27 December 2006

On Christmas messages

I have not posted over the holidays themselves, because I have stayed away from this machine (under threat of dire consequences). You could say I went "cold turkey". Or perhaps not... :-)

If you are interested in a couple of fun Christmas messages, check out;

or for something a little funkier;
Or if you are into something a little darker (although I am sure it is unintentionally so), consider this message, which was passed on to me via email as these things are. I have extracted some of the text only from a very slick PowerPoint slideshow;
  • If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof overhead and a place to sleep... You are richer than 75% of this world.
  • If you have money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish some place ... You are among the top 8% of the world's wealthy
  • [...]
  • Have a good day, count your blessings, and pass this along to remind everyone else how blessed we all are.
  • You are wished a Merry Christmas
(There are ten slides in all, with cosy images as backgrounds; the whole thing is seductive enough for me to make a deliberate effort not to become part of a viral campaign). My brother commented; "it reminds me a bit of those shopping malls where they introduce a fragrance into the plenum system to evoke misty eyed memories of long ago seasons so you will go into the stores and spend more money than you planned to. Or am I getting more and more cynical?"

No! I don't think that reaction is cynical enough. These po-faced "messages" embody a really miserable double message (technically a "double-bind", following Bateson and Watzlawick...)
  1. You are so much better off than practically everyone else, you have an obligation to be happy
  2. How can you possible be happy when the rest of the world is in such a mess?
...and to foist that on us in the guise of a "Merry Christmas" greeting is a little disingenuous? hypocritical?

There is no way one can emerge from such a message feeling "merry". (Although I concede that despite the ubiquity of the injunction, it is not indeed the "point" of the season.)

Indeed the final paragraph; "You are wished a Merry Christmas" is really insidious, carrying as it does the sub-text, "...but you don't deserve to be!"

Some day I may start a theological blog, but this is not it; this one is about learning. But these messages carry messages in turn about learning...
  • about the levels of messages carried by our material
  • and particularly for adult learners--what messages do they imply about the learners themselves?
(Plonking comments on something very subtle and quite powerful. Revisit later?)

05 December 2006

On standards

The new professional standards for teacher/ tutor/ trainer education in the lifelong learning sector have finally been published! Deep joy!

Great news, particularly for people like me who make a living from squeezing really good teacher education programmes into these artificial shells. It's a bit like pre-revolutionary China, and binding girls' feet...

Seriously: where is the evidence that conformity to these specifications makes any difference to students' learning? What research underpins this speculative exercise? Where is the evidence that "trained" teachers are better than "untrained" ones in vocational education? Are we sure what "better" means, here?

24 November 2006

On "Completing"

Two people died today. Not of course counting all the Aids victims in Africa, all the children with malaria, all the refugees in Darfur and elsewhere, and 150+ in Iraq. And all the others.

Why comment on two deaths? Because they touch me, in quite different ways.

Nick Clarke was the consummate broadcaster. There are well-deserved tributes on the BBC site, as there should be. I shall miss him. Much as I respect the "Today" confrontational interviewing style, Nick embodied a wonderfully courteous but forensic manner (and the term "forensic" has cropped up in so many tributes).

But Den died today, too. Susi knew him much better than I did. I only met him once, when I drove him and his cat ("Jennifur") on her last trip to the vet. Susi was late for dinner on Sunday, when she went to visit him; she had to wait for a loaf to finish baking so she could take it home. It's wholemeal. It's still edible. But Den (who was well into his 80s) collapsed in the street this morning and was pronounced dead at the hospital later, despite their best efforts.

Den was a gloriously cantankerous eccentric. Not that he set out to be so. He would have despised such affectation. He was a vegetarian; he believed that central heating undermined civilisation; he was a slave to his cat; he was a hellenophile--he married a Greek woman he met during WW2 (I think) ...

Sadly, his family were not with him when he died. But in all probability he never regained consciousness. And that, from all I have heard, is exactly as he would have wished it. It was impossible to imagine him surviving in residential care, for instance. He would have been sad about the shock of his death to his loved ones (and particularly his cat, of course!) but it was the best way to go. For him.

"Completion" is a euphemism for "death" in Ishigoru's novel Never let me go. "Euphemism" is not quite the right term; read the novel to understand what I mean. It haunts me. "Haunts" is here the right word...

"Completion" implies a pre-determined purpose, and for Ishigoru's characters that is a given. For most of us, it isn't. But had Nick or Den "completed"? Will I?

On defining the situation and the latest James Bond movie

No! You can find the link for yourself.

Tonight, I got my opinion in first. A group of us went to see "Casino Royale". You know the scenario as the group leaves the cinema or theatre (unless the verdict is self-evident). There is this tentative social shuffling as people try to suss out what the party line is going to be. Was it the greatest movie since Casablanca? Or is it a turkey? (Given that it is Thanksgiving for folks in the US, that might not be such a bad thing...) Whoever expresses a clear opinion, loudly and confidently enough, "defines the situation" and resolves the ambiguity, and provides a framework for the subsequent discussion... (Unless of course, they happen to be the low-status prat in the group who is always wrong...)

My opinion is below.

It is of course irrelevant. My concern is with the way in which small groups in educational settings slip into the same pattern. Actually, it is worse for them, because they are not just trying to suss out the consensus within the group; in many cases they are trying to guess what answer the teacher wants. How can we create a working culture which diminishes this process and boosts real debate? Discuss. [No, I'm not giving the "answer". All I did was go to a movie!]

Here is my opinion of Casino Royale:

If you get the chance to see the latest James Bond movie, don't bother.

It's got good reviews from practically all the papers except the Sunday Times, which makes a point of being perverse; but I was bored after less than an hour, and it was two and a half hours long. Every time I thought it was finishing, there was another ending, which took a further twenty minutes. Not since John Ford's She wore a Yellow Ribbon has the ending been so much of the film.

The plotting is clunky; the penultimate ending sequence is triggered by a phone conversation which would have failed a freshman script-writing class. Much has been made of the "character development" of Bond in the course of the film; but it is not demonstrated, it is merely asserted in dialogue. Daniel Craig is OK, but the script does not give him much of a chance to be anything else. I never found out who the "Bond girl" is this time (the label seems to be the kiss of death to an actress's career anyway---sorry! I think it's more PC to say "female actor") because the only credits were at the end, and I just wanted to get out by then.

There are no original set pieces--all the fights and chases have been done before, often better. (Apart from the torture scene, which does have the merit of being low-tech, but is resolved crudely by someone being shot by someone else--I think they were both villains, but then everyone except Bond is a villain...)

And there is only one joke! After some punch-up, Bond appears at the bar and orders a vodka martini. The barman asks if he wants it shaken or stirred. Bond replies "Do I look as if I care?" That's it. Pity, really; an enormous amount of effort and attention to detail, not to mention money and real talent has gone into it (although I'm sure I did detect a continuity error concerning whether a car door was open or closed, at one point!), and it's still boring!

27 October 2006

On another graduation ceremony

Clicking on the link will take you back to this time last year. My reflection has not changed, overall (apart from a degree of surprise that I ended up on the platform again).

A couple of additional observations, though. At one stage, a few years ago, we had just three people graduating in post-compulsory education; at this ceremony, the entire first half, and a substantial chunk of the second half, were PCE awards. (OK, that is of interest only to immediate colleagues and myself; but perhaps it ought to be of interest to... Never mind!)

One reason for the increased numbers is that people graduating in the network colleges are taking the trouble to travel up to 110 miles (180 km? in my head--correct me, adult numeracy teaching people) each way in order to graduate at the formal ceremony. They don't have to. But they do, and they bring their families. And some, former students and families, are visibly moved.

This is a great event! And so say all the speeches from the great and the ("good"? Discuss) of the university. But why can't they say it with a little more conviction and enthusiasm? I know that they do this four times in two days on our campus. But this is a one-off event for the graduands; and this is a School of Education. And the bottom line of practice in education is to be able to put oneself in the position of the student, and to relate to that...

So please don't diminish it with droning speeches and body language which says "why do I have to do this? I could be auditing the accounts!"

But celebrate!

19 October 2006

On teachers' and learners' perspectives

Aishah Azmi has lost her case (on three counts out of four) for discrimination in her dismissal form her post as a teaching assistant, for wearing the veil (or niqab).

I am not commenting on the case as such, you will be relieved to know. But according to what I think I heard on a news report a few minutes ago, she said, "I am perfectly capable of teaching with the veil; it has never presented a problem."

  • It's not about that! All she is saying here is that she is thinking about her performance as a teacher; but effective teachers are not concerned with that. They are concerned with the pupils'/students' experience as learners.
  • I really did not want to get into this, but—leaving aside all the reasons—she is on the inside of her self-presentation. Would she see it as not a problem if her pupils were wearing the veil?
  • This is a current (but rare) issue in colleges and universities; lecturers are concerned that fully-veiled students give little feedback about their understanding in large lectures. In smaller sessions, of course, they may contribute verbally. Frankly, although I would find it disconcerting to be "faced" by a classroom full of veiled students, there is less of an issue here than there is of teaching on-line, or even doing a tutorial on the 'phone. It is a matter of adjustment. But....
  • Teaching at a distance, by phone or online, I readily accept that we both have to find ways round the limited channels of communication. But face to not-face, as it were?
  • If I were being taught by David Blunkett (sorry! he's in the news again and the highest-profile blind man in the country--and a former teacher in further education) I would accept my responsibility as a student to adapt to his impairment. I would not, for example, put my hand up in class and expect to be called upon to speak. He the teacher cannot change his capabilities, so I have to. Put crudely, "he can't help it". OK.
  • But when someone "can help it", and--for whatever reason--decides unilaterally to close down a channel of communication, then that person must be responsible for the consequences. They, and of course other "stakeholders", may ultimately decide that it was all worthwhile. Fine. That is another debate.
And, of course, we have no valid evidence that it (wearing the niqab veil) was or was not a problem. Primary school children have wonderful views of the world, but they tend to accept hierarchies and the oddities of adults as "just the way things are". One of the first things they learn in school is that they do not know enough to have valid opinions on anything.

However, if, as we might reconstruct, Ms Azmi was unveiled as long as there were no adult males in the room... What was she "teaching" when she veiled in the presence of a man?

I do not wish to engage with the substance of this debate. That is a different issue. I am asking about the learners' experience and perspective, because that is what matters.

16 October 2006

On "write-only" documents

I can't reference this, but I know thousands of people who can (994,000 according to Google)! I think I picked up the idea (even the "meme", dodgy though that concept is) from either;
  • Pratchett T (2006) Thud! London; Corgi Books, or
  • Pratchett T, Stewart I and Cohen J (2003) The Science of Discworld II; the Globe London; Ebury Press
I did think of reading them both again in order to track down the reference, which would have been fun, but a little self-indulgent; I decided to leave it to you to find it! The search will be great and illuminating fun. Go on--read Pratchett, and blame me!

Substantively, you are familiar with "read-only" documents, such as Acrobat files. This brilliant idea is that there is a class of documents which "need" to be written, but which will never be read.

I am currently engaged in the stupefying exercise of "mapping" some standards onto something else. The content does not matter, because the result will be a "write-only" document. Some bureaucrat somewhere will check whether the document exists, tick a box, and move on to the next item. S/he will certainly not read the document.

I know that is the case--I may have blogged this before, but it's worth a repeat! A couple of years ago, a module with the following "learning outcome" went through our entire quality assurance procedure unchallenged;
  • On completion of this module, students will: Be able to discourse animatedly on the positions of several educational thinkers so as to bore the pants off acquaintances at parties.
Nowhere in the documentation is it specified what criteria determine what constitutes "bor(ing) the pants off acquaintances" That is clearly unacceptable, but no-one raised the matter.

So--it is just possible that several thousand pounds were spent on the production of "write-only" documents, whose sheer existence counts for much more than their content.

Draw your own conclusions.

13 October 2006

On manipulating meetings

We had the meeting today, about bidding for a "Centre for Excellence". And I did it again, although I didn't want to. To explain; I have a really annoying pattern of contribution to meetings.

It's not a "tactic" or even "strategy" because I don't do it deliberately. It is just a pattern I slip into, and it may annoy only me, because I find it happening again and again. In most meetings, my colleagues have no idea that it is a "pattern". I used to be proud of it, and the way committee meetings etc. ended up "seeing things my way"; now I've grown up and I find it a liability.

What is the tactic/pattern? It's simple, and it seems to work whenever other people lack passionate ideas.
  • Criticise other people's contributions, quite reasonably and without animosity, just enough to undermine them; and then
  • suggest something different which has clearly been thought through, and addresses the other concerns.Create a vacuum, and then fill it!
Yuch! I used to enjoy how it worked. Now it bugs me. Partly because it is testimony to my inability to maintain "negative capability", and partly because what superficially appears to be my manipulation of the committee is really my manipulation by the committee because I can't stand the disorder of indecision!

So! We met today. The meeting was supposed to be 10-11 routine business; 11-1 the CETT. (What is the CETT? Who cares? It makes no difference to the story other than that it was a significant agenda item.) Routine business does not concern me any more, so I drifted in at about 10.30. That agenda actually carried on until 11.45 (no failure of chairing etc. simply blurred boundaries of agenda items). The CETT meeting started then; people had had various ideas beforehand, but they were not really prepared to argue for them, and given that my proposal was based on prior conversations with several members, it was accepted.

Oh dear! Don't get me wrong. I think my proposal is not only strategically good, but also really will contribute to real-world improvements. I have no axe to grind; my ideas are disinterested. (Obviously not "uninterested", of course. Please explain the difference.) But I suspect that there is an optimal level of disagreement in planning meetings. Too little, and decisions are made with no sense of engagement, and hence no ownership and no commitment to contributing to their implementation. Too much, and the dispute undermines the process and the decision—we are all too familiar with that. Somewhere in between is the honest (even romanticised) position of engaging in argument, and accepting and even committing to an outcome. (That will be the position of some members of the UN Security Council if a Chapter 7 resolution is agreed against North Korea.)

12 October 2006

On Blackboards again

Apropos my post of 9 June, this has come up again, again prompted by a mathematician.

02 October 2006

On cultures in adult education

It's the new academic year! Time for new year resolutions:
  • I resolve only to blog things which will make sense to me a week later.
Let's see if it works.

I am a student again! On Tuesdays, that is. 10-12 am; I take "The Problem of Evil" at the Retirement Education Centre. 6-9 pm; I take "Introduction to Macromedia 'Flash'" at the local FE college.

I have blogged previously about the wonderful REC courses. This time around they are even better because the so-called "assessment" requirement has become even more tokenistic and hence honest; now all the University expects is a two-paragraph essay proposal, rather than a pretend essay. Now it is clear to everyone that this is a game about funding, and nothing else; we know where we stand. All pretence of measuring "education" has now been abandoned. It's a gentleman's agreement (I did think of correcting for sexism, but then decided the principle goes too far back). It helps that the University involved is Cambridge; whichever way you cut it, this is one of the top five universities in the world; even the Higher Education Funding Council for England (you don't really want a link to their website, do you? How sad can you get?) hesitates to pick a fight with them.

It's not like that in the Further Education (FE) sector. Their funding comes from the local and national Learning and Skills Councils through a convoluted formula which takes account of the costs of offering a course (logical, but far from the whole story) adjusted with reference to under-represented groups in further education (including in my case, the over-60s, so I got a half-price deal on the up-front fee) and retention and completion rates. These are sausage-machine systems.

I hate to admit it, but it comes down to class. I and others (with much more reason and experience) resented the previous regime of accountability on the Cambridge courses. I don't know the details, but the funding bureaucrats are backing off; they are progressively conceding ever more liberal course requirements.

It doesn't work like that in FE. FE students have little voice. They have little engagement with their college. For many of them it is simply a place to access teaching. Many of them don't even know how to recognise good teaching.

At the REC, there is an equal dialogue between the class and the teacher. OK, there is a degree of manipulation;
  • Tutor; I am supposed to introduce "student-centred" methods into these classes, such as setting you tasks to perform in small groups. Do you really want to do that?
  • Class; No!
We were all aware of the game we were playing (although it was sad that the tutor was forced to go through the motions) and probably I was the only person present who knew what was fundamentally going on, but who cares?

[Note; we did do a small-group exercise in week 2, regardless of the class' judgement. It would take too long to disentangle that, now; email me if you are desperate!]

In FE, you can't treat it as a game. I did some calculations and worked out that, assuming a balanced 50% marginal and 50% overhead rate, and 14 students, this course would more than meet its costs, regardless of LSC subsidy. In fact there were 20 students last week, so assuming about 20% attrition....

I hate this. I know. Wherever you start it comes back to this. But....

We'll revisit this when I can think beyond feeling something is wrong.

29 August 2006

On not being able to say something.

I drove back from a short break this evening, and became increasingly impatient with Radio 4's unctuous celebration of the centenary of the birth of a pretentious and patronising second-rate poet. I'm not usually po-faced, but to write;

in the same year as Guernica (not sure of the exact chronology) is not post-modern ironic (neither of which ideas would have made sense to Betjeman [even if they do to any of the rest of us {I must get out of these nested brackets}]) No brackets; it is simply crass.

Is this a rant about Betjeman? No, actually. It is just an illustration of an issue I fell to thinking about having switched off the radio.

My substantive meditation (if there is such a thing) was around the extent to which we are conditioned to think of "learning" as a static state which can be assessed by "snapshot" methods such as examinations. In email exchanges with several correspondents (thanks, Renee) I have come to suspect that this may be inadequate--and indeed that it is not "merely" academically inadequate, but that it seriously constrains educational policy and practice... Exciting stuff! I'll write an article about it!

But--leaving aside the fact that fewer people will probably read the article than will read this blog--how long will it take me to produce an academically acceptable piece which will pass peer review, by including a literature review testing the proposition that the conventional wisdom of educational theory treats "learning" as a static achieved state..? It's the kind of task you assign to a Ph.D student, so assuming you are a nice supervisor who is going to grant him or her a few months to add their original gloss for a thesis---30 months? Forget it.

Of course, a journalist could make the same point on the basis of a couple of days on the net and ringing up a few interested parties for quotes.

And a blogger doesn't even have to get past basic editorial control.
  • Did Betjeman write those lines before or after Guernica? I don't know; it may simply be a cheap shot on my part with little basis in fact. Regardless of the historical facts, did B. know about Guernica? Where were his sympathies (if any) in the Spanish Civil War?
But this line of thought raises further questions. What is the premium of ---shall we say, "credibility"--- actually conferred by full academic referencing? Does it actually matter very much?
  • Clearly it does in some subjects, which are more or less clearly cumulative; Newton stands on the shoulders of giants.
  • But in the humanities and the social sciences and professional disciplines, when did you last read a dispassionate literature review (other than from a librarian)? Indeed, when did you last check such a review? There is so much stuff out there that there is no way I could read it all, still less evaluate it. And I certainly do not know whether this literature review or that "truly" represents the literature in a particular area.
Academic practice may need to be scrutinised as a form of restrictive practice. In many cases it serves no particular purpose apart from making it difficult to get published, prolonging the process, and inflating the egos of those of us who edit and referee the journals. (RAE aside).

It certainly has very little to do with increasing anybody's understanding of anything.

03 August 2006

On drilling or dancing

A couple of days ago, one of those juxtapositions which really get the reflective juices flowing.

I have been marking some assessments which require the inclusion of schemes of work and session plans. I have been both impressed and appalled by what has been submitted. I'm impressed by the precision of the paperwork, especially the required itemisation of the special needs and learning styles within the class. This one, for example, has "three learners with possible ADHD, and four with possible dyslexia, although none are yet fully assessed." Fine; I have little problem with that. The "little" problem concerns how the pre-emptive labelling is handled, and that is not revealed in the documentation.

Alongside that, we have session/lesson plans which are specified to the minute. Seven minutes to take the register and introduce the objectives of this session. Twelve minutes of PowerPointy presentation of the substance...

I have also just been reading Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" It's a well-written journalist's book. It betrays its journalistic origins in that any point made more that 1500 words previously has to be re-stated in case it has been forgotten; and it is peppered with quotations from interviews. OK; this guy took the trouble to go and interview his informants, but given that they have (almost) all published their results and findings, why? (OK, we know why--it adds that human touch, he told me, as he stirred his latte with four sugars...) The material was actually covered rather better in 1998 by Guy Claxton.

They come at it from very different angles, but dig beneath the surface, and there are very different views of thinking and learning implicit in these sources. It's easy to see the first as "mechanical". It's the sausage-machine model. Get the teaching right (including all the spuriously reified differentiation of learners--the must-know, should-know, could-know stuff, and the "extension activities" to stop any disruption from learners who manage to finish ahead of schedule) ...and they will learn. "Build it and they will come!" This is a bizarre inversion of the Field of Dreams idea.

In the interests of alliteration, for me it is the "drilling" model. I'm not going to get all touchy-feely romanticised naive-humanistic about this. My experience has been, I admit, mainly in "soft" teaching areas. Not with "soft" students and classes, by any means; but the bottom-line cognitive taxonomy issues have not loomed terribly large. And I know that they count for much more for other teachers, but...

Even in those areas, like teaching law (which is precise and even pedantic) the best laid plans are often waylaid by events (...oh boy! we've just moved into a whole different discourse. I'll leave it with this link) In the real world, as Gladwell suggests, teaching is more like a dance.

Dancing (at which I am very bad) involves (or did until 50 years ago, and I confess to being occicentric here --- hands up if you have encountered that term before) momentary dynamic flexible sensitive response to one's partner.

That's relatively easy one-to-one, of course. One Fred; one Ginger. And they rehearsed! Result--superb craft and perhaps art. One teacher; 30 learners? Can they dance?

It has been done. It is done every day; more often than one might think.

But a drilling ideology will never result in dancing.

So, on the whole, being an optimistic kind of guy; I look at those minute-by-minute session plans and think, "These are bureaucratic fictions". And when I sit in to observe teaching, it worries me if you follow them. OK; the minuet is a very prescribed dance. Oh pursue the analogy for yourself................

Interesting, isn't it?

23 July 2006

On groping for the day

  • "Carpe diem!" "Seize the day!"
  • Great motto/slogan (although not one I have really practised, being an academic rather than a venture capitalist...)
  • Still--it seemed like a good title for a blog post. Except that all my post headers seem to be in the form, "On..." (This was never a strategic decision, just a habit, but not one I feel inclined to break.)
  • So! 'On "carpe diem"' ? That would work were I to be meditating on the phrase as such, but I'm actually going after the underlying sentiment. So I need to say something about "on Seizing the Day". That is banal; it needs the Latin. Prefixed, of course, with the trademark "on".
  • So what is the construction? "carpentem diem" would seem to make sense. It is the logical extension of assuming that "carp -o -ere" is second (or indeed fourth) conjugation, and constructing the present participle from that root. But is the present participle the relevant part of speech? Depending on its place within the grammatical structure of the sentence, it may function as a gerund or indeed a gerundive (I have never understood what the difference is between them--and the more I quiz others [including my old friend Rodney, who must be the only surviving specimen of that wondrous species--the passionate classics master] about it, the less I understand.)
  • So should I write "On 'carpentem diem'"? Or, of course, does the preposition take the dative or the ablative? It doesn't matter in practice, because the results will be the same....
However! What was this post supposed to be about? Sorry! I've forgotten.

I tried to sort out merely the title of this piece in an largely-forgotten and little practised language. At least the script was familiar.

Do you have overseas students?

19 July 2006

On negotiating deferrals

I have just done my last teaching observation of the year, probably. It concerned a post-graduate course at another university, intended to develop the business skills of free-lance artists.

This post is not about the session itself, but some administrative business that I happened to witness. The course tutor came in, partly to greet the students for their last session of the year (good), and partly to nag them about getting their assignments in on time (bad, in my book).

In particular, one "student", in his late forties (?) had not submitted a particular piece of work. He had suffered sunstroke, he had been hospitalised for a few days, and he had been unable to work for two weeks. All that meant that, as a self-employed person, he had been unable to work and had probably lost 5% of his annual income... (OK, artists' incomes do not follow the same pattern as those of trades people, but they probably average out similarly.)

This guy had been chatting previously about how useful he had found the course; about all the new ideas he had gained about strategic planning, about how to bid for public commissions, about how to manage his taxes, and the like. He wanted to progress to the next stage of the programme, simply because this part had been so useful, he wanted to find out more. In reality, the acquisition of academic accreditation was way down on this list of priorities.

So the programme leader came in and started asking him whether he could produce medical evidence of his incapacity to submit for the deadline....

This kind of academic arrogance really bugs me! Even the medical profession has got beyond this! Who cares how long it takes him to get his work in? He'll only try to meet the deadline in order to stay on to the next stage of the programme anyway; letters after his name do not mean anything in his real world. It is the utility of the learning which keeps him going.

Well, my academic colleagues riposte--why should he have more time to complete this assignment than his fellow-students, unless he has a good excuse? He will have an unfair advantage. Grow up! Competition, if it exists in this group, is trivial. They want the learning, not the "qualification".

Luther (he'll see through that crude encoding, if he reads this) has finally submitted his work for module 5 of the PGCE. Four years late. So? [So he is lucky that I am not so retired that I will not mark it!] He needs to learn about deadlines, argues Phil Race (www.phil-race.com and I am not going to be more specific because the site is full of gems, so see you in a couple of hours...) Luther is a journalist by profession; he is the British "stringer" for several German newspapers. He teaches German "on the side". As a native speaker, he is in demand as a teacher. From an employment point of view, his "native speaker" status is vastly more important than a teaching qualification, but it is entirely to his credit that he sought one. Who are we to insist that he should complete it in a time-scale of our imposition?

A few years ago, when I sat on the university's "Research Degrees Committee", an agenda item concerned the compulsory termination of "out-of-time" students. One student had taken eight years, so far, on his Ph.D. The motion was to "terminate" him, despite the fact that he had dutifully paid his fees every year. This was clearly contrary to the Levinsky rules etc. Further questioning, however, revealed that this "student" was well into his seventies. He was simply fascinated by his subject. He had no real need to sign up for a Ph.D, but he thought it would at least ensure he could have someone (a.k.a. "supervisor") with whom to share his enthusiasm for whatever his topic was. He might complete; he might not. From the university's point of view, does it matter?

Would we bother, of course, were we not concerned to demonstrate the "completion" or "achievement" rates the government wants? Probably not.

What happened to valuing "learning", "study", "scholarship" etc. as opposed to "qualifications", "retention" and "achievement"?

09 June 2006

On blackboards

Or "chalkboards" if you have highly-tuned PC sensors/censors! (They were originally physically black; you can still buy "blackboard" black paint at the DIY store. They turned green in the '70s because it is supposedly easier on the eye, before being largely abandoned in favour of "whiteboards". No-one makes any PC points about whiteboards...

  • But not about "BlackBoard", which is a Virtual Learning Environment, which I personally detest as one of the clunkiest packages I have ever had to deal with, and which most of our students try not to use if they can avoid it. The interesting thing is how such a powerful brand was developed with such an un-PC name. Could it possibly suggest that most of the world does not share the (occasional) academic obsession with Political Correctness?
  • No, this is about writing on boards with chalk. (What that? I hear you cry... Actually it is a form of gypsum, rather than "rock" chalk.) It predates whiteboards and pens, and is the basis of the usually derogatory phrase, "chalk and talk" used to describe pedestrian teaching.
As usual, a few things came together to promote this reflection;

  • A correspondent made the point that in discussing "media" on the teaching site, I had ignored the traditional blackboard, and pointed me to the wonderful article linked to from the title of this piece, and
  • The other day I called in at our resources centre for something obscure, and noticed that they still sell packs of chalk, both white and coloured. I asked Jo about this.
    • (Jo is the assistant/technician/administrator/manager—I have no idea of her technical title—who manages this wonderful room from which students and staff can get everything from sheets of coloured card and glue-sticks to video-editing facilities. She does it with unfailing patience, good humour and expertise, even at this time of year when she and her part-time assistant are overwhelmed with student teachers trying to complete their final projects at the last minute.)
  • She explained that while there are a few schools which still use chalkboards, students also use chalk for marking up, for example, mensuration exercises in school yards. There ain't no substitute.
  • And I occasionally sat on committees with an economics professor who really annoyed everyone else by banging on about how chalk was the only practicable medium for economists.
  • And my correspondent pointed out that in mathematics lectures, where substantial amounts of space are needed to write out equations, only chalk has the thickness of line to be legible from the back of a lecture theatre.
  • And mathematicians need lots of space to write up their equations, so big, rolling chalkboards are just the thing.
  • And Koerner's piece (link in title of this post) is, among other things, about the lecture as an unfolding narrative.
In other words, don't knock it. Every medium has its uses!

30 May 2006

On reflective journals

It's that marking (grading) time of year again. One fascinating aspect of that is to get to read students' learning/reflective/professional journals. They go by a variety of names, but they are all thoughtful accounts of practice, which identify areas for development and make links to general principles (a.k.a. "theory").

Frankly, I haven't a clue how I mark them. That is phrased carefully. I know "how to" mark them; I authored the criteria in the tutors' handbook for the course. But that is different from the way I actually do it.

Students writing journals are frankly in a bind. Should they 'fess up to everything which went wrong, and gain marks for honesty and reflection? Yes; but of course they may lose marks for sheer incompetence. Or should they spin to emphasise success? Yes; but we can mark them down for being insufficiently self-critical.

It's the same kind of bind that convicts experience when applying for parole. If they admit their offences and exhibit remorse, they will be let out. But if they continue to protest their innocence, they stay in prison. What do they do if they are actually innocent? There have been a few recent cases which have highlighted this. (OK, I should reference them, but it's late and it's complicated to search for them... Are you going to mark me down on this?)

I'm glad I don't have to produce a reflective journal. Actually, I do, and this is it. But you are not going to mark or grade it (althought there is an occasionally-used comment facility; please use that more). But I don't have to do it. I do it because I find it useful to do it; and it does not matter very much what anyone else thinks.

Could I write like this if I thought someone would mark it? I'd like to think so, but frankly I don't believe it. Setting a "reflective journal" as an assessment task is highly problematic.

19 May 2006

On the other side of the coin

This is viral, but not very reflective!

A friend just passed this link on to me; apart from being "The Onion" at its best, it puts a different slant on all those, "my computer crashed and I lost my work!" excuses.

16 May 2006

On encouraging surface learning

I'm bemused! On 3 May I posted about the Cambridge University Extension Course I am taking at the local Retirement Education Centre, the content of which continues to be stimulating and enjoyable.

But last week I was slightly surprised that the lecturer introduced the session by telling us how to write an essay on the material covered to date (the tri-partite nature of knowledge). He explained that as it had to be 1500 words, it would consist of seven (or perhaps eight) paragraphs, and then summarised on the whiteboard what each paragraph should contain. Odd, I thought. One does not expect this kind of thing on a course such as this.

Today, after the coffee break, he raised the assessment issue again. It is important, he explained, because the funding of the course, and hence that of the Centre, is affected by the number of people passing the course. A discussion ensued, of course. If this were an Oxford course, he told us, we could have passed by merely producing a two-paragraph proposal, but under current Cambridge regulations we do actually have to write the essay, and it needs to be at least 1300 words. I asked whether we were confined to the set titles. Absolutely, he replied; after, all they did between them "cover the whole syllabus".

Did it matter, then, since the assessment was merely to secure the funding stream, whether we passed or not? He was surprised but then explained about the sheer hassle which would be created if anyone submitted and failed. But there was no reason to fail, he said, because he would explain exactly what was required...

Cambridge University is one of the great universities of the world. It is a bastion of liberal, if sometimes antiquated, educational values. The very idea of teaching a course on epistemology to a bunch of retired people who can only be expressively motivated is a wonderful remnant of liberal education in an increasingly instrumental world. What has it come to, then, when they are apparently forced to adopt an assessment regime which is both inherently anti-andragogic (sorry for the jargon—it's just shorthand) and even anti-humanistic, in one of the great traditional humanities disciplines?

It is, moreover, the kind of assessment which is almost forced to promote surface learning, in a group of students who would naturally tend towards deep learning. It virtually rules out engaging in the higher levels of the SOLO taxonomy, and indeed I would tell my students that it pitches at the lower levels of Bloom (or Krathwohl and Anderson)

Interested as I am in the notion of hidden and unintended curricula , (and especially given that the course is about the nature of knowledge), I am bemused by these contradictory messages.

Apparently only one person has ever submitted and failed (and he was a former Fellow of an Oxford College). Sorry, there may be another on the way!

12 May 2006

On excusing oneself

This may well be one of those fatuous late-night "insights" which seem profound at 2.03 am but prove to be merely banal in the morning, but;

I have attended several conferences recently. It is a commonplace observation that conferences are as much about "networking" as about the substantive content of the sessions. "Networking" means, I think, making face-to-face contact with people who may be useful in developing one's ideas or promoting one's projects. That sounds exploitative, and in a sense it is; but if everyone knows the nature of the game, and has a mutual interest, the process is more accurately described as "symbiotic".

I am not good at it. I don't really want to be good at it. I prefer to meet people on the basis of being interested in each other, or at least in each others' ideas, for their own sake. Still, it is a fact of life, so it worth reflecting on.

The other day, at a day conference, I psyched myself up to approach several people I had never met before, to make myself known. I admit that I did so mainly for "networking" reasons. After all, I am now self-employed, so I have to make my "brand" known.

I have never attended any training on doing this (thank goodness), but I can imagine that if I were to do so, it would concentrate on how to introduce oneself (and cite much spurious research on the importance of first impressions).

But would it say anything about how to excuse oneself and get away?

There are several options, of course. Most famously, Mr Polly in H G Wells' novel, used to mutter, "Little dog!" and scurry off leaving the other person bewildered.

  • The most obvious option is to let the other person break it off; but that may well mean that you have outstayed your welcome.
  • You can always pretend to have spotted someone else you must talk to, across the crowded room; but that sends a message about the person you are currently talking to being less important than your next 'prospect'.
  • You can of course acknowledge that the other people are busy, and say, "Well, I must let you get on..."; that's fine when there is more than one of them, but a bit phoney when you are going to leave them standing alone...
Some months ago, a friend and I were at a reception attended by a cabinet minister. Whatever my view of his politics and performance (I generally steer clear of such issues on this blog, but I confess he and his preceding lecture did impress me), I was really struck by his ability to "work the room". He spent several minutes with us, doing a good job of appearing to be interested in our work (which he almost certainly wasn't, of course, but I'm not going to accuse him of hypocrisy; I would rather that he feign interest rather than be dismissive), and then moved on. Sadly, I did not have the opportunity to observe his "moving on" technique; a Nigerian post-grad was brought into the conversation and he took the opportunity to bend the minister's ear about corruption in Nigeria, so we were simply isolated and drifted away.

Perhaps, if you are the focus of attention, that is the optimum strategy; let your previous interlocutors feel important and interesting, but be dragged away by prior obligations. But if you are not that important? And you just don't want to stand there mouthing inanities until you are dismissed or ignored?

(After all, the essence of "networking", I gather, is never to out-stay one's welcome. The scale of reception ranges from enthusiastic embrace through polite reception to [equally polite] rejection. One never wants to get a "rejection" on one's record...)

Frankly, I'm neither good at managing this nor interested at getting better at it. But it is an interesting cultural issue...

11 May 2006

On self-assessment

A friend has sent me this link to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (the US equivalent of the THES). I discussed it with colleagues yesterday, and we agreed that it did not really accord with our experience of self-assessment exercises. On the whole our students tend to under-estimate their competence rather than over-estimate it.

We hypothesised (OK—guessed) that if true, this might be because our students are more mature than undergraduates (even clinical students in medical school), and/or it might be a cultural difference between the UK and the USA.

So some questions to anyone who actually reads this blog! It's about time you did some work—as if reading my ramblings were not work enough;
  • Does anyone know of any UK research which focuses on similar issues? and in particular,
  • Do you know of anything which compares the UK and the US on this? and/or
  • Compares undergraduates and post-grads/professional course students?
Thanks, looking forward to hearing from you.

03 May 2006

On nostalgia

Yesterday I grasped the nettle. I am actually retired, so I went to my first course at the Retirement Education Centre. It is a brilliant initiative in our town, which has now been going for a quarter-century or more (and with which I had occasion to argue twenty years ago).

The REC decided they wanted to add an extension to their building, and sought planning permission for it. In so doing they drew the attention of the local authority to the planning permissions which attached to all the properties in the Square where the REC is located; and it became apparent that the building in which I then worked did not have planning permission for use as a teaching facility. So we had to move out to a temporary building on another campus, where we stayed for nigh-on twenty years. If the REC had never mentioned it, our Social Work Education Centre might still be in that wonderful old Victorian house...

I signed up for a Cambridge University Extension course on epistemology, but I missed the first session last week, unfortunately. We are a group of about sixteen people; I may be the youngest, and the oldest is clearly well into his eighties (I hope I am as acute, when/if I reach that age). We are also, sadly, entirely white and --I suppose almost by definition-- middle class.

However, I got a course outline (two sides of A4) which specified a "syllabus" with "aims" and "content" but no "objectives", a sheet of guidance for the essay (it was already clear that submission of the assessment was primarily to ensure the continued funding of the course by the university, and had little to do with assessment of learning, although one can apparently accumulate credits towards a certificate if so inclined), and a reading list.

The session was around two hours, with a coffee-break. The tutor lectured, with occasional questions and thought experiments directed at us, and occasionally (well, quite regularly) having to field spontaneous questions from "students". He had a white-board, on which he wrote basic propositions, about three times. There were no handouts. There were no transparencies. There was no PowerPoint.

It was brilliant.

I can't wait to go back. This was andragogy at its best. There was absolutely no sense of being patronised; there were no assumptions ("objectives") about what we should "learn"; here was a teacher simply exposing his knowledge so that it might be shared by others, for no reason other than that it is interesting.

It was not about the tutor's technique. (He might of course read this, although it's highly unlikely unless I tell him about it.) He was clear, sometimes pedantically so. Occasionally he put down a contribution from the floor rather flatly, "No, that's incorrect, because..." (And he effectively told me I would have failed the undergraduate module on this because although my answer was right, I did not have the correct reasoning to reach it! Fair enough.) He made no concessions in terms of academic integrity to his audience of old buffers, which was great. I could see ways in which he could have judiciously illustrated some concepts to clarify them. But it was not about technique or tactics.

(I am not just basing my remarks on this one occasion; I have observed my students teaching here for several years.)

It was about "strategy" or really values. The REC's strategy/value base is clearly one of respect for their self-determining learners; they probably have to claim health benefits or something in bids for funding, but it's all run by the members. I know little about their funding streams. Members/students have to pay a subscription and a fee for each course, so they may be a self-financing "club" (which will of course exclude quite a lot of retired people, who have other financial priorities). Clearly the Learning and Skills Council will not be interested, because members have by definition finished "work", in the sense of making an economic contribution.

However; this is what "life-long learning" is really all about, as far as I am concerned. Who knows what people are gaining from it? Who knows how it is affecting the economy? Who knows whether these economically unproductive people who are about to die, will pass on their knowledge to their grandchildren, the workers of the future? Who cares?

Still, the bottom line is that somewhere there are still scholarly learning opportunities for intrinsically motivated learners, which are about liberal education, based on the conviction that it is a Good Thing. Per se. Deontologically.

Long may it continue!

See also the University of the Third Age

30 April 2006

On talking to ourselves

A few minutes ago I went into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, and flipped on the radio, as I normally do. This link came up (but these things expire, so whether you will be able to listen to it again, I don't know).

It was an interesting programme about whether "youth" or "yoof" culture really belongs to the young any more. But what struck me was the tone; it was expressed in a manner which clearly said, "This is about 'yoof' culture; but in order to show that we are beyond that kind of thing, we will speak in a pompous academic cultural-studies jargon, lest you think we might actually enjoy it!" Several of the contributors managed to add irritating vocal mannerisms, just to make the point more clearly.

Actually, what they had to say was indeed quite interesting, once I had translated it. But the main message was one of distancing from the substance of the topic—to the extent that I wondered whom it was addressing. I have no idea who was listening (probably not many at 9 on a Sunday evening), but the interesting issue is the producers' fantasy about their potential audience and what they might be interested to hear. They seemed to assume that their listeners rather guiltily liked current youth culture, but being baby-boomer middle-aged, they needed some extrinsic justification for attending to it; they provided that by framing it in pseudo-sociological and "cultural studies" jargon.

Personally, I can't stand current "youth" culture [fifteen-page "grumpy old man" rant deleted]. And, as the programme argued (I think) it's important that the preceding generation find it objectionable, or else it would not belong to "youth". And defining oneself in terms of what one is not, by exclusion, is the crudest level of identity formation. But this kind of discourse is playing just the same game.

27 April 2006

On getting feedback

I've finally cleared out my office. My successor starts work on Tuesday, and I wish her all the best.

For years I have stored all kinds of ancient files in my office, and moved them unthinkingly from institution to institution and office to office. Actually, last time I moved across campus, four years ago, I contrived to "lose" the contents of three whole filing-cabinets, and no-one ever noticed, least of all me. In fact, recently I have not opened my one remaining filing cabinet for months; and today I found a half-bottle of champagne and a box of chocolates in one drawer! And—I am pleased to say—evidence that supermarket plastic carrier-bags are really bio-degradeable; this one fell to pieces as I tried to lift it.

However, my really ancient files pre-date computer use, and the most ancient of them all were from my undergraduate days. Hand-written essays with hand-written tutor comments on them. First, I was struck by the detailed comments, at the same level as I aspire to nowadays. Then I read some of the summary comments at the end (we didn't get a grade for routine essays; all the assessment was by "finals"--three weeks of concentrated exams at the end of the whole three-year course.)

I was not at Oxbridge, but at Sussex, then known as "Balliol-by-the-sea", which adopted the same pattern of teaching. The only obligatory attendance requirement was at a weekly tutorial for each course (module); usually one or two students with a tutor. A student read out an essay, and it was discussed, and then another essay was set; so if there were two students, one produced an essay to read and discuss, and the other got written feedback on theirs.

And reading the comments on one of my first-year essays, I was transported back to the tutorial. I don't remember the details at the moment, but they'll come back to me; what I do remember is my mortification at reading those summary comments. Frankly, I was used to praise or encouragement for my efforts at school, but these were not like that. They provided feedback on the content, at an uncompromising academic level.

And I remember how I reacted. Just as we complain that our students react. (Yes, of course I know every sentence needs a verb in the main clause, you pedant!) I did not read them, until now, 40+ years later. I could not bear to. I just felt "put down". And so I did not benefit from their points.

Tutors gave critical feedback to the student who read their essay, of course. But it was verbal, and uttered in their presence (and in the presence of another student, usually) and therefore modified and often mollified by the conversational interaction and social context. I remember one tutorial in which a tutor took me to task for denying the sexual element of courtly love, in mediaeval literature. Even allowing for the waning inhibitions of the time (1964) he did so very gently, especially as my co-tutee was clearly much more worldly-wise than me. But what would he have written down, had I not been "presenting" that week?

Written feedback needs to be addressed to the student, not merely an expression of our own reactions. Consider how the student will read it (if at all--and, I now realise, don't castigate them for not reading and acting on it) and what you want to achieve by providing it.

I am now going to revisit the marking matrix (see http://www.doceo.co.uk/academic/marking.htm, for an up-coming module to check that it provides guidance on how to improve, rather than mere condemnation of aspects of failure. Perhaps then students will be able to summon up the courage to read it.

25 April 2006

On jargon

This is not just another excuse to publicise the article the heading links to. Honest!

I passed on the link above to my brother, who responded;

Thanks for the TES web site reference - I have just had a look at it although I didn't understand much of what it was about! [...] By the way, what are 'givens'?
How could anyone not understand it? Very easily. When Richard drew attention to it, I re-read it from the viewpoint of a non-teacher, and I was surprised by the jargon phrases which pepper it. We have developed a private/professional language which excludes those who are not privy to it, but it has crept up on us, so it takes an "outsider" to draw attention to it.

This problem (?) is endemic to all occupational groups. The more we develop a professional shorthand, the more we exclude those who do not share it. We expect it of doctors, lawyers, and engineers; it is part of their mystique, and some of them cultivate it for their own vested interests.

But teachers? We are supposed to be committed to the dissemination of knowledge, rather than to corralling it. OK, there is a necessary professional jargon, largely enshrined in abbreviations, about GCSEs, NVQs, OCN, SEN, NQF levels and the like (and don't worry if you don't know what all of them mean—that merely reflects sub-divisions within the whole).

But education belongs to everyone. In the jargon (of course) of current political discourse, everyone is a "stakeholder" in education. So our language should be as transparent as possible. (That, of course, is an example of the kind of insidious jargon I am talking about; it means "everybody should be able to understand what we are talking about")

Most of the feedback (what's that? It refers to email messages about my websites—yes, I know that is jargon, too, but how far can you prune it back? That's a serious question... as is the use of gardening metaphor... My brain hurts! And that's an allusion to Monty Python...)

As I was saying before I rudely interrupted myself— Most of the feedback about my sites compliments me on avoiding jargon (or at least on de-mystifying it), but it comes from people within the teaching/learning/education community, who just don't notice the extent to which we have developed a private language.

And: "what is a 'given'?" It is shorthand for a "given truth; an idea which is so self-evidently true that there is no point in questioning it. a.k.a 'no-brainer'. 'Given' as in 'handed down from above with impeccable authority'" Self-evident, isn't it? No. Not if you are a chemical engineer.

But then, I haven't a clue what he is talking about within his discipline.

The difference is, that apart from extreme situations like public inquiries into pollution, my brother has no obligation to be "transparent" to the rest of us. But educators do.

20 April 2006

On laser spirit levels

A few weeks ago I picked up a cheap laser spirit level (£4.99) at a motorway service station, as an impulse buy. It was a good buy, because unlike the laser pointers (costing three or four times as much) you can buy to highlight parts of your presentation, it produces a line rather than a spot.

However, today I found a proper DIY job for it. Arrange a series of picture up the staircase. It dutifully generated the require line, and after a little tweaking I got it parallel with the dado rail, and hence (by trusting inference) with the stairs themselves. It was easy to measure regular intervals along the line and mark for the picture-hooks. Great!

Unfortunately, the pictures hang from cords, and it is impossible to tie the cords to precisely the same length, so despite the preparation, the overall array is a mess. Or was, until I spent goodness knows how long moving picture hooks and re-tying cords and testing by eye to get it right.

There's a moral here, related to Ashby's law of requisite variety ;

The most potent element of the system is the one you can't measure
It's certainly true of teaching.
That's what makes it so much fun!

14 April 2006

On neuro-diversity

(On re-visiting this post, I find that the link I posted now leads to a gambling site which tries to trap you there; so I've removed the link—and hence most of the point of the post—but there's still some point to it. If I find the blog again I'll re-link.)

I was clicking along to "next blog..." when I came across this one. Having just had fascinating presentations at our course Symposium about neurodiversity, it rung bells for me; there is no information at all about the blogger, but is he (probably "he") an "Aspie"? (Apparently their preferred term for people with Asperger's syndrome.)

For more on Asperger's, go to http://www.neurodiversity.com/asperger_general.html and read "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" by Mark Haddon (London; Vintage, 2004); it may have been criticised by experts and clinicians, but for the lay reader it offers great insights into Asperger's, and it's also an intriguing read.

12 April 2006

On e-learning

My (now former) university is keen on e-learning. We have a Virtual Learning Environment or "VLE" (Blackboard, in case you want to know; personally I think they should have gone with Moodle, which is open source and free and much more customisable, but they did go to a lot of trouble to make up their minds—although I don't remember Moodle ever being mentioned.)

Still, there is a requirement for every course to show how it is making use of the VLE; there is now a 25-question form to fill in for every validation. In practice, of course, this means that academics mostly use it as an electronic cupboard; they upload their presentations and handouts when they remember to.

Obviously, I'm quite keen on making use of the net (I use the term advisedly) to complement and support learning, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this. But I detest the VLE; it's clunky, putting material on it is slow (ftp is much faster and more flexible and takes about five minutes to learn at most), and accessing mainstream web pages from it is a joke. The VLE does set out to do a lot of things, but it ends up doing none of them very well.

Today we had a Course Board, which includes reports from student representatives about their experience of the course, which we take very seriously. There was a clear theme through all the student reports (among other things); the VLE does not work. They complained about problems with accessing it, and navigating it if and when they got in (it takes five or six clicks through various layers to get to any substantive content, and for technical reasons half our students can't work in groups with the other half). And this was after major efforts to promote it at induction and throughout the course, and much whip-cracking by our e-learning co-ordinator to ensure that staff posted materials on it (she threatened to remove their buttons if they did not comply—a fearsome threat!)

This might merely have been a matter of dubious gripes, (although I did get a mini-cheer in the committee when I floated the notion that the whole enterprise might be over-blown—tempered with later points which indicated, in the nicest possible way, that I am a respected but eccentric old-timer) but;

Later on we had an evaluation of our residential event based on a questionnaire of everyone attending. I had slipped in a question about "Are you finding the VLE a useful resource for the course as a whole?" The results were unequivocal; (n=82 out of a possible population 0f 108)
  • Very useful; 2%
  • Quite useful; 21%
  • Not at all useful; 77%
I admit that there may be technical issues here. Some of the colleges in which our students work use Moodle, and they are generally quite enthusiastic about it; there may be issues about the implementation of our VLE, and we did not ask any follow-up questions. Even so...

Someone commented to me afterwards; "If you had asked about usage of your website, you would have got a very different answer!" Maybe. I'd like to think so (and some spontaneous comments by students suggest this is not merely a fantasy) but we still have a long way to go to make e-learning really useful to those who are not forced—by course design—to use it.

(We didn't ask about it in the evaluation, but many people commented in the face-to-face review session on how useful they found the opportunity to go to the library)

04 April 2006

On immediate reflection

I haven't posted for several days partly for technical reasons (not being able to get a connection at "the only free 'top to bottom' wireless hotel in the Madison area") but partly simply being very busy at the above conference and meeting with colleagues and new friends in the University of Wisconsin system. There has been so much to think about...

Hang on! Isn't that what reflection is meant to be about? Thinking about what happens and what we do? Yes, but... It takes time.

It so happens that today I caught "How to write a political diary" on BBC Radio 4, while driving (listen again, for a week, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/news/pip/3fb2t/ ) It suggested various rules for the genre, including Immediacy and Indiscretion (I didn't catch the other two). But the virtue of a diary may be the vice of a reflective journal. The latter requires digestion.

For the political diarist, immediacy is essential; it doesn't matter if you prove to be wrong, it is the thought of the moment which captures the political process. One contributor to the programme said he only wrote his diary the following morning, when the passions--and inebriation--of the previous day had subsided; but Tony Benn (who is teetotal--with the emphasis on the "tea" [sic]) always dictates his before going to bed.

Reflection is one stage further down the line. Reflection in action is rarely recorded, important though it may be; reflection on action calls for a mental process of digestion and contextualisation. That is often tortuous and trying to record it at the same time as thinking and feeling it is very difficult for most of us.

It's the process of writing which is the key. It is not mere transcription (transcription of what, precisely?) It imposes a discipline of coherence; and the tension between spontaneity and coherence is a real one. A reflective journal should not (in my view; "shoulds" are problematic) be either a mere emotional abreaction to the events of the day, nor a rationalised public account of its achievements. Its essence is to be somewhere in-between.

At least, that's my excuse for not saying more about Wisconsin. Yet.

Apart from the self-evident truths that we had a busy week, a great time, relished the disorientating subtle differences in culture between the UK and USA, were bombarded with ideas which need thinking through, and met some great people in the University of Wisconsin system, and... this is a sentence without a main clause verb.

When I start writing like that, it's time for bed (Zebedee (c. 1970) The Magic Roundabout (ed. E Thompson) London; BBCTV
When I start referncing like that, it's definite!

30 March 2006

On blowing my own trumpet

...because as my mother used to say, "no-one else will blow it for you!"

It's not exactly media-hype; but thanks to Steven Jones for a very fair, if skilfully selective, account of our discussion at the link in the heading. So far, I haven't the
chutzpah to put a direct link on my site, but I'll get there!

I drafted what's above a week or so ago as soon as the article was on the web, but forebore to publish. It would be self-indulgent, I thought.

But my brother mentioned it to the former head of my primary(elementary) school (she actually took over after I left, but my mother was still teaching there... I haven't mentioned before that my mother was once my class teacher, have I? Well, doctor.........) She is 93; she wrote me a real (paper and ink) letter, in a beautiful teacher's hand, which was generally very complimentary.

But, she picked me up on my (reported) use of "bureaucratise". Had I succumbed to the very jargon I castigate?

Apart from being delighted at the feedback, I felt at once as if I were before her at the teacher's desk for having yet again mis-spelled "becuase" (sorry! "because"). Two reflections;

  • the potency of the teacher/pupil relationship. For better or worse, it has an impact fifty-two years later. The UK teaching development agency has a slogan, "No-one ever forgets a good teacher". I'm not so sure about that; few people forget bad teachers, either. But I am still challenged by her comment much more than I would be had it come from anyone else!
  • Her integrity; she gave me that feedback. It was I (I have to careful about syntax here--she might read this!--should I say "me" as assumed object, or "I" as the technically correct complement?) who volunteered the information, but she could not forebear to correct me.
I can't begin to express the happy confusion of feelings this exchange engendered. Mrs B retired 30+ years ago, but she is still a teacher at heart. There's a chiasmus here; "You can take the person out of teaching, but you can't take the teacher out of the person." It could work nastily, but this was wholly benign, and I was delighted.

26 March 2006

On planning

Just read this from Dwight Eisenhower, from Mardy Grothe's fascinating weekly newsletter (link in heading);

"In preparing for battle,
I have always found that plans are useless,
but planning is indispensable

That goes for teaching too.

23 March 2006

On craftsmanship

While in Madison, Wisconsin, my friend Peter and I visited the superb Capitol building with the fourth-largest dome in the world, according to the guide. But Peter drew my attention to the superb inlaid floors in different kinds of stone, laid with such precision, and (being about 90 years old) with the benefit of only what we would regard as very crude technology. I was reminded of this piece, which I wrote a few weeks ago, but did not upload because something else came up that day:

I've just caught, while channel-surfing, another of Fred Dibnah's wonderful programmes about the industrial revolution, which appear happily to be re-circulating on digital channels. Apart from having met Fred casually a couple of times at charity fund-raising events in Bolton Market Square and seeing his LandRover around when we lived in Bolton, I'm a great admirer on two levels;
  • his infectious enthusiasm for sheer craftsmanship in the Victorian age in particular, when engineering depended so much on the direct personal skills of craftsmen. (Pardon the implict sexism; women were also very skilled in operating the mchines, but the transience of their contributions is part of the point of this reflection.)
  • his skill in communicating it.
So I started thinking about our shared (if I may be so presumptuous) admiration for craftsmanship, and I realised that his is largely about the craft of product. He bubbles with admiration for a steam-engine or a mill, but of course—given that he was making a film about it—he could point to the product, and invite us to admire it, and by implication the skill of those who designed and made it.

There's another kind of craft; that of process. It is by definition ephemeral. It leaves only indirect "products", and we need to infer what went into their making.

Teaching is such a process skill. Its products may be evident, but indirect. Its proof, as a skill, is in ephemeral, moment-to-moment interaction, rather than in the product of the "successful student", because there are so many other factors which influence that "successful" outcome.

17 March 2006

On reading blogs and Pandas' digestive systems

Read a Blogger blog, and in most cases there is this seductive button at the top of the page which invites; "Next blog". I'm getting hooked on it. I just spent half an hour ploughing through pages in Spanish and blank pages associated with jewellery and adolescent self-indulgence, when I came upon;

"Waiting for spring is like [...] constipation. It's always so close to breaking free, yet it's stuck fast." (http://irisyapp.blogspot.com/ 14 March)

Which prompted me to the analogy with Pandas. They have to eat vast quantities of minimally nutritious bamboo every day (both shoots and leaves, of course) in order to survive; so they have to--er--"evacuate" most of it. Reading blogs is rather like that... Hope this one is the nutritious bit, but should I remove the blogger bar at the top?

16 March 2006

On emotional aspects of learning

This deserves more than simply a blog entry, but starting with this may prompt me to something more substantial in the future. With the exceptions of Illeris (2004), Salzberger-Wittenberg et al (1983?) and Willie More back in 1977-ish, and my occasional references, this is a sorely neglected issue.

Two prompts today; I stood in for P. to do a session for 3rd-year undergrads on "e-learning" on the "Adult Learners and Learning" module. It was rather a lacklustre performance, I confess. I had a lot of material but limited acquaintance with the group, and although they did the brain-storming* exercise very well—sufficiently well to render some of my prepared material irrelevant (thank goodness, I'd have hated to spell it all out). Still, one point which was missing was about the limits of social and emotional support available for learners on-line.

Even ordinary "additive" learning (as opposed to the "supplantive" learning I have researched) can be frustrating and exhausting, and as well as the importance of feedback (which the students picked up on), simple encouragement is very important. Impersonal on-line responses don't really cut the mustard on that count.

The second prompt was really close to home. I do not like the layout of this blog, so I have been trying to edit the template, with guidance from a tutorial in .net magazine. After two hours, I gave up. I could just about understand the html/xml markup involved, by dint of very careful reading, but there was just too much of it. I played with some of it but it had unpredictable results.
  • So I got "fed up" and decided it was just too complicated to bother with. I may return to it later (it's the diffference between its display in different browsers which really bugs me, although you probably couldn't care less).
That's trivial, but the general issue of frustration at not understanding, or of being overwhelmed by how much there is to learn, or lack of confidence that it will ever be mastered—it's all a very potent demotivator for our students.

Partly it is a matter of timing. I am a motivated learner (or at least problem-solver) in this area, and I am also used to long-term learning projects (see here for more on this than you may want to know) but I need to know that I am making progress. As it was, everything I did seemed to take me backwards. So I got frustrated and gave up. It's normal, but its implications are considerable, and often neglected.

So you are stuck with this clunky page design for a while yet! In particular, why does it just refer to the dates of the posts and not to their subjects? I'll sort it one day, but I've had enough for the moment.


*Some PC people seem to think that "brain-storming" is an unacceptable term. I gather that is not so according to a National Epilepsy Society survey; it is after all a positive and creative activity.

09 March 2006

On online surveys

This has little to do with teaching and learning, but a great deal to do with the credibility of on-line surveys (and hence with research methods).

I recently signed up with a survey company in order to manage a questionnaire to former students (which proved to be more problematic than I had anticipated, but that's another story). The signing up process included asking me whether I would like to earn money by responding to on-line surveys. I was a little intrigued, so I said yes.

Today I received the first request to participate. It proved to be a market "research" survey about chocolate and other snacks. I answered honestly, only to get to the end to get a message (sorry, I should have copied and pasted the wording) which said in effect that I was not the kind of person they wanted answers from! (So I would not get any credits for answering.)

From a methodological point of view, sampling from that small subset of consumers who sign up to respond to such surveys is very dubious in the first place (given that they in turn are a small subset of net-savvy people, who are in turn a small subset of the population --however defined--at large). But effectively throwing away answers which do not suit is the unforgivable methodological sin.

OK—they were only interested in regular consumers of chocolate bars and crisps and their preferences, andbut I buy them vary rarely. (I always buy a multi-pack of crisps at Christmas for some reason and then throw most of them away the next Christmas because I've just bought another pack... why?) But how legitimate is sampling from net-savvy, money-motivated geeks? Only if it can be demonstrated that those "qualities" are independently correlated with product consumption. Has that test ever been done? Who knows? I do know that I read the results of some very strange polls in .net magazine; I don't believe a word (or statistic) of them, but some credulous marketing executive might.

So what? That's their problem. I want valid and reliable research; trust me, I'm an academic!

05 March 2006

On a familiar assignment

A correspondent today asked about a familiar assignment on teacher education courses. He was asked to take a recent teaching session and to relate it to the learning theories he had been learning about (in this case within a thousand words). It's a sufficiently common assignment, although one which I have come to believe unhelpful, to pass on my response (with additions);

I replied:
  • "I've set exercises and assignments like this in the past (although not in 1k words!) From the tutors' point of view it seems like a good idea, encouraging reflection and application and the like. Unfortunately, the results are almost invariably disappointing, and that is not the fault of the students. It is because the assignment is based on a fundamental misunderstanding about the relationship between theory and practice.
  • Practice is a "blooming, buzzing confusion". It's multi-dimensional; it's protean; it's not repeatable; it's fragile--it always teeters on a knife-edge between success and disaster... And theory is neat, and almost static, and enshrined in supposingly authoritative books--and it focuses on just one aspect of everything which is going on in the class.
  • In other words, theories have a "range of convenience"; they are good at explaining some things, but have nothing useful to say about others. You cannot teach by applying theories. Gagne is the theorist who was most explicit about attempting to set up a template for lessons, with Ausubel coming up behind; but try to use their ideas to account for a whole session, and all you end up doing is explaining why you didn't follow their prescriptions. Just for fun, you might try applying my "mayonnaise" model (http://www.doceo.co.uk/tools/mayonnaise.htm) and seeing whether that works.
  • In terms of the three groups, it's important to note that they are not mutually exclusive. Following the "range of convenience" argument above, most self-respecting teaching will have elements of all three, but probably at different time-scales. Behaviourism is important second-to-second; cognitive theory informs session planning; and humanistic theory informs overall strategy (although of course it has implications down at the second-to second level).OK--now you are even more confused! Console yourself that you are confused at a higher level than before!
But there is more to it than that. The theory is supposed to be descriptive about effective teaching and learning. But we (teacher educators [or even "trainers"]) have made it prescriptive. In a broadly "scientific" framework, theory follows practice or experiment or observation; it does not dictate it. That's dogmatism.

No wonder so many teachers are dismissive of much of their training.

David Hume pointed out that you can't derive an "ought" from an "is" (http://www.doceo.co.uk/heterodoxy/) Theory in teaching is simply there to direct your attention to things which may not be obvious as you face a class, and to help you to move on from your initial natural preoccupation with your own practice to pay attention to whatever the students are learning.

In the final analysis, I could not care less whether the graduates of our courses can recite the theory, but I do want them to have used it to inform their practice--assuming, of course, that it helps to do that. Sometimes it doesn't. Much recent hoo-ha about "learning styles", for example, has really been counter-productive; see http://www.doceo.co.uk/heterodoxy/styles.htm but particularly the references at the bottom of the page.

Teaching is a craft, and just as your specification of behavioural learning objectives can never really aspire to create/generate/programme/whatever proficient practitioners in your own discipline, so it is with teacher education. Theory has its place, and it is an important place, but it is the servant of practice and experience.

02 March 2006

On practical working myths

I have written elsewhere about "learning styles", and I am sceptical about them, with good reason, according to the (rigorous) literature. However, a correspondent wrote yesterday about her own research into how her own students responded to the introduction of the idea; and her results were overwhelmingly positive. What is one to make of this? This is part of my reply (slightly edited);

I suspect that the issue is about empowerment and focus; regardless of the legitimacy of the VAK (this is one learning style model) idea, it does draw teachers' attention to how students experience learning. Indeed, it can present an empowering myth (quickly, "myth" in my terms is an account in which usefulness takes priority over truth; I wrote about it in a book in 1989 in a different context) which helps teachers to get a handle on their practice.

Further, they experience the presentation of the alternative strategies as more empowering than direct injunctions. For example, one source (sorry, not to hand at the moment) suggests that 38% of learners are primarily kinaesthetic, and a further 30+% are secondarily so. (The research methodology, based on self-selected respondents to a large net survey, is dodgy, and the questions themselves are not above suspicion, but still...) But... If you are a teacher (as you are) presented either with an injunction from on high which says, "Thou shalt make use of active hands-on learning wherever possible." how are you likely to react? "Yeah, OK." seems about right.

But: given the chance to discover exactly the same point through your own action-research and reflection? You will own it. It's your insight. You are more committed to it, and you are more likely to follow through. It's a variation on the placebo effect, I suspect; but the placebo effect is very powerful indeed.

Coffield et al quite rightly make the point that all this "learning styles" stuff has been used by Ofsted and other as a means to dump on teachers responsibility for issues which are actually beyond their control. But there is perhaps another side to this coin; the theory may give teachers a powerful strategy to believe that they are indeed in control.

And it doesn't have to be "true" to do that, as long as you believe it.

25 February 2006

On credibility

Last weekend I was at an old friend's 59 364/365 unbirthday party. (In other words, he greeted me at the door with "I'm not sixty yet!") Being 61 1/4 I couldn't see the problem.

His former doctoral supervisor was there. That was really nice; my friend completed his Ph.D 35+ years ago, and he has remained friends with J., his supervisor, ever since.

I've only met J. once before, decades ago. He is a world-class expert on robotics, and had just returned from teaching a short course on it in Biarritz. Technically, he ought to have retired a while ago, but he keeps going and gives the impression of being about a quarter-century younger than he is. Crucially, he is a practitioner in the commercial field, as well as an academic.

However, to the point. He was talking about his experience of teaching, and how much he got out of it. He knew nothing of my interest in this, so his comments were completely unsolicited; I was merely a listener. But reflecting on his regular visits to Biarritz, he commented (I paraphrase, I was not in researcher mode and I don't usually take a recorder to (un)birthday celebrations);

'The thing is, that I can relate my material to practice. I can introduce an equation, and say "this is really important! I've used this so many times in the past, and it has really helped us." and, "now this equation is really elegant; but to be frank, I can't recall every having used it in the past twenty years."'
I could immediately relate to the issue, but I confess I had not realised how important it was in a convergent discipline such as engineering. I'd naively assumed that this was positivistic stuff, where ideas and theories either worked or they didn't; and it was a surprise to find him talking, from vast experience, of the prioritisation of "really useful" ideas, and of how these were validated by his reference to experience.

Having real-life practical hands-on experience to draw on has always been an important factor in my teaching experience, principally because for almost thirty years I was pulling an academic con-trick. I was teaching social workers, without ever having been one myself (although with accumulated classroom experience I could have passed myself of as one, and I did have some voluntary work in relevant areas of practice to fall back on.)
  • No, blow the excuses, I was just an academic; I did not know by acquaintance what I was talking about. So I had to fall back on drawing out, and helping to make sense of, my learners' experience. I had authority as a "teacher", but none from experience. On the one hand that made it easy for students (who invariably had some practical experience, because that was a criterion for admission to the courses) to dismiss me; on the other it honed my practice skills in teaching and particularly in listening to them. But if well-grounded practitioners dismissed me as an airy-fairy theoriser, they were probably right to do so.
Now, of course, I teach about teaching; and I've really been there, done that, and learned from it. Perhaps that was the greatest relief in my switch of disciplines, from covert pretence about practice to real experience. But, I hadn't previously realised how potent a factor it was in less emotionally charged disciplines. It made sense when someone asked, "Have you ever had to take a child into care, and away from her parents?" or "Have you ever sectioned anyone under the Mental Health Act?" because I was well aware of the emotional turmoil involved. To discover that the ability to refer to personal experience carried as much weight in engineering was quite a revelation.

15 February 2006

An ESOL teaching Journal

More for language teachers; this is a useful reflective blog on teaching ESOL, but at fairly advanced levels addressing issues of pronunciation and prosody. It helps if you know that "IPA" stands for "International Phonetic Alphabet".

14 February 2006

On learning to distrust experience

(Apologies, Jim. This was originally a post just to you, but on reflection I thought this edited version might be of more general interest, and I'm into "reusable learning objects". Wonder if it will get any comments?)

What students learn by default in what we call the education "system" is distrust of their own experience. I remember, in the '50s, doing science experiments at school in what was of course then a seriously under-funded system (but I don't think funding has changed it much). The experiments always came out "wrong" (OK, chemistry experiments were more reliable, but physics stuff never worked because all the equipment was worn out); so we did them and wrote them up, and then the teachers told us what ought to have happened, and the results we should have got. The scientific method was turned on its head! So what we learned was that really that science was what the teachers told us it was, and any efforts on our part to test the hypotheses were bound to fail. What kind of message was that? Precisely the message that our schools and universities are now set up to convey.

In the '60s, I kid myself that I could have got a 1st (rather than my 2:1) if I had actually been able to read what the literary critics said about the works we were set to read. As it was, I was arrogant enough to rely on my own reactions to the primary texts; but more to the point, lit. crit. was and remains quite incomprehensible to me. Lord knows how I should fare on present-day courses!***

I'm complicit. I have just done some marking of assignments which require student teachers to draw upon their own (often extensive) experience, and I have complained in more than half of the cases that they do not do sufficient justice to the literature (despite good accounts of their practice, which are critical, analytic and reflective). Why should they? Much of what passes for "literature" (i.e. what someone has managed to get past an editor and much-vaunted "peer review") is trite rubbish, saying little about the subject, but more about the writers ("I'm an academic--I'm determined to be noticed!" [By whom?]) or their situation (it's publish or be damned in UK universities today, with the Research Assessment Exercise 2008 looming.)

Academe has always been a game. Cornford (1908) (yes, the date is correct) set it all out in bitter detail, including this little gem which I happened to find on the web while searching for the date;

The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent is that you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case....Every public action which is not customary either is wrong, or, if it is right, it is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.
(From his wonderfully astringent "Microcosmographica Academica") It's worthy of Sir Humphrey! (Character in the sitcoms "Yes, Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister" -- in fact I half-remember that he quotes this gem.) I actually (tongue-in-cheek) wrote something to this effect on someone's essay.

The bottom line of the hidden curricula in so many courses is--"don't think for yourself!" and unless somebody else said it first and got it published, it doesn't count. Frightening!

So once most students escape from this game (apart from those who go on to be academics, who think that the game is the same as "life") they are firmly and surely inoculated against both original thought and testing against evidence.

Dick Cheney may have a problem with his aim. Academics' aim is better; they are firmly aligned on their own feet.

Now I'm going to take something for my dyspepsia!

***Actually, I'm kidding myself. I might still not have got a first, but I really blew it because I did not read the rubric on my very last paper in finals which told us to answer four questions, rather than the three required on all the preceding twelve papers. Am I bitter? Forty years on? Yes!