Talk is always easy
Practice always hard
It’s no wonder people try to make up for
their lack of hard practice with easy talk
But the harder they try, the worse things get
The more they talk, the more wrong they go
It’s like pouring on oil to put out a fire
Just foolishness and nothing else. Ryōkan, Untitled.*
I sat in an excellent learning and teaching presentation today by a guest speaker. The discursive account of reflection that Dr Jenny Moon gave us was fantastic. Her clear determination to unravel how reflection can be effective for enabling transformative learning, notable her more recent interest in Story was something I will return to – and hope to find ways of practising in my own work with staff and students. I hope to perhaps blog about it, once I have time to properly read more of her work.
But, as I sat on the bus, the Gold94 over to our Gloucester campus for a meeting, I tried to pin down something that bothered me, not in the talk, but in the world of education and pedagogy generally. I noted, in a recent post, a certain level of disinclination towards systems, models, stages, coloured wheel diagrams, and the like. As the bus bounced through the potholes, I remembered reading about Nietzsche’s dislike of organised, systematic philosophical schemes. In Twilight of the Idols, amongst the scattered aphorisms of section 2, we find no.26:
“I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.”
I feel something of this disdain. Part of this is autobiographical. My PhD/first book was in Buddhist studies, and man, does the Pali Canon love a list, and a system. The abhidhamma literature is staggeringly complex and prone to lists and sub-categorisations. There are good reasons for this, of course. I recall Professor Peter Harvey characterising it as ‘Users manual for the mind’, and to treat it as a one would a Haynes manual, not a a narrative like, say, the Gospels. This makes sense, and in the context of pedagogic systems may also apply. They are not there as definitive accounts of the phenomena of learning, but as provisional tools, and I think at root my dis-ease with them, comes down to them all-too-often being treated as the former, rather than the latter. In this former usage is a category error. They are rough attempts to scrappily capture some aspect of the messy human act of learning stuff. They are not factual accounts. We can have coloured charts and lists if we can bear them, but we need to resist the temptation to see a system as a goal. Sure we need tools, but I think that I work better with discursive, narrative ones than list/system ones.
Afterthought: But returning to Nietzsche, and his point regarding a lack of integrity (Rechtschaffenheit) – what would this look like in our HE context? We need to theorise our practice .. but while coloured charts may represent a theory, they are not theory in itself. They are instrumental in that they may be all too easily read as implying that we can segment learning into stages; and that is it. That these stages are the thing. But perhaps the thing of learning is resistant to segmentation? It is irreducible in the way that some believe the qualia of, say pain, or love, is non-identical with a neurological account of it. I have been reading this 1998 article on meaning and phenomenology in learning, and think that we may find ourselves mining a much more productive seam when we approach learning with a stronger focus not on abstracting the experience so as to represent it, but through reflection on the phenomenologically holistic manner of experiencing learning…**
** I think I will have to return more to this, after properly reading that linked article and the books it cites…