18 November 2014

Items to Share: 16 November 2014

Education Focus

  • University courses for prisoners could reduce re-offending rates [theconversation.com] 'Those prisoners who had successfully completed at least one higher-level course while in prison developed a positive student identity, resilience and hope with realistic aspirations for a crime-free life after release. Those who had not engaged with learning lacked these qualities and most returned to prison. Of the 28 adults I traced, only four had not engaged with learning – and three of them returned to prison. Of the other 24 former prisoners I traced who had studied while in prison, only two returned to prison – and one of those was on a technicality.'
  • The Problem with Learning Technology | Vitae [chroniclevitae.com] 'It now seems important, as it didn’t 10 years ago, to keep things simple: to focus on the humans in the room, the literature we’re reading, the tools that help us make sense of the texts. Students experience much of their contact with other people by making things happen on a screen. What feels fresh and immediate to them now is a real conversation, in real time, over pieces of paper that can be held in the hand.' 
Other Business
  • The Decline of Grammar Education – Lingua Franca - The Chronicle of Higher Education (Geoff Pullum) 'Google fetches more than 300,000 hits for the term "grammar quiz"; yet if quizzes on chemistry were as uninformed as those on grammar, they would ask silly questions on peripheral topics (“Who is the Bunsen burner named after?”), and would make no reference to the periodic table, or atoms or molecules. The web’s grammar quizzes deal in minor pieces of puristic flotsam with roots in dimly understood 18th-century grammatical analysis.'
  • Explainer: the pitch drop experiment [theconversation.com] 'Something strange is happening within the world-famous pitch drop experiment with the latest drop forming much faster than the last couple of drops. There have been nine drops so far and all attention is now on trying to observe the tenth, expected sometime in the 2020s. The actual experiment began in October 1930 and is now recognised by Guinness World Records as the longest-running laboratory experiment – and in all that time no one has ever witnessed a single drop of pitch to fall. But what started as a simple lecture demonstration has captured the interest of tens of thousands of people worldwide'
  • Kurt Vonnegut Explains "How to Write With Style" | Open Culture 'If you feel the need for tips on developing a writing style, you probably don’t look right to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ journal Transactions on Professional Communications. You certainly don’t open such a publication expecting such tips from novelist Kurt Vonnegut, a writer with a style of his own if ever there was one. But in a 1980 issue, the author of Slaughterhouse-Five, Jailbird, and Cat’s Cradle does indeed appear with advice on “how to put your style and personality into everything you write.” ' 
  • The Great Psychologists: Sigmund Freud As a commenter puts it, ' A great introduction to a man who was about as troubled as all of us. A reminder that we are all quite mad, and everyone else is a degree of crazy.' 
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10 November 2014

On Keynotes and Standup

I've done a few "keynote" presentations in my time. (A keynote is a major presentation at an academic conference/symposium/ or staff development session.) Not many, and it may say something that I haven't been asked back!

But there is something of a "circuit" of speakers and consultants in the field, rather like that of "standup" comedians. I'm not going to refer to any individuals in this post, and it is purely observational rather than critical; but last Saturday, sitting in the audience for yet another well-honed performance, I began to wonder about mission drift.

It's an occupational hazard. Successful presenters may do several a week, over several years. One of our deservedly popular regulars has probably been doing it since her first book came out 15 years ago. If she does one hundred a year now, having built it up over the years she will certainly have done her more popular performance more than a thousand times. I'm sure she reviews and revises it regularly, but there is a process of natural selection going on; the best bits get more prominence and more polish, and the less successful ones fade away.

Of course there is a process of incremental change. Recently there was a TV show about the comedian Peter Kay; it was a promotion for his new tour purporting to be a behind-the-scenes look at the preparations, and it was quite interesting to see the rehearsals with live audiences which refine the material in fine detail. But in that case the criterion for the inclusion of the material was simple—did it make the audience laugh?

Keynotes usually have a few laughs as well, but that is by no means their raison d'etre. It must be quite a challenge for the speaker to keep her or his eye on the ball, and to go beyond Kirkpatricks' first level of evaluation.

A colleague who couldn't be there asked me after the keynote what I thought of it. I said it amounted to less than the sum of its parts. Its arguments and coherence seem to have been weakened in favour of its set-pieces, whether one-man reconstructions of teaching encounters, or games with a group of the audience. They all made their points, but not a coherent whole.

It can happen with more mainstream lecturing; I developed a model for understanding aspects of residential homes in the mid-70s, and lectured on it for about 15 years (albeit only a few times a year). A version of it is here, in case anyone is interested. Except that in the early 90s, I realised that some of the anecdotes which provided the accessible evidence had taken over. Instead of a theoretical model it had become a string of stories, and it didn't mean anything any more. Even to me. I stopped using it, but I'm re-discovering aspects of its applicability to teaching.

Just for once, this may be an argument for using technology, so that the session does not have to be repeated live. Otherwise, the incremental drift may end up like those religious statues—initially polished by the hands or lips of pilgrims, but eventually worn away by them.

Items to Share; 9 November 2014

Education Focus
  • How to make teaching great [theconversation.com] [Higgins and Coe] 'Defining effective teaching is not straightforward. But it must surely be something like: “effective teaching is that which leads to high achievement by students in terms of valued outcomes”. Many current ways of assessing children, particularly those used in high-stakes exams or in existing research studies, do not fully reflect the range of important outcomes that a child’s education is trying to achieve.' 
  • Why do we overestimate the importance of differences? | David Didau: The Learning Spy 'The idea that we’re all either visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners and we can only really be expected to learn when instruction is tailored to these specific needs is codswallop. We might well have a preference for seeing, listening or doing, but if we believe that the best way to learn the shape of a map of Australia is to listen to a description of it, that the best way to learn how the piano is just to bash away at the keys, or that we should learn to play tennis by watching Wimbledon, then we’re very clearly and sadly wrong.'
  • A 'no-consequences' education produces unemployable graduates [theconversation.com] 'A research centre in the UK recently found that lavishing praise on students, particularly low-attaining students, may be counter-productive. By providing a no-fail, no-consequences environment in which the top priority is to make everybody feel good about themselves, we are doing little more than setting young people up to fail.'
Other Business
  • Where Did Soul-Sucking Office-Speak Come From? | VICE | United States 'Office words. Words like " deliverables," "upskill," and "learnings." Bilious conjoined twins of acidic gibberish like "drill-down," "value-add," and "catch-up." Wretch-inducing parcels of email Polyfilla like "moving forward," "enablers and barriers," and "quick wins." '
  • Writing Instructors: Your Pain Is Felt – Lingua Franca - The Chronicle of Higher Education (Geoff Pullum) [R]eading an unbroken procession of agentless passives that could have been actives is like being hit on the head over and over again with a mallet labeled “I REFUSE TO TELL YOU WHO THE RESPONSIBLE PARTY IS.” And it’s boring! Theories will be discussed; grammars will be compared; aspects will be assessed; problems will be analysed–beam me up, Scotty! There is only one form of sentence construction down here! [ ] But it’s not the presence of passive constructions that’s the problem; it’s the writer’s tin ear.
    • The Philosophical Implications of the Urge to Urinate - Scientific American 'What if I were to tell you, for instance, that belief in free will is negatively correlated with the desire to urinate? Those are the implications of a new study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition by Michael Ent and Roy Baumeister. They predicted—and found—that the more people felt they needed to pee, the less they believed that humans are in control of their destinies.'
    • You knew it was crap, but you bought it anyway. This is why. - Boing Boing 'David McRaney explores the sunk cost fallacy, a strangely twisted bit of logic that seems to pop into the human mind once a person has experienced the pain of loss or the ickiness of waste on his or her way toward a concrete goal. It’s illogical, irrational, unreasonable - and as a perfectly normal human being, you act under its influence all the time.'

    04 November 2014

    Items to Share: 2 November 2014

    Education Focus
    • What is school like for a child with learning difficulties? [theconversation.com] 'The term “learning difficulties” is the hand grenade of education. Throw the terminology around and teachers, students, parents and school community members react widely and, at times, wildly. Some individuals ponder the term, others run frantically for a book to elicit a “definition” or “diagnostic term”, some consult with colleagues and professionals, yet others hide their heads in their hands or behind a desk.'

    • Seven 'great' teaching methods not backed up by evidence [theconversation.com] 'We also think it is useful to look at what hasn’t been shown to work, even if this may seem a rather negative way to focus on improvement. Many ineffective teaching practices seem to be quite popular, even though most evidence is anecdotal and selective.'

    • Donald Clark Plan B: Educational research largely useless - no costs, no bite 'The truth may be hard to bear here, but much educational research is meaningless in the sense of having no real chance of impact and change, as it does not carry through to Cost Effectiveness Analysis (CEA). [...] Without a truly rigorous Cost Effectiveness Analysis in education we will continue to spend huge amounts of money on fruitless research. The lesson is clear link effectiveness to costs. If you don’t the research will fall into the category of ‘inconclusive’. That means no evidence-based change will happen.'
    • Donald Clark Plan B: ‘Mindfulness’ yet another mindless fad in education 'There’s a new fad on the block being forced on our kids – mindfulness. In truth, it’s not new at all. It goes back to Buddhism, Freud, then Rogers and the relentless effort to get therapeutic theory into education. But there’s plenty of reasons for rejecting this particular manifestation of mindful madness.'

    • Donald Clark Plan B: Anders Ericsson: practice, practice, practice 'A welcome antidote to social constructivist theories, Ericsson focuses on the mind, memory and deliberate practice as the road to successful learning. Far from being an advocate of rote learning, he is an advocate of sophisticated, incremental steps in learning, with feedback and challenge, that lead to increased performance. This is all too often absent in learning, whether in the acquisition of knowledge or skills.'
    • Turning the tanker: lesson grading | David Didau: The Learning Spy 'Grading individual lessons is a practice that simply must end. Ofsted have declared (and reiterated, twice) that they do not grade individual lessons. It is time for schools to follow suit. It is a process that is damaging to teachers, and therefore it is damaging to pupils and the profession. I am certainly not against appraising teaching – I think that it is a necessity to ensure standards – but all of the evidence tells us that grading lessons doesn’t appraise teaching accurately or effectively.'
    • How the "culture of assessment" fuels academic dishonesty [3quarksdaily.com] ' We hear the phrase "academic dishonesty" and we immediately whistle for our moral high horse. But too much moralistic tongue-clicking can blind us to the ways in which we who constitute the system contribute to the very malady we lament. '

    • Maximize In-Class Time by Moving Student Presentations Online [facultyfocus.com] '
      Student presentations [...] require a wealth of time for each student to present and get immediate feedback from peers and the instructor. Some classes are so large that in-class presentations may not be feasible at all. Or,[...] you would have to use several of your 50-minute class sessions to allow each student a chance to present his or her work. What’s more, some students have a difficult time listening to dozens of peer presentations in one sittings and may tune out after the first few presentations. [...] The answer for me is virtual student presentations, which allow students to research scholarly literature related to course content, present their findings, and receive peer feedback; all outside of class time.'
    Other Business

    • New Statesman | Growing old disgracefully: a deconstruction of death Review of Atul Gawande's Being Mortal, by Henry Marsh. 'By writing a book about death and dying, and the way in which modern medicine so often only makes the experience worse, he will, he concedes, be raising for some “the spectre of a society readying itself to sacrifice its sick and aged. But,” he asks, “what if the sick and aged are already being sacrificed – victims of our refusal to accept the inexorability of our life cycle? And what if there are better approaches, right in front of our eyes, waiting to be recognised?”'
    • A Real Life Milgram Experiment [marginalrevolution.com] '
      discusses a real world Milgram “experiment” in which people obeyed an authority figure to an astounding degree, even when the authority figure was just on the telephone.

    27 October 2014

    23 October 2014

    On Howard Becker's latest...

    ...and possibly his last. We hope not, but he is 86.

    Times Higher Education review here, including:
    This book is a delight. Howard Becker is that rarity: an academic writer who brings you into his presence, makes you comfortable, then entertains and educates you from first to last page. He is a writer who effortlessly communicates his enthusiasm and general glee with a career going back to the sociology department of the University of Chicago in the early 1950s, and still enthrals himself and his devotees as he approaches his tenth decade.
    He's been a hero of mine—and every other aspirant sociologist of the era—ever since the '70s, when he wrote his seminal Outsiders; studies in the sociology of deviance, including his famous paper generally known as "How to smoke pot" (not as deviant as it sounds—it's a discussion of the social elements contributing to how the drug experience is interpreted).

    Mnay times I've used his email conversation with Shirah Hecht about teaching a research methods course as an exemplar of informal mentoring,

    And his classic 1972 article on "A School is a Lousy Place to Learn Anything In" which antedates all the situated learning (Lave and Wenger) stuff but makes the arguments so much more clearly. [It's not easy to access online for copyright reasons, but many thanks to David Stone, who wrote in 2011; "I was happy to discover that my institutional subscription gave me access to the original Becker article. Just in case others should be as lucky, here is the DOI link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/000276427201600109 "] The formal reference is (1972) “A school is a lousy place to learn anything in” American Behavioral Scientist, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 85-105,  reprinted in R J Burgess (ed.) (1998) Howard Becker on Education Buckingham; Open University Press.
     
    (I've reserved the only copy at Heffers in Cambridge, so there!)