11 May 2010

On game-changing

I have my doubts about "reflection" as a panacea for professional development, despite the title of this blog. But in practical terms, my most effective learning from experience occurs when I find that themes from several different instances/areas/events/ideas come together to make a point.
But! I find myself warning some of my best and most curious students (I don't mean "freakiest", although the categories are not mutually exclusive...) against producing spurious syncretist theories of everything. I may be guilty of that, too.
What prompts this thought is a political debate (of course), editing a video (discussed more in the 10 May post), and a TV series on the history of science.

Politically, proportional representation as a form of electoral reform is a game-changer. It's irreversible short of a period of anarchy/revolution. I'm all for it, incidentally, as long as the system maintains an adequate link between representative and locality (which is a little more specific than "constituency"). But it is a BIG step.

It's an instance of second-order change (Watzlawick et al 1974)
  • First-order change: Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose... The more things change, the more they stay the same (attributed to Karr, 1849)
  • Second-order change: Things will never be the same again.
I note in the post on 10 May "On another threshold concept, rediscovered" that Kuhn's notion of "paradigm shifts" is an instance of second-order change in the history of science. Mosley's excellent BBC2 series (linked to above, and on again at 9pm today) has very effectively explored such instances, and in so doing demonstrated that--for later students--they constitute threshold concepts.

The video includes some plenary discussion of students' conceptions (and misconceptions) of threshold concepts, and watching it over and over again for editing purposes is a good way of at least forming some hypotheses about their understanding (getting feedback from them, as Hattie emphasises). I am struck by how "safe" are the TCs they chose to mention, in particular. As commentators Peter H and myself found ourselves challenged potentially to accept the proffered examples as they stood, even when they did not quite hit the target--thereby running the risk of diluting the idea to the status of "statements of the bleeding obvious", which a few students obviously thought we did, from their evaluations. Apart from the initial statement about the limitations of the applicability of TCs to practice with students with Special Education Needs, clearly students did not want to "show themselves up" in front of the assembled multitude by risking a contentious suggestion. And interestingly, few referred to their own learning of their discipline--which was what the exercise asked--but reverted to issues about teaching it.

What all this is reminding me of, apart from the general point about the much-neglected emotional agenda in teaching and learning, is just how disconcerting and disorienting is the liminality of TCs, and how much people may avoid it, because they have not got their bearings in the new space. Just as I hear politicians on the radio resiling for fear of what lies beyond the portal of PR, which is indeed scary until you think that it is what every other European democracy bar one uses. Just like scientists wishing no-one had ever discovered quantum physics.

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