A phronetic approach to educational design-based research

The article that I wrote with Merja Bauters about phronesis and educational design-based research is now available: https://journals.sub.uni-hamburg.de/index.php/EDeR/article/view/1025

Here is the abstract:

This paper is a theoretical attempt to show how the Aristotelian notion of phronesis may provide a fruitful viewpoint to trigger and animate a series of discussions on educational design-based research. In particular, we focus on the overall meaning that the notions of intervention and theory can acquire. What concerns the former, phronesis helps avoid interpreting intervention as the making of an object, be it a learning environment, an application, a piece of software. Conversely, it posits that intervention can be fruitfully located within teachers’ professional judgment. The specific focus on professional judgment helps point to a different conception of “theory”, which does not revolve around the development of generalized principles informing the practice. Conversely, theory can be viewed as the effort to articulate teachers’ experiences in the form of stories “from the field”.

 

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Inquiry wisdom

Here comes the extended abstract I submitted to the next EARLI conference.

TITLE: The Emergence of inquiry wisdom in doctoral studentsfeynman_2553738b

In the recent years the term responsible research and innovation (RRI) has gained a considerable attention in Europe as a cluster of ideas meant to re-think the role that research and science has in society (Felt, 2014). Unlike traditional approaches to the governance of research merely focusing on risk management (Levidow and Neubaue, 2014), RRI is an emergent framework that views research as a potential force that can positively contribute in tackling the so-called “grand challenges” of our time (Sutcliffe, 2011; Schomberg, 2013; Owen et al., 2013; Gardner and Williams, 2015). Yet very little attention has been given to the fundamental role that researchers as responsible professionals can have in making research more responsible (Bardone and Lind, 2016).

Recently, the idea of responsible professional and professional responsibility has been developed in the light of the Aristotelian notion of phronesis, which has provided an alternative conceptual framework for understanding professionalism (Green, 2009; Kinsella et al 2012). This approach stems from and builds upon a rich contemporary philosophical tradition (cf. Dunne, 1993) that has been reinvigorated in the last decade by several educational philosophers (i.e., Carr, 2004; Oancea and Furlong, 2007; Biesta, 2012).

In a nutshell, phronesis is the ability to act and deal with the contingencies and uncertainties of the practice, which necessitates the exercise of judgment (Furlong, 2013). Unlike forms of instrumental rationality that confine deliberation to the selection of the most effective means to a pre-determined end, in the phronesis based approach a professional is not seen as a technician that simply delivers solutions by selecting the most effective means, but a person who actively ponders means as well as ends of his/her own practice.

In my presentation I will focus specifically on doctoral students as future responsible professionals. More specifically, I will try to spell out a theoretical framework that can be used to investigate the emergence of what I propose to call “inquiry wisdom”. Central to my proposal is to look at those practical situations in the doctoral student’s journey “ in which he/she is forced to remain open to a form of deliberation that is highly context-dependent and situated.

In my presentation I will present a conceptual framework that identifies three main paradigmatic situations to look at to see the emergence of inquiry wisdom:

1) situations characterized by epistemic uncertainty in which the doctoral student should exercise judgment in deciding how to proceed in the course of his/her scientific inquiry. Unlike the idealized image of scientific method as a linear process characterized by a sequence of discrete steps, the whole process of scientific inquiry is often punctuated by chance events, which forces the researchers to apply judgment in particular circumstances;

2) situations characterized by ethical uncertainty in which the doctoral student faces issues concerning the ends of scientific inquiry in the broader social and ethical context. This includes making judgment concerning the more general public value that one’s discipline may have, the kind of problems that one’s inquiry is actually helping address, the consequences of one’s own inquiry in a broader sense (Brewer, 2013);

3) situations characterized by ontological uncertainty, that is, situations in which the doctoral student sees his/her own becoming as a researcher (Barnacle, 2005; Dall’Alba, 2009). The doctoral student is involved in a process of self-exploration (Hughes et al. 2013), in which she/he progressively establishes a certain type of relationship with inquiry and research, which is disclosing of his/her own way of being a researcher. This implies to face uncertainties that are characteristic to sense-making creatures and they pertain to one’s vocation.

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The phronetic practitioner

I have just submitted an abstract for a conference with the title Reflective minds and communities. The conference will take place in Tartu at the end of August. Here are the title and text of the abstract

Reflection, tacit knowledge and the phronetic practitioner 

Reflection is very often seen as a crucial component allowing practitioners of all sorts to develop professionally. The idea of the reflective practitioner is often championed to be the royal road towards development and improvement. In my presentation I will not argue against this view. Rather, I will try to point to the limits of reflection in the light of Polanyi’s idea of tacit knowledge. I will then argue for an alternative proposal based on the Aristotelian notion of phronesis (practical wisdom), where I would propose to re-locate reflection.

In discussing its limits I will posit that reflection cannot be of much help for practitioners and their development, if it is reduced to turning one’s own practice into an (apparently) transparent object of investigation. The main assumption behind strategies like this (and their appealing) is that it is only by making the implicit explicit that change and development can be achieved. Relying on Polanyi’s idea of tacit knowledge, I will show that the attempt to make the tacit explicit leads to abstraction and to a type of knowledge that is simply not actionable for practical purpose.

Although tacit knowledge is often seen as opaque and therefore scarcely accountable in the light of various standards of performance, it is far from being unreflective. One’s tacit knowledge is in fact constitutive of what we may call the “phronetic practitioner”. The phronetic practitioner is the one who is not merely reflective, but who, in the full engagement with her own practice, prioritizes and thus cultivates professional thoughtfulness, moral and professional autonomy, and all those forms of judgment-in-action that resist codification such as insight, intuition, acuity of vision, perception, the capacity of reading situations, which constitute the practitioner’s phronesis, that is, her practical wisdom.

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Towards a phronetic space for responsible research (and innovation)

My colleague and friend Marianne Lind and I have just finished the draft of a paper on responsible research. Here are the details and the full text.

Towards a phronetic space of responsible research (and innovation).

Abstract

The term Responsible Research and Innovation has recently gained currency, as it has been designated to be a key-term in the European research framework Horizon 2020. At the level of European research policy, Responsible Research and Innovation can be viewed as an attempt to reach a broader vision of research and innovation as a public good. Apart from some generic appeal to inclusiveness and more participatory forms of governance, the current academic debate seems to be much too biased towards a quite restrictive idea of how the social sciences and the humanities can actually contribute, that is, a vision that leaves the core business, namely, scientific and technological innovation for its own sake, virtually untouched. In this paper we argue that the current debate might be fruitfully re-oriented by making a categorial shift. Such a categorial shift involves moving away from what we refer to as a technocratic interpretation of responsible research, which is ultimately based on the application of abstract procedures and templates to complex and often ambiguous situations, towards a more pluralistic one that is rooted in the idea of phronesis. In the present context phronesis points the attention to the cultivation and nurturement of a type of engagement with the actual practice of researching, a practice in which researchers (and other parties concerned) are called to apply judgment and exercise discretion in specific and often unique situations without the re-assuring viewpoint of the technician.

The full text can be found here

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On the practical utility of research

On November the 8th I’ll be part of a roundtable chaired by Prof. Heidrun Allert at a conference dedicated to the future of research in Kiel.

Here’s a kind of handout summarizing what I’m going to talk about.

The question that I’d like discuss is: what is the practical utility of research?

If we take, for instance, a sofa, it’s very easy to see its practical utility. A sofa is what we need when we want to lay down, have a rest or simply chill out. It follows that we need sofa makers, because we need sofas.
How about research and researchers? Can we apply the same very way of thinking?

One of the things that is often forgotten when we talk about research is uncertainty. We simply don’t know what we are heading for, what we are going to achieve. Even in the simple case in which a hypothesis is put to the test, we just don’t know what it is going to happen. It might be that our hypothesis will be confirmed. It might be that it will not be confirmed. Or it might be that something else will come out, instead, leading us to a completely new hypothesis.
This is the type of uncertainty that is essential to research.

To say that researchers do not know what they are doing may sound irresponsible or at least not very politically correct. Am I telling you that researchers are paid for not knowing what they are doing?
We tend to think that not knowing what we are heading for is irresponsible. Indeed, if we go to a sofa maker and right before we pay he tells us that actually he doesn’t know what is going to do, we would not indeed pay him. However, when it comes to research the uncertainty concerning the outcome is fundamental. That is because it forces researchers to venture into the unknown, act opportunistically and be ready to select the strategy in due course in relation to whatever comes in handy.

If we go back to the example of the sofa (and the sofa maker), we can see that there’s a fundamental difference with research. The “practical utility” of research cannot be viewed in terms of a product that we are going to produce or bring into existence. The reason is that such a product will never really materialized.
That is the reason why – I claim – we should move away from the idea that the practical utility of research is a product to focusing on research as an activity.

What type of activity is research? And why can we say that this activity has some practical utility? Research has some significant similarities with play. Alison Gopnik in her The Philosophical Baby gives a very interesting account of play in children, which allows us to make interesting observations that are valid for research and researchers as well.
Babies and children play all the time. They explore, try out things, imagine alternative worlds, pretend, etc.. That is due the fact that they are still very much uninhibited in comparison with grown adults. Just like children and babies, researchers (and creative people) are able to sort of step back and apparently regress to a previous stage of development, while retaining, though, the kind of discipline and dedication typical of adulthood. This allows researchers to avoid taking for granted what other people would do and be driven by wonder, curiosity and one’s own ignorance and even stupidity.

But what is the purpose of all this? Are researchers just fooling around? Both children’s play and research are apparently useless, as they do not target anything in particular, anything seemingly useful for our survival. However, far from being a waste of time, play enables children as well as researchers to accomplish something that would not be possible to do otherwise. While not targeting anything directly, research (just as much as children’s play) allows us as a society to come in contact with the world outside ourselves and see what we can learn (or unlearn) in it.

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On the virtue of killing two birds with a stone and chance-seeking

Some time I’ve tried to collect some famous proverbs that I could use to describe aspects of chance-seeking (or trovatism). I have a new one to add to the list, which, I believe, is among the most important ones. The proverb is: to kill two birds with a stone. 

To me this proverb helps us realize one important thing concerning human action. There are situations in which, while we are not pursuing anything specifically, several things get accomplished. So, for example, consider taking the dog out for a walk. This simple activity allows us to do many other things. For instance, for an old lady it is a way to do a bit of exercise. It is also an excuse to go out – even several times a day. While walking with the dog, she may meet other dog’s owners and socialize on the basis of an interest that easily brings people from all ages together. Besides, one may even have fun while doing that.So, one thing that is not done with a specific objective in mind allows a person to accomplish several things.

I was actually thinking that the same happens with many other things we, by the way, tend to appreciate. For instance, laughing. These are both activities that are not necessarily aimed to something specific. Yet they are very “powerful”. So, by laughing , we get more intimate with a person, we make other people laugh, because it is contagious, and we have a number of benefits for our health. While laughing we also become aware of connections with things apparently unrelated to each other.

Now, I believe that the “to kill two birds with a stone” has an important consequence also for education and the role of the so-called humanities. We are often told that a student that is going to study at the university should choose a degree that would allow him to find a job. This is the usual argument that is often used for persuading students not to choose the humanities. What is interesting is that it’s not always true that people from humanities are jobless. Quite the contrary. What is hard to find is a job that is related to, for instance, philosophy, literature, and the like.

I believe that the humanities – since they are dealing with the cultivation of one’s own character – work with the same logic as the proverb “to kill two birds with a stone”. Indeed, if we adopt a linear goal-oriented approach, according to which something is done instrumentally for accomplishing something else, then the humanities do not pay off. However, it is often the case that those who studied humanities posses those “skills” that are usually called “transferable skills” that are in great demand in certain domains. That is, the things they have studied, while not being useful directly for any job specifically, turns out to be useful because they open up several other options. In a way studying humanities can be viewed like laughing or taking the dog out: you don’t do it for a specific reason in mind. But it may turn out that several doors will open.

To conclude, my guess is that once again we tend to overemphasize the value of those strategies or ways of going about things that rely on highly purposive plans of action. That is, ways that make immediately visible the potential gain, because they are presented so that it’s easy to see what they are for. If they reduce anxiety, they also reduce the positive impact that uncertainty may have in terms of positive things we may bump into in due course, when we decide not to unilaterally pursue one goal or the other.

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RRI: empty toolbox or opportunity to seize?

I’ll participate in a workshop in Tartu on responsible Research: social, cultural and material aspects, which is organized by Endla Lõhkivi who is associate professor at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Tartu (Estonia).

Here’s the title and abstract of my communication.

RRI: empty toolbox or opportunity to seize?

The term Responsible Research and Innovation has recently gained currency, as it has been designated to be a key-term in the European research framework Horizon 2020. At the level of European research policy, Responsible Research and Innovation can be viewed as an attempt to reach a broader vision of research and innovation as public good. Apart from some generic appeal to inclusiveness and more participatory forms of governance, the current academic debate seems to be too much biased towards a quite restrictive idea of how the social sciences and humanities can actually contribute, that is, a vision that leaves the core business, namely, scientific and technological innovation for its own sake, virtually untouched.

In my presentation I will argue that the current debate might be fruitfully re-oriented by making a categorial shift. Such categorial shift involves moving away from a mere technocratic interpretation of RRI, which is ultimately based on the application of abstract procedures and templates to complex and often ambiguous situations, towards a more pluralistic one rooted in the idea of phronesis. In the present context phronesis points the attention to the “rough ground” of one’s everyday engagements with research. Such rough ground is ultimately characterized by a plurality of elements (i.e., values, evidence, emotions, practicalities, sensitivities, etc.) often inconsistent with each other, which nonetheless do not relieve the researcher of the need for applying judgment and making choices.

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