At the time of writing the abstract of this paper, I (a teacher-researcher) am becoming increasingly mindful of the need to examine the epistemological standpoint governing my teaching role in an innovative Internet-based virtual learning environment. I have a growing concern about the epistemology governing the interactive learning activities of a postgraduate coursework unit for professional teachers learning at a distance. The 'constructivist' metaphor of mind ('knowing as thinking'), which shapes my pedagogy, might be marginalising unduly my teaching role. This is evidenced by my predominantly 'episodic' teaching actions in the Discussion Room (DR) of the Internet site; actions which involve writing fortnightly summative perspectives on learners' discursive activities. By modelling the absence of a dominating voice (or being silent) have I abandoned unwittingly the important teaching role of modelling the discursive practices that I value? Perhaps it might be fruitful to adopt an alternative metaphor ('knowing as co-participation') arising from a 'constructionist' epistemology in which mind is regarded as being distributed socially?
What had precipitated my self-critical reflective thinking? On return from a one-week break, I had noticed that the (text-based, asynchronous) dialogue in the electronic DR was falling short of the overall unit goal we had set for the students: "to reflect critically on your own images of science and mathematics curriculum" ['Introduction', http://www.curtin.edu.au/learn/unit/smec612/index.htm]. We had set this goal in accordance with our major pedagogical referent of 'critical constructivism', a perspective that values empowering learners to develop critical self-awareness of the taken-for-granted assumptions/ideals/myths which shape their social roles and which are propagated unknowingly in the unreflective enactment of these roles (Taylor, 1996). In the emerging era of national curriculum reform in school science/mathematics, which requires teachers to transform their teaching practices in accordance with the metaphor of 'curriculum as learning outcomes', it seems an appropriate time for a form of professional development that prepares teachers for critically insightful approaches to self-transformation. But we were very mindful of our recent research which has shown that this transformative goal cannot stand alone; it should be accompanied (preceded!) by an ethic of care and concern (Dawson & Taylor, 1998; Taylor, 1998; Taylor & Dawson, 1998).
Thus, we had designed a set of web-based discussion activities to complement the three non-web-based (individually completed) written assignments. Our intent was to provide a means of engaging teacher-learners in (electronic) dialogue with each other, a dialogue that we hoped would be both supportive and challenging. These DR activities were intended to promote initially 'open discourse', that is, an empathic sharing of professional viewpoints, understandings and valued beliefs (Taylor & Campbell-Williams, 1994). We hoped that exposure to a range of diverse professional viewpoints would assist students to articulate, possibly for the first time, the assumptions that underpin their conceptions of curriculum and which frame their own epistemologies of teaching practice. There is something profoundly authentic and compelling in a dialogue amongst professional teachers, as on-campus classes demonstrate. In my on-campus class, the relative familiarity of open dialogue involves self-disclosure of students' extant worldviews and an open-minded understanding of others' (diverse) perspectives. Could we reproduce this type of learning via the web?
The DR activities were designed also to engage students in 'critical discourse', that is, discourse aimed at generating critical self-reflective thinking about the viability of the (often invisible) valued beliefs which shape one's own epistemology of practice (Taylor & Campbell-Williams, 1994). We hoped that the DR activities would facilitate a dialogue which enabled each student to (invite and) make use of other students' critical views in order to reflect self-critically on his/her own preferred conception of curriculum. In my on-campus class, I attempt to engage students in critical discourse by evoking a dialectical rationality which asks students to 'suspend their disbelief in new ideas while (at the same time) maintaining a healthy scepticism'. From this (not-so-easy) standpoint we explore the dialectical relationships between the pragmatism of students' current practices and the idealism of re-visioned future practices. Would our DR activities create a climate in which critical and open discourse could be intertwined? What might prevent us from achieving this teaching goal?
These questions are addressed in this paper from the perspective of my teaching interaction with Margarita (a pseudonym), one of the students who had 'excelled' at participation in the DR. In an attempt to engage Margarita in open and critical discourse about the nature of her own problematic participation, I precipitated a critical event that was not to be easily resolved. From the standpoint of a feminist perspective, I attempt here (very briefly) to outline an ongoing inquiry into the nature of the problem, an inquiry which is focusing on both the shortcomings of my own pedagogy and the student's predilection for a 'separate' way of knowing.
Thus, I asked myself how I, in my role as tutor, might intervene in the DR to move students towards the elusive goal of critical self-reflective thinking? My co-tutor (David Geelan) and I had been careful so far to avoid imposing the (institutionalised) authority of our own 'voices' in the DR for fear of 'hijacking' the student discussion and hindering the unfolding development of open discourse. As designers of the unit, including the DR activities (see Geelan, this volume), we regarded our voices as being already very pronounced. But it looked to me (impatiently, perhaps?) as though none of the students was going to 'get there' by themselves, not without some form of direct tutorial intervention in the DR.
Third, her Activity 6 posting had 'missed the mark' by quite some distance. Although the activity required a critical appraisal of an article, it was intended to engage the student with the author in "a thoughtful and open reading of their ideas...an act of empathy and imagination...to 'midwife' the birth of the author's own ideas!" [see 'Activity 6', http://www.curtin.edu.au/learn/unit/smec612/act6.htm]. Furthermore, we intended that students' DR postings would contribute to the ongoing development of an open and critical dialogue within each study group: "Discussion that we value is open, empathic and interested...rather than...attempting to argue with and deconstruct the arguments of others...to understand the ideas and perspectives of others, and to critically reflect...on our own beliefs and knowledge in the light of those perspectives." [see 'Discussion Activities-What, Why and How?' http://www.curtin.edu.au/learn/unit/smec612/standard.htm]
However, Margarita had engaged the author of an article (written by a past student of this unit that we had used as an optional reading) in a highly deconstructive critique with no apparent attempt to understand how the author's imaginatively constructed standpoint (expressed in terms of the metaphor of 'curriculum as chaos') might have enabled him to reflect self-critically on his own epistemology of practice. Neither did she attempt to suggest how a rewrite might better enable him to do so. It was as though she had chosen to fence with the text rather than dance with the author. Margarita's posting in the DR was phrased in such a way that it did not invite her study group partners to engage in a discussion. Put simply, it was monological (e.g., this is my position!) rather than dialogical (e.g., it seems to me... what do you think?).
And when I attempted to engage Margarita, in private email (later posted consensually in the DR), in an open and critical dialogue about her own standpoint, I found it impossible to dance with her, to engage dialogically with someone who seemed to be predisposed only to 'thrust and parry'. Margarita, it seemed to me, had construed the concept of critical thinking in a way that directed criticism ever outwards. And it was not only that article which bore the brunt of her escalating critique. In response to my criticism of her failure to meet the Activity 6 requirements (which always was accompanied by caring commentary on her positive achievements), Margarita tended to reject out-of-hand any suggestion that she was at fault, and 'counter-punched' with copious criticism of the pedagogy of the unit. This was a salutary experience that caused me to reflect critically on the adequacy of the unit, especially the clarity of instructions, the articulation of the overall goals of the unit with those of the various assignments and activities, and the adequate provision of exemplars. This process is continuing and refinements are being planned for 1999.
But I also believe that we can learn something valuable by studying Margarita more closely, by understanding her non-empathic monological style of delivering her ideas and her aggressively analytical response to criticism.
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Taylor, P.C. (1996). Mythmaking and mythbreaking in the mathematics classroom. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 31(1,2), 11-33.
Taylor, P.C. (1998). Constructivism: Value added. In K.G. Tobin and B.J. Fraser (Eds.), The international handbook of science education (pp.1111-1123). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
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Taylor, P.C. & Dawson, V. (1998). Critical reflections on a problematic student-supervisor relationship. In J.A. Malone, W. Atweh, and J.R. Northfield (Eds.), Research and supervision in mathematics and science (pp. 105-127). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.
|Please cite as: Taylor, P., Dawson, V., Geelan, D., Stapleton, A., Fox, R., Herrmann, A. and Parker, L. (1999). Virtual teaching or virtually teaching? Does Internet-based teaching require multiple metaphors of mind? In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 429-432. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/taylor-p.html|