31 December 2007

On the passing of a year and an era

I wrote some time ago about the death of Tony Nuttall. Now I've heard, a little late, about the passing of his more gloriously disorganised friend, Stephen Medcalf.

I knew him, Horatio... But there's not the point. The point is made well by Gabriel Josipovici (my personal tutor, although he won't remember that) in the obituary;

He would not have lasted long in the present academic climate, which is the poorer for turning its back on people like Medcalf ... who felt that what they were there for was to teach, to impart to their students the values they themselves had learned from their teachers and from the authors they admired.

Going through the obituaries, the word which sticks in my mind is "inspirational". He was probably deemed "research inactive" for the Research Assessment Exercises before he retired. The Quality Assurance Agency would have thrown up their hands in horror at him (more mundanely, it is claimed that the university cleaners refused to enter his office...) Some students would have not had a clue what to make of him.

But read this (which he was apparently encouraged to write by a former student, a certain Ian McEwan) for an insight into the mind of a humanist (not in the religious sense; Stephen was a devout Anglican). There are depths of significance and resonance here which are not merely affectations for publication; they were simply the waters in which Stephen swam, and they have a natural richness which few of us can share, for all our striving.

Alongside all the conventional wishes for health, happiness, prosperity, etc., I can't just wish Stephen's sensibilities to you; they represented years of committed and serious scholarly enjoyment, but it's never too late to start. So I had better get on with it!

22 December 2007

On plagiarism

I came across this story when idly pursuing links. (I can heartily recommend the site to check out scare stories and urban myths on the net.)

There is a variant in my experience. In about 1974 or '75 I was teaching on the "Certificate in the Residential Care of Children and Young People" (CRCCYP) programme at Salford College of Technology. Our external examiner was Chris Beedell of Bristol University. Following standard practice, we sent him a sample of student work before the assessment board meeting.

On this occasion, he took aside a colleague to say, "You may be excused for not noticing that three pages of this assignment have been copied directly from my book, but not for giving it only a 'D'!"

18 December 2007

On an online petition

I got this from Chris Pegler at the Open University, and I'm happy to pass it on. The petition already has over 16,000 signatures.

You are probably already aware that the government is intending to withdraw funding for students studying courses which are a lower or equivalent qualification (ELQ) to that which they already hold. They are perhaps studying a PG Certificate course and already have a Masters Degree. The idea behind this is to prioritise spending on those who do not yet have that level of qualification, but the change is likely to: a) cause problems to delivering lifelong learning - as it will affect older students and those changing career/reskilling; and b) be a nightmare to administer as there is no clear record of what courses students may have done previously. Students on the same course will pay different fees.

There are some proposed exceptions and the changes will be phased in over three years. There is also an enquiry. This is operating to tight deadlines and the DIUS recently announced a change to the date for submission of evidence. Submission now has to be made by 7 January 2008 (instead of 14 January).

The relevant web site address is http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/ius/ius_061207.cfm

You may be interested in responding yourself, or belong to an institution which you feel should respond. Or you might like to sign the petition at http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/ELQFunding/

13 December 2007

On time to learn

And on a lesser-known facet of Benjamin Bloom, who did do other things in the course of a long career.

As Lee Shulman points out, "mastery learning" rose and fell. It had quite a lot going for it, and to a large extent, our Adult Basic Skills programmes in the UK are influenced by it. And Bloom had a serious point, as does Shulman today. And we know that the practicability of responding to their point is limited by timetables and course designs and assessment regimes—and of course funding. But beyond a certain point, how much of the story is about "not enough time"?

Even at the level of basic skills, learning is not simply the incremental acquisition of ever more items of knowledge or skill. At some point it has to involve the capacity to organise and deploy that knowledge and those skills, and that is a different order of learning. As Bateson suggested, and the current thinking about threshold concepts supports, more at the same level will never of itself make the leap.

But we still don't know how reliably to teach this second-order stuff.

04 December 2007

On the perfect lesson

Last night I watched Heston Blumenthal producing the "perfect" chilli con carne. There is of course no such thing. (I had not thought of using cumin, I admit.)

And the notion of "perfection" (whatever it means, pace any surviving Platonists) is one which can appeal only to commercial caterers, to whom the food consumed is the single criterion by which a "meal" might be judged. The rest of us know, of course, that as long as the food does not fall below a certain threshold, we will judge the meal by the ambience and the company much more than their gastronomic pretensions.

Similar considerations apply to the evaluation of teaching sessions. Yes, there are clear(ish) thresholds below which practice fails to contribute to learning and may indeed inhibit it. But beyond that we can judge only very broadly. And that is where Ofsted inspectors and QAA reviewers (now of blighted memory) get it all wrong;
  • They tend to assume that the perfect lesson is the result of following a standard recipe (they deny it, of course, but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary). For Blumenthal, it may be true. The "perfect" chilli is contained in his recipe. But there is no guarantee that the diner will like it. Technically, the system is defined too tightly, according to that which lends itself to measurement/judgement.

  • They assume therefore that the process of teaching (and learning) is a series of tableaux or set pieces, which can be judged independently. Were the lesson objectives spelt out at the start of the lesson? (Yes = good; No = bad.) Thus we inculcate ritual knowledge (Perkins, 1999) with no understanding of its significance. Are the experiential targets spelt out at the start of the opera? the stand-up routine? the liturgy?
I could go on (I have just done you a favour and deleted five more bullet points), but, from Socrates to Laurillard (how is it to be in that league, Diana?) the highest-level learning is a conversation. It's dynamic, it's fluid... Time, and its story, is of the essence.

And the best chilli is rarely the hottest.

02 December 2007

On a brilliant initiative

I heard about this site through BBC Radio 4's iPM programme/show—which is in itself a very interesting innovation, structured as it is around a blog to which listeners can contribute ideas for features and spots within the programme.

But Planet-scicast? Not only is it about interesting young people in science (target group about 12-16 year olds, I think), but it is employing the methods of Web 2.0—YouTube, FaceBook, BeBo etc. to do so. Because the content is created by the students; that is a superb exercise in itself, it publishes the material (and it is quite an addictive, "sticky" site to visit) and they learn from watching others' videos, and it's a resource for teachers (using creative commons licensing).

Shut up, Atherton!—let them see for themselves; http://www.planet-scicast.com/films.cfm

01 December 2007

On more IQ debate

Here is more to go with my post of a week or so ago. Don't just read the main item, another essay by Flynn, but check out the follow-up ripostes and comments in the column on the right.

23 November 2007

On felicitous phrasing

In the midst of a deeply serious and concerning article about the manufacture of psychological ailments by the labelling activities of big Pharma, I came across this gem;
    ...Lane is not a psychiatrist but a psychoanalytic literary critic who aligns himself with such empirically insouciant authorities as Jacques Lacan...

What a lovely phrase! It means "couldn't give a damn about the facts." With intellectual style.

21 November 2007

On IQ back in the news

James Watson really stirred things up the other week with his remarks about Africa, and has been met with universal condemnation. Without wishing to endorse--or reject outright-- a long and complex paper with both good and not-so-good stuff, do read this counterblast.

It does pose the seriously difficult question of whether or not political factors should be taken into account in the publication of awkward findings. There is a lot of poor science out there which comes to facile conclusions about that endlessly contestable concept of "race" (see here for another blog making that point), but it is not all by definition poor.

At the same time, see here for a review of What Is Intelligence? Beyond the Flynn Effect by James Flynn. Flynn is a political scientist (of all disciplines) from New Zealand, who has noted the year on year rise in average IQs across the world (known as the "Flynn effect"), and has unpicked its significance—which is much more complex than at first appears.

17 November 2007

On where to go

Assuming that you have not set up an RSS feed to alert you to my latest words of wisdom, you have probably stumbled idly on this blog. Instead of stumbling idly in the vain hope of finding something stimulating, go to ted.com. I'm not going to describe it--go there and find out for yourself. It is the web at its best, both in content and in implementation (although I have not yet checked how accessible it is to people with disabilities; I suspect that its reliance on video marks it down on that front).

27 October 2007

On expressing an opinion

In the UK, the clocks go back an hour tonight. We revert to "Greenwich Mean Time" from "British Summer Time" a.k.a. daylight saving time. I, with many other people, think this is silly, so I thought I might make a comment on it on the blog.

It was then that I was struck with the curse of academic integrity. When was BST introduced? Who invented it (it was William someone). If the counter-argument to the reversion (how about that for abstraction calculated to lose one's readership?) concerns traffic accidents as children go to school in the dark in Scotland (which is a major plank in the argument. [Isn't it? where's the evidence?]) then how realistic is it? And is it still true today, when fewer children walk to school? (Is that true? Particularly in Scotland?)
  • Norway extends even further North than Scotland (doesn't it?) How do they handle that problem? (Can I get that from http://www.regjeringen.no/en.html?id=4 ?)
  • And Sweden, and Canada, and Russia...
And what, for goodness' sake, does all this mean in the context of what someone has apparently called "wikieality"? Can't remember who they are, but it was in today's paper somewhere...

More seriously, the gap between the double standards is getting wider.

Asserted opinion seems to be winning; incontrovertible evidence-based research is losing (partly, of course, because there is no such thing. It's a boojum [or is it a snark? I need to check that out].)

OK, 'twas ever thus. (Prove it!)

This post clearly needs the services of a fact-checker in the New Yorker tradition. At least I can support the notion that there are (or were, of course; all evidence pertains to the past) such people. Or can I? The link was to wikipedia...

Draw your own conclusions!

22 October 2007

On students' experience

A friend has sent me this link;

I'm not entirely sure what to make of it; it's a class exercise (probably a very good one for freshers) but the methodological implications of developing ideas via wikis is something I need to think about...

Can it be trusted? Is it a true picture? Is it different in the UK? If it is true, and these are the "millennial students" we hear about, what does it say about our teaching methods? Is it incumbent upon us to adjust to their experience and expectations, or on them to "get real" and "grow up"? Or both?

11 October 2007

On taking risks

Today we had a really good staff development meeting across the college network on the pedagogic rationale (hey! that sounds good, must use it again...) of our new Study Days programme. [If you have just stumbled across this blog, you don't need to know this.] The underlying principle will be "Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge" (papers on this very promising angle on learning and teaching can be downloaded from http://www.tla.ed.ac.uk/etl/publications.html)

However, as we were discussing what constitutes a "threshold concept" in our own discipline (no, I'm not going to explain. Read the papers from the link above. And it doesn't really matter for the sense of this entry.) ... we got onto spontaneity and risk-taking in teaching.

And it is a real battle-ground within institutions nowadays. Quality assurance procedures and watchdogs (such as Ofsted) insist on a "consistent product". They insist on believing in a self-serving myth of setting "minimum standards"; teaching will never fall below these standards, but is (of course) free to soar way beyond them.

Bul***it. In the real world, setting minimum standards involves setting maxima, too; because reaching for the stars involves the possibility of failure.

We didn't set out to make the point, but it became clear as we proceeded that our systems have made the "good the enemy of the best"*

We did that in social care, too, twenty years ago; I'll return to this.

* Yes, I know. This is a deliberate inversion of "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien" Voltaire (1772)

09 October 2007

On PowerPoint (again)

It doesn't say it all, but it does say a lot.

22 September 2007

On machines to solve crosswords

I don't often buy the "Telegraph"—honest! :-)

The paper came with a brochure for a mail-order company, one of whose products is "the world's most powerful pocket crossword solver". I'm sure it is very good at what it does. I'm not at all good at cryptic crosswords* but the last thing I want is a machine to solve the clue for me! All the fun resides in the fact that it is difficult and that it is only one's personal brainpower which solves it. It is in the process rather than the product that the enjoyment resides.

* Not the "sauce made from meat juices" clue, but the "Victory enlivens monochrome sauce!" clue. The answer to both is "gravy". If you are wondering "how?" you have got the point.

12 September 2007

On old textbooks

A correspondent (who happens to host this disturbing and important site on how schools blindly and blithely ignore pupils' rights) has been in touch about a more benign but fascinating issue.

Do you remember your school textbooks (regardless of the subject)? How they presented their subject was hugely influential on their generation of pupils, and it is a much neglected source for research today.

Most obviously, the implicit values of old textbooks on history and geography can tell us so much about the world-views of their period. Consider E H Marshall's "Our Island Story", which has been reprinted and can now be read on the web.

But what can textbooks in English, Maths, French, Latin tell us about the expectations of pupils at various ages in the past? "Deconstructionist" documentary research in education does not seem to have the profile it deserves. (I am very far from a fan of the emperor's-tailoring of postmodernism, but diluted with a nice cup of tea, the general idea that what has been written says something about the writer's world, is acceptable.)

And put that together with the exam. papers of the era... I would not wish to pre-empt the results of any research, but it's a fruitful seam to mine.

Are there any collections of old textbooks out there? Is there a research tradition of which I know nothing? Are there others interested in exploring this area of research? Get in touch!

17 August 2007

On fuzzy terminology

A few weeks ago, some colleagues (Peter, UK, Tony and Renee, US) were presenting at a conference in Sydney on how students learn to "think like" professionals or practitioners of disciplines. The session went quite well, but it would have been so much better had it taken into account this paper from 2003. I had never heard of it; nor apparently had any of the two dozen or so other people, from the UK USA Canada, Australia and New Zealand, attending our session, because it was not mentioned in the discussion.

I don't know how I came across it, other than undertaking a "random walk" across the web, but it has a lot to say, and it is based on empirical research. So why did none of us find it before? Because we work in disciplines where the labels attached to ideas are relatively arbitrary, so we don't know what to search for, even on the web. Meyer and Land, following Perkins (1999) talk about "troublesome knowledge"; one reason for it being troublesome is that it may be "alien" and disorientating. It might challenge earlier learning. I researched that in the late 80s and published on it in the 90s, but I called it--from a slightly different angle--"supplantive learning". Our labels are both reasonable, but there's no way for anyone to work from one to another.

The "semantic web" has a long way to go, and there's still no substitute for just meeting colleagues and making arbitrary connections.

16 August 2007

On 'A' level results

The mantra of the day—congratulations, everyone, but...

No, I'm not going to pontificate; I'd just like to commend this page for its presentation of the stats. The different sex profiles and subject profiles are fascinating, and if you teach research methods or associated areas, they clearly show how existing documentary statistics can be interrogated.

04 August 2007

On 60 cows and 20m people

One for those of you teaching media studies;
  • http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/6930684.stm ; the breaking news of sixty cattle likely to have foot and mouth disease. It's the top story on BBCNews 24.
  • http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/6927389.stm Twenty million people have been displaced by floods. To do the BBC credit, it is their second story on the website, but...?
Even Stalin said (allegedly) "one death is a tragedy, a hundred are a statistic".

I know you will have picked up the point already; this post is in case you hadn't checked out the urls.

01 August 2007

On something completely different

Yes, it is a curiosity, but what else?...

22 July 2007

On Potter punctuation

On p.345 "it's a damn' sight"

Right! Oh, the story's quite good, too.

17 July 2007

Roger Scruton on the nature of education

  • 'What we teach in school, what subjects we encourage in universities and the methods of instruction are all subject to the one overarching test: what do the kids get out of it? And this test soon gives way to another, yet more pernicious in its effect, but no less persuasive in the thinking of educationists: is it relevant? And by “relevant” is invariably meant “relevant to the interests of the kids themselves”.
  • 'From these superstitions have arisen all the recipes for failure that have dominated our educational systems: the proliferation of ephemeral subjects, the avoidance of difficulties, methods of teaching that strive to maintain interest at all costs – even at the cost of knowledge.


On an academic's job description

A friend and colleague has just been told that as a course leader, it is his job to make sure the accountants have set up a project accounting system for a particular course event.

Over coffee, he went over his responsibilities for the course. It is now his job to;
  • write the course advertisements, brochure and prospectus entry
  • tell marketing where and when to place the advertisements
  • respond to prospective student enquiries
  • invite suitable students to interview
  • interview them
  • manage the course induction (across nine centres)
  • co-ordinate staffing
  • manage quality assurance procedures
  • set the agenda for and chair course boards
  • respond to any student complaints and manage that procedure
  • run staff development sessions for colleagues in the associate centres
  • liaise with the professional validating body, which includes
  • re-designing the programme to comply with their new standards
  • preparing the documentation for university validation
  • co-ordinating that validation across all the centres
  • writing new course handbooks;
  • oversee the assessment procedures
  • set work
  • mark work
  • moderate work
  • liaise with external examiners
  • visit centres to ensure consistency of teaching observations
  • ensure all assessment data is entered onto the system
  • check the accounting procedures and ensure the budget is balanced (although he is not trusted with authorising expenditure)
  • attend graduation
  • provide references for former students
In other words he has to do everything.

Except for one thing.

The university has decided not to run a cohort in the university itself any more.

So he doesn't get to teach on it.

07 June 2007

On nostalgia—or serendipity, or something.

I enjoyed it, too! Serendipitously, clicking on "next blog" occasionally yields some gems.

BUT! Is the act of clicking through random "next blogs" worth it, on the off chance there may be something worthwhile among the dross (and this blog may well be among the dross)?

In parallel, how does one evaluate the truth-value of a list like this? I hate to be a spoil-sport, but I grew up in the '50s, and we were terrified by the spectre of polio... Perhaps our parents would have kept us at home if they had access to ways to to entertain us there.

What is happening? de Zengotita, T (2007) Mediated; how the media shape the world around you London; Bloomsbury has produced an exasperatingly (and certainly deliberately) ill-referenced rant about this.

I've changed my mind. I'm not going to ask you what you think. You can do that for yourself.

Or can you?

25 May 2007

On "slow blogging"

This is a thoughtful post about how blogging to students works as a process of reflection and learning. (OK, it is occasionally a bit pretentious if your background is not in the humanities, but hey! she knows it!)

20 May 2007

On academic pomposity

I've just received one of those "message undeliverable" emails which tells me the system could not deliver my posting to whom I never sent anything anyway. But I was intrigued by the address in the message history, so I went there; and this is what I found;
My dog is not impressed.

02 May 2007

On good vibes, for once.

(Note that the site linked to is being revised, so the link will not work for long--and it's boring, in any case)

I am just back from a couple of days with about 60 National Teaching Fellows, in York. Many thanks to everyone in the Association of NTFs responsible for organising the event, which struck just the right balance between structure and flexibility, for me. We met up and compared notes. That's all. That's all?

The delight was that;
  • the bitching (insofar as there was any at all), was a very low level undercurrent; OK, we all knew how privileged we were to be NTFs (but not merely "privileged", everyone except me clearly deserved the honour!) but even so it was delightfully odd to be at a meeting of academics who were so positive.
  • there was a real sense of collegiality, of sharing and mutual support.
  • and hence of wanting to go on and do even greater things!
Why? Because in a world/arena/sector/whatever increasingly characterised by sticks—accountability, micro-management, performance-related pay—there was evidence that carrots work. People who had been rewarded for their achievements were meeting to conspire to build on those achievements. There was no "resting on laurels". Prior success was and is an incentive for later success...

I've posted a couple of positive items in the past month; that may take me over the threshold for Pollyanna syndrome. I'd better get myself tested!

24 April 2007

On Edu-Babble

I caught this feature (early part of the programme) on Radio 4 last night and again today. Very salutary!

Incidentally, the QCA's definition of "scaffolding" is not, as I understand it, the same as Bruner's use of the term.

But the item did present a challenge; perhaps I should re-write all this current validation documentation in plain English, with no jargon whatever. Would it then be longer or shorter?

12 April 2007

On some advice on learning

I'd really like some feedback on this reply I gave to a correspondent a few minutes ago. We had exchanged emails a few months ago as he sought a study strategy for a technology course he was doing. His message this time suggested that my advice had been helpful on that occasion. Now he has moved on to a different part of the course, with a higher science and maths content, and once again he felt he was floundering. Was he just "bad at" this stuff?
"You have stumbled on something which many people (including some researchers) believe to be the case; that some people are "naturals" for maths and others aren't, (See http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/multiple.htm ) and some people handle technical stuff better or worse than "artistic" stuff (http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/converge.htm)

However, it is not as clear-cut as may at first appear, and although I can't "prove" it, I suspect that this is partly a matter of how abstract ideas appear to be. In the old days of photography before everything went automatic and even digital, we were recommended to "bracket" our exposures. Work out the recommended exposure, take a shot at that setting, and then also take one with the lens one stop more open and one stop more closed. All of us have levels of abstraction with which we are comfortable (and maths tends to be very abstract). On the whole storytellers (very concrete) are not great analytical philosophers or mathematicians (very abstract) and vice versa (OK, Sartre was one exception...). But we can still engage effectively with other levels on either side of our comfort zone.

The problem is that maths etc. tends to be taught at one level (and possibly tested at a slightly more concrete level). If you can't work with the level at which it is being taught, move down (not academically but concretely) and ask yourself to generate examples of how all this works out in practice; or move up, and look for the underlying patterns, of which the stuff you have been taught is just one instance.

Now, frankly, this specific advice may be total rubbish! But it still works! Because it is not the specific exercise, but as you say, your engagement with the material which makes the magic happen. I'm just saying, don't take it at face value as your teacher or the text book presented it; you can manipulate it and manage it as you will--and at the most basic level, you will find yourself remembering it, and being able to apply it.
I'll say no more!

10 April 2007

On dumbing down---or not

I am prompted to write, tonight, by a chance hearing of a Radio 4 programme on "The Rise and Fall of the Hapsburgs" as I was going to bed. I'm not a great history buff, but the fact that such a prgramme could go out on one of the four major UK radio networks (albeit just before midnight) suggests that we are not yet totally dumbed down.

And then there is "In Our Time" (Thursdays, 0900-0945, Radio 4). Having tried several times to draft an encomium for this consistently brilliant programme, I can't encompass it. There is its reach and scope. The selection of articulate experts. Melvyn Bragg's chairing (having dropped all pretence of spontaneity; it is paradoxically more immediate). And the newsletter. This is an exemplar of radio at its very best.

But that is not all. Last week, I found myself showing an American friend around the tourist sites of Cambridge and central London. St John's College, King's College Chapel, Peterhouse... Parliament Square, Westminster Abbey, the Manet to Picasso exhibition at the National Gallery... It was almost twenty years since I had last been to these places. The Abbey had not changed much (but, hey, it has been there for about 950 years!) but other places had changed, and not in the direction of "dumbing down". They were more accessible (physically, intellectually, socially) than they were, but they did not compromise their integrity. For once, without irony, I was simply impressed.

And! We went on the London Eye. It is not part of the intellectual and cultural heritage; it is too new for that. But it is a great tourist experience on its own terms, and it is also a brilliant feat of engineering.

And as we went, we listened to our fellow tourists. And perhaps the most gratifying and uplifting part of the tour was to hear how well-informed many of them were. OK, perhaps the groups were self-selecting (apart from the, many, school groups); rubber-neckers may not make it into the basement of the National Gallery. Even so... here were unapologetic "culture-vultures" seeking out the very best; and there were unapologetic elitist "providers" (I have no idea what to call the people who manage these sights/sites) who knew that you can't beat an original Picasso or van Gogh.

I spend too much of my life only engaging with the problems of people who are marginalised disenfranchised oppressed and exploited, if I have no time to raise my sights to what we aspire to for them. Moreover; how come I have stayed away from this for twenty years?

29 March 2007

On Inclusive Learning

Yes, I know the connection between the title and the link is not self-evident, but the link is the source for most of the nonsense I have just been struggling with.

New readers start here: sexy but politically correct Svetlana Ukridge (a.k.a SVUK), daughter of crusty Llywellyn Ukridge (a.k.a. LLUK) is .... Sorry! There are new regulations afoot, from the aforesaid LLUK, governing teacher training for post-16 education in the UK (now known as the "Learning and Skills Sector"*) These have to be incorporated, at vast effort but no benefit, into existing teacher education** programmes, for the next academic year. Like every other university offering such programmes, mine is currently struggling to accommodate the new regulations and retain at the same time to retain some vestige of academic integrity.
* "Learning and Skills Sector"? Learning is a process; skills are achieved capacities to perform (albeit always improvable). How do they constitute a "sector"? OK, it means a part of the education system. But (assuming that one can thus yoke together such disparate concepts—sorry! Can't remember the right phrase; Helen Gardner on the metaphysical poets? If anyone reads this, please put me right.) but, what part of education is not about "learning and skills"?

** they think (as their "guidance" eloquently testifies) that one can "train" teachers. We know that trained teachers are useless, whereas educated ones...
The "guidance" notes are obsessed with "inclusive learning". I thought—naively—that I had escaped fatuous political correctness when I escaped from the gulag of social work education. Not so.

There is a whole unit called; "Curriculum development for inclusive practice". There are so-called "assessment criteria" like;
'Explain ways in which theories and principles of learning and communication can be applied to promote inclusive practice.

'Analyse how theories, principles and models of inclusive curriculum design and development are used to inform own practice and the provision in own specialist area.
I'm not sure what these actually mean; I certainly do not know what would count as satisfactory evidence for their achievement, but beyond that...

What does "inclusive learning" mean? The phrase originates from the Tomlinson Report of 1996 (for which I have great respect);
'By "inclusive learning", therefore, we mean the greatest degree of match or fit between the individual learners' requirements and the provision that is made for them.'
OK. Remember that the report was specifically about students with learning difficulties and disabilities. It proposed that in contrast to the usual approach, of defining the course according to the requirements of the subject and the level, and then providing support to help students with disabilities could attain that level; the "inclusive curriculum" should be designed around the "individual learners' requirements".

That is fair enough, in the "special needs" area. But most students in PCE do not have "special" needs in that sense. This is the politically-correct tail wagging the dog, and to elevate it into the major principle underpinning the education of all future teachers in the post-16 sector is stupid.
  • either it brings the teacher education process into disrepute (the more likely and less damaging result) or
  • heaven help us—people may believe it! What will that do to our confidence in our plumbers, chefs, care staff... ?

23 March 2007

On academic game-playing

A former colleague and student, having moved jobs, is now undertaking a "teacher training" course at his new institution, and sent me a draft of one of his essays. I have changed some details of my response to anonymise it, but retain the argument:

What a joy to read!

We have corresponded, you have sat in my sessions and you have participated in them (not necessarily the same thing), but I have never actually read any of your stuff, apart from emails.

Did you choose this topic? Was it up to you to suggest it, or a choice from a list? I suspect it is the former. Much as I enjoyed the TV adaptation of the Delderfield novels--I confess I didn't read the primary source-- there is something of a mismatch between the Arnoldian ideal of the teacher which suffuses Delderfield and (to continue the Arnold [Matthew this time] reference) the Hebraist, utlilitarian construction of the role in the present.

Were I marking this, I would be in a real quandary. There is no doubt as to its academic quality; argument, sourcing, ... they are all there. (And frankly, although there may be dispute about the grade, this is a clear pass at M level, regardless).

But, this does smack of an expert playing an academic game. It takes one to know one! As you know, we set up assessment systems for all kinds of reasons and in response to all kinds of pressures. Very few of those pressures are about demonstrable improvement in professional performance, for all kinds of reasons, including the sheer difficulty of specifying a valid task. But the game is not the real world. The map is not the territory (I know, someone else articulated that before Korzybski, but it's Friday night!)

This submission clearly demonstrates that you can play the game. But how does it contribute to showing how your performance has improved as a teacher? It doesn't. You asked for my opinion on this as a submission for assessment; I've been through the criteria, and there is clearly no problem with any of them-----------given the choice of topic, of course.

Now to get brutally real.
  • I would not have accepted this title, but I would have insisted on it (the title) being submitted and approved in advance, so you would never have written it.
    Delderfield's romantic vision of (school) education for a privileged elite between the wars has very little connection with "bod standard" (i.e. post-1992) universities today. You do not show how any connection might be made.
  • I can't see how working on this essay (not just writing it) has challenged or stretched your understanding of teaching and learning (apart perhaps from the reference to your changing view of Friere).
  • Playing structured games is about maximising performance within given rules and parameters. It's not about stepping outside them and seeing whether such skill works in the real world. We devise games as pale imitations of the real world, and the educational game is the most hubristic of them all, as you know. Perhaps it is because you know that, that you play the game so knowingly!
I may meta-comment later!

15 March 2007

On bandwagons

I have been contacted by someone who obviously knows that the blog exists, although I have no idea whether he has ever read it. He wants me to plug the conference which the header links to; I declined, but I'm doing it anyway. This is a great way to earn the opprobrium both of fans of the conference, for not endorsing it properly; and of opponents, for not simply ignoring it!

However! I'm actually mentioning it because of a phrase in the email commending it to me; "delegates have lots of opportunities to become inspired to try new ideas and leave with 'use it on Monday' materials!" Gee-whiz! This is two (quite expensive---£325 + VAT for the conference alone---and it's "not for profit"?) two days which will revolutionise attenders' teaching? What do these people know, and what can they impart in two days which teachers did not get in a year's PGCE training and another year's NQT mentoring, and a programme of CPD ever since (apologies to those of you not familiar with the initials, but you'll get the gist)?

No only do quick fixes not exist, but most claims to them back-fire. Remember "learning styles" and "multiple intelligences" and "accelerated learning"? You should, because they are still current. But what do such ideas actually do?
  • They declare that if teachers adjust to ever more variables in planning and fine-tuning their teaching (as if they ever could do any more than have broad-brush plans given all the variables which come into play when you get into the classroom) — then students will miraculously learn better!
  • And if students don't learn (sorry, "achieve") better, it is of course the fault of the teachers for not adopting this refined approach. (No way, of course, has it anything to do with the half-baked, untested and unresearched dogma underlying this snake-oil prescription.)
Forced to the choice, I'll go for prescribing fish-oil and better diet. The methodology of the "research" is just as flaky, but it has other spin-off benefits, it helps school meals staff feel valued (and even university catering staff—let's hear it for them!—they're brilliant and seriously under-valued) and even if it doesn't help with learning it protects joints and the cardio-vascular system. (I haven't checked out that research in detail, I confess, but I'll take the media reporting on trust for once.)

13 March 2007

On visualisation

Wow! If you like visual representations of all kinds of phenomena, this site is amazing. There's no more to say, other than to recommend that you not go there if you have anything else planned for several hours.

23 February 2007


I have just come across this wonderful rant! I agree with it all (at least, the bits I can understand), and it is a superb examination (some might even say "deconstruction") of the educational, cultural and even political assumptions contained in them.

One thing the author does not mention, however, is that a Virtual Learning Environment (or Learning Management System/LMS) requires a sophisticated infrastructure; small educational "providers" can't support them. Then again, they may need them even less than the rest of us, because people might actually talk to each other... On the other hand, the net has evolved. "Web 2.0", the social web is here. Practically everything a VLE can do can now be done better and more easily using free tools on the wider web; I'm working on a paper on "DIY VLE" about this.

Any ideas and comments would be welcome!

22 February 2007

On the skills crisis

For all those of you in technical and vocational education; listen to this BBC "File on 4" programme to find out how present policies are causing distortions in the system.

08 February 2007

On a passing tradition

This posting is unashamedly academic, elitist and reactionary.

I was sad to read today of the death of Tony Nuttall, who taught me as an undergraduate at Sussex in the 'sixties. But I was also deeply struck by his obituary by Laurence Lerner, another of the founding faculty at Sussex, and the values implicit in it. Lerner starts;

"A. D. Nuttall once gave a lecture at Sussex University about some difficulties in the Darwinian theory of natural selection, of which the first sentence was: "This lecture is the rashest act yet committed in an admittedly rather unadventurous life." [...] the sentence is a splendid glimpse of the intellectual atmosphere of the early years of Sussex (a new university in 1961) which he did so much to create.

"As a literary scholar, Tony Nuttall was willing to explore all intellectual issues that seemed to him to impinge on our way of seeing the world: [...] he showed his lecture to his colleague John Maynard Smith, one of the world's leading Darwinians, who took its objections wholly seriously.

Where and how would one now find;
  • A specialist in English Literature capable of lecturing seriously and critically on Darwin?
  • An institution which could offer him the opportunity to do so?
  • One in which academics in English actually know any of their biologist colleagues?
  • ... to the extent that each would look over the other's lectures?
As Lerner goes on;

"At Sussex, [...] he played a leading part in the development of the contextual course on the Modern European Mind, which placed some of the great modernist writers in their intellectual context, so that students read Dostoevsky or Lawrence along with Freud, Conrad or Sartre along with Marx, Thomas Mann along with Nietzsche. This course was an unforgettable intellectual adventure for several generations of students - and for their teachers.

It was indeed; it was certainly one of my greatest privileges to have taken some of it. Some of it, because at its heart was a lecture circus, as one of the faculty called it; three lectures a week throughout the year, one on each of three strands for the term. On that basis, it was estimated that, provided no more faculty wanted to join in (gloriously forlorn hope!) it would be possible to begin to repeat the sequence in five years or so. (The undergraduate programme lasted then as now three years.) Indeed, the sheer chutzpah of offering a course too big for anyone to grasp the whole of it was an academic statement in its own right.

We could not do it now. What would be the "learning outcomes"?
On completion of a glimpse of this module, students will;
  1. Have been permitted to stay up late, creep into a corner of a sometimes hushed and sometimes raucous debating room in the library and begin to participate in the "conversation across the ages" which is the glory of our culture.
  2. Have found their heads to be the battlegrounds of competing ideas on the most important (and occasionally the most trivial) topics of our time.
  3. Have realised that there are no static answers, nor should there be, and that it is our obligation to ensure that there never are ...?
Devise an assessment scheme for that!

The author of this obituary, Laurence Lerner, gave me the only A+ grade I ever got. It was for an essay on "Was Henry James a philistine?", in which I discussed "Portrait of a Lady" in the framework of Kierkegaard's "spheres of existence". Not that it mattered what grade one got, in terms of degree classification; all summative assessment was by sudden-death final exams in three weeks at the end of the third year (perhaps there are some areas in which we have made progress).

I'm not bemoaning, "where did it all go?" (even at Sussex). I'm asking if there is any chance we might get some of it back?

28 January 2007

On Spring

It may be some way off, but—for all you literacy buffs out there;

What is the past participle or simple of "spring"? Is it;
  1. springed
  2. sprung
  3. sprang
  4. sprought
  5. spromething else?

07 January 2007

On Academese

I'm thinking of signing up for a conference in June in Poland. I went to their website and found—great idea—that they had set up a blog for the session proposals as they came in. (That's the link in the title.)

Then I read the abstracts. Oh dear! All my prejudices about my fellow-academics are confirmed. Just read them for yourself!

I'd still like to attend (but only because I know from experience that this silly pretentious language is—in most cases—confined to the formal academic jousting of the event, and bears little relation to how people talk informally); but I can't play this game. Nor do I want to.

And for all the pretentions, there are still no hotel recommendations or costings. Forget it!

06 January 2007

On References

Very best wishes to you all for 2007!

The link in the title to this post is primarily a bit of fun, but I do enjoy a beautifully crafted reference!