Thursday 12 July 2012

Theory, conversation and teaching

I'm thinking back to my experiences as a music student in Manchester University, and particularly to the privilege of being present in some wonderful seminars with the Lindsay string quartet which were led by Professor Ian Kemp. Kemp was a remarkable teacher whose knowledge of music combined deep theoretical insight with practical common sense and an awareness of music's power. He always valued the experiences of those without theoretical baggage - they had the 'fresh ears' which he and his academic colleagues lost long ago. He was adept at asking penetrating questions of those who were listening for the first time, privileging the value of their experiences and explicitly demonstrating that value to those whose academic music careers had led them to be less open in their hearing.

As I was conducting a workshop on education and technology yesterday at the American Cybernetic Society conference, I was thinking about this approach. The Lindsay seminars were interesting because they combined performance with conversation. They had the form of a masterclass which went beyond simply playing the music, but sought to ask more profound questions about what it all meant. Yesterday in my workshop, I organised people into doing a role-play against a scenario (I did this before with Keith Smyth in our Strategy Cascade events: see The groups were sent off to play the roles they had been given. They talked, argued, and eventually came to some conclusions which they reported. Thinking about it now, I wonder if this is equivalent to the 'performance' aspect of the music by the Lindsays. 

When they reported back, I tried to coordinated a deeper discussion about learning activity in general, the relation of technology to it, and what happens during a learning activity in terms of how we come to know each other better. Is this (I now ask myself) related in some way to what Kemp did when he would lead a discussion about what the music meant, or how else it could be played? I'm not sure... but I would like to think they might be related. Not just because I would like to be like Ian Kemp as a teacher, but also because it gives me a greater sense of connection between doing something which is clearly profound (talking about music) with doing something rather more prosaic (talking about technology and universities).

I believe the value in any kind of  learning activity is that it focuses the object of knowledge on coming to know each other. Theorists tend not to think like this. Their object of knowledge is an abstraction which tends to only exist in a few brains (or maybe one - the teacher's). That can lead to pathologies of power, imposed authority and potential alienation of students. The ASC conference this year is celebrating the centenary of  Gregory Bateson, and it's been interesting to observe that Bateson had tremendous theoretical insights, but tended to convey these 'from the front'. Kemp was not like this. He was not anti-theory (he knew and was fascinated by lots of theory), but instead of seeing it as an 'answer', he saw it as a tool for guiding his own questioning which in turn would lead out from his students insights which were powerful and valuable. 

I'm nowhere near doing that with my work on educational technology and cybernetics, but I do think it's a good thing to aim for. I think this is the best way to see theory. In a sense it is to make it disappear. If a theory is a good one it can help us to ask powerful questions that elicit powerful responses from those who know nothing of the theory. In the social sciences, I believe we are the theory; theories are not external to us. The power of our theory is in the depth of the insight we gain into each other; it is in our capacity to make each other think and to love each other more.

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