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I Know Nahthing…

I had an excellent day at the PELeCON at Plymouth University, despite a mad dash to get there and a chest infection. I learned a great deal and made contacts with several people whose work I aim to follow through twitter and elsewhere.

On returning, I have followed up some leads and read more and…well, as so often happens, I am left feeling a little sheepish and humbled by all that I do not know, all that I perhaps should have known and all that I may have said in the past that must appear naive to those who have spent longer than I have in whatever area under discussion.

This is, again, the issue which confronts the interdisciplinarian (or generalist, as they used to be called before that phrase fell out of fashion) whenever they comment or write on a particular area. In this case, I guess we are mostly talking about educational technology – from the use of tools to futuristic visions linked to education.

Many of the things I have written on in this blog in this vein have been covered previously and in more depth elsewhere – whether it is on educational futures, the teachers of the 21st century, vlogging, open source etc.

Now perhaps this is no big deal, really. Apart from the excellent idea to air one’s failures at PELeCON, there was also the call (of which I approve) to admit our vulnerabilities as learners, to be open to failure in ourselves and others and to admit our shortcomings. This seems eminently humane and sensible to me. Perhaps the admission of naivety from an otherwise decent interdisciplinarian is simply a demonstration of this sort of vulnerability; this is no bad thing and is easily forgiven.

But I wish to try to explain a little more this particular vulnerability of the interdisciplinarian and to offer hope and a big-up to other teachers and educators who may find themselves in a similar position. The thing is that this vulnerability arises in a particular circumstance and there are other occasions when the interdisciplinarian/generalist can show their strengths and be of much value to their learning community or institution.

The vulnerability arises when we (interdisciplinarians) enter discussions in a stream of thought which is already populated by people of disciplinary expertise in this area. Here, of course, we run the risk of running over old ground, well-known to more disciplinary practitioners, and exposing our vulnerabilities in these areas. There is nothing to be done about this if we wish to enter into conversations with disciplinary experts – as I think we must. We can hope (and it does frequently turn out to be the case) that we can offer some kind of fresh insight in the disciplinary discussion – though this is likely to be more in the way of a flash of helpful insight or stimulating alternative view, rather than any sustained contribution – but often we will simply be vulnerable to the charge that what we offer is a little shallow or naive (that word again).

However, there are areas of educational life – perhaps a growing number of them – in which interdisciplinarians or generalists will have a distinct advantage over those with more narrow subject expertise and in these areas they will be sought out and valued for what they can contribute. I am thinking, in fact, of organising or leading pretty much any educational project – in schools, educational policy, online learning, publishing etc – myriad projects which require one to bring  people with many different disciplinary perspectives together so that all can work together for a common good: the end result of whatever project is in hand.

Some of this has come to me today because I have been reading Ivan Illich’s prescient 1970 essay Learning Webs. He has much to say on the educators, teachers and educational leaders of tomorrow (now today!), but to quote just one sentence: ‘Intellectual leadership does depend on…imagination and the ability to associate with others in their exercise’ (Illich: 101). I suggest such an attitude may often be best served by having a wide range of knowledge and interests which allow one to empathise with colleagues from a wide range of disciplines; you can come close to ‘to seeing the world with their eyes’, even if you can never fully achieve this, by dint of not having the same disciplinary depth.

There is more from Illich on the educational leadership of today which might warm the heart of interdisciplinarians. But I hesitate to write on it here. It is too early for me to say anything of import on educational leadership – although, interestingly, it struck me today that there may also be an element of cultural specificity in this approach. I can imagine a US educator writing more readily on leadership in education than a Brit. From a British perspective, for better or worse, it doesn’t seem appropriate for anyone leading a project to talk about it quite in those terms. I confess, I am more comfortable with this British approach.

But, putting the personal stuff aside, I think there is value in clarifying the contribution that interdisciplinarians can make. We must contribute to disciplinary discussion, even though we will always be vulnerable when we do so, but we have the chance to show our strengths and true colours when disciplinary colleagues call on us to organise, facilitate and lead a project which they wish to see realised.


“I Know Nothing” – from Fawlty Towers

Illich, Ivan

1970    Deschooling Society; Penguin Education: Middlesex, England.

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