30 December 2010

On the "decline effect" again

The link is to a post by Michael White, as a commentary on the Jona Lehrer piece to which I referred in my previous post. It argues with Lehrer's spin, but for my purpose serves to underline the difference between what passes for research in education, and in science.

28 December 2010

On not trusting "the research"

The new Dean is energetic and enthusiastic and keen to raise the research profile of the Faculty, and has been trying to get me involved in bidding for EU funding for research in post-school education. I don't think I shall rise to the bait--I am after all now retired, and I have never been one for large-scale research projects.

However, the process, together with  my post of about two weeks ago about published research and the comment on it from a volunteer on one of the All Results Journals has set me thinking about the practicalities of doing research and the how they impact on the results and quite conceivably on the value of it all. I'm not talking about methodology as such, here, but the story of how research actually comes to be done in universities and beyond, and how we get to know about it and use it. I'm sure it varies according to discipline and institutional setting, of course, but some features are fairly common.

16 December 2010

On making learning more difficult by making it easier...

Who writes curricula, or rather syllabi?

In further (rather than higher) education, on the whole they are not written by people who have studied on the kinds of course they are designing. The course designers are, probably, graduates who have progressed to their present positions via quite a different route from that followed by the students who will take their course.

(I'm sure there are counter-examples, of course, and I can remember that when I started in FE teaching 40-odd years ago, there were respected vocational teachers in the college who had come up "through the ranks", as it were, and were actively involved in designing ordinary and higher national certificates and diplomas in shorthand and typing, in office practice, and other vocational areas. They represented the community of practice in the Lave and Wenger sense, even if they were located in a college. But the process has become more professionalised since then, and the practitioners' voice is fainter, with the exception of some of the National Vocational Qualifications.)
And of course the writers are older and experienced (and quite probably experienced teachers in the area).

What these factors mean is that designers have a totally different perspective on the content from that of the learners. That is not surprising, but it appears to have some less obvious consequences.

Let us also throw into the mix the pressure on the awarding bodies (for whom the designers work) to create courses on which "learners" (i.e. students) can "achieve" (i.e. pass); colleges get a bonus for students who pass.

I have undertaken several teaching observations recently on such courses, and on the whole they have not been very good. At one level that is only to be expected; the teachers I observed have only just come to the end of the first term of a two-year part-time course and in these cases they have little experience under their belts.

But that is not the whole story. In one case the teacher thoughtfully provided me with some of the course documentation including photocopies of pages from the "official" textbook which she was using as a handout.

(Not best practice, but with a heavy timetable and no time to develop her own resources, understandable.) So I could see that she was following the required Scheme of Work almost to the letter. The handout declared authoritatively that there are four theories of such-and-such (well, it all depends... and two of the theories were simply variations on a third, but there was no acknowledgement of that), and the teacher was supposed to "get through" these at the rate of ten minutes each, and to test that they had been "learned" (whatever that means in this context). Being fair to her, again, she was not very familiar with the area she was teaching, and so she had to stick largely to what the book told her*. She offered few examples, because she was not confident they would be "correct".

And I could tell that some of the information on the handout was misleading and even simply wrong.

The students, rather sadly, were bored but compliant. They "researched" allocated topics (Googled them), and paraphrased what they found and the relevant paragraph from the handout, and two of them gave short presentations by the time the session ended. They spoke when spoken to, but volunteered nothing. They exhibited a weary familiarity with yet more half-understood gobbets of information they were supposed to "learn", without a clue as to why.

The teacher and I had our post-observation discussion. I checked on the academic/vocational level of the programme (3; the next level below first-year undergraduate level). She agreed it was dumbed-down to near meaninglessness, because that is seen as the way to get the students to "achieve".

As I drove back I realised how many times before I had been to such a class. I wrote about one in 1999.

It's to be hoped that with more experience, and a little (well, a lot of) reading round the subject, and confidence from her training, this teacher will like so many others get to lighten up a little and her proficiency will lead to more learning. But it's difficult when she is constrained by the limitations of the curriculum.

What appears to have happened is that in order to ensure that the students pass (and thereby ensure that this particular awarding body continues to be used by the college in this vocational area) the content has to be made as easy or simple as possible. Einstein is frequently paraphrased as saying “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Courses like this appear to have violated that threshold. In an attempt to reduce the "learning" to discrete gobbets of information, they have ignored the context and the connections between those items, so that learning one provides no assistance with the next one.

(A few weeks ago, one student offered a micro-teaching session on an introduction to Chinese calligraphy; it was principally a practical session but of course provoked many questions from group members, some about the difference between a logographic and an alphabetic system of writing. C. pointed out that every character in a logographic system has to be learned from scratch; while some are composites, the link between the elements is not mediated by phonemes in the same way as in an alphabetic system. So one character offers little as a clue to another; it's the same issue. And learning three or four thousand separate characters is a formidable task!)
After another session I compared the content with a bowl of beads. They can be mixed up any way you like. Pick one out (teach it) and it has no implications for the rest. There is no system of knowledge. It cannot be other than inert. But thread the beads together, and picking one up will bring others with it... Context and connection are not optional extras.

In trying to make things simpler, this curriculum made them a whole lot harder.

The designers seem to have forgotten, at their distance from the students, what it is like to study this stuff. The teachers (we hope) and the designers have an overview of the field. They know where everything fits in so it makes sense. The students on the other hand are just thrown one thing after another in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. They are like puzzlers trying to make sense of the jigsaw without the picture on the box.

Surface learning and at best the unistructural level of the SOLO taxonomy is as good as it can possibly get. There is a special challenge in “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”


* One little-remarked feature of vocational programmes is that of course they include some necessary background material which may be based on academic areas of study which may not be the teacher's own area--physiology, sociology, even physics, for example. Since each of these specialist topics may not feature very much, it falls to the main teacher to be a jack-of-all-trades teaching all of them even when her or his knowledge is shaky. (Yes, a great opportunity for e-learning indeed, but not much used.)

15 December 2010

On the vagaries of published research

I've just come across the linked article (via ALD). It is questioning the consensual view that peer review is the most effective way of ensuring the quality of research published in academic journals. (Peer review is the process through which a submitted article is sent by the editor to two or three established scholars/researchers in the field, for comment. The comments are made anonymously, and may result in rejection of the article, requests for amendments or even acceptance without amendments.) The article refers specifically to medical research, but the process applies to all kinds of research and scholarship.

It so happens that I recently had a very interesting discussion with a student who was wondering what she could do with the interesting phenomenon of a totally zero response rate to a questionnaire, which led us to thinking about the publication process and the biases it may well (we don't really know and don't even know how to find out) introduce into what we think we know from out reading of what is published.

I also came across this blog post, which is interesting because of its rarity: it refers to a published article on ‘The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of A Case of Writers' Block’ (my emphasis, and it is not entirely serious). It is of course very unusual to publish an experiment which did not work--most researchers will self-censor and decide not to submit. At a simple level, there is no telling how much futile duplication of effort takes place simply because it is not publicised that something does not work.

And it is plausible to argue that the tendency of the publishing system to "privilege" positive results leads to a higher probability of Type 1 or "false positive" errors being published (see here for a discussion of this issue in relation to assessment procedures).

...and of course the corresponding neglect of negative results (both true and false). These do creep in, to be fair, via attempted replication and literature reviews, but you have to be pretty dedicated to find them. Perhaps there's a case for a wikibullsh*t.org site?

That might account in some measure for much of the egregious rubbish which pollutes the educational literature as touched on here, but the relative paucity of proper critical evaluation of fads and fashions.

Of course, the other variable which makes a difference is enthusiasm, that's a magic ingredient which transforms dross into gold. Apparently. But sometimes the effect is strong enough to withstand even the rigours of (such self-serving) publication practices. It's just not strong enough to stand up to replication by anyone other than a true believer...

08 December 2010

On the "uncanny valley" effect in learning...

Just occasionally one of those paradoxical situations occurs in teaching where a frankly poor situation pays off in spades in terms of learning.

The other evening was such a situation. We were on the last session of micro-teaching (that is where students teach something to the rest of the group for twenty minutes and the group and the tutor then provide feedback on it). In our set-up the students choose their own topics. Someone has to go last, and on this occasion it was G. It so happened that most of the topics he would have chosen had been taken, so he took commendably took a chance with something he was not sufficiently familiar with to be comfortable. And despite his best efforts he fell into a heffalump trap...

He chose to teach the principles of "positive reinforcement" as promulgated by Aubrey Daniels, a proponent of  "performance management". The minor problem was that he could not address the issue properly in twenty minutes.

The major one was that he did not check out levels of prior knowledge in advance. Had he done so, he would have found that at least five of the other ten members of the class thought that they knew quite a lot about positive reinforcement, because their education in other disciplines had involved at least some exposure to the principles of behavioural theories in psychology.

The problem is that despite using very similar terminology and there being a substantial overlap of ideas, Daniels' branded and corporate-focused angle on reinforcement is not quite the same as the classic behaviourist tradition (making no judgements--I'm not a behaviourist and this was the first time I'd ever heard of Daniels).

Trying to provide a framework for the subsequent review, I was reminded of the "uncanny valley" phenomenon:
  • See here for the general principle, and
  • here if you have hours to waste for examples (although I think they expand/dilute the idea too much)
(This has cropped up previously on this blog under a different guise.)

Expressed simplistically, it comes out as "Tiny differences are more difficult to handle than gross ones".

We have no problem processing obvious differences between objects, categories, ideas. But it gets more difficult when the differences are subtle and may not even be real. That requires serious attention and concentration... "I'd like to take these colour samples outside to compare them in daylight..." "I need to hear that again..." "Does Daniels mean the same thing as Skinner when he refers to 'reinforcement'? I'm not sure..."

If the problem is up-front, then at least we can argue about it, bitter though such arguments may be (in inverse proportion to their importance in the real world, of course, as here).

But if it is not acknowledged, for whatever reason, there is a real problem. Such was the case in the session the other night, when those in the role of "student" were confused, asking themselves; "Am I just being stupid? Have I been misunderstanding this all along?" or "This guy has got it all wrong. But he is supposed to be the teacher and I want to be constructive--how do I confront the point without undermining him?" And that is without going into the possibility of any personal investment in prior beliefs...

I'm doing my DIY carpentry. I've drilled a 4mm hole, but it is out of alignment by 2mm. Much more difficult to correct that than one which is 10mm out.

I'm driving down a rutted road; I need to steer a fraction to the right. I could do a right-angle turn, but I can't make that fine adjustment. The circumstances conspire against it...

I'm going beyond my exemplar here, but perhaps I'm discovering what many people --particularly perhaps in the coaching field-- have known (and probably written about) for centuries. 

And a great deal of teaching at advanced levels is about precisely this level of detailed adjustment. It calls for great open-ness on the part of the learner, and deep conviction on the part of the teacher that this "trivial" point is worth getting right (which may well lead to the traditional accusation of "arrogance", of course).

29 November 2010

On not networking...

I'm now on Facebook! By mistake. It all got out of hand, and I have been deluged with messages, some from people I have never heard of who want to be my "friend", and others from people I really respect and like who are--if not offended--at least bemused.

I'm backtracking fast! But presumably there is some point to all this social networking stuff. How come I don't get it? Apart from being a socially inept introvert, that is? I've sent a variant of the following post to everyone I believe might have been affected...
My apologies to everyone who has received gratuitous and importunate messages from Facebook in my name.  I did not expect that those of you who steer clear of it--as I did until I followed up a link onto the slippery slope--would be approached to sign up.

I joined in the first place to investigate whether it was a viable alternative to the clunky Virtual Learning Environment used by the university (particularly for those of our students in community education programmes who do not have access to such portals). The team discussed it and decided that it was not secure enough, so dropped it.

In a moment of madness last night--prompted in part by nagging emails from Facebook about some people I know trying to reach me (FB knows where I live, of course) I revisited the site. I was invited, I thought, just to check who, on my address lists in gmail, etc. was already on the site. I was naive and didn't understand how it worked; it asks for an inch and takes a mile.

So far, the only reason I can see not to "deactivate" (apparently there is no way to delete completely) my account is that it would be rude to those of you who are making good use of it. I'll keep it open for a week or so, in case someone wants to persuade me otherwise.

A few people have noted that they can't "friend" me. I must have had the good sense to disable that option when I first signed up.

In the meantime I have battened down the privacy settings to their tightest. There is some marginal convenience in being able to send the same messages to all one's "friends" at once of course, but all email packages offer the same facility. But why on earth I would want "friends of friends" to know anything about me by default, I can't imagine. And if I want something completely public it goes on the blog.

On the other hand, you are of course entitled to conclude that I'm a miserable luddite curmudgeon and you are better off without me. That's fine; there's no need to tell me, because that is the default position... :-)

27 November 2010

On the Socratic method

I came across this quotation while marking over the summer:
“...the Socratic approach where you do not need to tell students anything, just ask them the right questions so that they will find out for themselves...”  (Reece and Walker, 2006: 118)
At least the referencing was punctilious. I must be missing something, I thought, because the quotation is a gross distortion of the "Socratic method" (if indeed there is such a thing).

And then I thought--I'm pretty sure this student has not read Plato*, because otherwise s/he would not have had to refer to one of the standard textbooks to explain what the "method" is.

But (I merely raise the question--the answer may be a clear "yes!" [in the original Greek]) have R and W (standing simply as proxies for many other writers in the field) actually read any Plato?

19 November 2010

On toxic training

Has teacher training become part of the problem rather than the solution? I'm speaking of the Higher (HE) and general Post-Compulsory Education (PCE) sector here.

As so often, I'm prompted by events and discussions which seem to be pointing in a general direction.

First--perhaps trivial, but perhaps symptomatic. Two MA students, whose dissertations I was supervising, confessed that they weren't interested in what mark they got, they just needed to pass. One teaches in PCE, the other at a university. They explained they were very busy, and so they had to be careful with how they invested their time, but that they needed the post-graduate award for career purposes. It is hard to think of a more cynically strategic approach to study--and this from people engaged in teaching beginning professionals. (They got their wishes, but only just.)

Second--Sean posted about his experience on his own MA course, on this occasion drawing attention to his fellow course members' lack of inclination to do any work outside class, resulting in ill-informed discussions and a general sense of futility. (Earlier, though, he commented on similar reluctance to work beyond the session in the very different setting of a WEA class on navigation--I may get round to that in another post...) He asks,
"Has the education system now bent so far backwards to accommodate strategic learners that even people who presumably must once have been interested in getting to grips with the thing they were studying now do the bare minimum? Or is this (as I hear it may be) how most PGCEs are now, rewarding conformity, strategic learning, and technical compliance, rather than any deeper understanding?"
Both, I think.

Third--(and slightly tangential, I confess)... Graham Gibbs' short but magisterial report on educational achievement in HE appeared in August and I blogged about his presentation based on it it here. Among his observations (p.24) is:
"High levels of detail in course specifications, of learning outcomes and assessment criteria, in response in part to QAA codes of practice, allow students to identify what they ought to pay attention to, but also what they can safely ignore. A recent study has found that in such courses students may narrow their focus to attention to the specified assessed components at the expense of everything else (Gibbs and Dunbar-Goddet, 2007). Students have become highly strategic in their use of time and a diary study has found students to progressively abandon studying anything that is not assessed as they work their way through three years of their degree (Innis and Shaw, 1997).

I learned at the age of about seven that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. (I was visiting neighbours on my own, and for the first time I was allowed to have as much sugar in my tea as I wanted. I put in four heaped teaspoonsful, and it was revolting!) The same goes for designing teaching, as for any other complex activity. Complex interactions between ingredients/variables do not seem to have occurred to the powers that be...

(Is there anywhere in LLUK standards or Ofsted criteria or similar bumf, a call for less of anything? Have they never heard of the art that conceals art?)

There is a perfect storm conspiring to distract us all in the direction of surface --or at best strategic-- learning, to attention to the signifier rather than the signified.


Perhaps it will all change next week...

References

Atherton J S (2010) Doceo; Values, Effort and QA [On-line] UK: Available: http://www.doceo.co.uk/tools/values_qa.htm  Accessed: 19 November 2010

Gibbs G (2010) Dimensions of Quality  York: Higher Education Academy [On-line] available: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/York/documents/ourwork/evidence_informed_practice/Dimensions_of_Quality.pdf  Accessed: 19 November 2010

Gibbs G and Dunbar-Goddet H (2007) The effects of programme assessment environments on student
learning.
York: Higher Education Academy

Innis K and Shaw M (1997) "How do students spend their time?" Quality Assurance in Education 5 (2), pp. 85–89.

16 November 2010

On unintended consequences down the line...

 (Actually this post has been held back for several weeks to anonymise it for readers who may also be my students; some details have been changed for the same reason.)

I've put it off for several days, but I've finally commented on a complicated (second) draft submission from a student.  It's complicated because although she is British by birth, English is her second language. She is a graduate (in fine arts) but her written expression is nowhere near graduate level. And when my colleague pointed out that problem to her, on her first module assessment, she protested that no-one had ever picked her up on it all the way through university, probably because of her ethnicity (and perhaps because literacy was not much assessed in fine arts, and even dyslexia is becoming "normalised"--not necessarily a bad thing of course...).

But now she is teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL)! She has been seriously let down by PC sensibilities, and she won't pass the course if she can't catch up, and if she doesn't pass she can't carry on working... She's clearly trying very hard, but I'm not sure she has the background knowledge to make full use of my feedback, and there's a limit to how much assistance it is fair for me to give...

So. Do I provide feedback as I would to anyone else? Do I make allowances for her linguistic heritages? Or is that simply patronising and indeed colonialist? Or do we arrange specialist support for her? Or do I disregard her claimed (but so far unassessed) dyslexia as worthy of support, but not her heritage? ....

Do I apply the same pass criteria as I would to anyone else? I have to answer "Yes", to that. The obligation to guarantee minimum standards for the sake of the students and even the employers must outweigh others. But clearly her teachers at school and university have colluded in the past to avoid confronting problems. Moreover, the exam boards must have done the same, because her grades were sufficient for her to get to university.

(This bit is current) On Saturday we had one of our Study Days. The theme on this occasion was "Race and Gender, Inclusivity and Diversity"; and the speaker quoted from the report of the Victoria Climbie inquiry (Laming, 2003),
“It may be that assumptions made about Victoria and her situation diverted caring people from noting and acting upon signs of neglect or ill treatment”
More telling, however, in the present context:
"It was the belief of two senior staff managers from Haringey that some staff had difficulty in reading practice guidance because of problems with literacy. (Laming, 2003, para. 1.60)
I've commented on this tragic case in relation to the ultimate cruelty of "kindness" here. (For some reason, the transcript of the Climbie Inquiry to which I refer is no longer on-line.)

14 November 2010

On performance

I have to confess that music is not a big part of my life. I am puzzled by people who go around with their ears plugged by pre-digested musical pap, isolated (and thus insulated) from the rest of the world. I can't help feeling that negates the point of music. Surely it's a beautiful (or at least organised) noise which enhances what life offers, rather than masks it.

I've just been watching a programme on Neil Diamond. Insofar as I have ever been a fan of a performer (as opposed to a composer ... leaving aside Frank, Bing, Ella, Peggy, Louis, Benny, Cleo ... OK, the argument breaks down) I quite like his work.

His repertoire is limited, mostly to his own compositions. I have great respect for that, and I'm not going to make any snarky remarks to detract from what he does.

But I am wondering about what it is like to perform the same material over and over again, for years. I see the listings of concerts and stand-up gigs, and hear the tales about "life on the road", but behind all that is the sheer grind of doing the same stuff over and over again. I and my colleagues are lucky; we may have to repeat a lecture two or three times within a week, but usually it doesn't then come round again for a year.

Perhaps it is because we are so privileged that we perpetuate this fiction about "reflective practice"?  That is merely an indulgence for people who are lucky enough to get to do something different every day, rather than variations on a basic theme--however sophisticated, skilful and state-of-the-art. The more specialised become the realities of practice--in personal injury litigation, or prostate surgery--the more routinised they become, (and the more they "belong" to a team or community of practice than an individual) and the less relevant  it becomes to reflect on them.

01 November 2010

On "self-theories", "mind-sets", popularisation and framing

I want to add to the website some stuff on mindsets, self-theories, and the like, so I have of course gone back to primary sources, and I have just finished (re-) reading Dweck (2000) (the whole thing, just to be sure. But the critics are right: it's a hologram. The whole is contained in each chapter--possibly in each page).

It's now ten years old, so I sought out something more recent, but nonetheless accessible (i.e. not paywalled academic articles). Dweck produced a popular version in 2006 called Mindset so today I did something for which there is still no real substitute. I went to a serious bookshop and found it on the shelf, with a view to spending my own money on buying it (although as Susi reminded me, I would claim it against tax).

Oh dear. I'd read the reviews on Amazon of course (increasingly it's due diligence for reading list recommendations) across the board. And the one-stars were right. Half an hour in the bookshop (Heffers is the kind of bookshop where you can spend half an hour with one book--as long as you don't crack the spine) re-framed my reading.

One regretful reviewer had suggested that the publishers would have pushed for a popular version without formal referencing and attribution and the usual academic apparatus. Perhaps so. Like one of the reviewers, I found the book in the "Self-Help" bay rather than the "Psychology A-Z" bay.

And generally, as an avid consumer of "popular science" books which enable me to develop an appreciation of areas which I lack the background to enagage with in their raw form, I would have no problem with this--indeed, I would welcome it.

But in this case... Stripped of its scholarly accretions, it amounted to nothing more than:
If you regard attributes--however positively rated--as fixed and given, you are stuck and tend to give up when faced with difficulties; see them as malleable, provisional, and any assessment as merely "where you are now", and you will face set-backs as challenges...
That is banal as a bit of folk-wisdom. But if it has research-based support it may be important...

So?
  • I'm confused about how to deal with this stuff. I say that because it is rarely said, and readers of this blog--if any there be--need to know that it is OK to be confused. "Negative capability" rules, OK?

  • Dweck's book comes with an effusive endorsement on the cover from Robert Sternberg --premier league psychologist-- but who happened to be a colleague of Dweck.

  • I confess I have not done a detailed count, but I guess that at least 20% of the 15 pages of references include her as an author. (Not always lead author, and the convention is of course that the supervisor is included as an author when the work is done by grad. students...)

  • But I didn't find any dissenting voices or arguments, even when I went on line to look for them. That can mean at least (but not only) two things
    .
    • First that the argument is unassailable--academe (particularly in the softer areas of scholarship) doesn't do that. Dispute is the fuel which keeps it going, for better or worse. Or of course

    • That no-one can be bothered to test it with a view to refuting it. It's either trivial or untestable (or no funding body will stump up the funds)

    • Or of course that the work has been done but no-one will publish it...
So I am interested in the uncritical acceptance which seems to have greeted this work. Such reviews as I have found have only commented on the lack of detail in the synoptic book, the unexamined assumptions about the extension of research from young children to pretty well everyone, and the less well-evidenced (and admittedly more tentative) claims about applicability to other areas of personality.

I suspect that it fits with the Zeitgeist, and particularly with a US tradition of self-help which has contributed to the "positive psychology" movement over the past ten years or so; Dweck does not appear in Barbara Ehrenreich's entertaining but devastating Smile or Die; how positive thinking fooled America and the world (2009) but she might very well have done so. After all, Dweck's analysis shares the individualism and neglect for external factors which characterises so much of what Ehrenreich castigates.

    30 October 2010

    On credibility

    One of the perils of being in the business of teaching teachers is that your credibility is on the line whenever you "perform"; if you don't show that you can actually walk the walk, no-one is going to listen to you talk the talk.

    In one of my sessions on the post-compulsory education course earlier this year, one of the (mature--as are they all) students was a little late. This was a sanctioned irregularity, but it meant that when he came in, it was to a class in quite heated and I suppose rather unruly debate. People were arguing across the classroom, there were three different conversations going on at the same time, and they were cutting across each other. It was all "on task", though, and it was not difficult to restore order and carry on with the class. Afterwards, the late student came up to me and said he thought that the behaviour in the class was inappropriate and disrespectful, and he could not possibly have taught in such chaos. He said it with reference to the class, but it was clear that it was just as much about me, and my apparent inability to control their behaviour, with the sub-text of, "if you let that kind of behaviour occur in your own class, how do you have any right to tell us how to control our classes?"

    Quite right, too. Up to a point; he teaches teenagers, and there was no way in which I would have been prepared to allow anarchy in such a group. And we had earlier discussed the issue of teaching styles appropriate to different groups of students, in the course of which I had drawn attention to the need for a different approach on this course from that which would be needed with their own students. Nevertheless, I had in his view failed to model the skills of classroom management which  the course would in time assess him on, and in that sense he was right.

    With all classes, credibility is critical. I'm acutely aware of that, in that I spent twenty years teaching under false pretences. I taught social workers, and I was neither an experienced nor qualified social worker (but I did have quite good academic credentials, and in those days that counted more with appointment panels than proper experience; I didn't fake anything).

    After a while, of course, I could have faked it. For the latter ten years of my involvement, a staple of our Centre's menu of courses was ASW (now AMHP) training under the Mental Health Act 1983*. After years of listening to experienced social workers telling the stories of their practice, I would certainly have fooled any lay-person, almost all non-specialist social workers and a good proportion of the real McCoy...

    * The actual terms don't matter; the point is that they were about the use of legal powers to detain people with mental disorders. And for the record, out of the five of us who taught most of those courses, two were experienced ASWs, one was a legal specialist, the fourth a mental health specialist, and I was the charlatan!


    In practice, I was up-front about my lack of experience. Not only did it preserve me from gaffs which would have severely undermined my (and indeed our) credibility, but it could also be used to subvert the agenda of resentment among many long-established Mental Welfare Officers who--by statute--had to be retrained. Sub-text; "I'm not here to tell you how to do your job (because I'm not an expert on that), just to work out how it has changed in a new legal context..."

    However! I was reminded of all this, which re-surfaces at the start of each academic year as you consider how to establish--as quickly and easily as possible--the most appropriate relationship with each new class. (Incidentally, you can't get it right. It's not your fault. It's a feature of the system.) And I remembered...

    In the dim and distant past (at the latest 1972) I was an assistant lecturer grade A (which for some reason was even lower down the pecking order than grade B) in "Liberal Studies" (a weirdly idealistic educational initiative of the late '60s onwards in the UK to 'liberalise' technical education by teaching students anything they did not want to know about...) (Sorry about all the parentheses, by the way).

    Liberal Studies was a statutory requirement of vocational courses, but course managers rightly regarded these sessions as superfluous and pointless and so they competed to schedule them for the least desirable teaching slots. Such as 7-9 pm at the end of a full day-release programme. And Friday afternoons, of course...

    So it was that I acquired a class of about 20 electrical technicians from 6.30 to 8 on a Thursday evening. They were there because, and only because, if they did not appear on the register they would be reported to their employers. They in their turn couldn't care less, but hey! Any excuse to dock wages is good for the bottom line, right?

    The class was not assessed, other than by attendance, so there was no incentive for students to engage with what I was teaching. So baiting me was the most entertaining way of passing the time...

    "Psychology of Personality" was one of my standard packages for such circumstances. Most people are interested in themselves, after all. So we started with the Maudsley/Eysenck Personality Inventory. I used to use it in the first session with minimal introduction, get the students to score it, and then wait for my cue. That was the "What's it all mean, then?" question. (I make no claims for this as a scheme of work. It was a means of survival, that's all. I might be more sophisticated nowadays... or maybe not...)

    This time it wasn't enough. In the view of a vociferous minority of the group, administering someone else's questionnaire did nothing for my credibility. One of them challenged me; "If you're a psychologist--prove it! Psychoanalyse me!".

    [Note: this is not a verbatim quote, although given that the incident is almost 40 years old, I have not had to delete any expletives---but he did use the word "psychoanalyse", which would probably not be in the vocabulary of his contemporary counterparts. Whether of course he had any idea of what it meant, I know not. I attach no significance to this; I am merely trying to establish his terms. And I'm not a psychologist.]

    I was on the spot, so I rose to the challenge. (I should have risen above it, but that is easier said than done, even with more experience than I then had...) I burbled banalities worthy of a tabloid astrologer, about "liking to be liked" and "feeling misunderstood sometimes", and he seemed to be listening. But I realised I had to take a risk and be more specific. I thought of the way he had taken the lead in challenging me, and wondered whether his emotional investment suggested he felt a little threatened. So I suggested that he had a problem with anger (nowadays we would talk about "anger management").

    I thought I had blown it. He denied it (angrily). But then his mates laughed and joined in--"Too true!", "You've nailed him", "Spot on!", and in the face of the onslaught he conceded that occasionally he got a little carried away.

    And my credibility soared. I had passed the test! And I survived. (We did not do evaluations any more sophisticated than that in those days...)

    How perspicacious was I? Not very. I didn't become aware of how it worked until twenty-odd years later, listening to Radio 4 while driving the Northampton ring-road (strange how locations stick in the mind...) I was, unknown to myself, making use of the Forer (or Barnum) effect, which does indeed underpin newspaper horoscopes.

    The only value I added lay in my guess about anger issues, which required little more than observation and basic inference. "And that has made all the difference."

    29 October 2010

    On the acceptability of originality, criticality and context.

    I came to university with a history--at least in my mind; probably no-one else ever noticed. I failed O level English Literature (now GCSE, and apparently almost impossible actually to fail). I passed on a re-sit. But as far as I can reconstruct, given that the whole assessment process was inaccessible to scrutiny in 1960, I rose to the challenge of some question about Wordsworth (whom I hated at that time with a passion worthy of himself) by referring to Aldous Huxley's speculations* about the neurological or even pharmaceutical roots of Wordsworth's vision;
    There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
    The earth, and every common sight,
    To me did seem
    Apparell'd in celestial light,
    Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood ll.1-4

    Fifty years on, I think the marker was probably right! Chris Woodhead (a marmite figure if ever there was one!) has periodically made the point in his columns that schools are not about encouraging originality--pupils do not know enough at that age to make useful original contributions to anything; and even Diana Laurillard  argues that in science in particular, school and undergraduate study can be no more than an initiation into what is already known. (I think she concedes that an undergraduate final dissertation may perhaps occasionally have a touch of originality.) But of course by the time one embarks on a doctorate, the rubics will require "an original contribution to knowledge".

    I've just caught up with two of Jim Hamlyn's recent posts; here and here.** The pedantry of the marker is mind-boggling, of course, but for me Jim's experience also poses the question of why he or she should find Jim's independent-mindedness so objectionable (even perhaps threatening) as to put in the considerable effort
    required to nit-pick so obsessively. After all, this is a post-graduate course, and Jim's own discipline (art) is one which values and encourages creativity and originality and (critically) critical thinking, as this post of his demonstrates, so he can be trusted to have a handle on those values and attributes.

    So where does the energy come from to set out so comprehensively to miss the point and to inhibit learning? After all, the marker could just have let things ride, and the outcome would almost certainly have been better on all fronts. I suspect that it has something to do with "the notion that the less meaningful a belief, the greater the passion and dogmatism with which it is held. This was observed by Swift (the war between the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians in Gulliver's Travels, 1726, ch. IV) so it's not exactly original, and of course as in that story, it is religious disputes which spring to mind as the most obvious examples." I'm quoting myself here, from another post on 3 March 09.

    That also fits with points I made at about the same time about referencing, and the other day about the "fetishization of citation". All these "technical" issues are no more than proxies for valuable knowledge which works--and you know you are in trouble when the proxies are elevated above the substance, or you stop seeing the wood for the trees.

    Returning to Graham Gibbs' keynote; one of his opening slides was a quotation (I didn't make a note from whom) to the effect that "there are just a few factors which make a difference in teaching, and we know what they are." He explicitly denied that was the case, although of course such a contention is the foundation of teaching development programmes; it is an article of faith which tutors on such programmes must believe, otherwise they would not be able to carry on "delivering" them.

    I admit that I am having something of a crisis of faith. Gibbs' account of the variability of student experience and the importance of context, and even Hattie's acceptance that "everything works" (in some measure) (2009: 1) accord much more closely with my experience than practically anything in the teacher education literature. Also at the conference, Ray Land recycled to great effect a lecture from a few years ago when he stood in for a keynote speaker who got stuck in France; he took us on a tour of the changing context of education and students' lives, and concluded that current models of the university were being superceded.

    When teacher educators start behaving like Jim's (and Sean's) examples, and many others, we have to conclude that the implicit deficiency model is flawed, because we do not have the authority to which we pretend. So perhaps it is time to see the lecturer as the expert in teaching in his or her context as well as a subject expert, and the role of the teacher educator as no more than a consultant to the practitioner.

    In practice I think that is what I have been doing for years... Of course, it screws up conventional approaches to assessment, but that's OK.

    *  Huxley A The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, Harper; various editions 1954-2004
    ** Of course I'm well aware that I'm accepting Jim's account as legitimate, and the whole story--but I have no reason not to, and this is the start of a meditation rather than an adjudication.

    27 October 2010

    On the "fetishization of citation"

    Thursday's keynote at ISSoTL10 was by Jude Carroll, whom I met for the first time face-to-face after scores of email exchanges. She is best known for her work on dealing with plagiarism, of course, but in this case she was addressing issues around a transcultural approach to curriculum issues.

    I was delighted to hear her inveigh against the "fetishization of citation". I've also touched on this issue here. Jude went so far as to say that this obsession with "correct" referencing was a phenomenon of the last ten years, and implied that it was symptomatic of a crisis of confidence on the part of academics in their own authority in a post-modern world. It's not so much an issue in the STEM* world, where there are real, objective and positivistic criteria for judging ideas. Like, "does it work?" If it does, who invented it is a matter for the historians and the (patent) lawyers.

    Moreover, it is an approach which devalues the contribution and opinion of the student herself. Jude's piece suggested to me (she may well have said something like this, but I don't want to put words in her mouth), in the context of the internationalisation of the curriculum, an inability to handle the different ways in which prior knowledge is or may be dealt with by students of different backgrounds and from different disciplines.

    She played with the manner in which direct quotations from other scholars had been used in presentations within this very conference.

    Which set me thinking about the concurrent sessions I attended, and the ways in which such scholarly material had been incorporated and used. I caricature slightly when I say there was in a number of them a ritual obeisance to the literature, as part of what was frequently explicitly identified as a "literature review" section (many papers followed the traditional pattern of a published research paper or dissertation). Nothing wrong with that, except that in Perkins' term, the knowledge was often "inert". Not much was done with it. It was introduced in order to confer academic respectability on the session and then--with some notable exceptions, of course--it just lay there...

    I think I detect that this is becoming ever more common, possibly because of search engines; it is so easy, with basic search skills, to go straight to an article in a peer-reviewed journal which bears in some measure on your subject. It will probably be a contribution to a discussion, in your own discipline, and very up-to-date. And it will probably say very little of interest, or ever have been heard of by anyone else. Your session may be the only citation it will ever get!

    I actually made a note of several promising leads, and since getting back I have followed up some of them, to my disappointment.

    I would have been much more interested in people making use of some "golden oldies" (my preferred strategy because I was always too lazy and too easily bored, and too busy, to keep up with new stuff unless someone used it or recommended it); or illuminating their arguments from parallels outside the immediate confines of their own disciplines.

    In a "soft" discipline like "education", it is all too easy to build foundations merely on successive bundles of reeds, rather than rocks. But one may feel the need to be seen to be imitating academics in harder disciplines.



    * Science. Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

    26 October 2010

    On reflection on reflection, again

    I have just written up the notes from the round-table discussion at the conference last week--click on the header to go to them.

    20 October 2010

    On the importance of context

    I'm at the ISSoTL conference in Liverpool. It got off to a great start with a plenary from Graham Gibbs. At the Washington conference in 2006, Graham piggy-backed an intervention on Diana Laurillard's plenary, to lambast the conference for academic and theoretical ignorance and sloppiness, asserting that 75% of the papers he had attended would not have made the cut for the Improving Student Learning Symposium which he had founded in the 'nineties.

    This year the ISL symposium and the ISSoTL conference are effectively one and the same, and so (and in deference too to the shake-up he had given the SoTL community) Graham got to offer the opening plenary.

    Which he did in exemplary fashion. First, he is a superb lecturer. Understated and unflashy, he lets the material speak for itself and steps aside so as not to muffle it. PowerPoint yes--very plain text-based slides which did not draw attention to themselves but to their content, black-and-white but for the key bits in red. Funny bits but no jokes. Sadly no questions because apparently he is now hard of hearing, but all brought in with precision timing of which the (BBC Radio 4) Today programme would have been proud.

    So much for the process--what about the content? It was billed as being a reflection on 35 years of experience in pedagogic research, but it was rather more specific than that. It was about the importance of context for making sense of what we think we know about teaching.

    Having been engaged in what amounts to a meta-analysis of research on teaching and learning in HE, Graham became interested in material which does not fit the general message. Simply, if research indicates on the whole a 0.4 correlation between, say, student participation in class and student achievement, the picture is far more complex than simply asserting that is quite a good correlation and so we ought to be encouraging more participation. The other side of the coin is a 0.6 absence of correlation, which is stronger. But of course the 0.4 figure is attributable to the choice of apparently straightforward variables to correlate, whereas the 0.6 is attributable to a whole host of amorphous variables which did not correlate. So you can't draw any conclusions, can you?

    Well, yes, pointed out Graham. You can draw some conclusions about the ways in which the researchers approached their task, and how they sought likely variables to explore, in accordance with what they expected to find. And of course how they only sought to publish the expected and positive results, and how peer-reviewers might regard negative and inconclusive or ambiguous results...

    So he investigated (some of) the anomalies, and was reminded of the significance of context, which meant that, for example, "student participation" might mean radically different things in different disciplines (a dance class in which a student did not actively participate--leave aside the injured student sitting in--would not be a "class" in a meaningful sense). A science lecture to a hundred or more students is not where you expect their active contribution--you would expect it in the follow-up seminar or problem class or hands-on lab class.
    He examined, drawing on the universities with which he has worked across the world, and many different disciplines, the role of academic and professional disciplines in creating different pedagogic cultures and structures. He examined traditions across different institutions and how these were entwined with and inseparable from even such matters as the layout of buildings and staff hiring policies. He explored the quality guidance and criteria laid down by many bodies for evaluating the excellence (or otherwise) of courses--and showed that some of the avowedly best institutions might meet none of them. He showed that in some cases staff engaged in "industrial deviance", violating university policies where they actively inhibited the provision of formative feedback to students. The result was the students appreciated this bending of the rules as evidence of the staff interest, and succeeded. But this department seemed to be bucking a trend in the research--because when the investigators visited the staff were reluctant to confess to such "illegal" good practice!

    He discussed the impact of organisational culture on the development of excellent practice; out of four kinds of such culture found in universities--collegial, corporate, bureaucratic and entrepreneurial, it was the first and the last which actually promoted excellence. The corporate and bureaucratic models were dead hands. So why has government and the quality movement (he did not mention the QAA, or Ofsted, by name) persevered in plugging precisely the least effective models?

    And in passing he mentioned the irrelevance of specifying learning outcomes and objectives for every session... (Teresa, if you read this before I reply personally, that is what I shall say).

    A masterful lecture, and sadly perhaps his last public address, he said. I do hope it appears, soon, in an accessible form.

    And just before I started on the second half of this post, I read Sean's latest and characteristically challenging post--perhaps Gibbs has some answers for him.

    P.S. -- Several people have commented that Gibbs has undermined everything he himself has stood for, for the past thirty years. I confess I am not sufficiently familiar with his canon to confirm that, but they may indeed be right. This holist, contextualised approach is contrary to the viewpoint of much research. It is idiographic rather than nomothetic, and scholars from humanistic traditions have been delighted to celebrate the claimed switch.

    ...and I have been reminded that he also claimed that increasingly detailed course specifications resulted in students learning less from the course. Counter-intuitive again, but the more detail is specified, the more students can target their study strategically in order to pass--and to pass well.  Which they will do with the minmum sufficient knowledge, never having had to engage with all that pesky background stuff which may help you understand but not directly to pass.

    14 October 2010

    On having no bearings...

    My partner would love to get an affirmative answer to the question, "Does my bum look big in this?" She is skinny, and she can't find jeans to fit. When she commissioned me to go shopping for jeans for her in the States a few years ago, the shop assistant insisted I must have got the wrong measurements--no adult was that size.

    However, she got wind via a friend, of a shop in St Albans (actually a menswear shop) which might well stock some to fit. She spoke to someone there on the 'phone and we drove down today, to find this little shop in a very elegant back-street. She had not mentioned prices on the 'phone, and I began to wonder when the guy found her several pairs to try on, and referred to them all by their labels--of which the only one I recognised was Versace. While she was trying them on, I browsed the shop and found a  nice cardigan--only £400. (You know you are getting old when "nice cardigan" is no longer an oxymoron.)
     
    Fortunately none of the jeans fitted quite well enough (although there were bargains--at only £220) for her to splash out on them. But what amazed me, naif as I am, was how much one has to pay nowadays to look tatty and cheap. (Not that everything in the shop was like that...)

    I wouldn't have picked that up as clearly in a womenswear shop--we went to a couple later and I realised I had absolutely no reference points for understanding "quality" in that area.

    And that is the point of the anecdote. Not that fashion is silly (or indeed obscene in its self-obsessed self-indulgence, although it is) or that prices are ridiculous. No, it is the disorientation which comes from having no point of reference, no sense of standards by which to judge--anything.

    I'm pretty sure that it is key to much marketing-oriented business to keep consumers on the back foot in this way, so they can provide a spurious "solution", such as a brand, to the intolerable abyss of disorientation. At least to the extent that they can be parted from a couple of hundred quid.

    Here links indirectly

    06 October 2010

    On doing it myself

    I was teaching from 4.30 to 6.30 this evening. Naturally (!) it was all supported with projected presentation material, so I had to set up my netbook and pipe output through the data projector. Half of the session was a micro-teaching exercise, which needed to be videoed so that the student could review his teaching and tell us about his evaluation next week. This was the first time I had used this equipment (my own, incidentally) in this room, so I needed to set up a backup system just in case... Sound is more of a problem than video.

    (The car park "automatic" exit barrier broke down as I arrived causing a substantial tail-back of people trying to leave, which in turn caused delays for those of us trying to enter and park--so I was 15 minutes behind my planned schedule to begin with...)

    So I was scuttling around the classroom, plugging in bits of kit. blessing my prescience in bringing an extension lead, setting up a tripod on a table at the back (and pleased that no-one commented on my climbing onto the table via a chair, as a violation of health and safety regulations...), attaching the backup camera to the window (yes--it's brilliant, see here, and this is not a paid endorsement) and then wrestling with getting my netbook to engage with the university wifi network... After the session, I spent ten minutes with next week's micro-teacher checking that the system could access streaming video.

    A student drifted in early and asked innocently, "Don't you have technicians to do that kind of thing?"

    Yes, we do. And I'm delighted to say that ours are very helpful and knowledgeable, and go out of their way to make things possible. But apart from the issues around their availability at these hours, I'd rather do it myself. Because;
    • many or even most of the students do not have access to instant technical support in their work-places. Modelling good practice is an interesting issue on this programme, but some aspects are clear. Being able to make the kit work is basic and applies to all settings, so I ought to be able to do it, too.
    • Technicians have to work to institutional policies. Dropbox is a brilliant tool, but here colleagues can't use it on their work machines because they do not have "administrator" privileges to instal it.
    • And if I have some idea of what is going on "under the bonnet/hood", it is more likely that I can fix it with least disruption to the class.

    25 September 2010

    On celebrating punctuation

    For some reason I missed International Talk Like a Pirate Day (19 September) but there's a slightly more serious celebration today, albeit U.S.-based (is that punctuated correctly?). (Where should the question mark go? Was that final full stop necessary?) It's national Punctuation Day over there.

    Which reminds me of the Apostrophe Protection Society, too. What is moot, of course, is whether the apostrophe should be protected. German, after all, has a similar genitive construction and gets along without it.

    18 September 2010

    On-line tools

    Seeing as it is the beginning of a new academic year, here are some free (or very cheap) and less well-known on-line tools I have found useful for broadly academic purposes.
    • Pride of place has to go to Dropbox, for a simple idea, brilliantly executed. It's an on-line backup service, but it is also local. Install it, and you can not only access your files from a web browser on any machine, but it also sets up a folder called, unsurprisingly, "Dropbox" on your own machine. Anything created or edited in that folder will automatically be synchronised with the on-line version in the "cloud", whenever you are on-line. Moreover, you can set up the same Dropbox folder on other machines, and they will all be synchronised all the time. You can keep folders private or grant sharing permissions, so it is great for collaborative work. The first 2gb of storage is free, up to 50gb is about £6.50 a month ($9.99). (Full disclosure; if you sign up with the first link, I get 250mb for whoever signs up--and that of course will apply to you if you recommend others. If you don't want me to make anything out of it, go straight to http://www.dropbox.com )

    • Dropbox is simply a storage service, and I don't think it supports synchronous collaborative working. It also requires that you have your editing application on your own machine.

      Say you are doing some groupwork and want to collaborate on a final presentation on-line, either on a document or a slide show. Google documents is the simplest way. It provides near-clones of office applications--word-processor, spreadsheet and presentation package entirely in the cloud, and it is easy to set up permissions and invite others to collaborate.

    • Searching on the web is second nature--but so is coming across stuff and then losing it again. Bookmarks are tied to the machine on which they were created. If you use Firefox as your browser, there is an excellent plug-in for capturing pages and their citations, for tagging and searching, called Zotero. Slightly less ambitious but more simply implemented is Instapaper; click on a button on the browser and save a page to read later.

    • Searches tend to go for a single target; but what happens when your interest is in the connection between two targets? Or more, in the real world--at the moment this tool is limited to two, and it uses Wikipedia as its knowledge base. It sounds dubious, but in practice the peccadiloes of misrepresentation in Wikipedia don't matter much. Try it at conceptlinkage.org/ for an instant outline.

    • Once you have accumulated material, of course, the next hurdle is how to cite it. And here I get into arguments with colleagues. When I mention the next resource, they say it is a cheat. It is fudging the acquisition of an academic skill--proper referencing. I've discussed this elsewhere, but in short, it's a specialised academic skill which ought to be acquired by aspirant academics. Other people can turn to easybib.com/. (But note that the only citation format which is totally free is MLA. That is a humanities format; the format most commonly adopted in education and cognate areas is APA; to get that might cost you the equivalent of £10 p.a.)

    • There's a very different approach to presentations from the ubiquitous PowerPoint (tm.. whatever) at http://prezi.com/. It doesn't suit everything, but it's a brilliant alternative; follow it as it matures. Note that it comes in three versions; if you sign up from an academic address (e.g. ...ac.uk, or ...edu), you can get the second premium version for free.
    Enough for the moment, but further suggestions welcome. Have a good year.

      16 September 2010

      On plagiarism. Again

      Every so often someone attempts to spam the comments on my blog posts with irrelevant,  fatuous, probably unintentionally patronising and sometimes barely literate remarks, which are nevertheless signed with or incorporate a link--to a cheat page. That's why I have to keep comment moderation on. Such as:
      • I have been visiting various blogs for my dissertation research. I have found your blog to be quite useful. Keep updating your blog with valuable information...
      The link is disabled of course; I may be naive and stupid, but not that much!

      And a few weeks ago I was looking for guidance material on the structure of a dissertation in response to a request for advice. I found plenty of references, but of course none of them carried any substantive guidance--just advertising for essay and dissertation-writing services. So I wrote my own--for free, of course.

      So it was interesting to read what Dan Ariely got for his money, according to the post above; and it is worth circulating it. Unsurprisingly, these scams do not deliver what they promise!

      13 September 2010

      On links...

      Just some things I have recently come across:

      10 September 2010

      On reference and allusion

      (The link is to an earlier post which alludes to this)

      Last night we had an induction session for the new intake of an established part-time course. For reasons beyond our control (the economic squeeze and an aggravating change in funding arrangements) we did not hit the threshold numbers and so it appeared the course would have to be cancelled. (The situation today is rather different, I'm happy to say.)

      But as we were discussing the situation with the new potential intake, it occurred to me that they had a vested interest in doing some recruiting, so I encouraged them jokily to "go into the highways and hedgerows and compel them to come in" (Luke 14:23) ...to be met with totally blank looks of incomprehension. It wasn't even a particularly multi-cultural group, but it appeared that no-one picked up the quotation.

      Perhaps it is just me, but I am increasingly frustrated/disappointed that I can't take for granted that even mature students will appreciate allusions and references, not only to the Bible but to Shakespeare and the literary canon, and historical events and political slogans...

      But as someone pointed out last year--I haven't a clue about references to recent music in particular, or TV. Am I simply being elitist? (I'm guilty as charged on being elitist is some respects) Or is our communication impoverished by not sharing a cultural hinterland which enriches dialogue with such references?

      Or, of course, has the insistence of managing with such a shared code been a covert means of limiting access to privileged education and employment to those who have had the surplus time and resources to join what has always been a restricted club? (Yes, but how much has it mattered?)

      And what does it mean for how we express ourselves as teachers?

      [Addition, 11.09 --how could I have missed the opportunity to link to the Beloit College Mindset list? Obviously it is highly US-centric, but it makes a telling descriptive but definitely not prescriptive point.]

      05 September 2010

      On getting it

      Declaration of interest: I have a Skoda (Diesel Octavia Estate--perhaps the least "cool" car imaginable) and I am delighted with it. Obviously no-one would pay me for as oblique an endorsement as this. Indeed, I might not have noticed the ad. at all had I not owned the product and had the theme in mind. So much for potential corruption. Chance would be a fine thing!  However...

      The strap-line for the current Skoda TV ad campaign is; "Manufacturer of happy drivers."

      Not of "great cars", even if they are (and I am old enough to remember Skoda jokes.)

      They've got the point--and analogously the main point for beginning teachers.

      Good teachers are "manufacturers of accomplished learners".

      Now why did I say "accomplished"?

      On the irrelevance of reflection.

      I'm returning to the theme of reflection. As I argued in an earlier post and paper (the paper is here) reflection is not all that it is cracked up to be. However, a couple of pieces I have just come across have another interesting and related point; actually it is becoming less and less relevant to working practice, because it is in any case being squeezed out of many jobs, along with any scope for discretion.

      As Crawford (2010) --discussed here-- has pointed out in relation to much manual work, the Taylorisation of labour has relocated decision-making and discretion in the trades and crafts from the individual or team of practitioners to the managerial system. Reflection is thereby rendered fairly irrelevant.

      In the Guardian on Tuesday, Aditya Chakrabortty makes a similar point, in this case applying it even to managerial level jobs--particularly in supermarkets. The article sub-title includes "There's not much call for thinking these days". His source for the supermarket material is a press-release (we'll have to wait for the full study) from the ESRC Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE) is based in Oxford and Cardiff Universities.

      In rooting around their site, I came across a paper very relevant to my area of interest (teaching in post-compulsory education) Lloyd and Payne (2010). They say:

      "The FE sector in England and Wales has been particularly affected by the implementation of NPM [New Public Management], with the emphasis on ‘market-testing’ and performativity. Researchers have drawn attention to the detrimental impact on lecturers’ work, including the loss of control and autonomy, and on teaching and learning itself [...]. FE lecturers in England, it is argued, have been positioned as ‘delivery agents’ of government programmes and priorities, weighed down with heavy workloads and onerous administrative demands, in a system that constricts the ‘space’ available for teacher-led innovation, creativity and improvement [...]." (p.5-6: references removed)
      This of course accords well with Peter Hadfield's and my views (2009) expressed here

      Lloyd and Payne go on to quote lecturers interviewed whose remarks (p.12) suggest strongly that the insistence on "reflection" has become yet another managerial stick with which to beat the staff. It has become more of an act of contrition than a professionally development process. And once it comes to be seen like this within any occupational group, it is time to ditch the idea; it's tainted and corrupted.

      So has Taylorism won?

      Hadfield P and Atherton J (2009) “Beyond compliance: accountability assessment and anxiety, and curricular structures to help students engage with troublesome knowledge” in C Rust (ed.) (2009) Improving Student Learning 16; Improving student learning through the curriculum Oxford; Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, pp 158-170


      Lloyd C and Payne J (2010) "'We have got the freedom' A Study of Autonomy and Discretion among Vocational Teachers in Norway and the UK" SKOPE Research Paper No. 95 July 2010 [retrieved from http://www.skope.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/RP95.pdf accessed 5 Sept 2010]

      29 August 2010

      On getting oriented

      I've been trying to read John Gray's Gray's Anatomy (Penguin, 2010) which is a selection of essays written over the past thirty years; and I've been finding it very difficult. That is puzzling, because his writings are not terribly technical, nor do they pre-suppose a vast amount of background knowledge. Most of them were first published in unabashedly intellectual but non-specialist magazines.

      So it was interesting to come across the linked piece from Mark Bauerlein on the Brainstorm blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education. He starts:
      Over the years, I’ve spent some time reviewing items on reading comprehension tests, evaluating the passages selected as texts and checking the following eight or ten questions for accuracy, validity, etc. It can be a draining activity, scanning rather dry and often remote informational text, then spotting ambiguities or confusions in the questions that must be corrected.
      One thing, I’ve found, lightens the load: a little knowledge about the passage material. Just a little bit helps a lot. Indeed, the difference between no knowledge and a little knowledge means much more than the difference between a little knowledge and abundant knowledge.
       (My emphasis) He then goes on to discuss other people who have made a similar point, and relates it to the curriculum. In so doing he makes a good case for attention to the necessary background knowledge of the humanities without which students cannot get traction, as it were, to engage with more specialist--even scientific--advanced study.

      And my problem with Gray is largely that. It's not that I don't know whom he is talking about when he refers to Edmund Burke or Isaiah Berlin (or Michael Oakeshott--one of the reasons I bought the book), it is that for him and probably anyone who read PPE, they are not individual thinkers but representatives of a tradition of thinking, which one is expected to be aware of. It is that allusive quality which makes his writing so rich--as I appreciate when I recognise what he is talking about.

      In all the talk about millennial students (there's plenty of references out there), and the supposed imperative to engage with them in the present and to acknowledge that in their world our taken-for-granted knowledge is dead there is little acknowledgement that without an historical perspective to provide an entree to taught material no-one is going to get the allusions and links. No, you can't just ignore the facts because everone can look them up. You can't just teach students to think if they don't know what they are supposed to think about.

      It's not only a matter of millennial students; we are becoming increasingly aware that as English becomes the first global language, more and more students and readers and listeners have access to what we say. Great! The more people learn English, the better we can communicate, can't we? Well, no. They are learning Englishes, not one monolithic language with a standard set of cultural referents everyone can be expected to share. Those are not merely the casual references to literature or even current TV shows (I don't get those) which we drop without thinking about it, but catch-phrases and abbreviations and the whole allusive apparatus. Know how difficult it is to make or understand jokes in another language? It's because you need all that apparatus to understand their layered meanings.

      Where this is going is to argue for more attention to be paid to helping students orient themselves in general terms to their areas of study. I suppose that is what I find them thanking me for on Learning and Teaching. info And it is what a recent correspondent is asking for with reference to Foucault; of course, sometimes one just has to say it's not worth the effort!

      28 August 2010

      On time travel

      This has got little to do with teaching, for once. It is just extraordinary. Enjoy the technical stuff if you like (I do), but scroll down and watch the video. This is a test of Kodak colour movie film. From 1922.


      As the linked article comments, it is like time travel; there is something about its immediacy which can't be accounted for by its obvious features. The colour process (two, rather than three colours were used), and the necessity for two lenses must have contributed to the soft focus effect and the translucency of the models' skin, but even so there is something very special about this glimpse of almost 90 years ago.

      Some years ago some compilations of the Second World War in colour were shown on TV; there is a trailer and some extracts below:


      We are used to seeing such material on the TV news in colour every day, and of course very familiar with the black and white images, and reconstructions in colour. And yet once again it is all so different when it is real and contemporary and yet in colour. The black and white versions and the reconstructions all serve to remind us that we are watching a completed story. Somehow the colour transports us back to when it was not clear how it would work out--rather like listening to the reminiscences of Battle of Britain pilots on the radio a week or two ago.

      I'm sure the phenomenologists had a word for it!

      On the maze of social work

      Thanks to the Fighting Monsters blog, I've been introduced to this mini-action-maze on the Association of Directors of Social Work site. It has only four stages and is linear in format but it's a good try. It starts from a case-study, and at each stage you are asked what you would do and confronted with three alternatives, of which one is "correct" and leads to the next stage, and two are incorrect and take you back to the previous screen.

      Going back to my now long-gone days teaching social work I have some reservations about its verisimiltude (why is this referral coming in at 4pm on a Friday? [OK, the Friday is necessary for the story] The school would have been aware of the injury from the morning. And I hate to say it, but the first response in many offices would be to leave it to the Emergency Duty Team--and it could be argued that would be right...) and about the practice, such as of going on a first visit alone. And although the responses to the wrong choices unveil what would have happened next had that choice been made, they don't actually explain why the choice is the wrong one. And it is enormously over-simplified...

      Even so, it does pose real questions and could be used as a teaching aid in a wide variety of courses, even for qualified staff.

      My own first take on the action maze idea was originally about supervision in a residential social work setting, but I've put one on the web about mentoring new staff in higher education, which people can try here. (Warning; it's technically pretty crude--it's been around for eight years now--and you may have to resize your browser window to get it to show properly.) I'm mentioning it principally because this one does not have any right or wrong answers; it simply has opportunity costs. Unlike undertaking a role-play or other simulation, all the possible outcomes are pre-determined (this maze has about half-a-million potential routes through it), so the cost of the mentoring session you do have is all the others you could have had but didn't. And since it simply has to stop when its (simulated) time is up, the judgement you make of what you have achieved is principally up to you. And actually, that is probably truer to the reality of most social work (and teaching) practice than the neat and tidy "Child Protection Challenge".

      Incidentally Peter Davies (Davies and Mangan, 2007) argues that opportunity cost is a threshold concept in economics; it would be an interesting exercise to see whether a maze might provide an effective way of addressing it.

      Davies P and Mangan J (2007) "Threshold Concepts and the Integration of Understanding in Economics" Studies in Higher Education 32 (6)

      26 August 2010

      On being WEIRD

      A fascinating study which goes beyond tentative speculation (which has been around for a long time) to explore cultural issues in psychological research. And hence in educational research.

      There has been a minor but significant interest in what Hansen (1979) called "educational anthropology" but it has tended to be highly occi-centric (is that a word? It is now. OED take note!) It is a substantial step to recognise that the responses of WEIRD* students are not necessarily the default. Even Biggs (2007) starts from a WEIRD-centric position.


      * What does WEIRD stand for? Admittedly it is contrived, but read the linked article at least to find out.

      Biggs J and Tang C (2007) Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student does (3rd edn.) Buckingham; OU Press and Society for Research Into Higher Education

      Hansen J (1979) Sociocultural Perspectives on Human Learning: an introduction to educational anthropology Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall

      17 August 2010

      On reductionism in assessment

      The link (valid until 23 August only, and only in the UK) is to a Radio 4 programme on the Advanced level examination in UK schools (except for those in Scotland) taken at the age of 18. It pays particular attention to A level English literature, concentrating on a question on Hamlet.

      It considers how principally how the examination game is played and how students are trained unashamedly to get the maximum marks by engaging with the "Assessment Objectives" (AOs) of the subject, to the extent of a student readily saying that they can't start discussing the "texts" in class because that might take them away from the AOs, when they only have four weeks for each of their six texts.

      The AOs for English Literature are;
      1. Articulate creative, informed and relevant responses to literary texts, using appropriate terminology and
        concepts, and coherent, accurate written expression.
      2. Demonstrate detailed critical understanding in analysing the ways in which structure, form and language
        shape meanings in literary texts.
      3. Explore connections and comparisons between different literary texts, informed by interpretations of other readers.
      4. Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received.
      There's nothing much wrong with them as they stand. They do constitute a sub-set of the skills a critical reader ought to have, but...
      • To see a work of literature as a text, a technical product, is very partial. Babies and bathwater spring to mind.
      • This approach is even more stultifying that the French explication du texte.
      • But most of all it is disabling; I now have a much clearer idea of what my humanities colleagues are complaining about when they bemoan the inability of first-year undergraduates in particular to work independently, to value their own responses to a work independently of what will feature in the assessment, and even to read the whole of a novel or play or poem as a work of art. 
      • They have been drilled to fake appreciation.

      11 August 2010

      On manuals and text-books

      The other day I indulged myself by going to one of the world's great physical bookshops to browse and buy.

      Convenient as the online bookshops are, there is to my mind no substitute for physical browsing. And browsing in a bookshop and in a library are quite different experiences, which inform and feed off each other. In a library I look up the UDC/Dewey reference to find a text on a shelf and may browse round it to find associated stuff on a similar topic, but usually I am pretty clear what I am looking for, and either I find it or I don't.

      The bookshop is different. Certainly it is organised--much more broadly--by subject area,  but then by author, which leads to some interesting juxtapositions on the shelves which you can't find anywhere else, other than perhaps in a particular person's library.

      Almost as a penance for the browsing and buying motivated purely by my interests (and some potential presents--why else would I clean out their stock of Frankfurt H (2005) On Bullshit Princeton N J; Princeton University Press? *), I had a look on the education shelves, in particular those on teaching in post-compulsory education, to note if there were more recent editions of any of the standard works on our reading list.

      There were, so I flipped through them to see where the differences were and, being in that context in the bookshop, I was instantly bored stiff. Truth to tell, of course, I have never read any of these things. I've raided them for bits of information and to give a reference to something for students, and I do read the next level of collections of papers and research-based studies and the like, but I don't read the text-books.

      Thinking about this driving home, I realised anew that the text-books, in a professional/vocational discipline, may well be inimical to effective learning how to practise. The text-books have been contaminated, or perhaps more generously constrained, by the pernicious micro-managed compliance culture of post-compulsory education promulgated by LLUK and the now-defunct Learning and Skills Council (it's not often I link to something just to show that it's not there!), but that is not the whole story.

      They have managed to reduce all the knowledge to something to be learned about (See here for a very quick and dirty exposition) rather than something to know by direct experience. (Sorry; that is a very sloppy usage of one of the most venerable distinctions in philosophy). It is a slab of indigestible dough sitting out there which needs to be consumed**. It is inert.

      Some might recognise that "inert knowledge" like that, is another of David Perkins' categories of "troublesome knowledge" (2006).

      Many of our teacher "trainees", especially those from craft and practical disciplines, experience these 400-page tomes as serious obstacles to learning how to practise. And Howard Becker, in his excellent 1972 article, which pre-figures all the "situated learning" discussions of the '90s onwards, shows how the culture and conventions of the educational system militate against the effective learning of practical disciplines.

      Now Sean has identified another instance of this in the case of a textbook all about management which is a liability to his students who need to learn how to be entrepreneurs and to manage a small business.

      This is not of course to deny that there is value in these books and their counterparts which fuel further investigation into policies and practices; after all, this blog in its trivial way fits within that tradition. But just as a weed is a plant in the wrong place, much of the literature is a stumbling-block to new practitioners.

      As I drove home, I was asking myself why we were putting our new students through that obstacle course. There are many reasons, of course; the academic level of the course, the inspection regime, even our desire to show off our academic credentials by announcing that we know all this stuff--and a corresponding desire to put initiates through a rite of passage, whose irrelevance and futility is of course part of its potency. But none of it is about getting them to teach better.

      So perhaps we should forbid them to read anything like these textbooks for the first year? (Bearing in mind that for some of the graduates, that will work as a paradoxical injunction which will guarantee they devour the reading list...) Let them gain knowledge by acquaintance first, like people do in the real world, perhaps?

      Strangely, something like this is happening by accident. The current structure of teacher training in post-compulsory education in England and Wales requires that all new staff undertake a short, survival-oriented course at the start of their job (PTLLS) and then go on to a full two-year part-time programme as soon as possible. In practice, that "as soon as possible" may well be the beginning of the following academic year. So they get a year's experience under their belts (with support, theoretically) and will only then get all these books thrown at them. That won't reduce the academic step some craft colleagues have to take, but it will mean that they may be ready for this more formal approach to learning when it comes.

      And the reference to manuals? There are some authors out there who have little interest in covering the standard ground, but just presenting concrete advice to newcomers. They don't write textbooks; they write manuals. Their agenda is set by what their readers want to know. At different ends of the scale, Sue Cowley and Phil Race stand out, but they are not alone. They may not go far, but they make a much better start.

      On the other hand, avoid like the plague anything which is sub-titled "meeting the LLUK standards" or "achieving QTLS" (it doesn't matter what it means). Those sub-titles are testimony to the authors having lost the plot; they are writing to "cover" the inert knowledge entombed in the standards and the syllabi, as a very poor proxy for improving practice.


      * Actually, I wasn't terribly impressed. The whole thing is really summed up on p.47, "the essence of bullshit is not that it is false, but that it is phony." It's a conceit, that's all.
      ** Sean has a very interesting blog post about bread-making, incidentally, here.

      Becker H S (1972) "A School is a Lousy Place to Learning Anything in" American Behavioral Scientist vol 16: 85-105 doi:10.1177/000276427201600109
      Perkins D (2006) "Constructivism and troublesome knowledge" in J H F Meyer  and R Land (eds.) Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge London; Routledge.