Jean Lave, Professor Emeritus, University of California at Berkeley, was speaking at Lancaster University this week.
She gave a very densely packed intense lecture, which was filmed, but I’m not sure whether the recording will be made publicly available. It will be a shame if it is not, because it was the type of lecture that needs to be listened to more than once.
The focus of the lecture was a reflective account of her life’s work on apprenticeship in critical ethnographic practice – which is also the title of her most recent book.
Jean Lave started her lecture by telling us that we are always learning what we are already doing; it often feels like learning from the end and progressing step by step backwards as we try and make sense of past experiences; we are apprentices to our own practice; learning is embodied practice. She referred us to the work of Richard Sennett and his idea that ‘making is thinking’
She talked to us about her work in Liberia with apprentice tailors – how they have open access to the process of learning and access to other apprentices (they learned mainly from their peers); this is informal learning and their ‘curriculum’ is made up from slow accumulation of craft knowledge. I found myself thinking about MOOCs at this time and pondering over whether MOOC participants could view themselves as apprentices. Lave asserted that learning depends on relationships within a specific setting. This gives rise to the hypothesis that ‘as relationships change, so learning changes’ and she recommended this as a focus for other researchers.
The details of Jean Lave’s ethnographic work with the Liberian apprentices are in her book, which is described on the back cover as an ‘extended meditation’ and this came through in her talk. She made it very clear that her research is a very slow process in which she is always searching for meaning, which she doesn’t always find. She doesn’t always know the questions to ask and sometimes finds after long periods of work that she has been asking the wrong questions. In reflecting on this ‘slowness’ she referred us to the ‘slow science movement’ and urged PhD students and researchers to take their time – to be sure to engage with questions that they are genuinely interested in and to resist jumping through the type of organisational hoops that demand a certain number of papers per year, in a given grade of journal. In fact her talk ended with quite a rant against universities that demand fast output of poor quality research – which was an entertaining finish and which needless to say drew a round of applause.