29 December 2014

Items to Share: 28 December 2014

Education Focus
  • Shopping lists and other cognitive tools | Webs of Substance 'Standard algorithms are the mathematical equivalent of phonics. Unless statutes require them to be taught then there are ideologues who will willfully neglect them. [...] Of course, there are occasions when standard algorithms are not appropriate or efficient (80 plus 12 or when completing mental maths) but, for any given problem, there will always be a most efficient strategy. And for most pencil-and-paper operations involving two-digit numbers or more, the standard algorithms are the best.' OK, as long as you understand the principles well enough to know whether ot not the answer is plausible.
Other Business
  • A Tablet for Africa? | AfriGadget  'The Betabook is a portable whiteboard, which can be used with a smartphone for archiving, content creation, and social media sharing.'
  • Christmas Gift! - The American Interest 'What makes this holiday so irresistible and global, yet also so particular and controversial? Why do so many people love Christmas while rejecting or in some cases actively hating Christianity? And why do so many others hate Christianity so deeply that they want to suppress all public celebration, however secular, of the symbols of Christmas? [...] For that matter, why do so many followers of the man who famously blessed the poor celebrate his birthday with the greatest spending sprees the world has ever known? How did the birthday of a crucified religious teacher become an excuse to drink egg nog?'

22 December 2014

Items to Share; 21 December 2014

Education Focus
  • MOOCs and the distance-learning mirage | ROUGH TYPE [Nicholas Carr] 'Now that we’ve begun to talk of MOOCs retrospectively, I think the time has come to update my previously published survey of the history of hype that has for more than a century surrounded distance-learning technologies. I am adding a new entry to the list. I suspect it won’t be the last addition.'
  • Christine Rosen for Democracy Journal: Automation for the People? 'Early in the book, [Nicholas]  Carr describes his youthful experience of learning to drive a standard (manual) transmission car. After many stalls and slipped clutches and grinding gears, he gained competence and, eventually, mastery. Unlike the explicit knowledge one obtains from step-by-step instructions, the tacit knowledge he acquired exists in a “fuzzy realm” far different from but no less crucial than the well-defined processes that characterize explicit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is the reason you can still remember how to ride a bicycle after a 20-year hiatus.'
Other Business

20 December 2014

On presents and the wisdom of the ancients...

Even in the UK, it appears that practically every day after Thanksgiving (not our holiday) to Christmas has a label. Apparently today was panic Saturday (I heard someone on the radio christen [appositely?] next Monday, "Manic Monday"). What a countdown.

I last got excited about Christmas in 1957. I remember "Last Train to San Fernando" as a hit at that time, and I looked it up... Don't bother.

Son and grand-daughter (11) called round today. They had tried to go shopping, but town was a maelstrom, and so they were wondering what to do for the afternoon which did not involve crowds. They checked out the cinema, but while son was really up for going to see Paddington, grand-daughter thought it childish. And she is clearly embarking on a campaign for a TV in her room (to add to the iPad and...)

So it goes. They did settle on getting a DVD to watch. For some reason my suggestions about a walk—it was cold but bright and still—were not well received.

My presents for birthday and Christmas always include (or may consist entirely of) books. But it did strike me this afternoon that the books son, his partner, and her daughter will receive will be for individual consumption. Grand-daughter is beyond the age of the bedtime story (one of the great downside losses of children growing up), and her iPad fixation and desire for a TV in her room—they are all about doing things on her own (or with peers, probably virtually).

I've never been one for packaged video; I owned just one VHS video (Educating Rita—to use clips for teaching purposes). A few years ago, I started to receive boxed sets as presents; despite my admiration for the series, I only ever watched one episode of the West Wing on DVD—the very first one, which I missed on first showing. But I have to admit that a family can watch and enjoy them together.

So, what about making presents of them?

But. Given that son and family are apparently regular buyers, how to avoid duplicating their collection? The line plugged by the distributors is of course to get the latest releases.

But I have an advantage. I remember Last Train to San Fernando. Like all other artefacts and history in general, they grow. And however dodgy, our senescent but not senile memories are still the best access to choice—if trivial—gems from the past. I am totally ignorant about current cinema, but I was a keen follower until the mid-70s, and there is a treasure-house of not merely vintage but currently entertaining material, readily available as never before...

With some reluctance, because I am far from a fan of the fluvial behemoth, I went online. What might all three of them enjoy, but not know they had missed? Bringing up Baby. And that's bundled with... and other buyers bought...

But it took my seed knowledge to get this search going. As Daisy Christodolou argues (she's not the first, of course, but probably the most accessible today. This is a recursive argument!) it takes a foundation of sheer knowledge to build connotations and context and connections and ...

In other words: how would I have started to build a list of potentially enjoyable old movies without an initial exemplar? (First- or second-hand?)

Actually, I would have set out the conditions and run the search and then reviewed the results in search of... an instance which could act as an exemplar. Clumsy.

Even so: I may well have got it all wrong.

Why do we bother?

At the risk of getting (non-doctrinally, equal opportunity shame/guilt/non-specific miserable) pious it's the effort which matters.

15 December 2014

Items to Share; 14 December 2014

Education Focus
  • The Growth Mindset : Telling Penguins to Flap Harder ? | Disappointed Idealist 'My objection is to the way in which Dweck’s conclusions are rapidly metamorphosing into something completely different, and thus reinforcing the set of existing bonkers principles which are largely shaping education policy. Dweck’s well-meaning and perfectly reasonable research may well end up producing toxic outcomes if we don’t nip it in the bud.'
  • Colour coded self-assessment | Teaching: Leading Learning 'this term I have been working with colleagues from Maths and Languages on using self-assessment to improve redrafting. The concept is based on [...] the principles of improving work over time through specific feedback. This is best encapsulated by his famous “Austin’s Butterfly” example – mandatory viewing for all teachers! Just in case you haven’t seen it...'  

  • Donald Clark Plan B: VR is a medium not a gadget: 7 learning principles that work in VR 'Virtual Reality is a medium not a gadget; but how appropriate is it for education and training? I’ve spent a lifetime using technology in learning but am no technological determinist. [...] However, the first time I tried an Oculus Rift, it blew my mind, not just with its total immersion but its possibilities in learning. Before we get carried away with the sheer joy of the toy, what does the psychology of learning tell us about VR?' 
Other Business
  • Science News Fail: How NOT to Illustrate Your Story » Sociological Images 'Mainstream media outlets such as the Today Show, Marie Claire, and Huffington Post have been reporting on a new scientific study that claims “women talk more than men.” These media outlets report there’s new “biological evidence to support the idea that women are more talkative than men.' [...] Not quite!

08 December 2014

Items to Share: 7 December 2014

Education Focus
  • Is the Feedback Your'e Giving Students Helping or Hindering? | Learning Sciences Dylan Wiliam Center 'In 38% of well-designed studies, feedback actually made performance worse—one of the most counterintuitive results in all of psychology. [...] If there’s a single principle teachers need to digest about classroom feedback, it’s this: The only thing that matters is what students do with it. No matter how well the feedback is designed, if students do not use the feedback to move their own learning forward, it’s a waste of time. We can debate about whether feedback should be descriptive or evaluative, but it is absolutely essential that feedback is productive'
  • The Future Part 7a: Whats a Digital Native? 'A few years ago I sat through an INSET where we were shown pictures of a couple of everyday items and asked what they were called. The wrong answer was “a digital camera and a mobile phone”. Apparently, to our students, they would simply be “a camera and a phone”. This shows that our students are fundamentally different to us as they are “Digital Natives” and, [...] have to be taught according to all the usual progressive education methods of discussion, discovery learning and groupwork. Or at least that’s what we were told.' but...
  • Digital Natives Like a Good Lecture, Too - Advice - The Chronicle of Higher Education 'A large part of the value that we bring to the classroom is that of the "sage on the stage," rather than the "guide on the side." We have the qualifications and skill, and for students, being in the same room as an expert is an valuable part of university experience. [...] Students don’t enroll at brick-and-mortar colleges because they want a distance-learning experience. Instead of trying to offer both and ending up with neither, let’s play to our strengths.'
  • What Are They Learning? And How? | Vitae [chroniclevitae.com] 'What we’re looking for here are practical ways to elicit and make use of quality student feedback. We want to learn from students the information—about what they knew beforehand, what they’ve learned from us, and what they still don’t understand—that will help us teach more effectively. Providing students with ways to give us that information not only helps us tailor our teaching, it helps them become more aware of themselves as learners.'
  • Brain Training Doesn’t Make You Smarter - Scientific American "The strong consensus of this group is that the scientific literature does not support claims that the use of software-based “brain games” alters neural functioning in ways that improve general cognitive performance in everyday life, or prevent cognitive slowing and brain disease." 
  • Unlocking the Mystery of Critical Thinking | Faculty Focus ''As the instructor, you [...] provide a key learning experience by serving as a role model. Students need to see you demonstrating the courage to question your own beliefs and values, the fair-mindedness to represent multiple perspectives accurately, and the open-mindedness to give viewpoints opposed to your own their due. In such instances, you should point out to students that you are practicing critical thinking.'
Other Business
  • An immigration lawyer reviews Paddington | Free Movement 'Paddington stows away and deliberately avoids the immigration authorities on arrival. He is [...] an illegal entrant and as such commits a criminal offence under section 24 of the Immigration Act 1971 [...] punishable by up to six months in prison. [...] [F]or offering a home to Paddington — or harbouring him, as the Home Office would have it — Mr and Mrs Brown could potentially face prosecution under section 25 of the Immigration Act 1971, [...] The maximum sentence is 14 years.
  • Tim Harford — Article — Learn from the losers 'It’s natural to look at life’s winners – often they become winners in the first place because they’re interesting to look at. That’s why Kickended (site about failed Kickstarter bids) gives us an important lesson. If we don’t look at life’s losers too, we may end up putting our time, money, attention or even armour plating in entirely the wrong place.  

02 December 2014

Items to Share: 30 November 2014

Education Focus
  • The crisis in adult education | The Learning Age '[T]here is a growing crisis in adult participation in education and training, with stark implications both for our economy and our democracy. If the trend continues it will soon be necessary to reinvent from scratch a part of the education system which has taken over a century to build up.
  • Why ‘triple marking’ is wrong (and not my fault) | David Didau: The Learning Spy  '[T]eachers should not [mark] students’ work for accuracy. If we point out their mistakes, there is no impetus to complete work accurately first time round. By insisting that the minimum expectation for written work is that it be proofread before it’s handed in, we make committing careless errors burdensome. If they know they will be expected to correct these mistakes before you are prepared to mark their work then they will learn that it easier to write correctly first time round. And if they don’t know how to correct an error then they will be requesting feedback at the point that they are ready to learn. Any input we give is far more likely to have impact than any amount of unsolicited advice.'
  • Older people may be better learners than we think '“The take-home message the study authors gave was that healthy older people are good at learning,” said Professor Henry Brodaty, co-Director of the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA) at UNSW. “They have the same plasticity, but they’re not as good at filtering out other information.”[...] The brain needs to be able to easily learn new information (plasticity), and filter out irrelevant information (stability). The experiment was designed to test whether ageing affects the brain’s plasticity, stability, or both.' 
  • Psychophysiology of blackboard teaching | Mathematics under the Microscope (Alexander Borovik) 'Mathematics teaching is not a science. It is an art. [...] Moreover, it is a performance art, like drama or ballet, and should be treated as such. Unsurprisingly, ballet dancers are very fussy about the state of the stage floor: they need a surface with just right level of friction, support and spring. Normally, we are very fussy about the quality of the blackboard surface -I can tell a lot on that subject. Unfortunately, we are reduced to fighting for continuing existence of our old blackboards; we do not even dare to raise the issue of their quality.' [This is an old post which I have just re-discovered, but still worth sharing.]
  • The “New” Professional Standards | Sam Shepherd (for teachers in FE) 'There is a general sense that the best development comes not from some advanced practitioner/consultant/manager telling you what is “best practice” (a phrase happily absent in the standards, you will note) but rather through working together. This places the emphasis on action research, peer observations, and raises the value of those staff room discussions about what is and isn’t working in class. To my mind, this shift from top down cascading of “best practice” to critical joint practice development is no bad thing at all.' 
Other Business
  • Leonard Cohen and smoking in old age | OUPblog 'Leonard Cohen’s decision to take up cigarettes again at 80 reveals a well kept secret about older age: you can finally live it up and stop worrying about the consequences shortening your life by much.'
  • What do fans of Spotify and meat pies have in common? [theconversation.com] 'Before the era of big data we believed that the inter-relationships between cultural preferences were esoteric, idiosyncratic, and very difficult to predict. The YouGov profiler indicates that they are anything but. I’m off now to find out what meat pie lovers have in common with jazz fans.'

24 November 2014

Items to Share: 23 November 2014

Education Focus
  • Ivan Pavlov in 22 surprising facts | OUPblog 'An iconic figure of 20th century science and culture, Ivan Pavlov is best known as a founding figure of behaviorism who trained dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell and offered a scientific approach to psychology that ignored the “subjective” world of the psyche itself. [ ] While researching "Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science", I discovered that these and other elements of the common images of Pavlov are incorrect. The following 22 facts and observations are a small window onto the life of a man whose work, life and values were much more complex and interesting than the iconic figure with whom we are so familiar.'
  • Teaching Practices Inventory Helps You Examine Your Teaching | Faculty Focus 'It’s an inventory that lists and scores the extent to which research-based teaching practices are being used. It’s been developed for use in math and science courses, but researchers Carl Wieman and Sarah Gilbert suggest it can be used in engineering and social sciences courses, although they have not tested it there. I suspect it has an even wider application. Most of the items on the inventory are or could be practiced in most disciplines and programs.'
  • Does brain training really work? | Loony Labs 'Ever wonder if you could be the next Einstein if only you could do some brain training? Well as it turns out, while computer based ‘brain training’ can boost memory and thinking skills in older adults, many programs promoted by the $1 billion brain training industry are ineffective.'
  • Students don't know what's best for their own learning [theconversation.com] 'Two recent studies of student evaluations [...] looked at student evaluations and learning. Both came to the same conclusion: university students evaluate their teachers more positively when they learn less.' 
Other Business

    18 November 2014

    Items to Share: 16 November 2014

    Education Focus

    • University courses for prisoners could reduce re-offending rates [theconversation.com] 'Those prisoners who had successfully completed at least one higher-level course while in prison developed a positive student identity, resilience and hope with realistic aspirations for a crime-free life after release. Those who had not engaged with learning lacked these qualities and most returned to prison. Of the 28 adults I traced, only four had not engaged with learning – and three of them returned to prison. Of the other 24 former prisoners I traced who had studied while in prison, only two returned to prison – and one of those was on a technicality.'
    • The Problem with Learning Technology | Vitae [chroniclevitae.com] 'It now seems important, as it didn’t 10 years ago, to keep things simple: to focus on the humans in the room, the literature we’re reading, the tools that help us make sense of the texts. Students experience much of their contact with other people by making things happen on a screen. What feels fresh and immediate to them now is a real conversation, in real time, over pieces of paper that can be held in the hand.' 
    Other Business
    • The Decline of Grammar Education – Lingua Franca - The Chronicle of Higher Education (Geoff Pullum) 'Google fetches more than 300,000 hits for the term "grammar quiz"; yet if quizzes on chemistry were as uninformed as those on grammar, they would ask silly questions on peripheral topics (“Who is the Bunsen burner named after?”), and would make no reference to the periodic table, or atoms or molecules. The web’s grammar quizzes deal in minor pieces of puristic flotsam with roots in dimly understood 18th-century grammatical analysis.'
    • Explainer: the pitch drop experiment [theconversation.com] 'Something strange is happening within the world-famous pitch drop experiment with the latest drop forming much faster than the last couple of drops. There have been nine drops so far and all attention is now on trying to observe the tenth, expected sometime in the 2020s. The actual experiment began in October 1930 and is now recognised by Guinness World Records as the longest-running laboratory experiment – and in all that time no one has ever witnessed a single drop of pitch to fall. But what started as a simple lecture demonstration has captured the interest of tens of thousands of people worldwide'
    • Kurt Vonnegut Explains "How to Write With Style" | Open Culture 'If you feel the need for tips on developing a writing style, you probably don’t look right to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ journal Transactions on Professional Communications. You certainly don’t open such a publication expecting such tips from novelist Kurt Vonnegut, a writer with a style of his own if ever there was one. But in a 1980 issue, the author of Slaughterhouse-Five, Jailbird, and Cat’s Cradle does indeed appear with advice on “how to put your style and personality into everything you write.” ' 
    • The Great Psychologists: Sigmund Freud As a commenter puts it, ' A great introduction to a man who was about as troubled as all of us. A reminder that we are all quite mad, and everyone else is a degree of crazy.' 

    10 November 2014

    On Keynotes and Standup

    I've done a few "keynote" presentations in my time. (A keynote is a major presentation at an academic conference/symposium/ or staff development session.) Not many, and it may say something that I haven't been asked back!

    But there is something of a "circuit" of speakers and consultants in the field, rather like that of "standup" comedians. I'm not going to refer to any individuals in this post, and it is purely observational rather than critical; but last Saturday, sitting in the audience for yet another well-honed performance, I began to wonder about mission drift.

    It's an occupational hazard. Successful presenters may do several a week, over several years. One of our deservedly popular regulars has probably been doing it since her first book came out 15 years ago. If she does one hundred a year now, having built it up over the years she will certainly have done her more popular performance more than a thousand times. I'm sure she reviews and revises it regularly, but there is a process of natural selection going on; the best bits get more prominence and more polish, and the less successful ones fade away.

    Of course there is a process of incremental change. Recently there was a TV show about the comedian Peter Kay; it was a promotion for his new tour purporting to be a behind-the-scenes look at the preparations, and it was quite interesting to see the rehearsals with live audiences which refine the material in fine detail. But in that case the criterion for the inclusion of the material was simple—did it make the audience laugh?

    Keynotes usually have a few laughs as well, but that is by no means their raison d'etre. It must be quite a challenge for the speaker to keep her or his eye on the ball, and to go beyond Kirkpatricks' first level of evaluation.

    A colleague who couldn't be there asked me after the keynote what I thought of it. I said it amounted to less than the sum of its parts. Its arguments and coherence seem to have been weakened in favour of its set-pieces, whether one-man reconstructions of teaching encounters, or games with a group of the audience. They all made their points, but not a coherent whole.

    It can happen with more mainstream lecturing; I developed a model for understanding aspects of residential homes in the mid-70s, and lectured on it for about 15 years (albeit only a few times a year). A version of it is here, in case anyone is interested. Except that in the early 90s, I realised that some of the anecdotes which provided the accessible evidence had taken over. Instead of a theoretical model it had become a string of stories, and it didn't mean anything any more. Even to me. I stopped using it, but I'm re-discovering aspects of its applicability to teaching.

    Just for once, this may be an argument for using technology, so that the session does not have to be repeated live. Otherwise, the incremental drift may end up like those religious statues—initially polished by the hands or lips of pilgrims, but eventually worn away by them.

    Items to Share; 9 November 2014

    Education Focus
    • How to make teaching great [theconversation.com] [Higgins and Coe] 'Defining effective teaching is not straightforward. But it must surely be something like: “effective teaching is that which leads to high achievement by students in terms of valued outcomes”. Many current ways of assessing children, particularly those used in high-stakes exams or in existing research studies, do not fully reflect the range of important outcomes that a child’s education is trying to achieve.' 
    • Why do we overestimate the importance of differences? | David Didau: The Learning Spy 'The idea that we’re all either visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners and we can only really be expected to learn when instruction is tailored to these specific needs is codswallop. We might well have a preference for seeing, listening or doing, but if we believe that the best way to learn the shape of a map of Australia is to listen to a description of it, that the best way to learn how the piano is just to bash away at the keys, or that we should learn to play tennis by watching Wimbledon, then we’re very clearly and sadly wrong.'
    • A 'no-consequences' education produces unemployable graduates [theconversation.com] 'A research centre in the UK recently found that lavishing praise on students, particularly low-attaining students, may be counter-productive. By providing a no-fail, no-consequences environment in which the top priority is to make everybody feel good about themselves, we are doing little more than setting young people up to fail.'
    Other Business
    • Where Did Soul-Sucking Office-Speak Come From? | VICE | United States 'Office words. Words like " deliverables," "upskill," and "learnings." Bilious conjoined twins of acidic gibberish like "drill-down," "value-add," and "catch-up." Wretch-inducing parcels of email Polyfilla like "moving forward," "enablers and barriers," and "quick wins." '
    • Writing Instructors: Your Pain Is Felt – Lingua Franca - The Chronicle of Higher Education (Geoff Pullum) [R]eading an unbroken procession of agentless passives that could have been actives is like being hit on the head over and over again with a mallet labeled “I REFUSE TO TELL YOU WHO THE RESPONSIBLE PARTY IS.” And it’s boring! Theories will be discussed; grammars will be compared; aspects will be assessed; problems will be analysed–beam me up, Scotty! There is only one form of sentence construction down here! [ ] But it’s not the presence of passive constructions that’s the problem; it’s the writer’s tin ear.
      • The Philosophical Implications of the Urge to Urinate - Scientific American 'What if I were to tell you, for instance, that belief in free will is negatively correlated with the desire to urinate? Those are the implications of a new study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition by Michael Ent and Roy Baumeister. They predicted—and found—that the more people felt they needed to pee, the less they believed that humans are in control of their destinies.'
      • You knew it was crap, but you bought it anyway. This is why. - Boing Boing 'David McRaney explores the sunk cost fallacy, a strangely twisted bit of logic that seems to pop into the human mind once a person has experienced the pain of loss or the ickiness of waste on his or her way toward a concrete goal. It’s illogical, irrational, unreasonable - and as a perfectly normal human being, you act under its influence all the time.'

      04 November 2014

      Items to Share: 2 November 2014

      Education Focus
      • What is school like for a child with learning difficulties? [theconversation.com] 'The term “learning difficulties” is the hand grenade of education. Throw the terminology around and teachers, students, parents and school community members react widely and, at times, wildly. Some individuals ponder the term, others run frantically for a book to elicit a “definition” or “diagnostic term”, some consult with colleagues and professionals, yet others hide their heads in their hands or behind a desk.'

      • Seven 'great' teaching methods not backed up by evidence [theconversation.com] 'We also think it is useful to look at what hasn’t been shown to work, even if this may seem a rather negative way to focus on improvement. Many ineffective teaching practices seem to be quite popular, even though most evidence is anecdotal and selective.'

      • Donald Clark Plan B: Educational research largely useless - no costs, no bite 'The truth may be hard to bear here, but much educational research is meaningless in the sense of having no real chance of impact and change, as it does not carry through to Cost Effectiveness Analysis (CEA). [...] Without a truly rigorous Cost Effectiveness Analysis in education we will continue to spend huge amounts of money on fruitless research. The lesson is clear link effectiveness to costs. If you don’t the research will fall into the category of ‘inconclusive’. That means no evidence-based change will happen.'
      • Donald Clark Plan B: ‘Mindfulness’ yet another mindless fad in education 'There’s a new fad on the block being forced on our kids – mindfulness. In truth, it’s not new at all. It goes back to Buddhism, Freud, then Rogers and the relentless effort to get therapeutic theory into education. But there’s plenty of reasons for rejecting this particular manifestation of mindful madness.'

      • Donald Clark Plan B: Anders Ericsson: practice, practice, practice 'A welcome antidote to social constructivist theories, Ericsson focuses on the mind, memory and deliberate practice as the road to successful learning. Far from being an advocate of rote learning, he is an advocate of sophisticated, incremental steps in learning, with feedback and challenge, that lead to increased performance. This is all too often absent in learning, whether in the acquisition of knowledge or skills.'
      • Turning the tanker: lesson grading | David Didau: The Learning Spy 'Grading individual lessons is a practice that simply must end. Ofsted have declared (and reiterated, twice) that they do not grade individual lessons. It is time for schools to follow suit. It is a process that is damaging to teachers, and therefore it is damaging to pupils and the profession. I am certainly not against appraising teaching – I think that it is a necessity to ensure standards – but all of the evidence tells us that grading lessons doesn’t appraise teaching accurately or effectively.'
      • How the "culture of assessment" fuels academic dishonesty [3quarksdaily.com] ' We hear the phrase "academic dishonesty" and we immediately whistle for our moral high horse. But too much moralistic tongue-clicking can blind us to the ways in which we who constitute the system contribute to the very malady we lament. '

      • Maximize In-Class Time by Moving Student Presentations Online [facultyfocus.com] '
        Student presentations [...] require a wealth of time for each student to present and get immediate feedback from peers and the instructor. Some classes are so large that in-class presentations may not be feasible at all. Or,[...] you would have to use several of your 50-minute class sessions to allow each student a chance to present his or her work. What’s more, some students have a difficult time listening to dozens of peer presentations in one sittings and may tune out after the first few presentations. [...] The answer for me is virtual student presentations, which allow students to research scholarly literature related to course content, present their findings, and receive peer feedback; all outside of class time.'
      Other Business

      • New Statesman | Growing old disgracefully: a deconstruction of death Review of Atul Gawande's Being Mortal, by Henry Marsh. 'By writing a book about death and dying, and the way in which modern medicine so often only makes the experience worse, he will, he concedes, be raising for some “the spectre of a society readying itself to sacrifice its sick and aged. But,” he asks, “what if the sick and aged are already being sacrificed – victims of our refusal to accept the inexorability of our life cycle? And what if there are better approaches, right in front of our eyes, waiting to be recognised?”'
      • A Real Life Milgram Experiment [marginalrevolution.com] '
        discusses a real world Milgram “experiment” in which people obeyed an authority figure to an astounding degree, even when the authority figure was just on the telephone.

      27 October 2014

      23 October 2014

      On Howard Becker's latest...

      ...and possibly his last. We hope not, but he is 86.

      Times Higher Education review here, including:
      This book is a delight. Howard Becker is that rarity: an academic writer who brings you into his presence, makes you comfortable, then entertains and educates you from first to last page. He is a writer who effortlessly communicates his enthusiasm and general glee with a career going back to the sociology department of the University of Chicago in the early 1950s, and still enthrals himself and his devotees as he approaches his tenth decade.
      He's been a hero of mine—and every other aspirant sociologist of the era—ever since the '70s, when he wrote his seminal Outsiders; studies in the sociology of deviance, including his famous paper generally known as "How to smoke pot" (not as deviant as it sounds—it's a discussion of the social elements contributing to how the drug experience is interpreted).

      Mnay times I've used his email conversation with Shirah Hecht about teaching a research methods course as an exemplar of informal mentoring,

      And his classic 1972 article on "A School is a Lousy Place to Learn Anything In" which antedates all the situated learning (Lave and Wenger) stuff but makes the arguments so much more clearly. [It's not easy to access online for copyright reasons, but many thanks to David Stone, who wrote in 2011; "I was happy to discover that my institutional subscription gave me access to the original Becker article. Just in case others should be as lucky, here is the DOI link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/000276427201600109 "] The formal reference is (1972) “A school is a lousy place to learn anything in” American Behavioral Scientist, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 85-105,  reprinted in R J Burgess (ed.) (1998) Howard Becker on Education Buckingham; Open University Press.
      (I've reserved the only copy at Heffers in Cambridge, so there!)

      20 October 2014

      Items to Share: 19 October 2014

      Education Focus
      • The Missing Link | Webs of Substance 'I think that we can all agree that Bloom’s taxonomy is a terrible way of viewing learning. This is not because it really isn’t based on anything. Although it really isn’t; it’s just something that a committee of worthy people made-up. It is not even because Bloom’s tries to generalise the movement from simple to complex across widely different subjects. Clearly, different subjects proceed from simple to complex in their own sweet ways and Bloom’s just encourages whole-staff training meetings where people talk in vague and general terms. However, this is still not the main problem. Talking in vague and general terms might be a waste of time but it is not actively harmful.'
      • Why Doctors Need Stories - NYTimes.com 'In the past 20 years, clinical vignettes have lost their standing. For a variety of reasons, including a heightened awareness of medical error and a focus on cost cutting, we have entered an era in which a narrow, demanding version of evidence-based medicine prevails. As a writer who likes to tell stories, I’ve been made painfully aware of the shift. The inclusion of a single anecdote in a research overview can lead to a reprimand, for reliance on storytelling.' So also for education?
      • Brain baloney has no place in the classroom | Pete Etchells | Science | theguardian.com 'Unfortunately, because they’ve been around for so long, neuromyths have taken hold in a broad range of aspects of everyday life. Nowhere is this more problematic than in the education system. A new article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience this week has cast a critical eye on the issue, and reveals some worrying statistics about the extent to which brain baloney have infiltrated the beliefs of teachers around the world.'
      • Instructional Design Based on Cognitive Theory | Faculty Focus '“Stop thinking as a subject matter expert and start thinking as a designer. Try to remember what it was like not to be an expert. I think that, at a certain point, if you know something so well, you almost assume everyone else does. [the 'curse of knowledge' (my insertion)] Sometimes you forget the struggles you had learning a particular concept. Oftentimes if you can step back from the subject matter expert role and think as an outside objective observer, a lot of these things take care of themselves,”
      • Some Surprising Findings About Learning in the Classroom | Mempowered 'The quality of the teacher doesn't affect how much students learn (that doesn't mean it doesn't affect other factors — e.g., interest and motivation). Low ability students learn just as much as high ability students when exposed to the same experiences. More able students learn more because they seek out other learning opportunities. Tests, more than measuring a student’s learning, reflect the student’s motivation.'
      • A Don’s Life: A Latin learning parable 'There is a bigger issue here about the whole basis of learning -- and the need to break the increasingly common assumption that you are only "learning" when you are "being taught", when actually you are learning best when your head hurts in the library (that's a fact that sits uneasily next to the idea that you should divide your £9k a year by the number of contact hours you are receiving....).
      • The surplus model of school improvement | David Didau: The Learning Spy 'Great school needs great systems. And a system which fails to value the contribution of every member of its workforce is a long way from great. The deficit model recognises that some teachers ‘get it’. They comply, they’re able to juggle impossible demands and somehow perform the Monkey Dance on cue. They are rewarded. And everyone one else is under threat. But not because they’re not working hard, but because they’re not meeting the expectations of ‘experts’.
      • The Surprising Problem of Too Much Talent - Scientific American  'For both basketball and soccer, [researchers] found that top talent did in fact predict team success, but only up to a point. Furthermore, there was not simply a point of diminishing returns with respect to top talent, there was in fact a cost. Basketball and soccer teams with the greatest proportion of elite athletes performed worse than those with more moderate proportions of top level players.
      • Why is Singapore's school system so successful, and is it a model for the West? [theconversation.com] 'What then do Singaporean teachers do in classrooms that is so special, bearing in mind that there are substantial differences in classroom practices between – as well as within – the top-performing countries? What are the particular strengths of Singapore’s instructional regime that helps it perform so well? What are its limits and constraints?' See also here.

      17 October 2014

      On Mind-Sets and GCSEs

      Tom Bennett has an excellent commentary on last night's Educating the East End. 

      You can also catch the programme (in the UK) at 4oD here.

      I'm commenting because this episode is a case-study of two Year 11 (16-year-old, GCSE high-stakes exam candidates). Both of them have "issues" which are jeopardising their achievement in their exams, and their counterparts regularly turn up in FE, perhaps trying to recoup their failures at school. (As indeed did my son.)

      One is Oscar, who is a "high-flier" of whom much is expected, but who is not delivering the work; he is making excuses and procrastinating, in the most articulate and charming way imaginable. I wanted to strangle him and bang his head against the wall...

      The other is Paris. He features in this clip, in which he recognises clearly that his (mildly) disruptive behaviour in class is a defence mechanism—he is afraid that he will fail. Indeed he expects to, and he is is determined to embrace it. If his fate is to be "failure", he will make it happen and hence retain some illusion of being in control.

      Obviously we have only a highly selectively edited version of the story, but in the end they—thanks largely to the tough love of their teachers—come through.

      But there is a theme underlying these cases, broadly fitting with Dweck's theory of  "mind-set". Reading between the lines, Oscar does seem to have acquired a "fixed" mind-set about his abilities, which bequeathes a degree of insouciant confidence (even arrogance), until he encounters a challenge he can't easily rise to, or the possibility of failure. If you believe your abilities are innate and fixed but you do not achieve at the level they predict, then you need to seek an external reason for that—even if it involves playing a self-defeating game such as procrastination.

      Paris is the mirror-image, possibly with a hint of learned helplessness?

      14 October 2014

      On time travel and not getting it.

      No, not that! Even if this does go back to the '60s.

      We are moving (Update. Were. It's fallen through.) After twenty years in this house, we have accumulated a great deal of baggage— psychological, social, possibly cultural, and certainly physical. Packing is a big deal, and what to take and what to dump presents difficult decisions, particularly because we are "down-sizing" in some respects. The battle of the books has been won, I think, although I shall do some judicious culling. But then there remains the question of the "papers" (as they would be termed were I a person of any significance). No US university has so far bid for them (although the opportunity is open until the next recyclable rubbish collection a week on Tuesday). The shredder has been working overtime already. But I'm not going for a scorched-earth policy; I'm sampling my past.

      In particular, my undergraduate days (1963-66, U. of Sussex). I retained much more that I'd thought; handouts, lecture notes, and essays, together with my forays into undergraduate journalism and documentation of my ecumenical activism. And it has been fascinating for me to read—but probably not for anyone else.
      • I was by no means as good, academically, as I thought I was. Granted, a "B" was an acceptable mark in those days, but finding a "C-" mark on one of my finals papers made me wonder however I managed to get a 2(i). (Hitherto I believed I missed a 1st only because I answered only three instead of the required four questions on the very last exam. But the evidence of the paper itself shows that I did tick four questions, I have to admit. Interesting how we can kid ourselves—a theme much explored by psychologists and others in recent years—especially here.)
      • I managed to spend at least two years missing the point of literary criticism—"It would not have gone amiss to pay some attention to other aspects of the novel than the plot." "The intentions and the perspectives of the author and the narrator are not always the same thing." "You treat [this early 19th-century French text] as if it were contemporary—where is the recognition of the culture of the readers?" "You speak of 'we' as if all readers and audiences approach the play in the same way..." Even the essay* I have celebrated for 49 years as my only straight "A" was far from the masterpiece I thought; "An interesting and ingenious argument indeed, but (Henry) James is not a pamphleteer... Are there no contrasting undercurrents?"
      • (A couple of days later) Yes, I really did (and still do) miss the point of literary criticism. (I had no such trouble with history and philosophy.)  I remember reading (and even buying) volumes of lit. crit. and ploughing through them, wondering what was the point? Fellow-students read out their essays in tutorial, replete with sage quotations from the critics. I could never do that. It just didn't make sense to me. It still doesn't (with a qualified exception for Wayne C Booth—reference below). I went back to the primary source and relied on my personal judgement, having no time for the scholarship of centuries.
      The bit which may be of some interest to other readers, however, arises from this reflection. For all I bang on about threshold concepts nowadays, I clearly never got many of them when I was an undergraduate, and haven't even now. I lack a literary sensibility. I don't even know what it means to "think like" a literary scholar or critic.

      And yet, I had no such problem with philosophy and history. For philosophy the key TC is "This is the way things are. Come on and argue. If you're hard enough."

      For history: "Once/if we agree on what happened, it's about how it connects and counts and means and matters."

      The morning I finished finals (they were a big deal in those days: ten exams in 13 days covering all the courses taken in the preceding five terms—and the whole degree resting on those results alone—or at least that was what they told us..), my bags were packed and I headed for the station. I looked at the bookstall, and my sense of relief was palpable; I did not have to read any of this stuff. I bought a thriller which I can't remember, and Isaac Asimov's first book in the Foundation trilogy (it later expanded). I remember reading it on the train and being somewhat sniffy about the style... but I read little fiction beyond science fiction (some of it very sophisticated) for almost two decades.

      I now recognise those formative comments on my essays as nudges toward the mindset of the literary scholar, but they didn't work. I still haven't passed that threshold.

      I happen to be reading, on a friend's recommendation, Harry Eyres' memoir Horace and Me. (Classics seem to be big this year. I've enjoyed Mary Beard's revisionist Confronting the Classics, and Daniel Klein's Travels with Epicurus is riding well up the charts; Klein wears his scholarship very lightly, as they say. It is there, to be sure, but the images of slowly savouring** the day, of sun and wine and olive groves... do somewhat swamp it!)

      Horace and Me is quite an enjoyable read, (although I am struggling to finish the final 50 pages, and it's not that long) but... Eyres is a poet***. He uses Horace's (65-8 BCE) poetry as a commentary on his own life, and some of the meditations—on the pre-eminence of friendship, for example—are useful lenses/mirrors for reflection. But. Why should I be interested? It's not that it is merely self-indulgent, it's just that—for better or worse—I have failed to acquire the perspective he wants to share.

      Thinking back, my tutors were right. I read literature searching for the moral of the story. Occasionally I got beyond that, to see a particular piece as an "example of" a particular style or philosophical stance, and got intrigued as to how that viewpoint was communicated—and deeply admiring of the craft of writing. But felicity of literary expression and rhetoric vary independently of the truth and value of content, and I was naively looking for the latter.

      And literature has no necessary foundations. It's turtles all the way down. It was not until I discovered empirical social science that I felt there was somewhere to stand... I was disabused of that silly idea years later, of course.

      So clearly I have missed some threshold concepts. OK. Without them—and of course I don't know what they are, or else I would perhaps have got them—I am excluded  from the ranks of people of literary sensibility.

      But I de facto joined a different, less respected, club, of those who supposedly aspired to be social "scientists". (Proper scientists rightly won't let us join theirs, of course.) That's the ontological impact of TCs.

      * 'Was Henry James a philistine? Discuss with respect to "The Portrait of a Lady" and "The Spoils of Poynton".' My argument somehow aligned these questions with Kierkegaard's "spheres"—aesthetic, ethical and religious... (The rhetoric of the question, I think I argued, privileged [pardon the modern shorthand] the ethical over the aesthetic...) Remember this preceded all the structuralist and po-mo b***s**t by about 20 years. The most radical framework of the day in this respect was Wayne C Booth's "Rhetoric of Fiction". I read it at least twice and enjoyed its insights—but totally missed the point that it was about a method and a perspective rather than simple information/ideas about the novels it analysed.

      ** Eyres suggests that carpe diem should be read as taste the day rather than sieze the day. I think savour (probably savor across the pond) is better although perhaps less faithful. If such matters interest you, I can heartily recommend David Bellos Is that a Fish in your Ear? (2011), on the challenges of translation..

      *** He is a published poet, so he has some credibility. Anyone can claim to be a poet!


      Booth, W C (1961) The Rhetoric of Fiction Chicago, Ill. University of Chicago Press (later ed., 1983)

      13 October 2014

      Items to Share: 12 October 2014

      Education Focus
      • Is it teachable? | Webs of Substance 'When someone presents an objective that seems just a bit too fuzzy then it is worth asking whether it is actually teachable. It could save us from a lot of messing about.'
      • Why I Don’t Like Rubrics | Vitae [Chronicle of HE] 'In my experience, rubrics generally fail in practice because they're not good rhetorical tools. Most rubrics do not speak a language that students understand. Too often, in trying to isolate the skills we want students to master, we fall back on vague and abstract language that means little to them. I don't know about your students, but telling mine that they should "employ language to control the ideas" or "reflect the generativity of the topic" doesn't really help them understand why they can't seem to do better than a C+. Yes, you can work to use more effective language on your rubric, but the problem remains that, abstracted from actual assignments, rubrics often fail to show students what is expected of them in real terms.'
      • Coming Out About Learning Outcomes | Sam Shepherd 'Sometimes a lesson isn’t about the product, but the process – and by their very nature, learning outcomes detract from this. There should still be opportunity for reflection and discussion of what learning happens in a lesson, mind you, it’s just that it shouldn’t be seen as requirement at the beginning of the lesson: why not develop the learning outcomes as the lesson progresses, rather than rely on their conscious application at the beginning?
      • 7 Mistakes to Avoid When Writing Multiple-Choice Questions | Faculty Focus 'In this article, we will examine seven common flaws in the construction of multiple-choice questions that students can exploit to help them select the correct answer based on their testwiseness rather than content knowledge. By recognizing these common flaws, you can learn to write better questions for your tests and quizzes.' 
      • On Yoga and Teaching Writing - Advice - The Chronicle of Higher Education '[The yoga teacher's] pedagogical choices [...] reflected her larger intention of inviting students to become active participants in their own journey toward understanding yoga. I wonder what would happen if we in higher education adopted a similar mind-set. Consider the corollary: If our larger intention was actually to invite students to become lifelong writers rather than college students passing a course, how might that shift the ways in which we read and respond to their writing?
      Other Business
      • The Dog Mom’s Brain – Phenomena: Only Human 'On an intellectual level I understand that having a dog is not the same as having a human child. Still, what I feel for him has got to be something like maternal attachment. And a new brain-imaging study backs me up on this.'
      • A little knowledge : Nature News & Comment 'The trend in science is towards greater openness and data sharing. Communication is instant and in real time; knowledge has never been more fluid. Science traditionally argues that this is a good thing. There is no inherently good or bad technology, goes the mantra, only good and bad applications. Is the same true for all forms of knowledge? One way or another, we could be poised to find out. 

      06 October 2014

      Items to Share: 5 October 2014

      A sparse week!

      Education Focus
      • Group Work | Webs of Substance 'The value of group work has been exaggerated and the resulting ubiquity of poor-quality group work should be a serious cause for concern.'
      • Awkward Silences, Embarrassing Moments | Sam Shepherd '...it occurred to me that in all my teaching career I have never, not once, taught learners how to avoid communication. [...] We’ve all been there – those awkward moments when you’ve asked the wrong question to the wrong person and at best there is silence and discomfort, and at worst anger and tears. They happen a lot, sadly.'
      Other Business

      30 September 2014

      Items to Share; 28 September 2014

      Apologies for lateness.

      Education Focus
      • Course Content: Why Don't We Teach the Telephone Book? | Faculty Focus '... It is difficult or impossible to get students to want to learn course material if they do not see a practical use for it. Unfortunately, many college and university courses cover information that most students do not need to know and will never need to know, although many of my colleagues find that very difficult to admit."
      • Shoot the elephant: The Ofsted report into low-level disruption. - Tom Bennett - TES Community 'Behaviour. It's always been about behaviour. From the day I stepped into a classroom, the biggest obstacle I faced in getting students from average A to brilliant B was how they behaved, or didn't. [The serious offenders aren't] the biggest problems for teaching; the Kryptonite for learning was the low-evel stuff – the chatting, the sullen refusals, the phones, the rocking, the headphones, paper-throwing. Everything that doesn't look like anything special in description, but collectively erodes the lesson like a universal solvent.' 
      Other Business

      22 September 2014

      Items to Share: 21 September 2014

      Education Focus
      • Minorities | Sam Shepherd On being a cyclist. 'Read [this post] through to the end and it gives you a feeling for what it must be like when it’s not a lifestyle choice which is being discriminated against, but some central part of who you are. I wonder how much starker and more intense are those emotions, how much more savage the final radicalisation might become.[...] But I have a little insight, which I hope is a start.'
      • Does Discussion Make a Difference? | Faculty Focus 'When faced with conceptual problems, students need the opportunity to practice solving them. The value of that practice is enhanced when in addition to finding the answer, students talk to one another about the problem and how they arrived at their answers. What’s most encouraging in this study is the documentation that discussion not only leads more of them to the correct answer, it improves their ability to explain why the answer is correct.' And...
      • How to get students to participate in discussion 'The reading has been assigned. You have prepared the questions, in advance. As you ask them, you are met by blank stares. This week on Teaching in Higher Ed: How to get students to participate in discussion with Dr. Stephen Brookfield.'
      • Does the student a) know the answer, or are they b) guessing? 'Central Queensland University has weighed up the advantages and limitations of multiple choice and has decided to abolish them from all exams. This is for two reasons: firstly, because of the potential impact of guessing; and secondly, because of the lack of authenticity in the method of answering the question.' But...
      • Games in the Classroom (Reading List) –  The Chronicle of Higher Education 'There are lots of enthusiasts for games in the classroom out there (myself included, of course) and tons of great places to start if you’re interested in learning more about bringing games into education. These are only the tip of the iceberg–there’s a particularly rich conversation in game studies surrounding serious and persuasive games, which is decidedly interwoven with educational games.'
      Other Business

      • BPS Research Digest: The 10 most controversial psychology studies ever, digested 'Controversy is essential to scientific progress. As Richard Feynman said, "science is the belief in the ignorance of experts." Nothing is taken on faith, all assumptions are open to further scrutiny. It's a healthy sign therefore that psychology studies continue to generate great controversy. Often the heat is created by arguments about the logic or ethics of the methods, other times it's because of disagreements about the implications of the findings to our understanding of human nature.' 
      • ‘The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace,’ by Jeff Hobbs - NYTimes.com 'There are places in America where life is so cheap and fate so brutal that, if they belonged to another country, America might bomb that country to “liberate” them. This book is a mesmeric account of such a place — a ghetto near Newark — that asks the consummate American question: Is it possible to reinvent yourself, to sculpture your own destiny?'
      • 3quarksdaily: Ig Nobels: British researchers take coveted science humour prize 'The nation can hold its head up high. Once again, researchers in Britain have been honoured with that most coveted of scientific awards, the Ig Nobel prize. [ ] Not to be confused with the more prestigious – and lucrative – prizes doled out from Stockholm next month, the Ig Nobels are awarded for science that makes people laugh and then makes them think.'