Monthly Archives: November 2015

The point of Educational Theory -my tuppence worth

A point of research is often cited as ‘making the ordinary seem extraordinary’ – to this, a value judgment of my own educational research. An observation of a lesson, a reflection of how we teach, as we start to unpick what we did and why is the beginning of research.

When undertaking my PGCE, I valued the baseline of theories that I now have ingested – and in some cases rejected in the grand ‘belief network’ of experience.

To my surprise, during my PhD I have come to find Educational Theory informative and (briefly hesitates over keyboard) fascinating. For sure there is often a poor fit with the reality of the classroom (especially when we try to shoehorn HE learning models into schools), but I remain open-minded to knowledge, rather than fatigued by the everyday struggles of working in FE classrooms with its complex issues: institutional, personal and attitudinal from young students. I refrain from rejecting wholesale this poor fit in applying the conceptual to human behaviours, as if students were mice, by trying to be reflexive and spontaneous in my actions, as well as cognizant of the literature. I also recall that Educational Theory fits into broader schema than the instrumental or determinist of what to do in a classroom and/or how learning works.


To start, let’s be clear about educational theory, which Newby (2010) differentiates from Research theory (whatever the discipline). Education theory is concerned with:

  • Child development
  • Learning
  • Leadership
  • Curriculum design


“…it aims to be generalisable , whereas research theory is specific to a particular type of problem or approach” (72: 2010).

Education theory shapes our understanding and can be tested and fall into two types:

  • Normative theory – how things could or should be organised or what goals should be achieved
  • Explanatory theory – how things work (e.g Vygostky).

How does this affect procedure?

  • Theory testing as the goal
  • Theory development as an outcome

Apropos to methods, that is a separate issue dependent on many things, including the view of the researcher, but to place the locus of all theory only within scientific approaches is disingenuous and potentially reductive to a singular theorem of reality, known as ‘truth’. Within this avenue, learning in every shape and form becomes measurable, which in my mind is scandalous (but each to their own and as you do).

One problem, two paradigms:

  1. Quantitative: ‘the level of motivation in Group A is higher than Group B.’
  2. Qualitative: ‘the level of motivation and the motivational drivers are different in the two groups.’

Educational theories to the problem might look at ‘why and how and what works’…before or after the fact. Vive la différence.

Mind your privilege

The knowledge and experiences that a researcher who proposes educational theories brings to the field are pertinent, which can help to shape (or distort) their research, whatever the paradigm. Sometimes a hunch is worthy of exploration and credited as such by research centres. Sometimes theory is necessary because so little is known on a subject (see field of Technology Enhanced Learning), so whether it have practical utility is besides the point as we come to understand it’s properties and others develop it.

Perhaps ‘explanatory theory’ (above) can better be described as a ‘model’, that is: a representation of reality.

Here Educational Theory develops value by being more broadly informed, not just by the cognitive and Psychology, but other social science studies: anthropology, cultural practice, linguistics, history, etc. This is because education theory is more than about the school or classroom and we don’t want to reduce Learning (as a nutrient to growth and vehicle for processing experience) to ‘what works best’, lest learning loses any sense of the playful, the creative, the experiential, the imagination and (why not?) the pointless and the plausible (since sometimes important things are learned by accident, rather than resulting from negotiated coercion). Otherwise Learning may become framed within some stultifying paradigm in a hideous dystopian regime of terminal-evaluation, behaviour management and control orchestrated as a political football.

Educational Theory – so what’s the point?

Many teachers become teachers because they are curious and creative problem-solvers. Their curiosity may be nullified by this (hypothetical) regime. Theory can, I’d argue, give oxygen back to creativity by illuminating possibilities and purposes. In my 6-7 years of teaching, I’ve become more institutionalised the longer I have worked, become gradually more preoccupied with targets, achievement and retention. Studying my PhD – resident in much Educational theory, both good, bad and indeed obscure – has helped emancipate me from that narrow paradigm.

It’s reminded of the broader remit of Education, not just 3 objectives a lesson and plans and assessment and who’s stolen the Whiteboard pen, as much as the social, interpersonal and intrapersonal values (I’m particularly enlivened to this in teaching adults, who might otherwise be disenfranchised). Theory also reminds me that I was very heavily defined in what I did by the cramming of methods in a ridiculously short 1-year PGCE. Because evidence has it that we teach the way we are taught to teach, theory provides a metanarrative.

Some pragmatic Educational Theory

Now, to cite some ‘useful’ classroom educational theory, how about Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Actions; this posits that instructors pose ‘truth claims’ which are accepted or rejected by students, so that they participate in constructive dialogue based on their Lifeworld agency.

True or False statements (and answer ‘why’):

  1. Educational Theory facilitates reflection in educators
  2. Educational Theory generates criticality, as educators may respond agreement of disagreement
  3. Educational Theory is perpetually static, because knowledge and the nature of reality never changes
  4. Educational Theory reminds us that there is a broad, informed history of research that validates our professionalism
  5. Educational Theory is not just about the sitting still and behaving in the classroom and outcomes, but about society, Governance and Power, community networks, parenting, literacy, etc.

And finally, here is Garrison and Anderson’s (2001) Community of Inquiry model: a theoretical mapping of online learning experiences that has distinctly informed my research, and which I hope to add to.




*I concede of a problem with models: as representations are not the actual thing, but an imitation seeking consensus. I find comparisons and analogies a little unhelpful sometimes, because in some respects we start to move away from the ‘actual’. Yet, on the other hand, like metaphors in literature, they are useful as comparisons and to create likeliness and comparison for difficult, complex and abstract things. Here qualitative research becomes the fuzzy area, so disregarded by truth-seekers.

That’s my own paradigm for my PhD in Technology Enhanced Learning. In honesty, I am too concerned with language, experience, relationships between factors and meanings – and too abject with numbers to lump with quantitative approaches. I seek how and why, but all teachers have different approaches.

Yet I have tried to stay grounded with my research, leaving aside the philosophy and focusing on the practical values derived from it. Now in my final year I learn that these conceptual philosophies transcend the practical, which still remains key, because as we observe and study we start to see the metanarratives of power, politics (and everything is political), ideology, personal positionality of the researcher (‘mental models’). These are set aside as far as possible, but they do inform what we do. No educational theorist whatever the paradigm is not shaped by their privilege; so we return to language as our best representative tool to translate what we learn.




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Mobile learning for FE praxis

mol“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T.S.Eliot

(For case study, scroll to bottom of page. Theoretical preamble precedes…)

Mobile learning has become a vogue term, often misappropriated as the use of devices in classroom settings. This is the premise of Jocelyn Wishart’s article for the Mobile Learning journal I edited across the last year with Dr. Ben Bachmair of Kassel University. Jocelyn proposes mobility on the grounds of Sharples (2007), who conceived of it as closer to a verb – mobile, as in activities in the field.

I tend to agree. According to Ben’s 2010 forecast of its potential (written with Norbert Pachler and John Cook) mobile learning is the interrelationship of artefacts accessed and produced by mobile devices that is not necessarily derivative of formal education, but of cultural practice. This positions mobile learning in line with Sharples (2007) view: the assimilation of informal learning contexts negotiated through cultural reference points.

To my understanding and hopes, mobile learning is active and in the field; the classroom is a static residence where reflection can be constructed. The mobile device is a communication vehicle between and within sociocultural systems and structures.

All very high-falluting, but yielding greater potential to what can be done with devices when considering Situated Cognition (Seely Brown), which is based around real-world contexts as more authentic ways to learn than being stuck in a classroom – which is, I’d argue, really quite ‘ersatz’. I for one recall endlessly staring out of the window, distracted. This served to inform several years of travel in my twenties, in erudite hunger for meaningful experiences in the real world, rather than seeing it out in some office. I suspect many students want the same. Maybe mobile learning, in FE/HE, can support one’s assimilation to the world, after so many years of institutionalisation.

A firm understanding of pedagogical theory can support practice (as praxis).

Collaborating with Ben, we devised a template for presenting Mobile Learning scenarios based on Activity Theory, with a practical focus on purpose (object), ecology (real world context), agency and meaning-making (human capacity to act on the world) and technology needed to orchaestrate activity. In the counterpoints to culture, I consider the use of other figures, as relevant to learners recreational mobile uses: in short, ‘experts’ (not necessarily teachers) in the field.

I wonder about the final one: is there a gimmick-value to technology?  It should probably only be used when it allows for extra affordances, which can be numerous. Further, it may replicate real-world  use, particuarly for skills training, like in FE.

Cochrane  has critiqued the straight transference of classroom learning pedagogies to  mobile devices, which seems a little harsh. Keith Turvey presents a new paper exploring some of the emergent difficulties and questions regarding the Mobile Complex. Importantly, he draws on research from the Higher Education Academy and how schools negotiate the ever-changing world around us. The problems (opportunities) are:

  • learner empowerment;
  • future-facing education;
  • decolonizing education;
  • transformative capabilities;
  • crossing boundaries; and
  • social learning.

It will be of importance that new teacher training fits or reflects the possibilities afforded by mobility as the most ubiquitous tool of this era. Some evidence tells us that we teach others in similar ways to the way we learned to teach ourselves, so it is no bad thing, surely, to train others (as FurtherEdagogy has recently done, among others) to become au fait with mobility. Whatever the definition, mobility is here.

I think FE is strengthened in the UK by some freedom afforded it to embrace more innovation, which is encouraging as a sector. All of the above may seem quite high-minded (and just skims the surface of my research) acadamese, but these ideas are ripe for simple translation.

I finish by presenting a short description of my own mobile learning scenario with AS English FE students, using the template Ben and I designed:

(1) Headline and date –

Global influences on evolution of English Language mobile investigation, 17th June, 2014

 (2) Keywords

Cultural agency, Smart Phone Data collection, (digital) literacy

 (3) Author/s, copyright holder, facilitators (e.g. ‘teacher’), participating institutions (school, university, company etc)

(Left intentionally blank here)

(4) Time and place of realisation

 Liverpool docklands and Museums

(5) Leading education ideas and plot of scenario

 Inquiry-based approach with a talk (conducted as filmed interview following prepared questions by students) with museum curator discussing the changing regional accent.

Students then explored the museums recording photographs of curious language use throughout from the archives in the exhibitions and around the ports and docks. As records these artfacts were brought back to the institution later and uploaded to the class social network for discussion and further exploration in subsequent lessons and in discussion threads online.

(6) Learning aims and objectives achieved

This was a two-fold approach, consisting of preparation for A2 English language coursework choices, so was preliminary information-gathering. Content deriving from the trip (interview segments with the curator; photographic evidence from the museum) could be incoroprated into the subsequent research projects of the unit, which may explore Language Change or Regional Divergence.

It gave the students an insight into practical research methods and tools that can be used for these (phones as dictaphones, video cameras, cameras embedded into them, as memo-recording devices), as well as user-generated content they could drill further into, regarding etymology of the words and the influence of the docks on the English language.

(7) Target group and its views regarding the scenario

AS English group – all keen, naturally, having a sparkling, inspirational teacher! Lost notes from the day now, but their input was impressive, working without direction and stimulated by the visit (as many had never visited the city – despite its proximity).

(8) Institution of learning and curricular context

FE tertiary English

(9) Mobile devices or other technology deployed


(10) Cost and men/ women power, steps and necessary time for realisation

No cost for the museums, small costs for the travel, 1-day for the trip – extra time needed to disseminate results and construct further activity.

(11) Main results of realisation with main positives and negatives

Collaborative problem-solving between members over uses of equipment, curatorship of knowledge and communicating ideas, details of the talk and recollected vignettes of things they saw to the social network; project-based ideas stemmed from it in terms of research ideas for the coursework. An interesting result was the increased activity within the social network we use, as domain of activity. Beforehand, students waited for the teacher to post first, but this lead to some ownership and responsibility on their behalf and an increased sense of engagement and community of practice through the group. This was a shy group and they became emancipated and enagaging on the trip, asking the curator questions confidently and trying Sushi for the first time.

There may be some doubt regarding the ‘real-world context’ and ‘meaning-making’, but if compared to textbooks, videos in the classroom of guest speakers (at best), then I think this form was preferable to the students. Is a museum a more authentic representation of the real-world than a classroom? Regardless of obsessions with history and tacky souvenirs, I would have to say ‘yes.’

As Kierkegaard said: Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” A conscious action necessary to learning is reflection; not best activated in the same environment day -after-day. Wherein the physical trip, situated in the memory and online in the network via their mobile artefcats, helps to contextualise the experience and stimulate reflection to events and conversations, beginning on the bus home and stretching to classroom-based discourse, if you like, or don’t bother if you didnae.

(12) Available report and artefacts (photos, videos, texts, images)

Not available here. Somewhere in the (mobile) cloud…!

“All that is mobile, melts into ether.” – Me.








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Filed under Learning technologies, Mobile Learning, Pedagogical practice, Uncategorized

On audience, on place #digiwrimo

Morning walk 5th November


There’s something of reflection

In writing a blog

A vain mirrored


Or signpost

In the fog

Beckett wrote:

“…you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Thinking about digi writing month, while I walked through the damp woods this morning, I wondered about the absence of audience (though its a community project). I thought of how one researcher (was it danah boyd?) reporting on students’ feedback on blogs says that “comments are like oxygen” and how we apparently write blogs with audience in mind. I don’t really think of it as that. I think of it as penetrating the silence that surrounds me, as I live here in the wilds.

I like the snapshots of other places I get from blogs: being transported briefly to other studios, offices, workshops and realities. Whenever I read a blog I get a sense of another context. Online reading is travel, horizon-scanning; online writing is horizon-scanning, imprinting on space. Leaving trace. How about this from Semetsky:

“Nomads must continuously readapt themselves to the open-ended world in which even the line of horizon may be affected by the changing conditions of wind, shifting sands or storms so that no single rule of knowing that [learning about] would ever assist nomads in their navigations, perhaps only knowing how [learning to be, or learning as becoming] would.”

Semetsky quotes Casey:

“What social software can do is to help us re-situate learning in an open-ended social context, providing opportunities for moving beyond the mere accessing of content (learning about) to the social application of knowledge in a constant process of re-orientation (learning as becoming).”

Even if words are sometimes crude vehicles of thought, they can be deft when serialised with images, biographies and – sometimes – comments, so that shoots grow from a seed and words become less owned and personal, and blogs become less like an island and more like a continent of hubs. Is the blog the internet, or is the blog this specific url?

Back to my morning, carousing in the mist.


Let’s suppose that in some parallel, there is another #digiwrimo blogger equally dazed by dawn, walking on the other side of the valley. Equally somnambulist in reverie.

What are the odds that they too think of blogging as creative catharsis and personal archaeology, before settling into academic writing for the day?

Here I came to thinking about comments. Back in the pre-internet 1990s, I recorded prolifically notes, memos, quotes, scraps of stories, observations, anything that caught my mind… in notebook after notebook and country after country. “Mobile learning” pre-mobile. Very personal, very abstracted and nomadic. How would it have been to find a comment written in one, then? What a premise for a story!

So many words I’ve scored, so many words yet to find me…like Beckett is saying, you have no choice. You just keep digging through more and more in every shape and form.


Any feedback


Cut me some slack.

It’s a straight


To my 1980s

English class.

When Mrs Wooley

Would hit me with flack.


A view of the machine in this morning’s mist.

And as I write, I pause to watch the roofer over the road stop in his work, stop to watch some disturbed animal on the river. He’s delicately poised on the edge of a roof, fag in mouth, frowning, slate tiles under his arm. He’s frozen in study, I’m arrested by him…is he going to fall?

Suddenly he looks over, directly at me, sitting in my study, eye-to-eye across the street…

And it unnerves me.


Filed under #digiwrimo, audience, place

The Kingfisher rests; the Kingfisher gathers. #digiwri

It’s afternoon already. I haven’t even had time to procrastinate productively yet.

I slept long. I’d driven home late after teaching a night class, up top across the Long Causeway through Pennine Moors where you don’t see another soul for miles, was swallowed invisible in the fog, disorientated turns and curves in the daily familiar road. Slow: headlights impenetrable. Late BBC Radio show on subject of ‘Rest’. How people rest, what it means – some claim rest by sports, one by socialising without purpose, some by breathing…me, reading. One card japes “I find writing restful.”

I think he means stressful.

When I spun down the lanes to the bottom of the valley, I found my route closed by midnight road workers. I abandoned my car, walked empty terraced streets dimmed by Yorkshire Ripper-lighting, by a gurgling river, by derelict “dark satanic mills”. I reached home and slept. My fitbit, charging, missed a trick: a 9 hour stint I can’t ever repeat.

So far today, I’ve walked the muddy Rochdale canal, where I caught sight of a Kingfisher. A good omen. Usually, rarely, they zip by, low on the water and all you catch is a disappearing flash of electric blue and orange, a Firefox blur which seems impossible in this murk. It paused on a tree, smaller than I imagine them to be. I wanted it to take flight as a semblance of metaphor, but it resided in pause, studying the Autumn midges, the staid canal, perhaps eyeing me: ‘Get on with it, man. That doctorate won’t write itself.’ But ‘A poor life this, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare…’?

I collect the car; get down to work. I use artificial light at midday. I put the heating on for a blast.

Right. Writing. Here I go. Relaxing, resting. Hmm, some coffee. OK, back to it.

Whose dog is that, incessantly barking somewhere? Not a distressed bark – more a ‘Trying to write, Howard?’ bark.

Hmm. Editing, then?

Oh, e-mails, alerts, distractions. Switch off. Builders across the road. Digging noisy hecks of phlegm into the street. More coffee. Lunch…? No. Now…where…? Yes, so Kim: “…knowledge is  a human product and is socially and culturally constructed. Individuals create meaning through their interactions and the environment they live in.” (Kim, 3: 2001)…

God, whose dog is that?


Oh this is good background music.

Is that the Beach Boys? An odd context, Autumn indoors in Yorkshire. Nope, Jan and Dean. Oh..

What the …12pm? How? Hmmm, wonder what that Kingfisher is up to now? Should I get some air…? Take a walk? No, no…focus.

Cat strays in, bothering for bits of tids and affection. OK, mog. OK, purr, purr. Surf. Oh, hey, that’s an interesting job/post/Tweet. Damn, bread’s ready. Sorry Huxley (protest mewl). Student messages, requests. No, not now. No, must.

Oh, targets. But first, maybe a quick look at #digiwrimo see if I can make sense of it….hmmm, got an idea..

Write about everything. Now. Sounds. Sights. Thoughts. Write for the next 5 minutes. Soak it in. Illustrate your place.


This 5 minutes, this affordance of creative indulgence, allow it to interrupt the day, allow some presence and pause.

Then, pass it on.

Then, thesis…



Filed under procrastination, writing