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Unlearning How to Teach

Erica McWilliam, Queensland University of Technology

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Our teaching and learning habits are useful but they can also be deadly. They are useful when the conditions in which they work are predictable and stable. They are deadly if and when the bottom falls out of the stable social world in and for which we learn. According to Zigmunt Bauman (2004), this is not merely a future possibility – it is the contemporary social reality.
     The paper takes up Bauman’s challenge to orthodox thinking about effective teaching in general, arguing the need for a more interventionist role for academic teachers and a greater emphasis on an experimental culture of learning, rather than a culture in which curriculum and pedagogy is fully ‘locked in’ in advance of engagment. The challenge for academic teachers is to promote and support a culture of teaching and learning that parallels a post-millennial social world in which supply and demand is neither linear nor stable, and in which labour is shaped by complex patterns of anticipations, time and space.
     The message from industry is that increasing numbers of university graduates will be working in digitally enhanced environments where there are few transportable blueprints for project design and management. To develop the sorts of learning dispositions that are appropriate in such contexts, academic educators will need to spend less time explain through instruction and more time in experimental and error-welcoming modes of engagement. If higher education is to play a key role in capacity building for graduates’ professional workforce futures, then a pedagogy of induction into disciplinary knowledge needs radical reworking into a pedagogy in which teachers and students work as co-creators and co-assemblers (and dissemblers) of trans-disciplinary knowledge applications for digital work futures.
     The shift from ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide on the side’, while it has served an important function in shifting the focus from the teacher to the learner, does not capture the fullness of the implications of this shift. We have been hearing about the importance of ‘lifelong learning’ for some time now in formal education. If, as Bauman asserts, ‘unlearning’ will be as important to social success in the 21st millennium as learning has been in the 20th millennium, then the habit of ‘lifelong learning’ will need radical re-thinking in terms of the nature and purposes of pedagogical work. Put simply, we will need to see a further shift from sage-on-the-stage and guide-on-the-side to meddler-in-the-middle (McWilliam, 2005).

Bauman, Z. (2004) Zigmunt Bauman: Liquid Sociality, in N.Gane (Ed.) The Future of Social Theory, Continuum: London, pp. 17-46.

McWilliam, E. (2005) Unlearning Pedagogy, Journal of Learning Design, 1, (1), 1-11.

Author Bio(s)

Erica McWilliam is Professor of Education and Assistant Dean Research in the Faculty of Education at the Queensland University of Technology. She currently leads the Creative Workforce research program within the newly established Australian ARC Centre of Excellence for Creativity and Innovation. Her recent scholarship around what she terms “the Yuk/Wow Generation” builds on her long-term research into pedagogical processes and the impact of social change. She has produced 7 books (2 sole-authored) in 10 years, and 5 books, 15 book chapters, 18 refereed articles and 15 refereed conference papers in the last 5 years. Her strong reputation has been achieved through her extensive publications, but also through her editorial leadership (she is she sole editor of ‘Eruptions’, an interdisciplinary academic series with Peter Lang Publishing, New York) and her numerous invited keynote presentations to academic and professional conferences.