Transposable habitus not disposable habitus

We discuss epistemology frequently here at the university and one thing we look at is whether knowledge is disposable or transposable. If you prioritise knowledge, you want to learn it. You make a conscious effort to recall it. If you don’t value the knowledge, you might comply with holding the knowledge within a context, but then throw it away once you leave the context. Quite simply, it becomes disposable knowledge.

I coined disposable knowledge in my book on technology-led learning. The premise is quite simple and still holds – some knowledge is disposable. E.g., if I want to do something on the computer, I don’t attend a ten week course on Microsoft Word. I google or YouTube some direct instruction, I learn just enough temporarily to undertake the task and then I throw this learning away. I deprioritise it and forget it. Why? Because if I really need it again, I’ll look up the direct instruction again. I perceive that it has little value for me in future unknown situations and therefore it does not get added to my store of highly valued transposable knowledge. There is also no escaping that some knowledge can become more disposable as time passes. Scientific and technological advancement can transfer knowledge from the science domain to the history domain. We once used to learn more about metallurgy than we do now!

We can now go further, if you are in a professional context where direct instructional coaching is used to ensure you have fidelity to a particular approach, unless you believe in the evidence behind this ‘knowledge’ then it again becomes liable to being disposed. For knowledge to be retained in the long term it has to be valued to prevent itself being disposed of. Perhaps even worse, it becomes defunct knowledge: knowledge we have, but deliberately desist in using.

Transposable knowledge, habits and skills combined equates to habitus, that term coined by Pierre Bourdieu – whose work has attracted more attention since Ofsted embraced the idea of cultural capital. These ideas all explore a central theme, the unknown future. We build up cultural capital and a transposable habitus that enables us to be successful in different, unknown future areas of our lives. We accept, always, that there are limitations to these concepts of Bourdieu, but this concept of transposable habitus does have a place in education.

We now turn to our teachers and teacher education – where we find trainees are building knowledge, habits and skills for future unknown schools – their transposable habitus which will equip them for a career in teaching and education. However, if they are in a school with a very fixed way of teaching and, even more, if it is a way of teaching that the trainee doesn’t believe in or feels is not evidenced, then it becomes a disposable way of teaching. No matter how much you use instructional coaching or practice based teacher development unless the trainee teacher sees the value in the knowledge being learned they will dispose of it. Instead of moving from one school to the next with a large transposable habitus, they throw portions of it away and enter their next school with a much smaller amount of transposable habitus about teaching. We are fortunate in that our partner schools and mentors understand this and help the trainees explore different ideas about teaching beyond that in their room, department or school. Even more, the mentors are aware of the contextual limitations of an approach and embrace this limitation rather than hide it. If the mentor doesn’t use a projector, they understand that another school might be passionate about dual coding and so ensure the trainee explores this approach as well as not using a projector. Group work is another example. A good mentor explores both teacher-led and student-led work with their trainee regardless of their personal opinions.

One assessment on our course is that the trainee has to design a sequence of learning (a scheme or unit of work) and accompany it with an essay written at Masters level justifying their designed sequence of learning. They will cite both subject-specific pedagogy, such as the teaching of inference, and they will cite non-subject specific theories of learning: such as cognitive science, constructivism and behaviourism. They will also draw on theories of knowledge and assessment – it’s a complex task. They can draw on their school placements, the pre-existing planning they have seen and their wider reading for this assessment and it helps them crystallise their professional and autonomous ideas about teaching their subject. The planned learning that makes it into this assessment is the planned learning that they believe in. We are, through this assessment, trying to create in the trainee, transposable habitus that they can take to any school in England.

In designing this sequence of learning they can draw in the ideas, teaching and planning they have undertaken in their school placements. They hold these ideas up to the robust criticality of writing at L7 and justify their personal choices. They begin to make evidence informed decisions about their design of a curriculum. This habitus is transposable. They will hold their future planning up to such standards.

When a recently qualified teacher arrives at your school to begin their early career you have to be careful not to be too judgemental. What if much of what they learned was not valued by them and thus not transposable? What if the ideas they have learned to value aren’t valued at your school? They could have a miserable first year which could end with them leaving the profession. They might write their training and first job off as evidence that they were not cut out for teaching and we might lose an otherwise excellent practitioner. This debate also shows the need for entrenching teacher autonomy. If we want to keep teachers in the profession then we need to think about how to utilise and develop transposable habitus.


The Limits of Educational Research – Part 1: John Sweller


Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with the juicy bone.

Silence the pianos and, with muffled drum,

Bring out the school bell. Let the learners come.

(Adapted from, and with apologies to, WH Auden)

Few people who hear the poem adapted above, realise that WH Auden originally wrote it as a piece of satire, mocking the sort of eulogies that are  delivered for public figures who don’t really deserve them.  The fact that the poem is often seen as and used as, a heartfelt tribute at funerals, suggests that it is easy to misrepresent  a poet’s intentions by making use of their work in such a way that its original meaning is lost, and the same might be said of educational research. John Sweller’s work on cognitive load is often promoted by a group of teachers and researchers who have come to be identified as “the neo-trads” or neo-traditionalists.  However, just like when a legion of summative assessors leapt misguidedly upon the Black and Wiliam Black Box and nearly broke the system with their enthusiasm for inefficient assessment of work and learning, so we need to be careful before doing the same with Sweller’s work on Cognitive Load Theory (CLT).

Sweller is working just as hard as Wiliam did in correcting misunderstandings about his work. Like any good researcher, Sweller acknowledges the limitations of his work. And it is these limitations which fail to cross the divide from research to school teaching that we need to pause and reflect upon.

Many people forget that Sweller accepts the constructivist view of learning – namely that we learn because of a set of mental structures (often referred to as schemata) which allow us to construct meanings and information from that which we perceive of the outside world. The difference for Sweller is what this means for teachers. For social constructivists, like Jerome Bruner, this construction is facilitated through the individual’s interaction with others and the world they inhabit. It is a journey of discovery rather than a  guided path. For Sweller, this is the problem. The mental structures with which with he is concerned need to be built in a particular way, and this is where the teacher comes in. They must teach certain things in certain ways which develop the architecture of the schema, allowing them to be stored in the individual’s long term memory. For Sweller, teaching methods which allow students to discover things for themselves do not do this.

But…..Sweller is clear that his ideas do not constitute “ a theory of everything”. Most of the data which supports his theory comes from the subject domains of Maths and Science. He doesn’t feel that Cognitive Load Theory works as a way of informing instructional design unless what is being learnt has a high level of what he calls “element interactivity”, namely, the number of different elements that must be considered simultaneously in the instance of learning – say, something like a complex equation. Interestingly, an Australian academic called Arianne Rourke has tried to apply Sweller’s ideas to the Art classroom , but only in the sense of using worked examples to teach students about the history of design and designers – an area of Art education that we might see as being largely a matter factual information, rather than the affective matter of expression or interpretation.

The real problem with CLT then, would appear to be its adaptability and scalability. Can it, as a basis for instructional design, be adapted to subjects like Drama, Geography or DT? Probably not, though it might be worth thinking about areas of these subjects where CLT might have an application? Could it be scaled properly across schools so that everyone was using it to inform their teaching? Again, probably not, but some teachers might benefit from thinking about cognitive load and where this idea was advantaging or disadvantaging learning.