The guru of praxis …

Sounds like a good name for an arthouse movie or an avant-garde band … but is in fact referring to Professor Stephen Kemmis, whose AARE workshop on Professional Practice Theory I attended last weekend at the University of Queensland. Stephen is a guru in my eyes, perhaps best known for co-authoring one of the bibles of critical practice, Becoming Critical (Carr & Kemmis, 1986).

Praxis is all about critically reflecting and acting on practice, with the intention of changing practice for social good. So we would be practicing this in the workshop? Not exactly …

Stephen began the workshop with a confession of his tendency to monologue, and pleaded with us to alleviate this through asking questions, contributing to discussion, and initiating group conversations. Then he began to speak … about the history of schooling and of universities … of the design of classrooms and the design of the book (did you know that books were designed to be chained to tables and shelves so that they could not be stolen?)… of the bureaucratisation of teaching … of the redesign of the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences … where was this leading?

… to ‘Practice architectures’, a construct which accounts for contextual aspects of practice, proposing that it is “profoundly located”.  Rather than try to spell out all the dimensions of this, here is a version of Stephen’s model for researching educational praxis as related to its architectures, drawing on ideas about practice from Habermas, Bloom, Marx, Foucault and Bourdieu:

“an expanded view of the relationships between the individual and cultural–material–social purposes of education”

Related to this is the concept of ecologies of practice – the interconnected system of social practices that support and inform each other (also see Lemke’s ideas around ecosocial systems). And so the workshop went along, in the style of an inspiring and occasionally interrupted monologue, brimming with ideas from the beaming and benevolent guru, ranging from Aristotle to Foucault, Bourdieu and Schatzki.

And after the workshop, Stephen kindly autographed my copy of Becoming Critical 🙂

A forest … more metaphor wrangling

Sacred site - angophoras

Sacred site - angophoras © Belinda Allen

Here’s a longstanding metaphor for my thesis. On reading Kamler & Thompson I thought maybe it could be more positively focused:

The forest

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
 (Dante – Inferno: Canto I)

The thesis is a dark forest, and I feel lost in trying to navigate its complexity. Feelings of inadequacy stem from the fact that I have not done major research before, and insecurity stems from my experiences with the administration and assessment of the process, which so far has been difficult and unclear. The whole field of qualitative research has opened up before me and seems so vast that I cannot see the end. But it is that I cannot see the forest for the trees – each unfamiliar branch of the literature seems to loom large before me until I can take the time to read and digest, it then takes its place among the multitude of trees.

On the other hand, ideas of risk-taking, exploration and liminal space are important to my topic. If this thesis is to be in itself a creative activity, I should relish the lost-ness, and even seek it. In Dante’s journey, the lost way is precursor to a difficult and even life-threatening journey (through hell) which is necessary for the experience of transcendence in the end (to paradise) – it is the hero’s journey, and so is the journey of my thesis!

The liminal space:
In philosophy, an ‘aporia’ is a philosophical puzzle or a seemingly insoluble impasse in an inquiry, often arising as a result of equally plausible yet inconsistent premises. It can also denote the state of being perplexed, or at a loss, at such a puzzle or impasse. Lather (1998) proposes a praxis of stuck places – where ‘aporia’ – the impassable passage – is a place of critical power. The kind of ‘new criticality’ espoused by Burbules (2009) suggests that aporia is a starting point for radically new thinking – that deep criticality depends upon embracing what seems to be unknowable and impenetrable.

So – the forest metaphor changes, from representing being overwhelmed and lost, to representing adventure, challenge  and opportunity – I am the creative orienteer, designing my own compass.

Walking the talk – creative praxis as research

Sacred centre 2

Sacred centre 2 © Belinda Allen

I’m interested in research on creative educational practice, in the form of praxis, which engages the practitioner-researcher in an iterative developmental cycle of act – critically reflect – theorise – act. But praxis has political connotations too – Marxist theory, developed further by Freire, sees praxis as a method of emancipatory learning, with the intention of empowering the marginalised and oppressed to achieve social transformation. (Can I really position teaching academics as oppressed in their relation to the institution?) To add to the subversion, I also intend to pursue alternative forms of publishing practice-based doctoral research.

So – I’m designing a praxis-based methodology investigating creativity in teaching and learning across a range of disciplines in higher education. As a creative practitioner (in visual arts), I am particularly interested in how creativity might apply to the research process as well as to teaching and learning. This praxis-based study will investigate and develop my own (creative teaching) practice as well as that of participants in the study, who will be working on developing creativity in their teaching and in student learning.

New forms of presentation and publication of academic research are emerging (See for instance Sarah Thorneycroft’s presentation at ascilite conference a few months ago). A proliferation of doctoral studies in creative disciplines is also pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in methods and formats for academic publishing. Publication media are also expanding beyond printed text to include online publication, multimedia and time-based media. All this has implications for disciplines where investigation and development of practice is a valid focus for research – including education.

A practice-based thesis in a creative discipline, for instance visual art, has evolved to be generally in the form of an exhibition (or performance) accompanied by exegesis – that is a body of work is developed and presented, its place in art theory and practice is researched, and its bid for acceptance as ‘original’ is justified and tested. This would ‘normally’ investigate the work of the individual artist who is engaged in the research.

A distinction has been made between practice-based research and practice-led research. In the first, new knowledge is generated through practice, the results of that practice are included in the research outputs, while in the second the investigation is into practice itself, how practice happens and leads to new understandings about practice. In my study I intend a participatory action research approach, in which participants collaborate in researching their own and each others’ practice. So this seems to better fit the definition of practice-led research. Practice-based research is dependent upon development of the creative artefact. However, creative artefacts generated in practice-led research may be no less worthy of inclusion in doctoral ‘publication’. Here’s a useful way of comparing action research with praxis-based research.

To exemplify creative practice, and creative research, the publication mode should also be creative – not simply, for example, a set of case study reports within my conceptual shell. Thinking out loud:

  • Critical reflective activity will be narrative based, with participants encouraged to be creative in presentation of their narratives – use of metaphor, creative writing, imagery etc to be encouraged. This data can be aggregated by each participant in the form of digital storytelling, published online rather than in printed text. (Could this include recording of classroom interaction? If I can get it through ethics …)
  • Participants will be supported to take a creative research approach to this activity – they will be encouraged to bring their own creative ideas to the design of the research activity.
  • Thesis publication will be in the form of online case studies and reflections (digital storytelling) produced by the participants (including myself), accompanied by my analysis of how the methodology worked, and a revised framework for managing creative praxis in HE teaching and learning.
  • The hub of creativity is preparedness to take risks – how can that be reflected in the research methodology and final form?

I’m about to embark on a bunch of reading about Creative research approaches and Practice-based thesis, so look forward to seeing what other have done.

Multiple paths to an unknown destination


Entanglement © Belinda Allen

The antecedents for my thinking of how creativity fits into higher education begin with Dewey, and traverse Habermas, Bourdieu, Giroux, Kemmis and McLean. These theorists are not specifically concerned with creativity, but with critical pedagogy, cultural production, praxis, and the transformative nature of learning.

So how does this relate to creativity?

Of all the multiple perspectives on creativity there are two that seem robust and useful, and not coloured by social, political or ideological agendas. Firstly the concept of creativity as a disposition: more than a process or a product, it is a way of seeing, of being, and of acting in a particular way in a given situation that can be identified as ‘creative’ (eg Torrance, Amabile). Secondly the concept of creativity as systemic: dependent on a range of factors that are beyond the individual, such as the environment, colleagues, prior work in the field, and the opportunities for action, collaboration and recognition (eg Csikszentmihalyi, Simonton). But I do have a third perspective, one that is perhaps more ideologically coloured. The dimensions of creativity that relate to personal and social ‘good’ seem neglected in recent discourse that focuses on the economic benefits of developing a creative workforce (eg, Pink, McWilliam). Of course there may be related personal good (able to participate in creative and challenging work), and social good (creative industries develop services and products that improve enjoyment of life). But my aim is for a personal good that goes beyond a hedonistic pleasure in enhanced lifestyle, seeking to support personal growth and capacity for meaningful contribution, and a social good that raises collective awareness of social, political and environmental situations and brings creativity to designing solutions for (or ways of living with) urgent and wicked problems (eg, McLaren, Giroux).

This third perspective is one that in its emancipatory nature owes more to the field of critical pedagogy and transformative learning than to creativity studies. Since its origins in a Marxist approach to literacy education, critical pedagogy has been harnessed to a range of interests, such as feminism, counter-racism and environmentalism. Creativity has tended to be sidelined as a tangential interest, or critiqued as a product of white, middle-class liberal arts education. But I believe that the emancipatory potential of creativity as both a focus and a strategy for critical pedagogy is under-explored (Pope, 2005).

I am interested in:

the creative graduate – how do they act, what are the environmental factors that support or inhibit their creativity, and what agendas does their creativity service?

the creative teacher – how can teaching as a creative act promote and support the development of creativity in learners? How can development of creativity empower teachers to promote a social justice agenda?

the creative researcher – how can a critically creative/creatively critical  approach to research in learning and teaching support creative development of learners and teachers?

creative technologies – what is the role of technology in enabling creativity in learning, teaching and research?

The research question:

How can a critical approach to the development of creativity in higher education contribute to the promotion of personal and social good in learning, teaching and research?

Waiting for Bourdieu at AARE

Belinda at Menindee Lakes

Belinda at Menindee Lakes

My first attendance at this substantial conference on educational research was serendipitous. I noticed that it was co-located and timed with the ascilite conference in Hobart, and thought ‘why not go for both?’. I also noted that it included a ‘Higher and professional education (HEP)’ stream, so I submitted a refereed paper (it’s always good to get some peer review) and it was accepted.

My presentation was scheduled at 8.30am on the final day <sigh>. But this gave me the opportunity to see and hear some fascinating, stimulating and sometimes terrifying research prior to my own presentation. Terrifying because it was so highly engaged with theory, something that has been somewhat lacking in most previous conferences I have attended, and in my own academic writing.

“OMG, I need to get serious about theory … my presentation has NO references to Bourdieu =P … phew, fixed that” ;D

So – the interesting things:

  • Praxis-oriented research at a workshop led by participatory action research guru Stephen Kemmis. Slightly chaotic workshop (not enough time, the usual workshop complaint), but great to hear and meet the man, and learn more about praxis.
  • Reinforcement for my vague ideas about critical pedagogy, praxis-oriented research, and how critical theory may help develop my ideas on creativity in higher education.
  • ‘artography’ – integrating creative practice with educational research – eg  – Geraldine Burke at Monash.
  • HEP stream is new, and a related SIG is being established, led by Alison Lee, Sam Sellars and Catherine Manathunga. Several colleagues from UNSW in on this, it’s exciting to be ‘at the birth’!
  • Bourdieu really is relevant to my study (eg. ‘cultural production’) 🙂

As for my own presentation, it seemed to go well. Going first in a session populated by various Drs. and Profs., I presented myself as possibly an impostor, and certainly a novice, embarking on a maybe spurious but adventurous exploration. Found this a liberating space to inhabit – how long can I continue to be the ‘novice’, the ‘idiot’, the ‘naive’?

The premise of my piece – relating ideas about creativity in education to the idea of creativity as a ‘threshold’ disposition, and of creative learning and teaching as a ‘transformative’ space. (Abstract here, paper to be published shortly …). Critique of the presentation has suggested that it is certainly interesting territory, but that pursuing the relationship to ‘threshold concepts’ may be tangential, and not so productive … well, we shall see what comes out of my upcoming paper on liminality for the TC conference in 2012 …