Conceptual Frameworks: some thoughts

Photo of framework by Markus Stöber

Photo by Markus Stöber

At the end of the #OpenLearning17 week of digital literacy, hosted and herded and directed with aplomb, panache, alacrity, and insight by Bryan Alexander, I have a few thoughts on conceptual frameworks: their necessity, and why they are all too often neglected or waved away as “conceptual, not practical.”

I’ll start with a story from my experience as a teacher, a story that I think many teachers could tell. Because I believe that sustained, focused engagement with a text builds powers of attention, observation, and analysis that will generalize to other spheres of intellectual, social, and civic engagement, I ask my English students to write at length on a particular text, topic, etc. Because I have to give them some idea of the scope of investigation and extent of focused engagement I imagine, I will assign a page length or a word-count equivalent. That’s how a “ten page term paper” ends up being required for a class, though I don’t use those words so much anymore, as the writing is usually to the web, not to paper, and likely to be multimodal, and should NOT resemble the book-report-with-affected-authoritatively-stilted voice that students typically use in “term papers.”

I put a great deal of thought into how I describe the assignment, how I scaffold the learning experience preceding the due date, and how I explain the purpose of the assignment. I don’t assume that any single aspect of the assignment is magic, but I also don’t assume that an assignment without some specifications will automatically liberate learning. I try to balance formal requirements with a strong encouragement toward creativity, exploration, and an essayistic disposition. (I remind students that “essay” comes from the French word for “attempt.”)

You can, perhaps, sense where this is going.

The first questions, and often the most persistent questions, are about length or word count. What if it’s nine pages (or equivalent word count)? Even more heartbreaking are the questions about whether it’s okay to do eleven pages when the syllabus says ten. And so forth. Why these questions? Why the even more frequently heartbreaking questions about how many times one must blog, or post to a discussion forum, and whether one can “make up” two weeks of missed blogging by posting four times as frequently for a week or two?

My idea today is that the problem is the lack of a conceptual framework–or worse, the lack of expecting or inquiring about a conceptual framework. That is, I have one, but many of my students don’t, and they’ve learned not to expect one, inquire about one, or to build one for themselves, at least with regard to their education. Many of them find it difficult to recognize a conceptual framework when they see one, or when I try to explain one to them. School has scarred their insight.

But as heartbreaking as it is when my students focus on word count instead of why words matter, it’s even more heartbreaking–and damaging–when it happens within the university itself.

Conceptual frameworks are not things to do. Conceptual frameworks are tools for understanding, tools to think with. But it appears that we have represented education to our students and ourselves as merely, or largely, things to do. Practical things. Competencies, lists of courses, one bolus after another of “content” to be delivered–and if the content can be pushed in faster, you’ll graduate all the sooner.

Certainly one must do things. But unless the conceptual frameworks are always in view, unless they inform every thing one does, one inevitably ends up with “on time trains” that go nowhere. Or as Will Richardson put it in a recent essay, one ends up trying “to do the wrong thing right”:

One of the things I’ve come to realize in my many discussions with educators from around the globe is that there are a number of practices in our current systems of schooling that “unsettle” us, primarily because they don’t comport with what Seymour Papert calls our “stock of intuitive, empathic, common sense knowledge about learning.” But what’s also notable about those practices is that we rarely want to discuss them aloud, content instead to let them hover silently in the background of our work. We know, as I suggested a few weeks ago, that in many cases, these practices are attempting to do “the wrong thing right” rather than “do the right thing” in the first place. But we carry on regardless.

The new ACRL Information Literacy Framework strives to do the right thing, and it puts the case for its conceptual emphases very cogently:

The Framework offered here is called a framework intentionally because it is based on a cluster of interconnected core concepts, with flexible options for implementation, rather than on a set of standards or learning outcomes, or any prescriptive enumeration of skills. At the heart of this Framework are conceptual understandings that organize many other concepts and ideas about information, research, and scholarship into a coherent whole.

I know many who try to present a similar “cluster of interconnected core concepts” in our conversations about digital literacy, or education generally, but again and again I find that these efforts are obscured or smothered by a rush to “a set of standards, or learning outcomes … or prescriptive enumeration of skills” that fill our discourse, our meetings, our curricula, and worst of all, the way we present “student success” to our students and ourselves.

One big reason Open Learning ’17’s syllabus began with readings from 1945, 1962, and 1974 is that these readings are rich in conceptual frameworks, rich in ideas, rich in clusters of interconnected core concepts. If at time the readings become oblique, or indirect, or even difficult to follow, it’s not because the writers–these dreamers who imagine human ingenuity might end up being beneficial–are confused. It’s because every conceptual framework must resist the weird entropy that reduces interconnected core concepts–one might even say networked core concepts–into mere methodologies, prescriptions, to-do lists. Ten-page papers, with padding and repetition so we can all stop thinking and go home. Or so we can editorialize, argue about current hot topics, and make free, widely available versions of bad things.

Without robust conceptual frameworks, we can’t even recognize wicked problems, much less begin to work on them. And if we call rationales for easily scaled, easily managed, cheap approaches to complexity and human capacity “conceptual frameworks” or even “ideas,” then we have sold our birthrights for a mess of pottage.

I know we can do better, but I don’t know if we will.



4 thoughts on “Conceptual Frameworks: some thoughts

  1. I agree with everything you’ve said, Gardner. But to be fair, our students– especially FY students– have a lifetime of experience seeing education the wrong way, so I would emphasize the critical need for the scaffolding you mention. We need to explain what we’re doing and why over and over.

    PS, I’m going to email this to my senior seminar, and ask them to think about what *our* conceptual framework is for the class. We’ll discuss it on Monday!

  2. Gardner,
    Just coming back from the General Education AACU conference, and this has been on my mind. The tension between supporting students, but also wanting a more enriched and authentic, engaged learning experience is as strong as always. This year’s theme of Design Thinking seemed to exemplify this kind of tension. Is design thinking a framework for solving difficult educational problems or is it a pedagogical approach? Is there “one” design thinking or is it a more loose mindset? And how do you assess it? Should it happen everywhere or is it a different approach to critical or creative problem solving? It seems above all though what I keep coming back to is the way when we systematize teaching, we train students to be part of that system– and to respond as part of that system. That being said, having recently finished my course work for my doctoral degree, as a student I was continually appalled and disconnected from my learning because of lack of structure and lack of authentic engagement. In some ways it mirrors what you are saying here– the systematizing of conceptual frameworks, or pedagogy or instruction is disconnecting and feels inauthentic, and yet, when it feels like there is a lack of structure, it is hard to trust the instructor and see where one is supposed to be going. I really like the idea of making our conceptual frameworks that inform what we do more public, but I would also argue that we should be continually co-constructing those frameworks with our students. I suppose this is the start of a post for #openlearning17, but I still need to get back to the teaching of digital literacy content first.

  3. @Steve: Yes, we do need to explain, but our actions speak far more loudly than our words. When we turn general education into FTE horse trading, specify “student success” as “graduating more students” with no clear, powerful, liberatory, complex, or consistent idea of what a degree or college education or even learning is, then our explanations, like a row of near-identical mission statements and strategic plans, will sound hollow. To be clear, I mean the blame for questions about word count to fall primarily at the feet of educators, not of students.

    @Samantha I agree that our conceptual frameworks must be co-created; we must always ask our students “what do you think this [assignment, course, degree, etc.] is for? What good does it serve? Whose good does it serve?” To clarify, I wasn’t trying to equate conceptual frameworks with systems–in truth, I was trying to oppose those two things, and to lament that conceptual frameworks that connect ideas are all too often turned into systems and methodologies that are nearly idea-free, constricting, and finally betray the very ideals they profess. As for structure, in my view some is always needed, but without a meta-awareness of the larger ideals, ideas, and conceptual frameworks those structures serve, we end up with little more than empty systems along with cycles of enforcement and evasion.

  4. Here’s to the frame-workers (Bush, Engelhart, Nelson) for daring to frame, innovate, and integrate in bold, tangled and messy ways, and for resisting the neatness of feedback loops, check boxes, and equivalencies, for building frames on which others could expand, adapt and enable and leaving the blueprints in the drawer.

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