Helen Beetham on designs & patterns

by Paul Maharg on 29/03/2006

Interesting passage from Helen Beetham in the wiki set up by Patrick MacAndrew & James Dalziel, in theme 1 of the conference.  Patrick and James had been discussing differences between e-learning design and the idea of Patterns:

Hello, Helen B (facilitator from JISC) dropping in ahead of schedule as I’ve been finding the debate so interesting.

I wonder if the difference between ‘designs’ in the formal sense and ‘patterns’ is the difference between logical and analogical likeness?

What I mean is: Logical thinking works with context-free representations, such as James suggests LD might offer in the field of learning and teaching. For me this is exemplified by attempts in AI to find generational and propositional grammars: building a symbolic structure that can sit *behind* what is observed in the real and messy situations of learning, and can serve as a ‘grammar’ of pedagogy. If we could create such structures they would certainly be powerful ways of exchanging ideas and of instantiating ‘good’ pedagogical principles in future learning design systems. This way of thinking about the world has been around at least since classical times – Learning Designs as the Platonic ideal(s) of different approaches to learning?

But my suspicion, borne out by James’ findings on generic designs and our own JISC projects on how teachers actually ‘do’ learning design, is that teachers are fundamentally analogical thinkers. Generic or ideal designs don’t really inspire them – perhaps don’t even carry enough information to be useful. Teachers like to see something working, in a real context, with real learners and teachers: then they are often inspired to think ‘I could do something like that’, even if their own context is very different. The ‘likeness’ they are responding to – or rather creating for themselves – is analogical or metaphorical. It doesn’t pass through some symbolically neutral representation such as a generic design. Rather, it goes straight from one messy situation to the other, along some path of likeness that might not be structural or even pedagogical – it might be ‘aesthetic’ in the broad sense that Christopher Alexander intends it, or it might be very deeply submerged.

I would argue that logical thinking is only a sub-set of human beings’ capacity for making patterns, one that has been highly valued since classical times, but one that doesn’t always serve well in very complex domains of activity like learning and teaching.

Hope this is a productive analogy!                  [quoted with permission]

I find this interesting for so many reasons.  Diana Laurillard’s conversation framework is hardly high theory (in the sense of Weber eg) but it is a form of abstract theory applied to learning and teaching in the electronic domain.  I have found it hugely helpful in thinking about e-learning, and particularly on the place of feedback.  But the place of such constructs is limited by two things.  First, the paradox of a conversation framework.  It’s in the nature of conversation not to have frameworks — to have Gricean modes of conduct, to be sure, but these are more conventions, less a framework.  Secondly, and as the online conference has pointed out, disciplinary differences, practices, habits (habitus?) warp the framework.  In a sense it’s what Stenhouse said long ago about the importance of freeing the creativity of the teacher practitioner in the role of the teacher as researcher — as he said in Authority, Education and Emancipation:

Idea and action are fused in practice.  Self-improvement comes in escaping from the idea that the way to virtuosity is the imitation of others – pastiche – to the realization that it is the fusion of idea and action in one’s own performance to the point where each can be ‘justified’ in the sense that it is fully expressive of the other.  So the idea is tuned to the form of the art and the form used to express the idea.

And of course practitioners (lawyers, architects, teachers) may well as part of their study analyse the work of role models in their professions, but they must at some point or other perform themselves, get into those ‘messy situations’ Helen refers to.  And that working out and figuring out what to do in these situations is a form of aesthetic is a profound concept.  As with many things, Dewey was there before us.  Towards the end of his life, he wrote an extraordinary work, largely neglected by educationalists, entitled Art as Experience.  It is a book that is relevant to the practice and theory of legal education.  There, he defines experience as transactional: it is ‘active and alert commerce with the world; at its height it signifies complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events’ (Later Works, 10, 25)  It is always and everywhere historical: ‘[a]n experience is a product, one might almost say a by-product, of continuous and cumulative interaction of an organic self with world’ (Later Works, 10, 224).  Immersed in the moment, we cannot articulate it until raw data is identified, schematised.  Thus when I look at a mallet or a chisel, according to Dewey, I see the expressiveness of the objects, its quality as defined by use – a quality I can transfer to other types of hammers — sledgehammers, claw hammers, etc.  For Dewey, though, expressiveness becomes dulled with familiarity: ‘apathy and torpor conceal this expressiveness by building a shell about objects’ (Later Works, 10, 109).  In contrast, the act of dwelling upon experience was imbued with imagination, without which transfer of process between objects and between concepts was inconceivable: ‘[a]ll conscious experience has of necessity some degree of imaginative quality’ (Later Works, 10, 276).

It is thus that imagination becomes a central concept in Dewey’s construction of experience. It is the great function of art to break open that shell, and to enable us to see our experience, our schemas, anew.  The quality of attention is important, and separates aesthetic from other types of learning experiences.  Thus, when what he calls the ‘intrinsic meaning’ of an object predominates over the ‘extrinsic meaning’, then the experience becomes focused on the aesthetic object.  Nevertheless, for Dewey imagination is a fundamental part of the way we construct our experience. 

If it is integral to all mental events to a greater or lesser extent, then we should enlist it in the art of teaching law and legal skills so as to enable students to use it in learning the art of the law.  Literary objects and theory; musical education, educational theory – these disciplines are texts that can be of vital use to us. Legal education has always borrowed concepts and methods; but this metaphor does not focus us sufficiently on the sources of those concepts and methods.  Looking at the theories and theories-in-use in other disciplines, we can begin to appreciate how other versions of artistry might be employed in our own discipline. 

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