‘Doesn’t matter how far you come, you’ve always got further to go’ – Memory, experience and playing our part


Summer

I have been thinking a lot about the Go-Betweens recently. For those not yet acquainted with their genius, they were the next greatest band of all time in the late 1970s through to the late 1980s (and again in the 2000s for another glorious almost made it moment). They made a string of brilliant, idiosyncratic pop records that make you wonder how they were not chart toppers (they just weren’t). They were from Brisbane, Australia via London, Germany and back through Sydney. They were two lifelong friends, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, who were joined by a series of other critical creative forces in the band to make records that have changed people’s lives, been the soundtracks to births, deaths and marriages and have told and shared stories of love, loss and memory (amongst other things).

The record I have been thinking the most about is their final LP in the first incarnation, called 16 Lovers Lane. This LP (released in 1988) was the sound and words of a band moving from the cold darkness of London back into the Australian summer; with places new and familiar washed bright with sunlight. It was the sound of warm air, dark stories and familiar memories. It was a band held together by a painful breakup, a delirious love affair and two men, connected by friendship, love and an intense creative partnership, steadfast in their belief about importance of their songwriting and their relationship. The album reflected its humanity in spades: life at its most painful, conflicted, joyous and tragic.

Even at the tender age of 17/18 when I bought a copy of the record on cassette from my local record store in Eastwood, NSW these stories of experience and memory resonated, but I wasn’t sure why. I had never been to London, or Brisbane for that matter. I remember watching the clip for Streets of Your Town (see below) on the Australian music show Rage (an all-night music video program that airs to this day on the public broadcaster – ABC) and the clip shone like the sun and butchers’ knife of the lyrics. It was lustrous and bright and not like what I had imagined the London they left was like. It was a far better (and darker) summer song than my previous youthful forays into the Style Council. The songs on the record told of how experience shapes the way we continue to move forward (‘…if you spend your life looking behind you, you won’t see what’s up front’ from the song, Was There Anything I Could Do). They described how memory makes us do the next thing we need to do or risk becoming lost in regret (‘We stood side by side. Strong and true. I just wish you’d remember. Bad times don’t get you through’ from the song Dive for your Memory). They ennoble the importance of reflection and sharing in understanding how to cope with life (‘…I know a thing about darkness, darkness ain’t my friend’ from the song Love Goes On).

In early 2018, after 10 years of living in London, embedding myself and being surrounded by memories, both difficult and joyful, I left the city for a new job back in my hometown of Sydney. It was a quick, wrenching move, played out in difficult and trying work circumstances, with people being hurt for little or no reason. It felt like a bonfire was scorching the earth behind me, poisoning any thoughts of returning. Arsehole landlords, ego maniacal management and stupid, stupid Brexit all made leaving the natural and logical decision. It didn’t make it easy. Too many memories in London, so many of them back home. Memories were unearthed about practical things, family things, old workplaces and long distant battles and alliances. And the sun, the sun was glorious. (‘…and don’t the sun look good today’ from the song Streets of your Town). Memory and experience. But here was the weird bit, and the hook of this story to the land of higher education we all populate. My memories of Sydney were important. But they were just that: memories, fading a little bit each day, echoes of a long bygone past. I could not recreate what I had left behind ten years previously. People moved on, got older, greyer. Things had changed. Just because I wanted to make my experience be like it was, I could not. Lives lived are complex, dirty things. Tragedy, sadness and illness can be shared collectively but is experienced personally. None more so when people chose the path they think is the one of least resistance.

Three months later I am back in London, for a brief trip. Memory and experience snap back to reality. Smells trigger senses of domesticity, exciting travel, local knowledge and that sense of willing wrenching. I make the same mistake, trying to reenact memory and experience when people there are continuing to live their lives. But the experiences are more recent, sometimes raw. You slip back into habits, patterns and being that feels comfortable, if not slightly odd. Memory and experience both know it’s odd, but you can suspend disbelief, even for a short time. And within a flash (ten days being honest) I was back in the sun, the new office and world of new but familiar acronyms, collectives and communities. And I was back at the pub, with my mates, in a scene that to them was tradition but to me was still new and unfamiliar. A stranger in two familiar lands, and in both cases new inhabitants were making their own memories and experiences sans me. It all moves on (as it does, and should).

Winter

Predicting the future of higher education is a brilliant game to play because like most predictions, playing it generally comes consequence free. It is the most popular topic in keynotes at educational conferences. Vendors parade it in front of us with the square peg into the squarer hole solution of their platform or product. We debate it, twitter storm it, hold webinars about it, populate conference sessions with workshops and provocations about it and then when we are at the pub afterwards, we drink to it (or perhaps to the lack of it. Cheers!).

But why do we all play this predictive game of future bingo? Is there a nagging sense that what we have now just isn’t right? Is it driven by a desire to make things better, or a nagging sense of ambition continuously improve? Or is through a sense of discomfort with our role and place in the institution, a challenging of the sense of identity and a fear for how that identity fits into the future? Are these predictive debates, dead ends and fads the educational version of the EU and their place within the Brexit debate and the requisite predictions of project fear and project hope?

Hear me out here.

In the recent C4 movie called ‘Brexit: An Uncivil War’, Craig Oliver (played by Rory Kinnear) working as the leader of the remain campaign interrupted a focus group of diverse voters brought together to inform the leave campaign. His interventions around the damage leaving the EU would do set off a microcosm of the global political climate in a thirty second stanza of anger, names, abuse and fingers in the ear screaming. What he realised in reflecting on the experience was that this referendum was not about the EU. It was twenty years of societies experience leaching through in small drips. Identity. Fear. The Unknown. Job Security. Nationalism. Immigration. Family. Drip. Drip. Drip. And then allowed to come rushing out all at once, in a single vote about the EU and then put front and centre of the political debate through social media and the inevitable polarising effect of speaking to echo chambers. So much of the rhetoric of the leave campaign (and in part, their success to even come close let alone ‘win’) can be summarised in their three-word slogan. Take Back Control. You can go back to a time when you had control. When you were not frightened. When you and people you know had jobs. When you were happy, safe, living your life. When you knew who you were or that it did not matter.

It doesn’t matter if your memory of when you were in control goes back to the days of the Empire, the pluck of the Blitz, the times when you were a kid or a university student, or to last Tuesday, you know the day we downed four pints and watched the game. Taking back control reverts to a time when you are certain and confident that you remember being IN CONTROL. It works in the same way that nostalgia for music, or TV or reminiscing about times gone by does; through the lens of the past and residing in the safe space that is our memory. In those spaces, we can go back to a time that was better (louder, faster, further, safer, cleaner, happier) than it is now and how we fear it will always be.

Autumn

Everyone who works in higher education has experiences and memories of being taught. If you are a teacher, it shapes your philosophy and practice, replicating good experiences and trying not to be ‘that’ teacher when critically reflecting on the bad. If you support teaching, then those experiences and memories provide you with an empathetic and experiential base to enhance your effectiveness in working with academics and students. But are we trying to shape HE to provide the kind of thrilling, personal, transformative social experience we perhaps had? Are we looking at the changes in HE through the prism of a time when we felt (louder, faster, safer, cleaner, fitter, happier, more productive)? Are the discussions driving so much of our time and energy in the sector around transformative, disruptive change and the trolling power of the Internet simply the HE equivalent of the EU? Do they represent the drip, drip, drip of our own fears and concerns about education, our jobs or the role of education in a civil society? Are we caught in a tacit version of nostalgia (perhaps like remembering an album released in 1988) where we trying to defend against change (or take back control of the experience) because it was ‘better in my day’? Is it easier to talk in the abstract about the student experience, the love+hate of AI, the pervasive benefits of learning analytics or the unbound and unreliable future of education than to engage in programs of change that require you to leave skin in the game, to jump into an unknown full of risk, retribution and uncertain reward?

Spring

Middleton and Brown (2005) expose the tensions and fears that exist in that space occupied by memory and experience:

‘… the overwhelming tension is between preservation and loss, the reduction of the everyday flow of our lives to a series of fragments. Brief passing moments and images remain completely intact, unaltered, we feel, despite the passage of time, but the overall framework appears destined to disappear, to be worn away by ageing, the passage of time that levels all, or else by some sudden and fateful intervention.’

 

Middleton, D. & Brown, S. D. (2005). Introducing remembering and forgetting in the social psychology of experience. In The social psychology of experience: Studies in remembering and forgetting (pp. 1-11). London: SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781446221808.n1

 

There is a risk that collectively as a sector we end up spending some much time and effort trying to remake or contain education in this way that in reality it gets worn away or is taken away by the aforementioned ‘sudden and fateful intervention’. By doing this we are potentially denying students the opportunity to have and make their own experiences and memories. In a policy environment where governments are dictating that university is the means to meaningful employment end. and that curriculum and learning are just ways of embedding the skills required by employers, having an experience (transformative or otherwise) at university is becoming challenging and disappointing. Students expectations are redirected towards the pragmatic assertion that the job is the end goal, university just like doing your reps at the gym.

Equally, the role of higher educators is not to imprint their framework of experiences on students, or to relive their youth vicariously. We can create the environment, the community space and the capacities and opportunities for students to make those experiences themselves. We can help them find the pathway through the policy dictated by the employability end-gamism of modern HE and embrace the idea that university is not the only thing occupying our students lives. They work. They play. They live. They learn. These things intersect and compete. There are tensions that arise when one needs to be prioritised over the other, but they equally generate affordances when the synergies open insights that are new and thrilling.

Some of the research we have been doing at my two most recent institutions with our students has told us that our learners are bound together with initially weak ties centred on the commonly held expectations of a university experience. Sometimes we exceed, others time we disappoint. They are also bound by the need for social interaction, not isolation. They are bound by a belief that at the end there might be some clarity, about work or life. They are bound by how this experience might help define or shape identity. The know that learning is what they need to do, become better at and use effectively to achieve their outcomes. But at some point in their experiences of higher education, one or even all of these weak ties become uncertain, transitory and liminal. And that is where the design of curriculum, teaching, assessment and the student experience becomes critical. It affords the opportunity to find places and spaces to experiment, to test, to succeed and fail, to acquire and apply, to inquire, to challenge and debate, to collaborate, to make and to share.

The next Summer

Platforms like Spotify mean that new people get to hear 16 Lovers Lane every day. They will hear the lyrics for the first time and if they like it, then they will have memories and experiences that emerge from the record. They might fall in love, meet their best friends at a party, be inspired to do something different with their lives, share it with other people, make something new and different, put it on a soundtrack to their study or as they are reading about stuff on the bus. But if I tell them to listen to it as part of my class? What if I get caught up in the nostalgia of times gone by and through my ‘power’ over assessment, compliance and certification I make reflecting on the album a compulsory assessment because it was the way I learnt back in 1989, so shouldn’t they have the same experience as me? What if I compare it unfavorably to the music that inspires them or make them dance around the room in joy? What if I make assertions that by not listening to the glorious harmonies on 16 Lovers Lane, they are wasting their time and they will never get their first job? Or maybe I design an experience that says to students; find something that inspires you to understand Summer. Make a playlist and share it with your colleagues. Swap tracks on whatever platform you feel comfortable using. Tell us the story of the songs and their historical or lyrical context. How do these songs represent Summer (and how could that be used to sell ice cream, or understand culture or influence the way a park is designed or help people with Seasonal Affective Disorder or make an education campaign about skin cancer more effective)?

 

The lyric in the title is from Quiet Heart, by the Go-Betweens. The photo at the top of this post is of the sunset at City Beach in Perth, Western Australia and features my wife and her father.

 

‘If you spend your life looking behind you, you don’t see what’s up front’: Constructing learning through experience (and how the digital might help)

IMG_1992

‘We stood side by side
Strong and true
I just wish you’d remember
Bad times don’t get you through

When I hear you saying
That we stood no chance
I’ll dive for your memory
We stood that chance’

Dive for your memory – Go-Betweens 1988

 

Memory is a powerful tool.  It provides us with a way of reusing an experience and applying it to new and different circumstances.  The process of moving something from experience to memory is a complex neurocognitive process, still at its formative stages of being understood.  There is a strand of post-digital skill around the constructing of memory and remembering.  Social media is arguably one of the most active at supporting the development of this skill, with   Facebook (for example) helping us to do this by pulling out and sharing photos from your archive and reminding you what you were doing 4 years ago.  Maybe the photo is boring and ignites nothing, but maybe it reminds you of powerful, visceral, funny, tragic, romantic, sexy or entirely above board professional experiences.  This isn’t just nostalgia.  This is the bi-directional pathway of experience and memory, with experiences forming memories that once recalled shape lifelong learning, perhaps equally as powerful as the aggregation of new experiences.  Memory is more than simply recall.  Each memory is placed through a filter of successive and subsequent experiences.  We learn through experiences to better understand the past.  Yet in higher education, we seem to focus on memory simply in terms of recall.  Exams rarely ask for a student’s experiences to be constructed in terms of the questions we ask.  More often than not we ask our students to simply recall facts, quotes or someone else’s analysis, when in real life we remember experiences more as a sprawling portfolio, explicitly and tacitly linked by other people, strengths of connection and emotions.  In a post-digital world, social media does that so well. Flagging ways to remain and become connected through varying degrees of shared experience, committed to cloud memory.

 

Experiences create frames that shape learning far past the duration of the experience.  But experiences are most than just activities or moments.  We get students to experience ‘work’ through case studies, assessment, placements, simulations etc. This is experiential learning, textbook stylz. We can extend that even further to seeing students in work and learning through that work (apprenticeships), structuring assessments to replicate practice, accredit their existing experience as credit (work based learning), supporting skills that support the transition to practice (entrepreneurship, small business skills) and we can run our educational experience at work, customizing it for the specific requirements of firm X.  None of this is entirely controversial or indeed mind blowing, we just do it. But, in the main, the experience the student is having whilst all of this stuff is going on is framed by the same core set of processes.   The teacher-student dynamic (expert-apprentice, listen-learn, consume-repeat, study-succeed, broadcast-receive, stand-sit, performer-audience) is simply repeated and reconfigured for each new context.

 

Equally, we understand that learning can and is socially constructed.  But how does social learning contribute to learning?

 

‘Social learning is enhanced by a dynamic interplay of both community and network processes. Such interplay combines focus and fluidity as it braids individual and collective learning. The work of fostering learning needs to take advantage of this complementarity.’

Wenger, Etienne, Beverly Trayner, and Maarten de Laat. “Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: A conceptual framework.” The Netherlands: Ruud de Moor Centrum (2011).

 

It is not simply putting people in a room, throw in a group exercise, light the touch paper and see what happens.  Wegner et al point to the need to construct the environment that allows for community and networking to happen, both structured and spontaneous. Learning experiences are not easy to create.  And this is made even more complex by the structures that define educational delivery; budgets, rooms, systems, poorly used technology and quality assurance applied as control rather than enhancement.

 

A step into my memory

I was a Head of Department for 11 years, at a large hybrid FE/HE institute in Sydney, Australia.  We taught events management, marketing, advertising and arts and media.  We had nearly 1000 students and a teaching staff of around 25.  Let me talk you through the key decisions I had to make in order to structure and deliver the learning experience for those students.

 

  1. I had a nationally set curriculum (competency based) that I could not change, even if the learning outcomes were blindingly insane (which they were). I had to deliver the learning outcomes, assess them, maintain a reliable and accurate set of documents that proved I had done this, ensure the students were fully informed about the what and how and by when of their learning.  The curriculum was full to brim of content, not always relevant, but lots of it.  Transferable skills and trans-disciplinarity were hived off in favour of more focused disciplinary content.
  2. I had an indicative set of hours with which to deliver this content per course. I never had enough money to actually deliver those hours.  In fact, often the money allocated was 50% less than I needed, so we compromised.  We joined courses together where there were natural alignments (or not), we did bigger classes, lectures instead of seminars.  We had term lengths, where key points for grade submission were set in stone.
  3. I could timetable rooms, but only in fixed slots every week, for a fixed number of hours, and preferably with no gaps in their utilization. These were not my rooms; they were general purpose and as such had the same series of desks, teaching podiums and lack of decoration (other than boastful graffiti).  Capacity was always an issue and weeks 1-3 always had more students than we could fit into a room, in Sydney summer without air-conditioning.
  4. Teachers were trained to varying degrees and were responsible for the mechanics of the class as well as the learning. Start/finish times, attendance, quality assurance, assessment, marking, feedback, pastoral care, health and safety, child protection and sometimes defending students from abuse were part of the day to day operations of a teacher in my department. They also had to structure the learning design to deliver every one of the learning outcomes. All for £30 an hour, and often entirely casualised and without any guarantee of work next term.

 

Much of this will sound familiar.  These are the constraints we deliver teaching and learning in.  We can now add the structure of learning that our VLEs privilege (week-to-week, content as king, aligned and structured) and the systems that collect, check, verify and return assessment, all leading to the precious 2:1 and above, verified by external examiners, assessment boards, double blind marking and moderation.  Every one of these systems, processes, policies or practices seem to lock in the established set of practices of HE. Teach through talk; learn through listen. Every week becomes an episode on a TV show (wait until next Tuesday for next exciting installment of Introduction to Statistics, woo!), when modern TV is not watched weekly, but binged in one hit or deconstructed into youtube’able bits.  How does an academic change that?

 

Great idea Peter! Do something different, but what about the {timetable} {rooms} {semester} {student information system} {quality} etc? Have you thought about children???? HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT THE CHILDREN??

 

Back into the now…

But what if we could construct learning through an experience, not simply by having one? Curricula is set and often jam packed, teaching methods are a product of the constraints we work under (budgets, time, hours, the desperate drive to make all learning practice equal as a surrogate for making it better, thanks QA), assessment that is aligned and structured to bell curve it like it’s hot.  What’s left in your toolkit? The thing that joins these together, learning experiences.  It is the one lever that you as the teacher have control over.  It is how you construct learning through the experience.  It is what Knowles describes as the art, the design, the creativity and the ‘line, space, colour, texture and unity’ of teaching.  It is the intangible.  What makes one person standing at the front of the room boring and the next a person who inspires, challenges and uplifts?  Why does an experience that makes you worried, a little nervous and even scared prepare you for the next time far more effectively that knowing exactly what is coming next? Why is being asked your opinion and having that opinion debated, argued, defended and shared so critical?  It is because we as teachers have the opportunity and the capacity to create the experiences that shape and make learning.  Here is the irony of this.  Knowles talks about adult learners as the neglected species, disparaging the pedagogical theories that underpin modern education as being inadequate for the complexity of adults.  And he is right (IMHO).  But these learning experiences are exactly the way kids learn when they are learning independently.  They try something because they don’t know what will happen, and when it hurts they don’t do it again.

 

Another memory recalled…

‘A recent study of traditional introductory course students bears out some of the deepest fears of those who teach debits-credits at the introductory level. You know what I mean-that gnawing pain in the pit of your stomach when no matter how many times you explain adjusting entries, all a student wants to know is what to debit, an expense or a prepaid…students’ accounting knowledge begins to fade even before the course is over, so that end of-course performance begins to revert back to the level of beginning-of-course performance. The reason: student learning appears to be based on memorization, without real understanding.’

Pincus, Karen V. “Is teaching debits and credits essential in elementary accounting?.” Issues in Accounting Education 12.2 (1997): 575.

 

For me one of the most powerful and effective learning experiences happened in 1989, my first year of UG study.  We were doing financial accounting and everyone of us in my study group found it impenetrable.  Why do we do this double entry bookkeeping? It made NO SENSE.  Every successive week of lecture then tutorial made it worse, not better.  The lecturer for the course who we called ‘Big Ronnie’ (not because it was his name, but because he told us day one that his name was always ‘Ronald’ and never ‘Ron’ and definitely not ‘Ronnie’) was awful, teaching from old notes that simply repeated the same impenetrable scripts from the text book he wrote (the names have been changed to protect the innocent). His tutors were even worse, first year out graduates with no frameworks or knowledge of education, given 10 questions each week that they were made have us answer.  Sometimes they ran out to stuff to talk about after 20 minutes because they were given no agency, just a directive.  Just onto the next ten worked examples, which each week we couldn’t do.  None of us got it.  Attendance declined, the bar filled up at tutorial time because we were timetabled for a 7-9pm tutorial after a 9am lecture the same day with nothing in between.  And then we did the first exam, mid semester and almost everyone failed, or just passed.  And none of us had ever experienced that before.  It was a shock and it hurt.  We sat down to the tutorial after the exam and were angry. Every one of us.  And I remember it vividly, the tutor started on the next weeks questions and we all stopped.  We refused to speak and we said to her ‘what happened? We failed and we don’t why?’ As she had no theoretical framework t reflect on what happened she just reverted to the only thing she knew, her own experiences of learning, and for the first time she opened up. ‘This must have sucked guys, I am so sorry, I had the same experience with Ronald 4 years ago and if it was me who get it wrong….’ She trailed off. We said to her, teach us. Teach us like little kids and start at the beginning.  We stopped learning in week 1 and the lecturer couldn’t care.  In those days you had failing quotas, pass marks at 70% and the belief that failing when you actually passed was character building.  Teach us like children.  We pushed all the desks away, we sat on the floor, she sat on the floor with us and started talking about what she did as an accountant and how she used double entry bookkeeping.  She went back to first principles and for two hours, no one left, no one blanked out. Every one asked questions and after a while it was our own peers who were answering as different bits of the puzzle connected.  She constructed a learning experience, a campfire where she told her story and we found things that we could hook our own fragile, emerging understanding.  And we got better, each week, we engaged and talked and built a relationship.  And even better, she learnt as well through the process of constructing an experience.

 

Yes, there was a curriculum.  There was knowledge.  There was assessment.  There was teaching.  But there was not learning.  Simply using levers to create a mix of education based on the traditional four processes of curriculum, teaching, content and assessment is not enough, especially in a post-digital world where those things are (to varying degrees) more easily accessible and more plentiful than any other time in human history.  The value that we offer as teachers and as institutions comes how we use experience and how we construct experiences for our students.  As Knowles says, the opportunity is for experience to be the connective tissue and sinew for successful adult teaching.  Herein lies the opportunity to take post-digital learning experiences, made possible by the digital to help students make connections between knowledge, find contexts within their own memory to understand them and commit them to the portfolio of learning they have opened up and to share those experiences with others.  This is also an opportunity to change the way we use those levers.

 

How the digital might help?

  1. Change assessment and shape the environment that rewards the construction of and critical reflection on experiences.  Stop standing at the front and droning on.  Afford and indulge some risk.  Social media provides for safe spaces to do dangerous things. Classrooms the same.
  2. Let students speak their opinion and have it challenged and defended.  Let them bring their experiences of learning through play, imagination and creativity that have dominated their lives since they were born to a supposedly adult field. Can their shares those experiences with a network wider than the one in the classroom? How does the fluidity of an online existence (which to be fair is the same fluidity we apply to any other form of existence) become integrated into teaching?
  3. Accredit and recognize experiences in all learners as both formative and summative.  Students aren’t empty vessels when they walk through or sometimes august gates, they have opinions that are formed and informed to a wide variety of degrees. Find ways to draw those experiences of identify formation, sharing, expression and remixing into your teaching. Interrogate their understandings through the ways they consume media, or develop trust and networks, or the way they play.
  4. Give them the opportunity of knowing what it’s like when their next step is into the unknown.  Use scenarios, games or simulations to make this feel real, but be safe.  Introduce a small amount of fear through discontinuity, throw a curve ball in your teaching experience, so that week 1 doesn’t feel exactly the same as week 9.  Use technology to disrupt the norm then challenge why they were or weren’t ‘disrupted’.
  5. Tell them how something ends so that they have to work out how it begins.  Use media to show how something is completed then navigate through the field, using smart searches, fluid approaches to knowledge and an open mind to link discourses and narratives.
  6. Let them use their experiences and those of others to help form an identity within their professional or personal communities.  Use technology to develop identity, shape identify, know what identity means in the context of being a professional, understanding how their identity shapes their learning.  Social media, portfolios, critiques, being a digital citizen, crowdsourcing can all contribute towards shaping and sharing identity.

 

Let them sit around in a circle on the floor and figure out why does double entry bookkeeping exist and how do you match all the debits and credits in order to complete balance day adjustments? And have those very same students still remember how to do it nearly 30 years on.

 

I recall a bigger brighter world
a world of books
and silent times in thought
and then the railroad
the railroad takes him home
through fields of cattle
through fields of cane
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
the waste memory-wastes
further, longer, higher, older

Cattle and Cane, The Go-Betweens, 1983

 

This post is dedicated to the memory of Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens, from whom I respectfully borrow the title of this post (from the track Was There Anything I Could Do? released on 16 Lovers Lane in 1988)