Saturday, 2 May 2015

#rhizo15 W3: Here come the CONTENT

Where are we? What week is this? Who am I? Am I the sum of my content?

It's Week 3 and the Dave has asked us to consider content and its role in education:

I’ve always been a little confused by the word ‘content.’ There is something lonely and unconnected about the word somehow, when I hear it used with reference to what happens in learning. I imagine a lone student, huddled away in a dorm room, reading sanitized facts in the hopes of passing a multiple choice quiz. The content somehow merging with the learning objective and the assessment to create a world where learning is about acquiring truth from the truth box. … So what happens when we peek under the word ‘content’ to see what lives there? What does it mean for a course to ‘contain’ information? What choices are being made… what power is being used?

I remember teaching my evening Access students (Access = an alternative route into HE for ‘non-traditional’ students who did not have previous academic success or induction) a short Media course that I had designed shortly after taking my own Masters: Film and Television Studies for Education. So excited was I by all that we had read and said and done on THAT course that I tried to shove all of its content into one six-week programme!

Of course, my idea of ‘content’ is not so much me telling – it's discussion, seminars and presentations - a bit of ‘doing’ things – so perhaps not too bad. But – PHEW – you know?

So here we are in the rhizome considering CONTENT – and the tensions of content in education. When we recently presented on our Becoming module, our audience was positive but still they wondered, how had we got away with so little ‘content’? 

And there we have it. 

How, in this surveillance, measurement and target-driven culture, had we managed this?

In this - the students have developed friendship groups and CoP. They have worked together - and creatively alone. The one who definitely HATED blogging has developed the most creative blog EVER ( – with feedback from other students around the world who have taken part in her 30-day drawing challenge. The students have felt and shown their engagement, their commitment, their industry – their pride and joy.

So why do even people who approve, think this is so transgressive? Why are we supposed to feel that we have ‘got away’ with something?

The ignorant school master?
When I first started teaching English Literature A’ levels in the 1980s, we had three three-hour externally set exams that we had to aim for – and these outlined our general content. We had to cover Shakespeare and Chaucer; nineteenth and twentieth century literature; and poetry and prose. There was choice in which texts we chose to focus upon and as tutor I tended to choose the most accessible and the shortest texts. It was an evening class and instead of two years, we had six months to cover the syllabus!

I never taught this class – we discussed and discussed and discussed – and the discussions improved when I discovered the pyramid (think/pair/share) method. The students presented on different topics – and we predicted potential questions on the forthcoming papers – and discussed possible answers.

This to me is no different really from what I still believe to be good ‘teaching’: the course itself emerges from the engagement of the participants. Sometimes you are all signed up for something that has a structure and a quite loose content (the old A’ level literature programme) – sometimes the structure and content are even looser (like Becoming): a TITLE, really BRIEF Learning Outcomes and, in our case, three portfolio items, one research project and an essay… Sometimes you are asked to teach a course or a module with a very fixed pre-ordained CONTENT all spelled out in tightly worded Aims and Learning Outcomes – where each week the Content and extensive reading have been sketched in by another. Even then, you can hack it, flip it, re-work it: get the students to make posters, run workshops and give presentations...

At best, the processes are the same and the course emerges…

Zen and the loss of the ego?

Rancierre’s Ignorant School Master?

If we are all lucky.

Postscript: Our presentation was at an ALDinHE Conference ( and you are all welcome to join. At least join our jiscmail discussion forum – you would be so welcome: