Texts, triangles and getting into the minds of others (or not)

Aldridge, D (2013) The logical priority of the question: R. G Collingwood, philosophical hermeneutics and enquiry-based learning. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 47 (1), pp71-85

I’ve been meaning to read this for a while as I’d picked up a vague notion that it might provide an insight into David’s own teaching style, which, as a student of his, I like.

He’s suggested we read it a couple of times, and was keen to hear what we thought of it, which makes sense, because to me the paper communicated an imperative to talk to David directly about this subject through my engagement with the text. It is essentially a paper about truth, knowledge, texts and people. It is about what is happening when we read an academic text. It also – I think – explains David’s own teaching approach, and, to an extent, my own.

The focus on students asking questions about texts resonates with my own instinctive way of learning, and the design of my own courses. There is a belief underlying this approach that students automatically ask valid questions about what they are reading (or watching or hearing, in the case of videos and talks). For me, as a learner, these are often general questions such as ‘what does this mean for me and my professional practice?’, or even ‘how does this change the way I should think/behave/live?’. If I have sought out a particular text myself I may have more specific questions; e.g. for Will Hutton’s How Good We Can Be; ‘can a capitalist society also be a fair society?’

We are currently revalidating our MA Academic Practice course at UAL, and there have been noises about making the curriculum more defined in terms of competences and content; a ‘building-blocks’ approach. I currently take a thematic approach to the PG Cert pathway that is highly personalised; i.e. I ask the participants to select what they want to read and respond to, and to choose the form and format of their response. It seems to work; they find it challenging (very challenging at first), but they engage throughout, produce work of a high quality, and learn a good deal. There are probably quite a few of our graduates who, if cornered unawares and asked to explain Biggs’ principle of Constructive Alignment, would offer nothing more than an awkward silence, but that’s always been the case, even when Biggs was our course textbook. I think it’s more important to produce graduates who are genuinely enthusiastic about the scholarship of teaching and learning, and that you’re more likely to achieve that when you let people ask their own questions about what they’re reading, rather than telling them what to think, or deciding in advance how it should influence their practice.

As we revalidate, it has just been announced that Enquiry-Based Learning (EBL) is to be our ‘enhancement theme’ for 2015-17; i.e. there is going to be a university-wide drive to promote the use of EBL. So perhaps I am more in tune with the dominant (authoritative) discourse than I thought I was. However, at UAL, I think EBL is seen as synonymous with Problem-Based Learning (PBL); where a specific problem or brief – generally set by the teacher – is posed and solutions are found. PBL is already very common across the university and briefs may even be set externally; e.g. by individual or business ‘clients’. The type of enquiry David talks about in his paper is more explicitly dialogic; where ‘understanding’ is negotiated between teacher and student in discussing the object of study (often a text).

Usually, the text is written by a third party, and without dialogic access to that third party the text has to be taken as it is. But in this case the text happens to have been written by my teacher, which – while still not allowing me to fully inhabit his horizon of understanding’ – constitutes a particular variation of the hermeneutic triangle.

Thinking about the few times I’ve directed my students to read something I’ve written… I don’t know about anyone else, but very soon after I’ve written something and clicked ‘publish’, I experience a profound separation between myself and the text. It really doesn’t take very long to externalise what I’ve written to the point of forgetting it completely. If you put something in front of me that I’d written more than a few months ago, I wouldn’t even recognise it as my own work. My long-term memory is famously appalling.

So this idea of the text as having its own intentions, and the possibility of being in dialogue with it, or to come to a new understanding of the subject matter from engaging with the text and others who have read it, despite having written the text myself… I’m comfortable with that. I see it as one end of a continuum of separation from the text and its author, which might have Socrates on the far end (who never wrote anything down himself), following through long-dead philosophers (e.g. Kant), thinkers who are alive but aloof, those who are happy to chat via e-mail or twitter, and close colleagues.

The far end of the continuum – where we have to engage with texts written by those who are long dead – of course has its particular challenges. Realistically (I’m currently reading Asimov’s The End of Eternity), I am unlikely to ever sit down with Emmanuel Kant and ask him how HE thinks modern universities might promote world peace. That distance *could* provide a sense of freedom of interpretation, if it wasn’t for the writings of generations of Kant scholars who have probably said all there is to say about him – or at least think they have.

On the other end of the spectrum, here I am trying to understand a paper written by my own tutor, and I can just tweet this post to him and he can tell me whether I’m asking the ‘right’ questions about it 😉

I came to the paper with the question ‘why has David asked us to read this paper?’. On reading the abstract my question became ‘will this explain David’s own approach to teaching?’. Then on finishing the paper my question was: ‘is David conceptualising ‘understanding’ as a mindful negotiation of interpretations?’, and ‘why does this approach appeal to me personally?’

In answer to the final question I wondered whether it is because of its slipperiness; its propensity to evade capture and measurement and therefore its subversiveness. I’ve always found other people’s minds highly mysterious so an interpretivist perspective comes naturally 😉

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3 Responses to Texts, triangles and getting into the minds of others (or not)

  1. Thanks for this Lindsay. I think I might drip feed some comments.

    On the possibility of an insight into my own teaching? I’d like to think so.

    Look at how my friend Mark Jonas describes his own teaching style on his profile page here:

    I sort of wish I’d written that!

  2. On reflection I might have put the main thesis more strongly: that the curriculum, or scheme, is part of the ‘materiality’ of the learning event, and is essentially inevitable, but also has anti-educational implications. I like that tension.

  3. I think that’s the interesting thing – that what the author might see as their main thesis might not be what the reader finds the most thought-provoking. But I’m looking at the paper on two different levels; on one level I clearly see the above as the main point, but on the level of a student of yours thinking about how I read and respond to the text… that’s something different. And I think when we’re explicitly in the simultaneous position of teaching (about teaching and learning) and learning about teaching, there are always at least two possible levels (or angles, to use another metaphor) of engagement with learning objects, and often many more.

    Mark Jonas looks like a good person to know. Is there anything he’s written that you’d recommend I read? His presentations look more immediately relevant to me than the papers, but I thought the stuff about cultivating “just lives and a liberating, authentic, and dynamic classroom practice” resonates with my thesis topic.

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