Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Values, Practice and Theory in Educational Technology and Society

There is an immense array of different kinds of activity which go on in education. It seems reasonable to say that education is a microcosm of society: much of the knowledge we have about each other's likely behaviour comes from the social experiences in school. We know how the bully, or the swot, or the joker, or the procrastinator, or the team-builder will behave partly because we got to know these people in the classroom. We got to know them particularly because our lives were framed by the educational universe with its shared activities, obligations and responsibilities. But this is all personal knowledge. What if we were to try and formalise the knowledge we gain from education and apply it to social thinking?

There are plenty of social theorists out there, and there are plenty of theories about how society works. There are also rather few effective theories of education (is there one??). Why might that be? Well, my guess is its easy to theorise about something that remains essentially abstract: whilst social structures may well be real, we don't understand them properly, and the typical academic response to not understanding something properly is to focus on universals, not particulars, and to mind one's own academic career in talking about abstractions. Education, on the other hand, is inescapably concrete. The kid who can't write, or the teacher who's incredibly boring (or exciting) are very real and individual phenomena. The complexity of explaining it is enormous. In education we seem incapable of grasping real subjectivity; instead, we accept (uncritically) abstract subjectivity - a neo-Kantian transcendental subject - ideal subjects who fit ideal theories. Real learners, real teachers and real schools go out of the window.

I want to find a way in which we can map experiences in education onto experiences outside it (I'm doing this for a bid at the moment). Originally, I thought that we could categorise forms of activity, and map them across different domains (I blogged about that here: I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but now I think the mapping exercise won't work. It is simply too difficult. But there is something deeper which might work.

Everybody, whether they are an academic sociologist, or a practising teacher, has core values about what they are doing, why, what matters and what doesn't matter. Values are rather like personal 'fault lines': they exist at the limits of the disparities between the different sets of understandings we possess. Even the most mild-mannered academic can be hot blooded and aggressive if they feel their values are under threat. Values are tied up with identities. In academics they are also tied up with theories about the world. With teachers, they are tied up with approaches to teaching and learning and attitudes to learners.

So what if we simply present academics and practitioners with a list of values like "trust", or "commitment", or "responsibility" or "obligation" or "privacy" or "identity" and ask them to describe what they mean to them? Then we ask them to describe how this description fits with their broader description of the world. What will emerge? Well, my guess is that there will be differences between value descriptions not just between different academics, but between teachers and academics. Theoretical descriptions will not fit the world of practical experience. We see this is Educational Technology interventions all the time. And these gaps between theory and practice can be a driver for coordinating collaborative action between stakeholders (of course, there's another value in 'collaboration'!).

More interestingly, though, from the perspective of learning about education and society, we can run the same exercise with any group of stakeholders - it doesn't have to be in education (although education does provide us with a platform with which we can experiment - particularly with technology). In business, stakeholders also have at heart descriptions of what these value statements mean. They act in accordance with this. How does their understanding of core values relate to understandings in education? How do their practices translate into education? What new inconsistencies between theory and practice might be revealed by making the comparisons between values in education and values in industry? Again, it is the tension between theory and practice which drives the innovation and drives the theoretical rethinking.

In the end, we get to policy makers. They too have values. How to their values relate to the values in education, or the values in industry? Where are theory-practice gaps in policy-making? What can be done to address them?

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