Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Focus on theory in relation to professional academic learning and development

Advance Notice

'Dissemination' -  see Mail and Guardian
of 30 January 2015
The structure, culture and agency research project is in its second phase and beginning of its fifth year of funding from the National Research Foundation. The purpose of the second phase is to deepen the analysis of the data collected in the first phase, and to disseminate research findings. To this end we will be having a colloquium in Devon Valley, Stellenbosch, on 27 July 2015.

The intention behind the colloquium is threefold:

·      To share findings from our Structure, Culture and Agency multisite research project
·      To provide a platform for research for colleagues outside of the project, who are taking a contextual approach to professional academic development.
·      To generate recommendations for national and institutional professional academic development strategies and further questions for research.

We have confirmed plans for a special issue of the South African Journal of Higher Education (SAJHE), due out in the second quarter of 2016, on the topic of contextual approaches to professional academic development (or 'professional learning', which provides more emphasis on what the academic does, than on what is done to or for him or her). The deadline for submissions will be the 31 July 2016 –more information to follow shortly on this blogsite.

Focus on Theory: Critical (and Social) Realism and Practice/SocioMaterialism

If all goes well the colloquium will be followed by a late afternoon/early evening focus on two approaches to research on professional academic development: critical (and social) realism and a practice-based and socio-material approach. The idea would be to discuss, with panellists, what kinds of insights can be generated with these two theoretical approaches.

Why this focus on theory?

Educational research that informs practice, for example with regard to higher education teaching and learning, has become increasingly informed by theory over the past few decades. This is perhaps partly due to the maturing of educational development as an academic and professional field (vis the increase in Masters and PhD programmes in the area, Postgraduate Diplomas in Higher Education Teaching and Learning, in South Africa and elsewhere). Many international educational journals, for example the International Journal of Academic Development (IJAD) expects a sound theoretical base for articles that it publishes.  But questions still remain, about which theories we should use to inform our research or practice; how important is one’s choice of theory; what issues we take into consideration when selecting a theory; how important is selection of theory in relation to issues such as personal values and philosophy of life and ethics?  Various people such as David Gosling (2003), Paul Ashwin and Etienne Wenger-Trayner (2013) have written about the issue of theory in relation to education. The issue requires further consideration, especially when the language theory is so often opaque to the uninitiated. When people have not mastered the respective logics and vocabularies, (which is fair enough, considering that it takes a while to master specific bodies of theory, and one cannot have in-depth knowledge, or would not necessarily choose to have in-depth knowledge of all) theory can divide people or impede communication. Within higher education the literature on how lecturers learn to teach has not teased out the implications of any of the dominant approaches of the twenty-first century, let alone of these two.

Why these two theories?

Perhaps ‘approaches’ is more appropriate than ‘theory’, since there are a variety of takes on critical realism (here we draw on the work of Roy Bhaskar, Margaret Archer, Andrew Sayer and Dave Elder-Vass, and they differ on many points), and possibly an even greater variety of takes on practices and socio materialism (here again, writers such as Theodore Schatzki and the feminist socio-materialists like Karen Barad would have quite different views on agency). One reason accounting for the focus on these two approaches is the Structure, Culture and Agency research project, which was based on social realism loosely defined. This approach has many advantages for a contextual approach to professional academic development, especially in relation to the study of change, and the role of structure and agency.  Our project has already published one or two papers using the work of Archer (see our list of publications). However there are many valid criticisms of Archer’s take on agency, most notably of her depiction of reflexivity. Although Archer does describe practice in human activity and development, and although she takes into account material resources as an aspect of structure, there is a strong possibility that a practice based approach will contribute more to our understanding of professional academic development, than social realism alone. – if nothing else, it would complement our understanding.

These two approaches are in many respects in contradiction (approaches to agency and the individual; and transcendence or categorisation, and a stratified ontology, being aspects of critical realism in contradiction to the view of practices as typified by Fenwick et al, 2013, drawing on feminist socio-materialists, for example.) An important difference is how culture and text is viewed - as ‘real’, within a realist approach. This has significant ramifications for approaches to teaching and learning, as differences between realists and practice-based writers have demonstrated.  In some respects there are also similarities: a non-Cartesian view of practice and emotion not divorced from cognition and intellectual activity, (as pointed out by Sue Clegg in her presentation on critical realism - These two approaches thus provide a fruitful basis for a discussion on what theory can do, which theory, how we choose theory, and so on.

Why does this deserve attention (and now)?

Is this a rarefied debate about nothing crucial? On the contrary, the ramifications of these approaches, about issues such as agency, responsibility, development, and distribution of resources, are crucial if one believes that teaching and learning is a political project, in the pursuit of social justice. We hope to take this discussion forward at the colloquium, and possibly in the form of a book thereafter.

- More about these up and coming events shortly. Comments to this posting are welcome.


Ashwin, P. 2009. Analysing teaching-learning interactions in higher education: Accounting for structure and agency. London: Continuum.
Fenwick, T. and Nerland, M. (eds). 2013. Reconceptualising professional learning: Sociomaterial knowledges, practices and responsibilities. London: Routledge.
Gosling, D. 2003. Philosophical approaches to academic development. Eggins, H. and MacDdonald, R. (eds) The scholarship of academic development. Buckingham: SRHE and OUP. 70 – 79
Schatzki, T. 2002. The site of the social: A philosophical account of the constitution of social life and change. Penn State University Press.

Wenger-Trayner, E. 2013. The practice of theory: Confessions of a social learning theorist. Farnsworth, V. and Solomon, Y. (eds) Reframing educational research: Resisting the ‘what works’ agenda. London: Routledge.