Category Archives: Educational theory

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

Blended Learning – theory or instructional design?



[Taken from my PhD thesis lit review]

Literature on online learning eulogizes distance education (or distributed learning) as a concrete affordance made available by way of trans-located communities mediated by real-time technologies. Much subject matter explores the potential for the MOOC (Massive Online Open Conference) to connect remote learners operating from globally dislocated places. There are contexts where this has more potential than others, for example in Higher Education, in individuals pursuing informal interests in their own time (, or with geographically remote communities who may have an innate and intrinsic motivation to achieve (as Mitra shows). In the former case here, the MOOC has often become a means of transferring one-to-many lectures online, which may be questionable in terms of impact on low-motivated and low-ability students, or the ability to turn inert and passive discourse into more active practice. Anderson et al criticise the “big distance education models” (9: 2001) as unsuitable for some subjects where active participation is more necessary.

Nevertheless, a MOOC is one of the projects held up for mass online provision for Maths (‘Citizen Maths’, Learning Futures 32: 2014). This is a purely online form, quite distinct from traditional learning. Here, ‘traditional learning’ needs some definition. Because I am concerned with the English GCSE syllabus, traditional learning is used to mean the notion of meeting in a classroom for a specific unit of time for specific learning outcome-based purpose.

Blended learning is promoted as the combination of sporadic physical interpersonal meetings (cited as ‘traditional’) and the opportunities afforded by an online community of practice (whether that is structured learning, access to resources, communication within the group for various purposes). In this sense, the online aspects are not a substitute locus of activity, but augment the face-to-face activity.

Remote access (to an ecology of resources, to a teacher and to a community) may not always resonate with emotional and motivational factors in terms of student difficulties. An alternative is suggested: that of blended learning, explained as “the organic integration of thoughtfully selected and complementary face-to-face and online approaches and technologies” (Garrison and Vaughan, 2008, 148: 2008). Driscoll defines blended learning (2002) as

  1.  To combine or mix modes of web-based technology (e.g. live virtual classroom, self-paced instruction, collaborative learning, streaming video, audio, and text) to accomplish an educational goal.
  2. To combine various pedagogical approaches (e.g., constructivism, behaviourism, cognitivism) to produce an optimal learning outcome with or without instructional technology.
  3. To combine any form of instructional technology (e.g., videotape, CD-ROM, web-based training, film) with face-to-face instructor-led training.
  4. To mix or combine instructional technology with actual job tasks in order to create a harmonious effect of learning and working

There are various other descriptions of the form and detail of blended learning, as outlined by Oliver and Trigwell (2005), in a discussion of the problems of defining what the varying terms means. For the purpose of deployment in this study, the closest fit is supplied by Valiathan (2002):

  1.  skill-driven learning, which combines self-paced learning with instructor or facilitator support to develop specific knowledge and skills;
  2. attitude-driven learning, which mixes various events and delivery media to develop specific behaviours; and
  1. competency-driven learning, which blends performance support tools with knowledge management resources and mentoring to develop workplace competencies.

The first notion importantly configures a consideration of the teacher presence as supportive to the interaction; the second pays heed to the behaviour, affective and attitudinal factors discussed earlier, and the third fits closely to the context of the FE sector and learner aspiration (vocational and work-based skill sets). Overall, the definition is relevant as it can be aligned to the purpose: promoting a Community of Inquiry, with its constituent domains of teacher presence, but focusing on the contextual sector. Oliver and Trigwell’s report seeks to avoid the conflation of arbitrary terms, such as online learning, or traditional delivery.  Blending affords the opportunity to circumvent difficulties teachers may have in embedding technology holistically, for example in aspirations to flipped learning where content is accessed remotely, so that more meaningful activity (problem-solving, Sayer, 2007) can occur face-to-face. As seen already, students and teachers may not have the requisite skill sets for meaningful online provision, described as rudimentary in a study by the Pamoja Institute (No citation, ref. )

Blending, then, is a way of integrating technologies to be more familiar for students.

Some learning activity at a superficial level (in terms of types of learner activity, producing the right level and type of work, meeting targets and deadlines, presenting work for assessment) may be shifted online without friction. Even a learner checking they are ‘right’, can be met with some basic assurances from a remote teacher or community. These are isolated parts of a student’s experience – what a student needs to do, but not specifically how it is done at a cognitive or prcoedural level. It is also unclear whether those processes of activity are optimal. As is shown in Point 2 above by Driscoll, blending may also include multi-faceted pedagogical approaches, so due consideration needs to be paid to this.

Blending learning may include provision and access to resources from remote points, such as Learning Management Systems or in-house college Virtual Learning Environments like Moodle.

‘Blending’ is not a learning theory, as such, but a strategic instructional design that ensures students have access to an assistive ecology of online resources for a range of activities, combined with face-to-face context modes. Educational Design Research – or design based research – is the development of practical principles for curriculum redesign. Given its supportive nature in readying teacher’s for online learning pedagogical models, blended learning affords a scale towards multimodal literacies and Web 2.0 affordances in both classroom and remote contexts. An issue still remains what emergent pedagogies consist of – and how they ensure inclusion at the rate of support needed by all students.

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Filed under Educational theory, FE, Learning technologies, Mobile Learning, Uncategorized

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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