SoTEL and the meaning of ‘teaching’

A highlight, for me, of the Inaugural Scholarship of Technology Enhanced Learning (SoTEL) symposium last week, was the discussion sparked by Prof. John Clayton’s trendsetter address.  John’s presentation explored the idea that knowledge is shaped by social context and the implications of this for designing a modern curriculum. John argued that the focus should be on the learner and what they can do or apply rather than on the teaching of curriculum content.  A lively discussion, facilitated by Mark Northover, followed.

It intrigued me that following a presentation which drew heavily on the idea of negotiating meaning, those of us who attended the session ended up debating the meanings of teacher and teaching.

The debate ended without any firm conclusions yet, it felt like an essential discussion to have and SoTEL felt like a safe place to have it. As Gert Biesta (2005) has pointed out:

One important reason why language matters to education, [is] because the language or languages we have available to speak about education determine to a large extent what can be said and done, and thus what cannot be said and done. (p. 54)

Mark rightly acknowledged the person in the audience who bravely pointed out that at least one of the issues with privileging learning over teaching is the potential to devalue teaching and teachers and their role in education. And that acknowledgement was important precisely because the dominant discourse, in John’s presentation, and arguably more widely in higher education, is the language of learning. Biesta (2012) describes the problem:

The problem with the language of learning and with the wider ‘learnification’ (Biesta, 2010a) of educational discourse is that it makes it far more difficult, if not impossible, to ask the crucial educational questions about content, purpose and relationships. (p.36)

So what is it about this language of ours that causes a room full of experienced teachers to falter over the meaning of the very words that describe what we do? Can we really not speak freely about teaching?

A couple of years ago, my colleague, Swee-Kin Loke and I published, Discursive constructions of teacher in an educational technology journal, a detailed corpus analysis of the use of the words teacher and teaching in every issue of AJET over a period of 23 years. Amongst other things, what we found was that the quality of being a teacher was predominantly represented as being old and negative and most frequently characterised as obsolete, didactic, ineffective, lacking interactivity, or restricting student autonomy. There is an implicit negative characterisation of teacher and teaching that dominates the educational technology research discourse. (At least, it does if several years of AJET can be taken to be representative of the discourse.)

As we point out in our paper, this portrayal of teacher-centred practices as being negative can be questioned and indeed was, even by the father of constructivism himself, Piaget (1970).

Generally speaking, since every discipline must include a certain body of acquired facts as well as the possibility of giving rise to numerous research activities and activities of rediscovery, it is possible to envisage a balance being struck… between the different parts being played by memorising and free activity (p. 78)

A number of  researchers more recently have challenged the appeal of student-centred approaches: In a review of empirical studies over a 50 year period, Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) found that student-centred instruction is less effective and less efficient than teacher-centred instruction; Selwyn (2012) cautions that researchers in the educational technology space often “unthinkingly” characterise new technologies and new pedagogies as being better than old ones; new is associated with progress. Our study of the AJET corpus, supports this association. Schweisfurth (2011) noted that the idea of student-centred education may be a Western construct, and largely irrelevant to non-Western cultures of learning. Indeed, in the course of the discussion following John’s presentation, it was pointed out that the Māori word, Ako makes no distinction between teacher and learner and is grounded in the idea of a reciprocal relationship.

Biesta argues that the language of learning, with its focus on meeting learner needs, not only makes it hard to value the work of teachers; it also makes it hard to even have a discussion about the point of education and the purpose of developing educational relationships. The “gift of the teacher”, he suggests, is that of bringing something new to light and that gift arises out of “the fragile interplay between the teacher and the student” Biesta (2012, p.42). If we lose the teacher and teaching in the contemporary discourse of learning do we risk losing that gift?

Nearly a century ago, Virgina Woolf, in a rare BBC recording commented that,

Words do not belong in dictionaries. Words, belong in the mind..

As long as words belong in the mind we must negotiate their meaning. And, following Wittgenstein, what is language if not meaning in use? Perhaps now, more than ever, in a period of rapid change in both technology and the institution of higher education, we surely have the responsibility to create meaning and, I would argue, a responsibility to respect and reimagine the essential role of the teacher. For there is no full-stop after student-centred learning; the uncritical adoption of the dominant discourse will do nothing to advance the scholarship of technology enhanced learning and teaching.

So, I’ll look forward to continuing this and many other useful discussions at SoTEL again next year – many thanks to the organisers for a thoroughly worthwhile event.






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