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Literacies, Part Two – Knowledge and Action

November 5, 2019

David Baume, PhD, SFSEDA, SFHEA

Fellow, University of London Centre for Distance Education

This follows Literacies, Part One.

Knowing and action

Building on Part One, we may be able to use the idea of literacies to reconceptualize – I would suggest, to recover – the idea of a discipline.

What do I mean by this? What got lost? What needs recovering?

Disciplines are often described, conceptualized, treated, as areas of knowledge.

Which might partly be fine.

Except that, somehow, in our course design and teaching and then in our assessment; and with no malign intent, but just in the way of things; knowledge is often gently reduced to declarative knowledge, to propositional knowledge, to content, to stuff.

We may reinforce this view of knowledge when we write knowledge down, when we lecture, above when we use unseen closed-book written examinations. Such examinations, whatever else we may intend them to assess, inevitably also assess knowledge. And, often, not much more. A recent examiner report (the Chatham House Rule applies here) spoke of the need, to obtain a good degree, for a student to actually address the question. A lower class of degree could be obtained by writing down some things that were relevant to the topic of the question. Really?  A degree?

“But”, you may protest, “in my examinations, I do not just test students’ knowledge. I also test students‘ abilities to apply, to critique, to compare and contrast, and to do other sophisticated high-level things with, and to, and about, knowledge.”

I am glad to hear this. But I imagine that you also prepare students for examinations? So, in their examinations, are they really doing these high-level things? Or are they, to some extent at least, recalling, and hopefully at least slightly modifying, answers they have previously read or constructed? Only you and they can know. (The QA system probably does not know. This is a hole at the heart of our assessment processes.)

There can also be snobbery at play here.  This snobbery prefers knowing over doing. Knowing is sometimes felt to be, is sometimes treated as, rarefied, exalted, a thing of fine minds and clean hands. Doing, by contrast – well, “horny-handed sons and daughters of toil” exemplifies a view of those who (merely) do.

Here is a true story about relations between knowing and doing. The event happen some 15 years ago. It has influenced me considerably, as I shall explain:

I went to see my GP. I described my symptoms. He paused, and then said “I am sorry, I’m just back from two weeks of holiday, and my brain seems to have emptied itself completely. Do you mind if I look this up?”

We had a good relationship, and he knew I worked in education. So what I said, as reported immediately below, was not intended or heard as rude.

“Hm. Let me think. Would I rather you guessed, possibly guessed wrong, and failed to cure me, or even made things worse? Or would I prefer you to look it up?”

He correctly took my questions as encouragement to look the symptoms up.  He used what he looked up – no doubt alongside his fast-returning memory – to prescribe a course of treatment. It worked.

In this short encounter with my GP, I discovered that I value what we may call expertise – the ability to do – of course the ability to do critically, intelligently, responsively, and in a knowledge-informed way, in whatever reputable place that knowledge is found – over knowledge alone.  I still take this view. And well beyond medicine.

What follows? Among other things, this advice:

  • Look it up.
  • Encourage your students to look it up.

Why?

  • You may have misremembered it. They may have misremembered it.
  • And some of the ‘its’ will have changed, some will have become wrong, some will have become irrelevant, some will have been superseded.

And looking it up gets easier by the month. And safe, as long as we constantly apply and hone our critical faculties.

This is how the real world works. Neither the use of closed-book unseen examinations, nor a snobbish, possibly class-based, preference of knowledge to action, should drag us into over-valuing knowledge.

A former colleague had previously served in the Army. He worked with artillery shells, fuses and the like. In his examinations, if he was seen to take any critical action without reference to the manual, he would immediately fail the examination. Not everything we and our students do can have explosive consequences. But surely some of what we and our students do matters? Surely it often makes sense to check?

Recovering disciplines as fields of practice – putting knowledge in its place

By ‘recovering the idea of a discipline’, I here mean conceptualizing and treating the discipline as a field of practice, and also as an identity – as something that  I do, perhaps even something that I am – well beyond, although still embracing, something that I know. Not rejecting the knowledge that is an important element of any discipline. Rather, putting that knowledge in its place; as a tool or object for critical and creative thought and action. rather than as the summit of aspiration.

Nothing of value is lost, I suggest, when we move away from considering disciplines as (just) bodies of knowledge, and instead / additionally consider them as fields of practice, and then as identities.

And much is gained.

How does that work?

It works as students both use and critique their advancing knowledge. Indeed, students learn knowledge, and much more besides, as they do the discipline; as they define and refine and tackle questions and problems; as they, critically and analytically, start to adopt and explore and test their forming disciplinary or professional identity.

Knowledge achieves much of its significance in action. Learning to do and learning to be, as developmental and critical functions, are at once more challenging and more rewarding than just learning content, learning stuff. I also addressed this in Part One.

Knowledge, capability and identity

The relationships between knowledge, capability and identity are complex. I shall not explore them further here. Except to suggest that the idea of a progression from, in terms from Bloom’s taxonomy of educational outcomes in the cognitive domain (Bloom, Kratwohl and Masia, 1974), knowing, and then advancing, as the years of study pass, through understanding and application to analysis then synthesis and evaluation, bears very little relation to how students actually learn. Bloom suggests, or is often taken to suggest, that students start by collecting and memorizing a bunch of facts. Then, on a second pass through, they come to understand these facts. And then they revisit these understood facts and learn how to apply them …

This is of course nonsense. Most teachers don’t wholly teach this way, fortunately. But I have seen this Bloomian idea of progression pervade teaching portfolios and HE Academy Fellowship claims. I was briefly seduced by it, early in my teaching career. But I recovered. The idea clearly at least affects the practice of teachers, and is sometimes made explicit in course handbooks. (Bloom, in these portfolios and claims, often lies alongside Kolb’s learning cycle and Biggs’ constructive alignment, the latter usually going much heavier on alignment than on constructivism.)  Perhaps, in relation to Bloom at least, the frequent disconnect between teachers’ espoused and enacted pedagogic theories (Baume 2017) is not such a bad thing.

A student is far more likely to learn when a problem, question, issue, idea or challenge seizes their attention, and when they work; at any and all six Bloom levels as appropriate; to solve the problem, answer the question, or do whatever it takes to satisfy them. For now.

The teacher has clear, important and rewarding roles here, including offering questions or problems, helping students to analyze these, and then steering and informing and challenging and reacting – and in helping students to do these things for themselves, and for and with each other. Not so much in telling students lots of stuff, in answering questions that students have not yet asked, as lectures often do.

Bloom’s Taxonomy can provide a valuable tool for analyzing the level of learning outcomes. But it is disastrous as a guide to course design.

Conclusion

So: I also like literacies, with their focus on doing, because they can help us to re-conceptualize disciplines in productive ways. Indeed they can help us to recover disciplines to something like what the discipline or profession means for the member, the practitioner, the advocate, the enthusiast, the lecturer.

Perhaps something like a field of academic, disciplinary and / or professional practice?

Reference

Bloom, B., Kratwohl, D. and Masia, B. (1974). Taxonomy of educational objectives. 1st ed. New York: David McKay.

Next time – Literacies and Beyond

From → Literacies

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