Curriculum design as stage management

by Paul Maharg on 14/11/2008

Last week I was at the University of Oxford Learning Institute, giving a paper on professional learning.  The session was chaired by Chris Trevitt (my thanks to him), and the SIMPLE project featured largely in it.  Good questions and discussion afterwards – slides at Slideshare here. 

One of the ideas I was discussing was that the elements of transactional learning actually act like the layers in a lamination: they give strength not because they are similar or act in the same direction, but because they provide tension and act against each other.  Examples of lamination in objects include composite bows or the cross-ply in marine or aircraft plywood.  Peter Galison used the notion in his superb study of aspects of twentieth century microphysics, Image and Logic. Learning is full of laminated processes and moments.  To illustrate it, I discussed some of the elements of transactional learning, discussed in more detail in chapters 6 & 7 of my book Transforming Legal Education:

active learning
  through performance in authentic transactions
    involving reflection in & on learning,
      deep collaborative learning, and
        holistic or process learning,
          with relevant professional assessment
              that includes ethical standards

There is lamination in each of these elements, and also between them.  Take number 5 for instance, process learning. Transactional learning is based on a more holistic approach to knowledge-building, in which students experience the whole transaction – not just the actual procedure but how the transaction may affect the client and others involved in the transaction.  There are numerous tensions arising from this.  For instance, knowing a transaction involves simultaneous understanding of detail and the larger context of the detail.  But just like the function of foreground & background in cognitive studies we can't keep detail & macrocontext in our heads simultaneously.  We learn transactionally by moving between the two.  The tension is absolutely necessary to understanding. 

One issue arose at questions – collaboration, and how groups work together.  How did we support that?  I responded by referring to activity logs, personal logs, self- & peer-assessment forms.  I didn’t have time to mention the Foundation Course activities that build trust & confidence, and the partnership agreement to which students sign up, and in which they define the qualities that will characterize their working relationships with each other.  These and other interventions are what we do to encourage student firms to be small learning communities, part of the larger learning community of the Diploma in Legal Practice, which in turn is part of the larger professional community in which students learn to be trainees, and trainees in turn learn to be qualified solicitors. 

But the issue stayed with me.  Walking around Oxford later that night, passing the Sheldonian and thinking about it again, I realised that, of course, this was really only a small part of the story.  No amount of theory or teaching interventions, however brilliantly conceived & executed, can create a learning community – only the students can achieve that.  We can design the set for them, but only they can enact the drama of their own learning.  

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michael hughes November 18, 2008 at 16:33

Being a stage manager, I’m not sure that I follow with the stage management analogy…I think the role is much more akin to the Director, Stage Management is too much about the nuts and bolts, rather than the performance.
A good director knows where he wants his actors to go but shouldn’t be telling them how to get there.


2 Paul Maharg November 25, 2008 at 12:05

Yes I thought about the director role. And even though there’s any number of directorial styles, directorial advice/command is still an intervention. I guess what you’re saying too, which is that it is up to the actors to create the role: direction & stage management, enormously helpful for actors, can take them only so far.


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