21 February 2013

On the spirit and the letter...

I've just received a rather dispiriting email from a really good student about her anxieties about the work she is drafting. Specifically, she is referring to Brookfield's "lenses" for curriculum evaluation, as I discussed them here (see slide 5 in particular for my point). Her concern is whether she is using the labels correctly. Is she getting it right?

It's dispiriting because she has missed the point, particularly in treating the lenses--the ideas--as objects to be learned about (rather as historical "facts" are) rather than as tools* to be used as appropriate, but otherwise to be set aside.
  • The task is what matters. What tool do I need to do this? 
  • Rather than; I've got this tool. What can I do with it?
(I admit that the perspective switch is not always clear, and sometimes the second question is important.)

But it is my fault that she has walked away with this misapprehension, and that is what is dispiriting. What we (those of us brought up as academics in particular) teach, defaults to being an object. Whereas in many cases it should be a tool. 

And it is our academic context which has forced this distortion. We insist on accurate regurgitation of stuff out of context, and don't ask about its utility and how it can be used **.  And (how ironic it is!) as teacher trainers in vocational education, in particular, our approach devalues that utilitarian/instrumental perspective which comes quite naturally to many of our students, and insists on "privileging" our "academic discourse".

All that is a bit heavy to put into an email response to an innocent enquiry. So what I wrote was (redacted):
Don't worry! As I understand Brookfield he holds no particular brief for the specific "lenses" he identified--still less for the labels he gives them. All he wants is for us to look at our work in several different ways, or put ourselves in the shoes of different "stakeholders" and see how it looks from their point of view--there is no definitive list of whose perspective/lens matters or (still less) is "best".  Each lens has something different to offer, and they are all valuable. Sad to say, there are links to the pervasive discourse of ... er, discourse....

He's arguing for what is now sometimes referred to as 360 degree evaluation/ appraisal/ feedback, although he goes beyond that in entertaining conflicting views.
  • The most obvious is probably the "dumbing-down" argument--the popularising lens/perspective/value base wants ideas to be accessible to all, while the scholarly lens protests that they are being distorted and over-simplified. Or the employers' perspective --"I couldn't care less what they understand about what they are doing, as long as they do it right"-- versus the educationalists' --"they need to know what they are doing".
  • There's a great argument rumbling at the moment, from Atul Gawande's piece on the Cheesecake Factory. He is arguing that medicine and surgery has a lot to learn from the fast food industry! Totally different traditions and lenses, but what a potentially fruitful argument.
The notion of frame of reference is a variation on "lens".
...but does this kind of argument help a student make the shift*** between the forms of knowledge?

* I'm using the terms "object", "tool" and "frame", here. Perkins (2010: video) uses "concept", "instrument" and "action" to mean something very similar--I'm presumptuous enough to think that my labels are clearer for someone coming to the ideas for the first time, but his much more thorough and learned exploration is well worth watching.

**It is not that one is better than the other, as a moment's thought will demonstrate. It is that we should have access to both (and more) perspectives, and be able to deploy and value them appropriately.

*** It is of course an epistemological shift; but I now hear that, and ontological, bandied about so much and so vaguely, that I am backing off from using the terms unless there is no alternative.

1 comment:

  1. I know nothing about these lenses but I assume the idea is similar to de Bono's Thinking Hats or, no doubt, numerous other techniques for pulling one's thinking out of any ruts it may have inadvertently found itself in.
    I did a related experiment yesterday with a small group of 1st Yr Fine Art students where I asked them to pick an image at random from I book I'd brought and to come up with as many questions as they could think of about the chosen image. The questions dried up pretty quickly so I suggested that they apply a different critical lens instead. I suggested that they apply all of the biggest and most vexing questions they could think of about art to the image. Suddenly they were asking a flood of incredibly probing questions even though the lens had hardly changed at all. My intention had been to shift them to a philosophical lens but it hardly seemed necessary and when I did they seemed perplexed. Having read your post above it now strikes me that they were probably, like your student, confused about how much they should understand about the lens itself rather than seeing it as a tool to shift their focus. Perhaps I'm overdoing the optical metaphors but it seems to me that in the case of these 1st years it wasn't so much a new lens that was needed as simply a shift in the focal length that allowed them to see the image in a new light. Anyway, who needs different lenses when we can just as easily use a zoom!?


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