Category Archives: Learning Theories

Autonomy Tours in The Classroom

There is an essential dichotomy in education between knowledge for knowledge sake, and knowledge for other purposes, such as vocation. This division of purpose describes how knowledge in any field is positioned relative to other fields of knowledge. If I am studying Mathematics, for example, am I studying it to further my career as an engineer, or am I learning it for its own sake? This idea conveys a sense of the relative autonomy or heteronomity of knowledge. In the classroom students will often question why they are learning something. Will they really need to know trigonometry in their future lives? Why does the school not recognise their extensive and autonomous knowledge of Pokemon? Why study Shakespeare? Why study Latin?

I have written previously about semantic waves in the classroom. Semantic waves are an idea generated by Legitimation Code Theory – a perspective drawn from the ideas of Basil Bernstein and Pierre Bourdieu, authored by Karl Maton, and describes how ideas range from abstract to concrete (semantic gravity) and from simple to complex (semantic density). Knowledge building depends upon the strengthening and weakening of semantic gravity and semantic density. In this article I would like to look at another idea taken from Legitimation Code Theory which I believe has relevance for classroom teachers – the idea of autonomy tours (Maton & Howard, 2018).

I apologize for the highly academic discussion which follows. It is necessary I am afraid. The discussion is somewhat complex, but the idea behind it makes instant sense, I think, to any teacher and speaks directly to how we teach. How do we tie together different types of knowledge students are exposed to or bring into the classroom from outside? We are tasked with teaching a curriculum, but we also know that we need to leverage what students already know, or what they are learning in other subjects, and that we need to prepare our students for using what we are teaching them to solve problems or get ahead in life. But to give students useful cognitive tools we need to give them access to the rigorous and fairly insulated positions within the disciplines we teach. If we teach Maths we need to teach Maths properly, not just as a tool to help kids balance their budgets. We need to teach our subjects for their own values and worth (autonomy) rather than just as slaves to other purposes (heteronomity). But we cannot be blind to other purposes either.

In Legitimation Code Theory the notion of autonomy is expressed as a matrix describing the relative Positional and Relational Autonomy of any constituent (idea, actor, etc). What does this mean?

Positional Autonomy (PA) (the vertical axis) refers to how a constituent is positioned relative to a field. For example if the field is the study of History and you are studying the Russian Revolution, looking at the railway networks in Russia, this constitutes knowledge that has weak PA because it is not strongly related to the discipline of History. Looking at reports of debates inside the Smolny Institute might be considered as having strong PA because it is directly positioned as historical knowledge.

Relational Autonomy (RA), (the horizontal axis) on the other hand refers to how constituents of a field are related to other contexts or fields. This speaks to the question of the aim or purpose. For example, if my aim for looking at railway networks is to further my understanding of how revolutionary ideas were carried across Russia then it has strong RA towards the field, but if it is to do some historical train spotting it has weak RA.

Both PA and RA form a spectrum with gradations, varying from Strong Positional Autonomy (PA+) to Weak Positional Autonomy (PA-) and strong Relational Autonomy (RA+) to weak Relational Autonomy (RA-) as seen in the table above.

Describing these polarities as a matrix allows us to describe four distinct autonomy codes.

The Sovereign Code (PA+, RA+) describes when status is given to strongly insulated positions and purposes. Eg. using Historical knowledge to teach History. This is teaching the curriculum to learn the curriculum.

The Exotic Code (PA-, RA-) describes weakly insulated positions and purposes. Knowledge outside a discipline is used for purposes other than pursuing that discipline. Eg. discussing the rugby in a History class. It has nothing to do with the curriculum and is not being used to illuminate what is being studied in any way. 

The Introjected Code (PA-, RA+) also called the Roman Code describes knowledge from other positions being used for the purpose of pursuing aims within that discipline. Eg. using Geographical knowledge to teach History. Although not directly part of the curriculum, it is being studied to help understand an aspect of that curriculum better.

The Projected Code (PA+, RA-) also called the Trojan Code describes using insulated knowledge for other purposes, Eg. using historical knowledge for another purpose, telling a joke or making a point about modern parallels. Curriculum is being used for another purpose which lies outside the curriculum.

We have had to wade through quite a technical explanation above, but I hope to show now how this speaks to classroom practice. Learning which stays in one code risks never having any relevance to building knowledge. One of the greatest weaknesses in our education system is that students can display knowledge of something they have learned, but never be able to use that knowledge in different contexts, or to see the relevance in one discipline of what they have learned in another. Worst of all it is utterly divorced from their real lives. There is no knowledge building between disciplines and so students are being robbed of the ability to apply their knowledge in different contexts and for different purposes.

An understanding of the autonomy codes, I believe, helps a teacher to understand how they need to shift between the codes to maximise knowledge building practices.  The Sovereign Code represents the target of knowledge, but if students already grasp the concepts then staying in the Sovereign Code represents boredom and monotony, and if they do not understand the concepts then there is little opportunity to grasp them being offered. Staying in one code represents severe limitations on any course of study.

For most students the only field available to help leverage academic knowledge comes from every day knowledge (the exotic code). Teachers who do not range out into other fields to help students understand are missing an opportunity. Most classrooms see frequent journeys into the exotic code as the teacher tries to make material accessible. As a schoolboy in the sixties and seventies much of my education reflected a one way trip out of the sovereign code and into the exotic code. We might have been sitting in a Maths class, but all someone had to do was say, “What did you think of the rugby on Saturday, sir?” and all thoughts of Maths went out the window and the rest of the lesson revolved around poor ball handling and who should be selected to play against the All Blacks! However, trips into the exotic code are vital for anchoring understanding. Teachers often, quite legitimately, use knowledge of unrelated things to help explain an idea or concept they are teaching. Let us say a teacher is teaching a topic around international trade. Because students have little or no knowledge of trade between nations, the teacher might well use an analogy of how kids trade Pokemon cards, and bring that idea back to the context of the lesson. Without this trip into the exotic the concept might never have been understood. The key of course is the ability of the teacher to bring the discussion back to the point of the lesson, rather than getting stuck on the exotic and never returning. A return trip is needed between the codes, bringing the lesson back on point.

Equally, the ability to tie knowledge across different disciplines is crucial to building worthwhile knowledge. Students will often use Mathematical knowledge in a Science class, graphing data, for example. This represents inter-disciplinary knowledge building. Geography often presents knowledge relevant for the study of History, and so on. These return trips run between the Introjected and Sovereign Codes. If students are given a sense of how they might be able to apply the knowledge they are learning in other contexts, then we have journeys between the Sovereign and Projected Codes.

Perhaps most powerfully of all, however, is the notion of an Autonomy Tour, in which the teacher will lead a class from one code, through another or more codes and return to where they began. What is powerful about this is the idea that knowledge is being linked and applied in different contexts and for different purposes. Modelling such a tour teaches students how to build knowledge across different contexts and how to apply what they have learned in new contexts. The idea of the Autonomy Tour offers a powerful way of analysing what goes on in the classroom, but also describes virtuous practice. As classroom teachers it is vital for us to think about how we use our pedagogical approaches to maximise the benefits of knowledge building and plan our lessons to help students make sense of what we are teaching them.


Maton, Karl & Howard, Sarah. (2018). Taking autonomy tours: A key to integrative knowledge-building. LCT Centre Occasional Paper. 1.


Five Apps that Support Student Voice in the Classroom

Essential to a healthy diaologism in the classroom is the need to foster student voice. Students need time to explore their ideas, formulate and reformulate thoughts and sharpen their understandings in their own words. Despite being perhaps the most crucial aspect of the educational process, it is often the least scaffolded and least supported. Student essays, for example are frequently corrected and handed back, but very little is done to offer students usable strategies to organize their thoughts better or focus their thinking. Digital technologies do, however, offer some affordances to help teachers scaffold student voice better.

1. Google Docs

One of the problems with paper is that teachers can only really see what students are writing after they have written it. Even if students hand in a draft version of their thoughts, the difference between a draft and a final version is often cosmetic at best. Unless time is spent on the revision process, and this time is usually not available in the classroom, thoughts and arguments are set in place by the end of an initial draft. At worst the final copy is frequently just a neat version of the draft! One of the key affordances of Google Docs, however, is that it allows the teacher, and other students, to read and comment while the document is in the process of being written. This represents unparalleled access to thoughts being formed during the process of writing, as immediate, almost, as discussion. I enjoy the ability to reflect before commenting on what a student is writing. Sometimes in a discussion moments are missed. Just a few moments of reflection allow more considered responses.

As a teacher you can also create documents which serve as templates scaffolding thinking, working towards a formulation of their thoughts, leading up to the final presentation of ideas. This offers very real opportunities for teachers to teach thinking and writing skills, beyond anything that paper can offer. Documents can be shared for class or group discussion.

2. Flipgrid

While Google Docs provide opportunities for scaffolding writing, Flipgrid provides ways for students to record brief messages using a web camera or mobile phone and posting them on a wall to exchange ideas, or reflect on a topic. Students can delete at any stage and recommence a recording. They can view what peers are posting and if you upgrade to a paid version, comment on others’ posts.

These posts are then available to further in-class discussion or as the basis for a piece of writing. Students can speak off the cuff, or prepare what they are going to say for more formal purposes. Teachers can also use the platform to introduce a topic, or to add comments at any stage of a discussion.

Flipgrid is thus a useful tool for monitoring students’ thoughts and using this to help scaffold their thinking.

3. VideoPad

VideoPad is powerful video editing software which can be freely downloaded and used by students to create and edit videos in a sharable format. Students can use footage captured on their devices or stills images. They can add narration, subtitles or animations. Even green-screen capability is included. Clips can be precisely edited to put together a presentation using dramatization or explanation.

Creating a short movie is an effective way for students to organise their thoughts and present their ideas in formats other than the essay or PowerPoint presentation. It allows students to respond to literary texts or present content in different ways. The process is engaging and fun. The ability to be creative around how narratives are structured and woven together makes this kind of digital authoring an excellent way of varying the diet in the classroom.

What I like about VideoPad in particular amongst the video-editing options available is its relatively sophisticated functionality alongside its fairly simple interface. Importing footage in different formats can be an issue, but the software is quite robust. The ability to easily add sub-titles and captions, and to overlay more than one audio track is a definite plus. Students will often spend a great deal of time creating movie projects so it is best to set time limits!

4. WordPress

WordPress is a blogging platform that provides students with an excellent platform for creating opportunities for students to write in authentic, or relatively authentic contexts, with a real public in mind. You can create an account for each student which allows them to author blog content and publish to the site. It is a great platform for a class magazine. Students will often write fairly telegraphically and you will probably need to scaffold their first contributions to ensure that they are meaty enough, and set the tone for the submissions that follow. You can create blog sites around particular themes, such as an historical period or literary work, where students will contribute pieces that appear as “newspaper” like entries exploring themes and topics being studied.

The genre of writing that can be done on a blog can vary from pure creative writing to perspective exploration or even factual discursive writing. This flexibility is useful and the same platform can be used. You can use a blog to collaborate between different classes, schools or continents, exploring a common theme, topic or problem. Students can leave comments on each other’s posts which can be very useful. Appointing moderators is a good idea.

5. PowerPoint

PowerPoints Presentations can be the worst things ever. But if done well, nothing beats a PowerPoint for supporting a well-delivered presentation. It is available on most people’s computers, has a host of functionalities and is portable and so ubiquitous as to provide few technical challenges. Students enjoy using the software and if you take the time to help them create presentations that complement their verbal presentations, for example using only keywords and images, students learn a very valuable and marketable life skill.

Most classrooms at some stage or another will call on students to make a verbal presentation, and the use of a PowerPoint can not only help a student through what for many is a nerve-wracking experience, it can also add to the presentation greatly.

Giving students an opportunity to organise and voice their ideas and receive feedback, preferably as early and as often as possible is at the heart of education. technology can help make that thinking more visible to the teacher and to peers, and thus invite a dialog between teacher and students over how best to communicate one’s ideas.


Five Apps that Support Group Work in the Classroom

Constructivist Learning Theory emphasises the value of Group Work in the Classroom. As Vygotsky has highlighted, learning is first social before it becomes internalised. In other words the more opportunities students have to discuss and work through any content, the greater the opportunity to internalise that content. And yet many students have a hatred of group work. Learning to work with other people is not easy. Those with a healthy work ethic often do not know how to handle interactions with those who have less of a motivation to finish a task. Those who are used to achieving high marks for their individual assignments often feel resentful towards those who who turn in work they consider drags them down. Should they just take over and do all the work themselves, or do they accept peer contributions which they consider sub-standard? Others in the group may be resentful of those who try to take over, or who come across as bossy or exacting. And yet, more than ever, learning to work together and think interdependently is considered a crucial and employable skill.

Are there any digital applications which can help quieten the choppy Group Work waters? Here are five suggestions.

1. Google Docs

Google Docs provide unparalleled functionality for facilitating collaborative text authoring. A document can be shared with all members of the group, and the teacher, and then all who have been given editing rights can simultaneously work on the document. All changes are saved automatically. There is an online chat facility, and authors can leave comments and suggest edits. One of the greatest limitations on collaboration has always been the difficulties around sharing a document and writing one up. One member of the group often had to volunteer to do the “write up”. Google docs allows for this workload to be shared.

Teachers can carefully scaffold tasks within a Google doc and then share the document with a group so that the steps to be taken are highlighted, and strategies which might be deployed to afford collaborative thinking are suggested. In the graphic, the teacher is suggesting that de Bono Thinking Hats might help the group explore explore the topic though parallel thinking. Teachers can comment at any stage during the authoring process much as teachers circulating in a classroom can eavesdrop and intervene where necessary to get a group back on track. This allows teachers to  continue scaffolding learning in class, and outside class while students are authoring their write up.

These affordances for collaborative authoring and scaffolding make Google docs one of the most valuable educational tools to emerge in recent years. Students are able to use Google docs both while in group discussion, and for after-school homework.

2. is a web-based tool, with limited free and paid options. It allows users to set up a mind-map board which groups discussing a topic can use to create mind maps and save these as a jpeg, png or even html, which can be downloaded and shared. Upgrading to paid versions allows users to share a mind-map which can then be used for follow-up tasks.

One of the limitations of any paper based mind-map is how to share it, if the ideas are needed for follow-up action. To my mind, mind mapping tools offer the key affordance of guiding discussion around how ideas fit together. It forces students to address issues such as where does this idea fit? This helps sharpen an argument. allows grid, tree and bubble layouts. You can insert files only with an upgraded paid version, but the free version does allow links, so students can use the mind map to record useful links.

Some way of recording a discussion in a form which can later be shared is invaluable, but mind maps are especially valuable because they force students to simultaneously organise their thoughts.

3. Padlet

Padlet is a web-based tool which has free and paid options. The free version allows up to four walls. On a wall you can add files, voice and video recordings, links searched from within Google, text and doodles. You can share the wall with other users, each with authoring rights, or share a link, or wall saved as pdf or image.

The chief affordance to my mind is the facility for co-authors to add voice or video messages to the wall. This provides a superb tool for a group to collect resources and leave commentary both while planning a project, and when leaving a report back, with group members recording commentary on different aspects of a topic.

A teacher can set up a topic and invite students to co-author a document, thus setting up a group, and providing impetus sources if required, or groups can set up their own walls and share with each other informally, or with the teacher, formally. Walls have different themes and templates which can be applied. A wall can be deleted when it is no longer needed.

4. Kahoot!

Kahoot! is a tool which allows students to create quizzes or games or discussion boards which they can then share with the rest of the class. This is a great end product which encourages a group to research a topic, master the content and share with the class in the form of a quiz. Students find Kahoots engaging to create and to consume. This provides one means a teacher can use to ensure that the end product is itself engaging and encourages the group to take care in its creation.

Thinking of suitable questions to ask the rest of the class is a great way to get students to dig down deeper into a topic than they might otherwise have done so. The competitive nature of the quizzes also seems to encourage students to put in greater effort.

5. Lino

Lino is a sticky note web-based application which allows multiple users to post sticky notes on a topic. Users can post files, links to videos or images on an electronic cork-board. This allows for group-based brainstorming. It is a very versatile tool in that it can be used by a group or whole class and used for multiple purposes from group discussion through to presentation and feedback or reflection.

I like to use it as a reflection tool for students to post final comments on a topic after group-based feedback presentations have been made. It is quick and visual  and allows for a rapid round-up of reflections or comments and makes for a good way to sign off on a topic.

For a teacher it is a good way to spot any comments which reveal need for further action. Maybe some aspect of the topic needs to be picked up on at a later stage, or could do with further exploration.

This list of tools is by no means exhaustive. There may be better examples of applications with improved functionality. All of these tools, however, represent different ways in which collaborative group-based work can be usefully supported and enhanced. Please use the comments to suggest other tools, or share how you are using these tools.








Mentoring – The Killer App? Using Game Mechanics to achieve Differentiated Learning Opportunities.

One of the great conundrums facing education is that while we as teachers know that students only learn effectively when they are in their proximal zones of development, ie. learning something just a little above their current competence, we sit with classes of twenty to forty students, each one with different learning needs! How to personalise learning when economics determines larger class sizes remains the burning issue of our times. In an ideal world all classes might be one-on-one, or relatively small group sessions when preferred. In that way all instruction could be tailored towards the precise needs of each individual student. Those promoting the use of computers have long touted the machine as an answer. BF Skinner’s teaching machines promised the panacea of an infinitely patient machine providing students with individualised content and appropriate feedback, using branching procedures to make sure that each student received exactly what they needed to maximise learning. These machines did not work, however, and were quickly labelled drill and kill!

Now it might be that advances in Artificial Intelligence will deliver machines more capable of the subtlety and empathy required for effective content delivery and feedback, but we are not there yet. In my experience computer driven instructional software tends to be rejected by students overwhelmingly. The classroom still sits with the problem of one teacher and multiple students, and no clear way to offer personalization efficiently and effectively. Dan Buckley’s Personalisation By Pieces approach offers perhaps the best solution yet. Students create pieces of work which demonstrate mastery of skills. This work is uploaded electronically and assessed by a peer mentor who has passed the skill level being demonstrated. This provides the student with accreditation at that level and enables them to mentor and assess others. There is more to the system than this, but in a nutshell this is what is used to establish a cycle of virtuous practice designed to create independent learners.

The model presented is of two possible routes for Personalisation, one teacher lead (T-Route) and the other student driven (P-Route). The uses of ICT are accordingly different, specifically being used to monitor and record progress, and link peer mentors and mentees and provide them with channels of communication rather than to prepare teacher resources and instructional materials. Crucially learning becomes student-directed, with multiple pathways available and students able to choose which direction they wish to pursue. The key difference between the Personalisation By Pieces approach and Skinner’s Teaching Machines lies in the key insight that mentorship works to the benefit of both parties! Students who have completed a level are more than capable and benefit from helping explain, mentor and assess the work of their peers.

As Vygotsky noted, learning is social in the first instance, and we need the assistance of a more experienced other to help us bridge the gap between what we already know or can do, and what it is that we are learning. A system which uses peer mentor assessment could be crucial in providing the kind of individualised feedback that promotes personalised learning pathways. In my view this does not down-play the role of the teacher, whose whole class instruction and oversight of progress remains crucial.

Now the PbyP approach obviously crosses the borders of individual classrooms and schools in linking mentors and mentees, but it would be interesting to see what could be done even within individual classrooms and without the benefit of a custom-built ICT platform like PbyP.

Computer Gaming is often seen as the enemy of education, but as James Paul Gee has pointed out in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, computer games demonstrate principles of learning in remarkably efficient ways! Players are kept in their proximal zones of development and learning is artfully scaffolded. Players do not feel daunted by failure, they simply try and try and try again. Ample time is given for these re-takes, and the rewards are epic! No player seems to resent someone who is a level or two ahead of them, they simply strive to get their themselves. Players are also generous in their assistance, mentoring newbies and sharing strategies and tactics. We could do a lot worse than getting our classrooms to emulate games.

I am not arguing that every lesson should be gamified, or that the syllabus should be rewritten as a game. There is a great deal of knowledge which cannot be gamified. But I am suggesting that game mechanics should be used as exemplars of classroom management practice. In a game, players take on urgent tasks, but not necessarily in any given order. They tend to tackle that task and keep working at it until a solution is found. They may suffer spectacular failure, but bounce back until they succeed. Players collaborate to help each other out. This is exactly what we would like to see in the classroom. But how do we get the same effects without trivializing the tasks involved?

As a teacher of English Second Language, I often found a great deal of differentiation in level amongst the students in my class. But with classes of 35 plus, addressing everyone’s specific needs was difficult without creating a variety of tasks graded for ability. This is not really very difficult to do. Take comprehension skills, for example. I still did whole class instruction when tackling skills, strategies and approaches to comprehension. But when it came to selecting practice tasks for students to tackle, it is easy enough to have a box full of differentiated tasks, colour-coded for reading ability. These can be used across age cohorts. When tackling language skills, I would direct those students struggling with concord, for example, towards exercises around this, and those needing more work with vocabulary towards these tasks. I kept a file with a page per student to record what tasks had been completed, and what needed further work. While not very game-like, this did mean that students were tackling mastery across parallel, overlapping, but differentiated paths. One can easily imagine overlaying game mechanics to create a more engaging experience. Students loved the individual attention they were getting. I was usually able to sit down with about a third of my class in any session and I used to assess work in front of them and give feedback and follow-up tasks at the same time. I have never believed in taking marking home with me!

As a Computer Skills teacher I have a gamified my syllabus completely in that all the tasks revolve around a narrative – see The Mobius Effect – Gamifying Your Classroom. But while these tasks allow for different speeds of progress they are not differentiated according to learning needs. This is partly because a computer skills syllabus does not really involve much work that is really complicated. There are only so many spreadsheet skills, for example. Something more complicated and nuanced, such as comprehension skills provides far more need for branching. Many students struggle with idiomatic expressions. There appears to be something of a generation gap between the authors of pieces used in comprehension passages, magazine or newspaper articles, and school-aged readers. But others may be misconstruing the connotations of words and therefore missing the purpose of the writing. Differentiated learning paths would greatly benefit students in this instance. But simply adding a games layer to your English classroom may seem forced and artificial. Simply awarding badges and posting leaderboards does not seem to me to be the answer either.

The idea of using peer mentorship and assessment using more experienced peers to be found in Personalisation By Pieces, however, seems to me to offer a real alternative. To take our example of Comprehension Skills, having a student who is struggling with idiomatic language usage receive help and have a task based on idioms assessed by someone who has recently “passed” a unit of work based on idioms would deliver a useful and authentic context for games-like level based achievement. This could be achieved across grades and ages using online piece submission platforms such as Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams for Education. Analog work could be scanned for submission purposes if need be. This would provide a paper trail and record of what was covered.





Technology vs Pedagogy – a false dichotomy!

The debate around technology and pedagogy is often framed as one of mutual, and inevitable progress. Adopt new technologies, the refrain goes, and you will see a turn from teacher-centred to learner-centred pedagogies! From Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow to the various United Nations frameworks and the popular SAMR model, the aim of introducing technology in the classroom is said to be to drag teaching towards Constructivist learning practices. This approach has a number of problems. Chief among these is that it assumes that teachers are the problem. Add technology to the mix and it will loosen the hold teachers have on the classroom and unlock learning, which is somehow being impeded by teaching. Teachers are blamed for either being slow to adopt technology in the classroom, or of doing it wrongly!

But is teaching really the problem? There is no logical contradiction between teaching and learning. It is a false dichotomy. Yes, many teachers do talk too much, and there is plenty of bad teaching going on. But a belief in Constructivist learning theories does not remove the need for teaching, even for instruction. I would argue that an effective classroom involves good teaching and good learning. Constructivism describes how students learn, but how teachers teach is logically distinct. Put another way, just because I learn by constructing knowledge in my mind does not mean that the most efficient way I receive the information may not be a lecture or a book which tells me things. What good teachers tend to do is strike the balance so that they are able to scaffold learning efficiently and deliver content when it is needed.

So a much better question is not really about how technology should side-line teachers or move from teacher to learner centred approaches, but how teachers can use technology to more effectively scaffold learning and improve instruction when that is necessary.

Framing the problem in this way may seem purely playing semantics, but by removing the stigma attached to teaching, I believe it is a necessary nuance which needs spelling out. Anyone who has ever taught with computers will know that the machine becomes a very real presence in the room which does push the teacher to the side. Student gaze is directed at the screen. The teacher becomes a support intervention. And yet this does not mean an automatic strengthening of learning. Machines may be very poor teachers and provide little or no opportunities for Constructivist learning. When the assumption is made that the introduction of computers in education will automatically lead to more active learning, what is really meant is that teachers will be side-lined and it is assumed that this will lead to more effective learning. This view is facile. The aim is noble, but there is little evidence that this is what actually happens.

We need to be very clear that an effective classroom is one in which effective meaning making activities are going on. Knowledge is being constructed and deconstructed in meaningful ways. The pedagogy being deployed is not important. Neither is the technology. The purpose of pedagogy and technology is to effectively support meaning making. Whether or not pedagogies and technologies achieve this depends on how they are deployed and to what purpose. If the aim is to deliver content efficiently, a lecture can be the most effective choice. If the aim is to get students to explore their reactions to some text a lecture would be a disastrous choice. Teachers know this, and are very eclectic. Teachers, good ones anyway, are seldom wedded to any particular pedagogy, but take a pick and mix approach depending on what they are trying to do.

The issue is thus not one of pedagogy vs technology and which one trumps the other, but how educational technologies and pedagogies support learning in the classroom. Teachers are darn right to be suspicious of new technologies, and right to be cautious! They are also right to reject the notion that only one set of pedagogies are correct! What is actually important is the learning, and how best to teach to support that learning.


The Dialogic Wave – A New Pedagogy?

One of the most toxic ideas in Education in the last thirty years is the whole notion that teachers should not teach. In South Africa this has led to a vast dereliction of duty as teachers became styled as facilitators and were made to feel somewhat guilty for teaching. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting in any way that Education is all about teaching, it is also about learning. Teaching and learning form two sides of a single coin. I am not suggesting that teachers should not facilitate learning either. Of course they need to, but what I am saying is that there is a time and a place for teachers to teach! I am also suggesting that learning depends upon that!

As learning theories have shifted towards Constructivist notions that learning requires the active construction of knowledge by the learner rather than some kind of mysterious transmission from the mouth of a teacher to the mind of the student, so has teaching come to be viewed rather suspiciously. And yet the two are not logically connected. The fact that to learn something I need to put ideas together in my own mind and build structures of knowledge that are unique to myself is not in question. The old notion that learning was like filling up a bucket by pouring ideas in does not stand up at all. I cannot understand anything until I have integrated it with other knowledge structures in my head. Meaning is therefore somewhat subjective. But this does not mean that knowledge is somehow independent of an external reality, or divorced from the understandings of others.

To my mind one of the clearest statements of the interrelationship between teaching and learning comes from the ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher and literary critic who developed the idea of Dialogism. All language has both centripetal and centrifugal forces acting upon it. When we speak about a horse, for example, we probably both agree on a set of meanings encapsulated in that word. These centripetal forces allow us to communicate meaningfully and for common understandings to emerge. However, it is very unlikely that we both have exactly the same image in mind. You might imagine an Arab stallion, while I may have more of a Shetland pony in mind. These centrifugal forces can sometimes create quite serious miscommunications. Because our experiences of the world have been different the meanings and understandings that we attach to words is undoubtedly different. Bakhtin described these forces in terms of a dialogism. Common understandings represent a Monologism of say the academy, received wisdom, the teacher, the voices of power. Our diverse individual understandings represent a dialogic discourse, the power of voice. Education of course may be seen as a process of interweaving between these forces. Without the monologic voice no understanding is possible, but equally learning depends upon the dialogic voices of individual minds. the richest experiences emerge from the meeting of minds. We learn socially and what is in our heads is by no means ours alone, it is what results from a dialogism.

This conceptualization speaks eloquently to the idea that learning requires an element of teaching. I have no direct experience of quantum physics. Not even remotely! If I am to have any knowledge of the subject I need to be told it, the concepts and ideas behind quantum physics need to be explained to me . As I hear the explanation I desperately try to relate it to things that I can understand and might come to a somewhat idiosyncratic understanding heavily dependent on metaphor and whatever I can remember of school-boy Science lessons. Should I engage in more prolonged and systematic study I will start to understand ideas which will allow me to understand quantum physics better. My understandings will change as I construct more insightful schemas in my mind, and my understanding over time will correlate much better with the understanding of real physicists. This resolution between the monologic and dialogic will be instantly comprehensible to anyone who has ever tried to learn anything. I may come to an understanding of very simple things through experience, but complex and abstract ideas are not going to bubble out of my own experiential knowledge. I will need to be taught things!

The schooling curriculum largely consists of rather abstract knowledge atomised into subject disciplines, each with their own procedures and ways of legitimizing knowledge. As attractive and Romantic an idea it might be to imagine that the fresh and unschooled view has primacy, the reason we engage in the educational process is to gain the knowledge and understanding of a practitioner in whatever field we are studying. My experience and voice has value, but ultimately if I want to be a quantum physicist I am going to need to try to understand what more experienced others know. Even if I am self schooled, the only way I can learn anything meaningful is by engaging with the ideas of experts through the pages of books, or increasingly these days webinars and YouTube videos!

But this is not to say that the knowledge I gain is not constructed in my own head and remains somewhat idiosyncratic. Your understanding of Bakhtin, for example, and the uses you put it to might be quite different from mine. But nevertheless we both need to have read Bakhtin in some form or other, or had his ideas explained to us by someone. This process is what I mean by teaching. Any learning either of us has done on the subject stems from this initial teaching. Without it we would have no understanding at all. Learning is thus predicated on teaching. Even Discovery learning as a pedagogy is somewhat of a misnomer. The teaching is simply happening in another form, most commonly from books.

Of course explanation alone is worthless. You could explain quantum physics to me all day, and without some kind of useful prior knowledge, foundational knowledge, none of it will stick. I am sure we have all experienced someone trying to explain something to us that was simply so beyond all our knowledge as to be gobbledygook! What experienced teachers are really good at is explaining things and then helping students go through the process of assimilating and integrating this knowledge into new schemas, scaffolding their construction of new knowledge through carefully chosen activities and exercises. Dialogic student voices are listened to and shaped towards more mature understandings. Lessons often consist of some form of explanation, followed by tasks designed to help students take that knowledge on board and make it their own. The best lessons often revolve around students sharing their discoveries and changing understandings. But without the teaching input, no matter how brief, or in what form it is delivered, all that Constructivist learning is impossible.

In the last few posts on this blog I have used a theoretical tool called Semantic Waves to discuss how technology is used in the classroom. The tool comes from a theoretical approach called Legitimation Code Theory, based on the work of Basil Bernstein, Pierre Bourdieu and Karl Maton. Semantic Waves trace the strengthening and weakening of semantic gravity (how abstract or concrete an idea is) and density (how simple or complex). Research into semantic waves in the classroom seems to suggest that good teaching and learning is dependent upon the range and frequency of these movements. Put simply, good teachers move between abstract and concrete, and between complex and simple ideas all the time, and give students opportunities to do the same. Movement needs to be in both directions. Abstract, complex ideas need to be unpacked, made more concrete and simple to understand, and students need to learn how to take concrete or simple ideas and tease out more abstract, complex, more academic understandings of whatever they are looking at.

Poor learning opportunities often coincide with flatlines, either where the lesson remains too abstract, or too concrete, never moving between the two.

I first came across this approach in my studies, as a tool for understanding what happens, or doesn’t happen in classrooms, but I have found that semantic waves are a very useful pedagogical approach as well. My lessons have always pivoted around instructional and exploratory moments (monologic and dialogic turns), but being consciously aware of the semantic gravity and density of any lesson turns out to be extremely useful. What I discovered by analysing the content of my own lessons was that while I was pretty good at explaining things, using metaphor or examples to help students understand concepts, not all my tasks, though designed to explore student voices, were designed to increase the complexity or abstraction of the ideas behind the lesson. It is easy to assume that simply because you are giving students an opportunity to voice their own understandings and explore them, that it will always lead to a more academic or rigorous understanding. Perhaps it is because I am an English teacher, and in teaching literature understanding is paramount. We read to understand the poem or novel and voice our reactions and opinions to it. That is often struggle enough!

When teaching writing, however, my concerns very much aligned with the upward movement of the semantic wave, trying to teach students how to use their own experiences and draw out thematic treatments to improve their writing. But when I thought about how I was teaching literature I realised that I was not paying enough attention to scaffolding how students take the text and draw out the themes and concerns of the work. This was something I needed to do much more consciously. I had been a little taken in by the warm fuzzy glow of having students come to terms with themes, exploring it in their own voice. In a sense I had been too caught up in the sense of completing the dialogic, and had not paid enough attention to the semantics.

If we wish to transform our educational system and move away from a reliance on the regurgitation of understanding towards teaching students how to create meaning, which is surely what critical thinking is all about, we need to be much more conscious of how students construct abstract and complex ideas. This concern needs to be built into our pedagogical DNA. Our teaching cannot just be dialogic, it must also be uplifting.


Big Data in Education – Big Brother!

The recent shenanigans surrounding Cambridge Analytica and Facebook reveals reasons why we should be very wary of Big Data in education. The argument is often advanced that computerization of the classroom will allow for the collection of large amounts of data on a student’s progress and for increased personalization and more effective pedagogical approaches to be adopted. Teachers are limited and when asked to teach large classes especially, are often unable to give the kind of individual attention we would like. This idea harks back to the teaching machines beloved of Behaviourist psychology and the dream that programmed learning paths could be built into instructional design in such a way as to deliver the right content at the right time for each individual, making learning much more efficient. I have two problems with this notion. Firstly it ignores the crucial understanding of learning as a social construct, reducing it to a solitary interaction between student and teacher (machine). And secondly it dovetails so neatly with the great push for Taylorist efficiency and the erosion of privacy as to raise alarm bells around our civil liberties. If they can gather so much data about us when we are young and in school, how on earth will they use it later when a student has graduated? Will that data be destroyed or sold on for profit? Will the data belong to the student, the school or the educational publishers producing the software?

At the risk of sounding like a Conspiracy Theorist, I do believe that it is incumbant on us as teachers to do everything in our power to protect the data of our students, especially such sensitive data as intimate knowledge of learning patterns and behaviours! If I know how you learn, I have great insight into how to control your behaviour, what shoes you will buy, or how you will vote!

As important as this point is, I do not want to dwell on it. Learning is not individual, It is social, as Vygotsky pointed out. We learn first socially and then internalize that knowledge individually. The distance between the two, Vygotsky termed the Proximal Zone of Development. We need more experienced others to show us not only how to do things or to pass on knowledge, but also to show us what is knowable. What we believe it is desirable to know is also socially constructed. I learn to do things first with the help, guidance and instruction of others, and then, after a while, am able to do it myself. Can machines fulfil the role of the more experienced other? In some ways, yes. Pressey’s testing machines from the 1920s or Skinner’s teaching machines from the 1950s demonstrated that programmed learning could be used with some degree of success. However, these machines, and the computer programs that replaced them have not been dubbed drill and kill for nothing! While there is some research evidence that they were successful for weaker students, their interface and relentless diet of machine delivered question and answer killed all motivation and they lost favour as the fortunes of Behaviourism waned.

As Constructivist learning theories gained traction, learning machines were ditched in favour of new theories about how machines could be used in the classroom. Seymour Papert’s influential Constructionism and approaches such as Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow came into vogue. Computers were to be used by students to author content and as tools for active learning. But beyond this, with the advent of the Internet, computers came to be seen as above all else tools for communication and collaboration, well suited for affording contact between students. Google docs, with its capacity to allow multiple users to author a single document simultaneously unlocked the power of collaboration. Skype could bring other students from across the globe into a classroom, or allow videos to be exchanged across continents. These are hugely engaging uses, and if used properly, can have enormous educational benefits. But they depend on being almost invisible. When you are collaborating in a Google hangout or a Google doc you are not concerned about the technology, you are engaging with other people’s minds! Learning is social, meaning we learn by, with and from others.

The notion of the computer as a device that could track student progress and provide just the right input and feedback at just the right time never quite went away, however, and the growing capacity of computers to do this has led to a resurgence in the belief in personalized teaching machines. Many platforms allow student progress to be tracked and content unlocked depending on progress. Khan Academy, for example has such an interface, and programs such as MyMaths allow teachers to track progress on a dashboard. While this may seem innocuous and indeed beneficial, the drill and kill effect is often cited by students who resist, or try to subvert such programs when they are used in the classroom. These programs are sold in the name of personalization and with a Big Data tagline. The technology may improve, but at the moment these uses of technology are viewed by students as boring and alienating.

And if the technology improves, the Conspiracy Theorist in me starts to be afraid, really afraid!

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