about this difference in volume 2 of The Psychology of Personal Constructs. His attempts to distinguish between play and creativity focus on the type of constructs we are starting with, and the purpose of the journey. As usual, I find his ideas interestingly different from the everyday use of these terms, and I love his typically wry ending.
‘Play is adventure. Its outcomes are always veiled in some delightful uncertainty. When a person plays they embark on a little voyage of discovery – all in the safety of their own backyard. They need have no forebodings that they might inadvertently step off the edge of their world. Through play we confidently dispel one little uncertainty after another. Each tidbit of discovery is greeted with surprise and laughter, thus, through play, one’s system of anticipation grows.
It is much the same with creative activity. This too is a means of shaping up one’s anticipations in the midst of foggy uncertainties. But, while play involves discovery within safe limits, creative activity involves taking loose comprehensive structures and tightening them. The creative person ordinarily starts with constructs which can neither be put into words nor communicated with any degree of precision. When they are finished, their idea is expressed in a form which is somewhat more communicable, though it may still defy verbal description and it may still look like a shapeless mass to unsympathetic spectators.’
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Stand at the back and pretend – the experience of learning to sing – Mary Frances
I remember the shame … pulled out of the group and told to just stand at the back and pretend … it led to a lifetime of standing at the back … making sure no-one could see or hear the real me. That had been the real me you see – that singing boy. (Alan)