31 August 2012

On messy practice

Formal science writing--what I call the "narrative of explanation"--presents a neat and tidy step-by-step process of introduction-methods-results-discussion grounded in a non-existent "scientific method" of observation-hypothesis-prediction-experiment followed in a linear fashion. (Shermer, 2012: 62)
At the same time as reading this very interesting exploration of the neuroscience of belief, I am undertaking the annual penance of reading textbooks for courses whose reading lists need to be up-dated. Most of them are dire.But of course this time I have been reading them against the background of how P and I are planning to tackle some of the same material, and that has made their assumptions stand out.

They do not count as "science writing", of course, but they present a similar idealised and unproblematic account of teaching, which bears only the most tenuous resemblance to reality. This came to mind again the other day when a former student wrote to recommend a website to me, and a planning model. (The ADDIE Analysis/ Design/ Development/ Implementation/ Evaluation model from Don Clark.) I had actually written about this before here, arguing that although it might be a good formal representation of the process, I don't know anyone in the real world who operates in such a way. Apart, that is, from my correspondent (and his colleagues) in the military--although he, too, maintains that the instructional designers just pretend to do it that way to placate their managers. And as he has often quoted to me, "No plan survives contact with the enemy" (von Moltke) --or perhaps with the students. At least it ought not to.

It can of course be argued that the textbooks are just presenting a simplified model, because that it what everyone begins with, and then they modify it in the light of experience. That is fair enough, but I am coming to the conclusion that the writers seem to believe what they write. In a fine gesture of consistency, they are applying to their own writing practice the same kind of dumbed-down incremental view of learning as I seem to have been regularly castigating for a couple of years (here, for example).

In the context of our book, I'm struck by the way in which the textbooks are focused, with the standard device, for example, of listing the applicable professional standards at the beginning of each chapter. So one (a 2001 dated but representative text which happens to be at hand) introduces a chapter on planning teaching with:
"The ideas and advice in this chapter relate mainly to the following areas of skills and knowledge:
  • Introduction stage: skills B1a, B1c, B1, B2a..."
(I'm not going to reference it--it's unfair!) It then goes on to consider items in short sections with an exercise and points to think about at the end of each. And to be fair it's all quite well done--better than I could do in this format. OK, that's what textbooks do, but...

But... it all starts from the assumption that the authority of the standards is absolute, so if you can get a student to meet them, job done. That is of course rubbish. The standards are proxies and constructs, themselves the product of much wrangling and argument and horse-trading in smoke-free committee rooms. You don't have to be a relativistically oriented sociologist to see that--the very facts that they change when the job doesn't, that there are inconsistencies and contradictions within them, that they are aligned suspiciously and spuriously neatly with inspection framework, all testify to them existing at several removes from the job. It's no-one's "fault", it's just in the nature of the beast.

And then there is the assumption that if you want to get from A to B, the most reliable route is a straight line. But as John Kay persuasively argues in a business context, the best approach is often an oblique one--especially when it is not clear that the apparent objective is the real one. You may be in the business of aiming at something else, knowing that the apparent objective will be a necessary side-effect. More examples from Kay in his book (2010), and more about that here.

Indeed, as I seem to be arguing perpetually, most recently here, there is little or no evidence for many of the models and methods which are so dogmatically espoused and asserted by the educational establishment, or indeed that the obsessive process of digging up plants to see if they are growing can effectively do anything other than guarantee minimum standards. See here.

Torrance et al (2005) comment with reference to the "learning and skills" sector that:
Detailed tutor and assessor support, in the form of exam coaching and practice, drafting and redrafting of assignments, asking ‘leading questions’ during workplace observations, and identifying appropriate evidence to record in portfolios, is widespread throughout the sector and is effective in facilitating learner achievement and progression. (p.1)
Yes, "learner achievement and progression", but that is not the same as actual learning. It merely testifies to the achievement of the dubious proxies of the educational system, as Ecclestone (2012) argues. (It's not new--the point was made brilliantly by Howard Becker, forty years ago--and of course re-invented by Lave and Wenger (1991), Wenger (1998) see here.)

And as I have quoted before from Kay;
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.
The issue is really about be able to embrace the messiness of practice--until we can do that we can't even recognise the meta-skills which are needed to be able to teach.

As I noted in "Items to Share" a little while ago, this post on "Experienced teaching looks a lot like jazz" makes the point.

Becker H (1972) "A School is a Lousy Place to Learn Anything in" American Behavioral Scientist September 1972 pp. 85-105. Reprinted in R G Burgess Howard Becker on Education Buckingham, Open University Press, 1995 (Public Library Location)*

Ecclestone, K. (2012) ‘Instrumentalism and achievement: a socio-cultural understanding of tensions in vocational education’, in J Gardner (ed)  Assessment and Learning (2nd edition) London: Sage Publications 2012

Note:  Hattie's meta-analysis, it has to be admitted, commends the effectiveness of "direct instruction", which is consistent both with the formal planning models and with SMART objectives and the like. I'm not denying that.

* This public library tag is an ingenious facility I have just come across; click on it, enter your post-code, and it will tell you your nearest public library which holds a copy of the book.

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