Thursday, 30 April 2015

How can we design learning? A Phenomenological Perspective...

Given that human beings are very diverse, complex and their reactions unpredictable, it is perhaps surprising that the design of learning is generally considered possible, or that we consider good learning designs to have causal bearing upon good learning experiences. Partly, the emphasis on learning design is the result of industrialisation of education where attempts have been made to codify the unique efforts of individual teachers into technological forms which attempt to guarantee educational results independently of the presence of those teachers. At its most basic level, this takes the form of shared educational resources. However, the relationship between the shared educational resource which forms a common coordinating environment for teaching, and the communicative experience of engaging in that environment is poorly understood. There is an assumption of the instrumentality of the educational resource with little inspection of real experience.

Close inspection of real experience of lectures reveals much about the relationship between a common environment and individual inner life. For example, in a boring lecture, students will look at each other; they will have some insight into the inner world of each other. At some moments, the acknowledgement of a wry grin may trigger something more disruptive when they realise they are not alone. Schoolchildren are particularly adept at this: the excitement of the expression of a shared identity in the face of an oppressive force arises from awareness of the inner life of other people; it is the root of political expression. Although from the passage below Alfred Schutz attended better lectures than I have, he grasps something important about the experience of education:
“In listening to a lecturer [...] we seem to participate immediately in the development of his stream of thought. But – and this point is obviously a decisive one – our attitude in doing so is quite different from that we adopt in turning to our own stream of thought by reflection. We catch the other’s thought in its vivid presence and not modo preterito; this is, we are it as a “now” and not as a “just now”. The other’s speech and our listening are experienced as a vivid simultaneity. Now he starts a new sentence, he attaches word to word; we do not know how the sentence will end, and before its end we are uncertain what it means. The next sentence joins the first, paragraph follows paragraph; now he has expressed a thought and passes to another, and the whole is a lecture among other lectures and so on. It depends on  circumstances how far we want to follow the development of his thought. But as long as we do so we participate in the immediate present of the other’s thought.”

This dissection of experience in education is important. Wouldn't it be valuable to perform a similar dissection of our engagement with Facebook or Twitter? There would appear to be significant differences in the degree of interpersonal concern. For Schutz, other people, and the experience of other people in a shared environment is fundamental to our own personhood:
“we could not be persons for others, even not for ourselves, if we could not find with the others a common environment as the counterpart of the intentional interconnectedness of our conscious lives. This common environment is established by comprehension, which in turn, is founded upon the fact that the subjects reciprocally motivate one another in their spiritual activities.” (On phenomenology and social relations, p165)

Extending Husserl’s phenomenology of the “Life world” he articulates the finer details of interpersonal relations, from the consciousness of 'contemporaries' - people who live at the same time as us, but who are remote from us - to consciousness of face-to-face relations. In all cases, he argues:
“It appears that all possible communication presupposes a mutual tuning-in relationship between the communicator and the addressee of the communication. This relationship is established by the reciprocal sharing of the other’s flux of experiences in inner time, by living through a vivid present together, by experiencing this togetherness as a “we”. Only within this experience does the other’s conduct become meaningful to the partner tuned in on him – that is, the other’s body and its movements can be and are interpreted as a field of expression of events within his inner life.” (p 216)

Given this phenomenological complexity, how is it possible for us to design educational experiences? With much effort having been expended in attempts to technologically design learning (mostly unsatisfactorily), together with attempts to industrialise the design of learning experiences driven by the marketisation of education, why is it so much faith is placed in something so deep and problematic? Universities now employ heads of “student experience” whose aim of ensuring good student experiences typically reduced to an aim of producing satisfactory results to student experience surveys (quite a different thing!). Yet there are some circumstances where the design of an experience may indeed produce results which are reliable across a range of different stakeholders. How do we make sense of this?

How might we design learning experiences?

Designing learning is planned action. Schutz quotes Dewey in arguing that: 
“in our daily life we are largely preoccupied with the next step. Men stop and think only when the sequence of doing is interrupted, and the disjunction in the form of a problem forces them to stop and rehearse alternative ways – over, around or through – which their past experience in collision  with this problem suggest.”  
But there is something important in this planned action which is often missed by the champions of learning design. This is the fact that the execution of a plan leaves space and flexibility for the actions of individuals on the ground:
“Like all other anticipations, the rehearsed future action also has gaps which only the performance of the act will fill in. Therefore the actor will only retrospectively see whether his project stood the test or proved a failure…”

All teachers have some idea of the experience of their learners: if not of individual apprehension and ability, they possess knowledge of the organisational and institutional situation that learners find themselves in. It is with this organisational situation that they intervene. The common objects of the classroom situation are not just the physical artefacts like textbooks, interactive whiteboards, chairs and desks, but also the implicit rules, rights and obligations of the educational setting: these are all codified expectations. Designing for learning means intervening in this situation such that the claims a teacher might make about the purpose, scope, context and content of a learning design will be acknowledged (and hopefully supported) by those subject to it. Measurement of the learning experience is a measurement of the extent to which those attending a lesson designed in such a way upholds the propositions put to them by their teacher. Poor learning experiences are, in this sense, mis-communications: the teacher's assertions about scope, purpose, context and content are not upheld by the students.

Teachers make declarations about their subject’s content, about the university procedures for assessment, about the rules of the class and the form of lectures, practical tasks and assignments. Teachers know that common constraints operate on their learners: they all, usually, want to pass the course; they all know that assignments have to be done on time to a satisfactory standard, and so on. Educational convention dictates expectations in learners that (for example) lessons start on time, that they will receive feedback from their work. What is the experience to be subject to these declarations? What is the experience of making them?

“Learning Experience” has become subject to the target-driven culture of education. The irony of the “Learning Experience” target is that it purports to be an index of the phenomenology of learning experience, whilst blinding itself to the phenomenology of targets. The phenomenology of targets, however, is an important element in the pathology of institutions, as increasingly functionalist orientations have arisen in social policy. Methodological approaches for gathering ‘evidence’ about “learning experience” targets (including the National Student Survey) themselves have an experience, whilst the purpose of establishing such targets is to ‘improve’ experiences. Does this mean anything more than an improvement according to the recorded view about experience analysed with an approved methodology?

It is unclear exactly what improvement to the learning experience means. Schutz's emphasis on the common environment provides a clue that those codified aspects of education which are common provide at least a starting point for the coordination of experiences. Lectures that start on time, engaging activities, clear textbooks, transparent marking criteria are all aspects of a common environment: they are codifications of expectation. The mistake we risk making is to assume that learning experiences simply depend on this codification (because it is measurable), rather than seeing such regularities as simply the starting point for authentic educational interactions. However, the pressures of increasing commodification will make that mistake ever more attractive.

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