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.

1 comment:

  1. "you know you are in trouble when the proxies are elevated above the substance."

    I couldn't agree more James. Your point about the legitimacy of my story is also important though. I’m sure my tutor has his reasons – it’s just that all the evidence points to punctiliousness and a lack of engagement with substance.

    The story has since become more complicated. I've been told by my mentor/peer observer that the assessment isn't yet over and that the mark and feedback I received from the course tutor is to be augmented by a mark and feedback from my mentor/peer observer (which was always supposed to happen but has been delayed due to confusion and other priorities etc).

    I assume therefore that the course tutor felt a duty to ensure that the structural and formal aspects of my submission are fully accounted for, in the knowledge that subject specialist issues and attributes will be covered by the mentor/peer observer. Even if I can appreciate the underlying logic of this strategy it still seems more tactical than pedagogic.




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