Take a deep breath and start writing the thing

high dive

I met today with Nicola and Julie.  I had been getting to grips with Communities of Practice according to Wenger (1998).  I had concluded that this learning theory was not really going to be a good fit for data analysis and my supervisors agreed.

We could go round and round discussing whether Entrepreneurs constitute a community of practice “strictly speaking” or not, whether “Entrepreneurship” is a “Profession”  but really we concluded that those aren’t important questions for me.  I can draw from all these frameworks and definitions without holding one or other of them up as more “true” or “better” than another.  Wenger contradicts himself in his own writing regarding whether whole professions can be regarded as communities of practice, Shulman speaks of professions as communities of practice, etc…But what is important is the Social Practice approach to learning – social practice is important (perhaps critical) when learning entrepreneurship.  I can take the principles that work from all these authors’ theories.

I was encouraged to look at other social practice approaches to learning – such as Activity Theory (the one with all the triangles), and Actor Network Theory (Julie will look out a new book on this by a colleague Jonathan Timmons).  All these authors make the point that learning and knowledge cannot be disembodied, stand alone things, separated from people.  Learning and knowledge must be embodied in practice to come into being, and they are social.

We then started to see how connections could be made between threshold concepts and social learning theories, and the tensions between theory and practice, the laboratory approach and the apprenticeship approach (Shulman after Dewey, 1998), acknowledging that there is a continuum not a dichotomy; there is a place for both, it’s an artificial divide.

People who subscribe to the extreme end of social practice learning theory maintain that there is NO knowledge (theory) without practice.

This is tricky in the context of entrepreneurship education.  If you leave the practice too late the students become fidgety and cannot see the relevance of what they are learning.  If you leave the theory too late or leave it out altogether – the students don’t know where to start and they don’t know what they don’t know, they feel abandoned.  The big questions are “When do you start to practice?”  “How do you start to practice?”, “When and what do you teach?”.

We started to formulate a spherical model where the learning destination was the “core”, the ultimate purpose of the learning.  In this case “entrepreneurship”.  The core is a bit fuzzy and evolves over time.  It is moulded and developed by the practices which surround it.  Around is there is a kind of force field or solar system, or community of practice like an onion with many layers.  Threshold Concepts appear like pathways from one layer to another – but progress is not necessarily linear although the general direction of travel is towards the core.   The gravitational pull of the core has different effects on different people, some really want to get there and find it very attractive, others do not.  Some students get stuck at a particular threshold concept and make no further progress, they will remain at cross purposes to the rest of the community of practice mimicking an understanding which they do not fully possess.  Their discourse will continue to be at cross purposes with others closer to the core than they are, they will continue to see the world differently.  At each layer there will be elements of legitimate peripheral participation and the role of the educator is to design a social entity, with a powerful learning community where opportunities to learn and understand the threshold concepts of entrepreneurship are optimised, designing a heightened version of reality.

solar-system 2

We discussed that this discussion likely needs to be towards the start of the thesis in a context chapter or a section of a chapter.  I need to set out the premise of the study – “…Entrepreneurship Education needs to look like THIS…”.  If this is accepted then these are the dots that need to be connected, these are the threshold concepts that need to be understood.  The social practice approach becomes very relevant as there is no accepted practice knowledge in entrepreneurship, only enacted practice.

Or another metaphor would be a transport network.  There are many stations, some with no connections, others with many.  Any many different routes to the same destination.  Some students may not ever arrive at a particular destination – either because their desire to get there is not sufficient, or because they “get stuck” at a particular station and can’t make the right connection.  All the while they are in contact with other members of their community of practice, engaging, developing practice, interacting…

London transport

It’s important to distinguish the journey towards becoming a member of the entrepreneurship profession (becoming a member of that particular community of practice) and the journey towards becoming a graduate of the EBM programme at Northumbria (and becoming a member of that particular community of practice).

My task now is to attempt to write a “context chapter” explaining these premises, where I am coming from.  Conceptualising my thinking.  Using the transport map analogy – the threshold concepts are the major interchanges and my research is setting out to explore what they might be.  The perspectives of the entrepreneurs, the educators and the students may all be different because they are concerned with different parts of the map.  A complete map may not be possible to construct, but in this way, it’s a bit like the periodic table; we know that there are some gaps where there will be elements but no one has managed to isolate all of them yet.  However the more we ask entrepreneurs, the more detailed their part of the map will be, the more we ask educators and students, the more details their parts of the map will be.  The maps may overlap in some areas.

The idea of crossing a threshold does lend itself to the idea of making a connection.  You have to get off one train to get on another.  You can get stuck in the station. There will be other people at the station that might be stuck too or might be able to direct you. However the train will wait for you – it is not so time dependent. The train will be there for as long as you take to find it. However, while being stuck at the station you might lose interest in getting to the initial destination, it might just be too hard and difficult and no longer as appealing as it once was.  So you might get on a different train going somewhere else. Or you could get on the wrong train and end up somewhere you did not intend.  Or tell everyone you’re at Station A, when you’re still really only at Station B.  You could try getting to A a different way, that might work.  But there are always going to be some stations that can only be accessed via a particular interchange (threshold concept).

Using threshold concepts in this way, as a “lens”; means that I don’t need to worry about whether or not entrepreneurship is a discipline because it “just is”.  I can  use social learning theories to explain how students get from station to station.  There is something very interesting here to be explored around the relationship between social learning theories and threshold concepts which could have wider application vis a vis the introduction of two year degrees and degree apprenticeships for example.