Critical digital pedagogy in the classroom: Practical implementation

This post is inspired by the work I’ve recently done for a book chapter, as well as several articles on Hybrid Pedagogy but in particular, Adam Heidebrink-Bruno’s Syllabus as Manifesto. I’ve been wanting to make some changes to my Professional Ethics module for a while and the past few weeks have really given me a lot to think about. Critical pedagogy is an approach to teaching and learning that not only puts the student at the centre of the classroom but then helps them to figure out what to do now that they’re there. It also pushes teachers to go beyond the default configurations of classroom spaces. Critical digital pedagogy is when we use technology to do things that are difficult or impossible in those spaces without it.

One of the first things we do in each module we teach is provide students with a course overview, or syllabus. We don’t even think about it but this document might be the first bit of insight into how we define the space we’re going to occupy with our students. How much thought do we really give to the language and structure of the document? How much of it is informed by the students’ voice? I wondered what my own syllabus would look like if I took to heart Jesse Stommel’s suggestion that we “begin by trusting students”.

I wanted to find out more about where my students come from, so I created a shared Google Doc with a very basic outline of what information needed to be included in a syllabus. I asked them to begin by anonymously sharing something about themselves that they hadn’t shared with anyone else in the class before. Something that influenced who they are and how they came to be in that class. I took what they shared, edited it and created the Preamble to our course outline, describing our group and our context. I also added my own background to the document, sharing my own values, beliefs and background, as well as positioning myself and my biases up front. I wanted to let them know that, as I ask them to share something of themselves, so will I do the same.

The next thing were the learning outcomes for the modules. We say that we want our students to take responsibility for their learning but we set up the entire programme without any input from them. We decide what they will learn based on the outcomes we define, as well as how it will be assessed. So for this syllabus I included the outcomes that we have to have and then I asked the students to each define what “success” looks like in this module for them. Each student described what they wanted to achieve by the end of the year, wrote it as a learning outcome, decided on the indicators of progress they needed, and then set timelines for completion. So each of them would have the learning outcomes that the institution and professional body requires, plus one. I think that this goes some way toward acknowledging the unique context of each student, and also gives them skills in evaluating their own development towards goals that they set that are personally meaningful.

I’ve also decided that the students will decide their own marks for these personal outcomes. At the end of the year they will evaluate their progress against the performance indicators that they have defined, and give themselves a grade that will count 10% towards their Continuous Assessment mark. This decision was inspired by this post on contract grading from HASTAC. What I’m doing isn’t exactly the same thing but it’s a similar concept in that students not only define what is important to them, but decide on the grade they earn. I’m not 100% how this will work in practice, but I’m leaning towards a shared document where students will do peer review on each other’s outcomes and progress. I’m interested to see what a student-led, student-graded, student-taught learning outcome looks like.

Something that is usually pretty concrete in any course is the content. But many concepts can actually be taught in a wide variety of ways and we just choose the ones that we’re most familiar with. For example the concept of justice (fairness) could be discussed using a history of the profession, resource allocation for patients, Apartheid in South Africa, public and private health systems, and so on. In the same shared document I asked students to suggest topics they’d like to cover in the module. I asked them to suggest the things that interest them, and I’d figure out how to teach concepts from professional ethics in those contexts. This is what they added: Income inequality. Segregation. #FeesMustFall. Can ethics be taught? The death penalty. Institutional racism. Losing a patient. That’s a pretty good range of topics that will enable me to cover quite a bit of the work in the module. It’s also more likely that students will engage considering that these are the things they’ve identified as being interesting.

Another area that we have completely covered as teachers is assessment. We decide what will be assessed, when the assessment happens, how it is graded, what formats we’ll accept…we even go so far as to tell students where to put the full stops and commas in their referencing lists. That’s a pretty deep level of control we’re exerting. I’ve been using a portfolio for assessment in this module for a few years so I’m at a point where I’m comfortable with students submitting a variety of different pieces. What I’m doing differently this year is asking the students to submit each task when it’s ready rather than for some arbitrary deadline. They get to choose when it suits them to do the work, but I have asked them to be reasonable with this, mainly because if I’m going to give them decent feedback I need time before their next piece arrives. If they’re submitted all at once, there’s no time to use the feedback to improve their next submission.

The students then decided what our “rules of engagement” would be in the classroom. Our module guides usually have some kind of prescription about what behaviour is expected, so I asked the students what they thought appropriate behaviour looks like and then to commit as a class to those rules. Unsurprisingly, their suggestions looked a lot like it would have if I had written it myself. Then I asked them to decide how to address situations when individuals contravened our rules. I don’t want to be the policeman who has to discipline students…what would it look like if students decided in advance what would work in their classroom, and then took action when necessary? I’m pretty excited to find out.

I decided that there would be no notes provided for this module, and no textbook either. I prepare the lecture outline in a shared Google document, including whatever writing assignments the students need to work on and links to open access resources that are relevant for the topic. The students take notes collaboratively in the document, which I review afterwards. I add comments and structure to their notes, and point them to additional resources. Together, we will come up with something unique describing our time together. Even if the topic is static our conversations never are, so any set of notes that focuses only on the topic is going to necessarily leave out the sometimes wonderful discussion that happens in class. This way, the students get the main ideas that are covered, but we also capture the conversation, which I can supplement afterwards.

Finally, I’ve set up a module evaluation form that is open for comment immediately and committed to having it stay open for the duration of the year. The problem with module evaluations is that we ask students to complete them at the end of the year, when they’re finished and have no opportunity to benefit from their suggestions. I wouldn’t fill it in either. This way, students get to evaluate me and the module at any time, and I get feedback that I can act on immediately. I use a simple Google Form that they can access quickly and easily, with a couple of rating scales and an option to add an open-ended comment. I’m hoping that this ongoing evaluation option in a format that is convenient for students means that they will make use of it to improve our time together.

As we worked through the document I could see students really struggling with the idea that they were being asked to contribute to the structure of the module. Even as they commented on each other’s suggestions for the module, there was an uncertainty there. It took a while for them to be comfortable saying what they wanted. Not just contributing with their physical presence in the classroom, but to really contribute in designing the module; how it would be run, how they would be assessed, how they could “be” in the classroom. I’m not sure how this is going to work out but I felt a level of enthusiasm and energy that I haven’t felt before. I felt a glimmer of something real as they started to take seriously my offer to take them seriously.

The choices above demonstrate a few very powerful additions to the other ways that we integrate technology into this module (the students portfolios are all on the IEP blog, they do collaborative authoring and peer review in Google Drive, course resources are shared in Drive, they do digital stories for one of the portfolio submissions, and occasionally we use Twitter for sharing interesting stories). It makes it very clear to the students that this is their classroom and their learning experiences. I’m a facilitator but they get to make real choices that have a real impact in the world. They get to understand and get a sense of what it feels like to have power and authority, as well as the responsibility that comes with that.

Critical digital pedagogy: Teaching at the edges of chaos

Update (22-02-17): This post has been modified from the original. Changes include updated in-text citations, minor grammatical improvements and an added reference list.

This is the fourth and final section of my CPN book chapter on critical digital pedagogy. You can read the first, second and third posts to find out how I got to this point. The summary is: 1) teaching is unconsciously aimed at developing within students a sense of powerlessness and conformity, 2) technology is increasingly being used to reinforce that system of oppression, and 3) critical pedagogy is a better way of thinking about teaching and learning. This final section of the book chapter describes how we can think about a critical pedagogy in digital and online spaces.

This is probably the section that I’m most uncertain of because there’s so much I want to say but am limited by the word count for the chapter. I’m thinking of using this as a base to write something longer, where I can really get into the details of what I’m trying to argue for. For example, there’s no space here to give real examples of practice. Another example, I really want to make the link between the feeling of chaos and uncertainty that one feels in the classroom when using a critical pedagogy that eschews the rigidity and structure of the traditional syllabus. There’s a sense of safety in just following the process that is lost when you adopt a more open practice. The title of this section alludes to that feeling but I just couldn’t make it fit into the section. But I didn’t want to toss the title just yet. Anyway, while I will be able to write these missing pieces up separately on the blog I worry that the chapter – already way over the word limit – will seem awkward and clunky.

I’m submitting this draft for review today and will keep working on it until publication, so it’s likely that what I’ve presented in these last 4 posts will change. I haven’t included a real conclusion in this series, since it’s likely to change after continued editing and feedback from the reviewers. I’ll try to remember to post the conclusion if it’s worth it. Also, the book is going to be published under an open access license, so I’ll link to it when it’s done.

“The truly creative changes and the big shifts occur right at the edge of chaos” (Robert Bilder).

It’s interesting to note that progress sometimes means looking to the past to find ideas that we can use to better understand today. It’s easy to convince ourselves that the world we find ourselves in was inevitable; that history progressed in a regular, step wise fashion leading from one rational outcome to another. But, as Audrey Watters (2014) reminds us, corporate educational technology is not inevitable and that are alternatives to the “data-extraction, control, surveillance, privatisation, and profiteering” in the domain of educational technology. Technology includes ideas and practices, as well as myths and different models of reality. And like democracy, technology changes the relationships between us, forcing us to examine and redefine our notions of power and of accountability (Franklin, 1990). It is possible to see beyond the immediate confines of one’s experiences and imagine a future that does not simply reproduce the present (Giroux, 2010). Or, as Watters has put it, we can disrupt the Silicon Valley narrative of disruption.

The LMS is the dominant paradigm for educational technology in higher education. The problem with a dominant design is that almost all innovation is aimed at improving it rather than exploring any competing alternatives, regardless of which design is actually a better fit for purpose (Wilson et al., 2007). As we’ve seen in universities across the world, the LMS continues to improve incrementally in ways that do little to enhance students learning. If we want to take advantage of the possibilities enabled by digital and online learning environments, we must begin by challenging the dominance of the the LMS. In order to graduate young professionals who are capable of adapting to dynamic and complex systems, we cannot afford to continue teaching learning in spaces defined by the rigid and unimaginative constraints of the LMS. Frenk et al., (2010) suggest three fundamental shifts in health professions education that are necessary to bring about transformative learning experiences. We need to move from:

  1. Fact memorisation to searching, analysis, and synthesis of information for decision making.
  2. Seeking professional credentials to achieving core competencies for effective teamwork in health systems
  3. Non-critical adoption of educational models to creative adaptation of global resources to address local priorities

In order to respond to this call, teachers must move away from a positivist definition of knowledge that informs how they teach as well as how they expect students to learn. Knowledge in twentieth-century thinking is described as static, stable and something that exists ‘out there’, apart from human beings. In this conception, teaching and learning take place through the controlled transmission from authorities into the minds of passive learners. In contrast, twenty-first-century thinking sees knowledge as dynamic, complex and uncertain, socially constructed as people try to make sense of the world through more symmetrical relationships in networks of their peers (Gilbert, 2009).

“Centralised, authoritarian and hierarchical structures are inefficient and non-resilient as they can’t manage problems with unbounded data and are not able to react nimbly to changes in conditions.” (Cabrera, 2016). As a result we are experiencing a shift from vertical communication structures that privilege hierarchies of control, to horizontal structures – like networks – that embody coordination, cooperation and collaboration (Bleakley, Bligh, Browne & Brice Browne. 2011). Successful networks rely on “an engaged community, robust knowledge exchange, and self-governance, where collaboration is encouraged and facilitated, curators are enablers but not authorities, and the system is controlled by multiple iterations of social negotiation as via an evolutionary algorithm.” (Cabrera, 2016). The network is non-hierarchical, self-governed, distributed, maximally connected, multi-domain, semiotic and where the behavior and outputs can not be predicted by the characteristics of the nodes as they change when they communicate with each other (Cormier, 2008).

Building a personal learning network is getting easier as billions of people connect to the Internet, exposing us to new ideas, information and opinions in a process that is often chaotic, unstructured, and random. This leads us to the kinds of serendipitous learning outcomes that are impossible to predict or plan for as they are the result of the influence of more interacting variables than is possible to track. In addition, learning networks help us think critically if they are are open, transparent, and diverse. In these evolving communities of practice that are composed of both strong and weak social ties, we find an ideal space for mixing learning and work while sharing advice and knowledge (Jarche, 2014).

The shape of a space affects how one can move, what one does and how one interacts with others. In the classroom, desks and chairs are set up in rows. There is a front and back to the room. The teacher stands in the front. The students sit, facing the teacher. There is a power relationship that is set up by how we configure our bodies in space, and this default configuration determines how we teach. Is it because this configuration of physical space represents the optimal learning environment for our students or have we just accepted the default? In the same way, we have accepted the LMS as the default configuration of our online space, where teaching revolves around discrete containers of outcomes, content and assessments. Students move through the course – from one concept to another – until they get to the assessment at the end, which signals the end of the course. Courses as containers are formalised, standardised and ultimately, more about compliance and conformity than creativity, ingenuity, innovation, or mastery. Morris and Stommel have suggested that the best learning doesn’t happen inside courses, but between them (2015).

In an open and networked learning environment, the content of the course can be negotiated by participants in the context of their own life experiences, values and beliefs. This enables the course content to be built around the critical examination of concepts, hierarchies and assumptions that exist in the group (Morris & Stommel, 2015). Just like the best stories aren’t the ones that take you down a predictable and narrowly defined path, the best courses do not have neat and tidy resolutions. Outcomes and assessment can be designed collaboratively as part of a process, rather than being predetermined. The course is designed to outgrow itself because it is not limited to the template decided by the IT department, creating new spaces for community engagement that extend beyond the boundaries of the institution. And like stories can stay with you long after you finish the last page, so the thinking and reflections generated in the course should continue long after the final task is completed. A networked learning environment built on the open web means that students control their content, their data and the direction that their learning takes.

Institutions could assign web servers to all incoming students, who choose domain names that give their online spaces a personal identity. Over the course of their studies students would build out an online presence on the web itself, experimenting with wikis and blogs, creating a variety of resources in support of their learning. They would learn how to archive and preserve their data, transfer content and ideas between various other services, always having control of their learning and information connections. They would become system administrators for their own digital lives. This personal learning network would be modified and extended throughout their university career — and would move with them after they graduate (Campbell, 2009). Through this process they would not only would acquire important technical skills but also would engage in work that provides rich teachable moments ranging from multi-modal and collaborative writing to information science, knowledge management, and social networking. These students would be able to shape their own thinking, learning, expression, and reflection in a digital age, in a digital medium. In order to provide students the guidance they need to reach these goals, teachers will need to lead by example — to demonstrate and discuss, as fellow learners, how they have created and connected their own personal learning networks (ibid.).

There are no single platforms that constitute a PLN and no set frameworks that describe how they work because they are unique to each individual. However, there are some design principles that are useful to consider (Downes, 2009):

  • Diversity: Does the network involve a wide spectrum of points of view? Is it possible for people who interpret an idea one way, interact with people who approach it from a different perspective?
  • Autonomy: Are students able to build on their learning of their own accord, according to their own knowledge, values and decisions? Are they free to make their own choices in their learning?
  • Interactivity: Is the knowledge produced a product of interaction between members, or is it a (mere) aggregation of the members’ perspectives?
  • Openness: Is there a mechanism that allows a given perspective to be entered into the system, to be heard and interacted with by others?

In terms of the practical features of the PLN, it should enable the following activities: The aggregation of personally meaningful information, resources and ideas in a variety of formats e.g. text, images, video, links, tags, etc., from a variety of sources. The student should then be able to remix those resources into different formats by reinterpreting, combining and editing them using their own personal insights. It should be possible to repurpose the resources so that the student can use them for a different objective than what they were created for. The student should be able to publish the newly created artifact in a feed forward mechanism that adds new ideas to the world. In a PLN students would have a central online space that they control and choose how to best to use it for their learning. They choose the tools they’re most comfortable with to aggregate information and filter information pulled in from other services (e.g. Twitter, Pinterest, etc.), work with that information and then publish their new works from their own platform but also into any combination of third party services.

“Platforms that dictate too strongly how we might use them, or ones that remove our agency by too covertly reducing us and our work to commodified data, should be rooted out by a critical digital pedagogy.” (Stommel, 2014). We must “handle our technologies roughly” because either we critically interrogate our tools or are subject to them (ibid.). If you have no power to change the defaults then you’re accepting the choices that others have made about how you can teach. Which may be OK, as long as you know that they didn’t make those choices based on what is best for learning. Teachers should not simply be consumers who accept the taken for granted assumptions of those who are building our educational technologies. Kris Shaffer talks about consumer-creators, “tinkerers who neither invent the wheel, nor are satisfied with the wheels already at our disposal.” (Shaffer, 2014). Castells described how the culture of the Internet was defined by the creators of the internet and it is a short leap to see how the culture of 21st century education is being defined by the creators of the tools we use. When teachers are absent from the conversation on how educational technology is created, and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs determine classroom behaviours based on corporate values, we find ourselves in our current situation. Shaffer (2014) has a powerful proposition; that teachers see themselves as hackers, using new information to improve our current understanding, and repurposing tools from one context to others (Shaffer, 2014). As teachers we manipulate, re-create, break, and rebuild. We take the best of what exists and make it better, and in this sense we are hackers at our core (Shaffer, 2014).


Critical digital pedagogy: Education as the practice of freedom

Update (22-02-17): This post has been modified from the original. Changes include updated in-text citations, minor grammatical improvements and an added reference list.

This is the third section of my CPN book chapter on critical digital pedagogy. You might want to read the first and second sections before this one but if not, here’s the story so far: I started by making the case that education as it is currently implemented is an oppressive system aimed at inducing compliance and conformity in students more than embracing any sort of real learning. In the second section I showed how the dominant use of educational technology reinforces that system of oppression in digital and online spaces.

In what I hope is a more uplifting turn, this post suggests critical pedagogy as an alternative to the status quo. It’s a bit shorter than the other sections and is probably more in line with the final word count that I need to aim for. After I’m done posting the book chapter sections, I’ll write a few posts on how I’m changing my teaching practices based on what I’ve learned during the writing process.

“The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility.” (bell hooks)

Education is fundamentally a moral and political enterprise, meaning that we must reject the notion that it can be reduced to a private good, available almost exclusively to those with the financial means. Critical pedagogy offers the best chance for students to develop and assert their rights and responsibilities so that they are not simply being governed (Giroux, 2010; 2011). Through a critical pedagogy we can show students that the system of oppression is “not closed with no exit and that it is only a set of limiting circumstances that can be transformed through action” (ibid.). In other words, we can show students how to change the system. But to do so, teachers must first work to shift the balance of power away from themselves, so that students are able to take action within the curriculum and undermine the beliefs and practices that are designed to silence them.

Critical pedagogy encourages students to act on the knowledge, values, and social relations they acquire by being responsive to the most important problems in society (Giroux, 2011). It moves students beyond familiarity with and demonstrates how classroom knowledge, values, desires, and social relations are implicated in power. Guided by passion and principle, critical pedagogy “helps students develop a consciousness of freedom, recognise authoritarian tendencies, empower the imagination, connect knowledge and truth to power as part of a broader struggle for agency, justice and democracy” (Giroux, 2010). But it is not an a priori method of teaching and learning that can be applied regardless of context and it cannot be reduced to a set of instructions. Critical pedagogy isn’t a prescription – it is a continuous moral project that enables students to develop a social awareness of freedom (Coles, 2014).

Freire (2005) believed that education offered students the conditions for self-reflection, a self-managed life and critical agency and Giroux suggests that a critical pedagogy encourages students to read texts as “objects of interrogation” (2011) rather than unquestioning acceptance; to “read both the word and the world” (2010). In this sense, pedagogy connects learning to social change, challenging students to critically engage with the world in order to act on it (Giroux, 2010). Under these circumstances, knowledge is not simply received by students but actively transformed, open to challenge and related to the self as an essential step toward learning how to govern rather than be governed (Giroux, 2010). In this context, students learn how to expand their own sense of agency, recognising that to be voiceless is to be powerless. Central to this approach is the shift of emphasis from teachers to students, and making visible the relationships between knowledge, authority and power (Giroux, 2010).

Teachers must connect classroom knowledge to the experiences, histories, and resources that students bring with them but also link that knowledge to the goal of increasing their capacity to be critical agents, responsive to social problems of the time, and to recognise the importance of collective struggle (Coles, 2014). At its most ambitious, critical pedagogy helps students learn how to lead a meaningful life, hold power and authority accountable, and develop the skills, knowledge, and courage to challenge commonsense assumptions while all the while being willing to struggle for a more socially just world (Giroux, 2011). This kind of problem-posing education only works by breaking the contradiction of the “teacher-of-the-students” and the “students-of-the-teacher”, and embracing the notion that education concerns “people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.” (Freire, 2005; 90). Students are not passive listeners but rather, critical co-learners in dialogue with the teacher. To achieve this, they must be partners of the students in their relations with them (ibid.).

“Teaching is deeply personal and political work, through which pedagogues cannot and do not remain objective. Rather, pedagogy, is work to which we must bring our full selves, and work to which every learner must come with full agency” (Stommel, 2015). The role of the problem-posing teacher is to create with students the conditions under which knowledge can be constructed by students (Freire, 2005). A classroom informed by critical pedagogy is a continuing, unfinished project aimed at helping students develop meaningful lives where they actively transform knowledge rather than simply consuming it (Giroux, 2011). An education in the practice of freedom consists of acts of cognition that lead to change in the world, and not merely transferrals of information. It is about developing independent thinkers who will not bend to the will of teachers (Laurillard, 2007).

“Giving students the opportunity to be problem posers and engage in a culture of questioning in the classroom foregrounds the crucial issue of who controls the learning environment, and how specific modes of knowledge, identity and authority are constructed within particular sets of classroom relations. At the same time students also learn how to engage others in critical dialogue and be held accountable for their views” (Giroux, 2010). Schools must develop a commitment to civic courage and social responsibility that ignites bravery and moral courage in students to realise that they have the power and opportunity to challenge the status quo. Critical pedagogy is therefore a praxis that counteracts the dominant message that students receive during their schooling; that their voices and their lives are meaningful and powerful, and that by questioning the taken-for-granted assumptions that drive much of society – including higher education – they have the capacity to change the world.

bell hooks (1994; 207) retains her optimism even in the face of all that is problematic in education, calling the classroom a place of possibility where – through a critical pedagogy – “we labor for freedom, and demand of ourselves an openness of mind and heart, collectively imagining ways to move beyond boundaries”. To transgress.


Critical digital pedagogy: Weapon of mass instruction

Update (22-02-17): This post has been modified from the original. Changes include updated in-text citations, minor grammatical improvements and an added reference list.

Yesterday I posted the first section of my CPN book chapter on critical digital pedagogy. That section lays out what I think is especially problematic in our classroom teaching and learning practices, informed largely by the work of Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux. If you haven’t read it then you might want to check it out quickly, since this post continues that argument. Today I’m sharing the second section of the chapter where I describe how the use of technology reproduces and reinforces these problems, only in digital and online spaces. Remember, this is a first draft. If you do comment, please be gentle.

The title for this section comes from John Taylor Gatto’s Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling (2010).

“We shape our tools and then our tools shape us” (Marshal McLuhan)

Education is not neutral. It either serves to programme people into conformity or gives them the tools to engage critically and creatively with the world in order to transform it. Given that context, we can analyse the predominant way in which technologies are used in higher education, and ask if that use is oppressing or liberating our students.

The best thing we can probably say about the use of technology in higher education is that it serves to support traditional methods of teaching and learning; we use it to improve lectures with slides and interactive whiteboards, we make our notes available online, libraries provide access to digital resources, and tutorial discussions can be performed asynchronously online. These are positive, incremental improvements in the quality and flexibility of our classrooms, but are nowhere near being transformational (Laurillard, 2007). This is not the use of technology that I’m interested in. There is nothing wrong with teachers using technology to make small iterative changes to their teaching and learning practices. However, for this chapter I want to get to the more insidious aspects of technological integration that needs our attention.

The Learning Management System (LMS) is by far the most ubiquitous use of technology in higher education. The LMS enabled universities to bring new technology into the institution without any of the bother of actually changing anything. The plug and play, template driven, user friendly LMS meant that we could provide universities with a digital facelift that made us feel like we were moving with the times (Campbell, 2009). The reality is that we simply took an oppressive pedagogy and reproduced it in software. The LMS manifests a form of curricular design and implementation that substitutes technological control for democratic processes and goals, making both teachers and learners passive. At its core, the LMS means that course is behind a wall, and everything in the course happens behind that wall (Watters, 2014). At the end of the course students lose access to it, and to any of the content or data they’ve created as part of their learning process. In some cases, their creative works may be signed away as part of the Terms of Service. As Watters’ puts it: “There is one instructor and possibly a few course assistants. They grade. They monitor the forums. The teachers are at the center. The content is at the center. The learner is not at the center.” (Watters, 2014).

Insofar as the educational process can be controlled, the LMS is the digital equivalent of Benthem’s Panopticon; the closest thing we have (so far) to a perfect system of observation and control. As we saw in the previous section, the Panopticon is a representation of power in its ideal form, increasing the number of people who can be monitored, recorded, and controlled, while at the same time decreasing the number of people needed to operate it (Foucault, 1977). Digital technology has taken this concept to astounding new levels. An information Panopticon need not rely on physical arrangements, such as building structures and direct supervision. The information Panopticon is defined as a form of centralised power that uses information and communication technology as observational tools and control mechanisms (Berner, Graupner & Maedche, 2014). Software tracks and records everything about a student’s online interactions, from the time a task is started to the time it is completed, and every click along the way. Based on the data that this process generates, the teacher monitors a students’s performance and intervenes when necessary.

A central idea of Foucault’s panopticism concerns the systematic ordering and controlling of populations through subtle and often unseen forces. Such ordering is apparent in many parts of the increasingly digitalised world of higher education. The LMS, used mainly to distribute content and monitor progress along the assembly line, is a claustrophobic space where students consume information, rather than create knowledge. Students know they are being monitored at all times. Even if a teacher is not physically there, the software records their every move and this data is available to the teachers at all times. Like the prisoners in Foucault’s Panopticon who never know if they’re being watched, students feel the need to conform and satisfy the system rather than do their best work. The purpose of technology in higher education – as it is generally implemented via the LMS – is not to enhance learning, but rather to enhance the control of learning through surveillance, measurement and control.

How did we get here? Castells (2001) has argued that the events leading up to the production of a new technology determines the content and uses of the technology throughout its existence. If we want to better understand when and how we lost our way with educational technology, we must go back to the early days of the Internet. The system began as a military-oriented project that embodied the key elements for the military requirements of a communications network that was “survivable”: flexibility, absence of a command centre, and maximum autonomy of each node. Even though it was – at the time – rejected by the military it was reborn at ARPANET, an experimental non-military network that extended the communications architecture of the nascent network based on three main principles: 1) the networking architecture must be open-ended, decentralised, and multi-directional, 2) all communication protocols and their implementations must be open, distributed, and susceptible to modification, and 3) the institutions of governance of the network must be built in accordance with the principles of openness and cooperation (ibid.).

The Internet is therefore a cultural creation where the culture of the Internet is the culture of the creators of the Internet (Castells, 2001). To explore this culture, Castells draws on the lessons derived from an analysis of the history of the Internet. The first lesson is that the Internet grew from an unlikely collaboration between university based academics and graduate students (the hackers), and the government. The second is that the network was shaped by those who were using it.

In the 1960s and 1970s there was a flourishing of a culture of individual freedom across university campuses in the United States. The students involved were not social activists but nonetheless had strong beliefs about freedom, independent thinking, and cooperation. In most cases this culture was seeking technological innovation for the pure joy of discovery, and community networks were established in many university towns. But these networks were small and limited and in order to grow they needed a backbone anchored in more powerful machines. This was only possible through collaboration between science-based networks in government, and the student hacker communities in the universities. The second lesson that Castells derives from his analysis is that the early Internet was shaped as the users of the network became producers of the technology by adapting it for their own purposes. The source of the Internet’s strength was its openness. For example, the development of the world wide web was only possible because Tim Berners-Lee was supported by the Internet community and his project stimulated by contributions from hackers all over the world. Some of these contributors went on to commercialise the web, seeing it as a space of enormous opportunity, while others, including Berners-Lee continued working in the public interest.

One interesting side effect of the openness embedded in the culture of the early hackers is that changes to the network were communicated back to the whole world in real time. This is the reason why the Internet grew – and continues to grow – at unprecedented speed. When the Internet was first conceived, it was made open as a way to learn and share, designed to provide people with the power to free themselves both from governments and corporations (Castells, 2003). Thus, the internet emerges as a tool of liberation, expressive of individual freedom produced through the practice of openness both in its technical architecture and its social organisation (Castells, 2001). However, at the same time, the network was also influenced by the contributions of government-based entities with an interest in controlling the network, and entrepreneurs focused on commercialising it. Without the cultural and technological contributions of these early groups, the Internet may have been very different today. The Internet has been robbed of its historically open architecture. What we currently have is a theoretically open network, infiltrated by capitalist and governmental motives that disregard openness as crucial for the Internet to continue to be an instrument in acquiring knowledge, aiding innovation, and encouraging democratic engagement (Castells, 2001).

Back to the present where we can now better understand our current predicament in the roots of our history. Unlike the early days of the Internet that saw little distinction between the users of the Internet and the creators of the Internet, we could reasonably ask how much development in the domain of educational technology is being driven by teachers? How are we contributing back to the network, ensuring that the tools developed by third party organisations are designed with learning in mind, rather than shareholders? It is increasingly clear that education is influenced by a Silicon Valley narrative proclaiming that more technology is always the answer to whatever problem we’re currently experiencing – as well as for some things that we didn’t know were problems. More servers, more apps, more data, better algorithms and more integrated services mean that we’ll be able to make better choices (Morozov, 2013). Maybe we don’t need better relationships with students, we just need more technology. How much time did that student spend on the page? At what point did they exit the book? The emphasis is a preoccupation with the instrumental use of knowledge, where it is “prized for its control value — its use in mastering all dimensions of the classroom environment.” (Giroux, 2011; 33).

Castells said that “the Internet is indeed a technology of freedom – but it can free the powerful to oppress the uninformed, it may lead to the exclusion of the devalued by the conquerors of value.” (Castells, 2001; 275). While the world wide web is considered to be relatively open – we can still create personal spaces through blogs and social networks – our freedom as online agents is limited by governments and corporations (and, as we have seen here, universities). When the intentions of these corporate and government actors are made clear, one questions how freely the self can be extended in this conceptually liberating spaces.

We had an opportunity to choose the open web over the LMS. To choose creativity and opportunity over limitation and constraint. But we made poor choices because we – the teachers – were not involved in the process of building the web we need for democratic and critically informed learning spaces. This is why we have third parties who control our digital learning environments, who profit from our work and the work of students, and who allow learning materials to exist on their servers only as long as it makes financial sense (Gillmor, 2014). “We’re in danger of losing what’s made the Internet so important: a decentralised platform where people don’t need permission to communicate, create, and innovate” (ibid.). The open web has increasingly become the corporate web and despite their frequent invocation of “personalisation” in learning, these technologies “present users with a very restricted, restrictive set of choices of what they can do, of who they can be.” (Watters, 2014).

Marshal Mchluhan said that the medium is the message, and that new communication paradigms change what can be imagined and expressed. The printing press didn’t just mean that we could do better calligraphy, and the web is not just a more efficient telegraph (Campbell, 2009). We didn’t realise that we could use the web to transform, instead of simply to transmit. Jesse Stommel has said that “remote proctoring tools can’t ensure that students will not cheat. Turnitin won’t make students better writers. The LMS can’t ensure that students will learn. All will, however, ensure that students feel more thoroughly policed. All will ensure that students (and teachers) are more compliant.”(Stommel, 2016). “We can’t get to a place of listening to students if they don’t show up to the conversation because we’ve excluded their voice in advance by creating environments hostile to them and their work” (Stommel, 2016).

Audrey Watters (2014) has asked if we’ve even considered the implications of adopting tools that surveil and extract and control students? What happens to identity formation under these circumstances? What happens when we give students little leeway in expressing themselves as learners online? What are the implications of adopting tools that give students only a small range of avatars and status updates and profiles and backgrounds? Education technology has become a new and powerful way to demand conformity from students – and to demand they play out that conformity in the classroom (Watters, 2014). The Internet is no longer a free realm but is instead a contested space, where a new battle for freedom in an increasingly digital society is being fought (Castells, 2001).

As teachers we need to ask, what are we going to bring to that battle?


  • Laurillard, D. (2007). Foreword. In H. Beetham & R. Sharpe (Eds). Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: designing and delivering e-learning. Abingdon, Oxon. Routledge
  • Berner, M., Graupner, E. & Maedche, A. (2014). The Information Panopticon in the Big Data Era. Journal of Organization Design, 3(1):14-19.
  • Campbell, G. (2009). A Personal Digital Cyberinfrastructure. EDUCAUSE Review (44)5.
  • Castells, M. (2001). The Internet Galaxy. Oxford University Press.
  • Castells, M. (2003). Communication Power.
  • Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish.
  • Gillmor, D. (2014). Why the Indie Web is so Important.
  • Giroux, H. (2011). On Critical Pedagogy. Continuum. The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., The Tower Building, 11 York Road, London SE1 7NX.
  • Morozov, E. (2013). To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. Public Affairs.
  • Stommel, J. (2016). Against Counteranthropomorphism: The Human Future of Education.
  • Watters, A. (2014). Beyond the LMS. Hack Education, September 05.

Critical digital pedagogy: Command and control

Update (22-02-17): This post has been modified from the original. Changes include updated in-text citations, minor grammatical improvements and an added reference list.

Yesterday I shared the background for this short series on critical digital pedagogy, as well as the initial abstract I submitted for the chapter. Today I’m sharing the first complete draft of the first section of my CPN book chapter on the topic.

“There is no such thing as a neutral educational process.”

Freire (2005)

As society and the health systems within it become increasingly complex and the needs of populations change accordingly, we are seeing increased calls for transformation, not only in how health systems are managed but in how health professionals are prepared to work in those environments (World Health Organization, 2013). The ability to drive change in complex systems is a function of the ability to generate and connect ideas, and then implement new processes based on them. Not only do these activities take time but they are highly social, as success often depends on who we work with. In other words, teams are not only important for effective work but also for the kinds of generative, creative work that 21st century problems require (Jarche, 2016). And yet health professions education continues to follow traditional lines of thinking and implementation, based in a pedagogical model that not only ignores our understanding of how people learn best, but also fails to consider the changing needs of the communities we serve (Frenk et al., 2010). The knowledge and skills required to work with wicked problems in complex systems are so diverse that it is impossible for a single individual or profession to make any appreciable impact (Fraser & Greenhalgh, 2001). Taking this into consideration, it seems pertinent to ask if our current education system is capable of preparing physiotherapy graduates to not only work in such environments, but to thrive.

The positivist ideology that permeates all levels of education can be seen in the way that teachers view knowledge, the way that knowledge is mediated through teaching methods, and the way students are taught to view knowledge. In this paradigm, knowledge is seen as being objective, bounded and something “out there” that can be neatly packaged and delivered to students (Giroux, 2011). Specifically, knowledge is treated as an external body of information that is produced independently of human beings; universalised, ahistorical, and expressed in technical language that is value-free. Knowledge is therefore not only measurable and decontextualised but also impersonal. From a positivist point of view, knowledge is defined in terms that are verifiable and aimed at achieving goals that are unquestioned. Teaching in this positivist paradigm is usually discipline- based and categorises content into discrete compartments; domains of objective facts that can be collected and arranged in the interests of empirical verification (ibid.).

Ilich asserted that schools initiate students into a world where “everything can be measured, including their imaginations” (Illich, 1970; 29). The message we send our students is that what counts is measured, and anything that is not measured does not count. This approach sees our students “reduced to cheerful robots” by an instrumental rationality that removes notions of justice, values, ethics, and power from the classroom (Giroux, 2011; 3). Efficiency and control are uncritically accepted as appropriate educational goals and then used to promote curriculum models that enshrine them as guiding principles. The objectification of students through measurement and their reduction to numbers in a spreadsheet by a positivist pedagogical model leaves them with little reason to generate their own meaning in the curriculum, or to evaluate their own learning experiences. When this point of view is used to guide curriculum design, our pedagogies are necessarily informed by the same notions (ibid.).

Teachers working from a positivist perspective tend to see teaching as an act of depositing information into the minds of their students. When we confuse teaching with talking to students who passively receive information, the content of the narrative is lifeless and decontextualised. Freire (2005; 71) says that our “words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosity”. This pedagogical approach emphasises the sonority of the words, rather than their transforming power and turns the student into a container to be filled. The more the student meekly allows themselves to be filled, the “better” they are. Education is therefore an act of depositing, where the teacher issues facts that are received, memorised and repeated by the student (Freire, 2005). In this banking model of education, Freire describes knowledge as a gift to be given to those who do not have, by those who do. The teacher is presented to the students as their opposite – knowledgeable, authoritative and powerful – and students must then begin working to imitate and resemble their oppressors. Having been inducted into this system, students believe that the more treatment there is the better are the results. They begin to “confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.” (Illich, 1970; 4). Once they have allowed their imaginations to be dulled by the curriculum, they are conditioned to accept – maybe even need – institutional planning on their behalf, leading to stagnation through education (Coles, 2014).

Education has long been used as a tool of oppression in society and it is no accident that classrooms resemble prisons. In addition to the physical appearance, schools mirror prisons in other ways too. Students are kept under observation, classified and tracked with numbers, and required to conform to professional and disciplinary norms that limit expression of their personal identity. In addition, there is no copying, no noise, and no chatter; the crowd is abolished (Foucault, 1977). hooks (1994) has suggested that teachers’ power over students dulls their enthusiasm and cultivates an obedience to authority, where students are managed in an assembly-line. Indeed, classrooms seem designed and optimised to keep a population under control, and Illich went so far as to describe schools as places of confinement, “preparing students for the alienating institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught.” (Illich, 1970; 34). In the classroom, knowledge and authority rest within the teacher who stands at the front of the class. Students are arranged in rows, and must listen to the teacher who is the source of (the right) knowledge. Occasionally students may raise their hands and ask to be allowed to speak. Once these lessons are learned, students lose their incentive to develop as independent beings.

In order to better understand how the system manifests power in the classroom it is useful to consider Jeremy Benthem’s notion of the Panopticon, a building with a tower at the centre from which it is possible to see each cell in which a prisoner is incarcerated. Power should be visible but unverifiable, so that individuals always see the tower but never know if, or from where, they are being observed. The Panopticon therefore guarantees the functioning of power, even when there is no one actually asserting it (Foucault, 1977). Over time, we develop passive learners because this is the only option available to them. There is no possibility of expressing oneself or of questioning the status quo. Most students (and teachers) accept this situation as an inevitable aspect of the system, coming to believe that they are impotent to control or change it in any way. The layout of the classroom and the way that control and authority are vested in the teacher seems purposively designed to develop within students an awareness that “their words have been stolen from them” (Freire, 2005) and that the system – including teachers – cannot be trusted.

Health and education systems are increasingly recognised as complex adaptive systems that are characterised by high levels of uncertainty and constant change as a result of rich, non-linear interactions that cannot all be tracked (Bleakley, 2010). This means that complex systems are inherently ambiguous and uncertain, and that they lack predictable outcomes or clear boundaries. As systems have become more complex and integrated at the beginning of the 21st century, it is no longer possible for single individuals or even single disciplines to work effectively within these systems (Frenk et al., 2010; Bleakley, 2010; WHO, 2013). We must therefore ask if our classroom pedagogies – rooted in a positivist paradigm that sees knowledge as objective and independently verifiable – are suited to prepare graduates to thrive in complex, adaptive systems. Our pedagogies are instrumental, geared toward memorisation, conformity and high-stakes assessment, leading to classrooms that are what Giroux (2010) has called “intellectual dead zones”, as far removed from expanding the imaginations of students as one can imagine. If the positivist view of the world is assumed it leads to a perception of teaching and learning as objective and value-free. When this point of view becomes a guiding principle of the curriculum, it influences our pedagogy so that teaching and learning practices are inherently bound by the same notions.

Education should be aimed at cultivating “…citizens who are critical, self- reflective, knowledgeable, and willing to make moral judgments and act in a socially responsible way.” (Giroux, 2011; 3). It must therefore be understood as a process of emancipation guided by a pedagogy of liberation, as well as the cultivation of the intellect. But instead, teaching and learning have become fragmented processes reduced to a series of predetermined and lifeless gestures, stripped of it’s moral component, striving only for accountability and measurement. Institutions of higher education are increasingly associated with “market competition, conformity, disempowerment and uncompromising modes of punishment”, informed by corporate ideologies, standardised, managed, and reduced to job training sites (Giroux, 2010). Educators are increasingly frustrated by “a system that values assessment over engagement, learning management over discovery, content over community, outcomes over epiphanies. Education has misrepresented itself as objective, quantifiable, apolitical.” (Stommel, 2015).

Where some have suggested that the use of technology in the classroom is an opportunity for educational transformation, others have argued that we have missed that opportunity and have instead used technology to further reinforce our authority and control over student learning. The use of technology has simply become a more powerful and efficient means of oppression in the classroom.


  • Bleakley, A. (2010). Blunting Occam’s razor: Aligning medical education with studies of complexity. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice,16(4):849-855.
  • Coles, T. (2014). Critical pedagogy: schools must equip students to challenge the status quo. The Guardian.
  • Fraser, S.W. & Greenhalgh, T. (2001). Coping with complexity: Educating for capability. BMJ, 323(7316):799-803.
  • Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary Edition. Continuum. The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., The Tower Building, 11 York Road, London SE1 7NX.
    Frenk, J., Chen, L., Bhutta, Z. A., Cohen, J., Crisp, N., Evans, T., … Zurayk, H. (2010). Health professionals for a new century: transforming education to strengthen health systems in an interdependent world. Lancet, 376(9756), 1923–58.
    Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish.
  • Giroux, H. (2010). Lessons to Be Learned From Paulo Freire as Education Is Being Taken Over by the Mega Rich. truthout.
  • Giroux, H. (2011). On Critical Pedagogy. Continuum. The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., The Tower Building, 11 York Road, London SE1 7NX.
  • hooks, bell (1994). Teaching to Transgress. Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017.
  • Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society.
  • Jarche, H. (2016) Valued work is not standardized.
  • Stommel, J. (2015). Critical digital pedagogy.
  • World Health Organization (2013). Transforming and scaling up health professionals’ education and training.

The future of education in complex systems

This is the first draft of an Editorial I wrote for the open access African Journal of Health Professions Education, which will be coming out soon.

Health and education systems are increasingly recognised as complex adaptive systems that are characterised by high levels of uncertainty and constant change as a result of rich, non-linear interactions (Fraser & Greenhalgh, 2001; Bleakley, 2010). This means that complex systems are inherently ambiguous and uncertain, and that they lack predictable outcomes or clear boundaries. As health and education systems have become more complex and integrated at the beginning of the 21st century, it is no longer possible for single individuals – or even single disciplines – to work effectively within these systems (Frenk et al., 2010).

The problems generated by complex systems have been called wicked problems and are not simply difficult to solve, they are impossible to solve (Conklin, 2001; Ritchey, 2013). They’re “messy, devious, and they fight back when you try to deal with them.” (Ritchey, 2013). They’re the kinds of problems where different stakeholders have different frameworks for even trying to describe the problem, and where the constraints and resources necessary to work on the problem change over time (Conklin, 2001).

Wicked problems are also about people, vested interests and politics – making them very subjective, which is why they do not have stable problem formulations, pre-defined solution concepts, and why their outcomes are unpredictable (Ritchey, 2013). Even though we cannot solve wicked problems we can move them forward by learning how to adapt to change, generate new knowledge, and continue improving performance (Fraser & Greenhalgh, 2001). The uncertainty of complex systems is therefore something that we need to be comfortable with, learn to engage with, and be curious about. Wicked problems are not amenable to resolution through formal, structured methods; we must rather adapt to working within them.

The ability to drive progress in complex systems is a function of the ability to generate and connect ideas across groups and disciplines, and then implement new processes based on them. Not only do these activities take time, they are highly social as success often depends on who we work with (Jarche, 2016). In other words, teams are not only important for effective work but also for the kinds of generative, creative work that 21st century problems require. The ability to work in effective, interdisciplinary and creative teams is what we need to address the health problems of the future.

If the knowledge and skills required to work with wicked problems in complex systems are so diverse that it is impossible for a single individual or profession to make any appreciable impact, it is clear that we need teams that work across disciplinary boundaries. Therefore, interprofessional education is one possible strategy that we can follow to try and develop the requisite competencies for working within complex systems. These competencies include – among others – the ability to develop relationships, emotional intelligence, group work, communication and self-management, all of which are difficult to develop and assess within students (Knight & Page, 2007).

In fact, higher education is not at all well-positioned to help students develop the competencies that enable them to work with wicked problems in complex systems. Social learning theories that can help practitioners become more effective in non-linear, dynamic systems through inter-professionalism and shared tolerance of ambiguity are generally absent, especially in medical education (Bleakley, 2010). Adopting these approaches at the programme level in health professions education requires the kind of radical change that traditional health and education systems are highly resistant to. (Frenk et al., 2010). If we want to make any real progress in improving health and education outcomes in an increasingly complex world, we must start taking seriously the idea that radical curriculum reform is not only indicated, but required.


Bleakley, A. (2010). Blunting Occam’s razor: aligning medical education with studies of complexity. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 16(4), 849–855.

Conklin, J. (2001). “Wicked Problems and Social Complexity.” CogNexus Institute. [Online]. Available from:

Fraser, S. W., & Greenhalgh, T. (2001). Coping with complexity: educating for capability. BMJ, 323, 799–803.

Frenk, J., Chen, L., Bhutta, Z. A., Cohen, J., Crisp, N., Evans, T., … Zurayk, H. (2010). Health professionals for a new century: transforming education to strengthen health systems in an interdependent world. The Lancet, 376(9756), 1923–1958.

Jarche, H. (2016). valued work is not standardized.

Knight, P. T., & Page, A. (2007). The assessment of “wicked” competences: A report to the Practice-based Professional Learning Centre for excellence in teaching and learning in the Open University. Retrieved from…/460d21bd645f8.pdf

Ritchey, T. (2013). Wicked problems: Modelling Social Messes with Morphological Analysis. Acta Morphologica Generalis, Vol. 2 No. 1.

What If High School Were More Like Kindergarten?

What if high school were more like kindergarten? by Ashley Lamb-Sinclair

I have a strange-looking, handmade bust of Yoda sitting atop my desk at school. I made this statue in a high-school art class because the teacher asked us to create a life-like bust of a human face. While molding my sculpture, I was exploring a little and pulled the ears into a point. I laughed to myself because it looked just like Yoda. Suddenly, the task transformed from a school assignment to a fun experiment. When I finished, I proudly presented my art to my teacher, who promptly failed me for not following instructions.

We are encouraged to help our students develop 21st century skills – including creativity – but often aren’t given the space to do it. If you want to add something to the curriculum then something else has to go. I know that I’d start by removing about 25% of the content in each module. What would you take out?

Five Reasons Why CAPS is Harming Our Children

Five reasons why CAPS is harming our children, by Marina Goetze

CAPS is the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement that describes the South African national curriculum for Grades R – 12. I don’t work in the basic education sector but I have friends who do and this is something they talk about all the time. You could probably say the same thing about many (most?) higher education curricula.

  1. It it too content heavy. Because we think that covering content is the same thing as teaching.
  2. There is no time for consolidation. Because there is so much content to cover.
  3. It is too rigid. Because teachers can’t possible be trusted to take students where they need to go at the pace they need to go.
  4. Children are over assessed. Because we think that assessment is evidence of learning.
  5. We are not producing thinkers. Because a curriculum that emphasises assessment of content has no space for developing creativity.

Read the original piece on LinkedIn.

Our students succeed despite their education, not because of it

Note: Thank you to Dave Nicholls from the Critical Physiotherapy Network for his insight and comments that helped inform this post.

Foucault said that the most dangerous ideas were the ones that we’re not even aware of; the ones we accept as being fundamentally true. He emphasised the need to examine our everyday practices and to critically analyse the discourses that make these practices possible. He believed that the most powerful disciplinary ideas are the ones that are most benign – the ones that we readily accept. This post is an introduction to a series of critiques (some might say, rants) against the ideas that we most take for granted in our teaching practices. The things that we readily accept as being self-evidently true.

These ideas form the foundation of every professional education programme, yet I will argue that they are also the most dangerous obstacles to real learning. I think that our current educational system not only prevents students from working towards deeper understanding with open minds but actually provides incentives to do the opposite. In this series of posts I’ll present some of the ideas that we accept to be foundational in the undergraduate curriculum but which actually lead students away from developing the outcomes we say we value.

I think that our students succeed despite their education, not because of it.

After decades of research in the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience we can be confident of one thing…we can do better. If I look at what a modern health system needs – creative problem solvers, innovative leaders, collaborative team players, critical thinkers – it seems evident that these are exactly the characteristics that our current programmes cannot provide. Our legacy systems are broken, outdated and unfit for the purpose of graduating clinicians with the attributes necessary to address the complex health needs of people in the the 21st century.

What if we designed a curriculum from scratch using everything that we’ve learned from the research into learning and cognition? What would a curriculum look like if we critically questioned every aspect of it, asking if those components lead effectively towards the achievement of our goals? How would we choose the curriculum configuration if we were not constrained by what the institutional LMS and the timetable required? I wonder what a curriculum might look like if it didn’t have to conform to the requirements of a system that hasn’t changed much in 500 years. I think that that it could be an exciting and inspiring thing of beauty.

As a thought experiment I’m going to write a series of posts looking at the ideas that we simply accept as being fundamental to the curriculum, and then argue for why those are the very things that need to go. In each post I’ll take a future position where we have already implemented the changes that I think are necessary, and then argue for why the changes were made. The series is called altPhysio.

Research is about pushing and extending the boundaries of knowledge in order to create new spaces for practice. But despite all the evidence that change is necessary we continue teaching in much that same way that we always have. We’re creating the conceptual spaces for new and innovative practices in physiotherapy education…it’s time we started occupying them.


Stop complaining about the “knowledge-practice gap”

The “knowledge-practice gap” is a well known problem in health professions education and an enormous amount of time is spent complaining about how difficult it is to narrow the gap. The truth is, the knowledge-practice gap is a problem of our own making, and the name we’ve given this problem hints at the answer.

We’ve set it up so that there is a tension between what happens in the classroom (acquire knowledge) and what is supposed to happen in practice (use knowledge). Or, to be more specific, there is a tension between how students think and behave in the classroom and how we want them to think and behave in the clinical context. This is the “gap” that we’re always talking about bridging; the difference between the knowledge that students acquire in the classroom, and the practical application of that knowledge in clinical practice.

However, instead of treating the problem as something natural to be overcome (“this is just the way it is”), we can just accept that the reason the gap exists is simply because what most of what we expect students to do in the classroom is not a practice at all. We set up a situation where we create different contexts for knowledge acquired and knowledge applied and then complain when students struggle to move between the different contexts.

The truth is that we already have good evidence to suggest alternative ways of thinking about the “different contexts” problem, and we know what to do about it. Situated cognition is a learning theory that proposes that:

“…knowledge is situated, being in part a product of the activity, context, and culture in which it is developed and used.”

In other words, knowledge must be acquired in similar contexts to the ones in which it must be used. If you think about the classroom context, what ways of thinking and being are students required to practice? Are they required to practice at all? In order to satisfy most physiotherapy educators, our students simply need to show up, sit down and listen. Even if we assume that they are able to construct knowledge in some meaningful way from this traditional approach to learning (generally speaking, they are not), how does this practice enable them to apply what they learn in classroom to the clinical context? Simply put, it doesn’t. The reality is that the knowledge-practice gap exists because of the way we teach.

In order to address the problem of the knowledge-practice gap we need to accept that students’ ways of thinking and being in the classroom must be similar to the ways of thinking and being we expect in the clinical context. We must therefore give students learning tasks in the classroom that require them to think and behave in the same way as we expect them to think and behave while on clinical rotation. The classroom practice and the clinical practice must therefore be similar. Seen from this perspective, there would be no knowledge-practice gap because there would be no difference in the contexts in which knowledge is acquired and how it is used.

So, how do we create a classroom context where students are expected to think and behave in ways that are similar to how we expect them to think and behave in the clinical context? I think that Authentic learning is a good place to start. It’s a teaching framework that operationalises situated cognition. In other words, it’s a way of thinking about learning task design that includes attributes that would cause students to think and behave in one context that would help develop those processes for other contexts. I’ve written some notes on Authentic learning before, so won’t go into detail here, other than to share the characteristics of authentic learning, which are that tasks:

  • Should have real-world relevance i.e. they match real-world tasks
  • Are ill-defined (students must define tasks and sub-tasks in order to complete the activity) i.e. there are multiple interpretations of both the problem and the solution
  • Are complex and must be explored over a sustained period of time i.e. days, weeks and months, rather than minutes or hours
  • Provide opportunities to examine the task from different perspectives, using a variety of resources i.e. there isn’t a single answer that is the “best” one. Multiple resources requires that students differentiate between relevant / irrelevant information
  • Provide opportunities to collaborate should be inherent i.e. are integral to the task
  • Provide opportunities to reflect i.e. students must be able to make choices and reflect on those choices
  • Must be integrated and applied across different subject areas and lead beyond domain-specific outcomes i.e. they encourage interdisciplinary perspectives and enable diverse roles and expertise
  • Seamlessly integrated with assessment i.e. the assessment tasks reflect real-world assessment, rather than separate assessment removed from the task
  • Result in a finished product, rather than as preparation for something else
  • Allow for competing solutions and diversity of outcome i.e. the outcomes can have multiple solutions that are original, rather than a single “correct” response

Looking at the above list it should be easy to see how tasks designed with these characteristics in mind would be similar to the ways we would think about successful clinical practice. In other words, you could see how students who could successfully solve problems designed with this framework might also be able to solve clinical problems. The tasks we give them in the classroom would require them to think and behave in ways that we expect them to think and behave in clinical practice. No more knowledge-practice gap?