Action Teaching

January 31, 2010

Since being introduced to the term by my new IT gurus I’ve been mulling over the whole “action teaching” concept. Although the term is attributed to Professor Scott Prous in 2000 (Azar, 2008), I’ve found reference to it in 1997. I’ve been surprised by how little direct scholarly work there seems to be on the topic. There is a dearth of articles that use this term. There are, however, some good writings that appear to delve into the practice of action teaching, such as those listed on Prous’ page on the Social Psychology Network site. (Unsurprisingly there appear to be quite a few references to it in the Christian educative literature. And, more bizarrely, in Homes Economics journals! So if anyone spots any really good theoretical articles on the subject I’d welcome them.) The literature seems to capture many of the dilemmas of trying to be an active teacher and to use participative student-centred methods. Cadman and Grey (2000) capture the dilemma concisely when they say,

We can find ourselves wanting to develop a more learner-centred curriculum yet in practice we often continue to control our classrooms and direct students’ learning. We get caught between wanting to help students to work confidently as independent, autonomous learners, and fearing to relinquish control over the curriculum in case vital…skills are neglected (p. 21).

When I first starting to read about action teaching I found myself wondering what all the fuss was about.  Plous says that action teaching is about turning learning into a live experience through field work, classroom activities and other assignments. Yet over sixty years ago Kurt Lewin was advocating that it wasn’t enough to study issues academically and that research should lead to social action. And certainly many of the class room activities I’ve read about which apparently constitute action teaching are no more than what I would consider good teaching practice. I confess to at first agreeing with Reg Revans’ (1997) assessment. He says,

Certainly, I for one am often confused by reading of some development that is what I would have called pure Action Learning, but that is described by some other name, such as’ activity learning’, or ‘action teaching’, or ‘participative management’, or ‘management action teamwork (p. 13).

 However as I was reading some of the articles I realised that there is a second layer of thinking which is most important and warrants closer examination. Prouse argues that the learning experience should lead to not only a better understanding of the subject area – in his case psychology – but to a more just, compassionate and peaceful world.

 Now it’s starting to become a little clearer. There are strong links to community development – and particularly Friere’s liberation pedagogy in particular. Action teaching seems to be not just about action and ‘doing’ and reflecting – but about doing this in ways that promote humanity. There’s a rich (if somewhat overwhelming) example by David Sattler who was keen to understand the role of psychology in natural disaster responses. In 2004 following the Indian Ocean tsunami, he and his students planned a series of events. Student travelled to Thailand, negotiated space with a local business owner and set up a museum which had attracted 3000 visitors by 2006 (Sattler, 2007). The money raised through donations purchased mosquito netting and a year of safe drinking water. According to Sattler, “Students said that participating created interest and enthusiasm in research, promoted a sense of social responsibility, and for some, remains a highlight of their life” (APA Convention Blog, 2009).

 I admit my first response was “What? I can’t even afford to go to Thailand – let alone take my students!” but as I let go of ego, this kind of teaching becomes very inspiring. It really challenges me as a teacher to think about whether my teaching is coherent with the aspirations I have. In the past I have tried to do more meaningful and engaged teaching activities within the community and seem to always get caught up in the institutional net of ethics applications and having to justify my approach. (Bizarrely we’re only too happy to kill off mice and frogs in the name of knowledge, but struggle with the ethical implications of compassion and local social change!) So I was pleased to read Tony Hoffman’s observation that, ‘Action teaching can expose instructors to accusations of proselytizing…so they need to be prepared to defend their projects with campus staff, deans, facility personnel, and the students themselves’ (p. 58). It’s nice to know I’m not alone!

 The irony of course is that all of what we teach is value laden: the science we teach, our take on what makes “good” literature, the fact that we elevate economics and business to a degree – these are all value decisions and one could argue that these too constitute conversion efforts. I recall only too well my studies in psychology and the fervour of my tutors in adhering to the experimental method! We like to pretend that because this occurs in the safety of a classroom there are no risks. We can separate our teaching from the eventual behaviour of our students and lessen our – or the institutions’ – responsibility. Whereas action teaching brings that chain of events much closer in time: from years to weeks! The risks are more real. The line of responsibility is much more overt. And so too are the values embedded in the curriculum. The fallibility of the teacher is also more apparent. But if that means the opportunity to explicitly negotiate these issues with students and the development of a more honest relationship, as well as more engaged and humane learning and the opportunity for real change through the learning process, then that seems like a risk that is worth taking.


Azar, B. (2008). Brining lessons to life. Monitor of Psychology, December, 56-58.

Cadman, K., & Grey, M. (2000). The ‘Action Teaching’ model of curriculum design : EAP students managing their own learning in an academic conference course. EA Journal, 17(2), pp. 21-36.

No authorship indicated. (2009). Award winning example of teaching. APA Convention Blog. Retrieved from:

Revans, R. (1997). Action learning: Its origins and nature. In M. Pedlar (Ed.) Action Learning In Practice (3rd Ed.) (pp. 3-14). Hampshire: Gower.

Sattler, D. N. (2007).Creating the International Tsunami Museum in Khao Lak. Retrieved from:


Space Junk

January 28, 2010

According to the U.S. Space Surveillance Network there are over 13,000 human-made objects larger than ten centimetres in diameter orbiting the Earth: “These include both operational spacecraft and debris such as derelict rocket bodies”¹. As I was reading this I started to wonder how many sites and half-completed projects are floating “out there” in cyber-space – and what happens over time? Will there be a similar point of environmental awareness about the need for a cyber-space clean up? Do our creative and less creative efforts stay suspended in their own orbit? Is there a dimension littered with spam and joke emails? Will they come crashing down upon us? One minute you’re drinking your coffee – next thing you know, every ill-worded email and badly spelled document you’ve ever sent comes flooding through your screen. This is my idea of hell: to be buried in one’s own appalling writing…

All of this makes me wonder how one rounds up one’s own cyber space junk? If we end up with Blog sites and websites and Facebook accounts and various email addresses and a Wiki or two and the odd tweet – then how do we pull it all together? My impulse is to want to control the uncontrollable and not abandon it to chaos.

Complexity is the state between order and chaos. There is randomness at the micro level, but patterns emerge at the macro view. So how do we enable all our work to be complex – but not chaotic?I can’t control how others respond to what I write, where my links go, what gets picked up and what gets ignored. So how do we create some semblance of order whilst still embracing the ambiguity? 

“I saw two shooting stars last night
I wished on them but they were only satellites
Is it wrong to wish on space hardware?”²

 ¹Lovgren, S. (2006). Space junk cleanup needed, NASA experts warn. National Geographic News, January 19. Retrieved from .Image from same source.

² Lyrics from Billy Bragg’s New England

Making Connections

January 26, 2010

I’ve recently re-opened my Facebook account. It was prompted by the fact that a number of organisations I’m rather sweet on have begun interacting more and more through Facebook. I find it odd – but there it is! Of course not only does this open the floodgates to much wanted information, but I now find myself surfing through lists of people I know, as well as many I don’t know, and being prompted to accept or reject people as ‘friends’. What a horrid idea. Hundreds of photos blinking before me – it’s like being trapped in a Boxing Day sales crowd all over again!

Last time this happened I deleted my account and went and hid under the bed for two days…I’m not sure what I feared exactly – loss of anonymity and privacy? false friendship? a sense of obligation?

But this time, as I’ve been thinking it through, I am reminded of the systems readings I’ve been doing recently, which helps me to recast the experience in a new light. Whether it is the root system of a tree (Wheatley, 2006), the neural pathways of the brain (Doidge, 2009)  or entire organisations (Senge, 1990) what is abundantly clear is that the more connections that exist within a system the healthier that system becomes. Certainly Senge and Wheatley both advocate that if you want to improve the culture, effectiveness and even the efficiency of a group then the first thing to do is to start building connections all over the place.

I was also thinking about some of the people with profound disability that I’ve been privileged to meet over the years – and what set those who have a good life apart from those who did not. There is no question that it was about the number of relationships in people’s live. And this isn’t surprising, afterall, relationships in themselves are part of a good life. But relationships also enabled people to have other things in their lives: meaningful roles, a sense of identity, access to resources, safety, good health, love (Wolfensberger, 1998). It’s not that we need to have hundreds of close friends (à la the scary language of Facebook) – but rather that through knowing hundreds of people there is a greater chance of finding those precious individuals who WILL become part of one’s intimate circle. (And if anyone knows of any studies that have done the maths on that, I’d love to hear about them).

So it stands to reason that even introverts like me should be embracing, rather than flinching from connective technologies. Apparently it’s good for us.

Now, where did you say we know each other from?

 Zombie crowd scene from the movie Shaun of the Dead, 2004.

of Rats and Parasites

January 23, 2010

This week I spent more time with my IT gurus at CEIT. Bursting with pride about the fact that I’d now set up my UQ blackboard site, set up discussion spaces,  begun to electronically link all my readings, posted a video, and created a blog – I felt like I was in geek girl land for sure.  But no, turns out I’ve only just begun. This week it was on-line collaborative writing tools and Wikis. In my last post I confessed that I thought a Wiki was a tropical parasite. Since then I’ve discovered that I wasn’t far off. Apparently it’s a Hawaiian word for something annoying that gets under your skin and sucks the time out of your day.

A Wiki, I have learned,  is a fast website (Wiki adopted from a Hawaiian expression for ‘quick’). Unlike a blog, it enables multiple authors and is excellent for collaborative projects: think Wikipedia or Google docs.  In fact, in my case, the interest in Wikis is that it would enable me to tie a whole heap of blogs to a central point¹. Like Blogs you can set them up for free, via various hosts which offer a whole range of different features. So far so good.

What’s not so good is that Wikis are, well, boring.

I don’t mean their functionality. I’m sure they are full of all sorts of bells and whistles that I haven’t even begun to explore. But visually they are very dull – or at least the public site ones are. There are a very limited number of shells and they all seem very text heavy. What I really want is a visual experience: a gallery of objects, or even avatars; something that makes you think: wow – that looks really interesting, I’ll click on that and something that might give you a helicoptor view. I’m afraid that seeing  just doesn’t do that for me. But hopefully some Wiki expert will come along and tell me how it’s possible. I’ll keep playing. Although at the functionality level it will serve a useful purpose for this project, I just hate having to sacrifice image for substance!

PS: Oh yeah, I wasted my Thursday night drawing a snail logo for my site in a desperate effort to give my wiki site SOMETHING of interest. This is the result.

¹ unfortunately at this point I get stomach churning flashes of The Rat King mythology, which, if you’re really interested and have a strong constitution, you can read about in a scientific study of the Rat Kings of Estonia: 

Through a Glass Lightly

January 19, 2010


Image:  ‘Kaleidescope’ © Jane Sherwin

I received some useful feedback from a friend via email, which I thought was worth reflecting upon further. She said:

“I’m not sure whether the purpose of the blog is to merely report on your learnings as to which teaching methods work and which don’t; or to actually use the blogging medium as part of the teaching process. In other words, is your audience fellow teachers or the students? Sorry to be so thick. But I’ve read it through a couple of times now and I’m still not sure. I see elements of both, so perhaps it’s designed to serve a dual purpose.”

My first reflection is how incredibly helpful it is to keep holding one’s ideas up to the light in search of clarity. I think I have crystal clear thinking – but with each gentle question I am reminded that my grubby fingerprints are still smudging the glass!

The second reflection is how complex it is to make one’s ideas public: who indeed is my audience?

I jumped on-line to look up some ideas on this subject and found some useful ideas on the purpose of a blog, see:, and . There’s a nice introduction to blogging on the WordPress site: (I’ll add these links to the sidebar). I like the definition from the Blogger site which says:

“A blog is a personal diary. A daily pulpit. A collaborative space. A political soapbox. A breaking-news outlet. A collection of links. Your own private thoughts. Memos to the world. Your blog is whatever you want it to be. There are millions of them, in all shapes and sizes, and there are no real rules. In simple terms, a blog is a web site, where you write stuff on an ongoing basis. New stuff shows up at the top, so your visitors can read what’s new. Then they comment on it or link to it or email you. Or not…A blog gives you your own voice on the web. It’s a place to collect and share things that you find interesting— whether it’s your political commentary, a personal diary, or links to web sites you want to remember. Many people use a blog just to organize their own thoughts, while others command influential, worldwide audiences of thousands.”

In terms of my purpose, I’m clear what it is not.  It is not a site FOR students. There is an electronic site within the university called BlackBoard which is an internal site detailing course content, assessment, grades etc. It’s very formal and official and part of the UQ infrastructure. I’m not seeking to reproduce that. This blog is a reflective tool for my role as course coordinator of SWSP7123. If I start posting recipes or gardening tips or trying to convince people to save sea turtles then I know I’m way off track. I am deliberately keeping this narrowly focused upon a single teaching space for now. I often think of it as a trade-off between breadth and depth. I’m keen for deep learning.  

I think my purpose is fourfold:

1. The first and primary purpose is for myself. My intention is that this blog is a place for me to plan and then reflect on the usefulness of my teaching interventions.  I usually keep journals and reflective logs on the work I do. This is the first time I’ve tried making those reflections public and already I’ve proven to myself that it improves learning. So right away I know this is something I’ll be recommending to students. It will also probably influence the assessment items I set up for them. It is part of the plan-do-review cycle I will be using throughout my teaching. I’m inviting feedback from anyone to help me refine my ideas. I”m also conscious that working as a teacher in academia is an isolated and lonely experience. I haven’t been able to find a community of practice to share ideas. So this is my attempt to create a reflective space and to invite others to share their ideas. I’m not expecting to command a worldwide audience of thousands. But I welcome thoughts and ideas from friends, colleagues and students. I’m willing to bribe them with dessert if necessary.

2. The second use is for the benefit of my students. If I’m asking students to do things I need to be able to assure myself that I’m not asking for anything unrealistic. I want to know how difficult this is.  I figure if I can work it out without tears and tantrums then my students definitely will be fine. So, for example, I wanted to find out how time consuming it would be to set up a blog and then how long it takes to learn a few tools of the trade to improve layout (the answer is that it’s super easy to establish but then takes probably a day in total of mucking around and trying things if you want it to look pretty and then it’s a breeze – except for the Sticky Post application which I still haven’t found). I’ve uploaded photos to find out how challenging that is. I’m about to try a Quicktime movie – just using a little digital camera, to see if that will work. I’ve actually spent all morning setting up the BlackBoard site for this course and I find it MUCH harder than the open access technology on the web. I’ve had to ring the helpdesk twice and bother three other colleagues already.  Setting up a blog was a breeze by comparison.

3. Thirdly I’m hoping this will model to students the kind of behaviour and language that is useful: for example, weaving in theory, linking to other sites, testing ideas, taking on board comments and criticism etc.  I’m also trying to model good behaviour around copyright and permission seeking for images, avoidance of plagiarism etc. I’m trying to be transparent with my students: this is the process I’m using and this is why. I’m also modelling the notion of embracing things we aren’t comfortable with. People who know me well know I struggle to find – let alone use – my mobile phone (in all truth my use of a regular phone is pretty dodgy too). I don’t SMS, I don’t have a Facebook site, I have never used Skype, I have never blogged until now or used a video camera and don’t even own a digital stills camera. My understanding of RSS is purely theoretical at this stage and I think a Wiki sounds like some sort of tropical parasite.

4. Fourthly, at this stage this is a personal project, but as indicated in the attached pages my aim is to turn it into something more formal. If I am successful in this then this site potentially lends itself to support documentation and data collection. (For example, the “about the project” page may be the start of my project information page for the ethics application).

I can’t wait for the feedback on that!

Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Jane Sherwin:

Into the Woods

January 16, 2010

I’ve been thinking about the fourth layer of the project: that of assessing the impact of new technologies upon the learning and education process and how we might begin to measure this. I wondered about utilising my all-time favourite debriefing process, ORID, (from the Technology of Participation suite: see, to provide a scaffold for evaluation. Because ORID has links back to the Kolb learning cycle, this would enable us to assess learning at multiple processing levels. For example:

1. OBJECTIVE DATA: As the course will comprise both mandatory and optional uses of technology it could be useful to compare participation levels in both. One could also measure how MUCH technology was used and what types, eg did students use websites, Blogs, teleconferencing or online chats, did they post photos, videos,  etc, did they use other forms of technology like mobile phones to connect? By utilising SNAP to measure student network interactions from week-to-week we will also have a good source of data about any changes to patterns of interaction over semester (eg does it increase as student’s confidence grows? does it change once formal workshops are completed (ie from week 6) or decrease as the workload rises across semester increases). This will tell us whether students are actually using the technologies to connect, or merely to store. We could do pre-and post surveys asking students about which technologies they have used and how regularly.

2. REFLECTIVE DATA: At a reflective level we can ask students to think about how they feel about IT, eg how they would rate their use of IT, how confident they are, how useful they think it is. I can tell them about the use of IT in this course and ask them how that makes them feel – and then ask them at the end of semester to evaluate how they feel about it, whether their confidence has grown etc.

3. INTERPRETIVE DATA: At the interpretive level we can ask students at the end of semester to comment on the impact of technology on their learning. For example whether the mandatory discussion board sessions actually helped them in their thinking, or helped them connect with others, whether it helped students feel less isolated during the field work stage of their projects, and also what helped them or hindered them in making use of IT. We can also probe for broader applications. Does it help them in explaining the project to others, did it contribute to shared ownership etc or was it merely a distraction? My interest would also be asking about the nexus between CD and IT. CD is often seen as grassroots, and relationship based. My aim is to actually increase people’s connection, but I’ll be keen to know whether real relationships are maintained.

 4. DECISIONAL DATA: This is about intentionality. If they were to repeat the experience, what would they do differently. Also, once leaving the course, what will they be taking with them in terms of IT use? How could they imagine technologies being helpful or unhelpful in their future both personally and professionally?

Image source: Lynda Shevellar. Ben Lomond, Queenstown, New Zealand.

Food for Thought

January 16, 2010

Last night I hosted a small DP (i.e. “Dinner Party” for the uninitiated). Suspecting that dessert would not be forthcoming unless feedback was received, my guests said very generous things about the fact that I was blogging. Their nervousness about IT, particularly the public nature of the new technologies, matched my own. They said nice things about the way the site looked and the interesting photos. But when asked about content, there was a nervous silence. It turns out what was absolutely clear to me made no sense to anyone else. It was a good reminder about the insular nature of this process. It’s very indulgent and all too easy to assume transparency and clarity that isn’t actually there.  It was invaluable feedback because as I thought it through overnight I realised that some of my project conceptualisation was wonky. I recall the adage: “People who think clearly, write clearly”. My writing isn’t clear because my thinking isn’t clear. The wonderful thing about recognising this is that it means I’m on the right track. The whole point of a cyclical process is to move from degrees of fuzziness to degrees of clarity.

I think where things are confusing are at the third and fourth layers of the project. I suspect I’m conflating the two. So I’m off to fix up the project description page. (Anything other than facing the washing up!)

Image source: “The Beautiful Ruin of a Table”, Lynda Shevellar