28 June 2011

On classic sociology; they don't write them like this any more

I'm reading Becker et al. (1961) The Boys in White; student culture in medical school. It's the first time I've actually read it. I have of course raided it before, searching the index for a gobbet of material to use for a particular purpose, but I've never had the time to get into it. It is after all over 450 pages, and even now I am not reading from beginning to end.

At one level I am disappointed--I got it out of the library in order to raid it yet again, for a blog post yet to appear on professional socialization as the hidden curriculum, in the light of a recent study of how medical students' empathy declines through medical school--and I couldn't find what I expected to find. But then... I began to read more leisurely, taking the book on its own terms rather than imposing my own imperious demands on it, and I rediscovered a lost genre.

From the Lynds' Middletown studies (1929 on) to Becker and co.'s own Making the Grade (1968) there is a whole seam of big, sprawling, accessible and humane case studies*, more like current anthropology than sociology, which may be theoretically "naive" to current researchers for whom fieldwork is a (not entirely) necessary obstacle on the shortest possible path between idea and rateable article for the REF score... **

I have no idea how these people pitched for the funding to do the research, but it certainly wasn't by predicting what they would find out before they started looking for it, as current researchers have to do writing their bids. They did "grounded theory" before Glaser and Strauss invented it (I suppose it could be argued that it only had to be formulated as a "theory" because it was then becoming necessary to legitimise proposals with a "theoretical", even "scientific" base).

But these works are rich. They are full of--often unnecessary, by current standards--transcribed interviews, and observational anecdotes. Some of the subjects become old friends--oh, here's Jackson again! Wasn't he complaining about not being able to see the actual surgery on his obs/gyn rotation?

What's happened? Partly this kind of common-sensical description has been taken over by a generation of academics scrabbling to be more "scientific" (or more likely more "post-modern" aka incomprehensible) than thou. Partly it has drifted into the realms of reportage: the rise of popular non-fiction has probably lowered the stock of accessible scholarly writing.

It's all moot. But we'll all be the poorer if it disappears in any form; and there was a lot to be said for academic rigour and a concern for balance.

* I'm sure someone will argue with these arbitrary chronological boundaries; I concede in advance that I can't be bothered to research the field properly. It's potentially a whole academic career...

** I'm referring to US studies, but the UK tradition is not to be sneezed at, see for an intro (if you can find it) Frankenberg R (1967) Communities in Britain London; Penguin. And belated thanks to Frankenberg for accepting my first (actually, only) respectable sociological article in 1971 when he edited the Sociological Review.

17 June 2011

On learning by naming

To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
          And to-day we have naming of parts.
Reed, Henry. "Naming of Parts." New Statesman and Nation 24, no. 598 (8 August 1942)

(Do read the rest of this very funny, but also cutting and sometimes beautiful, long poem about the absurdity of war, from the link above.)

I was reminded of this as I drove back from another teaching observation this morning, (the same circumstances as this earlier one). I'm happy to report that the student is making good progress, but she is still stuck with another hopeless course. The Wolf Report on vocational qualifications makes no bones that the quality of many of those qualifications is dubious, they are not fit for purpose, and effectively deceive young people into believing that they are going to lead somewhere. What I observed this morning clearly met those criteria. It was a Level 3 National Diploma in "Sports Development and Football"--a spurious concoction of a curriculum, even by vocational education standards, clearly not well understood by students or even the tutor. (To be fair, I must concede that today's lesson on planning activity sessions for children did have some practical merit--despite being enirely classroom-based.)

Its recurrent theme was matching up all activities with "the" four Benefits of Exercise. Not three, not five, not twenty-two, but four. It appeared that these were so doctrinally significant that they had to be taught dogmatically; they could not be discussed and discovered. And then they had to be written down and incorporated into the (written) assignment. (Without attribution--despite this being Level 3, which is just one level below first-year undergraduate level, the question, "Who says?" was never raised. No wonder freshers are thrown by their university experience...)

And there was no Japonica in a garden outside, but it came to me as I drove back that I had sat in on a session about naming of parts. At this level, it appears (on the basis of the previous observation and class discussions) that most of the learning is about attaching an approved label to a concept or experience. Rather like the magical belief in the potency of naming as a means of gaining power over an object, the assumption is that to name is to know, and that is all that is needful.

At least in Reed's case, the naming was clear labelling of concrete objects, even if one of them "you have not got"...
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
          Which in our case we have not got.

15 June 2011

On frameworks

I'm sure the stats facilities of Blogger could tell me how many people have dropped by this blog, once, and then moved on. I do it all the time, dipping into blogs via RSS feeds. The really interesting ones I subscribe to, but I have to admit that many of them (principally those thrown up by my "teaching+learning+college+practice+teach+reflect" search string) are full of pious jargon-ridden bulls**t. Usually immaculately referenced.

Occasionally I come across sites like this one, or Don Clark's. I'm impressed by the amount of study and thought and experimentation which have gone into Don's ADDIE model. I wish I could be as systematic and organised. I wish I could bring together such an eclectic range of reading as does the author of the other linked site (although it does feel like a required assignment).

A while ago, I was trying to put something together on planning for teaching, and I made some effort to research the topic. Every textbook has something to say about it, and indeed the first pages I wrote for my main site were about how to do it. (You can see it is ancient--I still believed in "learning styles" then!)

In higher education, the most popular approach seems to be Biggs' "constructive alignment" (and here). But see David Jones' blog for a dissenting view-- I'm in awe of his scholarship, too. I'm just not convinced by any of them.

I don't believe anyone actually works like this; that they proceed step by step through a planning checklist or algorithm and eventually end up with a lesson plane or scheme of work of impeccable provenance which they actually implement (other than when they are being observed for assessment or inspection purposes, of course).

If I try to do that, I come up with something which is deeply boring and/or superficial, and I find myself back-tracking to change earlier stages in order to come up with something I can actually see myself teaching.
Which is a little embarrassing, because I teach this stuff!

And that's another problem, because students keep pressing me for a clear planning procedure.

So I was relieved to come across this (sort of) confession by Dan Ariely. It's not about teaching as such (but it is about how he teaches a subject in response to those demands), it's about marketing, but there are similarities of simplistic prescriptions;

Ariely's full blog posts with comments is here.

(Er--just don't tell my poor students who have to jump through these irrelevant hoops, particularly as they are submitting their final assessments! Although, to be fair, some of the simpler stuff can be justified on the basis of scaffolding, at the start of a career.)

On "Toy Stories"

Simply the most entertaining hour of TV for (in my limited experience) years. It does take an hour to watch, it's unashamedly "boys' toys", and probably inaccessible outside the UK, but enjoy!

11 June 2011

On academic inhibition

A few days ago I wrote quite a long post about teamwork, nearly posted it, and then didn't, cut a large chunk and reinstated some of it, and then finally posted it yesterday and immediately had second thoughts...

It made no mention of teams in other contexts, of sports teams for example. (Because I know nothing about them.) It did not discuss Belbin on management teams (often misapplied and contestable as it is). The list of what is missing is endless.

It is also highly self-indulgent; much of it is about team membership in my own not-very-exciting career, and there is little reason to suppose that anyone else will be interested in that. At least I had the decency to put that beyond a jump break.

Why am I bothered? Even to the extent of boring stiff my few readers with this kind of meta-reflection? After all, the blogosphere is precisely a place where people notoriously pontificate about stuff they known nothing about, make stuff up, are unremittingly egocentric. There are no rules about citing evidence for assertions and claims, there is no requirement to confine oneself to relevant argument, or to keep within one's realm of knowledge and competence.

But those qualities are precisely those I bang on about all the time as an academic, and seek to instil in students. And it is their absence which leads me to be cautious about accepting students citing from the web in general and the blogosphere in particular...

And I have internalised them rather too much, to the extent of discounting the value of any other kind of writing, particularly on my own part. Even to the extent of gradually ceasing to voice opinions on anything on which I am not an expert--hence, on practically anything at all.

I'm planning a book; working title, "The Secret Life of the Classroom". It's proceeding rapidly. Backwards. It's not original research, but intended to be research-based and I suppose scholarly but accessible. It will be based on material I have taught for years--but the further I get with planning, the further away I am from actually starting, because in order to be credible I realise how much more work I need to do and how much I don't know.

Still, I have the time, I hope. So watch this space in a year or two, or five...

10 June 2011

On a team

I was in prison the other day (just visiting for a teaching observation).

My student and I were just beginning our post-session discussion when one of his colleagues knocked on the classroom door to remind him that the morning team meeting would begin in a couple of minutes. He asked whether I wanted to attend. I wasn't sure it would be appropriate, because I was an outsider, but I needed an escort to get back to the gatehouse and no-one would be available until after the meeting, so I acquiesced.

I was so pleased I did. It only took ten minutes, and nothing exciting happened; some nagging about locking doors (of course), some reporting back on "incidents" last week which some people may not have known about, with a clarification of reporting procedures...

There were a dozen or so people present, most of them standing up, in the dingy outer office. About four or five people spoke in response to the chair's invitation for anything to share.The "manager" was not even there (and I'm sure she's not happy with her formal label--she was a student of ours several years ago) but it all happened regardless. I have no idea whether anyone took notes. I hope not, because there is nothing more toxic to teamworking than having an eye to an audit trail.

I was the outsider, and stayed physically on the periphery. But I felt totally at home.

It may be that working as a teacher, in a prison, focuses one's thinking on the clash of educational and custodial values.  (Although it does occur to me that these meetings may be part of the standard operating procedure and that the prison officers on the wings do the same thing... I don't know enough to have a view on that.)

But what really struck me was the sense of team membership. Interdependence counts in an uncertain environment (although in practice of course prison education is much less hassled than in any open environment). It's the culture I have spent most of my working life in, and although not a demonstrably sociable person, it's one I value enormously.

And it is almost totally absent in most teaching in higher education*. (Big generalisation, carefully qualified, and of course not properly evidenced... B-?) It exists in research teams, sometimes very powerfully, but not much in respect of  teaching.

I think there is probably more of a sense of being a team amongst staff teaching on a professionally-- rather than academically--oriented programme. The modules of a professional programme are jigsaw pieces rather than free-standing units**, and (apart from notorious instances where the staff are at vicious loggerheads with each other) the staff need consciously to work together. Numbers of students and of staff are probably more manageable, too.

On academic programmes, particularly those such as humanities where there are few prerequisites, the structure (and options) of the course typically follow the individual interests of the faculty. ("Fred's retired, so we'll have to drop 'Origins of the novel' this year, but Gabby needs some hours, and so we could offer 'Queer theory and early 20th century poetry' instead...")

Academe has an ambivalent relationship with teamwork. It's both a highly individualistic environment and highly mutually dependent (and the extent depends a lot on the discipline--the more equipment you need, the more you have to depend on each other). But it's a tremendous and yet little explored resource.

Incidentally, real Teamworking has absolutely no connection at all with what Human Resources departments think it is, with their obscene expenditure on external "team-building" consultants whose only impact is to unite the potential "team" in visceral hatred of HR and probably management in general. It has to be a bottom-up phenomenon (and of course as such it can--for better or for worse--interfere with top-down initiatives) but when it comes together it is transformative.