Supporting agency – not too much, not too little

Last December, I met with a couple of the groups I have been partnering with to plan how we could create sets of sample content for our platform and do some more user research. I wrote a post about this meeting months ago, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it, partly because the experience resonated with some of the reflections on my teaching practice I had to write up and submit for the York Learning and Teaching Award (YLTA). One of the reasons I signed up for the YLTA was that I thought it would force me to look into pedagogic theory, which I thought I should be doing anyway for my own research. This has actually worked our pretty well – the YLTA has taken up a lot of my time, but it absolutely has been helpful to my thinking about action research, co-design and that ever-present #hexpertise. I touched on this overlap before and I’ll be talking about it more in my next few posts.

I have been trying to align my teaching practice with critical pedagogy and learner-centred teaching – in a nutshell, this means that instead attempting to deposit information from my brain into my students’, I try to help students become active agents in generating and internalise knowledge for themselves. This approach also underpins the collaborative elements of my research, where instead of more traditional approaches to “capacity building” that try to transform those who I think need more “capacity”, I want to support the groups I work with to help resolve their own needs – rather than the needs I think they have. It’s fair to say I’m not convinced I’ve executed this successfully – part of the point of these blog posts is to self-assess and these reflections will feed directly into one of the chapters of my PhD.

One of the realisations I’ve had about my approach to teaching, is that it naturally works better with postgraduates. They already have highly developed knowledge- and skill-sets, so it can be an effective teaching strategy to provide resources and support and then let students get on with things. With my undergraduate students, this was more difficult. There were times when I would come to class with activities prepared and realise half-way through that they simply didn’t have the pre-existing knowledge to learn effectively through those activities. For all my talk of students being active agents in their own learning, under the current circumstances I’d created, they weren’t able to achieve much learning. In pedagogical terms, you might call this a lack of “scaffolding” – as a facilitator of learning, I hadn’t provided the support necessary for my students to learn effectively.

In Bridlington in December, I was asking my partners to plan a research strategy with me. I wanted us to do it together and to not come in with too many fixed ideas. I thought we all agreed we needed to do the research in question and that we would just work out the practical details. Crucially, I didn’t have a plan to share in case my partners didn’t have clear ideas. I also didn’t have a strong case for why the research was necessary in the first place. In effect, my commitment to facilitating “agency” led me to plan and prepare less. Like the lesson I had prepared for my students, I was relying on them to contribute the content and I didn’t have a contingency plan prepared in case they didn’t have content to contribute. Through both my teaching and my research, I have learned that critical pedagogy, learner-centred teaching, action research and co-design all require more planning, not less, to ensure that activities are productive – because those activities are likely to be unpredictable due to relying on participant contributions.

These reflections also speak directly to questions of #hexpertise. Critical pedagogy, user-centred learning, action research, co-design – they all challenge traditional roles and responsibilities of “experts” and “participants”, whether teachers/lecturers, researchers, students or community partners. If you follow my blog, you’ll know that I think this renegotiation of roles and responsibilities is healthy and necessary, but that doesn’t make it easy. I still believe both my students and my community partners should have agency in what we do together. I still think we should work together, but issues of #hexpertise are all about how best to work together. I should have been better prepared in December. I should have drawn on my expertise as a trained researcher to have clear thoughts on what we were doing, why we were doing it and how we could go about doing it in practice. Coming to the meeting with ideas needn’t have kept us from developing ideas together as long as I wasn’t too attached to the ideas I came to the meeting with. Arguably, If I’d had clearer ideas, myself, I could have helped my partners develop their own more effectively. Taking another step back, I should also have made sure we were all on the same page, before the meeting. The need for sample content and more user research was raised by Jo and accepted by myself. I should have recognised that the fact that nobody argued against this at our previous meeting needn’t mean everyone agreed this was important and understood why.

In my teaching and in the collaborative aspects of my research, the #hexpertise challenge is to determine how to best use the skills, knowledge and resources of everyone involved – myself included – for the task and purpose at hand. In my previous post linking research and teaching, I highlighted how I do my students a disservice when I provide answers instead of helping them develop their own. My point here is that not providing enough support is equally unhelpful. #Hexpertise is also not all about rational calculations – it’s relational and will always require empathy and communication. I’ll be writing more about all this in my next few posts – soon.

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