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!