Thursday, 16 October 2014

Seriously Deep - first meeting notes

Reflective notes - yes they are quite long but primarily written for my own benefit so I have a record to look back on and from which to draw inspiration.

 Seriously deep by Eberhard Weber seemed an appropriate tune to start my journey with and was a wonderful mood setter as I set off past Colliford Lake. I love the willows and canal that run past Sawyers building on the Chelmsford campus so I followed up with another Weber offering; Quiet Departure it resonated with the canal but it is also a beautiful yet largely unrecognised work and that seemed appropriate as much great research goes unrecognised and a fair bit of rubbish hits the press.

Anyway I had a surprisingly easy drive up to Chelmsford in only four and a half hours and my afternoon on campus started with a really useful discussions with timetabling and other admin staff. It was great to meet Peggy King in person at last. What a wonderful team we have in the William Harvey building.

Moving on to the Friday evening meeting.

It was great to meet the other candidates on the course and hear their initial ideas for study foci. Considering we mostly did not know each other there was some fortuitous seat choosing with people with shared interests or work contexts mostly ending up close to each other. I love it when potentially chaotic systems demonstrate valuable random clustering like that.

I enjoyed Gerry Davis and Hazel Wright's session, it really clarified the nature and structure of the course and set out some key expectations.

Bronfenbrenner was mentioned early on in relation to coherence and focus. I have met is micro-mezo-macro diagrams before and found it useful to search for them in Google images as there are many examples of interpretations of the concept into different contexts. Concentric diagrams are fairly simplistic but can be effective reminders of where focus lies. Wenger's Community of Practice diagrams have a similar structure and have been useful in considering the legitimacy of different levels of online community participation in my own work.

Coherence and focus is going to be a key target for me as my interests are so diverse from muddy learning to geology, archaeology, genetics and a host of other interests. String theory sends shivers through my scalp and the latest developments in expansion theory bringing the multiple universe model into focus just blows me away.

1st lesson:
I must not get distracted.
I must not get distracted.
I must not get distracted.
I must not get distracted.
I must not get distracted.
I must not get distracted.
I must not get distracted.

So my starting point is to write about my professional practice: 'Set the broad scene, show where the focus lies within that scene.'

My practice has been fairly diverse over the last 18 years and the changing focus has been a key factor in why I have not previously completed doctoral study. Despite a wide range of work contexts everything I have done has some relevance to my proposed topic. I am sure that reviewing my practice in detail over 5000 words will be a useful way of reconceptualising my skills and redefining my focus. I am pleased that I have kept a reflective blog and a Google website for some time now as this will help remind me of details about my professional activity.

The first meeting prompted me to reflect on why I am embarking on this journey. I have never felt a need to gain formal recognition of my practice so why do a Doctorate and head towards the potential stressful rollercoaster of a ride that many experience? From my mid 20s I always liked the idea of being a headteacher and developing an independent school, Steiner and Montessori interested me but did not seem quite right neither did mainstream. My experience on the notschool project gave me further insight into alternative approaches and seeing supposedly 'unteachable' children go on to gain first class honours degrees and even a Masters was very thought provoking - am I looking for the research qualification to provide the evidence I need to move into school leadership or would I be happier developing a long term education project? Lots to think about but I must not get distracted!

There are a fair few sources that seem to agree that funding and acknowledgement of the value of outdoor learning is a problem, these include Growing Schools, the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom, the  Natural Connections project and the Forest Schools Association. I have also heard this from a wide range of education practitioners. The LINE  evidence based research via Natural Connections is gathering quantitative data to support the wide range of qualitative data about the benefits of learning outside the classroom. This is seen as one potentially effective way of legitimising the embedding of outdoor learning in teaching pedagogies. I do hope my own research will add momentum to this.

Meal time and we went to a lovely Vietnamese venue where fortunately for me the whole menu was gluten free. As can be seen below there was not a lot left when we had finished.

Saturday was led by Prof. Tim Waller who inspired confidence in that he was reassuring that we should not be influenced, in our choice of topic, by institutional vision or what we think publishers are interested in. Research focus is a personal choice based on individual interest. That reinforces the message that is part of my employment contract but it was good to hear endorsement of that view from a course director.

We were given not very long to write a paragraph about the "Professional me." The notes I made are below with some links added. 

I am an reflective and systematic educator who designs work based learning systems that are process .driven and aim to generate students who are critical reflectors and agents of change in the workplace.

One of my key interests is in analysing the complexity of systems. Beer's Viable Systems Analysis has been a key approach used to analyse my practice and to develop learning design.

I have designed learning systems which, at times, have been incompatible with my institution's vision. however; they have been appreciated by, and gained positive feedback from, many students.

I want to be someone who works with children and the practitioners associated with that field particularly in relation to learning outside the classroom. Consolidating and legitimising outdoor learning by linking creative approaches to the core curriculum is one aim. Another is to explore future gazing aspect, looking at what is and considering what might be in the future. This builds on work I have done at The Ultralab and with TELMap. 

Caring - nurturing - pedantic - flexible - visionary - explorer - researcher

collegiality - mutuality - respect

Tim illustrated incompatibility by reference to his experiences in Sweden with early years education. The key incompatibility related to risk and the comparison with the risk averse UK ethos and the contrasting approach in Sweden where risk is seen as legitimate.

Some notable features of the Swedish approach include:

  • Young children playing outdoors unsupervised;
  • making the journey to school on their own using cycle path networks; 
  • arriving home in the afternoon before parents;
  • having open access to wild place, for example; a setting with open forest to the rear where children may go unsupervised up to 1Km from the buildings. 
 I was prompted to think back to Juliet Robertson's workshop at Plymouth University where her take was that the outdoors is a risky place, we can not ensure total safety, however; by learning outdoors with children we can help them learn how to manage their risk. This is still a more risk averse approach to that deployed in Sweden. 

What I learned about the expectations of the course and about characteristics of good research practice. When we first developed the BA Learning, Technology and Research course it was described as a PhD for undergraduates. I had thought that this related particularly to two key elements:

1.  The process driven approach - learning about research strategies and applying them in the workplace to improve knowledge and behaviour.

2. The final year presentation of research findings to a workplace audience with the aim of gathering critical responses that can be later analysed to create a defense of learning - a Viva Voce approach adapted for undergraduates.

Although they are an obvious link, having now experience the opening EdD session, I now realise our integration of research principles goes much deeper than that. The course was founded on developing collegiality, mutuality and respect between students and tutors and encompases elements such as examining the nature and purpose of research, critically reviewing literature about a theory and then further exploring theory by applying it to examine their own practice in the workplace then reassessing the literature in the light of that experiential learning.

We place emphasis on understanding the nature of truth particularly in relation to the consideration of the scale and scope of their small-scale work based research. The dangers of poor semantics are something our undergraduates grapple with from semester 1 of year 1 and are intrinsic to good research practice. A model I use is that they should not construct statements such as: "My research had proved that xxx procedure is effective in the primary classroom." Far better is a statement that acknowledges the limitations of knowledge and particularly how scope and context impacts on those limitations. "This research was small-scale, it was carried out over only 4 weeks in one primary class. The findings indicate that in this context xxx practice is one that I have found to be effective in that...yyy. The weaknesses of the research were.... Plans to extend and consolidate my understanding of the efficacy of this strategy include..."

In our patchwork media and text approach every module concludes with a retrospective commentary on meta-learning. This builds in a constant cycle of reflective examination of how each student is developing their research skills.

I am glad to have the experience of tutoring such a system and am sure it will be very useful on my own research journey.

Not such a good journey home with lots of traffic on the M25 / M4 made worse by roadworks and speed limitations. I needed a rest near Exeter with a Costa coffee with two extra shots to wake me up. Train is just not particularly convenient as far as timing goes and I really don't like travelling through London. My niggling surfer's ear condition can cause vertigo on trains and changes in pressure can be painful such as when two trains pass in opposite directions at high speed it is like a hammer blow to the side of my head. The London tube is particularly uncomfortable. At least with my car I can stop whenever I need.

All in all a great experience.

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