The Decoding Academic Practice group met to engage in the first step in the process by identifying key bottlenecks. We used a structured process to identify and prioritise key bottlenecks Workshop 1 – Identifying Bottlenecks.
We classified bottlenecks in terms of concepts, terminology, and practices. This is an imprecise way of distinguishing between different aspects of the experience of engaging with the PgCert but helpful as an initial heuristic to organise the reflections. The group identified a number of key bottlenecks:
So here is my initial attempt to interpret the outcome of this process. Drawing on the individual notes, the collated group lists and audio recordings of the group discussions the key bottlenecks can represented in the following way:
I had anticipated that the reflective learning journals would be seen as a practice that presented particular difficulties for participants of the course. PgCert participants were required to submit regular reflections on their learning, capturing their response to their reading, discussions and guest inputs, and using these reflections to look afresh at their practice. This practice takes on the character of a signature pedagogy in academic development work, and as such can be considered a threshold practice. This is related to the issue of ‘translation’ discussed below. While the reflective mode often seen in academic development programmes may be mostly unfamiliar to those from science or technical disciplines, my experience suggests that the particular modes of reflection called upon are not necessarily the same as those found in some areas of the social sciences and humanities. The particular characteristics of the mode of reflection an
d comparison with other forms of reflective learning needs further elaboration.
What did the troubling nature of reflective writing look like according to the participants in the group?
- “It was hard work”
- The reflective writing tasks brought with them a good deal of uncertainty and anxiety. For instance, people expressed uncertainty about the distinction between personal and critical reflection. This refers to the the boundary between how people responded intuitively to course materials and activities (whether they understood/did not understand; saw the relevance or not of certain ideas and practices; whether they liked/did not like certain ideas and practices) and a more critical stance that encouraged both reflection on the course materials and then on their own practice informed by their considered response to those materials.
- This uncertainty about whether their refections were anything but ‘opinion’, and therefore of questionable value, was perhaps most starkly illustrated by the following observation: “coming from a science background where our default tendency is binary” we want to be able to say whether something is right or wrong, is this or that. In contrast, the reflective mode appeared to inhabit the “grey space” and so course participants might feel they were being asked to “define the undefinable”.
- Being precise with unfamiliar terminology
- The terminology of the course, drawing as it did from various learning theories and the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), was unfamiliar to almost all participants.
- Being asked to articulate what they actually did in their classrooms and laboratories was also unfamiliar.
- Being asked to describe their practices with some precision using unfamiliar terminology induced anxiety. People were concerned about whether they were using the terminology correctly and whether this language adequately captured the experience of their practice.
- Making your own practice an object of inquiry
- Thinking deeply about your practice as a teacher was something mostly found novel, if also empowering. But it was uncomfortable.
- Time was raised as an issue. Unless agreed locally course participants do not get a time allowance for doing the PgCert. But time here was not just that of doing the coursework on top of full workloads. It referred specifically to the time required to reflect in a way that produced clarity and precision.
All in all, reflective writing was a significant stumbling block, even for those who we might have seen as being accomplished at it. While reflective writing might be part of the surface structure of the pedagogy, learning AS reflection took on the character of its deep structure, with the implicit structure perhaps being the assertion that ‘good’ teaching comes out of such reflective practice.
All course participants were being asked to transition from their own epistemic community (discipline, subject, etc.) and engage with a different set of epistemic assumptions. This raised issues of translation between disciplinary understandings and between the course and disciplinary practice.
- Epistemic translation. Academic development work draws on a mix of SoTL, educational psychology, and sociological concepts. It has porous boundaries and often the core ideas disguise their epistemic origins. For instance, focus on learning outcomes does not necessarily reveal the psychological basis for Bloom’s taxonomy. Similarly, engagement with threshold concepts does not necessarily make explicit its varied origins in philosophy and literary studies. For those coming from the sciences and technical disciplines qualitative research was particularly problematic. It could be so at odds with expectations of what research comprised that some struggled to see if it was real research at all. These perceptions were not necessarily sustained through out the life of the course, but were significant issues in its early stages. How then to understand these key ideas and to translate them into the more familiar terrain of ones own disciplinary way of thinking?
- Guidelines and Heuristics. One bottleneck that was was clearly articulated in the session was the realisation that what they were being exposed to on the course was not a set of rules that could be applied to their own contexts of practice. Instead, the key ideas were guidelines or heuristics. As one person put it:”we were given guidelines and it was left up to ourselves to get on with it”. While there was a sense that this was appropriate, it was remembered as something that caused anxiety.
- Translating into practice. The way key ideas worked as heuristics rather than rules led into concern about how to translate these into practice. Particular concepts were referred to in the discussion as presenting difficulty: learning outcomes, signature pedagogies, and threshold concepts. Learning outcomes specifically drew much attention, with some concern that it presented a vision of teaching as neat and machine like, that if you put things in their correct boxes then deep learning would emerge at the other end. This raises further questions about the implicit messages our pedagogy might convey and whether things like learning outcomes were clearly presented as heuristic techniques. Also, if our courses are practical in orientation (in the pragmatic tradition) then how can we model the process of translation into practice more effectively?
Although this might not be considered a bottleneck it was certainly the case that often course participants might be anxious and uncertain. However, using a term associated with threshold concepts the troubling nature of uncertainty can be viewed more positively as that of liminality. The challenge, is perhaps twofold
- How can we work with course participants to live with this liminal experience as an indicator of the gap between what they know and what they can know with help. In other words how can the process be scaffolded so that uncertainty does not become an enduring bottleneck?
- Are we doing things that exacerbate the uncertainty?
The next step in the process will be review responses to this interpretation, revise the interpretation, and meet again to consider what course participants did to overcome the bottlenecks, what we as course facilitators did to aid this process, and what other things could be done.