25 May 2010

On critically evaluating inspiration

Here is Sir Ken Robinson speaking at TED 2010. Apart from his tendency to chuckle at his own jokes (a fault he shares with President Obama) he's pretty inspirational. This is the follow-up to his 2006 talk (one of TED's top ten).

He's inspirational and aspirational and I share his vision, but is he rational... what planet is he living on? No, I haven't signed up to the Gradgrind tendency, but his vision pretends that human fulfilment is possible without sewers, mines, window-cleaning, accountancy, fish-gutting, and a host of other occupations on which any creative and artistic superstructure can be built.

I detest the economically-driven utilitarian arguments about the purposes of education:
To achieve stable and sustainable growth, we will need a well-educated, well-equipped and adaptable labour force. To cope with rapid change and the challenge of the information and communication age, we must ensure that people can return to learning throughout their lives. We cannot rely on a small elite, no matter how highly educated or highly paid. Instead, we need the creativity, enterprise and scholarship of all our people.
BLUNKETT D (1998) Foreword to The Learning Age: a renaissance for a new Britain
 Department for Education and Employment Green Paper; London HMSO
But don't knock it--within limits (and what those limits are is debatable...) --it's essential to make all the interesting stuff possible.

24 May 2010

On teaching from requisite ignorance

In my first teaching job in the late 'sixties, I remember passing time with a more senior colleague, while waiting for our evening classes to start. He posed the question, "Is it possible to be too intelligent to be a good teacher?"

In those days, when I could claim to be "quite bright" on the basis of a "good" degree from a very fashionable university--but without benefit of much experience of life, work, serious relationships or anything much--I thought that was rubbish. That was before I found out how rubbish a teacher I was (and still am, in some respects).

Sadly, Martin Gardner has died, at 95. The heading link is to Alex Bellos' blog of interviewing him in 2008 (the opening paragraphs give the background). But I was particularly struck by this exchange:

What about the complicated maths in the column?

I worked very hard to understand it. I am basically a journalist. Beyond calculus I am lost. That was the secret of my column’s success. It took me so long to understand what I was writing about that I knew how to write about it so most readers would understand it. If I had been a better mathematician I couldn’t have done that.
(My emphasis)

No further comment necessary.

23 May 2010

On "facts"

I've just responded to a sponsorship appeal for a medical charity. That's not the issue. But I am a little concerned about the acknowledgement email, which says;
Thank you very much for your kind donation. 1 in 50 will suffer from MM [Malignant Melanoma] during their lifetime, 1 in 4  of those sufferers will die from it. These are FACTS ...
Are they? This suggests that 0.5% (1 in 200) of all deaths, from all causes, worldwide, are accounted for by this particular form of cancer. I've pursued this on the net, and I can find no evidence to support such broad-brush claims. (Show me and I'll take this post down and publish a retraction.)

"According to a WHO report about 48,000 melanoma related deaths occur worldwide per year." On that basis the total annual death toll of humanity would be about 9.6m p.a. But if there are about 6bn of us, and assuming optimistically that all of us live 100 years, even those figures would produce a death toll of 60m p.a. ...

I, like most respondents to the appeal, am not really bothered about this kind of statistic. Indeed, an appeal to the rarity of a condition might be equally potent in eliciting a donation. But it does make me uneasy when such assertions are made without evidence. It undermines my confidence in such appeals.

21 May 2010

On degrees of research ethics constraints

As ever, this reflection is prompted by the juxtaposition of two events.

I came down from the study a few minutes ago and looked in on my wife, who was watching a reality TV programme which included CCTV footage, to ask if she would like a cup of tea (stupid question). It just would not have been practicable to get the broadcast consent of all the people who appeared, but the material was sent out to millions of potential viewers without--it appears--the consent question ever having been raised.

But up in the study I was looking at partial drafts of master's dissertations, and checking off among other things, whether ethical clearance has been obtained for the empirical research component. It did not arise this time, but I do remember a few years ago when a student--who happened to be employed by the National Health Service--wanted simply to pilot a questionnaire to see whether the questions were clear and unbiassed, etc. She was daft enough to follow the regulations, and request ethics clearance to ask half a dozen of her colleagues whether the questionnaire made sense (admittedly she was not the only daft one; the university's regulations also required clearance by employers and other stakeholders, without a clue of the implications.) The date for the Ethics Committee to consider her request merely to pilot the instrument was later than the submission date for the entire dissertation. (She actually got the group together over lunch on a day off, off NHS premises, and they talked about her ideas... The survey was much improved as a result.)

My doctoral research would be impossible today, because the interviews at the heart of the empirical component were undertaken under a pretext. By current standards I was insufficiently explicit about my research topic. But had I been more explicit I would have pre-empted many answers... and invalidated the research. There was no way in which the interviews could have harmed or disadvantaged respondents, but...

Lord Triesman was apparently recorded making indiscreet remarks about football cheating by a supposed "friend". The transcript (or perhaps a third-generation selectively edited copy) was distributed to the media, and he has resigned from whatever position he had. (Full disclosure--all I know about this is based on a minute or two of radio news. But by media standards, that's due diligence.)

Double standards?

20 May 2010

On the effects of inspection

The professional education programmes at the university with which I maintain a tenuous association were Ofsteded last week. (PCE provision got 2 and 2, since you ask.)
(Ofsted=Office for Standards in Education. The militant wing of the Department for Education. Yes!  We now have a ministry which acknowledges "education" in its title; the Department for Curtains and Soft Furnishings is no more!
Incidentally, "to be Ofsteded" is a rare example of a deponent verb in English--one where the passive voice is the default. Inspectors don't say, "I ofsted, you ofsted...", they say, "I inspect," etc. Freire would say "to be Ofsteded" is the language of the oppressed...)
Given that we now have a new government which is making noises about rolling back the centralised micro-management regime of the last 13 years, and also that cuts mean that the regulatory body LLUK can no longer inspect us, I found myself thinking about whether the Quality Assurance approach actually works, and was reminded (as so often by an insightful question from a student) of work I had done on this 20 years ago, in the different context of social care.That suggested that the issue was not simple, but was comprehensible.

So I have re-visited that work and put it on the web here. Hope someone finds it useful.

18 May 2010

On the test you can't teach to

Or to which one cannot teach! It sort of puts SATs into perspective, even if even this has been dumbed down.

15 May 2010

11 May 2010

On game-changing

I have my doubts about "reflection" as a panacea for professional development, despite the title of this blog. But in practical terms, my most effective learning from experience occurs when I find that themes from several different instances/areas/events/ideas come together to make a point.
But! I find myself warning some of my best and most curious students (I don't mean "freakiest", although the categories are not mutually exclusive...) against producing spurious syncretist theories of everything. I may be guilty of that, too.
What prompts this thought is a political debate (of course), editing a video (discussed more in the 10 May post), and a TV series on the history of science.

Politically, proportional representation as a form of electoral reform is a game-changer. It's irreversible short of a period of anarchy/revolution. I'm all for it, incidentally, as long as the system maintains an adequate link between representative and locality (which is a little more specific than "constituency"). But it is a BIG step.

It's an instance of second-order change (Watzlawick et al 1974)
  • First-order change: Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose... The more things change, the more they stay the same (attributed to Karr, 1849)
  • Second-order change: Things will never be the same again.
I note in the post on 10 May "On another threshold concept, rediscovered" that Kuhn's notion of "paradigm shifts" is an instance of second-order change in the history of science. Mosley's excellent BBC2 series (linked to above, and on again at 9pm today) has very effectively explored such instances, and in so doing demonstrated that--for later students--they constitute threshold concepts.

The video includes some plenary discussion of students' conceptions (and misconceptions) of threshold concepts, and watching it over and over again for editing purposes is a good way of at least forming some hypotheses about their understanding (getting feedback from them, as Hattie emphasises). I am struck by how "safe" are the TCs they chose to mention, in particular. As commentators Peter H and myself found ourselves challenged potentially to accept the proffered examples as they stood, even when they did not quite hit the target--thereby running the risk of diluting the idea to the status of "statements of the bleeding obvious", which a few students obviously thought we did, from their evaluations. Apart from the initial statement about the limitations of the applicability of TCs to practice with students with Special Education Needs, clearly students did not want to "show themselves up" in front of the assembled multitude by risking a contentious suggestion. And interestingly, few referred to their own learning of their discipline--which was what the exercise asked--but reverted to issues about teaching it.

What all this is reminding me of, apart from the general point about the much-neglected emotional agenda in teaching and learning, is just how disconcerting and disorienting is the liminality of TCs, and how much people may avoid it, because they have not got their bearings in the new space. Just as I hear politicians on the radio resiling for fear of what lies beyond the portal of PR, which is indeed scary until you think that it is what every other European democracy bar one uses. Just like scientists wishing no-one had ever discovered quantum physics.

    10 May 2010

    On another threshold concept, rediscovered

    Threshold concepts are not only like portals, they are also like buses. You wait ages for one, and then three come along together.

    I've been editing the video of our joint presentation on them at a Study Day last month (here) so I am sensitised to keep finding (or rediscovering) them.

    Today I was listening in the car to a Radio 4 (of course) programme in which "Matthew Taylor discovers what the latest scientific research can tell us about the human need for religion". In the programme, he interviewed anthropologist David Sloan Wilson (Darwin's Cathedral Chicago; U Chicago Press, 2002) who drew the distinction between "practical" (survival oriented) beliefs and "factual" (accurate/truthful) ones, and averred* that in the real world practical beliefs win every time. And in order to practise as an anthropologist, you need to adopt the perspective of the practicality/utility of a belief rather than its factual accuracy. That is a threshold concept. It is a dizzying prospect. But a moment's thought shows how it opens up the way into a new and potentially fruitful understanding of other people's beliefs.

    I was only struck by this because I am sensitised to look for TCs at the moment. I myself made a similar point about the nature of myth in ch. 6 of Atherton (1989). I make no great claim for this insight. I was merely making a point in passing about what I meant by "working myth". And interestingly, I suspect that most of my (very few!) readers, thought, "OK, so what?" and plodded on to more interesting and relevant stuff.

    So, the idea needed a context in order to become a TC. It is the interaction between the discipline and the TC which gives the latter the potential to transform understandings. Drop an explosive idea into a tank of inert gas, and nothing happens. Drop it into oxygen and all hell breaks loose.

    More precisely it is to do with how closely-coupled is the contextual system. A TC in the form of a paradigm shift (Kuhn, 1962) --when accepted--overturns the consensus of "normal science". Generally speaking a similar bomb in the humanities splutters into oblivion enveloped by tenuously connected fluffy fibres of unconnected meanderings......

    Which poses the question of how the humanities were hi-jacked by "Theory" Assuming the contention is correct (I'm not convinced, but I have to admit that it is more fun than scholarship)...

    *  I've been waiting for years for a chance to use that word!

    Atherton J S (1989) Interpreting residential life: values to practise London; Tavistock

    06 May 2010

    On the election

    What's Iain Dale doing plugging a Labour candidate's blog? Watch and enjoy!

    05 May 2010

    On a succinct account of the ills of English education, from policy to practice

    Something to think about as we consider the possibility of yet more change in the system from tomorrow.

    Yes, but what has Semmelweis to do with my professional development as a tutor?

    "This report asks the poignant question of teaching professionals - 'What changes do I need to make to those aspects of my professional thinking and practice which I suspect are doing more harm than good?' This was the central question posed by Ignaz Semmelweis, a young Hungarian doctor who, as a result of painstaking research, reduced mortality rates in childbed fever to less than 1% by challenging the practices of his contemporaries in 19th century Vienna. Now, more than 150 years later, Professor Frank Coffield, Emeritus Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, examines how we can use this remarkable story to challenge and improve some current professional practices in teaching and learning." (From the publisher's blurb)

    Free download (pdf) from the Learning and Skills Network.