‘Identity in practice’, ‘Participation and non-participation’

These are the titles of Chapters 6 and 7 in Etienne Wenger’s Book – Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. (p. 143-172)

This is one of the sections of his book that participants in the forthcoming Academic Betreat (starting July 30th) have been asked to read and then think about Highlights, Key Words and Questions.

I have been interested in the question of Identity for the past few years, because I am aware that the many different aspects of my life have shaped my identity, just as my identity has shaped the many aspects of my life. I am also aware that I still have unanswered questions about the place of identity in learning.

On p.5 of his book Etienne defines Identity as

‘a way of talking about how learning changes who we are and creates personal histories of becoming in the context of our communities’.

More recently I have heard him talk about the increasing complexity of managing your identity in multiple landscapes of practice –  which relates to the work that Bon Stewart is doing for her PhD – where she writes about ‘The unbearable lightness of being … digital’  and Digital Identities

My Highlights and Questions from the two chapters

  • Identity is not just what we say about ourselves or what others say about us. It is not about self-image, but rather a way of being in the world – the way we live day by day.

Q. So how then do I come to know who I am? How do I keep the ‘knowing who I am’ distinct from what I say about myself or from what others say about me?

  • Identity is a constant becoming, and a constant negotiation of the self through participation and reification. ‘It is not equivalent to a self-image; it is not, in its essence, discursive or reflective’ (p.151). Negotiation can be silent.

Q. If identity is not discursive or reflective, how is it negotiated? If negotiation is silent, how is it realized?

  • Identity is rich and complex because it is produced within the rich and complex relations of practice (p.162) Identity can’t be compartmentalized. You do not cease to be a parent because you are at work.  Identity results from multi-membership of many communities and associated multiple convergent and divergent trajectories. ‘…multiple trajectories become part of each other, whether they clash or reinforce each other. They are, at the same time, one and multiple.’ (p.159). Identity is an interplay between local and global and between the past, present and future.

Q. If this is the case, i.e. identity is too complex to be compartmentalized, then where does this leave work which is looking at digital identities, such as Bon Stewart’s work on ‘six key selves’  If we don’t compartmentalize identity in some way, e.g. I am a consultant, ‘team member’, mother, researcher, wife, teacher, daughter etc. how do we discuss it so that it is meaningful? It’s easy to understand that identity may be greater than the sum of its parts, but without breaking it down into parts does it have any meaning?

  • Identity is not only about knowing who we are, but also about knowing who we are not. ‘In practice, we know who we are by what is familiar, understandable, usable, negotiable; we know who we are not by what is foreign, opaque, unwieldy, unproductive’ (p.153). We define our identities through a mix of participation and non-participation.

Q. To what extent is identity related to perception and alternative perspectives, i.e. how do we know whether the perceived identity, by ourselves or by others, is ‘true’?


  • Negotiation
  • Participation, non-participation
  • Reification
  • Trajectory

Final Questions: Why is learning about identity important? How does an understanding of identity impact on teaching and learning?

Too much choice

I am still reflecting on my experience at the Networked Learning Conference and it has been heartening to receive supportive comments here on this blog, in emails and  f2f.

The conference in Birmingham yesterday was wonderful. Inspiring in many ways. It’s interesting to reflect on why it worked so much better for me than the Networked Learning Conference. It is obviously significant that I was involved in the planning of this conference – and I think relates to negotiated meaning. Etienne talked a lot about the importance of moving away from thinking about teaching, learning and education as being about ‘stuff’ (e.g. curriculum, grades etc) to being about meaningfulness. The B’Ham conference was all about ‘meaning’ for me and I think it was for some of the delegates too judging from the feedback we have been receiving. The Birmingham conference was also considerably shorter and smaller, but more importantly was more focussed in it’s content.

The good thing about the Networked Learning Conference is that it has brought into sharp focus for me, some of my learning preferences and abilities. So I realise I am more of a ‘small is beautiful’ person, although I did manage to participate in CCK08 until the end – but mostly from the confines of my blog 🙂

I have also been intrigued by Heli’s posts about the Networked Learning Conference, as although she wasn’t at the conference, she really seems to have much more of a handle on what went on there than I do! She has managed to stay focussed on her interests (connectivism) and not get distracted by the huge diversity of what was presented at the NLC, which I found bewildering.

So Heli’s blog has reminded me that I am the type of person who does not like large department stores – I can never find what I am looking for and prefer the small shops with less choice and more focus on my personal style. It also reminded me that although I love gardens and flower shows, my one and only visit to the Chelsea Flower show in London  many years ago also left me feeling disappointed. I could not see the ‘wood for the tree’s – or in that case the flowers for the gardens. It is more enjoyable for me to experience the Chelsea Flower show from a distance, via the television, radio  and newspapers – but does this mean that I abdicate choice to others and open myself to possible group think, echo chambers and lack of critical analysis?

There is so much talk nowadays about being able to traverse networks, being able to filter and select, analyse and synthesise from vast amounts of information, that I wonder if we will end up with a divide between people like me who tend to prefer a smaller number of connections and those who participate happily in vast networks. Or has it always been like this – but to a lesser degree?

Teaching with technology: changing roles

My third question in this series (from the list I posted) is: How has your role changed as a result of working with technology?

Recently – it hasn’t changed a lot, since I have been working and teaching online for a number of years now. Just writing this has made me wonder whether I am in a rut. Could I be in a rut when technology is changing so fast?

When I first started to work online (a number of years ago now), there was a marked and startling change in my role as a teacher. It crept up on me – but was none-the-less powerful in  its effect. At the time I was a face-to-face teacher trainer, teaching students how to teach science to school children. We had a heavily content-laden curriculum, where we crammed in as much content to our face-to-face science sessions as possible. The only relieving factor was that science is a very practical subject, so there was always a lot of hands-on practical activity in the sessions – but even so, we felt we had to cover the content of the curriculum – facts, facts and more facts. The introduction of a VLE into our institution released me from this heavily content driven teaching. I quickly realised that I could put as much information as I wanted up onto the website, and I could add as many links to as many websites as I wanted to, which meant that I was freed from covering this content in teaching sessions. What an amazing release. This changed my approach to teaching. I no longer worried about whether I had covered the curriculum, but focussed instead on eliciting and discussing students’ misconceptions. We were no longer learning facts, we were learning how to learn. So technology completely changed my approach to face-to-face teaching.

When I began to teach online, my approach changed even more. There was a lot of talk at the time of changing from a ‘Sage on the Stage’ to a ‘Guide on the Side’, to a point where people began to say ‘never let me hear that expression again’. Whilst the expression became a bit of a cliche, it did make people think about their role as teachers and whether or not we should be centre stage. It suited me very well not to be centre stage as I was never a ‘performer’ type of teacher (as I mentioned in a previous post). It was such a relief to me that I no longer had to be ‘the font of all knowledge’. In online classrooms it is so much more possible to access each individual classoom participant’s knowledge than it is in a face-to-face classroom. As an online  teacher I have far more contact with each of my students than I ever did face-to-face and it was a complete revelation to me, when I participated in my first online course as a student, how much I could learn from my fellow participants rather than from the teacher.

All this made me rethink my teaching role. There are still times when I might need to be ‘Sage on the Stage’, but not very often, because there are so many more qualified easily accessible (through technology) ‘Sages’ out there than I could ever be. I am much more likely to be a ‘Guide on the Side’ and even more likely to be a learner in a learning community with responsibility for ensuring that my fellow participants learn to their full potential.

Viewing myself more as a learner than a teacher means that I now have much greater respect for learner autonomy, that I like wherever possible to negotiate how the learning will take place with my students and offer lots of choice, that I try to listen more than speak and to ask questions rather than influence my students’ thinking with my opinions.

So I think I might describe my change in role as having become a ‘backseat driver’ 🙂

Engaging learners with technology

How do you ensure that learners engage with the technology?

This is the second question from my list and my immediate response is similar to my initial thoughts about the last question. My primary concern, as a teacher, is to engage learners with learning. Technology is only a tool – a means to an end.

Most of my career has been spent in teaching face-to-face and I have taught all ages from four year olds to fifty-four year olds and older. I like to think that I have been a successful teacher, although teachers are never satisfied with their work. But I was never a ‘performer’ type of teacher – so I didn’t engage students through the sheer weight of my personality. So how do I engage my students with learning?

Sometimes we just can’t engage our students – we and they for some reason are together in the wrong place at the wrong time. But mostly I think teachers can engage students through their own passion and enthusiasm for and expertise in the subject, through always having the students’ learning interests at the forefront of everything we do, through recognising learners as individuals and building mutually respectful relationships (although this is tough with large numbers of students, it is not impossible) and through ensuring that the activities we plan for them are worthwhile. Humour, or a sense of fun is also very useful!

So how do we do this, if we can only meet our students online? First we need to establish an online presence and obvious though it may sound, we can only do this by being online. It still surprises me how many tutors will set up online courses and then disappear, leaving the students to get on with it. These tutors then complain that their students won’t engage online. I think it is possible for tutors to take a back seat once the course has become established but not at the beginning!

Overall we have  to be there as much as we would in a face-to-face situation. I always think that the beginning of an online course is critical – that’s the time when I work the hardest to engage the learners – I model and demonstrate (Stephen Downes’ definition of teaching – see Slide 36); I ensure that students get all the technical and ‘wayfinding’  (Darken and Sibert) support that they need (100% access throughout the course is paramount to a good learning experience), both through my actions and through the information I provide; I negotiate and so make explicit the norms of the online learning community; I socialise and build relationships and encourage students to socialise and build relationships with each other; I do a lot of ‘back channelling’, checking on students who haven’t come on line, asking if there is anything I can do to help; and I recognise that for some students they will be doing two things – getting to grips with the subject matter at the same time as becoming comfortable with an unfamiliar environment. I also have to ensure that all this happens within worthwhile and meaningful activities, so that students don’t think – this is a waste of time – and go away never to return!

Writing this has reminded me that when I used to teach school children, I would allow at least one week and sometimes two at the beginning of a new term for this process of familiarisation with my expectations – introducing the classroom norms, my expectations of how we would interact, negotiating classroom rules and learning about their expecations. When I moved on to teaching undergraduates, I would spend  the first session doing this – although sometimes their initial behaviour wasn’t a lot different to that of school children and I would need to spend more time establishing norms!

Engaging students with technology is similar to engaging them with the library, or introducing them to the students union activities, taking them on a campus tour and so on. We need to do the same things online, because without time spent on this famialiarisation process students will not feel safe enough or sufficiently comfortable to engage fully with the learning process.

So have I answered the question? To summarise – the key points for me are:

  • focus on learning before technology
  • use all the strategies that you would in a face-to-face situation

But a final additional point is  that I wouldn’t dream of using a technology that I wasn’t familiar with myself, unless I had negotiated with the students first that we needed to learn about it together – and for that to happen, the technology would need to be at least as important as the subject being taught, or enable the learning of the subject to be enhanced.

I think I have rambled a bit. Hopefully I will be more concise and succinct when I am actually asked this question!

Learning is a messy business…..

…. and no more so than when you are doing research and are a new researcher! I’m wondering if it is more or less messy when you are working with others. I remember that for the CCK08 assignments some people chose to work collaboratively and some chose to work individually. It’s interesting to reflect on whether the outcomes would have been better or worse for having worked in the alternative way. They would almost certainly have been different.

For myself, I prefer to work with others. I learn so much from the others’ expertise, their insights, alternative perspectives and different ways of working, which is enriched even further by different cultural backgrounds. I also find this whole process as interesting as the research itself. But it’s difficult not to go into information overload, particularly if the information is new. For example, I know nothing about Actor Network Theory (ANT), which other members of our research team seem to be familiar with, if not very familiar. It even took me a week or two to realise that IMO in a post meant ‘In my Opinion’ 🙂

It’s very interesting how easy it is to make assumptions about every possible aspect of life and learning. I try and stay mindful of Stephen Brookfield’s work on assumption hunting when involved in something like this research project, but I’m not always successful. This, of course, is complicated by the fact that this is a ‘virtual’ research team. We have never actually met. We probably have all sorts of erroneous ideas about each other, but it’s interesting how the process of working together, teasing out ideas, negotiating meaning and sometimes ‘going round in circles’, brings a sense of proximity and commitment.

In this team of four wonderfully enthusiastic researchers, I think we will have written a book before we even begin to write the paper! We are going backwards and forwards, sideways, up and down and round about, but bit by bit are making progress and untangling the knots of the messy learning business. I feel so pleased to be working in this team.

Where have they been?

I have just finished listening to the UStream session and the very last 5 or 10 minutes made me prick my ears up. The question was put to SD and GS – Give one simple practical suggestion for implementing connectivism in classrooms (with children). The suggestions were

  1. Connect classrooms from people round the world.
  2. Encourage children to work together to participate in a real way to produce something real of benefit to society.

Neither of these ideas is new.  My first experience of networking across schools was when I was at school myself in about 1962 or 63, when a group from my school in the North of England linked with a group from a school in London (which in those days might as well have been in a different country) to work on a project. Since then I have experienced this kind of activity both nationally and internationally, both as a learner and teacher many times. The same is true of working collaboratively on ‘real’ projects to produce  a recognisably useful outcome. Interesting though that collaboarative group work doesn’t seem to have been built into this course. Not yet anyhow.

No – I think Dave Cormier is much nearer what the change might need to be and that is in a negotiated curriculum. We need to start encouraging children to negotiate their own curriculum. Even this is not new. I remember that at least 15 years ago, when teaching 5 and 6 year old children, I once started the half term’s work by asking the class to plan their own work for the 8 week period. They were perfectly able to do this and planned a wonderful topic based on a nursery rhyme, in which they were able to say what maths, english, science, geography etc. etc. we would need to work on that term.

What is new for me – but not completely new is allowing students to negotiate their assessment. I have done this in the past as well – i.e. asked children to work together to determine assessment criteria and then peer assess, but there has always been a limit to how far I have been able to go with this because of quality assurance standards.

It seems to me that for connectivism to be useful to education, some of the issues surrounding assessment and a negotiated curriculum need to be resolved. In particular, I do believe it is very important to determine whether it can be applied to young children’s education.

Rhizomatic education

From the Elluminate discussion on Wednesday I thought this sounded interesting, as, if I have understood this correctly, it does seem that a negotiated curriculum could be a stumbling block for the adoption of a theory of connectivism in Higher Ed.

However, the Connectivism course site seems to be down today and I can’t access the article from there, so I’ll have to troll around on the internet and find it there.

Found it!

Cormier D (2008) Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum http://davecormier.com/edblog/2008/06/03/rhizomatic-education-community-as-curriculum/

This is an interesting article, but I’m not sure that it says anything particularly new. Basically it argues that ‘the need for external validation of knowledge either by an expert or by a constructed curriculum’, can be dispensed with.  The curriculum can be constructed by the learners.

Are we then to dispense with assessment as well? It’s not new that students want control over their learning; they want to follow their individual interests and carve their own path. But my experience is that they also want to know how well they have done, and quite often, if not very often, they want to know how they measure up against their peers. So do we also dispense with this in this model of rhizomatic education?