29 December 2009

On postponing pleasure

As we contemplate New Year's Resolutions... The link is about one it ought to be easy to keep; enjoy yourself--now! But it probably won't be.

The other side of the coin is a phone-in I heard this lunch-time while driving; it's full of wild generalisations and stereotyping as these things always are, but it addresses the question why the UK's children are among the most miserable in the developed world. One reason may be that they tend to be spoilt, and they are no longer taught "deferred gratification", or precisely that postponement of pleasure the NY Times article bemoans...

28 December 2009

On gifts

I know I am a difficult person to buy presents for, generally because there is rarely anything I want. Last year I managed to persuade family members to buy a goat or some other livestock on my behalf, for somewhere in the developing world, but they did not take to the idea again.

Money and tokens are last resorts. They send a message not only that "I give up on thinking what to get for you" but also "you are worth precisely £10, or whatever." At least with an actual object, the message of the financial value is mitigated by the thought, the empathic act of thinking what someone would enjoy receiving.

I rarely get this right, myself. For once I did this year, giving one grown-up son a mini-food-processor. He lives alone buthe is an enthusiastic cook. The next day he turned up extolling its virtues and accompanied by small bowls of dips and relishes all based on chopped raw brussels sprouts combined with a variety of oils, herbs, spices and other vegetables in a variety of exotic and very tasty combinations; he had spent the entire previous evening experimenting.

I received some presents yesterday, including two books from the "Humour" section of the bookshop, which it is unlikely that I shall ever read--the usual curmudgeonly rants about present-day life and culture which can be fun for a few pages if one's own prejudices coincide with those of the author, but which quickly pall. Giving books needs to take into account that they require the investment of time in reading them.

In the bookshop today I looked at the section they had come from, and I realised that practically all of that section, and the cookery books, and the celebrity memoirs at the very least, was taken up by books which are produced in order to be given, rather than read. And walking home I passed a new shop, which advertised its wares as "cards and gifts". Of course anything can be a gift (something else I received yesterday was two cans of kippers--but I do like kippers), but the suitability for "gifting" (and probably re-gifting and re-re-gifting for ever) has taken over from the intrinsic value of the object. Indeed in the case of many objects such as books, it is important that they not be used, and indeed that any packaging not be opened if they are to remain suitable gifts.

This is not new, of course. Bronislaw Malinowski documented the Kula Ring exchange among the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands in the South Pacific in "Argonauts of the Western Pacific" (1922) (see also here) in which the continual exchange of the same goods serves to structure and maintain social relations between the inhabitants of scattered islands.

Come to think of it, for many of us this pattern may make more sense that to concentrate on the utility of gifts...  It's one of those issues where process is more important than content.

See also Mauss M (1954) The Gift; forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies London; Routledge and Kegan Paul (preview available here)

24 December 2009

On Christmas

You can track Santa's progress over Christmas here (background feature here.)

Here's your seasonal Reading List 

Very best wishes for Christmas and 2010!

21 December 2009

On "Avatar" (no--I haven't seen it)

This link is about third-hand. And given that I have not seen the film, and may well not bother--I still haven't seen Titanic--why am I commenting? I haven't tracked back to the sources of the linked post either.

Partly because third-hand blog-posts with their accretion of comments are a cultural artefact in their own right...

But also because the quoted piece in the linked post struck a nerve with me.
    In the late 1960s and early 70s, I was involved with, and for a year lived in, a community house in Moss Side in Manchester. 
    (Google it and take your pick of the references: I've just discovered that the Hideaway youth club where I peripherally and ineffectually  volunteered booked a band called the CrossBeats in March 1967 just a couple of weeks before they played an obscure venue called the Cavern Club in Liverpool; they were booked by a certain Rose Drummond, who later married my housemate in 1970, Joe Burgess... and that was the first time I had heard of a mixed-race marriage, nine years before my own.) Wow, what you can turn up in a few moments!
Eventually, the house was compulsorily purchased and demolished, and (most of) us graduate do-gooders moved away to our middle-class destinies, basking in the moral and political glow of our transitory pretence of identification with "the disadvantaged". I spoke to a real resident of the area as we reviewed the project. He was very kind and appreciative about our well-meaning contributions to the area, but as best I can recall he said something to the effect that;
We do appreciate all you and your companions have done... but don't kid yourselves that you know what it is like to live in Moss Side, because you did it by choice. You have somewhere else to go, if you choose. We haven't.

On learning styles again

"The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated."
[Pashler H, McDaniel M, Rohrer D and Bjork R (2008) "Learning Styles; concepts and evidence" Psychological Science in the Public Interest vol. 9 no.3; available on-line at http://www.psychologicalscience.org/journals/pspi/PSPI_9_3.pdf accessed 21 December 2009]

The message is also getting out over the pond! Useful bibliography, too.

19 December 2009

On a new kind of university...

Overheard at coffee yesterday; the three aspects of an academic's job are research, teaching and administration. Traditionally, universities are regarded as research- or teaching-intensive. We are  breaking new ground as the world's first administration-intensive university.

17 December 2009

On a counsel of despair

Sean has done me the honour of a point-by-point rebuttal of some earlier points of mine; do read the linked post. He makes some very good points, and I don't think it's a good idea to get into an old-fashioned argument about them, but better to set them out before you and encourage anyone out there to respond to either or both of us.

Having said that :-)
  • My view of the both theoretical and practical impossibility of a universal model/template/method for teaching is not a counsel of despair; it's an invitation to relish a dance... Yes, I know it is task-focused and chemical engineering is hard (in several senses), but the dance is still there in the engagement and response with students' understanding (or failure to understand), and accumulating a body of practice wisdom about how to engage with both of those conditions. As Sean refers to his engineering expertise, I venture to suggest that it is not merely that teaching (and its admittedly patchy theory) does not live up to his positivist and pragmatic paradigm--but nor does his engineering practice, either (or that of any other expert).

  • And "2. Why do values and feelings matter in the context of engineering education?" You go with the "engineering is value-free" line here. I do not disagree, but the point relates to the human encounter which is  critical to teaching and learning, rather than the subject matter. Learning always involves feelings; boredom, fascination, frustration, achievement... and many more. They are not the prerogative of soft, humanistic topics. "I just can't get my head around these equations!" is an expression of feelings, and how a teahcer engages with it--ridicule failure and humiliate to motivate, or take the problem seriously and explore where the blockages are--are expressions of values in teaching. And so is the cost-benefit analysis a teacher engages in when deciding how much time to spend on helping an obtuse student versus getting through the syllabus. Values are not something we impose on our practice; they are implicit in it whether we acknowledge them or not.
Come on in, the water's fine! And the exercise will do you good!

16 December 2009

On presents to lay down...

This season, I have two great-nieces and a great nephew, as well as a step-granddaughter. The latter is no problem or indeed challenge in respect of presents; she is old enough to write a list, and we are close enough to her to respond directly (which is not, for the record, giving her exactly what she asks for).

But being at one remove offers opportunities. To "lay down" gifts for future enjoyment. In times past it might have been the beginning of a wine cellar. A generation ago, I typically gave the current "Whitaker's Almanack" as a record of the year of a child's birth, and perhaps as the foundation of a library.

Things have moved on. In particular, the net has largely marginalised that kind of contemporary/historical record. (What it cannot overtake, of course, are the casual, routine values/prejudices which are embodied in the reporting of the day, but the blogosphere more than makes up for that.

Last year, Gombrich's wonderful "A Little History of the World" had just been published in English, about 80-odd years late. It's too old for the children now, of course, but it will be there for them when they are ready. Any ideas about this year's equivalent?

10 December 2009

On getting published

I don't generally have a high opinion of what passes for scholarly literature in the education journals, although it is mostly unread and therefore in Douglas Adams' words "generally harmless". But when I read the linked abstract in what appears to be a respectable medical journal (at least, one listed on PubMed) I get worried.

Hat-tip to the National Center for Biomedical Information's ROFL blog (stands for Rolling On the Floor Laughing in txt-spk) for the link--and something of an explanation, here.

On evidence-based practice

In his blog (starting I think with this post) Brian Elsner is exploring the direct application of Marzano's principles of effective teaching based on his meta-analysis. Well worth following.

If you've no idea what all this is about, see here for a general orientation.

09 December 2009

On elegance

That's Design.

08 December 2009

On an ingenious approach to marking assignments

Steve Hill of Southampton Solent University has been experimenting with Camtasia, a screen recording package which also takes audio, as a means of recording his spoken comments on students' work, which he can then send to them.
Students submit assignments electronically using our Moodle-based VLE. I then get a student’s Word file on screen and edit it, whilst simultaneously giving a live commentary on the changes that I’m making. This is like giving a student their own personal tutorial.
Sounds like an excellent idea!

05 December 2009

On asserting "interestingness"

An epiphany while watching QI. An inviolable rule for teachers; never tell your class/audience "this is really interesting" before expounding on something.

It's a great example of two levels of communication at odds; a variation on the double-bind. If you have to tell them it is interesting, it isn't. Many years ago, a friend of mine was much given to this mistake, and it is only now that I realise that although some of what he said was indeed interesting, this "paradoxical operator" (hey--that's a good phrase--you read it here first) was always heard as the opposite, "Get ready for some boring stuff incoming!"

It is however OK to seek confirmation afterwards.

Isn't that interesting?

04 December 2009

On revisiting stuff

I had lunch today with a friend, who to my amazement was not familiar with TED talks. So although I have posted the link before, a couple of years ago I think, here's a taster... (But I do wish he didn't laugh at his own jokes.)

02 December 2009

On insisting on belief

Uncannily, this links to the previous post.

It appears that there is a resurgence of Political Correctness on some US campuses, and the linked article is getting hot under the collar about curriculum changes at the University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development.

A campaigning group called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education claims;
"If the Race, Culture, Class, and Gender Task Group achieves its stated goals, the result will be political and ideological screening of applicants, remedial re-education for those with the 'wrong' views and values, [and] withholding of degrees from those upon whom the university's political re-education efforts proved ineffective."
My reading of the University's web presence is that the above is a gross over-statement, but I don't want to get into that fray.

There's another take on the story here.

Instead, I do want to engage with the very fraught question, in some professional education programmes, of the assessment of student values.
  • these are often represented by beliefs --in the sense of assent to propositions--as just-about-assessable proxies for underlying value-commitments. 
(I'm currently reading Armstrong, 2009; one of her major arguments is the distinction between two senses of "belief", which I had hitherto believed originated with Buber but she shows has a much more venerable provenance, between pistis [crudely "commitment"] and emunah ["assent"]. She argues that the ascendancy of the latter sense is an Enlightenment phenomenon.)

Values are at the lowest level commitments to tolerating some inconvenience or hassle to act in a certain way. By extension, lack of preparedness to tolerate the hassle suggests that an opposing value may be inferred. (This framework I concede is very simplistic, but stick with me.)

Action is the gold standard by which values may be assessed. "Espousal" (Argyris and Schon, 1978) is not enough. But action demands an opportunity to act, and happily --and appropriately-- most practice opportunities in professional education programmes do not expose students to those demands.

So we are forced back on proxies; simulations and case-studies. These suffer from problems at both ends of the explicit-implicit spectrum.
  • Practitioners tend to favour explicit scenarios. "What would you do if...?"
    • Of course, this signals fairly clearly what you are supposed to do, which is usually not a matter of exposing one's values so much as one's familiarity with institutional procedures (when in doubt, ask the boss).

  • Teachers favour more subtle cases where there is an ethical/professional problem lurking in a seemingly innocuous case. (Confession: I really enjoy devising these.) But the convolutions of building the scenario may be so byzantine that we lose touch with reality.

    • [I once built a fantastic scenario around an obsessed persecuting ex-partner to pose questions --OK, legal rather than ethical-- for a class, only to be demolished by a participant who pointed out that the legal dispute was a civil rather than criminal matter and so all the subsequent argument was moot...  At last I may have found a way to recover some worth from those moments of utter humiliation.] 
Several years ago, one of our external examiners (for the social work course on which I then taught) observed in the meeting of the examination board that although it was clear that the students had been taught "anti-racist and anti-discriminatory practice" on the course, they did not make any use of their learning in their assessed work. [He had a vested interest, incidentally, having at the time recently written a book on the subject... I'm sure that this had nothing to do with his remarks.]

Indeed they didn't. Frankly they had more sense. They saw through the whole charade, as an exercise in compliance by their pusillanimous tutors. They had indeed learned from all the teaching, but they had learned simply how to play the game and profess assent to the hegemonic creed. They knew very well, in short, that what you say and what you do are quite different things. As does every grown-up person.

Yes, the values you practise are utterly critical to your work. But the last thing you want is to train people to be hypocrites. I have major reservations about the Minnesota programme, but as befits this blog they are principally about its educational assumptions rather than its political aspirations.

Oh, and if you are not craft-competent as a teacher, everything else goes out of the window.

But the argument has drifted a little, from the principle to the practice.
  • I'm training Anglican ordinands (hypothetically). It is (or used to be; I don't claim to be up to date on this) part of the contract that in order to be ordained they had to profess assent to the 39 articles of faith of that church. The requirement is notoriously much fudged, but it is clear and up-front and, critically, relevant. Presumably, if you don't want to sign up, you don't want the role...

  • I'm equally hypothetically selecting a candidate for a political party. They will have to be seen to espouse the part manifesto if the party is to endorse them; but it is as much the party's choice as theirs... And do they have to believe/accept the manifesto? Or just keep their reservations to themselves?

  • I'm training and of course assessing student social workers (not entirely hypothetical--I did actually do that for a couple of decades. See the point above about the external examiner's remarks.) It clearly matters what they do, but what they believe...? The PC argument is that "going through the motions in compliance with departmental requirements" is not enough. Only the practitioner who has taken to heart the transformational insights of anti-racism (see here) can proactively detect institutional discrimination before the formal procedures pick it up (let's leave aside the unfortunate side-issue that unwillingness to confront the cultural practices of minority groups has almost certainly lead to the deaths of a number of children and the suffering of many more--not to mention vulnerable adults...).
I can see the point of the Minnesota initiative. Indeed, some of the material which informed this paper was clearly coming from a similar base. But is it legitimate?