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.