Tag Archives: reflection

BERA September 2017: looking again at teaching and learning – Gert Biesta’s food for thought

This year’s BERA conference took place at Sussex University outside Brighton.  As ever it was a busy event – there were more applications than ever to present and that competition was as a result more fierce than ever.

The diversity of papers and presentations was exciting and provided a lot of space for discussion and interaction.

The final keynote was a high point. Drawing on a range of insights from his work and in particular his new book, The Rediscovery of Teaching, Gert Biesta talked about learning and how it has been hi-jacked by a policy view that draws on neoliberal human capital theory. In other words, the current focus on learning is learning for a purpose connected to skills and productivity: an economised version of learning.

For Biesta, learning has now become a problem. He connects this also to certain kinds of learning that involve ‘meaning-making’. In the worst cases, this becomes ego-logical – i.e. the (isolated) individual making sense for themselves (although he acknowledged that Freirean dialogical learning is collective rather individualised).

His provocative response to this situation, embedded in his philosophical position, suggests a return to a dynamic curriculum in which students and teachers stop learning. Learning spaces then become classrooms in which the world can be listened to. He presented the issue by posing these questions:

If we are sense makers – can the world speak to us in its own terms and on its own terms?

If we are just meaning-making beings, how then can we be taught?

There was a sense in this that the cultural and economic emphasis on individualism and entrepreneurialism that is having such an impact on our ways of living and on our world needs to be checked. Otherwise, learning will only support the further deterioration of our planet and jeopardise our collective attempts to achieve a good life for everyone.

Other than referring to Levinas, Biesta didn’t elaborate on what stopping learning might mean in our classrooms, but he did assert the importance of doing something other than focusing on the transmission of ‘bodies of knowledge’. He also developed the idea that we should try to ‘bracket’ learning to open up different ways of being in the world: a ‘non ego-logical’ way of being in the world.

For Biesta then being in the world in our times is filtered by the desires that shape who we are. There is a question about the provenance of many of these desires in our commercialised and commodified world. The suggestion is that the desires created for us by the forces of marketisation and commodification are displacing desires that could be more meaningful. Out of that thought emerges the fundamental question:

Is what I desire, desirable?

While he didn’t offer any pat answers to this last puzzle, Biesta cited Spivak and her idea of the individual ‘non-coercive rearrangement of desires’ as a way forward.  Education he viewed as a space in which such a rearrangement could occur to support “grown-up ways of being in the world”.

There is something in that final phrase that brings us back to earth with a bang when we consider the current ‘common sense’ views on education that we are confronted by and also, occasionally, the level of debate.

Rob Smith

Dr. Rob Smith is a Reader in Education at Birmingham City University. His body of work explores the impact of funding and marketisation on teaching and learning in further education settings. He has researched and written extensively in collaboration with FE and HE practitioners. Currently, Rob is involved in the FE in England: transforming lives and communities project with Dr Vicky Duckworth (Edge Hill University). This is a national research study focusing on the transformative qualities of further education. He is also developing an interdisciplinary research project looking at HE space and time focusing on the design and architecture of HEIs and their situatedness with urban settings.

Follow Rob’s publications on researchgate.

My PhD experience – four months in

Written by Shannon Ludgate, PhD Student, School of Education – Early Years

Making the decision to embark on a PhD journey has been the biggest decision I’ve made so far. Being just 21 and starting a PhD, it’s fair to say I felt incredibly under-experienced, questioning my ability to take on this challenge at such a ripe age. Nonetheless after much thought and discussions with my undergraduate peers, family and partner, I submitted the application form with my fingers and toes crossed. After being successful, I have embarked on a journey to research experiences children aged three to four years have, and how this has the potential to enhance their learning (specific area yet to be decided).

With not knowing what to expect with a PhD, particularly as I was introduced to the opportunity with just weeks to read up on and write a research proposal, I searched endlessly on the web and in books to discover what it meant to be writing a thesis, and what it might look like as an end product. Doing a little background reading into these areas provided me with the initial knowledge I would need, with what to expect and what I would be doing.

Regardless of the literature, starting on my first day felt unusual; as an undergraduate, I had a whole network of friends, academics to talk to, and support 24/7. Walking into the office, I was greeted by another PhD student; I felt a little out there on my own. Looking back, I can see the need to adapt to this new lifestyle – reading endlessly on my new topic, trying to find out what had already been researched and where the interesting little gaps were in the literature. Four months on, I can positively say I’ve enjoyed the journey, even though I am only just starting! I am happy to admit I have changed my ideas too many times to remember, but I see it as a refinement process; my ideas are becoming more absolute as I progress. I am really excited to get started, to get out there in the field and start collecting interesting data, but I know there’s a lot to do before.

As the days pass I can see how I am progressing towards that point, and making initial contact with settings to conduct the research has been exciting, I can almost touch it – the beginning of data collection. I know that a great challenge lies ahead of me, and after speaking to other PhD students, I feel somewhat ready for it. I am eager to begin and enjoy this journey, after all, I’m researching something that really interests me and I want to inspire others with my work.

To research very young children’s experiences with touchscreens is such an appealing topic. Having completed my undergraduate in the early years field, this topic held so much interest and everyone I have spoken to has gave an opinion on it. Our youngest children using technology isn’t something that is overlooked; there are people all for it, and of course, those who absolutely dispute against it, expressing health and social development concerns to name a few.

TEE open day October 2010. TEE open day October 2010.

I’ve had great support so far from everyone around me; my supervisor has sat and listened to my ideas, even if they’re not fully formed in my own mind, but expressing them in some way has helped me to realise what I’d like to research. Gaining advice from others is a definite must, and having others to support you on the journey I’ve been told is advisable.

For now I’m keen to begin, although I’m not really sure when I can actually say I’m beginning (of course I began in September), but I know it’s coming soon. My time as a PhD student has been great so far, and I can see the next three years being the most interesting and insightful yet.

Researching with young and developmentally young children – ethical considerations, dilemmas and compromises

Written by Dr. Carolyn Blackburn, Early Childhood Studies

One of the most challenging considerations when researching with young and developmentally young children is the question of gaining children’s consent to participate in research and their perspectives on the topic under study. Issues relate to the age at which children can realistically understand what they’re being asked to participate in as well as consideration of their cognitive and linguistic ability to give consent. Linked to this are the inevitable power relationships that inhere in research inquiry that involves adult researchers and child participants. This is an ethical consideration that I have pondered on and deliberated over considerably in the numerous projects I’ve undertaken.

Within the UK, the term ‘child’ means anyone below the age of 18 years. The 1948 United Nations Convention on Human Rights and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations, 1989) granted rights to children between the ages of birth to eighteen to have their wishes known, listened to and respected. The dilemma for researchers is that the perceived ability of a child to give consent will depend not just on an individual child’s chronological age, but also on their level of understanding, particularly if they are experiencing a developmental delay or disorder. Requiring high levels of understanding for a valid consent, however, could operate to exclude research with children (particularly those with SEND) unless an adult has consented on their behalf (Mason, 2004).

Whilst on the one hand researchers need to develop ways of engaging children in a wide range of different circumstances, including those with SEND, on the other hand in order to obtain high-quality information, they must also ensure that children’s rights are safeguarded (Mason, 2004). In this respect, young children are surrounded by adults who have a legal responsibility to act as ‘gatekeepers’, safeguarding them from outside influences, such as researchers, and arguably guarding their free choice of whether or not to participate in research (Mason, 2004). Children of all ages are subject to the control of those who have parental responsibility for their welfare and safeguarding. Legally, researchers who wish to include young children who are not considered mature enough (chronologically or developmentally) to make their own decision about participation must obtain the agreement of a least one person who has parental responsibility for the child (Mason, 2004).


Alderson (2004) acknowledged that consent is a key issue in research with children which raises hard, often unresolved, questions (Alderson, 2004). For example, there is no simple answer to the question of when children are old enough to give consent. Much depends on their prior experiences within the social, cultural and historical contexts in which they grow and develop. This poses an ethical dilemma for researchers, which requires reflection. Denzin reminds of our primary obligation as researchers that is ‘,. always to the people we study, not to our project or to a larger discipline. The lives and stories that we hear and study are given to us under a promise, that promise being that we protect those who have shared them with us’ (Denzin, 1989:83).

Fine and Sandstrom (1988: 46) urged that researchers provide children with an explanation of their involvement as ‘… children should be told as much as possible.. their age should not diminish rights, although their level of understanding must be taken into account in the explanations that are shared with them.’ Young children can be quite demonstrative in expressing their views, even if they do not verbally reject a researcher’s presence or questions. They can, for example, move away from a person they do not wish to be near (Aubrey et al., 2000), refuse to answer questions, change the topic of conversation or in extreme cases be physically aggressive if they feel particularly unhappy about situations. Certainly Flewitt (2005) found that children as young as three years old were ‘competent and confident enough to grant or withdraw consent – with some more outspoken and enquiring than their parents.’

The decision to adopt an ongoing process of assent whereby the child’s acceptance of the researcher within the setting can be taken as assent to participate in the research is sometimes considered appropriate where children have severe cognitive impairments. However, assent is not a term which sits comfortably with all researchers, some of whom argue that it may be used where children are simply too afraid, confused or ignored to refuse (see Alderson and Morrow, 2011). This indirect approach for assent/dissent has however, been successfully used within studies involving children with developmental delays/disorders (Blackburn, 2014; Brooks, 2010) and this may be for now the compromise that I will live with.

As far as gaining children’s perspectives within the research is concerned, I’ve really enjoyed working with Victoria Kinsella on one of the music projects to find ways of observing children’s involvement and engagement within projects when they have profound and multiple learning difficulties, and I’m looking forward to seeing the results of that, but I’ll leave her talk about that project at some point in the future.



Alderson, P. and Morrow, V. (2011) The Ethics of Research with Children and Young People: A Practical Handbook London: Sage

Alderson, P. (2004) Ethics in Fraser, S., Lewis, V., Ding, S., Kellett, M. and Robinson, C. (Eds) Doing Research with Children and Young People. London: Sage Publications pp 97-112

Aubrey, C., David, T., Godfrey, R. and Thompson, L. (2000) Early Childhood Educational Research: Issues in methodology and Ethics. Oxon: Routledge

Blackburn, C. (2014) The policy-to-practice context to the delays and difficulties in the acquisition of speech, language and communication in the first five years. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Birmingham: Birmingham City University

Brooks, T. (2010). Developing a learning environment which supports children with profound autistic spectrum disorders to engage as effective learners. Unpublished PhD Thesis. Institute of Education, University of Worcester: Worcestershire.

Denzin, N.K. (1989) Interpretive biography London, Sage

Flewitt, Rosie (2005). Conducting research with young children: some ethical considerations. Early Child Development and Care, 175(6), pp. 553–565.

Fine, G.A. and Sandstrom, K.L. (1988) Knowing Children: Participant Observation with Minors. Qualitative Research Methods Series 15 Beverly Hill, CA: Sage

Mason, J. (2004) The Legal Context in Fraser, S., Lewis, V., Ding, S., Kellett, M. and Robinson, C. (Eds) Doing Research with Children and Young People. London: Sage Publications