Oui!Learn’s educational philosophy

‘‘If it should turn out to be true that knowledge (in the modern sense of know-how) and thought have parted company for good, then we would indeed become the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is”

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, p.3.

 The starting point for Oui!Learn’s pedagogical practices and educational philosophy, given the organisation of the contemporary university, is a Venn diagram, inherited from prior the iLearn Change Academy project, with three overlapping circles, representing people, places and technologies, with the learning experience emerging in the area of overlap of the three circles:

Figure 1

One of the central contentions of Oui!Learn is that, together, people, places and technologies form a complex system, one that, while constituting a whole, is not a unity but is more of the character of an assemblage that is social, technical and environmental at once, a socio-technical assemblage or apparatus. Like Hawkins et al. (2017), Oui!Learn believes that it is important to consider how complexity challenges what it means to educate and to explore the relationship of a complexity approach to existing philosophical traditions.

It could be argued, although somewhat reductively, that historically, in a ‘scholarly’ approach to education, the domain of ‘people’ was occupied by ‘the teacher’, the domain of ‘places’ by ‘the classroom’ [1] and the domain of ‘technologies’ by ‘the book’, with the ‘student’ positioned in the overlapping area:

Figure 2

It could then be further argued that two transformations are needed to make this diagram a viable starting point for the Oui!Learn community’s approach to learning and pedagogical practices in higher education.

The first transformation is to substitute the terms, people, places and technologies, by pedagogic relations [2], learning environments and technological relations, respectively, with the learning experience positioned in the overlapping area:

Figure 3

The second transformation brings the area of overlap among the three domains to the fore, such that the learning experience dominates as the pedagogic relations, learning environments and technological relations gradually become closer to being one and the same:

Figure 4

Practice-based learning and teaching and the Oui!Learn educational philosophy

This approach, assuming as it does a ‘scholarly’ approach to learning as book-based learning and the imparting (or transmission) of knowledge, as Caroline Baruah has pointed out, is not adequate to characterise the more practice-based disciplines, such as art, design, film-making, photography and architecture; nor, indeed, is it adequate for the performing arts, such as music and drama. In these disciplines, learning is already more learner-focused and experiential, organised around the knowledge engendered through the creation of ‘the work’ (in the plastic arts), even in its more conceptual and performative ‘de-materialised’ forms, rather than receiving or abstracting knowledge from ‘the text’ or ‘the book’. [3]

Following the model of scholarly learning set out above, traditional practice-based learning could be characterised similarly, with the ‘master’ (craftsman) in the role of ‘the teacher’, ‘the work’ in the role of ‘the book’ and ‘the studio’ in the role of ‘the classroom’, with the overlap of these domains forming the learner as ‘apprentice’ or ‘pupil’

Figure 5

This, admittedly reductive, practice-based or craft model has itself been transformed so that a situation such as prevails in Figure 4 has emerged, wherein the ‘master’ has become more of a facilitator of the ‘pupil’s’ own learning: the learner is not quite an autodidact, at one extreme, yet nor is the situation one of co-creation, at the other extreme, while still being some kind of collaboration between teacher and learner. [4]

Figure 6

Practice-based learning and teaching and ‘making’ and ‘doing’

Nevertheless, while this requires Oui!Learn’s educational model to be adjusted, it can be argued that if this practice-based approach is to deliver more than craft, making or production skills, it is important to hold a distinction within ‘practice’ between ‘making’ and ‘doing’. This distinction is maintained by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, in which she distinguishes among labour, work and action. For Arendt, work is concerned with making or production, i.e. material and technical skill, the making of ‘things’, and action concerned with doing, i.e. interpersonal interactions and relationships, doing unto others and being done to by others.

In recognition of this, Oui!Learn proposes that an emphasis on ‘practice’ or praxis, should be extended to include not just the difference between ‘making’ and ‘doing’, but the relationship between making and doing and scholarly ‘thinking’. [5] Thinking, here, is not contemplation of abstract universals. It is, in Arendt’s terms, part of the active life (vita activa). Furthermore, the relationship between (speculative) ‘thinking’ and another concept of Arendt’s, judgement, also needs to be included, as well as thinking as ‘reflection’ upon making and doing. When all these adjustments are made, along with an adaptation of Arendt’s concepts, the Oui!Learn’s educational philosophy can be seen to incorporate distinctions among labour, work and action as well as reflecting, thinking and judging, on the other hand.

All of these categories, for Oui!Learn, are considered to be aspects of practice or ‘praxis’ [6]. This is, to some extent, to re-define what practice-based learning and teaching mean.

Learning horizons and learning ‘outcomes’

Given this Arendtian-influenced definition of the learning experience, learning horizons and learning outcomes are of the following dimensions. While being held to be analytically distinct, there is no suggestion that they form a hierarchy, such that these categories can be associated with specific classes of people, whether socio-economic, gendered, racial or sexual. To re-assert, these modes of learning, as learning contexts, are in play for all domains of practice. The suggestion is, rather, that learning will enable a more conscious engagement with judging, thinking, acting, working, labouring and meta-learning, as well as their inter-relationships in practice:

  • To learn to judge (to make judgements in concrete, consequential situations, individually and in collective dialogue)
  • To learn to think (disciplinarily, interdisciplinarily, transdisciplinarily (Rancere. 2006), using aesthetic and logical reasoning, decision making, abstract, speculative thinking – what if, as if)
  • To learn to act (doing, politically (polis), morally (mores, norms), ethically (ethos, character), as well as intentionally and wilfully)
  • To learn to work (making, creative work, production, collaboration)
  • To learn to labour (co-existing, caring, producing for subsistence, survival, reproduction)
  • To learn to reflect (on judging, thinking, acting, working and labouring) and meta-learn (recognise when a particular mode of learning and acting is appropriate at any given time; learning to transfer ‘lessons’ among modes and contexts of learning; innovating by interrupting existing learning patterns)
  • Organisational learning (where the learning embedded in organisational roles, rituals and environments is (re-)opened to question and revision, forming new collectives and assemblages)
  • Environmental learning (emerges from the dynamic of learners, as persons/actants, and the niches, habitats and environments they co-evolve to establish recognisable places that shape further interaction, while remaining open to further change, modification and alteration; machine learning may be counted as part of environmental learning)

One of the future tasks for Oui!Learn is to consider the relationships between these Arendt-inspired modes of learning and those outlined by Gregory Bateson (1979, 1987), who views learning as a function of expectation and engagement of the learner within the context of the learning experience. Bateson’s theory of learning focuses upon the importance of the relationship of the learner to context, which Bateson defines as the relationship, order, form and pattern of a situation (Harlow and Cummings, 2002: 96). Bateson considers five levels of learning, four of which may be relevant to the above scheme. Bateson’s fifth and highest level is more mystical.

Meta-Learning and dissensus

This dimension of learning is added to the Arendtian core as a necessary reflexivity (altering one’s position in relation to conventional modes of judging, thinking, acting, working or labouring) in addition to the reflective thinking that may be involved in any of those modes of learning and of practice. This may require the utilisation of Aristotelian paradoxes, a Derridean logic of the supplement or philosophies of difference, such as Deleuze and Lyotard, in order to recognise when a certain resistance, ‘disobedience’, refusal or dissensual thinking (Ranciere, 2010) is required in order to open up more fully to the complexity of the situation.


The least acknowledged, or the most denigrated, yet also most necessary dimension of this emerging characterisation of learning, is that of labour.

Arendt takes this to be the domain of bodily labour and bodily reproduction. However, the Oui!Learn approach is to treat this domain as constituted through inter-corporeality, so that it concerns the arrangement of people (bodies and intercorporeal assemblies of bodies) in space and time [7]. As will be discussed in the section below, the digital realm is taken as an organisational intervention in this distribution of bodies and assemblies, as well as intervening in all of the other modes of learning. In other words, the digital is woven through and affects the intercorporeal and the intersubjective.

Emotional labour and digital labour

While the situation is complicated by the adoption of digital technologies, which brings all domains of practice and all disciplines into proximity to one another in a technical sense, one dimension which is often overlooked or relegated in learning is the role of emotion, and the need for what might be called ’emotional labour’. This is an aspect of the intercorporeal and the intrsubjective, of bodies labouring together in concert: building and maintaining the human relationships that are fundamental to the pedagogic relation.

Another aspect of labour which is becoming increasingly important is that of ‘digital labour’. It should be said from the outset that much emotional labour in contemporary society is carried on through digital means.

The critical aspect of digital labour is the extent to which, by engaging in it and by providing data for information and data management intermediaries, one both achieves one’s own goals while at the same contributing to one’s own exploitation as a, sometimes unintentional, data supplier subject to the corporate strategies of the intermediaries. This may be a necessary compromise, but it needs to be raised as a matter of concern if a greater sense of digital democracy and empowerment is to be achieved through the range of learning modes and contexts outlined above.

Care and matters of concern

The issue of emotional labour opens on to those of care and concern. As Yvonna Lincoln (2000) notes, in the title of her article, there are times when research is not enough and one has to practise community, care and love. Care, she argues,

“is not just the friendship, affection, love and/or respect which we give individuals who belong to us by virtue of some set of connections or bonds. It is also an ethic—a system within which moral judgments are predicated not simply on legal justice, but rather on the sense of community responsibility, individual need, trust, friendship, and mutual obligation.”

As Lincoln explains, care has elements of agape, a form of love embedded in a sense of common humanity, in brotherhood and sisterhood, and in deep and abiding respect, especially for difference and its varied richnesses. Care also has elements of caritas, charity and edification, as well as philia, friendship, and eros, love in the form of physical desire and passion turned toward the mutual project of learning itself.

As Donna Haraway (2016: 41) comments, matters of care, matters of fact and matters of concern are knotted together in what she calls “string figures”, which are “thinking as well as making practices, pedagogical practices and cosmological performances” (Haraway, 2016: 14).

Haraway, in discussing matters of fact and matters of concern, is citing Bruno Latour (2004), who uses the terms to highlight the limitations of critique as a means of engaging with the world. He notes that matters of fact constitute a very powerful descriptive tool which, while it was excellent for debunking many prevailing beliefs, powers, and illusions, found itself wholly disarmed once matters of fact, in turn, were consumed by the same impetus to debunk.

Latour poses the following question: “Can we devise another powerful descriptive tool that deals this time with matters of concern and whose import then will no longer be to debunk but to protect and to care … ?” For Latour, matters of concern are ‘things’ with which we engage and interact; they are not ‘objects’ of study. Latour is seeking to develop a realism dealing with matters of concern (‘things’), not matters of fact (‘objects’ of study), as a means to renew the critical mind and avoid the situation whereby the realist attitude is always split, with matters of fact taking the best part and matters of concern limited to a rich but essentially void or irrelevant history.

Maria Puig de la Bellacasta (2011), while accepting that introducing the notion of concern brings us closer to a notion of care, suggests that there is a ‘critical’ edge to care that Latour’s politics of ‘things’ tends to disregard. Thus, Puig de la Bellacasta seeks to encourage an ethos of care within the study of science and technology, one which requires a speculative commitment to neglected things.

Such an emphasis on care, concern and response-ability is part of the Oui!Learn pedagogy. Citing Arendt as a source of inspiration, Haraway (2015: 8) says she means by response-ability,

“…training the mind and imagination to go visiting, to venture off the beaten path to meet unexpected, non-natal kin, and to strike up conversations, to pose and respond to interesting questions, to propose together something unanticipated, to take up the unasked-for obligations of having met.”

For further discussion of the concept of care, see the entry under Care in the Key Concepts page of the Oui!Learn community pages.

The Digital

Within the Oui!Learn community, the digital affects all domains of learning. It is not a separate domain. Equally, while acting within all modes of learning, it does not determine wholly their modes of operation or direction. Thus, the digital influences judgement, thinking, action, work, labour and meta-learning. In addition, it is interwoven into these domains of learning in different ways, depending on how the practice is enacted intercorporeally within each domain. In other words, digital practices are modes of intercorporeal practice, practices of spacing and timing, requiring specific etiquettes and (bodily) techniques.

Artificial intelligence and artificial life

For Oui!Learn, this involves a recognition that much of social life is already ‘artificial’ and that much ‘thinking’ is already ‘mechanical’, ‘electronic’, ‘automated’ or conventionally coded and technologised. Both of these notions, artificial intelligence and artificial life, as aspects of practice, seem to suggest the ever-greater infiltration of digital coding into ‘thinking’ and ‘living’, .

The position of Oui!Learn is that these developments have to be acknowledged, and the fact that they will radically alter conceptions of human life accepted. However, these developments are not seen as deterministic. It remains within the domains of judgement and concerted action, whether considered ethically or politically, to decide upon the direction of these developments, while recognising that none of the outcomes can be fully anticipated. Unpredictability remains fundamental to ‘the human condition’ and to ‘life’.

Relationship between practice and ‘values’

Much has been made, in recent years, of the university’s ‘values’ or the role of ‘values’ in pedagogy. In the Oui!Learn discussion, the community’s approach to ‘values’ is that that they are demonstrated through practice. They are not so much ‘held’ (abstractly or ideally) but rather ‘enacted’. The ‘values’ of the community are what the community does, for example, in relation to achieving practical differences in equity, justice, fairness, inclusivity, and so on.

In other words, the community does not take pre-defined values and impose them upon itself or others, moralistically, one might say, i.e. from mores or norms. The community is not values-driven in that moralistic sense. The community is values-driven in the sense that it strives to derive its ‘values’ in action through practice.

Oui!Learn and empirical research

So much emphasis on the approach to pedagogy may seem misplaced, given that the CTI may already consider that it has this dimension well mapped and defined. Engagement with more practical, empirical research into existing pedagogical practices, to understand what is already being done, is advocated by Chris Kennett, reinforced by Lisa Matthewman’s insistence on the importance of developing the community through practical projects.

It is readily acknowledged that existing curricula may indeed deal with all these domains of learning in their own ways, and it would be a good exercise to define how and in what ways specific curricula achieve learning outcomes in judgement, thinking, acting, working, labouring and meta-learning, and indeed how the Arendtian-derived schema proposed relates to the University’s already defined graduate attributes.

Much practical work has already been done by members of the Oui!Learn community on the digital skills agenda, notably initiatives led by Fiona O’Brien, in relation both to graduate attributes and to the employability agenda.

This can serve as the basis for extending Oui!Learn’s insights into the relationship between the digital and the intercorporeal, examining how digital technologies are used in learning and in specific fields of practice, given the different degrees of penetration of digital and communication technologies across different fields of practice.

As Chris Kennett suggests, forums that are set up within the Oui!Learn community should involve not just students but also senior and middle management and learning and teaching practitioners, firstly, so that a dialogue exists among all these levels of the organisation and, secondly, so that the ways in which policy statements are translated into practice and experience are well understood by those who are formulating them. This initiative might begin to tackle the dilemmas arising from the confluences of the capabilities of (digital-enhanced) networks and (institutional) hierarchies within the contemporary university [8] and lead to a better understanding of the dynamics of the relationships in play within the University between Communities of Power and Communities of Learning (Moxley, 2008).

The Student experience

The emphasis on the digital, employability and attributes or dispositions, are aspects of the student experience. This is a domain in which another of the community’s members, Victoria Salmon, has reflected upon and researched for some considerable time. Victoria has already interviewed students in depth about how they understand their learning experience. She has a specific focus on voice, both as material expression and as metaphor for being heard and having agency in an institutional context.

Victoria thinks that there is much value in recording students’ voices and perhaps using podcasts and radio as media to provide a richer material evidence base for understanding the student experience and being able to respond to the student voice in a timely way.

Cultural specificity and Oui!Learn’s educational philosophy

Whether, or to what extent, the educational philosophy being developed by the Oui!Learn community is multicultural or open to diverse learning experiences, is put into question by another of the community’s members, Mujde Esin. Recognising the importance of computer coding and its ever-greater influence, Mujde is seeking to provide girls and young women with technical and computing skills in Turkey, as well as addressing the needs of girls and young women in certain ethnic minority groups in the UK, in order to address and extend their social and cultural capabilities.

This raises issues which concern the relationships among religious (moral), social (ethical-familial), technical, educational and political domains, showing that the relationships among labour, work, action, thinking, judgement and meta-learning are not simple but may indeed generate internal conflicts or crises for specific groups who are outside, or on the margins of, the dominant Western paradigms of and assumptions about propriety, education and personhood.

The question arises of how might the Arendtian-derived schema have to be further adjusted to mitigate its socio-historical and cultural specificity.

Life-long, life-wide and life-deep learning

As well as being practice-based, in the extended, Arendtian sense outlined above, the Oui!Learn educational philosophy also incorporates life-long, life-wide and life-deep learning horizons. This is to recognise that, at different times in anyone’s lifetime, while one continues to learn, there may be specific needs in respect of, for example, how digital networked information technologies are impacting the field of practice in which one is engaged.

This suggests a need for just-in-time educational inputs, on the one hand, but also for threads that holds together the person’s learning over time, to develop a deeper understanding of what it is that they are ‘doing’ in a moral (normative), ethical and political sense over their lifetime, to overcome a certain built-in ‘amnesia’, or lack of memorability, that accompanies assessment-oriented learning (which, once it’s done, you can forget).

The Oui!Learn community, then, suggests the need for two very different kinds of forum: one oriented to understanding current practice, and maintaining a critical relation to it; the other oriented towards long-term coherence and self-development, without which one will continually repeat the same patterns. Both horizons are needed for practice-based learning, in the extended sense.

Agendas, markets and educational offers

The initial aim of the community is to create a virtual and an intercorporeal space wherein staff and students can come together to explore issues around current practice and issues around learning over the long term, by situating both within an extended understanding of ‘practice’. The lengthy time periods involved concern both societal and biographical rhythms, and learning considered in this way seeks to understand the inter-relationships between changes in one’s personal orientation to the world and changes in the societal contexts in which those orientations exist, each supplementing the other, enacting the chiasm (touching/being touched, intellectually, emotionally, intersubjectively, intercorporeally) through which human experience is formed.

In creating this virtual and intercorporeal ‘space of appearance’ (Arendt, 1998: 199-211), the community aims to shed a different light on the employability agenda, the ‘civic’ agenda, the technical agenda and the educational agenda through the lens of ‘practice’ and practice-based learning in an extended sense.

Oui!Learn: yes, let us learn.


1. The classroom refuses to die, even when thinking about educational futures! As Leander, Phillips and Taylor (2010: 329) note, in a review of the changing social spaces and mobilities of learning, “the classroom-as-container [is] a dominant discourse of the field”. They continue,

“By “dominant discourse” we intend that the classroom-as-container constructs not only particular ways of speaking and writing in educational research, but also systems of rules concerning how meaning is made (Foucault, 1972). This discourse functions as an “imagined geography” of education, constituting when and where researchers and teachers should expect learning to “take place.” “

Part of the newness of mobilities of learning, Leander, Phillips and Taylor (2010: 331) argue, “is conceived in relation to something familiar and conventional: the classroom”. They reiterate their previous point by stating that,

“The classroom is significant not just as a material location in which education research is located (along with the laboratory, which it sometimes reproduces), but also as a conceived or imagined space-an imagined geography of a particular kind.”

This inhibits thinking about research and policy work by operating as a kind of ‘fractal’ which is repeated at ever larger scales. Thus, they suggest,

” … the classroom is the fractal of educational research that can be multiplied, expanded, and combined for “larger” images of learning. Moreover, as a dominant discourse, “the classroom” and its pedagogical practices and relations permeate researcher mindsets about learning in the wild beyond the classroom (the classroom-like “locale” or “situation”) such that “out of school learning” is often associated with other classroom-like places.” Leander, Phillips and Taylor (2010: 332-333)

They conclude humorously by citing Bruno Latour (1983), who argued that, for Pasteur, science was successful to the extent that it disciplined and constructed the world outside of the laboratory to behave like the laboratory. This is the context of Pasteur’s dictum “Give me a laboratory and I will raise the world.” Applied to an educational context, Leander, Phillips and Taylor (2010: 333) suggest, a parallel dictum might be seen to emerge: “Give me a classroom and I will raise the world.”

2. Friesen (2017) comments that it was Wilhelm Dilthey, through his concept of Geisteswissenschaftliche Pädagogik (human science pedagogy), who declared in 1888 that the study of pedagogy can only begin by paying attention to the educator in his relationship to the educand. Herman Nohl, a student of Dilthey, was the first to theorize the pedagogical relation. Nohl saw himself as consolidating a ‘movement’ in which pedagogy is investigated in terms of the relation between educator and educand. Dilthey not only underscored the importance of student-teacher relations, he also identifies techniques of description as most appropriate for their study, opening the way for phenomenological studies of the student’s or teacher’s experiences as situated in their respective, everyday lived realities or lifeworlds, such as pursued by van Manen (1996).

Ben Spiecker (1984: 203-204) explains that Nohl (1957) describes the pedagogical relationship as the loving relationship of a mature person with a ‘developing’ person, entered into for the sake of the younger person so that she or he can discover his own life and form. Spiecker notes that the interpersonal relationship and the pedagogical relationship also form central themes in the work of Martin Buber.

While an idealist interpretation of the pedagogical relationship has been severely criticised by Marxists as the construction of a bourgeois ideology, replacing the notion of the pedagogical relationship with that of the socialisation process, Spiecker argues that the category of the pedagogical relationship cannot simply be reduced solely to social factors.

3. The model of the ‘art school’ developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, often in the context of the newly-founded polytechnic, sought to combine a scholarly approach, with classes in art history and complementary studies, with the practice-based or skills-based approach. For example, see The Hornsey Film (1970) for a dramatisation of the implementation of this model under local educational authority control.

4. It may be necessary to look across a broader range of pedagogies, covering not just the scholarly arts (the humanities), the plastic arts (art, design and architecture) and the performing arts (music, drama) but also pedagogies in the physical and biological sciences, the medical sciences and the social sciences.

5. David Hall (1980) raises further questions as to how praxis may be understood, particularly in relation to creativity. He notes that the dominant conceptions of praxis in the Anglo-European tradition have included (i) actions in accordance with principles of knowledge or understanding, as in Plato and the Idealists; (ii) actions in conformity to the will of the individual agent as in the Sophists and the Existentialists; (iii) actions in response to problematic situations from which principles may be abstracted, as in Aristotle and the Pragmatists; and (iv) activity leading to production aimed at meeting natural needs, as in Marx.

These senses of praxis, Hall continues, are due to the dominance in our tradition of the notions of knowing, doing, and making as the primary functions of the human psyche. However, he argues, one possible meaning of praxis has been omitted from the Anglo-European tradition, one which requires its interpretation in terms of aisthesis as creativity.

The primary reason for the neglect, Hall argues, is that our traditional conceptions of “activity” or “practice” have been most decisively influenced by the agonal spirit of the Greeks. Hall (1980: 59-60) reasons that,

“… the interpretation of praxis as aisthesis has not been accorded much attention in Western thinking, since it construes human agency along what appear to be passive rather than active lines. Aisthesis emphasizes suffering an action or enjoying a production, rather than forms of doing and making grounded in acts of construal. Interpreting praxis as creativity seems to provide an unacceptable alternative to traditional conceptions of thinking, acting, and making, since it interprets these functions in nonaggressive terms and thereby challenges the agonal interpretation of human agency.”

Hall proposes using the concept of ‘karman’, which can be understood as actions and their consequences. The concept of ‘karman’, Hall suggests, adds a moral and spiritual dimension wholly omitted from objectivist accounts of causality presupposed by theories of the physical and social sciences.

6. Kemmis (2010: 10) argues that educational action is a species of ‘praxis’ in both Aristotelian and Marxian senses: it involves the morally informed and committed action of those who practise education; and it helps to shape social formations and conditions as well as people and their ideas, their commitments and their consciousness.

7. The relationships between the intersubjective and the intercorporeal are discussed by Csordas (2008), with various parts of the body, such as the hands and the lips and, by extension, speech, posture and gesture, serving as instances of the intercorporeal hinge between parties to an interaction.

8. This topic was discussed at the Critical Creative Digital: Shaping the University in a Networked Era conference held at Chelsea College of Arts on 1 December 2017.


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