Sunday, 19 February 2017

Revisiting Inquiry Based Learning: Uncertainty-based teaching

Through Liverpool University, I've become re-engaged in the issue of Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) - this time under the guise of research-based teaching and learning. IBL was one of the major things that I worked on at the University of Bolton's Institute for Educational Cybernetics, where we created a curriculum framework for IBL courses, called IDIBL. At Bolton, it didn't work as well as we'd hoped, although a similar initiative had worked quite well at Anglia Ruskin University, and I've always felt that it was the right thing to do. It's good to see many of the ideas return - but this is an opportunity to rethink things.

The problem with IBL is that it can so often seem (as I overheard two Manchester University students complain about their IBL course) that it involves "the teachers not telling us anything, and us having to work stuff out for ourselves". This happens because IBL aims to loosen the vertical curriculum structure which "delivers" knowledge and skill from teacher to student (via textbook, VLE, exams), and reinforce horizontal self-organisation among students. On IDIBL this horizontal self-organisation was meant to happen in online communities - a similar idea to Siemens and Downes original MOOC. However, it turned out that establishing self-organising online learning communities was much more difficult than anticipated.

However, many teachers are naturally skilled at reducing the amount of vertical coordination in teaching. One engineering lecturer in Liverpool said "I used to go to lectures with loads of Powerpoint slides; now I go with a blank piece of paper, and use a visualiser to project my notes as we start a discussion". However, he also said "I think the dialogue in the class works with a relatively small number of students. I don't think it would work with a large number."

I think in order to  confirm or confound that hypothesis we need a better model of the problem. Dialogue is the key word: dialogue is what self-organisation really looks like in education. Online, I don't think what we get is dialogue as such. But we get something else. The differences between the different situations relate to what the phenomenologists call "inter-subjectivity" - the understanding we reach of each others' 'inner-worlds'. This, I think, is what is powerful in the engineering lecturer's technique - he reveals something of the inner world. If you watched Mozart improvising, or Picasso doodling, you would get a similar impression.

Part of what happens is a shared experience of time. Alfred Schutz points out that in pure intersubjective experience of face-to-face engagement (what he calls the "pure we-relation"), we "get old together". But we can watch Picasso doodling, we can "get old together" with him - even though he's dead. Doesn't it have a similar quality of revealing his inner life?

What if each of us did this kind of thing as part of "maintaining a dialogue"? What would it require? What are its properties?

I think the requirements are "courage", and the essential property of doing something like this is that it is an "expression of uncertainty".

Uncertainty is crucial to understanding IBL. It is not that self-organisation should be imposed on learners by teachers (which is what the Manchester students were complaining about). Self-organisation is a natural consequence of shifting the focus from certainty to uncertainty.

We are at a strange moment in the history of science. Today's science is data-driven, and largely contingent and probabilistic. Yet within this uncertain scientific world, we insist on maintaining the communication practices of the 18th century - journals speak of Newtonian certainties, evidence and so on. We are not generally good at appearing uncertain - either in front of our peers, or our students.

IBL as it was conceived in IDIBL, was a pedagogic 'certainty' for those of us who devised it, and there was an asymmetry between our certainty and the uncertainty we aimed to impose on the students. The engineering lecturer engages in uncertainty-based teaching: he is not sure where the lesson will go, and there will be areas in the discussion which will throw up things which he isn't sure about. Yet there are other things - and skills - which he is sure about. It's all there; it's all modelled for the students. In the mix of things about which one is certain, and the things about which one is uncertain, there is a clue as to what is happening:

It is not knowledge, but the contraints of knowing which are communicated. 

Picasso communicates the constraints of his drawing - the pen, the page, time, the movements of his body, his emerging intentions. He gives a glimpse as to how he negotiates them. The engineering lecturer does the same.

In conventional teaching, we rarely talk about our constraints. Most of the time, constraints are taken for granted - time, the lecture space, the online space, the assessment, prior knowledge, skill (or lack of it), and so on. In IBL, we forced self-organisation as a new kind of constraint - but again, failed to really discuss it as a constraint, or why it might be there. But to communicate uncertainty, the only thing that can be done is to be open and honest about the constraints in which we all try to fathom what is happening around us.


Seb Fiedler said...

HI Mark,
thanks for you

Seb Fiedler said...

..r post. This is a very timely comment, since we spent 2 days discussing research based learning and teaching (at the undergraduate level) with Angela Brew (Macquarie Uni) and some colleagues from the TU Hamburg last week.

I think this whole deliberation that you describe also needs to include a reflection on the changing nature of research work and knowledge production in the light of the digital transformation.


(sorry about that cut up comment... was too quick pushing some buttons...)

Scott said...

The course I ran at Bolton for computing was a sort of half-way IBL; each student was investigating their own topic, but each week we shared the same perspective on those projects (and as the teacher I had some sort of expertise to offer!) - so legal, community, communication etc.

I think this bit of structuring helped anchor the students. There was still uncertainty, but it was manageable, and students could help one another directly and practically - one of the issues with IDIBL was it could isolate students from one another as they conducted independent inquiries with too little common ground.

(I also never mentioned IBL even though that is what students were really doing :)

Mark Johnson said...

Absolutely agree. (sorry I couldn't make it over. Will try soon!) I like uncertainty-based teaching because research is fundamentally about uncertainty: "if we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research" (Einstein). Today, nobody really knows what they are doing!

Mark Johnson said...

Yes - there are quite a number of ways in which the constraints can be shifted around!

Tracy Ellis said...

Love this insight Mark. I think we try to use this on leadership programmes for staff at Liverpool blended with more detailed subject matter and structure. On each module delivery day the morning sessions are what I would call input with structured content and the afternoon sessions are 'empty'. It is the approach to enquiry and exploration of what needs to be learned that requires structure (and a name and explanation that participants like the sound of). For instance, coaching, action learning, action research, appreciative enquiry. The names and underlying processes help provide the structure and ability to 'sell' a methodology so that it does not feel too hollow. The learning comes from collaboration, dialogue, the facilitator, external data and information and relies heavily on courage and innovation.