CETIS conference — grand challenges

by Paul Maharg on 25/11/2008

Attending the CETIS conference today — we've all been asked to blog pre-conference on the following issues:

If you were able to plan a 10 year programme of trans-disciplinary research and technology (ICT) development, what challenge would you address and what would your programme look like? What challenges can you see where there are identifiable questions to be answered? What methods could be used to help to answer the questions? How should we deal with complexity? What disciplines should collaborators come from? 

My responses to some of this, as viewed from my corner of the forest, below the fold…

If you were able to plan a 10 year programme of trans-disciplinary research and technology (ICT) development, what challenge would you address and what would your programme look like?

My challenge would be to address exactly how we take research and implement it within teaching & learning.  The process just isn't well enough theorised by researchers or understood by practitioners, despite having been identified as a major barrier to change development since at least the 1970s, and Lawrence Stenhouse, the Humanities Curriculum Project and the early excitement of teacher-as-researcher.  The sort of thing I'm thinking about is the work by Shaffer & Squire (2006) who pointed out how approaches to research that focused on practitioners' concerns — '"curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, professional development, etc" — with an eye toward improving extant practices' (Sabelli & Dede 2001, 4) was highly limiting.  Taking Pasteur's work on the anthrax bacillus as their example, they agree with Latour that Pasteur's scientific method was much more complex and knowing than a simple move from laboratory to field-trials.  The isolation of the anthrax bacillus and the development of a vaccine took place in his laboratory, to be sure; but Pasteur’s field trials succeeded because the conditions of the trial ‘were carefully negotiated so as to recreate in a farm setting the conditions of Pasteur’s laboratory that were essential to the success of the vaccination’.  In other words the success of the vaccine in the field was due to a ‘transformation of farming practices to mimic the conditions of Pasteur’s research’ (p.7).  As Shaffer & Squire point out, Pasteur’s

own practice was, as Latour suggests, not merely “use-inspired basic research”; it was a series of levers by which problems and contexts were more deeply understood, tools and techniques were developed, and systems and practices were reorganized in light of the resulting process of inquiry. (p.8)

Such levers should be developed in educational research, they urge, and should include systematic experimental and design research.  In the process they point out the need to ‘reconceptualize the process of “dissemination” as one of “transformation,” in which practices developed in controlled settings become images that drive the reorganization of schooling in fundamental ways’.  But such images cannot be created unless we pay close attention, as did Pasteur when he moved from laboratory to field, to the process by which we implement changed practices.  We need, in other words, to become researchers of our own practice.   If you want to read more about this, see chapter 2 of Transforming Legal Education.  

What would the programme look like?  The reconceptualization of dissemination as transformation is the answer: in other words a programme, probably built around a CHAT framework, building ground-up from collaborative work between students and staff, and between early-career professionals / expert practitioners and staff / students (in professional domains such as law).  

What challenges can you see where there are identifiable questions to be answered? 

A major challenge would be first of all to identify the questions that need answering…

How should we deal with complexity?

With humility, courage and understanding.  Humility — that of Nansen & colleagues, preparing for one of the great collaborative exploratory expeditions ever undertaken, to the North Pole: humble in the face of the ecological complexities of that unforgiving region.  Courage — Nansen again, deciding that the polar currents had taken him so far, and extreme courage, planning, persistence were required.  Understanding — Pasteur & the anthrax bacillus, above.  Or understanding. like Nansen, when the goal can't be reached, and when to turn back.  Or if you've stood and gazed at the knot for too long, then knowing how to take the Alexandrian solution.  No, put that sword away — do as Plutarch says Alexander did, and remove the pin from the axle pole so that the yoke can be removed and the knot fall away…  

What disciplines should collaborators come from? 

Any and every discipline: all are our brothers & sisters.  Because — going back to Schaffer & Squire — it's only on the ground of the disciplines that we can transform the practice of disciplines.  In their words, our practice should become a 

series of levers by which problems and contexts [are] more deeply understood, tools and techniques [are] developed, and systems and practices [are] reorganized in light of the resulting process of inquiry

Shaffer, D.W., Squire, K.D. (2006) The Pasteurization of Education.   International Conference of the Learning Sciences (Bloomington, ICLS)

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