The paper begins with a review of past and present practices in institutional
educational contexts and identifies long-standing and persistent difficulties.
It then goes on to propose an alternative theoretical framework where learners
construct their own meanings and knowledge as a result of having to deal
with conflicts resulting from dialogic interaction with others. The form
in which an environment of this kind is suggested to take place is an Internet-based
virtual community called Narizoma. Narizoma is a multi-faceted
environment which, in its scope and capacities, offers educational institutions
and students the possibility of experimenting with the notions of inquiry-based,
interdisciplinary and challenging learning opportunities. It is also envisaged
that Narizoma-like environments can be of use in all communities which
wish to increase integrity between its individual members. The version of the article included in here has been written
with an imposed word limit of 6000 words.
The discussion which follows is prompted by the question of values
in education and the means by which it would be appropriate to put these
values into practice.
The question of what schools should be about and whose interests they
should serve (cf. Apple, 1988) is as old as the institution of education
itself . Volumes have been written regarding the most ethical and most
desirable directions to follow. Typically, discussions on this subject
seek to resolve the issue by attempting to strike a balance between service
to the community at large and service to individuals. However, the very
task of seeking to strike a balance suggests that what is good for one
party, may not always be good for the other. In other words, in the debate
about the values which education should serve, there exists a tension between
the individual and the social, between what we want as individuals and
what others expect from us.
The apparent reality of this tension conceals a contradiction which
in fact forms the basis for that tension and which seems to suggest that
somehow the social is divorced from the individual i.e. that the interests
of individuals may not be the same as those of the community at large.
But then, what would the interests of the community consist of if not the
interests of individuals?
It has been said by Einstein that
problems cannot be solved within the mindset that created them. We would
like to deal with the question of the social versus the individual through
an approach which dispenses with the dichotomy of the individual versus
the social, if only because the term ‘social’ refers to practices that
live through individuals and which, consequently, make up the individual.
Individuals always act in individual ways that are negotiated against
the actions of other individuals. It is this process of negotiation that
gives our practices a social character. Social here is
taken to mean in relation to, or in the course of a dialogue with others.
Thus, there is nothing social that is not living in and through individuals,
and which, as a result, is not continuously modified in the course of individuals' experiences. This
regards also the values of society. In this perspective, social means socially negotiated.
It does not mean an existence of entities or concepts which would be separate
from individuals and as such significant in themselves and through themselves.
They live by being continuously
elicited in life contexts. They are also shaped by the diversity of those
contexts (cf. Lian, 2003).
Having thus avoided a dichotomy that suggests the
existence of a split within individuals, we would now like to reframe
the objectives of education. We would like to suggest that the task of
education is least about transferring to students forms of capital to
which teaching institutions attach value. To do so would be to vest teachers
and institutions with the “social eye” or “social judgment” without, however,
subjecting this “social” point of view to negotiation and hence to the
possibility of being challenged.
In other words, it would appear to act in the name of the “social”
while dispensing with the process of dialogue, the very thing which makes
our beliefs about the world social (cf. Bourdieu, 1991:210). In this context,
the “social eye” would function more as a “royal eye”, a perspective that
always speaks from the position of the “umpire’s chair” (cf. Calhoun 1995:12),
as the final arbiter on everything, as the dispenser of the “right” values.
As a reaction to this view, we will suggest a learning framework that fears
the expert (cf. Lyotard, 1992:24-25) as it fears the privileged (cf. Bourdieu,
1991:211) point of view that makes up the expert.
This article will seek to describe a web-based virtual learning environment
currently under development . The principles of our environment derive
from the understanding that teaching/learning is about helping students
evaluate the capital that they have at their disposal in terms of what it
enables them to do and not in terms of the social judgements of educational
institutions. In this perspective, teaching is about placing the learner
into a position of power while, at the same time, subjecting this power
to continual re-evaluation against competing positions and forces either
from within the learner or outside of him/her. Teaching, in this sense, is
a process where the “social” aspect of knowledge is not imposed from above.
Its social basis is vindicated through the very process of negotiation and
challenge by which learners proceed in order to act from a position which
to them shows to be more rather than less enabling.
This is a very different goal from those of most teaching environments.
Since there is nothing in our framework that is posited as having merit
or value on the basis of some abstract a priori merit, merit and value
derive from negotiations and processes established by learners as they
struggle with the task of understanding themselves in order to BE in the
world. The learners’ struggle is embedded in dialogue during which evaluation
and change happen. To illustrate the way in which this article appropriates
the concept of dialogue, the next section discusses how the idea of “communication
as education” (Cooks, 1995:21) has been typically shortchanged in educational
Now for a final set of introductory remarks regarding the scope of
this paper. It is not our intention to argue for a total and radical change
in teaching. Our aim is more humble. First, we aim to contribute to the
further systematisation of the intellectual underpinnings of educational
discourses. Second, we would like to present an environment which, in
its scope and capacities, is able to provide exactly the learning conditions
that it proposes and which offers educational institutions the possibility
of experimenting with the notions (Panitz,
1998) of inquiry-based, interdisciplinary and challenging learning
conditions. Development of our project-based environment will begin in 2003.
2. The best predictor of our future
is our past: 'Where are we going?'
Following Einstein’s dictum that problems cannot be solved within
the framework that generated them, this section reflects on the issue
of change in education. It appears that, in spite of the numerous attempts
on the part of educators to redefine and enrich their concerns, the problems
do not seem to fade away. Furthermore, the difficulties are not discipline-specific.
As teaching practices keep reinventing themselves with the help of different
labels, a review of the writings of a number of authors: (Duch (2001),
Gardner (1991), Kohonen (1992), Small (2002), Felder (1993), Michael (1998)
and the Comenius Project in Greece, Catalunya, Italy and Sweden reveals
(a) Students are uninterested in the courses.
(b) Students are not motivated to learn.
(c) Students are not dedicated to their studies.
(d) There are many differences in the ways students
learn and these may not be in accordance with the teaching pedagogy.
(e) Students aren't really involved in classroom
(f) Students don't develop problem-solving, analytical
or critical thinking skills.
(g) Students only gain a superficial understanding
of the course content.
(h) Students don't apply their learning or
continue to learn beyond the course of instruction.
(i) Students aren't 'growing' personally or professionally
throughout the duration of, or perhaps as a result of, the course of instruction.
(j) Teachers find it difficult to select the content
for their courses.
Thus, difficulties persist in spite of the desire to produce more
'reality-viable' graduates, and in spite of an explosion of differing
teaching and learning approaches such as collaborative learning , problem
and project-based learning , situated learning , experiential learning
or active and discovery learning , andragogy , to mention but a few. Regardless
of the differences between each of these learning approaches, there seem
to be some underlying aims common to all of them e.g. a focus on the process
rather than the content; the opportunity to confront, challenge and experience
the real world; the emphasis on social interaction and personal change/growth
and the ability to solve problems. These common themes reflect a desire
for a change away from teaching practices which do away with critical learners
and toward teaching models where learners take an active role in the process
of constructing knowledge.
However, in spite of these challenging wishes, there are some truths
that educational practices are afraid of abandoning. For example, learning
environments continue to focus on classrooms as the centre-stage of learning.
The pedagogic implications of this assumption are not questioned. Subsequently,
the desire to enable challenge, confrontation, and opportunities to take
a critical stance, is translated into objectives whose relevance is established
in terms of the teaching syllabus that is followed. The concept of the learner
struggling with real-world problems is lost. Lost too is the idea of authentic
learning conditions where the objectives of learning are negotiated by
learners in relation to the demands that reality places on them.
Instead, learners struggle with problems whose structure and management
are restricted and dictated by the objectives of teaching rather than
by conditions that necessitate learning. Learners become subject to bureaucratic
rather than educational regimes.
The clear priority of educational agencies (e.g. ministries of education
or even school boards) is to navigate the tension between asserting that
they are meeting the needs of learners and the need to satisfy the management
processes required by a “responsible” agency (quality assurance mechanisms,
accountability, performance indicators, not to mention parental approval).
While this is a laudable ambition the system actually collapses in its implementation
at the grassroots level of teacher-student interaction, and teacher-agency
relationships (e.g. in the design of syllabuses, development of policy
Nowadays, much reliance for quality assurance mechanisms is placed
on the “professional judgment” of teachers without any guarantee that these
judgments are theoretically sound or coherent (other than through consensus).
Ultimately then, education becomes a question of intuition by people asserting
their knowledge (and political power) and being granted that knowledge
by educational agencies in the context of the currently predominant management
policy of respect for all.
It appears that we are stuck in a mindset. The question that education
needs to face is not how to improve but how to escape the mindset that
time and time again has proven to be detrimental to learning.
3. The place of conflict in a
The problems exemplified above are indicative of an underlying conflict
that the context of teaching and learning appears to create between participants.
It looks as if each party were pulling in their own direction for reasons
that others either do not comprehend or do not agree with. Should teachers
submit to students’ individual wills and wishes? What would they have to
compromise as a result? Should students submit to teachers’ wishes and in
so doing, what would be lost?
Against the background of the discussion so far, it would seem that
the issue of the conflicting interests that encounter one another in a
classroom environment, and the question of who should give in and why,
are products of beliefs engendered in the institutions of education itself.
And underlying the functioning of these institutions is not so much the
authority vested in teachers and in syllabuses. Rather, it is the belief
that these institutions are to prepare learners for the future, for being
an adult, or as it is often put, for being a citizen in democracy (cf. Cooks
This belief then leads to further assumptions. Thus the classroom
is believed to provide a safe space (cf. Cooks 1995:19) to achieve the
above-mentioned goals, teachers adopt a mentor-type position whereby they
helpfully select the critical elements of reality on behalf of students.
It is our contention that classrooms do not so much provide safe spaces
but rather act as a means for insulating students from confronting reality
as they experience it in the “real world” and hence from confronting themselves
in the world as they actually know it. The authority of teachers in the
classroom environment does not come from the support that they offer, or
from the power to reward or punish students. Rather, it comes from the
power that teachers assume as the protectors of learners and hence as a
filter between learners and the reality to which they seek to introduce them.
Safe classroom environments, protective teachers and collaborative
teaching techniques, together, look more like a fabricated illusion in
a world which, otherwise, critical pedagogues view as constructed in terms
of conflict-based power struggles (cf. Giroux 1992; Luke 1991). The discourses
about classrooms create the belief that learning can be taken outside of
those spaces of conflict. However, in so doing, the learning that ensues
happens within the boundaries of the artificiality that classrooms create
and thereby in isolation from the world for which the teaching practices
are to prepare learners.
It is no wonder then that problems regarding motivation or student
empowerment continually resurface in educational critiques. They resurface
because students’ disempowerment is the backbone of the educational system,
where the place of students in society is compromised in the interests of
a system that redefines their place to that of “student”. In this move, students’
histories, their pasts and therefore their futures, are replaced with those
of a category of people called “students”. As “students”, they are subjected
to a learning process where decisions regarding the teaching objectives
are made on their behalf and in their absence.
And yet, a world which is made up of conflicting interests need not
be presented as a world where learners require protection from the responsibility
of selecting for themselves an appropriate courses of action. However,
for these decisions to be truly empowering, they must emerge from the realisation
that one’s past, one’s history is working for them and not against them.
In other words, they must emerge in a context where the feedback regarding
learners’ capacities, or their understandings, is subject to its further
authentication by learners rather than by a teaching agenda which ignores
learners’ histories in order to give them a new one.
In such a process, learning is no longer an object of abstract and
confusing criteria but subject to one’s ability to mobilise one’s past
in order to affect one’s future. With this goal in mind, the question of
how to make it possible for students to feel enabled rather than disabled
by their histories is at the centre of the learning environment that the
authors of this article have conceptualised. While the description of the
environment helps to illustrate in a more practical way the principles
on which it is based, the approach in which these principles are embedded
can be summarised as follows:
(a) At the centre of the environment is the understanding
that conflict, or any experience of incommensurability, is the source of
growth. It emerges when resistance is encountered or when a need is experienced
to consider at very least another position.
(b) Conflict therefore is the building block of
the learning process. It triggers perception of one’s own limitations.
It demands re-evaluation and consequently expansion beyond the frames
of reference that have been shown to be inadequate.
(c) The process of re-evaluation which accompanies
this experience is about connecting or linking that which was previously
unconnected or foreign. It turns the process of expansion or understanding
into a process of making commensurable that which previously was not.
(d) It would follow that to expand understandings,
it is obligatory to look for incommensurabilities or conflict in one’s perceptions.
It means looking for ‘dialogic partners’ whose perceptions challenge our
perceptions, trigger reflection and the need to consider other positions.
(e) Since conflicts are always context-specific,
they provide a specific direction for reflection.
(f) Learning, in this framework, is conceptualised
as a process which is not about proving that one is right. It is not about
reducing the strength of the dialogic partners. It is about building on
their strengths. It is about mobilising their strengths in the process
of dialogue in order to resist oneself, one’s own power.
(g) To enable such learning, the task of a learning
environment is to create conditions where resistance can be encountered
and where perspectives can be rearranged.
(h) A rich environment is an environment where conflict
is not allowed to subside or be manipulated by syllabus demands. A conflict
needs to be authentic and, as such, experienced as a challenge to one’s
own identity as an individual rather than as a “student”. Otherwise, the
understandings that learners develop have no meaning outside the classroom
context that legitimates their power and their effect.
The environment that the principles above describe emphasises the
point that learning is a place where conflicts meet and which, therefore,
is not free from politics. The issue, however, is not to act as if this
were not the case, but to reflect upon the kinds of politics that the teaching
environment should pursue. Is it to be politics that seek to enable or
to disable learners in their interactions with the world?
In the next section, an environment is presented which takes the form
of a structure designed to help learners (and teachers and researchers,
who inevitably will be part of the environment) evaluate and affect their
own sense of value, identity and potential in the society in terms that
are not regulated by syllabus or teachers but by the actual impact that
learners have on the way in which society functions. The environment is
an attempt to make learning depend on demands as they are experienced by
individuals in the context of their interactions in the world rather than
on the arbitrarily established criteria produced by educational institutions.
It is structured in such a way that the capacities it engenders are a function
of what individuals make of it rather than the formats that it may impose.
4. Narizoma: a place where realities
Narizoma is the name of a virtual (Internet-based) community constructed
in such a way as to enable its inhabitants to create a way of life as they
would want it to be and in terms that they collectively decide upon. Narizoma
is a space to be filled with history and hence with everything that life
brings. It is designed as a potential alternative to the current social
structures inasmuch as its shape and the way of life that it takes on do
not depend on reality as we have come to know it but on the abilities that
individuals bring to this world in order to affect it. It is a place where
everything found there in the form of the institutions set up, their functioning
and how they are integrated into community life are all subject to question
and negotiation. In short, they are subject to the public voice. The aim
is to give students the possibility to shape their destinies in Narizoma
in ways that would reflect the way they would like Narizoma to be. In this
way, the participants can observe the effects of their actions and ideas
in Narizoma. It is possible that the ideas from Narizoma may be then translated
to the real world as we know it. If possible, the gap
between Narizoma, the virtual world, and the real world should narrow down
as the Narizoma begins to write itself on its inhabitants.
It is envisaged that in order to encourage informed
participation, the issues that life in Narizoma generates should form a
context for projects which students, together with the support structures
around them (students, teachers and researchers from their own and other schools,
parents, members of the public who may be consulted, literature, browsing
tools, etc.) will undertake. Narizoma is about making it possible for the
participants to experience that which reflection and dialogue are able
to reveal. It is important to stress that Narizoma-like
environments could be utilised in many different ways by communities (e.g.
hospitals, prisons) which would like to get involved in reflecting upon
alternative ways of structuring and approaching issues which concern them.
Having said that, we currently envisage Narizoma to be a place created specifically
for educational institutions (using an Intranet). Its members would belong
to these institutions as students. This choice was made so as to enable teaching
institutions to explore the place as a means for everyone to attend to the
task of creating and participating in the life of the new community structures
in a systematic way. Students, in conjunction with whatever support-structures
they can mobilise (e.g. teachers, libraries, media, the public), explore issues
that they encounter through their engagement and participation in the Narizoma
community. This work could be integrated into the educational institution’s
In spite of this semi-constricted space, Narizoma is not designed
as a safe place for the participants to experiment with ideas. On the
contrary, it has been conceptualised as a space where conflicting interests
can emerge and where the beliefs of individuals regarding their own capacity
to contribute to the community can be endangered. Activities conducted within
the Narizoma boundaries are more than just attempts to experiment. Since
all actions of individuals are directed to impact on the way of life in
Narizoma, interactions within it have the potential to have a long-lasting
impact as they become part of the history of the place and hence part of
the frames of reference that will have to be considered by others as life
in Narizoma continues to evolve.
Narizoma has been created as a game around stakes whose role is not
to constrain action but to encourage and motivate it. Narizoma is a place
where nothing is fixed except that people are awarded points. The object
of the game in Narizoma is to accumulate points. But how points are acquired
depends on the strategies which individuals employ. There is no single path
resulting in the award of points as the process for receiving points is
subject to community judgment. Thus, points are not awarded for “things” as
such but as an acknowledgment of one’s input to the community. Points collected
are a reflection one’s social impact.
The aim behind the collection of points is to motivate everyone to
engage in a process of dialogue i.e. a process whereby individual action
is assessed in terms of the value that it has for others. In this way,
the capacity of the participants to engage in the life of the community is
rewarded in a manner that takes into account the individuals’ interests.
The impact of individuals on the community is thus made visible and measurable.
There are many ways in which impact can be measured and, as Narizoma develops
as a community, these ways will change. In the first instance, points will
be awarded as a result of the following:
(a) popularity polls,
(b) the specific functions that individuals occupy
in Narizoma’s institutions,
(c) the popularity of one’s ideas as reflected in
the kinds of references that people make to them,
(d) the use of specific technologies or products
developed and used by the members of the community,
Narizoma, as described so far, is an open-ended society where the
points system does not constrain or delimit the activities of the community.
The objective is not to work the system in order to obtain whatever positions
the points may (or may not) make available. On the contrary, the objective
is to explore the means by which different forms of respect can be gained
and hence different positions can be created from which individuals can
affect the life of the community. Opportunities are endless and depend in
their scope and quality on the contributions of individuals and their appreciation
by others. There are no career paths and no positions that exercise power
by default. The goal is to create structures that open up power to the
voice of people rather than structures that exercise power in spite the
As life in Narizoma develops, different institutions will be formed
with different functions assigned to them. However, in order to increase
the productive aspect of the process of accumulating points, it is suggested
that a lobbying committee or advisory board be created. This would consist
of people who have accumulated the largest amount of points. The board would
function as a structure that helps to increase the dialogue in the community.
Its role is to utter opinions or make pronouncement as it sees fit about
anything and everyone. Exactly how the functioning of the board would develop
over time is up to the Narizoma citizens to decide. But the status of the
people on the board can provide Narizoma with an unpredictable force.
A second unpredictable and more mysterious influence is in the form
of the Condition Changer. The Condition Changer is an external feature
that creates unexpected imbalance amongst the Narizoma residents. These
events or influences are random, and may affect individuals, small/large
groups and/or the advisory board. The entire Narizoma community as it was
known may also be affected. These events could take the form of natural
disasters, inherited fortunes, viruses, mysterious envelopes that may/may
not be opened (according to the recipient's will), promotions or other
potentially hazardous or beneficial items or acts. These events/influences
are seen by the designers as tools to trigger reactions and interactions
between groups that may/may not come into contact with each other on a
frequent basis and will serve to extend the range of references and connections
made by the Narizoma residents.
5. Narizoma and support structures
Narizoma functions through responsibility and through dialogue. In
order to assist with these, Narizoma is supplied with tools that function
as support structures and which have been designed to help individuals work
together in spite of whatever differences they may bring with them into
the community. The tools in Narizoma are divided between:
(a) Lesson-type tools to increase students’
awareness of the complexities of the concerns that they may need to take
into account while debating or reflecting issues e.g. listening comprehension
programs for working with foreign texts, lessons on human anatomy or explanations
of the creation of the universe.
(b) Communication tools which help increase
the channels for interaction between Narizoma citizens across different
langauges. These may include various browsing facilities, dictionaries,
bulletin boards of various kind, email services, translating services etc.
(c) Data management resources. The main tool
for managing these resources which together form the history of all resources
available in Narizoma is a purpose-built database. The function of the
database is to respond to enquiries. These may include questions regarding
the structure of Narizoma, specific interactions that took place in the
past, various texts, or queries regarding the provision of specific help.
(d) Human support. The collaborative aspect
of Narizoma is visible through the means which it makes available for bringing
people together. In our example, not only will it bring together students
from various teaching organisations, it will also give teachers the possibility
of teaming up with other teachers. As the demands of Narizoma are driven
by life rather than by arbitrarily created disciplinary borders, interdisciplinary
cooperation will emerge as a critical feature of interactions. Further,
as the activities in Narizoma are diverse, students may seek help from
people outside teaching places, such as media experts, scientists, politicians,
the general public etc.
As the support structures indicate, dialogue as the form of learning
that Narizoma advocates is not reduced to a simple conversation (Lian 2002).
In fact, the process of dialogue is not about form but about function. In
a typical learning environment this aspect of dialogue is often lost. This
is because the meaning of the word dialogue is usually drawn from everyday
life, hence the tendency to see dialogue as a specific form of interaction.
However, dialogue in the Narizoma environment is taken as a means of enabling
confrontation between various schemes of perceptions. This is a very different
way of understanding dialogue. Conceptualised as such, the task of enabling
dialogue now shifts from looking for people to talk to, toward looking for
the means that enhance the process of confrontation. Changes which the confrontations
may bring are a process in which the incommensurable becomes commensurable,
the foreign becomes familiar, the unconnected becomes linked. Essentially,
the meaningless becomes meaningful: an encapsulation of the whole problem
6. Teaching in Narizoma
The environment of Narizoma encourages a form of learning where teaching
is relegated to the role of support structure rather than being the constructor
of the process. The support structures put in place can be thought of as
conditions designed to help learners confront their understandings by increasing
learners' opportunities to explore these in more than one way.
The possibilities of confronting, contrasting and contesting (Lian,
2000) their understandings provide learners with the means for opening
a dialogue between a diversity of expectations, be it their own unexplored
beliefs or those of others. With this goal in mind, support structures
seek to help learners mobilise a diversity of personal systems of perception
in order for these to impact on each other.
The more such opportunities are made available, the richer the dialogue
and the greater the possibility for learners to develop a richer basis
for functioning. As a result, learners acquire more history and, with it,
a bigger picture of reality as they see it and experience it.
7. Learning in Narizoma
The methodology that this article proposes steers away from attempts
which search for answers in different teaching techniques, or different
teaching models, which, it is hoped, will provide a cure for the symptoms,
or faults, such as bored learners or their inability to be what we want
them to be.
The interactions within Narizoma are not imposed but are guided by the
practicalities of life in the environment. The interactions serve as opportunities
for the residents to evaluate their understanding of that life. In turn,
the feedback that they obtain as citizens of Narizoma helps them evaluate
and, in turn, affect the direction in which they proceed as individuals
and the directions that life in Narizoma will take. The environment of Narizoma
thus provides conditions which integrate the reflective as well as the practical
dimensions of the learning process. Its outcome is no longer a text (i.e.
an essay, or an isolated production) but attempts to affect others and,
in the process, oneself. It is a challenge for everyone involved, learners,
teachers, researchers. Each will confront the beliefs that define
for them what they are or do.
This paper was written in the perspective that sense-making, and therefore
learning, is essentially an individual process which is shaped and guided
through interaction with other individuals acting in the world and functioning
as what we call a society. The paper has further argued for the emancipation
of individuals (learners, teachers and researchers) from arbitrary
social (educational) systems, the political power and the symbolic violence
exercised by such systems and their effective dissociation from the real
world. The paper concludes with a proposal for a web-based virtual learning
environment founded on dialogue which, it is suggested, would provide conditions
appropriate for communication as education.
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