Teaching and learning as social craft

Published in August 2017

Welcome to the first issue of the Higher Education Journal of Learning and Teaching (HEJLT 1.1). Publish and be damned, indeed! We want HEJLT to be felt as fresh air in the literature of learning and teaching in higher education. When people want to know about learning and teaching, most searches should lead to dialogues this journal is engaged with. Maybe we will have started some of them.

As editor for now, I want first to acknowledge complex feelings about this. And, that starts to give my stance away. There are shoulders, platforms and scaffolds on which we all stand and without which we could not go on. Knowledge about learning and teaching is contingent and emergent. No less true for these features, and no less evidential. Knowledge about learning and teaching lives as much in the current account, the unfolding narrative or story, as in the reflection. So yes, HEJLT will continue to polish the mirror but we will also look out of the windows. There are no stories without storytellers. In an early position paper for the Association for Learning Technoogy (Roberts 2001),  I suggested that archaeologists of some future may look back on us, teachers and learning technologists, as we look back on the oral poets of our myths. Arguably our human proto technologies, language, drawing, counting and music must derive from our physicality. Jaynes refers to “aptic structures” (Jaynes 1976, 31). Pinker explores the possible physiological bases for a language instinct (Pinker 1994, Kindle loc 5071-5077). I believe narrative emerges from our physical lives and underpins all our technologies. Teaching and learning is largely about harnessing and directing narrative at any given moment in any given space, physical or virtual.

In one of my earliest post-doc writing seminars I presented a draft. A colleague remarked: “Who’d be interested in that?” My stance now is in part a response to reflecting long on that question and its many possible answers. Everyone who writes has to ask the question, who cares?

Who might be interested in HEJLT?

  • someone whose own practice emphasises the group, the team, the crew, the department, the committee rather than the exceptional individual. For the converse, proponents of exceptionalism, national, systemic or individual, may find they argue more against than with the stance taken here.
  • those who want support for or to develop strengths in holding space for learning: protecting a liminal place within which stories can be told, where beliefs contend, dreams are dreamed, and identities forged — sometimes through crises.
  • those who are interested in teaching as a craft, practice or skill that may be acquired and enhanced through instruction, technology and reflection.

Three themes, then, underpin my editorial stance:

  • learning is social, dialogic and contested; therefore risky,
  • learning makes use of liminal space and time to manage risk,
  • teaching is a craft that helps learning to happen.

But that is not to say that as a team we share every nuance of each other’s beliefs. HEJLT encourages debate about education policy and practice, particularly as it affects learning and teaching practice and theory. And there are debates ongoing: In 2001, I wrote

any benefit of positing the individual to be the agent of his or her own learning and development … is undermined by a rhetoric, which, while professing freedom from external control, simply substitutes the authority of those who manage capital and the larger markets for the authority of those who manage the state… This agenda prefers the employer over the employee, the centre over the periphery, and is concerned with validating authority. Where the political agenda is concerned with transferring responsibility (blame) to the individual, the managerial agenda is concerned with transferring rights (power) away from the individual.

Educational policy has encouraged the adoption of an instrumentalist, competency-based curriculum intended to be closely aligned to the needs of industry. This has been presented as a solution to relative economic decline in the face of “inevitable” globalisation… (Roberts 2001).

In the past year, in part through picking up the reins at HEJLT, I have become aware of recent writing making similar arguments, still calling the evidence base for higher education policy into question (Brown 2013). My review of Nixon’s in the final BeJLT also spoke to this literature (Roberts 2016).

I am also aware of the relatively small but growing number of researchers concerned with higher education (Ashwin, Deem, & McAlpine, 2016, 12). But Ahwin, Deem and McAlpine go on to say:

the one characteristic that did appear to be shared by our participants was a focus on themselves as individual researchers rather than as members of a broader community of higher education researchers  (Ashwin, Deem, & McAlpine, 2016, 12).

We offer HEJLT as one way of helping to foster that broader community. We have taken the active, social turn to knowledge construction and our editorial policy and practice is to acknowledge a community-based developmental role for the journal.

There is and there has to be at least a pretension to authority and truth in academic publishing. We aim to publish articles that contribute and that are persistently discovered and remain so. within the wider epistemological project that is “higher education”. We are working now on our archiving, indexing and preservation practice and intention. As of this writing, you can still find the complete archive of the Brookes electronic journal of learning and teaching (BeJLT), our predecessor journal,  representing 12 years, eight volumes and 21 issues. As successor, we inherit the archive and become responsible for its curation and continued discoverability.

As well as formally launching the new design and system, in this first issue we are publishing three new pieces of research into teaching and two book reviews all addressing important debates immediately current in higher education today.

Lydia Arnold writes a methodologically rigorous paper from a critical realist perspective suggesting feedback be understood as craft exercised in a complex environment. Craft and complexity characterise formal — and informal — systems. Where craft sits with respect to techne and technology: the how to and with what of any practice is central to the concept of a community of practice. Challenging this we see the rise of consumerism, commodification and massification of education throughout life. Might this have to do with the focus on the individual as the primary unit of analysis? Feedback optimists are focused on their own agency, even though it may be constrained by complexity and utility. The counterposed belief system, that of “Supply-side Orientation”, locates agency not in the individual but in the abstraction: “The world ‘out there’ i.e. in a space beyond obvious comprehension” (Arnold 2017 Methodology).

For Will Roberts, Sean Longhurst, Benjamin Franks, Natasha Taylor and Anthony Bush contemporary higher education practice challenges the utility of an intentional community of practice. Joining a with community of critics of contemporary higher education policy, including Barnett, Collini and Giroux. In this paper, Arnold’s “supply-side orientation” finds expression as “neoliberal ideologies”, “corporate values” and a “free [sic] market” (Roberts, Longhurst et al 2017, Higher education: beyond blended learning and communities of practice). Roberts, Longhurst et al also understand the learning environment as an ecosystem which has both emergent and structured characteristics. Such a location of practice is conceptualised as a chaordic system, drawing on organisational theory from the 1990s wherein complexity leads to emergence and, critically, the emergent role of “content moderator” otherwise known as teacher, who applies craft skill to practice.

Students expressed very clearly that the role of the teacher was to pick up the pace and to include the work (in any online discussions) that the students had completed in face to face interactions. As argued by Stuckey and Smith (2004), in order for a Community of Practice to be successful a required characteristic is that of leadership and moderation of the virtual community platform; without this key facilitator, the community may spiral towards failure as the system becomes too stable through disengagement, or decays into unsubstantiated chaos through a lack of direction.

Approaching identity from a completely different perspective Mark Childs, Anna Childs, Lizzie Jackson and Phil Hall examine learner choices for the design of a companion agent or “bot” to accompany the learner on the learning journey. The authors attempt to tease apart human-like behaviour from human-like appearance. Learners experienced highly anthropomorphic bots as “uncanny”, even creepy.

It’s too human. It’s human but it’s not human, so that’s what freaked you out about it. It’s that sort of artificial … It’s really real, but it’s fake (Childs, M, Childs, A et al 2017, Table 1).

On the other hand, non human forms with neotenic features (big eyes, smiles, hairless), which (who?) expressed human-like sentiments: “guiltily happy”, “confident”, “interesting personality”, were the most popular of the companion agent designs. Although not explicitly embracing a critical realist perspective Childs, Childs et al do not hesitate to question the conclusions suggested by their own data. As Arnold put it, “A lack of regularity does not prevent claims of causation.” As ever the establishment of validity requires further work.

But, validity, that is knowledge about authority and truth, like knowledge about learning and teaching, is also contingent and emergent. We might be reasonably certain only that we are engaged with values about authority, truth, learning and teaching. Values emerge in our spatio-temporal metaphors: “higher”, “further”, “continuing”, “community”. Sometimes “higher education” can be parodied for its function of hierarchised identity formation: creating leaders who obtain “graduate attributes” that provide upward mobility and higher social position than those without (see “I look down on him” Golden years of British comedy: the swinging sixties).

Universities are in parts both symptom and cause of elitism. But universities are also symptom and cause of community, fields and spaces to think, learned societies, civic institutions and academies, workplaces and places where craft is acquired and life transitions are managed, directed, governed: maybe even taught and learned. We all on the editorial team and wider committee are honoured and humbled to be part of this social craft. We hope you enjoy the journal.


Brown, R. (2013). Evidence-based policy or policy-based evidence? Higher education policies and policymaking 1987–2012. Perspectives: Policy & Practice in Higher Education, 17(4), 118–123.

Jaynes, J. (1976). The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct : the new science of language and mind (Kindle). London: Allen Lane.

Roberts, G. (2001). Learning technology theory: a position paper for the ALT learning technology theory SIG. ALT LT Theory SIG. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/georgeroberts/learning-technology-theory

Roberts, G. (2016). Review of Nixon, Jon. Interpretive Pedagogies for Higher Education: Arendt, Berger, Said, Nussbaum and Their Legacies. Kindle edition. London: Continuum, 2012. Brookes eJournal of Learning and Teaching, 8(3). Retrieved from http://hejlt.org/article/nixon-jon-interpretive-pedagogies-for-higher-education-arendt-berger-said-nussbaum-and-their-legacies-kindle-edition-london-continuum-2012/

Author profiles

George Roberts

George Roberts is Principal Lecturer Student Experience in Educational Development. He has been at Oxford Brookes since 2000 and joined OCSLD in June 2006 as an Educational Developer (e-Learning). In his previous role he advised the Head of e-Learning and the Senior Management Team of the University on policy for off-campus e-learning and e-learning partnerships. He leads the MA Education (Higher Education) and teaches on the Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education (PCTHE) as well as conducting other educational development activities: workshops and consultancies. He completed a doctorate (July 2011) at the University of Southampton on biographical narratives of adult users of a community IT centre on a large estate. He also undertakes research into the pedagogical, social and technical dimensions of e-learning nationally and internationally and is interested in the interactions between personal identity and the values and beliefs that are embedded in the artefacts of Learning Technology. George is editor of the Higher Education Journal of Learning and Teaching (HEJLT). Previously, George taught on the Open University MA course, “Language and Literacy in a Changing World”. He was on the Executive Committee of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) and head of the organising committee of the ALT-C conference from 2005-2007. For 10 years before joining Brookes he was an instructional designer in the international energy industry. If you want to know more about his professional activities online: https://plus.google.com/107024825185905450353/about http://rworld2.brookesblogs.net/