Monday, 15 December 2014

New article from Structure, Culture and Agency Team

A new article has just been published by members of the Structure, Culture and Agency research team. By Brenda Leibowitz, James Garraway and Jean Farmer, the article in Mind, Culture and Activity is titled:

Influence of the Past on Professional Lives: A Collective Commentary. Here is the abstract:
Brenda, James and Jean at work on the article

This collective commentary is based on the narratives of the author-protagonists, three South African
higher education developers who were involved in political activism during their youth. The commentary investigates the continuities between the author-protagonists’ youth and their later professional engagements. Drawing from social realism, the concepts of agency and reflexivity provide a helpful analytic lens. Together, the narratives suggest that these concepts may be more complex when viewed against individual narratives and that some of the differences between social realist Margaret Archer and her critics are worth bridging. Undertaking an investigation of one’s own past is beneficial for professionals engaged in higher education development.

You should be able to download the first 50 copies from:

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Jean Farmer's Poster at the SRHE

Jean Farmer at the SRHE NR Conference, in front of her poster
Here is some wonderful news from Jean Farmer. She is at the SRHE conference, but first attended the SRHE New Researchers conference. She writes: "I won first prize at the SRHENR conference.  A certificate. 50GBP voucher. And my poster goes up on the website and in the London offices of SRHE. My poster has much less information than the other posters but it was judged on poster as well as presentation. 'Enthused discussion of her work and clear explanation of a methodology and thought-provoking method'."

Jean's PhD is part of the Structure, Culture and Agency research project.  

Congratulations Jean!

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The SCA study as ‘currency’ for change: reflections on what this might mean going forward

A key component of the entire SCA project has been that of reflection. Our very first data collection activity required us to reflect on institutional positions, polices and perspectives with regard to teaching and learning. We also essentially asked our interviewees to reflect on their own professional learning, and at then at various points in the project, we as the research team were asked to reflect: on the experience, on the collaboration and on our own professional learning. And then we were asked to contribute to this blog – to share through this less formal yet equally revealing medium, an experience, a process, an event, that came about as a result of the study. Thus, some further reflections …
I spent quite a bit of time contemplating what might be an appropriate title for this posting. What did I really want to say in reporting on a particular outcome of the study? Telling a story was one thing – and might have some value or generate some interest – but my sense was that the sub-text would be more interesting. I was curious about the extent to which my enthusiasm about what had been achieved (uncovered?) as a result of the study at my institution might be clouding my judgment as to what was really happening – and potentially could happen – in changing conversations about teaching and learning at my institution.
But first the story …
As part of the larger study and working with the different data sets (document analysis, survey and in-depth interviews) we (Brenda, Nicoline, Jean and I) worked on our institutional case study report. This was a challenging process as we grappled with issues around audience (who would read this tome?), and argument (what message did we want to get across?). We were fortunate, however. Brenda, as the principal investigator on the project, provided much of the preamble for all of the institutional case studies and this provided an immediate way into the writing process. Nicoline and Jean were both working on their PhDs which were situated within the study. Their scholarly insights helped to strengthen the analysis and the discussion. We shifted between using ‘report-like’ text and following a more discursive approach – highlighting enablers and constraints for the professional learning of academics in their teaching role while seeking to understand what this might mean for teaching and learning at the institution. The institutional case study report is available on request (email, its contents are not the focus of this posting. What is interesting is how the document emerged as an instrument for change.
The case study report served at the institution’s Committee for Learning and Teaching at a time when a task team had been commissioned by the Committee to investigate the Promotion and Recognition of Teaching at the institution. This proved serendipitous as the task team took the research findings as set out in the case study report on board as a point of departure for their work. As their set of ground-breaking recommendations (including issues relating to promotion, teaching sabbaticals and fellowships, and peer review of one’s teaching) went out to faculties for comment, an opportunity arose via the annual in-house Scholarship of Teaching and Learning conference to capitalise on these different outputs and activities. Thus we conceptualised a closing event for the conference that would bring together the findings from the case study report and the recommendations of the task team in a unique way exploring: “New ways of talking about teaching: Acknowledging teaching as an institutional good”.
The session was made up of short inputs on key aspects from the case study report and the task team’s recommendations. These were interspersed with opportunities for ‘multi-group brainstorm’ sessions during which responses from the audience of over 100 academics were captured in real time and displayed on the screens in the venue. The excitement was palpable and the response both positive and interesting as people spoke about how the recommendations will let them ‘come out of the teaching closet’, but also how they expressed concerns about what exposure of their teaching practice to peer review might mean for them.
I believe the event was special and it felt good to end the conference on a high note. But what about that sub-text I spoke of earlier? The interesting bits lie beneath the story. There is the issue of agency, both corporate and personal. In conceiving the session with colleagues from the Centre for Teaching and Learning in the way that we did – using the audience, the technology – represented a considerable risk on my part as the one who would have to stand in front and manage the process. I was willing to take the chance because I believed that the institutional case study report provided credibility and substance. As a group we were confident as we sought to ‘deal’ with audience in a currency we felt they would understand and value (research!). This same ‘currency’ was recognised when the task team referenced the study in their report.
Another issue relates to the responses of the academics. The excitement about the different recommendations made to recognise teaching, on the one hand, and the hesitancy to accept a review process on the other hand. These are matters that are unfolding as I write and as the faculties submit their responses to the recommendations. Already applications for teaching fellowships have been called for. It will be instructive to see how these processes evolve.
But finally, it is about effecting change (dare we use the word ‘transformation’) across the system. It is about a multi-site study funded nationally to support such change. It is about how change takes time (this SCA study has been ongoing now for four years), and how those of us in academic development (agents) have to take risks both individually and corporately to use what has been achieved to challenge existing structures and adopt new discourses around teaching and learning. To date the project has generated a number of outputs in the form of journal articles (over and above the different institutional case study reports). The three PhD students have all made significant progress and as I write, a number of other publications are in various stages of preparedness. This is important not only for the contribution this makes to scholarship, but also because this is the currency we need to use to effect change, to enable us to take risks and to stand up ‘at home’ for what we believe in so that we might alter the landscape. I remain cautiously optimistic.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Presentations at Heltasa, Free State University, November 2014

The Structure, Culture and Agency team presented one panel and two individual papers at the annual Heltasa Conference at Free State University in Bloemfontein in November 2014. The panel consisted of a series of presentations on the research findings in relation to institutional context:

Final structure, culture and ageny panel from Brenda Leibowitz

Jeff Jawitz and Teresa Perez from UCT made an interesting presentation about choices to participate in professional development activities, attitudes towards time and perceptions of risk:

Jeff heltasa conf presentation nov 2014 from Brenda Leibowitz

And finally, Lynn Quinn and Jo-Anne Vorster made a presentation about their PGDIP in HE and the need to research lecturers' learning approaches, in the same way that there is a need to research students' learning approaches:


Sunday, 28 September 2014


Clever Ndebele has written a new paper using an Archerian framework:

Conceptualizing a Staff Development Agenda for the Professionalisation of Teaching at a South African University: Attempts at an Action Plan, in Anthropologist 18 (2), 629 - 638.

ABSTRACT:  This study was inspired by the author’s participation in a Post Graduate Diploma in Higher Education course at one South African University. As part of the requirements for the successful completion of the Diploma, one had to design an educational development agenda for a university. Using the Archerian social realist theoretical framework this paper conceptualises an agenda for the professional development of academics in their role as teachers at the University of Higher Learning. The study argues that while structures can be put in place, it is the agency enacting those structural roles and working in the domain of culture that can actualize an educational
development agenda. Based on this argument, the study recommends a commitment from management as key agents in the provision of resources for the implementation of the proposed educational staff development agenda.

Vivienne Bozalek, Patience Sipuka and I gave a paper at the UKZN Teaching and Learning Conference, 25 - 27 September 2014, at the Edewood Campus, Durban, thus taking the research to a new audience. The conference itself was interesting, with keynotes by Gayatri Spivak (very refreshing and iconoclastic), William Pinar (he gave a strong critique of the CHE Report on the Four Year Curriculum) and Reitumetse Mabokela, and ex-South African who now works at Michigan State. She gave an impassioned keynote about the state of higher education in South Africa, and the relative inability to transform the sector in terms of student outcomes and staff representativity. She argued that it is the responsibility of all in the sector to try and make a difference, we cannot just blame those at the top. This resonates well with the idea of Structure, Culture - and Agency, I would argue.

Monday, 25 August 2014

The significance of Eraut’s ‘Non-formal learning and tacit knowledge in professional work’ for researching professional development in higher education.

Michale Eraut is University of Sussex and SCEPTrE Senior Research Fellow, University of Surrey. Here is a photograph of him. I don’t know how recent it is. 

The article ‘Non-formal learning and tacit knowledge in professional work’ by Michale Eraut (British Journal of Educational Psychology (2000), 70, 113–136) is not a very recent article, but it presents very significant views for the Structure, Culture and Agency project. It would be a disservice to oversimplify this article in order to summarise it here. For this reason I am rather providing the author’s own abstract:

Background. This paper explores the conceptual and methodological problems arising from several empirical investigations of professional education and learning in the workplace.
Aims. 1. To clarify the multiple meanings accorded to terms such as ‘nonformal learning’, ‘implicit learning’ and ‘tacit knowledge’, their theoretical assumptions and the range of phenomena to which they refer. 2. To discuss their implications for professional practice.
Method. A largely theoretical analysis of issues and phenomena arising from empirical investigations.
Analysis. The author’s typology of non-formal learning distinguishes between implicit learning, reactive on-the-spot learning and deliberative learning. The significance of the last is commonly overemphasised. The problematic nature of tacit knowledge is discussed with respect to both detecting it and representing it. Three types of tacit knowledge are discussed: tacit understanding of people and situations, routinised actions and the tacit rules that underpin intuitive decision-making. They come together when professional performance involves sequences of routinised action punctuated by rapid intuitive decisions based on tacit understanding of the situation. Four types of process are involved – reading the situation, making decisions, overt activity and metacognition – and three modes of cognition – intuitive, analytic and deliberative. The balance between these modes depends on time, experience and complexity. Where rapid action dominates, periods of deliberation are needed to maintain critical control. Finally the role of both formal and informal social knowledge is discussed; and it is argued that situated learning often leads not to local conformity but to greater individual variation as people’s careers take them through a series of different contexts. This abstract necessarily simplifies a more complex analysis in the paper itself.

This paper is so important for researching professional development for several reasons:
1. It sets out very well the role of the immediate environment for learning and professional development, and why the immediate work context is so important
2. It explains why an individual learns both from formal programmes and informal settings, thus that both are important and require attention in strategies to enhance professional development
3. At a more theoretical level, the article discusses the value of ‘deliberative’ or more overt, explicit learning, as well as the value of more tacit learning. There is a tendency sometimes to emphasise the value of theory and explicit learning and criticize the role of non-formal or experiential learning, and vice versa, to overemphasize informal learning. A particularly deleterious outcome of the latter, is the statement, heard often in universities, that academics do not need to be trained to teach, as they have been doing it all these years. I find this polarization of views particularly unhelpful, and don’t believe that it advances our understanding of how academics learn to teach.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Concept of Rurality

I have just read a chapter on 'rurality' and students and higher education in the United Kingdom. Obviously the context in the UK and South Africa, with regard to rurality is different, but this is still a useful resource for our project, with regard to context. The focus is more on students than on academics. We have three universities in rural areas, albeit with different levels of resourcing, different histories and so on. We plan to talk about 'rurality' as one of the inputs at a panel we have planned for the annual Heltasa conference in November later this year.

The chapter, entitled Rurality and Higher Education: A conceptual analysis is by Neil Moreland, Joyce Chamberlain and Kepa Artarez. It is in Maria Slowey and David Watson (Eds) Higher Education and the Lifecourse. Maidenhead: SRHE/OUP.

The writers do not define rurality, but they do describe it as follows:

There is a diversity in rural areas; the dispersal of rural exclusion and poverty is often found amidst affluence (Rowntree Foundation 2000). As the Rowntree Foundation Report says: The main axes of inequality in rural Britain are social class, gender and age. The principal groups affected by exclusion are older people, young people, low-paid people in work, self-employed people, people detached from labour markets, and women . . . Other factors which are more important in rural than urban areas include low pay, inadequate pensions, poverty in self-employment, lower levels of benefit uptake, and fear of stigma in small communities. (Rowntree Foundation 2000: 4) Such factors are not likely to be addressed by free markets in educational provision at higher education.

I wonder if there are more recent writings on this issue, and whether there are some pertaining more specifically to South Africa or similar resource constrained contexts?

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The S, C and A group has been busy - latest news

Completion of Phase One

We have now completed all eight institutional case studies. We have started compiling a full report on the basis of the eight studies, and hope to have the report complete well before the end of this year. Our recommendations at this stage include the following:
  • that research be conducted into the ways in which history, resources, conditions of employment and geography impact on teaching;
  • the discourse, science and art of teaching needs to be uplifted nationally; 
  • the status of teaching and learning should be recognized; 
  • time and resources need to be made available for professional development;
  • the findings indicate a binary between research and teaching which should be addressed;
  • communities of practice should be supported as the data indicates that academics seek assistance from colleagues for teaching; 
  • the capacity, image and status of professional developers is variable across institutions, and should receive attention.
Latest Publications

Our two most recent publications are:

  1. Leibowitz, B. 2014. Conducive Environments for the Promotion of Quality Teaching in Higher Education in South Africa. Cristal, 2 (1) 47 - 73. 
  2. Ndebele, C. and Maphosa, C. 2014. Voices of Educational Developers on the Enabling and Constraining Conditions in the Uptake of Professional Development Opportunities by Academics at a South African University. International Journal of Educational Science, 7 (1) 169 - 182.  
Writing Retreat and Future Plans

18 members of the project participated in a very productive writing retreat at Montefleur, near Stellenbosch. We wrote, we walked and we formulated plans for the future. The plans include: a panel and several papers for the 2014 annual Heltasa conference; a colloquium on professional development, including on the findings from our project, which will be held the Cape in the last week of July 2015; and an edited volume on quality teaching and professional development with a focus on the social and relational aspects. 

Here are photos from the retreat:

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Teaching and Learning Week at Fort Hare and the Workgroup

The      The Teaching and Learning Centre (TLC) at Fort Hare celebrated ten years of existence this week. This was attended by TLC members, faculty, the VC, DVC and visitors from North West University and Walter Sisulu University. Invited presentations were from Diane Grayson (the CHE), Nan Yeld (DHET), Rubby Dhunpath (UKZN) and myself. There was a lot of festivity around the event. Particularly exciting were the presentations by students who had benefitted from Supplemental Instruction, and participants on the University's Post-Graduate Diploma in Higher Education. Vuyisile Nkonki (who along with Patricia Muhuro, is a member of our S, C and A project) pointed out how beneficial the Diploma is to people who come as a group. This was in response to the joint presentation from members of the Accounting Department, who came as a group to the Diploma, and who used their participation to initiate changes in their own programme. This is interesting in the light of the work by writers such as Peter Knight and Paul Trowler, about the significance of the workgroup for professional learning. In fact Trowler and Knight argued that interaction in the immediate work context is more significant for professional learning, than formal courses (Trowler, P. and Knight, P. 1999. Organizational socialization and induction in universities: Reconceptualizing theory and practice. Higher Education, 37: 159–177).  The two-way relationship between the 'workgroup' and participation in graduate courses is currently being investigated in an international research project led by Tai Peseta, called the GCert Workgroup Study. Congrats to the Fort Hare TLC!
Members of the Accounting Department

The TLC team and some visitors

Patricia and Vuyisile - S, C, A research team members

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

What does a 'depth ontology' imply for research on quality teaching and professional development in higher education?

By now several papers have emerged from the Structure, Culture and Agency project, including one which considers significant structural and cultural factors influencing teaching and learning and professional development across the eight higher education institutions in our paper in Higher Education (Leibowitz, Bozalek, van Schalkwyk and Winberg, DOI 10.1007/s10734-014-9777-2) and several others listed in the pages on this blog-site. But I would like to concentrate on the Leibowitz et al study referred to here, in order to tease out something that has been worrying me about our own research using as guiding concept, the interplay of structure, culture and agency. In this article, the focus is on enabling and constraining factors as perceived in particular by academic developers, and this is discussed as they appear to play themselves out across eight sites. The result, in my view, does not lead to 'depth', and makes me wonder how we have benefitted from basing our research on a 'depth ontology'. It feels, by contrast, rather 'flat', and could have been achieved without reference to the work of Margaret Archer at all. It points to a risk associated with multi-site studies, of not looking at the interplay between the dimensions. The way forwards for the analysis of data in studies using the interplay of structure, culture and agency, it seems to me, is provided by three questions which Margaret Archer poses in the article she wrote with Dave Elder-Vass, in 2011. The three questions she poses in the extract below, can be usefully adapted, and can form the base for analysis of data for our own project, and others considering the interplay, and how teaching and learning contexts can be enhanced. I am quoting from the rather enjoyable article to read, by Archer and Elder-Vass, in full:

(a) My own concern as a working sociologist is to develop and refine an analytical
framework that is useful for conducting substantive analyses of why the cultural order
– or part of it – is, in Max Weber’s words, ‘so rather than otherwise’. That is why I call
the Morphogenetic approach an ‘explanatory framework’, in other words, a practical
toolkit (Parker, 2000: 69–85). This means attempting to provide guidelines to produce
particular explanations of cultural phenomena in different times and places, the most
important being:
How the prior context in which cultural interaction develops influences the form it
Which relations between agents respond most closely to these influences and which
tend to cross-cut or nullify them.
Most generally, under what conditions cultural interaction results in morphostasis
rather than morphogenesis.

One can just as easily apply this to the structural order as well, or to both the cultural and structural, at the same time. In a future article, to come out shortly in Critical Studies in Teaching and Learning (CRISTAL), I pay more attention to the human and agentic element. I believe that if we do wish to understand how teaching and learning can be enhanced, it is precisely the interplay between structure, culture and human interaction, that needs to be investigated. What interests me personally in all of this, is the human or individual component, and the extent to which this is indeed reflexive, or more unconscious or habitual or conditioned, as critics of the work of Margaret Archer argue. 

Archer, M.S. & Elder-Vass, D., 2011. Cultural System or norm circles? An exchange. European Journal of Social Theory, 15(1), pp.93–115. Available at: [Accessed May 31, 2014].
Leibowitz, B., Bozalek, V., van Schalkwyk, S & Winberg, C. 2014. Institutional context matters: the professional development of academics as teachers in South African higher education. Higher Education. Available at: [Accessed July 2, 2014].

Friday, 4 July 2014

Conference presentations by Structure, Culture and Agency team

June has been a busy month for the Structure, Culture and Agency team. We made five presentations at the International Consortium for Educational Development (ICED) Conference in Stockholm and one poster presentation at the Propel Conference in Stirling. Most of these have been written up for publication or are being written up at our up and coming writing retreat at the end of July. They are mostly based on the idea of the interplay between structure, culture and agency, and are mostly based on the institutional case studies.

Jeff Jawitz also made a presentation on the UCT case study, which is available as part of the ICED proceedings. And finally, Wendy McMillan and Natalie Gordon made a poster presentation based on an interview with one lecturer, using complexity theory:

Here are some photos of some of the South African gang enjoying Stockholm:

Thursday, 3 July 2014

New article from project on the influence of institutional context on quality teaching

The latest article based on the Structure, Culture and Agency project is entitled Institutional Context Matters: the professional development of academics as teachers in South African Higher Education, by Brenda Leibowitz, Vivienne Bozalek, Susan van Schalkwyk and Chris Winberg (Higher Education, DOI 10.1007/s10734-014-9777-2).

Abstract: This study features the concept of ‘context’ and how various macro, meso and micro features of the social system play themselves out in any setting. Using South Africa as an example, it explores the features that may constrain or enable professional development, quality teaching and the work of teaching and learning centres at eight universities in varied socio-cultural settings. The article draws on the work of critical realists and their explication of the concepts of structure, culture and agency. The research design was participatory, where members of teaching and learning centres at the eight institutions defined the aims and key questions for the study. They collected the data on which this article is based, namely a series of descriptive and reflective reports. The findings clustered around six themes: history, geography and resources; leadership and administrative processes; beliefs about quality teaching and staff development; recognition and appraisal; and capacity, image and status of the TLC staff. These features play out in unique and unpredictable constellations in each different context, while at the same time, clusters of features adhere together. Whilst there is no one to one, predictive relationship between university type and outcome, there is a sense that socio-economic contextual features are salient and require greater attention than other features.