The Beautiful Risk of Education

The second meeting of the Philosophy Of Education Reading Network discussed Gert Biesta’s book – The Beautiful Risk of Education.

A small group attended, probably about 15 or 16. At least 6 were not using their videos, so I can’t be sure. It’s a very pleasant group, many of whom are PhD students, with some drawing on Biesta’s work for their research. There’s no pressure in the group to speak (or be seen), although all contributions are welcomed.

I didn’t find Biesta’s book an easy read. I think I have heard Biesta say somewhere that if we don’t expect subjects like neuroscience to be easy, why should education be any different (or words to that effect). I suspect that there may have been some others in the group who didn’t find the book easy either, since whilst the discussion was good, it was sometimes difficult to follow and difficult to find satisfactory answers for the questions that were raised.

But I agree with a comment made by Eddie Playfair (one of the participants) on Twitter this morning –

Reading Biesta’s ‘Beautiful Risk…’ provides a good opportunity to question many of our assumptions about education and a wonderful antidote for many of the disorders of our time. I’m sure we’ll be returning to its themes often.

The Beautiful risk of Education is the third book in a trilogy, dating from 2006.

  • Beyond Learning. Democratic Education for a Human Future (2006)
  • Good Education in an Age of Measurement (2010)
  • The Beautiful Risk of Education (2013)

Biesta believes that these three books lead to a theory of learning which he outlines in the Appendix of The Beautiful Risk of Education.

Biesta starts by saying that there needs to be more focus on the purpose of education and its aims (I agree) and that there are three overlapping domains in which educational purposes and practices can be articulated:

  • Qualification (the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values and dispositions)
  • Socialization (ways of doing and being)
  • Subjectification (the subjectness of learners – emancipation, freedom and responsibility)

Each of these involves risk. Currently education is risk averse, but education always involves risk, because it is impossible to make education into a perfectly operating machine; education practices do not work in a machine-like way. There is no perfect match between input and output. This is the ‘weakness’ of education. It is easy to recognise the push for making education into a safe, risk-free space, but complexity reduction comes at the price of unjustifiable and un-educational suppression, where suppression becomes oppression. Education should establish a dialogue with what or who is ‘Other’, which means that the outcome will always be unpredictable.

The book explores the weakness of educational processes and practices in creativity, communication, teaching, learning, emancipation, democracy and virtuosity. In each chapter, Biesta takes inspiration from other thinkers, authors and philosophers to develop, clarify and substantiate his thinking. These include John Caputo, Emmanuel Levinas, John Dewey, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Ranciere, Hannah Arendt, William James and others. This engagement with other writers and thinkers nicely mirrors his belief that all education operates through communication and dialogue, rather than through transmission. Education is something that educators and students do together. Communication should be radically open, generative and creative, but it is not possible to determine what communication is – hence the risk.

For me, having had a career in teaching, the most interesting and stimulating chapter was the one on Teaching. Biesta’s ideas on teaching were not new to me. I have been familiar with them for some time, but it was good to be encouraged by the reading network to revisit them and consider them more closely and carefully.

In an age where there is so much informal learning and a belief in constructivism, the focus has shifted from teaching to learning, and teachers have been encouraged to think of themselves as facilitators whose job it is to create learning environments in which learners can learn from each other (what Biesta calls learnification). Biesta believes that constructivism is a theory of learning, not of teaching, and if we make teachers no more than facilitators of learning, we give up on the very idea of education. He says, ‘to learn from someone is a radically different experience from the experience of being taught be someone’ (p.53). This is something that I have always felt, but have not been able to articulate with the clarity that he does, i.e. that there is more to teaching than facilitation, or being a fellow learner, and that teaching is a necessary component of all education.

But teaching is not about authoritarianism. The power to teach is not in the power of the teacher. Teachers cannot understand the impact of their teaching on their students. But this does not mean that a teacher doesn’t teach. Teaching presents students with something that transcends what they know. We should think of teaching as transcendence (experience that goes past normal limits, or the ability to achieve this), as a gift that cannot be given, but is received. The experience of being taught, of receiving the gift of teaching cannot be produced by the teacher. What the teacher teaches lies beyond the control and power of the teacher. Teaching carries with it the idea of possibility and revelation, not just bringing out what is already there. Teachers should work on the distinction between what is desired and what is desirable.

All these points made by Biesta resonate with my experience and what I implicitly came to believe over my teaching career, but wasn’t able to articulate, the main principle being that teaching cannot be controlled by the teacher, it always involves risk.

As one of the reviewers of The Beautiful Risk of Education has written:

‘It aims to explore the weakness of education understood as the fact that education cannot be reduced to a machine-like process. As always, Biesta expressed this fundamental aspect and argument elegantly and with great insight demonstrates that this weakness is not a problem that needs to be overcome, but rather the very basis of the life of education and what makes it humanly important.’

There is, of course, a lot more to learn from this book and about Biesta and his work, not least that his name is pronounced ‘Beaster’ rather than ‘Be-esta’. Too much to write about here, so I’m glad to have the book on my bookshelf and the possibility of re-visiting it in the future, and I’m grateful that the Philosophy of Education Reading Network is an open network which welcomes all comers.

There will be another meeting of the Philosophy of Education Reading Network next month on October 20th, when we will discuss Mary Midgley’s book What is Philosophy For? I’m looking forward to reading this. It has been on my list for quite a while, so it’s good to be prompted to get on and read it.

Reference

Biesta, G.J.J. (2013). The Beautiful Risk of Education. Paradigm Publishers: Boulder, London

Digital badges and the purpose of education

We have now come to the end of the sixth topic – Recognition – in Stephen Downes’ E-Learning 3.0 MOOC.  For me, this has been the least satisfying of the course topics so far. I have been trying to work out why this is so, and think it must be because I have somehow failed to ‘recognise’ what it is all about ;-). At some level, which I am finding it difficult to identify (I am hoping that writing this post will help), I have not been able to align my own knowledge and understanding with this week’s course content. This has been somewhat demotivating.

I started off on the wrong foot. When I saw the topic ‘Recognition’ I thought we would be digging into how knowledge is distributed across a network and how we identify or see this as knowledge. I thought this might lead to further discussion about how we learn across a distributed network. And, yes, on one level the topic was about this, but it was much more about ‘giving’ (or collecting) recognition for knowledge, skills, abilities and behaviours and keeping track of this through the award of badges.

It took me until the end of last week to realise that the topic wasn’t really about assessment or learning, but ultimately about how to automate the issuing of records of achievement in the form of badges. This is what Stephen worked on for most of the week; he has shared his learning on how to do this on his Half an Hour blog. See the Badge API and Setting Up Badges. He is rightly pleased with this outcome. A job well done. He could award himself a badge 🙂

Meanwhile the rest of us were exploring how to create a badge in Badgr or similar sites, with greater or lesser degrees of success. See the end of this post for links to participants’ posts. A very useful post was shared by Random Access, who, it turns out, has extensive experience of working on Open Badges with the Scottish Social Services Council. I liked the video explanation of Open Badges shared in that post, which I’ll include here, and the emphasis on authentic learning experiences and reflecting on learning. It’s worth watching the video and reading the whole post.

Stephen also emphasised authentic tasks in his summary for this week. He hopes that these will be designed by humans to balance the possibility of biased algorithms. I think this is one of the things that has been troubling me. It has all felt a bit detached from the learner – a mechanism for determining at scale ‘what counts as success’ and how we measure that success.

As well as badges, Stephen discussed competencies and competency frameworks. He writes in his summary for this week Badges, certificates and awards are recognition entities. So are endorsements, references, and plaudits. I have said in the past that the recognition entity of the future will be a job offer.’ This of course has implications for the purpose of education. I really hope that there is more to education than collecting a personal backpack of badges to prove to employers that we are who we say we are, and that it is more than an encounter with robots or algorithms (Gert Biesta talks about this in his video talk about The Beautiful Risk of Education – with thanks to @mark_mcguire for sharing this in the #el30 twitter stream).

Stephen shares the draft writing of his weekly summaries in a Google Doc, which is a great example of open practice and the summaries are so very helpful This week he wrote:

The traditional educational model is based on tests and assignments, grades, degrees and professional certifications. But with xAPI activity data we can begin tracking things like which resources a person read, who they spoke to, and what questions they asked – anything.

This concerned me – so I commented:

Is this what we really want? How can we avoid living in a ‘Big Brother’ /panopticon world?

Laura Ritchie replied:

In reply to Jenny – to me this is more about the possibilities of a more broad understanding and acceptance of evidence rather than a surveillance model. I doubt Stephen is suggesting ‘spying’ on students or tracking/mapping, but that instead it could be something they catalogue as part of ‘evidence’ for some task/concept.

I doubt it too, but that’s not to say that this couldn’t happen. In fact, unless the purpose of education remains really clearly thought through and all these developments are clearly underpinned by clarity of purpose, then I think it would be easy to slip into practices which might be detrimental to learning.

Biesta sees the purpose of education as going beyond student-centred education. He sees it as learning what it means to live together in the world. Ronald Barnett hopes that the student will develop a sustained will to learn. (Barnett, T., 2007, A Will to Learn. Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty. Open University Press ). Etienne Wenger discusses in depth, in his book, Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity, issues related to how learning changes who we are. These are just three of many authors, not to mention philosophers, who have questioned the meaning and purpose of education.

Stephen believes that’ new decentralized network technologies will enable individuals to manage their own credentials’ ( see this week’s summary). In his final paragraph he writes:

These developments represent a signal change in the deployment of both learning analytics and artificial intelligence in education in the years to come. Today, such systems focus on process, and centrally and institutionally designed, and benefit teachers and employers far more than they do individual learners. Indeed,  the only people not benefiting are the learners themselves, with their own data. And that’s what can and must change.

Having reached the end of this post I realise that I do understand that if teaching and learning are to happen at scale across a distributed network, so that there is the potential for anyone anywhere to have access to an education, and learners can be in more control of their learning,  then we need new systems to recognise and validate this education. I suppose my concern is whether these new systems can or will encourage the type of purpose for education so eloquently discussed in such depth by authors such as Biesta, Wenger and Barnett, and whether learners will ‘recognise’ that there is more to education than being awarded a badge, a certificate or even a PhD.

Update: 05-12-18

In addition to the comprehensive comment from Stephen below, in which he responds to this post, he has also now posted this video, in which he explains his thinking with respect to this topic – Recognition – and why he thinks it important.

References to Participants Blog Posts

Davey Maloney – http://daveymoloney.com/el30/el30-recognition-task/

Roland Legrand – https://learningwithmoocs.com/uncategorized/el30-task-congratulations-you-earned-a-badge/

Frank Polster – http://frankpolster.com/blog/elearn30/elearn-3-0-week-6-recognition-task/

Kevin Hodgson – http://dogtrax.edublogs.org/2018/11/30/when-you-give-yourself-a-badge/

Lou – https://learningreflections.wordpress.com/2018/12/01/week-6-recognition-task-create-a-badge/

Random Access – https://randomaccesslearning.wordpress.com/2018/12/01/recognition-assessment-realising-the-potential-of-open-badges/

Laura Ritchie – https://www.lauraritchie.com/2018/12/01/connected-learner-badge/

Matthias Melcher – https://x28newblog.wordpress.com/2018/11/29/el30-week-6-automated-assessments/

#openedMOOC Week 4: Open Teaching

The topic for this week is ‘Creating, Finding and Using OERs and a lot of resources have been provided to follow up on this.  More interesting for me, was the initial discussion in the Week 4 videos about open pedagogy and how networks can enable learning. This left me with one or two questions to reflect on.

Those who advocate open education make a strong case for the advantages of learning in a distributed network rather than from one source, such as a teacher or a book. George Siemens tells us that his network is his brain and that learning is less about what we know and more about how we are connected. I found myself wondering whether it is as simple as this. Whilst of course it is possible that knowledge can be found in the connections in your network, it’s also quite possible that this knowledge doesn’t amount to much. As George says later on in the video:

“…. you get a lot of garbage in there, and you get a lot of stuff that’s not relevant. So then you need that feedback system that helps to push things to the surface.”

George explained that when he and Stephen Downes first began to discuss the meaning of ‘open’ in relation to education, they wondered whether it was possible to do for teaching what MIT had done for content. The story of how MIT opened its courseware to the world can be found on their website, but I remember MIT explaining at the time (in 2001) that what they weren’t offering for free to the world was their teaching, and it was their teaching that would make a difference.

In 2008, George and Stephen wanted to make not just content, but also pedagogical practices open and hence the first MOOC was born in the form of the open course ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge’, better known as CCK08. They wanted to demonstrate that their practice was different because it did not rely on the conventional method of the teacher being the exclusive or primary node in the online network. At the time, this was how many people understood education – small groups of students attending to one teacher/expert, i.e. the teacher was the hub of the learning experience, which was based on a hierarchical relationship between the students and their teacher. (Image A in the Figure below)

Image from – https://visualisingadvocacy.org/blog/if-everything-network-nothing-network

Instead, George and Stephen envisaged the learning environment as a network in which there is no primary node and everyone teaches each other. (Image C in the Figure above). The argument George makes is that given that everyone has a different knowledge profile then we can teach one another almost everything. Quoting from the video, George says:

“If I have an idea to express myself, if I have an infrastructure to share what I know, and if there are corrective mechanisms within that infrastructure that provide feedback to the users of that infrastructure, that’s all you need for global knowledge generation. It’s the ability to solve complex problems that are novel in our era and we simply cannot solve them with a hub and spoke model of the expert.”

George uses the example of finding a solution to the problem of the SARS virus to illustrate how networks can solve problems.

These ideas are often discussed in relation to open learning, but despite hearing this for the first time in 2008, and despite recognising the value of networks for open learning and collaborative problem solving, another question I have is: Does declaring what we know or sharing your ideas, equate to teaching?

For some time now I have been interested in Gert Biesta’s concerns about the shift from teaching to learning. Biesta (2013) describes the focus on learners and learning as ‘learnification’, writing:

“The quickest way to express what is at stake here is to say that the point of education is never that children or students learn, but that they learn something, that they learn this for particular purposes, and that they learn this from someone. The problem with the language of learning and with the wider ‘learnification’ of educational discourse is that it makes it far more difficult, if not impossible, to ask the crucial educational questions about content, purpose and relationships”. p.36

Biesta describes teaching as a gift, in which the teacher can bring something radically new to the situation. He says that being ‘taught by’ is radically different to ‘learning from’ and writes:

“… for teachers to be able to teach they need to be able to make judgements about what is educationally desirable, and the fact that what is at stake in such judgements is the question of desirability, highlights that such judgements are not merely technical judgements—not merely judgements about the ‘how’ of teaching—but ultimately always normative judgements, that is judgements about the ‘why’ of teaching”. p.45

For Biesta,

” …. teaching matters and [..] teachers should teach and should be allowed to teach.” p.36

Biesta’s work raises the question of whether large scale open teaching is possible and whether it is true that we can teach each other almost anything. If teaching is a gift, do we all have that gift in equal measure?

My final question relates to George’s comment, which he made more than once, that the network structure should incorporate corrective mechanisms. How does this happen?

In research that Roy Williams, Regina Karousou and I published in 2011, we argued that

“…. considerable effort is required to ensure an effective balance between openness and constraint’ and that in open learning environments ‘a system of negative constraints [is needed] which determine what is not allowed to happen, rather than specifying what does have to happen”.

George suggested that corrective actions might include the possibility of upvoting or downvoting posts and contributions to the network. The problem with this is that it could lead to homogeneous groups with only the people who agree with each other upvoted.

The issue with negative constraints or corrective mechanisms is that they leave us with the question ‘Who is responsible?’ and if we start thinking like this, then we are beginning to get back to hierarchies.

For me it’s not clear what we mean by open teaching. If it means do your teaching in the open, as in a MOOC, then that’s fine – but if it means that teaching is reduced to Biesta’s learnification, then I think there remain many unanswered questions as to how teaching works in open networks.

References

Biesta, G. (2013). Giving teaching back to education: Responding to the disappearance of the teacher. Phenomenology & Practice, 6 (2), 35–49. Retrieved from https://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/pandpr/article/download/19860/15386

Williams, R., Karousou, R. &  Mackness, J. (2011) Emergent Learning and Learning Ecologies in Web 2.0. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. Retrieved from  http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/883

Structure, agency and hard work

Today is my (our) wedding anniversary. Around about 47 years ago my father took his future son-in-law to one side and asked him whether he really wanted to go through with this marriage – my father was straight out of the Victorian era and doubted I would make a suitable wife – too many ideas of my own and insufficiently domestic 🙂 At the same time my mother took me to one side and asked me if I really understood what hard work marriage would be. However, a strong family belief was that anything could be achieved with hard work – so it must have rubbed off somewhere, since it seems to have paid off. We are still together after 47 years.

Also today, 47 years after my mother’s heart to heart, I have been hard at work thinking about the relationship between structure and agency in learning, for a paper I am writing with my Austrian friend and colleague Jutta Pauschenwein. So many people and well-known theorists have written about this that I wonder why it still seems to be a significant issue. That is what we are trying to pin down in our paper. I’m not sure yet if we will be successful. Despite my parents’ beliefs, hard work doesn’t always pay off, but I hope it will in this instance.

But pay-offs aren’t always what we expect, particularly if we keep an open mind about what might crop up, i.e. be open to emergent learning. I have done a lot of reading this month. Pay-off enough for me is coming across an article that makes me ‘sit up’ and leaves me thinking about it for days. This month it has been Osberg and Biesta’s paper on emergent curriculum.

Osberg, D., & Biesta, G. (2008). The emergent curriculum: navigating a complex course between unguided learning and planned enculturation. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40(3), 313–328. doi:10.1080/00220270701610746 – Retrieved from https://dspace.stir.ac.uk/bitstream/1893/464/1/emergent-curriculum%20jcs%202008.pdf

This made me think about structure and agency in relation to the role of the teacher/facilitator in a learning environment that promotes emergent learning. Having started on my teaching career 47 years ago, I feel quite resistant to the idea that it is a role of decreasing significance in a world of open learning, where it is thought by some that everyone teaches each other. Of course I understand that everyone is capable of teaching others to some degree, and that open learning has increased the potential of learning from anyone and everyone, but I don’t think that this negates the significant role of the teacher. I am still working on why I feel so strongly about this.

My third experience of ‘hard work’ this month came from a 5 day city break to Berlin, where I walked miles and came back ready for a break! There is so much of interest to see in Berlin (we barely scraped the surface) and the German people are very hospitable. I would recommend a trip to Berlin for anyone who is interested in history, art, culture and architecture – and according to my son Berlin has a great music culture and night life – although we didn’t explore this – too exhausted after hours of walking!

Brandenburg Gate

Of course, there is plenty about Berlin that can be related to hard work and structure and agency. Once you start thinking about structure and agency, you see it everywhere 🙂