Book Review – “Learning with ‘e’s” by Steve Wheeler

In an age where narratives are increasingly meta and available in a vast array of ways, Steve Wheeler seems to knows that the best way to promote a message is still with a story. In doing this, his first book, Learning with ‘e’s has got to be one of the most savvy, detailed, and readable books on education to come out in the past ten years. With a deft hand and accessible tone, Wheeler’s considerable accomplishment has been to narrativise the research that inhabits current education theory and practice and turn it from dry ideologue into something that feels relevant and personal. Creating a tale of emergent pedagogies and opportunities that inform how we interact with new technologies whilst qualifying it within the overall state of teaching and learning theory is clearly impressive in and of itself. That he is able to contextualise and expand upon these in a way that augments (and even improves upon, on occasion) the relevance of the theory itself however means that as a result this book should not be seen as anything other than a cornerstone text in the years to come.

Why is this the case then and how has this been achieved in such an apparently successful way? The major factor is that Learning with ‘e’s is, at its core, a book aimed at teachers that also remains robust enough for academic criticism and query. Developed from Wheeler’s blog of the same name, it has a style that is not too dissimilar to the higher quality TED talks in that, anecdotally, the reader is told something that is designed to resonate with his or her own practice or that they may have experienced themselves as a learner. In this, each chapter begins with an almost parable-like air; yarns of the author trying to eat over-abundant Cypriot meze stand in for how teachers overload students with too much content to the point where they want to ‘give up and leave the table’ or, in a more tongue-in-cheek inclusion, a fictitious account of a head teacher’s woes when it comes to her early adoption of pencils for learning as an allegory for technology in schools. Discussion of the impact of education technology forms the basis of the book’s focus but it quickly becomes clear that consideration of effective learning as a whole remains its ultimate goal thanks to the rigour of the academic evidencing.

From the opening sections that consider the problems of attempting to teach ever more disparate learners via methodologies that could have been deemed out of date thirty years ago to the discussion of possible solutions in later chapters, Wheeler navigates us through a narrative that remains consistently relatable and empowering. A great deal of time seems to have been spent in highlighting not the problems per se but what can work for practitioners and their students as a result of appropriately sourced technologies and environments. Each of these ideas are presented with a number of relevant examples and/or academic theories to back them up so, although the book follows a resolutely methodologically constructivist path, the rationale for doing so never seems forced or inappropriate. For example, when Wheeler talks about the nature of rhizomatic learning (as per the writing of Dave Cormier and Deleuze and Guattari), his straightforward definition of the term – “plain English, the authors are attempting to describe the way ideas spread out naturally to occupy spaces just like water finds its level” (p. 42) – is not only valid and relevant, he also relates it to how other academics have viewed a system such as Wikipedia, with its numerous hyperlinks between documents, as a huge working example of the theory in practice.

This writing format and approach might therefore seem rather removed from the language used in research by the likes of Piaget, Vygotsky, Kuhn, and others but, as suggested, this does not mean that the methodologies and findings of each of these academics are not carefully considered in an academic way. Working through chapters such as “Theories for the digital age” and “Old Theories, New Contexts”, Wheeler is able to consider the relevance of the ideas in a tech saturated environment. By presenting the value of and effectively critiquing concepts such as Bloom’s taxonomy in a learning sphere geared more toward social rather than individual learning the criticism only ever seems constructive and never point scoring. Asking, for instance, “How much control do teachers need to exert over students learning today? Shouldn’t there be more freedom to learn, and to express individual creativity, where do these components [the taxonomy] fit into the grand scheme of 21st century learning?” (p. 65), the reader is able to identify the reasoning behind the argument and consider it in terms of his or her own experience.

But whilst this style may be accessible, one could say that this might be seen as the book’s primary weakness; there is more than a little bit of sermonising in this approach after all. To the converted, there are a great deal of opportunities to show off how right they are in agreement with Wheeler’s ideas and for the anti-constructivist researcher or practitioner, there is little leeway in accepting alternative positions. One part in particular seems very dismissive in tone when discussing different virtual learning environments (VLEs). By saying “Anyone with a modicum of insight” (p. 122), regardless of context, could be dismissed as either too jesting or potentially unprofessional. Similarly, not all the stories have the same impact. Within the VLEs comparison again for example, the linking of the English and French armies of Agincourt to institution led vs personal VLEs feels somewhat tenuous in highlighting manoeuvrability over staunchness to say the least.

To criticise in this way however feels incongruous when the vast majority of the book is able to carry off a more objective balance and includes more profound associations than this one previous example. After all, Wheeler is not attempting to fill our mugs with knowledge about his and/or differing methodologies. Whilst he may have a particular mindset himself, one brought about by teaching as well as researching, as a good teacher he is practicing what he preaches and is appealing for us to challenge his standpoint as much as agree. In his writing, there is an innate understanding that any education theory in the UK is inevitably tied into the shop floor, government led curriculum requirements by Gordian knots and, as such, when he says “Teachers need latitude to be able to innovate” (p. 194) it is as much a plea for action on all fronts as it is a purely theoretical concern about best practice.

This is possibly what other academics could do well to remember and why Wheeler’s findings and arguments are relevant to researchers. It is all well and good considering the positives and negatives about education theory and the research that backs it up but if teachers and learners cannot use it, it becomes worthless. There needs to be a multi layered dialogue between universities, schools, and the department for education to ensure that we move forward with teaching and learning. Steve Wheeler understands this and not just in terms of technology. Without pride or pressure, he is advocating that since we cannot know what future advancements will be available to the next generation, we need to be reflexive in helping learners define and achieve their own learning goals. To be this open and receptive to such a concept is the chief reason why this review started with the praise it did and why Learning with ‘e’s should be read as widely as possible. Not just by teachers, not just by researchers, but by anyone with an interest in education in the UK and beyond.

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