Monthly Archives: July 2016

Such Great Heights

31 degree heat, and suncream and sweat sting your eye blind. A fairly inopportune moment to become more disorientated.

I’m, say, 7500ft up in the Tyrolean Alps, my heel is at 90 degrees to a 300ft drop. I’m squatted, moving backwards, hand over hand, foot by foot; my neck twists back to check that the corner I’m edging towards is closer.
My palms, sweat-greased and copper-stained, grip a horizontal 50metre long cable hammered into the wall of Ellmauer Halt, the highest peak in the Wilder Kaisser range.

I’ve no karabiner or other equipment, I’m nauseous, and giving myself a profanity-loaded pep talk constantly and I’m heading down, alone, because I already lost my head to vertigo 300ft from the summit. My brother and nephew are up near the top, some place where you scale huge slabs of limestone rock to ascend to 2344m, which we’d decided, impulsively, to climb when at the col below.

To compound the drastic situation I’m in, as I wriggle backwards across a cliff face along this dangerously narrow fissure, others – coming up – wait at the far side for me. They’re a patient, calm Austrian team, bedecked in the full catalogue and – when I reach the relative safety of their slightly wider ledge – they chide my lack of a helmet.
“You may be hit by a rolling stone.”
I’m too breathless to laugh at the idea of getting jumped by Charlie Watts. I move on down, exhausted and shaking.

Besides Alpine anxiety at dizzying heights, in this last week my mind has mainly been trained on two things:
1. Notions of thresholds, momentum and purposeful motivation
2. Intrinsic pleasures.

I draw on these in this post about my experiences on this trip.


You’re training, physically, for Kilimanjaro in December. It’s alarming, then, to discover that your mental capacity needs more training. I grew up climbing mountains and have been up them all over the world. Whence this new vertigo, then? Suddenly spontaneous, unexpected and shatteringly terrifying.

It happened three times inside a four-day hike. The first you overcame with calm deep breaths and approaching the 90 degree ladder disappearing into the clouds with some kind of steeled determination before the panic could really stick. The second was just sheer panic for about thirty minutes, up and down Ellmauer.

You endured it. The hyperventilating. The choked sobs. Your brain floating and careering in a dizzying spin, vision unable to fix on detail, thumping headaches, nerves crumbling. A perpetually nauseating compulsion to look down. Horrific.

Amidst this turmoil, like a nut, your mind flips to educational theory, to research, to students’ experiences. Some reflexive engineering.

Meyer and Land’s proposal is of problematic knowledge and overcoming liminal thresholds to emerge anew. There’s little grounding of this empirically; it appears phenomenological, but it resonates.

At the bottom of Ellmauer Halt was a plateau of boulders, basic obstacles to get to the ascent. The plateau is used as a metaphor for progress flatlining.

You see symbols in everything. Navigation, contours, landscape. Inner psychology mirrored to the map, or the lack of one.

Since attitude is socially effected by the affective, how can you manipulate student mindset to encourage determination? I’m not sure you can. In your third bout of vertigo you uncovered a new low: a horrible rage at other people, a blame game, that others had misled you about the height, the danger, the landscape. You projected your lack of confidence onto others. If there had been a team, some support, some encouragement, this may not have happened.

You must learn to scan the horizon, to anticipate challenges, to draw strategies from what you already know. But vertigo is irrational, so logic like this goes absent.

You thought about how you may need to get some counselling to handle if this happens in Tanzania, but you don’t want to ‘learn to cope’ with vertigo. You don’t want it at all. The worry is that you have created new physiological memories from failing to achieve the summit, and of the anxious experience of vertigo. Will you look for the symptoms next time you climb? Will you imagine them, confuse adrenaline with panic? How do you approach a problem with different methods? It requires much confidence. How do I convince next years resit students to try a new approach, to keep an open mind, to avoid repeating mistakes?

Meyer and Land was like alchemy when I first read it. They describe overcoming thresholds as epistemologically transformative, as ontological integration, that it is irreversible. Learning theory framed like music.

My notion is that momentum (purposeful actions) occurs when motivation is intrinsically situated through visible objectives. The culture is vital to this: an accessible community, a range of means to communicate, a continual network in which to distribute these expressions, perpetual challenges and opportunities to create momentum. Without these elements, fatigue sets in. Fatigue is engagement atrophied.

While in Austria, you overcame thresholds. So why the repetitive vertigo? Because you had no choice but to carry on? The third vertigo was sustained, going unexpectedly higher and higher when you expected to descend. The way took in a prolonged ridge, dramatic drops, sudden ledges. No goals or end in sight. Without targets, progress can’t be tracked. You’d reached the saturation point of panic.

The abyss stared back at you.

And then I suddenly became weary of vertigo. I’d simply had enough of feeling anxious. It was as if I’d made a choice. I sat down among some trees and reflected. I listened to the perfect stillness you receive at altitude. A silence in which my fears had screamed. The silence is a void. There’s nothing there. We feel compelled to fill it with noise, because the emptiness is profound and terrifying. I started noticing details again: a leaf quivering of its own accord studied closer revealed an ant, struggling to cope with the load, but persisting, getting it to the nest, past a train of marching brothers all moving intently. I noticed my breathing had regulated, my heart had slowed. The sun’s warmth poured into me.

Ascension used to be a high. Now it’s a bind. What’s the pleasure in this? Gruelling heat, lightning and downpours, heart smashing at my rib cage.
What is it for?
What is the intrinsic value of enduring this?


People talk about overcoming fears, but I feel I’ve embodied them, and ultimately accepted them, because when there’s only one direction to go – onward, upward – you just have to keep going.


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Filed under Educational theory, Philosophy, place, Uncategorized, Vertigo

momentum > fatigue


Slides from my Presentation on Adult learners at the ARPCE Conference in FE situating literacy practices in online communities of practice available here

It was good to meet people from the sector, sadly cut short by having to return north, so I missed some fascinating presentations but this was tempered by having a drink post-conference with a few notable figures and hearing about their work, with many cross-overs between theories and practice emerging.

If I had one criticism of the conference it was the lack of unifying sub-themes to the array of subjects clustered to the ‘adult learning’ flag. Themes are useful signposts for focused organisation.

Any road…

I’m still a bit bewildered thinking about the picture I found in an Oxford window on my way there, which so symbolically represented an attitudinal barrier of education to the adults I teach, who cross thresholds and develop with increased confidence. Picture below – note condescensing caption. This coupled with the plethora of university colleges, neatly walled behind ‘private property’ and ‘no visitor’ signs was a curious manifest of ideas represented in my research. Makes me think of Blake’s Garden of Love poem.

Well Oxford, as quaint as your dreaming spires are, let me tell you that your ring road is terrible. A really beautiful setting, anyway.


At the start of the week I also presented at the APT Conference at Greenwich through the LSE, which explored a different strand of results from my doctorate research in terms of the deficit of Momentum – Social Media Fatigue, which I’ll be talking more and more about in future, much to everyone’s delight chagrin.


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Filed under audience, Community education, FE, Uncategorized

Mobile lanscape; narrative memory

What is the normal disposition of people in regard to their social circumstance? Elie Wisel Holocaust survivor, writer and political campaigner, who died yesterday, commented that indifference is a trait worse than either hate or anger, which – as John Lydon reminds us – is an energy, a productive one. An activist such as Wiesel will no doubt think of people’s disposition as naturally ‘active’. My feeling is that anaesthetised by our consumer lifestyle and saturated by media channels, we become adrift from things: lethargic . Our normal disposition is complacent apathy. We act when we have to, and it’s usually reactive rather than proactive, but I hope I’m wrong. As an educator, we seek to initiate ‘agency’ among students – an action on the world. This is never straightforward.

My standard leap of association now begins to other matters.

Walking on the moors today, I realise everday I’m becoming more like my Dad: fascinated by maps, landscape, local history.

This is the Basin Stone. It sits above the town where I live, like a throne of ascension.WP_20160703_12_33_09_Pro.jpg

There’s nothing on the moors. Literal silence in fields of emptiness, scored by sheep hunger. Here and there a crop of rock, a breeding lapwing or two and overall bogland. It’s redundant space; a thinking place of tranquility and reflection. The wind carouses your thoughts. It’s a good place to wander. Somehow my mind flits back to the past so often, transcends the reality of now: how did people use the moors in the past? For leisure, I wonder, as fell runners strut past.

This Basin Stone was, according to local signage, a place where the Chartists met and others before them who aren’t named, which is a travesty to me as I immediately train my eye on that obscurity. I feel like the character in Sartre’s Nausea sometimes, who was obsessed with printed texts and read every scrap of paper he found discarded on the street. A need to know basis.

Fading memories, dying nouns. The moor is image as metaphor of what you take there. I find a weather-beaten signpost and read it as symbolic of a dialect that has no relevance today, which strikes me as tragic.

There’s scant language on the Moors. A QR code for heritage piques me, but digitally I’m sound when abandoned to the moor and look only for words within to transcend from my steps.

Instead, a rock holds a narrative, like the dream of a sleeping giant stilled to stone.


In discovering the existence of the Basin Stone this weekend, this ice age relic of atrophied time, I became fixated with finding something out. It’s quite high up – what, a 1,000 ft above sea level? A steep climb from town. Fairly remote. Why would the Communists, who held an early address there, and the Chartists and the mysterious ‘others’ mentioned on a dilapidated tourist sign gather at some random feature? Sure: safe, perhaps clandestine…obvious answers. How can we ever know the detail of such obscure past histories?


“Where to for the meeting this Wednesday neet, pal?”

“Up on t’Walsden Moo’. At t’Basin Stone.”

“What, beyond that bog all t’way up thur? Eee, bugger that laddy. I don’t think so. Corrie’s on at the ‘Drome.”

Or was it something else? A landmark, not physically, but a metaphorical one, of membership and congregation – a medieval Twitter. If you want to join in the cause, you have to make a commitment to action: to walk up onto the moors in, what – the dead of night? Not a particularly formidable challenge, but a simple normative gesture, a symbolic pledge. If you’re in, show it – do it. The agency of the ages: a commitment to self-determinism, symbolised by that rugged, indominitable granite pulpit.

Later, after a little snooping on Google, I learn that there was an exotic weirdness associated with the rock, as somehow I’d expected there would be. csdc

How spirited the energy of people once was, in comparison to our busy modern lives where little of any social value is so honourably accomplished. I hate to think like this. I think of how rich our lives are and how impoverished our relationship to nature has become.

It seems to me that, like a degrading language, our memory of heritage becomes endangered when we neglect to explore the story of places. It is imperative to be active, to be like verbs, to search what is around is, to record discovery, to create new identities to maps that give our landscapes a dignified, vivid typology. We are afforded all this by mobility and knowledge and it only needs our action to disturb its dormancy.

What a way to situate literacy – in the stories of our landscape.


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Still in love with EU

*Caveat – while this post discusses Brexit, it is about education (eventually) and does some modest proposals, too.


Oh Brexit. The fallout continues in various shapes of dismay. I eavesdropped on an ESOL teacher in my staff room this week discussing hypothetical implications for his practice with dejection. Later we spoke about it and he revealed he’s not personally worried as he never considers it will come to pass because no politician wants to trigger Article 50. This is the remarkable thing about a community, once you’re enmeshed in one, it’s difficult to dismantle and withdraw from – even in one so divided.

I’ve heard other friends  quick to blame ‘ignorant’ Leave voters (“thick northeners” – presumably Gove, born in Edinburgh, counts among them) – a narrative that’s conveniently reinforced as ‘chavs’ are highlighted over their racism and Googling of ‘what is the EU’, while the media channels that licensed racism and ignorance throughout the campaign escape censure. This punching down of ‘ordinary’ people and Leave voters is the kind of dangerous ‘othering’ and stereotyping that causes more divisiveness and disefranchisement: the very things that UKIP used to attract disillusioned, traditional Labour voters, who bought into that whole racist rhetoric which demonised foreign workers.

Folk are social animals and always need something to cluster around, which is why UKIP became popular. Equally, we Remain voters cluster around the desperate petitions, hoping that the result won’t be upheld. We cluster around ideas and proudly remind everyone that this wasn’t our mess, because we’re of the 48% – another community. Another way a culture becomes divided – both by statistical and ideological definition.

I’ve been thinking of parallels between this ‘othering’ of Leave voters with FE. We are, in FE, the other sector, the overlooked and marginalised. Boris Johnson struggled to know us, describing us as a “secondary modern type thing”, and which forgettable ‘other’ was it in Government who apparently said to Vince Cable that no one would notice if FE was completely dissolved?

‘Othering’, as an image, is the person who walks past the homeless person without seeing them – perhaps not as ignorance but as complete unawareness that whatever it is even exists. Many people just don’t want to acknowledge that we have deep social problems, and that these are physically manifest among students in FE colleges as peripheral members of our culture. People like to blame the Brexit vote on a lack of education, which downplays our national education system hugely. ‘Brexit’ – that’s what disenfranchisement and a lack of representation gets you.

I believe that Brexit represents how we now need to re-position FE as less focused on a  vocational model and more as a Community model – one that celebrates and educates personal human virtues which are, after all, profesionally attractive, for who would want to employ a racist, except perhaps Nigel? Can we subscribe to better qualities, please? What properties does volunteerism, for example, have? Care, support, life stories, identities, participation. Any educational institution is a microcosm of society: let’s pronounce the values louder and ensure the conversation is made daily. Not British Values, as such, but community ones. Let’s reposition British values to show that globally different cultures have inherent community values that we can resonate. I think of the North American Potlatch or the Sikh Langar. Why don’t we share these to celebrate global, human values, instead of imprinting a set to a flag, which negates the qualities in lieu of patriotism and presumes to appropriate them as “ours” that the others – over there – don’t do?


European Community

Do community qualities translate to a model of education? In name, you have Garrison and Anderson’s Community of Inquiry – a framework of e-learning based on  the social, teacher and cognitive presences resident in strong online practice, but elsewhere there is little resemblance to a community. Indeed, from the 2000 conception of the CoI, it was not until Rientes and Rivers stated the importance of ’emotional presence’ in learning in a 2014 Learning Analytics report that this became recognsed as a tension of  a learner’s experience that should complement the model. We have to understand the affective, to be effective.

Lave and Wenger’s Community of Practice is closer, comprising joint enterprise, mutual engagement and shared repertoire as characteristic, while also validating the ‘peripheral participants’ as legitimate. Think Twitter micro-cultures (ukfechat) as a great example, but difficult to effectively reconstruct among FE learners without drilling down to fine-grained nuances of the qualities inherent in these and how they are operarationalised in design.

It’s very easy to say ‘collaborative’, but what does it look like and how does it benefit the learner?

Clusters of researchers have identified knowledge worker ‘roles’  – shown below from Reinhardt et al (2011) that may give us an idea of how ‘rotating responsibilities’ (i.e. delegated to different members in different sessions) improves holistic skills training when applied in learning activities framed around communities. It may be noted that many of these terms are ambiguous and even interchangeable, that they are what we are already doing in many regards anyway, but I would argue for a focus on the communicated channels that facilitate these actions as social and multi-voiced – distributed – rather than individual, especially in terms of assessment outcomes. FullSizeRender(1).jpg

We then move to a typology and things are starting to look a lot like the sort of ’21st century skills’ guff that I read about in the almost fictional McArthur report ‘Confronting the Challenges’ a few years ago.


This is very much focused on e-learning, as those crazy Europeans call it and in real-world terms, looks far more clerical than manual. I can’t, for example, see how an electrician student would make much sense of the Linker role above, but perhaps I need to be more imaginative. The actions can, for instance, be powerful in the curation of e-portfolios by students. The roles listed are not ideal, they’re narrowly defined and categorised. Yet it’s interesting to me how collaborative activities applied in an English syllabus could equally be categorised and labelled to give grouped work more credibility with shared repertoires, promoting the engagement that’s badly needed.

What I’d like to propose is that role-taking assumes a congregation to goals where responsibility, sharing, and co-operation are emphasised as drivers of method. We might then promote the recognition of the diversified qualities and values of separate members of our cultures as contributory to objects, rather than basing our model on inward and self-seeking individual competitiveness (or ‘Boris-ism’ as it’s now called) that would preclude inclusivity.



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Filed under Community education, EU perspectives on global representation, FE, Uncategorized