Sunday, December 06, 2009

Notes on Tim Small (part 1)

This is part 1 of a series.

I've recently spent some quality time with a paper Simon sent me: Tim Small's "Assessing enquiry-based learning: developing objective criteria from personal knowledge". Although Small writes primarily about student learners, there are many resonances with my research on participatory representation practitioners. In many places you could substitute "practitioner" for "learner" and the ideas work just as well.

Three dimensions of the paper are of most immediate value to me: Small's characterization of the experiential aspects of learning, particularly commitment and aesthetic engagement; his analytical methods; and the practical applications in the areas of self and peer assessment.

In this post I focus mostly on Small's ideas about engagement and commitment on the part of the learner, and the connections with practitioner experience as I have been looking at it. I'll look at the other dimensions in future posts.

Small provides helpful distinctions between the aesthetic ("lived-through experience" in the actual encounter) and the "efferent" (outcomes, "what you can carry away" p. 254) as two poles of a continuum. This idea of a continuum, rather than an either/or or absolute view, is just as applicable to participatory representational practice. The artifacts, methods, tools, and outcomes involved in such practices, important as they are, fall on the efferent end of the spectrum, but do not sum up all that is important about the practices; much of value lies at the other pole or in between.

Small quotes Rosenblatt: "Any literary transaction will fall somewhere in the continuum between the aesthetic and the efferent poles . . . there is a to and fro movement of attention between the words and the experienced, felt meaning being elicited, organised and reorganised." (p. 255) This concept of a transaction is similar to what I refer to as a practitioner move or choice. It maps quite well onto (for example) the coherence, engagement, and usefulness dimensions in my CEU tool, with "usefulness" at the efferent end of the scale, "engagement" at the aesthetic end, and "coherence" in between.

The way Small invokes Polanyi's idea of commitment in the context of developing criteria for learning assessment (p. 261) reminds me of Dewey's concept of "impulsion" in the artist's experience. "The task is to develop criteria that, first, recognise and uphold the drive and responsibility of the learner" (p. 261). Commitment involves a search for truth (discovery) and requires "strength of engagement" as well as "sensitivity" to self and text (read "representation"); a "readiness to interrogate", to "enter into a sort of dialogue with the text, object, or place." (pp 264-265). This is driven from within, finding expression in a kind of grappling with the stream of experience in order to make meaning: "A process of comprehending: a grasping of disjointed parts into a comprehensive whole." (p. 261, quoting Polanyi ("The Study of Man, 1959, p.28))

Real engagement of this sort, a willingness to be affected in some different or new way, "depends on the (at least partial) adoption of an aesthetic or personal stance... rather than simply the efferent stance of the analyst, who reads/learns according to a ''pre-ordained system of selection' (Rosenblatt 1978 p 89)". (p. 265)

The same kind of commitment, to make a session "work", to bring about positive outcomes, is in the practitioner and is something you can see or not see. To be a participatory representation practitioner in the kinds of settings I've looked at is to make a commitment, to live it for the duration of the role and the session. The overriding concern is how to make the session work. Not all the practitioners I've looked at were successful, but all did try to make generative and/or repairing moves when and how necessary. There could be some sort of measure or dimension of how far or how radical such moves had to be, just as another way to compare. The kinds of analysis I've been doing could be a measure of what practitioner commitment looked like and meant for that time (the session), what choices and trade-offs it occasioned, providing a context and a stable framework to describe them against.

The degree of engagement itself lies on a scale. While there is always a "transaction" (p. 255) between any aesthetic artifact and its audience, too often, even in participatory representation sessions, it's invisible, passive, or inconsequential. Like most movie watching, or walking by a painting hanging in a museum, most aesthetic encounters are superficial. Sometimes they aren't, and while that is sometimes a result of happenstance -- just being struck by something -- more often, it the encounter goes beyond the superficial it's because of some commitment on the part of the person -- some decision or desire (or classroom assignment) to make it mean more: "the commitment of the learner (to the truth he or she is seeking to discover)" (p. 263).

It reminds me of my college seminar on the films of Ingmar Bergman. I hadn't much liked the few Bergman movies I'd seen before the seminar, but I liked the professor and wanted to take the class. We had to see a film (this is in the stone age where the only way to see films was in a cinema, once, taking notes frantically in the dark, no pause or rewind) and write a 2-page paper due the next morning on some aspect. I wrote my first paper on "Wild Strawberries", basically scoffing at it. The professor said "no way" -- you can't take that superficial an approach -- you have to engage. That was sometimes painful (hard to *enjoy* a film like "Cries and Whispers") but it made me really pay attention and try to get at what was going on, and ended up transforming the way I looked at film and the whole question of the relationship of aesthetics and ethics.

In the case of participatory representational practice, for the practitioner (if not necessarily for the participants), that kind of commitment to engage has to be made; it's part and parcel, at least for the duration of the session. Part of that commitment is to get at least a partial engagement from the participants. What can practitioners do to foster, inculcate, and sustain this? To repair it in the face of disruptions? To improve the quality of participant engagement?

Small establishes the movement between inner/outer, subjective/objective, learner/teacher and talks about the "joint responsibility" (p. 268) they (should) have in assessment. That can be related to the putative "joint responsibility" of participants and practitioner in participatory representation construction. In the ideal mode, there is a joint responsibility and a movement between, a co-construction; it can even be said that it is the task of the practitioner to enable and foster that co-construction more than it is to create the artifact, or that the expertise of the practitioner should (only) lie in how good they are at creating the artifacts. Instead, the focus should be on creating the climate in which co-construction occurs, distinct from the 'same old thing' of normal meeting talk on the part of participants (however productive it might be; if the representation itself doesn't take on that which it needs to take on, it will not realize/contribute its full value), as well as all the work done by the practitioner him or herself on the representation (however well realized it might be).

Reframing practitioner and participant engagement in this way, in the context of participatory representation construction, leads to questions that can better characterize the specific role a representation can play in a session, and the relationship of practitioners and participants to it than taking a purely efferent approach. These include: in what ways does the artifact/representation speak for itself? What role does the artifact actually play, both in the here and now of the session, and later? What is the value of the artifact, proportional to coherence, engagement, usefulness etc.? (artifacts that aren't engaged in are akin to the well-written report that gets put on the shelf, or the graphic recording mural that no one looks at afterwards). How does one create situationally appropriate interventions, when the representation itself matters? What things do people do to make the session work? Why did they do them? What impact/effect did they have?

In the paper, Small makes a connection between aesthetics and ethics, at least where they meet in communication, and what I would see as the responsibility of practitioners to examine their relationships to representations and participants: "We might accept that a clearer understanding of the creative process would help us to get better at it, particularly if we were involved in communicating about our art, in teaching or being taught, for example. We might agree that it is the responsibility of all art with a communicative purpose to be self-referencing to a degree – even if only in stating its relation to its frame or context – and that that is what makes a work an objective entity, gives it its ‘comprehensive unity’." (p. 262)

Practitioner commitment requires awareness of, and sensitivity to aesthetic engagement, which (again resonating with Dewey) stresses being open to the uniqueness of each encounter (what Dewey calls "an experience"). Small writes: "Aesthetic engagement is denoted by a sensitivity both to text/object and self, combining two interactive functions: receptivity to the pattern of verbal and material symbols observable in and around the object/place, and subjectivity, the capacity for ‘infusing intellectual and emotional meanings’ into those symbols, (Rosenblatt 1968, 25) according to the ‘never-to-be-duplicated combination of attributes and circumstances’ brought by the reader/learner to each learning experience." (p. 265)

Nicely complementing the discussion of engagement (for my CEU purposes) is Small's discussion of "coherence and clarity": "the appropriateness of language, form, and structure to their purpose" as well as "completeness" and "persuasiveness", (p. 266)

More on the other dimensions of the article in these posts:
Part 2
Part 3

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