Teaching, learning, writing and ‘The Matrix’

From sandboxtactics.com

From sandboxtactics.com

I used the metaphor of The Matrix (from the Wachowski Brothers’ iconic film) in a PhD blog post I wrote recently (here), and I have been thinking a bit more about how it can be used as a metaphor for becoming a more conscious writer and knower in higher education. Perhaps by unpacking this idea (and having a bit of fun with it) we can understand a little more about how to make what we are doing as teachers and expecting of students’ learning more open and visible for our students, and we can fill gaps and make connections more overtly.

For those who have not seen the film, the basic premise is that a computer programmer/hacker, Thomas Anderson or Neo, is approached by a character called Morpheus who tells him that life is not it seems, and Neo is special. He has the power to change the world. Morpheus shows him a glimpse of this layer beneath the world he can see – there is a Matrix that we are all plugged into and most of us don’t even know it’s there. Knowing about it and seeing it can bring danger – powerful people don’t want us educated about the Matrix and our power to change it – but it can also bring freedom, choice. After this glimpse, Morpheus tells Neo he can choose – take the blue pill and he wakes up tomorrow and nothing is different. Take the red pill and he goes on a journey towards consciousness, learning, emancipation. Neo chooses the red pill and with Morpheus as his mentor off he goes, eventually learning how to see the inner workings of the Matrix and change the world he lives in, and by extension, himself and those around him. His is a journey of transformation. There is way more to the story, but this is enough for you to follow my thinking here.

I’ve been playing with the idea of higher education teaching, learning (and writing) being like a Matrix. The students are the Neos,  with potential and talent that needs to be recognised, brought out and nurtured. They have the power to change the world but they often don’t know how to. Peer tutors and colleagues students engage with are like the crew on the Nebuchadnezzar (the ship they all live on): Trinity, Tank, Dozer, who support, teach, and challenge Neo on his journey. Lecturers can probably be more like Morpheus – a little older, more experienced and knowledgeable, ideally mentors and teachers. When students enter university, they often know that the world is bigger than they think it is, and that there are many more things out there for them to know and do and see and be. They come to us to be taught and to learn because they want access to this wider world of possibilities; they want to be transformed and changed and have opportunities to live bigger, more exciting and often more comfortable lives. I have worked with many students over the years, and most of them really do want the red pill rather than the blue one, even if they can’t phrase their desires in these terms, and even though they have very little sense of how much hard work and dedication it will take and that it’s a lifelong process of learning. I think part of our job as the Trinitys or Morpheuses in their journey is to build into learning and teaching more of a sense of what the Matrix is all about and what they can and should be doing to be learning about how to see it, understand it and eventually change it. Our assessments, teaching approaches, student activities, writing tasks etc all need to be pulling students towards not just knowing what’s out there on the surface, but more importantly the principled knowledges and ways of knowing that underpin, give rise to, shape what we see on the surface. In other words, we need to be teaching not just what we can know, but why we need to know it, and how we would/could know it and what we could do with it.

Writing is one way of getting deeper into the Matrix, because writing is one of the main ways in which we ask students to show us their knowledge and understanding. Becoming a more conscious and powerful writer is a bit like going on a Neo-like journey. We start off being shown (or told) to write in quite formulaic ways. These are the three steps of an introduction; this is a topic sentence; a conclusion does these three things, and so on. Undergraduate students often see these ‘formulae’ in quite basic, surface ways because this is often how they are taught. They can struggle, often, to become more creative writers because the formulae feel safer. The whys and hows are there, of course, but for many students they are often tacit or hidden. One of the ways in which we become more conscious writers, who make choices about how we write because we understand what the requirements are and why they are so, is by learning precisely these things: the criteria, what they mean and why they are there. As we go, through feedback (from Morpheus-like mentors), reflection (on our own and with peers) and more writing, we can begin to see the Matrix and eventually, write the code ourselves.

From dan-dare.org

From dan-dare.org

If we can understand not just that there is a Matrix (and this is what it is, and what we must do if we want to live in it), but also begin to see the hidden code that makes up the Matrix, and possibly change it and ourselves to act and think differently, we can truly be transformed by learning, and by studying at university. I think we can more readily achieve ‘graduate attribute’ type goals with our students – for example, graduating civic-minded and active citizens who are aware of and have the tools to change their environment and society – by orienting them (and ourselves) towards making visible the systems of meaning* that we are hoping students will engage with. We can more readily show students how to become lifelong and ongoing learners, and we can equip them with tools – principled and applied knowledges – that make them able to not just see the Matrix (whether at university or in the world around them) but also able to change it. If we can shift our focus from the ‘stuffed’ curriculum** full of ‘content and skills’ by beginning to understanding who our graduates in particular disciplines need to be and what they need to know and do, and connecting this to the kinds of teaching we do and the kinds of tasks, assessment etc that we ask students to engage in, we can begin to work within systems of meaning and knowing  more consciously and overtly.  I’m thinking that this might be a way of getting to the heart of higher education and its transformative potential and purpose. It’s not easy to get into the Matrix and make the changes, but it most certainly is possible.

* Wheelahan, L. 2013. Keynote address. Rhodes University, Department of Education PhD conference, October 2013.

** Cousin, G. 2006. ‘An introduction to threshold concepts’, Planet, 17: 4-5.

Responding to ‘reviewers’ – a tool for developing consciousness in writers

I love getting new ideas to use in my writing workshops, both with lecturers and students. This new idea is a tool for lecturers to use with their students, and it’s built on a practice I was told about by a lecturer in a foundation year programme this week. This tool is useful for helping students to develop a reflective stance on their own writing and a meta-level of consciousness about what they are doing when they write and how their approach to writing, reading and thinking is shifting over time.

This tool is called ‘Response to the reviewer’ because it bears similarities to the letters authors of journal articles/books/chapters in academia are more often than not asked to write after they have completed revisions recommended by peer reviewers. In these letters, authors have to explain to the editors of the journal what changes they have made to their work, why and often where in the paper the changes have been made. It’s a challenging exercise because it doesn’t just require a list of changes made – editors often want some idea of the reasoning process that went into making or not making the changes.

The lecturer who sparked this idea writes fairly detailed rubrics outlining his assessment standards and criteria for his students. He does not have time to have them all write drafts, have these marked formatively, and then rewrite and revise these as he has over 300 students. So, what he does is create an assessment plan that makes each successive task build on the tasks before, so that the previous essay, for example, works a little like a draft of the following one, even if they are not on the same topic. His rubrics, then, and the way he completes them and comments on students’ work feeds forward rather than just feeding back, as he wants students to think about how to improve on areas of struggle/vagueness/weakness in the following assignment. I think this is a really creative way of addressing the issue of wanting students to revise and improve in their writing without the ‘luxury’ of time for multiple drafts and guided revisions. In order to see whether these revisions and improvements are indeed happening, he asks his students to attach task one’s draft to task two, and so on, so that he can remind himself, and also them, of the comments he has already made on their writing.

The tool build on this by adding a self-reflective an extra dimension. One of the goals we must have in higher education is to guide students not just in acquiring and applying certain technical or applied skills or knowledge-related practices, as well as theoretical and principled knowledge, but also to guide them in becoming certain kinds of knowers – people who think, act, write, behave, see the world in particular ways (a lawyer, for instance, or an accountant or an analyst of some kind). Part of this becoming is developing a consciousness – who are we? Where do we fit into our field? What are our roles? What choices can and do we make and why? What could we do differently? How? Etc. Often this works at a meta-level, underpinning all the actions we take and choices we make, and so after a while it becomes more tacit, and more part of our ‘way of being in the world’ as Bharuthram and McKenna argue about academic lecturers’ understanding of their disciplines. The tricky thing is understanding, once you work like this, how you developed this consciousness in the first place, and as a teacher, working out how to help your students, through the tasks and teaching you design, to develop this in themselves.

Here’s one idea of how to begin to do that: Take, use, adapt my colleague’s idea first. Write rubrics that give your students a clear set of assessment criteria. When you assess their work, don’t just tick boxes and assign a mark – give yourself a space for comments, and give them three  or four clear things to do or consider the next time they write an essay. Explain as far as possible what you mean and how they might go about doing these things so that they have an actual plan of action rather than just a wishlist. Then, get them to attach the rubric from task one to task two when they submit but add this new tool – ‘Response to the reviewer’ – by asking them to write a paragraph explaining how they put your comments on task one into action in task two, or how they did not and why. This, I think, will achieve two important goals: the first is that it will give you very useful information on whether and how your students are (or are not) using your feedback, and why. Then you can make adjustments, and learn from their responses how to improve your feedback-giving. Second, it gives students opportunities to reflect on a different part of their writing development – not the ‘what’ that they are writing about, but the often more hidden ‘how’ and ‘why’ they have written the task the way they have, what they have found do-able and what they have struggled with. You can use this tool in each assignment or you could give students guidance on writing more substantial reflections quarterly or semesterly on a set of rubrics they have been working with in your course.

We don’t just develop this kind of conscious understanding of our practice – we are often guided to it through questions we have to consider from colleagues or mentors, or  tasks we have to complete, or through more mundane things, like applications for promotions or for new jobs, where we are asked to reflect on what we have done thus far and what we’d like to do next, and why. The why is so important here, because this is what moves us into that ‘meta’ space, where the tacit can be surfaced, looked at critically, and rethought perhaps. This is a space for growth and change, and the more we can take students here and make it an encouraging and also challenging space where they are supported in being more reflective and self-critical, the more they can begin to grow and transform in the ways we may well want them to (and that they may well desire themselves).