Celebrating amateurism

Celebrating amateurism: a modest proposal?

Richard Edwards

In recent years, an emphasis in public service delivery has been placed on reforming professionalism through, for instance, reaccreditation processes, more effective inter-professional practice, greater user engagement and co-production of services, and more effective integration of para-professional and technical support. Concurrently there has been increased emphasis on professional standards, accountability, and external measures. Increasing and enhancing professionalism, continuing professional development and learning, and enhanced accreditation and reaccreditation processes have been to the fore in many areas. The impact and significance of these changes have been much debated, with focus on issues of de- and re-professionalisation, and demarcations of expertise and work. These issues are often framed with under-examined normative notions of the dispositions, expertise and practices of professionalism and the reshapings to which they are subject. Much of the debate expresses the entrenched interests of the different groups and organisations involved. Professionals and professionalism remain the central focus while service users and non-professionals still tend to be positioned as ‘other’: their roles tending to be taken into account, but as additional rather than essential to service provision.

However, if those others are considered amateurs, what can amateurism contribute to our understanding? It is in the celebration of certain dynamics of amateurism that I make this modest proposal. Amateurism is often viewed pejoratively as the other of professionalism. The term amateur attracts connotations of low expertise and regulation, lesser performance, and sometimes no pay.

I propose that a different appreciation of amateurism opens alternative ways of framing the expertise and practices of provision which do not rely solely on the central figure of the professional and normative assumptions of professionalism. Historically, amateurism represents an important set of dispositions of doing something ‘for the love of it’, altruistic commitment and deep interest or personal investment in the activity undertaken, and a ‘passion to learn’ that can generate important knowledge contributions outside formal standards and accreditation. Interesting examples of such amateurism can be found in various forms of citizen participation in professional work (e.g. astronomy, journalism, software development).

These positive dynamics of amateurism may be enacted also among those who train as professionals in the public services, although they often become diluted over time. For some, the use of standards and accountabilities is a response to this dilution, while for others it is a cause of that dilution. When CPD is a requirement of employment and professional reaccreditation rather than arising from a passion to learn, there is a sense in which amateurism may have something to teach us.

The proposal is not to be read as yet another attack on professionalism, but as a way of opening up our notions of professional work that can be enhanced by aspects of amateurism, where the latter can be used generatively to explore new possibilities for reconfiguring practices. So rather than simply the other of professionalism, let us perhaps explore, theorise and celebrate the possibilities for amateurism as a positive contribution to public service provision.

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Theorising Space in Education

Space and place are much discussed and researched in education, but are often un- or under-theorised. Here are some thoughts on theorising space drawing upon the wider geographical and social scientific literature.
Soja and Hooper (1993: 197) pointed out almost two decades ago that there is a general agreement that ‘space makes a difference in theory, culture and politics’. There is a consequent bringing to the fore of the significance of ‘the spatiality of human life’ and recognition of the difference that space makes. Space is seen as having been under-theorised and marginalised in relation to the previous emphasis on time and history. As a feature of the valorisation of time, space was constructed as neutral, fixed and immobile, unrelated to the social and without impact on the formation of subject identity and biography. Space was framed as a container or backcloth within or against which activity took place through time.

Broadly, we can identify four threads in contemporary interest in space in social theory. Each is subject to multiple interpretations. First, there is a political economy framing of space. This draws upon Marxist traditions of analysis, in particular those emerging in Western Europe, post-Gramsci. It is associated with such writers as Lefebvre (1991) and Harvey (1989). Such analyses focus on the orderings and representations of space as manifestations of changing economic conditions and its effects on everyday life. Development, industrialisation, urbanisation, globalisation and the inequalities they engender through the re-orderings of production and consumption are key themes in such analyses.

Second, there is a feminist framing of space. Emerging from the analysis of the public-private binary as unequally gendered and associated with writers such as Massey (1994, 2006), a key focus is on the analysis of the gender inequalities in changing orderings of space-time and, more broadly, the power-geometries of their particular orderings.

Third, there is broadly what we can refer to as the post-structuralist framings of space, emerging from the work of, for instance, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, and associated with writers such as Soja (1989). These analyses have been influenced by the linguistic and culturalist turns in social theory from the 1980’s and the associated form of ‘post-’ theorising. Deleuze and Guattari’s (1988) notions of the rhizome as a way to deterritorialise a contrast between striated spaces– closed and bounded – and smooth spaces –open and nomadic – has been increasingly influential. Key themes in such approaches are questions of subjectivity, representation and power. Associated with this thread are attempts to examine the spaces of marginalised others, with concern being focussed on, for instance, margins (Spivak 1993), interstitial third space (Bhabha 1994), nomadism (Braidotti 1994) and diaspora space (Brah 1996). In such approaches, there is often an implied set of binaries between mobility, openness, cosmopolitanism and freedom on the one hand and place, closure, parochialness and constraint on the other.

Fourth, there is what is referred to as a materialist turn in framings of space (Anderson and Wylie 2009). The materialist turn takes many forms, some of which might be seen as rejections of ‘theory’ articulated in post-structuralist framings of space. The significant work in this thread is associated with the (im)mobilities paradigm (Urry 2007), in part, influenced by post-humanist and non-representationalist theories, such as actor-network and complexity theories. This work has focussed on space as material (dis)orderings, as enactments and performative. Here there is a movement away from framings that assume and reproduce traditional subject-centred epistemologies wherein human intention and action is assumed and given primacy. Spatial orderings are not about human subjects per se, but are material assemblages of subjects-objects that interrupt and affect, question and promise.

A focus on mobilities points us towards a tracing of the movements, relations and networks of objects, people, information and images, and the ways in which flux is regulated, made possible and constrained, as ‘all mobilities presuppose large scale immobile infrastructures that make possible the socialities of everyday life’ (Urry 2007: 19). For instance, computers require power stations to make electricity, aircraft require airports and timetables, mobile phones require transmitter masts.
It is important to bear in mind the connections between the four threads of spatial theorising, as, for instance, in different ways, both Harvey and Soja were influenced by Lefebvre’s work on urbanization. Lefebvre himself influenced and was influenced by the Situationists, like Debord, who have also influenced strands of ‘post-‘ theorising. He was also more interested in the material than in debates about epistemology. Massey was initially much influenced in her writing by Marxist feminism, although this shifted somewhat with time.

So in theorising space in education we enter a complex web of theorising. Enjoy.

Richard Edwards

To read more on spatial theory, see R. Edwards and R. Usher (2008) Globalisation and Pedagogy: Space, Place and Identity, London: Routledge and T. Fenwick, R. Edwards and P. Sawchuk (2011) Emerging Approaches to Educational Research: Tracing the Sociomaterial, London: Routledge.

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Making education tweetable

What happens when education is made into something tweetable? As in other professional areas, social media increasingly intervene in and interfere with how educational matters are communicated. Little parcels of educational information and knowledge are now routinely packaged up and passed around in the networks of Twitter and other social media. What difference does this make to how educational issues, problems and concerns are received and comprehended?

A simple critical line might suggest that social media tools like Twitter are leading to a reductive, mediatised transformation of complex educational issues to sound bites, spin, and info-nuggets of marketable policy puff. That line of analysis oversimplifies matters.

What if, instead, we asked how education actually might be changed or transformed by the forms in which it is communicated, whether in printed material form or virtual form?

To provide a brief example, in a book on the use of statistical data in education policy in Europe, Jenny Ozga and coauthors write of seeing “pupils transformed into numbers,” distributed in the tables and graphs of policy papers, and “entering conference rooms throughout Europe, having undergone a series of transformations.” In this example, the children who populate schools have been transformed into data as their examination performance results have been collected and collated into databases, crunched by data analysis technologies, converted into graphical displays, and from there transported as “evidence” in the papers of educational policy discussions and proposals. The pupils themselves have been entirely displaced as they have been translated into a coordinated series of events, actions and materials.

With the addition of social media, the potential transformations are amplified. In order to explore such things theoretically and empirically, what might we need to do?

Exploring these matters would mean taking a close critical interest in the material and virtual form of, for example, policy texts, curriculum guides, and school websites, and particularly in the social media tools and resources now commonly used to share and distribute information and knowledge about education. Drawing from literary theory, it would require us to examine the bibliographic codes of educational texts—the various textual, typographic, visual and material techniques they deploy—and to explain how these ultimately transform the linguistic codes they contain. This kind of approach would examine the radial social factors that surround and shape the physical production of a text—such as the role of publishers, editors, typographers, designers, distributors and so on—and their effect on its reception and meaning. In order to capture the distinctive forms of digitally mediated educational sources, it would also take up a software studies approach to the political, cultural and conceptual formation of software and a close analysis of its layers of computer code, algorithmic logic, programming languages, visualization, and ordering. If education can be tweeted, then how does the computationally coded form of the tweet affect it?

Paying close attention to the bibliographic codes, linguistic codes and computer codes which shape the distribution, reception and meanings of educational matters would be valuable given the extent to which we now find education scattered kaleidoscopically across a variety of material print forms, electronic resources, social media and, increasingly, in myriad forms of data presentation.

Now it might be useful to outline (albeit crudely and highly generally for now) some of the steps taken in making education tweetable, including some indication of the radial factors and the bibliographic and computational codes involved in that process:

1 Education into learning… The first transformation we can see is that of education (a complex of institutions, policies and practices) being turned into “learning.” Learning has become one of the most prominent discourses in contemporary education, as signified for example by the growing academic influence of the “learning sciences”—a hybrid blend of psychology, neuroscience, and even computer science—which claims to be able to assess and measure the technical and social processes involved in learning, but ignores the wider social and institutional contexts of education. The growing emphasis in recent years on “learning skills,” “lifelong learning,” “learning to learn,” and so on, provide further evidence of the shift from understanding education to explaining the technicalities of learning.

2 … learning into performances… Once learning is made into the main objective of the education system, it needs to be measured. The OECD PISA tests have become the global standard for measuring learning and with them has come a cascade of concerns about performance measures and metrics. With PISA, learning is transformed into the measurement of individual test performance in order to generate evidence that can be collated and compared across different national and local education systems and sites. Likewise, teachers are now routinely judged on the basis of their performance, and schools are compared and judged on performance league tables. What matters is how well all the components of the system are performing.

3 … performances into data… As performance transforms learning, data then transforms performance. All performances must be transformed into data that can be collected, collated and calculated. The collection of educational data is nothing new but today almost every aspect of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment, as well as administration, leadership and governance, needs to be evidenced through data. There has been a pervasive datafication of education. Performance data on all of these elements of education, and more, can now be brought together with the aim of generating quantifiable, calculable, and statistically significant evidence.

4 … data into database software… The torrent of education data needs to be managed and stored. This is where databases, powered by sophisticated software, take over. Emerging database driven technologies, with the capacity for ordering, sorting, counting, and calculating complex datasets, transform data itself into tiny informational units that can be expressed in the language of computer code and processed through the logical procedures of algorithms. Whatever the act of “learning” that has been previously performed, measured, and datafied, it must now undergo a computational transformation into forms of “input” that can be operated on by software. Learning has been softwarised.

5 …databases into data visualisations… By this point in the process, learning has been disassembled into calculable, sortable, and combinable data traces capable of being carried by the computer code and algorithmic processes of software, and it is time to reassemble them. Here, visualisations, tables, charts, diagrams, infographics, and other graphical re-presentations of data enabled by data analytics software come into action. Data visualisation does a huge amount of work. Bruno Latour might suggest that the power of a data visualisation, like any graphic, image, or diagram, is to stabilize ideas, problems, concepts, explanations and arguments in one place, so that “realms of reality that seem far apart are just inches apart, once flattened on to the same surface.” Visualisations act as material techniques of thought that can be moved around, copied, reshuffled, recombined, superimposed and reproduced in other places.

6 …visualisations into tweets. Visualisations transform their original contents into an easily transportable format that requires little commentary. They flatten and freeze all of the transformations detailed above into one form. This makes them very easy to share, forward on, and circulate through social media tools like Twitter. Almost any aspect of education can now be reduced to less than 140 characters and a bit.ly link. Education has been made tweetable!

In this series we can see education being transformed through a cascade of encounters with bibliographic, linguistic and computational codes. If we were to populate this set of transformations with people, then we would find pupils not only transformed into numerical data, but into computational code, into graphical visualisations, and then into 140 character messages on Twitter. As in the example above of pupils transformed by education policy into numbers, tables and curves, it is now possible to transform pupils into tiny bits of tweetable computational data. That’s what happens when you make education tweetable.

Ben Williamson

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Theory Matters

When theory is so often assumed to be abstract or located solely in the realm of ideas, to talk of theory as material and mattering may seem off the wall. However, I want to argue that theory cannot only be a matter of significance and representation but is also one of substance and intervention. I wish to suggest that a view of theory as only being a matter of significance and representation already emerges from a set of ontological and epistemological assumptions of separation that are taken to be foundational, when this need not be the case. Separating meaning and matter, significance and substance, representing and doing, ideas and the real, theory and practice, is only one way of enacting being-in-the-world. Drawing upon what variously might be termed sociomaterialist, performative or post-human positions, I want to suggest that it is possible to re-enact theory as a matter-ing practice – of substance and significance.

What I am suggesting is that there is way of enacting theory as intervention, which is concrete, taking us closer to what is occurring rather than abstracting and moving us further from it. The assumption of separation divides theory from practice, whereas I am suggesting that theory can matter by being entangled with the material as a practice. Educational theory cannot be separate from practice, but is itself the effect of practices, of different ways of being-in-the-world, including, of course, practices which separate theory from practice.

The discourse of theory and practice frames so much educational discourse and public discourses more generally. It is a discourse that has been deployed to many effects. For some, it is a point of critique of educational research that it is over-theorised and full of jargon – technical language in other areas – and fails to engage with, inform or make a difference to educational practice. This is despite contrary evidence that much educational research is under-theorised. On this latter reading, it is the lack of, rather than too much, theory that results in limited impact emerging from educational research.

Thomas’ (2007) work has alerted us to the many meanings of theory in education, derived in particular from ancient Greek philosophy. However, the notion that theory is separate from the realm of practice is a persistent one. It often results in naïve empiricism and routinised behaviours, despite attempts to develop more reflective, action research, evidence-informed, or phronetic orientations to practice. One partial result of this separation has been the undermining of the notion of expertise and authority in educational research and the highly questionable notion that practitioner research somehow has an ‘authentic’ value when contrasted to the more sophisticated theoretical explorations of certain expert researchers. In the world of education research, unlike that of surgery, it seems at times like the work of the novice is more prized than that of the expert as somehow more authentic.

We can readily see how the discourses of theory and practice can result in a seesaw or tug of war between the two. If theory is the problem, then practice becomes the answer and practical knowing is given greater value. With this comes the valuing of practitioners’ knowing, which could be considered a non-necessary extension of the argument. While we might value research practitioners’ knowing in and about research it is less clear why we should uncritically value teacher practitioners’ knowing in and about research? I would prefer to engage with teachers’ practical knowing about teaching than their knowing about research.

There is a tendency therefore to position theory as out of touch with the ‘real’ and to privilege practice at the expense of theory. However, this is tied into a particular representationalist epistemology, in which the word and the thing, meaning and matter, object and subject, practice and theory, are clearly separated. Within this epistemological position, a gap is assumed between matter and meaning which is taken as foundational and unquestionable. This gap then has to be filled through representations, with all the problems and philosophical traditions associated with such approaches. In other words, the edifice of epistemology and the questions of how well the world has been represented in theory produces the very gap between theory and practice, meaning and matter, subject and object that it enacts as a problematic. The attempts to conjoin meaning and matter, theory and practice already presuppose and reproduce their separation precisely in order that they can be conjoined.

Drawing upon aspects of the work emerging from writers such as Judith Butler, Donna Harraway, Ian Hacking, Bruno Latour and Karen Barad, there is an alternative performative position, which does not assume the separation of theory from practice and the focus on representation. Such performative approaches reposition the notions of theory and practice as material and materialising practices. In other words, theory matters and is practical. The traces of this view can be found in, for instance, pragmatist philosophy and the work of Heidegger.

The position put forward here may appear counter-intuitive given the strength of the hegemonic practices of representation. However, it also suggests that the theory question in education is not only about which theories we mobilise, but also about which approach to theory mobilises us. While this position is not new in education, it has never really taken hold. This may be in part because much of education is precisely representational in its assumptions and practices, focussed on the development of the human subject and their cognitive acquisition of ideas. In other words, education is assumed to enact primarily learning as representation, representing objects to subjects. Without the separation of matter and meaning, there is no rationale for much of educational practice as we know it.

In layperson’s terms, I am expanding on the old adage that there is nothing as practical as a good theory. Inevitably it is not as simple as this for we need to unlearn certain ingrained habits of representation in order to enact theory differently. Alternative enactments of theory can also still be subject and recouped to a representationalist epistemology. Whether theory can escape this recoupment is obviously something that matters. Whether it matters enough to make a difference we will see.

Richard Edwards

For further elaboration of the argument, see R. Edwards (2012) ‘Theory matters: representation and experimentation in education’, Education Philosophy and Theory, 44, 5: 522-34.

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Theorising Education: Some Issues

There is a constant refrain in many quarters about the quality of much educational research and the lack of capacity among researchers. What characterises this situation and responses to it is the focus almost exclusively on building capacity in relation to the methods and methodologies of educational research. Less attention has been given to capacity building in the domain of theory and how we understand theoretical practices. Given that good educational research depends on a combination of high quality methods and methodologies and high quality theorising this is an issue.

There are compelling arguments for the need for good and rigorous theory in research. One goes back to David Hume’s insight that the only thing that empirically can be established is the correlation between observable phenomena. Theory is needed to generate explanations of underlying processes. In interpretative research the main role for theory lies in deepening and broadening understanding of everyday interpretations and experiences. The primary interest of critical theory lies in exposing how hidden power structures influence and distort such interpretations and experiences. All this suggests that educational research cannot do without theory. What is needed, however, is a more rigorous understanding of the nature and roles of theory in education research and practice.

We need to examine more thoroughly the actual usage of theory in current educational research. What kinds of theory are being used? How are they used? For what purposes and to what effect? Over the past decades there has been a strong growth of alternative ways of theorising, e.g. post-modern, post-structural, posthuman and feminist theorising and theoretical work inspired by such approaches as sociomateriality, complexity theory, actor-network theory, psycho-analysis or phenomenology. Some of these uptakes are gestural rather than substantive and there are questions about the work they can do. The sheer diversity of theoretical work itself generates the problem of talking about theory in the singular at all.

One of the defining characteristics of much educational research is that it aims to contribute to the improvement of educational practice. Theory plays an important role in this ambition as it is one of the main vehicles in which outcomes of research become available for educational practice. This raises questions about the different ways in which theory can be used in educational practice – ranging from theory as itself a form of intervention, theory as recipe for action and theory as a tool for making professional action more ‘intelligent’. It also raises questions about the ways in which educational practice itself can be understood and theorised.

Within recent discussions on theory and research in education there appears to be a tendency to move away from theory. This is first of all manifest in the idea that educational research should generate reliable evidence about ‘what works’ so that educational practice can become evidence-based. Discussions on evidence-based education tend to prioritise the empirical over the theoretical in simplistic and under-theorised ways. It is also manifest in more explicit discussions about the value of theory for educational research and practice. These discussions not only raise questions about the particular role of theory within evidence-based education, but also indicate a need for a more precise analysis of the extent to which and the ways in which educational research and practice are actually over- or under-theorised and why and how this might matter.

Big agendas require big ideas…

Richard Edwards

This blog is edited and amended from G. Biesta, J. Allan and R. Edwards (2009/10) ‘Theorising education: the Laboratory for Educational Theory’, Research Intelligence, 109: 18-19.

For further discussion of the issues, see G. Biesta, J. Allan and R. Edwards (2011) ‘The theory question in research capacity building in education: Towards an agenda for research and practice’, British Journal of Educational Studies, 59, 3: 225–239.


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Welcome to the blog of the Laboratory for Educational Theory

The TheoryLab was established in 2008 to support the use and development of rigorous theory in educational research, and to explore more widely some of the different traditions informing our understanding and practising of education. This responded to a concern that, while a lot of resource and effort was being placed rightly upon the development of capacity in relation to methods, the need for good theoretical work was also important. This remains the case.

Conferences, seminars and publications have flowed from the work of those involved in TheoryLab and we are planning our 3rd International Conference for June of next year (http://www.stir.ac.uk/education/laboratory-for-educational-theory/). We also have the first book in the Theorising Education series coming out in July (http://www.stir.ac.uk/education/news-and-events/news-archive/2013/making-a-difference-in-theory/name-47013-en.html).

The composition of the group based at Stirling has changed over time with people leaving and new folk arriving. This inevitably influences the work we do. We aim to work with researchers wherever they may be who are interested in developing good theory, whether as part  of empirical projects or more philosophically oriented inquiries.

We will use this blog to provide views on particular issues and approaches, and as a way to promote debate. It is not intended to replicate the work we do through scholarly journals and conferences and the like, but to be more informal and provocative. We shall see if we achieve this.

Richard Edwards
Director, LET

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