Extract from: Education in a Changing Environment 12


A Proposed Methodological Response



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A Proposed Methodological Response

The challenge in investigating the partnership is to investigate the collective and the individual (not as distinct entities but as a dualism), and the issues of processual developments in the collective context of the ‘knot’ and ‘recontextualisation’ by representatives of collaborating activity systems outside that context. The methodology therefore requires an analysis of what contributing partners are bringing to the process in terms of understandings and expectations (data for this research obtained through a sequence of individual interviews with partners), and an analysis of development work methodology boundary crossing encounters, called boundary crossing laboratories, or BCLs (Engestrom, 1999). Three BCLs, sequenced between interviews and at key stages in the development and implementation of the curriculum were used over two consecutive Foundation Degree intakes, and subsequent interpretations and analyses in collaborators’ ‘base’ activity systems were accessed through interviews. (See Fig. 2 for the sequence). This data was enriched through participant observation in course meetings and textual analysis of course documents and minutes.

The model is effectively two dimensional: temporal-longitudinal, and socio-spatial (see Fig. 2). The research process and sequence is encapsulated within Fig. 3. In Fig. 3 I take Engestrom’s (1987) triangular representation of the activity system and adapt it to the developmental phases of my research design (temporal-longitudinal). I also map in processes of recontextualisation by individual participants (socio-spatial) outside the collective context, and in processes of situating the collective ‘object’ within their own activity systems. Of course, a function of models is to represent, and in so doing they oversimplify, and are even reductive. ‘Re-contextualisation’ does not necessarily take place at the points in the model, if at all – in that sense it is symbolic.

‘Polycontextuality’ needs to be conceptually reversed to the subsequent process of interpreting and situating the task within multiple parallel contexts after the immediate face to face boundary encounter (re-contextualisation). In the case of this research, for example, this means re-contextualising of the espoused voice at the knot by individual subjects in their own contexts. This will be influenced by agential factors such as commitment to the collective priorities and their own social and professional position within that division of labour, but also by discursive and structural issues within the partner’s own activity ‘base’, such as the college or the workplace, including the notion of affordance captured in Fuller and Unwin’s (2004) ‘expansive-restrictive’ continuum. Figure 2 is not inconsistent with Engestrom’s (1999) sequence of epistemic actions in an expansive learning cycle, starting with questioning, through modeling to implementation and evaluation. Indeed, it implies that the knot, in the form of the BCL, cannot simply be the locus for expansive learning – the experience of implementing the intended practice in base activity systems is critical in the reflexivity of later stages of the cycle (represented by ‘E’ and its sequential numerical development in Fig. 3), and in empowering partners not only in their locales, but in subsequent developments at the knot based on practice. In this sense the process is dialogical.

In explaining Fig. 3 my narrative starts on the left and moves right, but the critical socio-spatial dimensions are around the BCL’s. The first one-dimensional triangle before the first interviews represents the different partner activity systems, and Sn relates to the number of subjects and their polycontexts, with On relating to the range of perspectives on the ‘object’ at this early stage.

After the first interviews, the BCL1 takes place, with S1 relating to individual subject positions in the boundary crossing process in formulating the emerging ‘object’ (O1). The broken lines leading to the parallel triangle directly beneath represent an attempt to model individual subjects’ (Sn1) attempts to process the implementation, through recontextualising (On1). In effect, at Sn1 individual subjects are starting the process of re-engagement within their own activity systems. This means the expansive cycle within their own contexts and discursive practices needs to be engaged with. In some cases this is less problematic than with others (variable affordances); for example, the relative priority given by the colleges (as activity systems) to delivering Foundation Degrees and aligning quality, teaching and resourcing models to those of another ‘system’ will depend precisely on issues of organisational culture and practices, as well as strategic priority given to the activity, and the authority of the individual ‘boundary spanner’ within that organization, amongst other issues. In this two dimensional modeling I attempt to demonstrate the socio-spatial dimension, and I replicate these initial visualisations of the research-development, collective-individual dimensions for BCL2 and 3, interspersed with individual interviews, after the process of recontextualisation.



Such an approach enables me to access data at collective and individual levels and in so doing also facilitates framing the process as a dualism, and not a duality. This model is a heuristic tool, and does not represent a dualist, polarised ontology of ‘collective’ and ‘individual’, or ‘contextual’ and ‘decontextual’. I have developed this adaptation of Engestrom’s model to facilitate an analytical approach similar to that proposed by Sawyer (2002) discussed earlier. I have done so as an analytical tool to access the equivalents of ‘discourse’ and ‘text’ (Ball 1993), that is the formal and generic (abstract) as contrasted with its interpretation and application in context (concrete).







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