webs of association, tangled metaphors, and forgotten referents



‘Meanings tend to be caught up in complex webs of association, tangled metaphors, and forgotten referents.’ Davis & Sumara 2006: 38


The study focuses on a small number of students and this analysis if based on an account of a tutorial with one student. A retired manager – she has decided to develop a career in teaching literacy on a part-time basis. She teaches on a Tuesday evening in a literacy workshop for her local college. This analysis is based on a tutorial in which I am offering advice for her final assignment.


Hawa has been working with a student over the period of a Module and is now writing up her assignment on the work she has done with her learner. She agreed a programme of work with her learner over a summer period that the learners agreed to but did not in the end undertake. Hawa has scored high grades with her assignments and has read about literacy as social practices and as she describes it


Yes.  And I refer to the social aspects of literacy […] say that I subscribe to her, her little resume of what adult literacy teaching and writing should be, and she talks about providing me with a context.  She talks about interaction between the teacher and the learner, and she talks about feedback and she talks about the value of talk, and I must say that I’ve tried to live by those in this exercise. 


At times in her interview – social practices seems to be synonymous with literacy outside of college. This is where literacy as social practice happens. At other times – as in the quote above – the notion of literacy as social practice seems to be equated to the social relationship that exists between the teacher and student and the need to provide context for writing.  Here context is constructed as a broader frame that provides meaningful impetus for writing.

The relationship between student and teacher is significant her. One of the curiosities Hawa had about her student, was the work agreed but undone during the summer that was in stark contrast to the volume of work this student had undertaken since starting back at college for the autumn term. In part thi non-wrk is equated to lack of confidence, but this is also related to lack of contact with Hawa her teacher. Hawa mentions that she thought of giving the student her private mobile telephone number so that she could offer support during the summer.
If literacy outside college is associated with literacy as a social practice, it is also taken as a strategy. The literacy outside college provides a source of ideas, experiences, resonances that can be drawn upon to inform teaching.  Hawa recounts her student as a cook and a cleaner. She remarks with some surprise and disbelief and how well her student was able to write recipes given to her for homework. Her success with this piece of work was so surprising that Hawa made her do the same work again in class to check that she had not copied it.
In this sense drawing on out-of-college literacy as a strategy leads to great success in teaching and learning. But success is also an ambiguous concept. While an inability to remember previously learned concepts, skills, task is seen as characteristic of this student – she is able to remember this very stylised literacy associated with recipe writing with minimal input from her tutor.  The temporary nature of her accomplishment – may then be related to what she is being asked to remember rather than her capacity to remember as such.

So I’ve given an introduction of how I know her from last term.  I’ve talked about the difficulties and the sticking points that she had.  And then I’ve given a little reflecting on her difficulties and the things that we had tried, and even though she experienced success she wasn’t remembering it.  I go on to say that I’m going to make this work much more personalised and also the more realistic and interesting relevant writing tasks, writing opportunities.

Her out-of-college literacy is seen as a source of materials to inform Hawa’s  pedagogy and make the learning more successful. I the discussion Hawa slips easily from talking about her approach to the assignment and her students approach to written tasks. This is because the student is the subject of the assignment. So – sometimes – she goes meta and talks about her own understandings and approaches as she reflects on her students work and her own approach to analysing what she should be doing next and how successful her activities are.
Her recipe for success: personalised – realistic – interesting: when the task encountered in the literacy class have these qualities – learning is successful.  But there is a fault line here. T connects to the qualification attached to the course and the connection between the national test and functional skills. Hawa seems concerned that with the functional skills test being introduced that her learner will struggle even more, as she is already struggling with the national test at level 2. We did not explore this at all, but the leaner at this stage has been on her course for only 1 year – 2 hours per week – after having passed the level 1. There is a sense that success or otherwise is determined by the students capacity rather then the structural conditions that surround her learning.
Success is also noted for this learner as she writes a letter to a friend.
She also talks in some interesting ways about her own writing – “I’ve given” and “I’ve put some references and theories in”. 
This is based on an initial analysis of a single tutorial.  
What Davis & Sumara (2006) suggest is that qualitative data need not strive for the big hardness of quantitative method. Complexity does not decrease with size but the minutiae of social life is as complex as the entire populations.   The world has as many avenues for exploration whether looked at through a microscope or telescope. 
Complex phenomenon are more fractal-like than Euclidean. They are incompressible, recursively elaborated and often surprising: a challenge to the pervasive assumption of linearity. 
A fractal is scale independent and self-similar as well as ‘relentlessly non-linear.’

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