As Unitec moves to new models of learning and teaching our learners may observe, as the late Mr Spock might have, “There’s learning here Jim, but not as we know it.”
The commonly accepted characteristics of learning and its accompanying practices are part of what the philosopher, Charles Taylor, terms social imaginaries – “that common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy. … we have a sense of how things normally go, but this is interwoven with an idea of how they ought to go, of what missteps would invalidate the practice.”
These social imaginaries are deeply embedded in culture and, in modern education, have been developed over 200 years at least. There have been the odd challenges; alternative educational imaginaries advocated by Montesorri, Tagore, Dewey, Vygotsky, Freire and company, however most of our learners have a ‘mainstream’ imaginary of tertiary study – this is what it looks like, this is what our role is, what the teacher does and generally how it works. They’ve picked all this up from their own learning experiences, older siblings, films, TV programmes, and the general representation of education in society.
Much of our discussion at Unitec currently is about changing educational imaginaries. In many areas we are advocating a change in the ‘way things usually go’, changing definitions, redefining what makes for legitimate learning, delivery or assessment, knowledge or feedback. Hence resistance from both teachers and learners. Technology for instance allows us to implement new and good things in the way of collaboration and access to information; my caution is that we have to make these changes in an education system, and by implication with learners, many of whom are deeply entrenched in and expect individualism and competition.
Social imaginaries is a useful concept to explore society’s beliefs about teaching and learning and the implications these have for learners’ transition into a different tertiary environment at Unitec. Most learners, unless they’re studying education, never articulate their beliefs and assumptions about learning and teaching. How learners negotiate their way through the system is not primarily cognitive. It is based on the ways in which they “imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions that underlie these expectations.” (Taylor again) In education, these include ideas about knowledge, learning, the role of the teacher, their identity as a student.
Our new models may well challenge this fitting together and we need to be aware of how best to address this.