25 February 2012

On starting from the question

Background: Recently I went to observe a training session for nursery nurses (staff at day-care facilities for pre-school children). They are a major constituency for vocational education, but the job is low-status and traditionally undertaken as a process of drift, from leaving school with few qualifications to motherhood. Not "parenthood"--not only are young men rare in the sector, they are often regarded with suspicion. The pressure for training comes from well-meaning government regulation and inspection of everyone from registered child-minders to nursery schools by Ofsted.

So, in practice the class consists of eight young women. Because of the nature of the scheme, which requires the accumulation of assessed units of competence--taken in no particular order--into a portfolio which can be presented for accreditation (roughly), this group has met only for this morning. Some of them know each other and have met before, most don't and haven't. Similarly the tutors (I forgot--there are two of them and they are [in-service] students on our course) have met some of them before and even know their names, and in a couple of cases know something of their background and work setting, but are meeting others for the first time. And this particular group may never meet again.

The topic concerns the systematic observation of children to... Do what?

The EYFS sets out recommended procedures for systematic observation of children, and recording them.

So... how does one teach that? Boring, but simple.

First, ask why "we" might want to undertake such observations.

The students don't know each other and so they don't trust each other. Come to that, they don't know or trust the tutors--there is no track record of knowing whether wrong answers will be met with encouragement to get closer to the answer, or humiliating scorn for monumental ineptitude.

Good move from the tutor: everyone has to write down their answer, and then she goes round the group asking them to read them out. Everyone says, "to assess development" in one way or another. But because they are reading what what they wrote, the last person is not humiliated by failing to come up with an eighth distinctive reason.

So we now know that they know an acceptable answer. (And further questioning elicits more, and a later pair exercise makes them more comfortable with each other...)  Yes, an "acceptable" answer. The criterion is fundamentally about the process in the class.

I don't want to get too precious about this. This kind of closed-question, guess-what-I'm-thinking, Q and A has been the staple of such courses from time immemorial (for all the much-vaunted "Socratic method", he was a serious perpetrator, too). And it works.

I've just been watching Call the Midwife on BBC1. A newly-trained midwife on a solo call is faced with a breech birth; you can see her (no tricks, just Miranda Hart's acting) recalling her training as she carefully follows the recommended procedure (which may well have been up-dated since). She learned how to do that from just the same kind of instruction, I'm sure, especially given that it is set in the early 'fifties.

And as I was writing I came across this real-life example. That crew may well have learned the same way, too.

And yet. The dramatic, high-stakes situation depicted concentrates the mind wonderfully; she would have reached back into her training and drawn everything she could from it, no matter how badly it was done, as would the fire crew.

Systematically observing children is not like that. It's more of a chore. Quite rightly, the staff would rather be playng with the children and responding to them moment by moment. (Indeed, is there any evidence that other than in gross and obvious cases of "abnormal" behaviour--which tend to force themselves on the observer--that the effort expended on such surveillance has any payoff? The session I observed implied that it was principally about generating evidence for a report for the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator [a.k.a. SENCO], which could then be produced for Ofsted as evidence of due diligence. )

So--leaving aside reservations about the whole idea, and living with what we have got--how do we get the class members to engage with the requirements?

The template for the session is information-transmission. That first of all requires motivation, and in this session the students were asked to come up with their reasons about why we might observe. Then they were provided with standard observation tools, and encouraged to familiarise themselves with them and use them with a video clip. I was quite interested to see how detailed (and time-consuming) the tools are.

I wonder if this couldn't be flipped. How would it work if the students were shown the video first, and encouraged to pay close (but non-specific) attention to it, and then asked what they observed, perhaps in an open format first, and then testing them on specific points? (I'm reminded of the Sherlock Holmes trick of asking Watson what he can tell about their latest client, and then showing off his skill by reeling off a lot more information he has picked up by observation and deduction--on Sherlock they do it very neatly with key-words labelling the tell-tale signs.)  

The point is they won't report much to begin with, because they don't know what to look for. But this technique would make them aware of that, and create a need (i.e. motivation) to get hold of the tools, so they would be more likely to take them in.

And similarly, later they could be shown completed examples of the observation sheets, and asked to interpret what story they tell, and what hypotheses (or in Sherlock's case) conclusions they might draw from the raw data. 

Perhaps one could use selected clips from CSI or a similar forensics-based show?


A few days later, the students and I discussed the session and the alternative strategies. They have done something similar in the past, and agree it is more engaging--but it all takes so long to "cover" the material. Yet again, the tyranny of the syllabus, which is all about "knowing about". It matters more that the material has been seen to have been taught, than that it has been learned. And paradoxically that puts more of a burden on the trainees and their mentors at work, because everything has to be addressed again there, often without the benefit of understanding the underpinning principles which could be addressed in class, and which would have increased the probability of the practical instruction "sticking".

Items to share (25 February)

  • Fascinating extract from Robert Trivers' "Deceit and Self-Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others" (2011)
  • "The idea that the self can be split into body and mind is at the root of psychology, but there is no laboratory test, questionnaire or brain scan that tells us this – it is a product of our culture." Vaughan Bell briefly discusses alternative views.
  • And a selection of pieces, largely by or about Stephan Collini, on what universities are for.  Here he is interviewed for Times Higher Education. Here he is in conversation with Laurie Taylor on Radio 4. Here is his book reviewed in the Guardian, and here in the Independent.  And coincidentally, it appears, here Jeffrey Williams surveys the emerging field of which Collini's book is a part, "critical university studies".
...And on to something completely different. Another of Adam Curtis' quixotic takes on recent history.

18 February 2012

Items to share (18 February)

  • The ever-rational Ben Goldacre sympathetically (and sensibly) entertains some way-out ideas.
  • What are the humanities for? A big question in higher education at the moment, and rarely answered as directly as this--they introduce us to the art of living, they are a toolbox for life. Here are seventeen full lectures from that course at Stanford University on video (I've only sampled them so far). The liberal arts tradition has almost gone from British universities, but it's still alive and well in the USA.
  • A collection of discussions and illustrations of the Prisoners' Dilemma. (Note that at the end there is a link to a page on the Tragedy of the Commons. That's interesting, in that the original article by Hardin (1968) is apparently "one of the most-reprinted articles ever to appear in any scientific journal", and the most uncritically accepted. My quote above is from an interesting dissenting article [decidedly from the left, but not necessarily any the worse for that] by Ian Angus in 2008; The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons which suggests that it has never been demonstrated in practice, and yet it is adopted because of its convenient fit with pre-existing ideological interests. Illustrates the principle that utility comes first, and truth a poor second in these circles. Well worth reading.)

16 February 2012

On a classroom double-bind

A colleague has just circulated links to a  package on Learning to Teach Inclusively, which includes a video on "setting ground rules".

Social Work - Classrom session - Setting inclusive ground rules from Learning to Teach Inclusively on Vimeo.

You might like to watch it and think about (OK--"reflect on") your impressions before clicking to get past the break below.

11 February 2012

Items to share (11 February)

  • The wisdom of crowds strikes again--quite unexpectedly--with a new font.
  • Indulge me! I've actually read Julian Jaynes' magnum opus (and foolishly lent it to someone about 20 years ago and never got it back). This is a good review of a great and original (if indeed totally wrong-headed) idea, which is so much less likely to see the light of day today, with the imprimatur of a respected publisher. The freedom of the air-headed blogosphere, where anyone can say anything, has diluted the potency of such serious fancies to nil. The absence of any bar to publication has undermined the value of it...
  • I've been longing to know this for years! 

07 February 2012

On the limitations of e-learning

Even if you are not concerned with maths education, this post by Dan Meyer on What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong About Math Education Again And Again is well worth reading, because e-learning does change the content of most (if not all) subjects. I made the point (rather more vaguely and broadly) in this paper, which is now over ten years old. For all the increased sophistication of the technology, the arguments still stand.

03 February 2012

Items to share (4 February)

  • This is stunning--worth a special trip to the V and A. (Thanks to Nigeness)
      • Brainstorming debate (and forget all the PC stuff about epilepsy--that community has no problem with the term): Against and  For.

        01 February 2012

        On Franklin's Gambit

        Thanks to Jim Hamlyn's intriguing review, I have just finished reading John Kay's Obliquity. I'm not quite as enthusiastic about it as Jim is--it's easy to read, but also repetitious and wordy, almost padded. Nevertheless, it is the book I have been looking for, for some time, because it addresses an issue--namely tackling problems and challenges indirectly--which has interested me for some time, and to which there has not really been an accessible introduction I can point other people to, and say, "It's all there!" There's been a series of books, largely by economists (as Kay is), perhaps most notably by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2008), which touch on similar areas, but without the clarity of focus Kay brings to bear.

        Kay starts thus:
        For over ten years, I built and ran an economic consultancy business, and much of our revenue was derived from selling models to large corporate clients. One day, I asked myself a question: if these models were helpful, why did we not build similar models for our own decision making? The answer, I realised, was that our customers didn't really use these models for their decision making either. They used them internally or externally to justify decisions that they had already made.

        They were playing what I now call Franklin's Gambit, after the American polymath Benjamin Franklin. He wrote: 'so convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.'
        In my early days teaching, when we actually had long summer breaks, I moonlighted for a small management consultancy. I was so naive, that I reported back to the boss after a few days on an early assignment, that I didn't know what to recommend to him (the boss) to advise the client. He laughed and said, "You don't understand! The client has always already decided what to do. He employs us to give him good reasons for doing it, so your job is to go back there tomorrow and find out what he has already decided."

        Today I was approached over the net by an overseas researcher seeking the views of academics on the various competing taxonomies of education objectives, helpfully accompanied by a handout summarising the models he was investigating. Some were familiar, and there were two I had never heard heard of; most were horrendously complicated. They were just unmanageable, and I couldn't imagine anyone actually using them. I thought, "these are not designed to be used. Despite appearances, the only person (if anyone) who got anything out of these was the person who designed them." That is not to say that the exercise of designing them was not useful, as a way of clarifying the designers' thoughts--it's just not directly communicable to other people.

        I'm an unregenerate builder of conceptual models; my Doceo site is full of more or less half-baked ones, which people do occasionally tell me are useful, but I do try to keep them simple, with a focused and limited range of convenience.

        ...but even then, I suspect that most of even those are employed in the service of Franklin's Gambit--just seeking a legitimation for what someone was going to do anyway.

        Which rather puts most educational theory in its place.

        So now I've got to work out how to respond to 29 Likert-scale questions on learning taxonomies...