31 December 2008

On a (miserable) new year

Obviously, best wishes to all readers for a happy, healthy, harmonious and even prosperous 2009!

While it has to be admitted that things are not looking good on many fronts, I am dismayed by the glee with which the media and commentariat are talking down the outlook. Not only is "The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable." according to J K Galbraith (sorry about the sloppy referencing...), but of course the financial world is the primary habitat of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

In such a climate I keep returning to Noel Coward's wonderful "Ode to Depression" (1952, full lyrics, both domestic and international, from the heading link above). Here's a sample from the international version, which is not quite as clever or funny as the British version, but does not rely as much on taken-for-granted background knowledge...
Verse 1
They're nervous in Nigeria
And terribly cross in Crete,
In Bucharest
They are so depressed
They're frightened to cross the street,
They're sullen in Siberia
And timid in Turkestan,
They're sick with fright
In the Isle of Wight
And jittery in Japan,
The Irish groan and shout, lads,
Maybe because they're Celts,
They know they're up the spout, lads,
And so is everyone else.
Hurray! Hurray! Hurray!
Trouble is on the way.
Refrain 1
There are bad times just around the corner,
There are dark clouds hurtling through the sky
And it's no use whining
About a silver lining
For we KNOW from experience that they won't roll by,
With a scowl and a frown
We'll keep our spirits down
And prepare for depression and doom and dread,
We're going to unpack our troubles from our old kit bag
And wait until we drop down dead.
Sadly the only performance I can find on the web is the one below by a certain Robbie Williams, which is pretty abysmal, although it does pick up a little in the last minute: (if the aspect ratio of the video itself is distorted, my apologies, but it is beyond my control)

To my mind the definitive version is that of the King's Singers (1975).

Have a great new year!

23 December 2008

On Christmas Greetings

Have a great Christmas and may the New Year bring all you hope for and none of what you fear!

On bad arguments

I'm a bit slow on picking up on interesting material from Times Higher Education this week, but I was struck by this article on bad arguments. It's an interesting teaching device for one thing, but for another, it contains;

As long ago as 1985, an Australian philosopher, David Stove, ran a competition to find the worst argument in the world. In his marking scheme, half the marks went to the degree of flaw in the argument, half to the degree of its endorsement by philosophers.

He awarded the prize to himself, for the following argument: "We can know things only as they are related to us under our forms of perception and understanding in so far as they fall under our conceptual schemes, etc. So, we cannot know things as they are in themselves."

What is wrong with that? (Apart of course from the difficulty of knowing what it would mean to "know things as they are in themselves"—or is that the point?) And it does have precedent...

20 December 2008

On structured reflection

Mike Arnzen's "Pedablogue" (I wish I'd got that name first!) has an interesting review of Reflective Practice in Action: 80 Reflection Breaks for Busy Teachers by Thomas S.C. Farrell. (I've not yet read it, so I can't comment directly on it.)

As the title suggests, it is about structured exercises to promote reflection. Read my comment on the blog post assuming Mike decides to publish it. And if you have any ideas about the second point I make I'd be really interested to hear them!

13 December 2008

On the devil in the detail of teaching practice

I'm not generally a great fan of over-hyped Malcolm Gladwell, and the overall starting point of this article— that by culling the worst 10% of teachers school standards in the US could be greatly improved—is contestable to say the least (although "instructional quality" does come out with a high effect-size in Hattie's meta-analysis of educational variables).

However, here he does offer a very accessible discussion of the problems of judging the "worst 10%", and his eavesdropping on a panel assessing teaching skills on video is fascinating and informative. Assuming, of course, that the panel are focusing on significant behaviour.

07 December 2008

On writers' rooms

No comment—it's simply fascinating. Be sure to click on "show captions" before you run it.

06 December 2008

On reflection on reflection

Meta-reflection? I have been entertaining the idea of taking on a part-time "job". I have several sessional contracts, but there is very little continuity to them, so I applied for a fixed-term proportional post at another university; as I write I have no idea whether I shall be offered the post, or whether I shall take it if offered. That's not the point of the post; the point is an epiphany in the interview.

I knew that one standard question would be, "why do you want this job?" And my response would be, "To keep my hand in..." But later, working through the standard litany of questions, the panel came to; "What do you think your professional development needs are?" They qualified that at once by acknowledging that as a semi-retired academic, it was probably otiose to ask that of me, but unexpected as the question was, I had no doubt about the answer; "practise" [sic.]*

I found myself explaining with reference to this blog and how it has changed over the (few) years of posting. I'm not going to do the analysis—only recently have I bothered even to tag the posts— but clearly over the past year, since I stopped doing much teaching, they have changed. The post before or after this one (I'm not sure how it will turn out), is on photos of writers' rooms. Interesting, I think, but at one level simply padding—it's merely a second-hand link, and at another an instance of "mission drift". There's nothing about learning and teaching, and precious little reflection.

It doesn't of course "matter". At the last count only nine people had signed up to the RSS feed anyway! (Scroll down to the "Atom" link at the bottom of the right side-bar if you would like to join this exclusive club.) It's merely illustrative that reflection cannot exist in isolation...

*Oh dear, pedantry wins again! I did indeed mean "practise" with an "s", as short for "opportunity to practise".

02 December 2008

On Yorick

The news story today concerns the use (or not) of a genuine skull in the graveyard scene opening the final act of Hamlet (Shakespeare c.1600). The skull was bequeathed by a concert pianist, Andre Tchaikowsky.

I knew him, Horatio! No, actually I didn't; but one day in October 1972 I was visiting a student on placement at one of the world's most amazing therapeutic establishments for young men, Finchden Manor. Do read this site. I was not quite 28 years old; two years older than the oldest resident in the establishment at the time.

I was ushered into the presence of George Lyward, the charismatic founder and Chief of the place. No, it was not a "therapeutic community" as now understood and discussed in the literature. It was far too autocratic. I could go on and on about Finchden Manor on the basis of my limited acquaintance in Mr Lyward's final years, but you can get first-hand testimony from the website.

Mr Lyward was indeed charismatic (in the Weberian sense). But his charismatic quality was one I had never before (or since) encountered. He made me feel that he was privileged to meet me. I was a callow 28! An upstart tutor on a social work course who had never done any social work in his life. A fraud, basically (although not deliberately so; I was so naive then that I did even know that there were some things a degree in European Studies did not equip you for). And Mr Lyward was honoured to meet me. It was not an act.

This of course was even more disorienting than being interrogated and put down. However, from the room next door came wonderful piano music. Trying to make conversation in my blundering way (nowadays of course, I should not have to "make conversation". We would immediately have got down to the forms and reports and checklists), I asked about the hi-fi, as I thought it must be. "No," said Mr Lyward, "that's not a recording. That's Andre Tchaikowsky practising for his concert at the Festival Hall. He's an old boy of Finchden, you know, and he comes back here to practise when he has something big coming up." Tchaikowsky had come to Finchden to overcome some of his trauma from growing up in Warsaw in WW2 and the loss of most of his family.

(An aside; when I ventured to get down to the material for the placement report, I asked Mr Lyward what he had asked the student [Steve Williams--I remember you, and it's an episode for you to be proud of, too] to do. "DO?" he replied. "I don't want him to do anything. I want him to be." He would have stood no chance as a "practice teacher" nowadays.)

That's as close as I got to Yorick, and to some other things, too.

30 November 2008

On "Chinese Whispers" in the history of psychology

I've picked this up rather late, but it alludes to a substantial problem represented in professional education programmes, including teacher education. Rarely have lecturers actually read the original, primary sources for much of the research they report, and even where they have done so, they may have chosen to represent them in a manner which is more consistent with their own beliefs or interests than the evidence warrants. I confess I've done it, too.

28 November 2008

On doubting

OK, so there's nothing good on TV tonight!

Just as there was a happenstantial link between the previous post and its predecessor, so this one picks up on a linked theme with the post on "bad science". That ended with the question whether students doing a vocational qualification at National Qualifications Framework level 3 [that's roughly "A" level equivalent for UK readers] could sustain a distanced, etic, stance to ideas. The article argues, admittedly on case-study evidence and in an elite school in Israel, which may be different from the secondary school round the corner where you are, that it is possible.

On bad science in education

Do read this disconcerting account of a medical scientist's attempt to get someone from an educational awarding body to explain the presence of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo in an Edexcel Level 3 qualification in Health and Social Care. (The reference to Alan Sokal in the heading banner makes a tenuous link to the previous post.)

In brief the argument is that "it's not true and it doesn't work so you should not be teaching it." I have a great deal of sympathy with that argument, and it has particular potency in relation to alternative medicine (assuming that the positivist account is the only legitimate one). But go beyond the "health" component and start looking at "social care", and you will find very little which is demonstrably "effective" or "true". The corpus of "knowledge" in this area consists largely of best guesses and conformity with current values in the services, and not always shared by the population at large. It's not that there is a conspiracy to foist principles of "valuing diversity" or "empowerment" on any one; it is just that in the "care" arena no-one knows how to test and research the ideas. And it is not for want of trying.

(It's exactly the same in teaching—viz the egregious rubbish about "learning styles", and even "e-learning" which has been puffed over the past few years.) Until you have agreed and uncontested criteria of "effectiveness" or "truth", you can't aspire to a gold standard of what works.

The issue may not be about what is to be taught; after all, complementary medicine is out there and is big business, so it cannot be ignored. And social care has to work on some basis, even if we don't know which. Perhaps it ought to be about the stance which is taken towards it; why, for example, do many people—both practitioners and patients—believe that CAM works, even if the research (I know—they contest the methodology) says that it doesn't? They are not all charlatans and dupes, after all. The placebo effect is much more complex than is often portrayed, for example.

But—to come back to Edexcel Level 3 awards—can learners at that level (perhaps more significantly at that typical age) actually sustain that distanced stance. Must the wave of uncertainty collapse for them into true/false, right/wrong etc.? Some research suggests that it must.

Oh dear.

On Levi-Strauss

No, not jeans!

Today is the centenary of the birth of Claude Levi-Strauss. Indeed it is his birthday, for he is still alive. But age is not his claim to fame; that lies in his theorisation of anthropology through "structuralism". He sought underlying principles of human thinking through the discovery of common themes in the culture and language of disparate peoples. That is as close as I will go to the edge lest I sink into mire of gallic intellectualisation; if you want to know more, google him at your peril.

I have no idea what to make of him. I read most of his major works thirty-odd years ago when I felt the need to justify myself as an "intellectual"--a need now happily past. Like many others, I wore my membership of the club of those who had finished The Raw and the Cooked or The Savage Mind, more as a badge of my conquest of tedium than as testimony to my own thinking having been informed in any useful way. Later, of course, he appeared to be a model of clarity and simplicity alongside his "post-structuralist" heirs.

Sorry to be dog-in-a-mangerish on his birthday, but he has outlived his reputation. Not because he was "wrong"--there is no way to demonstrate or argue that in his weird world--but because nowadays, intellectual fashion can pass over one in the course of a lifetime. And I still have no idea what he and his gang thought they were contributing to any understadning of the real world... But, he did persuade lots of people to play his game!

25 November 2008

On automatic bibliographies

It had to happen! You can now get automatic bibliographies generated for you on-line, from information as minimal as a book's ISBN number. Try it!

Two words of caution, though;
  1. It does not set up the in-text flags for you, such as Jarvis (2006), and
  2. Its default format is MLA (Modern Languages Association) while like most social "science" disciplines, we use APA (American Psychological Association); in order to get that, you have to take out a subscription, but that is only $7.99 (just over £5.00) for a year.

24 November 2008

On a cookery show

The series is called "Indian Food Made Easy" and it does what it says on the tin. But...

This evening's show (available through the link in the title for just a week after posting) featured a guy who is a keen cook, and likes Bengali cuisine, but who has never cooked it for guests lest he get it wrong. I have no complaints about the show as entertainment, but to suggest that any of it was about learning to cook in an Indian style is mendacious.

Actual cookery in Bengali cuisine appears very straightforward. You would find similar directions on the label of a jar of Tikka Marsala sauce in the supermarket. (Yes, I know about that...) The magic comes from the spices, and their combination and balance--and this programme was merely (and vaguely) prescriptive about them. If you could follow the recipe before, you would be no better off.

The only "insight" was about how Bengali cuisine uses sugar. (I have doubts about that; the interaction of sugar and salt is more subtle than suggested.)

Why am I going on about this marginal programme? I'm not so naive as to believe that the producers are on a mission to improve the audience's cookery skills and eating habits. I'm simply drawing attention to a problem in pedagogy. One bottom line in the practice of an autonomous cook is mastery of heat and timing etc. But another is mastery of flavours, and that involves much basic memory as anything else until (I imagine/speculate...) there is an epiphany, and a few cooks are able to manipulate flavours in their minds and then test them in the outside world...

Where does the rote learning of recipes figure in this?

22 November 2008

On relying on textbooks

I had an enquiry from a reader in Romania, who teaches psychology to students taking the International Baccalauriate. She was initially concerned with the structure and tone of the textbooks, every more abstract and distanced from practice. But as we discussed it, it became apparent that it was more to do with the students' approach to the textbook... And then I had something of an epiphany. With the possible exception of two years spent teaching "A" level sociology (very useful experience, that; I knew no sociology at all when I started, and had an article published in the prestigious Sociological Review by the end of it. OK it was 1970-71...); with that possible exception I have never had to teach a course to a textbook, so I had not thought about how it works. I do keep a few standard undergraduate textbooks on my shelf as a quick way in to the "standard model" of particular areas of study, so I looked at how they were structured, and I realised...
It all stems from the assessment system, in practice. The textbooks are not about teaching psychology as such; they are about equipping students to pass the exams in psychology, which is quite different as you have understood.

Your students are highly anxious and focused on the assessment (and they are probably under pressure from their families to perform well). They /dare not/ concern themselves with anything else until they have passed their exams (by which time they may well have forgotten that they were once interested in psychology for other reasons...) I applaud your efforts to introduce group work, etc. but for them the bottom line is---"will it help me pass the exam?"

There is an extensive research strand exploring this issue; see http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/deepsurf.htm for an introduction, but none of it helps you to solve the problem unless you can change the assessment regime.

You will be familiar---more than I am---with the research on how a problem or challenge is "framed". You have no alternative but to use the frame, "This will help you to pass the exam." If you can get the students to accept that the groupwork or whatever strategy you propose will indeed help with that limited goal, they will rise to the challenge. However, they are--as you now know--very conservative. They find it very difficult to adjust to any approach to learning which does not seem aimed directly at the assessment; but you of course know that the direct approach is very limited...
Or am I on the wrong track? (Thanks to Oana for posing the original question.)

20 November 2008

On opportunity costs again

I keep on about threshold concepts almost as much as I do about Frank Coffield, and anyone familiar with the idea will be aware of the economists' favourite TC—opportunity cost. It is discussed very well by Robert Frank in his entertaining new book [Frank R H (2008) The Economic Naturalist; why economics explains almost everything London; Virgin Books]. I don't think he has ever heard of TCs, but he acknowledges the significance of the concept in very similar language (pp. 4-7).
Incidentally, the book is also based on an exercise he routinely uses in an introductory economics class; clearly an excellent teaching device!

19 November 2008

On mentioning the unmentionable

And here, too.

Sorry I only found out with 45 minutes to go (GMT), but today was World Toilet Day.

Earlier on, a friend passed me a rather sentimental slideshow on a global "count your blessings" theme (duly qualified with some legitimate scepticism about some of the quoted statistics; but forwarded because the issues do indeed matter a lot). Access to clean water figured, as it should. Freedom from shit didn't. We are talking physical shit/faeces/bowel movements/excreta here. And it is indeed part of life. I seem to remember at school giggling at hearing that "excretion" was one of the criteria of life.

It won't go away, but getting its consequences to go away is probably the greatest and least glamorous public health challenge of our time.

What's it got to do with learning and teaching? For all his limitations; Maslow.

On less being more at Master's level

I have been on a validation panel today, grappling with the problem of how to specify modules at Master's level. It was very instructive.

The team developing the programme had understandably assumed that outcomes for a Master's level module would have to be more tightly specified than for a lower level course, in order to ensure that the learning and the assessment would be at greater “depth” than for an undergraduate module.

First, though, it is quite easy to specify “learning outcomes” for low-level courses. When people are learning the basics of any subject or skill, what any one person learns will have to be the same as any other learner. It's easy to assess, and “correct” knowledge or performance is clear-cut. It's not so easy at higher levels. Knowledge and “understanding” (not to mention, for those who care, the higher regions of Bloom, or Krathwohl and Anderson) may be contestable, and indeed one person's understanding or “take” on the subject may quite legitimately be different from their neightbour's. So when you get to Master's level it may be reasonable to specify that the outcomes will include so-and-so, but it may well be patronising and simply counter-productive to presume to set them out completely and exhaustively.

Even so, how do you incorporate the academic level requirements into the outcomes? It's traditional to use all those recommended “Bloom verbs” to produce “SMART” objectives. (What's the difference between an objective and an outcome, in this context? Strictly between ourselves, I no longer have to pretend that I know, and I don't care.) So the first-year students “list” or “describe”, the second-years “analyse” and the third-years “evaluate”... So Master's students? They “critically evaluate”, it seems. (That means in practice that they evaluate on the basis of one or more over-arching frameworks, showing that there are no simple answers.)

That is fair enough but it does risk becoming formulaic, and also implying that there is a correct procedure for doing it. The more specific the directions, the more restricted the outcomes, and the less the scope for the exercise of individual initiative and creativity (if that is desirable in your discipline, of course!) Master's students are experts, or at least nearly there. They need to be given their heads rather than constrained. (I am referring mainly to experienced practitioners of their discipline undertaking Master's study part-time, here; I am aware that full-time “second cycle” students who were undergraduates last year may not fit this picture.)

Personally I would rather just set out the aims of the module just so the students know what they are letting themselves in for, and recognise that the outcomes will be different every time it runs, and different for every participant. But that won't wash in the compliance climate where standardisation is all. So what can we get away with?
(Specify the level and assessment criteria at a scheme/programme level so you don't have to do it at a module level)
"On completion of this module, participants will (I prefer “participant” to “student” at this level);
  • Come to their own informed conclusions about the significance of...
  • Explore ... in the context of ...
  • Use ... as the basis of original work on ...
Or have I got it wrong?

13 November 2008

On autistic insight into the student experience

The link is to another article in the "Passion for Teaching" series in Times Higher Education. It jumps about, rather, but apart from anecdotal experience, its chief source is a remarkable book, which I recently read out of sheer interest but without making the connections Blaisdell (the article's author) does to the student experience.

Temple Grandin is Associate Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, and a renowned expert on stock handling systems in abattoirs. She is also seriously autistic. Her remarkable book (Grandin T and Johnson C (2005) Animals in Translation; using the mysteries of autism to decode animal behaviour London; Bloomsbury [ISBN 0-7475-6668-2]) explores animals' (particularly dogs' and cattle's) experience of the world on the basis of parallels between their experience and that of a person with autism. To the academic reader's understanding it is written remarkably directly, even naively; but as it goes on one begins to understand why.

What Blaisdell does is to suggest that this account of the behaviour of animals in the abattoir can illuminate the students' experience in class--and it is not cheap "lambs to the slaughter" stuff.

12 November 2008

On diminishing returns

Maria Colwell, Jasmine Beckford ... Victoria Climbie, baby P. Children who died at the hands of their carers over thirty-odd years. From what I hear on Newsnight, one still dies every week. But there are 50,000+ plus children on "at-risk" registers. In other words, one in a thousand dies each year, out of those already deemed to be at risk. In Maria Colwell's day, we didn't even know how many were at risk.

I used to teach social workers. In the discussion of the latest tragedy I was pleased to detect no sign of the strident blame which characterised previous cases. I was pleased to see that Herbert Laming is being commissioned not to review this particular case in the usual blaming exercise, but to look at overall nationwide strategies and procedures.

It's tragic. There is no acceptable level of child abuse, let alone murder. But there is a law of diminishing returns. The NSPCC has a Full Stop campaign against child abuse. And so they should. I've worked with NSPCC staff and I have enormous respect for their work (as well as some reservations about their care for their staff injured in the line of duty). But practitioners know that "Full Stop" is marketing bulls**t.

The danger is that defensive practice which is aimed more at forestalling criticism than working in the best interests of the child will inevitably create more problems than it solves. And I do mean "inevitably"; it is built into the nature of the system. I know that we can never be complacent, and that more can always be done, but there does come a point at which enormous amounts of time, resources and effort can be invested to no discernible advantage. After all, the measure of "improvement" is something which does not happen.

In the public services nowadays, in education and health care as well as social services, and as in the economy, the one taboo is the admission that we do not know what is going on and a fortiori that there is nothing we can do about it. Powerlessness is not an option, but as Taleb points out in that odd and infuriating book The Black Swan (2008) it may be a necessary admission.

Having said that, how did a paediatrician miss a broken spine, or two police investigations decide not to proceed, or sixty visits by professionals not notice what was going on? Perhaps this time all the inter-agency working led to a diffusion of responsibility, to no individual being prepared to take individual responsibility for launching that horrible juggernaut of care proceedings?

Indeed, is it just possible that it was the sheer level of resources and number of personnel involved which introduced those unintended consequences?

11 November 2008

On a threshold concept again

In today's Guardian Education section, Jonathan Wolff has an interesting piece on whether or not academics can or do indoctrinate their students. However, it particularly includes this point;

... the response students have to radical or challenging ideas ... depends almost entirely on where they start from. Take, for example, an idea that comes up when I teach Marx's Early Writings: that, contrary to the Christian teaching that God made man in God's image, man made God in man's image. And that's why our paintings of God show him in human form.

For some students, this thought is as close as they will ever get to a revelation. It puts into words something they have been struggling with, crystallising a thought, or at least a doubt, that has been festering in their subconscious. ... So, confrontation with radical ideas can be eye-opening - but only to those who were already hoping to open their eyes.

Other students - those who are fairly firm in their religious beliefs - will be charmed or appalled by what they think to be the naivety or superficiality of Marx's argument. Some will say, in a rather patronising tone, that they find his ideas interesting. Others feel angry, or almost frightened, when confronted with something so challenging. But I haven't come across a student who has said they have changed their religious convictions on reading Marx's texts. And why should their political convictions change either?

A great example of a threshold concept and liminal reactions to it. If you are not familiar with the idea, there are some links here. What is more, it is a threshold which is more about the affective than the technically cognitive component of learning, as Peter Hadfield, Renee Meyers and I discussed in a paper which still up for discussion here. Comments welcome!

27 October 2008

On the constructive use of hot air

Not since Marilyn Monroe... It's got very little to do with anything, but it's fun, so what the heck? I like the polar bear in particular. Pity we don't have those air ducts much here.

Thanks to the Radio 4 PM blog for passing it on!

On the ups and downs of student progress

I'd like to agree with Mary Beard in this post, but she is writing from the privilege of Cambridge, where undergraduates are taught in part through tutorials, and dons know their students. That is not the case in most mass higher education, and I suspect many employers would say that references from universities are singularly uninformative. That's not the fault of the academics, merely a reflection of the numbers and that they will probably only remember the outstanding and the troublesome students in any given; the average are as ever anonymous.

Even so, I can applaud this sentiment;
Another [reason for replacing degree classification with a record of achievement] is the idea that the final degree class doesn’t reflect the strengths and weaknesses shown by a student throughout the course. Thank heavens it doesn’t, I think. I am privileged to teach some of the very brightest students in the UK. I want them to develop their potential in all kinds of ways – so that, in whatever walk of life, they can go on to be stunning citizens (cliché but true). That often means taking apart their preconceptions. It means watching them take intellectual risks, make intellectual mistakes, even do badly before they do really well. The last think I want is every course they have done listed and graded. [...] Some of my best student in Cambridge have got deltas on the way to alphas, and have learnt in the process about how not to be yes-women, when and how to take risks. Isn’t that what UK employers need?

26 October 2008

On CPD and SoTL, from Lewis Elton

The 200th post on this blog! However—

Lewis Elton has written a thoughtful piece tying in the scholarship of learning and teaching with Wilhelm von Humboldt's conception of a university from the early 19th century (predating Newman, who has been more influential in the UK, by half a century or more). It's good to see it on open access on the web. It's also good to see further counterblasts to the materialistic utilitarianism which besets so much current debate about universities.

25 October 2008

On the other side of plagiarism

Or "confessions of a term paper ghost-writer". Interesting in its own right as a sub-cultural phenomenon, but with a sound point at the end;

I don't have the academic credentials of composition experts, but I doubt many experts spent most of a decade writing between one and five term papers a day on virtually every subject. I know something they don't know; I know why students don't understand thesis statements, argumentative writing, or proper citations.

It's because students have never read term papers.

It's an exercise re-discovered time and again, like the wheel; get students to mark/grade and comment on specimen papers written for your module, so they know what they are supposed to look like.

24 October 2008

On a new site on the scholarship of teaching and learning (BeSoTLed)

A warm welcome to a site from the University of Glasgow, led by Jane MacKenzie, which aims to
promote the development of teaching and enhancement of the learning environment by providing practical, collegial, academic and pastoral support for staff to engage with the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
It's full of useful material, all with a clear awareness of its target audience; academics who want to improve their teaching practice in a disciplined way. I'm sure it will prosper--do pass on the word!

23 October 2008

On "dumbing down"

The link is to an article in today's Times Higher Education which does at least look beyond some of the facile assertions being made about "dumbing down" and pieces together views from a range of eminent academics, together with survey results from the less-eminent rest of us. Do read it.

21 October 2008

On the real lowdown on brain hemispheres

(And follow the link to the TED video)

In short, Jill Bolte is a neuroanatomist who suffered a stroke, and emerged in the unique position of being able to testify both from within and without, as it were, about the contributions of each hemisphere of the brain to our coherent experience of the world and ourselves. Remarkable.

20 October 2008

On the potency of taking offence

This is only indirectly a teaching point, but it does reflect on the culture of our classrooms. This article and this one (both from rather right-wing perspectives, agreed, but that does not mean there is no virtue in them) make the point that sensitivity to possible offence is now a potent element in political debate at all levels--particularly where a shame-culture prevails (as it does much more than most of us would like to think). See also this report.

"Political correctness" (in itself a contestable label) in its most benign form, sets out not to offend anyone. OK, but that gives hostages to fortune in ceding great power to anyone who decides to be hypersensitive about, for example, being bald (sorry! "Follically challenged" I don't think that phrase was ever more than a joke anyway, and I can call it because I am myself bald...). Or being of a particular ethnic origin, or having a specific learning disability, or espousing a particular faith...

The fact that one falls into one or more of those categories (and several more) does not automatically make one a morally superior person, exempt from venal desires to take personal (or group) advantage from any strategic error by a competitor. (I'm looking at this systemically.)

If major players in a system elevate "not giving offence" to their primary moral principle, then they cede authority to whoever can be most easily offended. And given that "not offending" is th ultimate pusillanimity (wow! Did I spell that right?) they probably deserve the consequences.

On learning to deconstruct

I'm posting this simply as a resource. It may be irrelevant to your discipline.

But if it is relevant;
  • How do you make sense of/interpret/deconstruct it?
  • How do you teach others how to do that?
I'll leave it there...

16 October 2008

On the commodification of higher education

Here is another voice, this time Paul Standish of the Institute of Education, raised against the consumer orientation of HE. In particular, he argues against excessive demands for accountability and transparency, pointing out that they are reductionist and unable to do justice to the complexity of education at this level.

In the same edition of Times Higher Education Terence Kealey of the University of Buckingham is highly critical of the assumptions on which the Quality Assurance Agency purports to review institutions; it institutionalises mistrust of professionals. Actually, I think he protests a little too much; he must have known how they operate, and since Buckingham is the UK's only private university, he was not obliged to invite them in at all. So why did he? Even so, there is a fit between the two articles; and of course the interesting thing is that as a private university, one might expect Buckingham to be more consumer focused than public institutions. Since it scores top for student satisfaction, it may have an appropriate consumer orientation, rather than a "toxic" one, to use the new cliche.

12 October 2008

On plugging Coffield again

In this week's Times Educational Supplement Stephen Jones is plugging the Coffield paper Just suppose teaching and learning became the first priority... As well he might. Read it!

07 October 2008

On tough career paths

I thought it was tough in the UK!

02 October 2008

On practicalities of marking

Peter Barry's article from today's Times Higher Education has some sound things to say about how to communicate feedback to students. He even mentions what he calls "two-shot" methods, which we know as "dry runs", where students get comments on an early version of an essay, and revise it before submission for marking. And he has a version of what Phil Race calls "feed-forward"—concentrating comments on recommendations for subsequent work rather than critical remarks about a piece now past.

I do however rather wonder how much of this is re-inventing the wheel. On the other hand, you do appreciate more the wheel you have invented for yourself rather than the one someone else supplied off the shelf before you knew you wanted one... It might not be such a bad strategy after all.

28 September 2008

On-line Lectures

This does not surprise me, of course; I've long recognised that many of my reservations about e-learning in terms of the transparency of the medium are not any concern to students who are entirely at home with iPods and the like.

But I'm still not entirely convinced they aren't missing something from the corporate experience of attending the lecture... I'm looking at ways of pod-casting my stuff at the moment (CamStudio free version looks like the best way of capturing slides for webcasting, by the way--unless you know better!) but it's not the technical stuff which gets in the way, it's the question of how much of the unmediated experience can be shared, and if so how. I suppose it is analogous to adapting a novel for film or TV.

On the blank slate

This is a little late, but TED has just featured it again, so it's worth reminding people about.

The so-called "nature-nurture" debate crops up in all kinds of courses and teaching discussions so the video is a useful resource. Pinker presents the issues well, of course, and is interesting on the passions engendered. The best popular treatment in print is still, I think, Ridley (2004) Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human London; HarperPerennial.

27 September 2008

On the psychology of morality

This is not particularly within the remit of this blog, but the "liberal-conservative" construct does reach into our classrooms, and is highlighted by the US presidential line-ups; so do look at the linked video and links from Jonathan Haidt's home page to make sense of the implicit and underpinning values.

If you want to check out your own views in relation to others, the site Haidt referred to was www.yourmorals.org.

From a slightly different perspective you might also be interested in http://www.politicalcompass.org/.

26 September 2008

On a come-back for "education"?

Perhaps it's just "confirmation bias" (the tendency to pay more attention to evidence which supports your point of view than that which tests or contradicts it), but I do detect occasional voices raised in the press arguing for the re-instatement of a broader-based critical education in colleges and universities, rather than narrow instrumental employment-focused courses. Here are two short articles from today's Times Higher Education, which draw attention to different aspects but point in the same direction:

23 September 2008

On stories and teaching

Reading this article reminded me of yet another reason to avoid presentation packages (PowerPoint, blah blah) wherever possible. The article contrasts narrative with "exposition", but principally points out the ubiquity of narrative; it cites one study suggesting that 65% of conversations, across all settings and people, concern social topics (Dunbar, 1997). And most of those topics are stories.

So why don't we tell more stories when we are teaching?

See also this blog post (the promised page is here)

22 September 2008

On new academic year resolutions

The second idea; "Do it first, then we'll talk" is not exactly earth-shatteringly new, but it's a useful illustration of variation theory (http://video.strath.ac.uk/06/140-06-03.wvx) on the derivation of principles from variation in examples. A different angle on getting at the same thing can be found in these exercises http://www.learningandteaching.info/teaching/exercises_definitions.htm

On a philosophy of teaching philosophy

Talking to a friend recently about a course on entrepreneurship at a business school, he summed up the confusion surrounding it as, "They don't know whether they're teaching about it or for it." Is this etic examination of the topic from without, or emic preparation from within? (No, it's not quite the same question as whether it is education or training.)

It's a central question in professionally/vocational curriculum areas. It beset our degree in "Educational Studies" for years and probably still does. It was not accredited as a teaching qualification in its own right, but it found little to say about education. (Sadly; there was so much which could have been said but wasn't.)

The linked article is about a professor who has taken the for approach to teaching philosophy;

Jolley says he thinks of his relationships with his students less as teacher-student than as master-apprentice. His goal, as he sees it, isn’t to teach students about philosophy; it is to show them what it means to think philosophically, to actually be a philosopher. When the approach works, the effect can be significant. Several years ago, a student named Zack Loveless wandered into one of Jolley’s classes and very nearly dropped it after the first day. “I was expecting a survey course, and in walks this big scary guy, using words I’d never heard before, talking about Hume as background for Kant, telling us how hard the class was going to be,” Loveless told me.

Loveless, ... is now getting a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Chicago. He describes Jolley as more of a collaborator than a professor; rather than answer his questions, Loveless said, Jolley tried to work through philosophical problems with him.

Do you share the article author's admiration for this approach?

17 September 2008

On the failure of technology

There's apparently no similar-scale evidence relating to further and higher education, but;
    "Those and other trials by Nielsen amount to an important research project that helps explain one of the great disappointments of education in our time. I mean the huge investment schools have made in technology, and the meager returns such funds have earned. Ever since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, money has poured into public-school classrooms. At the same time, colleges have raced to out-technologize one another. But while enthusiasm swells, e-bills are passed, smart classrooms multiply, and students cheer — the results keep coming back negative. When the Texas Education Agency evaluated its Technology Immersion Pilot, a $14-million program to install wireless tools in middle schools, the conclusion was unequivocal: "There were no statistically significant effects of immersion in the first year on either reading or mathematics achievement." When University of Chicago economists evaluated California schools before and after federal technology subsidies (the E-Rate program) had granted 30 percent more schools in the state Internet access, they determined that "the additional investments in technology generated by E-Rate had no immediate impact on measured student outcomes." In March 2007, the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance evaluated 16 award-winning education technologies and found that "test scores were not significantly higher in classrooms using selected reading and mathematics software products." Last spring a New York State school district decided to drop its laptop program after years of offering it. The school-board president announced why: "After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement — none."
But the reasons, Mark Bauerlein argues in the article, is that technology-enhanced teaching does not work because students apply to their learning the same skimming and skipping skills that they bring to their other net-based activities; they don't pursue arguments and follow them through on-line.

16 September 2008

On a backlash?

Yes, I'm being a little partisan in the links from the heading, but there's an interesting surge of articles supporting the case--unless I'm a victim of confirmation bias:

The magic of face-to-face teaching

The spark that tingled to my bones

but... I have to admit that "passion" is not a term which attaches readily to teaching about COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health)

The argument is not about education versus training per se but about the re-instatement of "education" as a legitimate discourse.

10 September 2008

On inclusivity/normalization... whatever

I went to Marks and Spencer in Cambridge today, and was served with their customary efficiency and courtesy. Only difference—the cashier who processed my purchase had Down's syndrome. Which made no difference to the service; as it should be. Respect to him and to the store!

On Phil Race's new address

The header says it all; Phil has had to change his web address, but his site continues to be as useful as ever. Now I have to add to my "to-do" list up-dating all the links to his old site before people start complaining they don't work!

08 September 2008

On PowerPoint again

This comes up every year, and so it should. The link is to Tara Brabazon at the Times Higher Education site.

My previous post on this is here

25 August 2008

On 40 years on

Radio 4 is running a brilliant series of five-minute sound collages at five to five each afternoon, covering 1968 day by day. Last week, as the link shows, followed the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and the end of the "Prague Spring"; today covered the opening of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The counterpoint of the themes is fascinating. Almost as fascinating as recalling what I was doing this day forty years ago!

I was a "deviationist". While that sounds like some kind of marxist heretic who might be identified with the Czech dissidents, it was much less dangerous. A friend and I (with help from some assistants who were as ever much better at the task than I was) were volunteers leading a camp of a couple of dozen younger teenage boys from a Christian organisation (link here to its current incarnation) labouring on the Ffestiniog light railway in North Wales. We were helping to create a rising loop beyond Dduallt (pronounced THEE-a-cht) to go round the reservoir created for the Trawsfynydd nuclear power station to restore the link to Blaenau Ffestiniog.

In those days I had Freudian tendencies. I thought that boys who were keen on railways and train-spotting would be "anally-retentive" (obsessionally tidy and organised). How wrong can you be? We lived in an old Nissen hut at the end of the line. When the trains stopped running at about 6pm, we were totally out of contact with the rest of the world, other than listening to our transistor radios, until about 8am. The closest contact with civilisation was through Colonel Campbell, whose house was a 45-minute scramble away down a near-vertical but heavily-wooded face. (I seem to remember that he was merely "the Major" in those days.) He was the authorised person in charge of the gelignite for the blasting...

The camp owned an old minibus (bought for the duration and sold afterwards--cheaper than renting) which was kept in Porthmadog at the coastal end of the line. The radiator leaked, and so it was that, stuck in a traffic jam on a hot Saturday afternoon in August trying to cross the "cob"—the two-lane breakwater across the delta to Porthmadog—I turned the engine off to stop it over-heating, only to find when I tried to start it again, that it had seized up... Not only were we holding up the entirety of Welsh coastal traffic on the busiest day of the year, but rescue vehicles could not reach us... (Cue ground opening up to swallow me.)

On alternate days we were hewing away on the deviation, clearing the rubble from the blasting, or trying to create the required gradient with pick and shovel. 6am reveille for breakfast and bible reading to start on site at 7.30. Usually in the rain.

Wouldn't have missed it for the world—just a little ashamed that what we were playing at, others were doing for real, without the option.

On returning responsibility to people

I have been working on a presentation for a conference next week, exploring the extent to which curricula—particularly in professional education—are becoming ever more prescriptive. They demand that students (and tutors) simply comply with ever more specific external requirements rather than learn through experience and mistakes, and own that learning.

I was struck by the parallel with recent thinking on traffic management, of all things. The connection may be a little too distant to make it into the paper, but there's a fair amount about on YouTube, which lends itself to blogging about it. I think the parallels are obvious:

There's also an article about it here.

22 August 2008

On a "motherclass"

I went to Birmingham today, by train, and the journey was a succession of disasters (which translates as "mildly irritating delays" in the overall scheme of things).

But so it happened that I had to take a train from Coventry to Milton Keynes (about 1650 from Coventry, in case anyone wants to pin this down) and found myself in a seat in front of a mother with two young daughters of about 3 and 5, who articulated and projected very well. I resigned myself to an hour of purgatory. Instead I got an hour of heaven.

You are a mother on your own, with two girls, on a much delayed train to London which is packed. The three of you are sharing two seats. They are tired and a little fractious. It's a recipe for short tempers and peremptory orders and threats and...

No. I was privileged to listen (although not watch) from the seat in front. Mother responded with patience and courtesy to whatever the girls came up with, including burps. She played games to settle them (Let's see who can keep their eyes closed for longest) and when that didn't work she had other games for them (counting and reading, but more important, engaging and fun) and she responded to them with patience and encouragement. And clearly with love and pride--as well she might, because these little girls may well conquer the world.

I considered saying something to her as I left the train, but one of the girls was just settling down to sleep and I couldn't think of how to say anything which would not come across as patronising. So in the unlikely scenario that she or someone who knows her reads this, my thanks for more than making up for the delays caused by a fire on a freight train at Bletchley.

Not that she will care less; she has much more important concerns.

15 August 2008

On kidding ourselves

I'm really not sure what to make of this fascinating presentation. How does this relate to cognitive dissonance? What does it say about student choice?

04 August 2008

On essential reading

The link is to the Learning and Skills Network site where you can download Frank Coffield's excellent new polemical pamphlet; Coffield F (2008) Just suppose teaching and learning became the first priority London; Learning and Skills Network.

It's free, it's only 75 pages, it is well argued and meticulously referenced and even sometimes very funny. There is no excuse not to read it. Moreover, it is addressed principally to college management teams, so there is no excuse for them not to read it, either.

Post-compulsory education is stricken with the ideological hegemony of a crude instrumentalist approach to training and skills. All that means is that much of its practice goes unquestioned, and indeed that people are so immersed in current practices and assumptions that to question them would seem silly, rather like asking whether good health is a good thing.

Coffield above all shows that such questioning is very far from silly; as such this pamphlet could become the curriculum spine of a whole DTLLS course, and as such it would make much more sense than the dog's breakfast LLUK has produced.

He is well-known for co-authoring a report on Learning Styles in 2004. He notes that despite that report, even in 2006 support materials published by LSN (the same body which publishes this pamphlet);

...still blithely maintain[s] in the face of the evidence we presented that 'this does not mean that it is no longer relevant to consider learning styles' (Jones, 2007:).

How more explicit could we have been? Let me try harder this time. There is no scientific justification for teaching or learning strategies based on VAKT and tutors should stop using learning style instruments based on them. There is no theory of VAKT from which to draw any implications for practice. It should be a dead parrot. It should have ceased to function.

(Coffield 2008: 32. Emphases in original.)
However, if you really must use a learning styles questionnaire, he has devised a new one on page 65; Coffield's Learning or Teaching Styles questionnaire (CLOTS)

02 August 2008

On "Can't read, Can't Write"

This fascinating but in some respects quite misleading series is bound to be much used for teaching purposes in the coming year, particularly on DTLLS and similar courses.

Here are some more detailed notes which might help tutors to find useful (and less useful) sections for discussion.

28 July 2008

On evaluation, a US perspective

This is about "assessing" teaching, which means evaluating it in UK terms. I've linked to it because it raises a number of questions about the similarities and differences in approach between educational cultures in the US and the UK. They are much freer from external regulation; indeed from our perspective it not always clear just what guarantees consistency of standards between and within institutions. (But they seem to do all right without it...)

But to cite Socrates and eros as the alternative model? Not even Coffield's latest pamphlet (of which more later) would adopt that rhetoric.

13 July 2008

On Threshold Concepts "in the wild"

The link is to a paper Renee Meyers and I presented at the Threshold Concepts; from theory to practice conference in Kingston Ontario, in June. Peter Hadfield contributed to the research and writing but was not able to attend to present, unfortunately. It's fairly self-explanatory (it also explains why this blog has been quiet for a few weeks!) but comments will be welcome.

12 July 2008

On advertising styles and teaching styles

On "Thinking Allowed" this week, there was a discussion of advertising, which included the question of differing US and British approaches. In the US, a contributor argued, an agency is expected to sell hard, and full on; it would never be allowed to get away with the British approach, which relies on humour and is frequently quite oblique and sometimes downright obscure.

The typology works in relation to teaching, too. There is pressure from curriculum authorities and validating bodies and assessment regimes to get the message across full on. Spell it out! Simplify! Use technology (even when it can't add anything)! The FE system, and increasingly HE is dominated by this simplistic approach.

My own preference of course is for indirect teaching, rather more like the British approach to advertising. Of course it is not as obvious when it is working, and sadly, increasingly students used to the "US" model find it difficult to relate to. So perhaps it is appropriate that I am retiring.

But I was interested to come across a ten-year-old book this week which—from the kind of critical perspective of ten years ago, but also from the USA—explored quite comprehensibly the nature of the teaching and learning encounter, and how and why the "US model" inhibits learning rather than encourages it.

Ellsworth E (1997) Teaching Positions; difference, pedagogy and the power of address Columbia; Teachers' College Press.

21 June 2008

On threshold concepts

I am writing this in Kingston, Ontario, on the evening after the conclusion of a very successful symposium on threshold concepts (for which I can claim no credit at all; I was merely a participant, but thanks are due in particular to Caroline Baillie and her team at Queen's University for a great event).

As academic conferences go, this was a small event, with about 90 participants from a range of countries, institutions and disciplines. Threshold Concepts (TCs) is/are still something of a niche market, but attracting more attention all the time. What are they? See here for my introductory take and useful links at the bottom of the page.

There were many fascinating papers, but here is not the place to attempt a report; if and when that becomes available, I will post the link. But, reflecting more broadly:

Why are TCs gaining attention and popularity? Strangely, the view was expressed several times that although theoretically elegant and practically very useful, their virtue (in the classical sense--one of the sessions I attended this morning was by a classicist) resides in what they represent to academics. This was articulated particularly convincingly by Mick Flanagan of UCL, who is an electrical engineer; and there were many engineers present, which is not usual for a teaching and learning focused event. Mick explained how the pedagogy of engineering has almost stalled over the past decades, and (I exaggerate his more nuanced account) how academics--particularly by implication hard-nosed practical engineers--resent educational/faculty developers descending on the them and telling them how to do their jobs. Proponents of threshold concepts do not come across in that patronising way. They acknowledge subject or disciplinary expertise, and simply want to encourage and support teachers in those disciplines to discover the threshold concepts in the discipline and to find ways teaching and assessing them. The model necessarily implies partnership, acknowledging the precedence of subject expertise.

But! Critical to the emerging corpus of theory and indeed speculation about threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge is the notion of "liminality". What's that? Good question.
  • Formally, it derives from the work of anthropologist Victor Turner (1967; The Ritual Process sorry I can't reference the publisher, but I am away from base...) He coined it--roughly--to describe the transitional position of participants in rites of passage and initiations, when they are moving between their previous status and their new one, venturing tentatively into the unknown. It's a good framework.

  • Practically, it is gloriously fuzzy and confused... How do I know? Because of the very unusual concluding plenary. (Actually, it is unusual now, but it was more familiar in the '70s. But that is another story.) We met in an almost circular room with bays around it each containing a table and chairs. Each table had on it several lumps of plasticine (play-dough) and some plastic utensils, and the ad hoc group which gathered around each table was instructed to use those to model, literally, their conception(s) of liminality. The sharing process after that was well done but does not matter for present purposes. I did lots of this kind of stuff thirty years ago, and approached the exercise with resentment, and did not contribute much although I learned a lot from watching and listening; so my apologies to the rest of the group.

  • The picture/image/impression/... which emerged was unmanageably rich. Get that word right; it's not "unimaginable"--far from it--but "unmanageable". And probably irreducible.
But some common features were (and here I anticipate Caroline's more detailed account based on photos and reporting back);
  • Unpredictability
  • Sensations of confusion and disorientation---
  • ---which cannot be short-cut
All of which is fascinating to me, because it has been my stock in trade for decades. But I had thought it was confined to distinctively "difficult" areas of learning. Here, there were engineers and economists (I suspect the best represented disciplinary groups) and classicists and historians and... all admitting to the same phenomenon in their students' experience.

What is the main message here? (I was tempted to say "threshold concept", but I forebore. There is a cloud on the horizon the size of someone's hand. What counts as a threshold concept? There were some papers which took a very tight view, demanding that all the published criteria be satisfied, and some which seems to accept that anything students find difficult is a TC; articulating the boundaries may be the next task for the next symposium in Sydney 2010)

The main message, I submit, is to question the view of (pardon the cliche) the "learning journey" implicit in the discourse of instructional technology.

Enough! Scripsi totum da mihi potum.

29 May 2008

On priorities in HE

It's not that this says anything new, 0f course, just that it says it again, today.

More sophisticated is this piece by Alan Ryan in the THE.

22 May 2008

On reflection on TV

I am gobsmacked. I don't know where to start, This film deserves a book on its own... and it is clearly an instant classic. (I'm assuming that all the complex ethical issues have been addressed.)

So, to invert the usual pattern, here are my reservations/complaints...
  • where are the girls?
  • the perspective is all hub and spoke: staff and child. Child-child does not figure; although bullying and imitation are doubtless as important as in ordinary schools.
  • and the routines? Mealtimes, bedtimes, getting up? They feature in the background, but only insofar as they are arenas for conflict or comfort, and
  • of course, the treatment of the outside world is hopeless. You couldn't presumably use anything without waivers? More later.
  • and for once I comment with some (limited) authority/background knowledge so I am not taking it all at face value. The producers clearly decided against voiceover explanations; it was a swings and roundabouts call...
The Mulberry Bush has been the epitome of therapeutic child care for half a century or more. It has, I think as an outsider who has never visited, been through several phases of development. As with so many initiatives , it was the vision of a charismatic founder--Barbara Dockar-Drysdale. Amazingly, unlike the Homer Lanes and the George Lywards, it has survived its founder and taken its own wing. In the process it has become more pragmatic, less ideologically Kleinian and perhaps more humble...

But this film is much more hard-headed. It shows that the "emotionally and behaviourally disturbed" label does not mean "mildly upset and stroppy"; it is about children emerging from the extremes of abuse. And it shows just what is involved for the staff. The title is exactly right; it really is about holding and letting go, literally and metaphorically. And, given that those staff are real live human beings who find it difficult---see them choose the constructive and therapeutic response in the face of extreme provocation, from moment to moment---and respect it.

Thirty years ago now, I was privileged to work with students who were already serving staff at other similar institutions, usually for older children, and those who worked in the unsung "bog-standard" local authority sector. I supposedly taught them something on the basis of my academic credentials, and on the whole they were kind to me in listening to my irrelevant drivel. Much more important for me was the experience of visiting them on practical placement. OK, they had a standard "defence" ----"What do you expect me to do when the whole set-up is crap?" (As indeed it was, much of the time, for good reasons which have nothing to do with this blog...) Beyond that, their expertise; their social skills, their empathy, their emotional intelligence (if we have to call it that) their second to second decision-making about how to respond most constructively to an instance of bullying, bad news from home, sheer stroppiness, being haunted by memories of abuse, not liking cabbage--was and is amazing.

And this film, beneath the surface, is about all that.

More generally, I am aware that I probably saw more in that film than the average naive viewer.

What does that imply for its use in teaching? Discuss....

On surfing in class

Since I don't teach young undergrads any more, is the situation described now common in UK classrooms too?

21 May 2008

On analytical thinking

The CIA does not have a brilliant practical record, but from what I have read, this text is an accessible introduction to analytical thinking.

16 May 2008

On the intelligence of crows

If you have read my page on Gestalt learning, you may have seen the amazing case of Betty the Crow. She features again in this longer clip, courtesy of TED.com:

05 May 2008

On an (or the) educational myth

The author of this article is Charles Murray, one of the authors of the famous or notorious 1995 book on IQ, "The Bell Curve". That text was fashionably vilified, although it was by no means as reactionary as often depicted. In this article he takes on what he calls "educational romanticism", particularly as enshrined in the No Child Left Behind Act (2002) in the USA; it is broadly the belief and policy framework which aims at every child being above average.

Think about that phrase! It is a mathematical impossibility, let alone a practical one.

As I wrote a little while ago, the UK is playing a very similar game; and it is time to give up and let educational institutions loose to do what they are good at (if they can remember).

30 April 2008

On meltdown

The reductio ad absurdum of the loss of academic trust.

23 April 2008

On primary sources of chaos

Nowadays, even respectable writing often relies on secondary sources. One of the most-cited ideas of the current period is that the flapping of a butterfly's/humming-bird's/mosquito's wing in Peru/Brazil/Panama (it's usually South America) can cause a hurricane/typhoon/tornado/flood in the US/Russia/wherever.

Click on the heading link for the primary source, from Ed Lorenz (1917-2008), and get the answers right next time you use it.

But thanks too for the secondary source which put me on to this (the full link will break the layout).

On gloriously silly evidence of education

A classicist's commentary on Doctor Who (12 April 08); but read the comments! Hint; scroll to the bottom and read them chronologically, id est upwards.

08 April 2008

On dyslexia and the structure of language and learning

The linked article reports on neurological research on dyslexia among English and Chinese speakers, suggesting that its manifestations in brain activity are quite different.

That's not unexpected, given that the structure of alphabetic writing and that using Chinese idiographs (apologies if I got that term wrong) is so radically different. Chinese readers have to remember the shape of thousands of characters; alphabetic readers need to remember only about forty standard phonemes and a few wild variations (such as the notorious "-ough"), even in English.

Much of the work on cultural differences in approaches to learning, such as that of Biggs (1996)* comments on Chinese students' ability to (apparently) learn by rote, and their (apparent) adoption of surface learning approaches; but it goes on to suggest that this is deceptive. My own conversations with Chinese academics suggest that they do not recognise this account; indeed, the deep/surface distinction seems less than helpful to them.

Speculating wildly, but someone may even now be taking this up— might the difference in approach have little to do with "Confucian heritage", but more with orthography? Indeed, may both the Confucian heritage (do read Karen Armstrong's wonderful The Great Transformation [2007]) and the approach to learning stem from the "brain-training" associated with learning vast numbers of discrete items?
  • Indeed (do excuse me, I feel a geekish episode coming on; feel free to stop reading) Nakamura (1964)** suggests that Chinese thought tends towards the concrete (rather than speculative or spiritual), which might perhaps reflect their ability to handle large numbers of discrete items in working memory at a time...?
However, does this pose questions not only for teaching and assessment methods but also the construction of curricula for Chinese students (given their ever-greater importance in both the HE and FE sectors)?***

*Search for [Biggs "confucian heritage" student learning] for a range of useful references
** Nakamura H (1964) Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples (tr. P Wiener) Honolulu; University of Hawaii Press [I knew I'd be able to cite that some day; it's earned its continuing place on my shelf!]
*** I'm not going down a Sapir/Whorf line on linguistic determinism, but the Chinese record on human rights, at home, in Tibet, and by neglect in Africa is very grim. It's just a little too tempting to speculate and generalise too much and sail close to the racist wind, though.

On personal preferences in learning

Not "learning styles"! That idea is useless and counter-productive, but nonetheless people do have preferences about how they learn best.

And the material on my sites certainly appeals to some of them; I'm lucky enough receive a handful of emails most days from readers who have taken the trouble to say they have found them useful. Some of them compare my work favourably with other material, not infrequently "official" material from a college or university. It's flattering, but in the interests of dispassionate evaluation it needs to be approached critically. Here's how I responded to one such email today—
"How nice of you to get in touch! Feedback like yours is always encouraging, and much appreciated.

But don't be too hard on [the university]! There's a lesson in all this...
  • You turned to my page after wrestling with their material. It's quite possible that had they not laid the foundations you would not have been able to make sense of it with the help of my page.

  • And quite possibly you looked at a few other pages before settling on mine; it just so happened that my approach clicked with you, just as I'm sure it fails to do with lots of other people who never tell me about it.
It has always been thus in teaching!

02 April 2008

On e-tailoring (emperors, for the use of)

Excuse the cryptic title. The link is to Phil Beadle's stimulating column in Tuesday's Education Guardian. He discusses the current obsession with "e-learning" in education, in very sceptical terms.

Education is periodically swamped by waves of fads, which (usually) retreat leaving only a little damage. We are hearing a little less about "learning styles" nowadays, "accelerated learning" has passed by, but "inclusivity" is breaking all over the shore (it's made all the more potent because few people know what it is, and it appears to have no downside—until you try practising it, of course, and see what it does to all the students who are not "special"...)

But few of these illusory panaceas have been embraced as enthusiastically as e-learning, partly of course because it is a very profitable business. Beadle points out how in schools it introduces a layer of mediation between pupil and the topic of learning; instead of learning how to produce silk-screen prints, he points out, children are encouraged to simulate Warhol's effects on a computer. Calculators came in twenty or more years ago, and mental arithmetic had to be re-introduced as a specific disciplines because the mediating technology substituted for the mental skill. Richard Sennett points out that computers in architecture, for example, can actively militate against the development of craft skills.

I used to argue against e-learning on the grounds that the technology placed an accessibility barrier between the learner and the material; until the computer interface was transparent and taken for granted, it would be very difficult to engage with the material. The ubiquity of computers is such that nowadays such a consideration does not apply for most university students, although it may well matter for older learners. However, when e-learning substitutes for rich direct experience, it cannot but deliver an impoverished version; it needs to be relegated only to those areas where it unequivocally adds to the overall experience as nothing else can.

01 April 2008

On seeing

The "next blog" link at the top of most Blogger pages is horribly addictive. There is an option to turn it off, but it really irritates me to find a site which has done that, so I can't do it myself.

I gave in to the urge this evening, and came across this page. It's not really that remarkable, I suppose. But I see these pictures of rather mundane objects (particularly the toilet roll) and wonder at the gift this photographer has to frame and select this stuff to produce two or three stunning images a day. I carry a camera at all times, but I don't see what this person sees.

How do people learn that? (I don't buy that "innate talent" fudge; people get better at this kind of thing so they must be learning...) And how does one teach it? (Oodles of supportive but honest critical feedback is a sine qua non I know, but what else?)

27 March 2008

On books and blogs (roughly)

You may have noticed that the blog has had a re-design. Frankly, I managed to break the previous template with a tweak too far, so I had to choose another but then I couldn't resist messing with it a bit...

So, being self-referential, that coincides with a message from a correspondent enquiring whether I have written or am going to write, the book of the site. I get such emails every other week or so, which is gratifying, but I usually respond very briefly; "No!" or words to that effect. Perhaps because I have been working on (grandiose term! I have been messing about with...) the re-design, on this occasion I decided to explain myself a little. And the more I got into it, the more interesting the issue became. (And of course, now I have a ready-made explanation to refer other correspondents to in future.)
I hear [an author my correspondent mentioned rather unflatteringly] is doing well out of his books and his consultancy; good for him and others (some of them friends of mine) in the same business. But in business terms his "offering" is really rather different from mine. People pay up-front for his expertise. Either they buy books (or more likely, libraries buy books), or they engage him for staff development sessions and pay for it. They do this because they have reasonable expectations of the quality of what he will offer, and he doubtless takes considerable care to deliver to meet those expectations. It's a traditional model, and it does tend to lead to slightly staid and conventional material.

The web is an entirely different medium; it is far more casual. People only have to click on a link to come to my site, and they can leave just as easily. They can glance at a page for six seconds (I read that somewhere, but this is not a topic I reference punctiliously); if it is not what they are looking for they can move on at no cost.

I get over a million unique visitors a year (as you may know, web hosting companies provide incredibly detailed statistics). But over a quarter of those visitors (28% at the latest count) only look at one page; presumably they then decide it is not for them and they move on. I get appreciative notes from people like you who stick around—and many thanks for them—but all I know about the others is that they did not stick around, because visiting a web-page is not like picking up (still less, buying) a book.

And for me that means that I can mess about a bit. I'm not constrained by much of a contract with the reader, and certainly no financial one. I can do my "heterodoxy" stuff, without taking it too seriously; see http://www.doceo.co.uk/heterodoxy/index.htm I can crack jokes, and if some people don't like them and move on, that is no big deal. I can take risks.

I could of course even misrepresent ideas and be sloppy or biassed or unfair about the material, and that is the risk you as a reader take if you decide to trust me. Even Wikipedia is monitored by editors; personal sites aren't. There is no peer review process, and no quality assurance mechanisms. (Actually, I did take the first steps to setting up an "advisory committee" in 2005. Several of the people I approached pointed out it was a bad idea—the Unique Selling Point of the "brand" was my distinctive voice. Of course they may just have been trying to get out of serving on it...) Certainly, no-one should trust just my site.

There is also another, quite different reason for choosing this medium. It is what accounts for its appearance in the first place: and although books can manage it quite well, readers rarely make use of the facility;

Hyperlinks, and non-linear reading. About half of the present material on the "learning" side of the site started life in the form of handouts in the mid-90s. I used to give handouts to support lectures. But they were only about one topic—the topic of the lecture. And it frustrated me that my students, even Master's level students, were not making the connections between the topics. They were not fitting individual ideas into a coherent (or even incoherent—even better) whole. I was impressed by how the "Help" files of various packages used hyperlinks to help create such connections, and I found a package which would build such .hlp files from word-processor files. So I distributed these things on floppy discs... Eventually, web access came along and I put them up there. (Fortunately before VLEs, or the whole thing might have got stuck in that dead-end, but that's another story...) But the hyperlink is critical; it enables readers to construct their own mental image of the topic, rather than being dragged along by an author.
That's the rationale behind the web-sites. The blog is different again.

The point, in terms of teaching? We use many media, and often treat them as interchangeable. They're not. Often the differences don't matter much, but sometimes they do, and they go quite deep.

20 March 2008

On process and fluidity

(The link relates to the programme of 20 March 08, on Kierkegaard; there may be ways of retrieving it after 27 March, but you may have to root around for them!)

"In our time" today was about my old mate, Kierkegaard. The gloomy Dane. Not a barrel of laughs, most of the time. But nevertheless capable of being witty and playful on occasion. I did not understand that when I first read him, on the cusp of my twenties; but then I was never good at "framing" what I was reading, at that age. I took it all terribly seriously. Jane Austen was great literature and therefore "profound" and certainly not funny; no wonder I didn't enjoy her. Then.

To the point(s);
  • I've read a large proportion of Kierkegaard. I have read and still possess Kaufmann's definitive two-volume critical biography. I took a course on him. I've used his work even in the unpromising context of a manual on professional supervision in group care (Atherton, 1986). I've relished getting the allusions and jokes in David Lodge's Therapy (1995)...

  • But I may have missed his point. The contributors this morning suggested that K. used so many pseudonyms in his published work because there was no definitive K-ian position. Like his hero, Socrates, his point was in the process rather than the product; in the debate rather than the conclusion.
(This is where we begin an asymptotic approach to relevance to learning and teaching...)
  • Did I miss the point as an undergraduate because I was simply not intellectually mature enough to engage with these shifting points of view? Quite possibly; certainly Perry would suggest as much. (I'm working on my own page on Perry.)

  • So, is it reasonable to expect undergraduates to exhibit this required sophistication? This is a big deal. It may lead us to decide that there are some ideas we can't teach (to standard, school-leaver) undergraduates. If we do, they'll get them wrong. It's not their fault or their lack of intellectual capacity, they are just not ready for them, yet. This is the same argument as Loukes and others engaged in about children's capacity for religious understanding in the '60s.

  • I suspect (nay, know) that we frequently get this wrong. In a well-meaning attempt to steady a moving target, we attempt to render "that which is to be learned" as something static. Just as mathematics was almost incapable of dealing with moving (and certainly accelerating/decelerating) objects without the tools of calculus, we can't conceptualise the learning (still less, the teaching) of something which is perpetually changing.

  • We try to freeze it, so we can teach it. Flexible skills are reduced to standardised techniques. We don't teach languages for fluency, we teach for "getting by in routine situations--always assuming the native speaker responds in a standard fashion". We don't teach cookery, we teach recipes and isolated skills... We don't teach appreciation of literature, we teach either the pre-existent opinions of earlier critics, or standard "methods" (a.k.a. recipes) of analysing/deconstructing the "text". But there are qualitative leaps (almost like Kierkegaard's leaps between his "spheres of existence") between these levels of understanding.
  • Regrettably all of this is made almost obligatory by the rhetoric of "achievement" instantiated (I wondered whether I would ever manage to use that word! Look it up.) in—of all things—the funding formulae of further and higher education. It comes back to the goal displacement I discussed earlier.
Moral? Gooood question! It relates to Bateson's levels of learning, certainly, but also to a number of other issues... I'll return to the theme.

18 March 2008

On the return of rhetoric

It's not got much to do with the topic of this blog, but this must be a candidate for one of the great speeches of the decade, at least.

Even Andrew Sullivan agrees.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

13 March 2008

On goal displacement/mission drift in Further Education

On Tuesday the Guardian published a paid-for supplement for the Quality Improvement Agency for lifelong learning. Its front-page article, "Progress Report" includes this;
"This is the first year ever that in all types of providers--work-based learning, adult and community education and colleges--the failure rates are below 10%," says Andrew Thomson, the QIA's chief executive. "They are about 3 or 4% in the case of colleges. And success rates are the highest ever."

Success in further education is tightly defines as the percentage of people signing up for a course that finish having achieved all the requirements. The success rate across the sector in 2006/7, according to data just released, had risen to 77%.
The same edition of the paper's Education Supplement includes an article expressing concern at the standard of training received by early years child care staff. After discussing the alleged decline in standards embodied by the current NVQ2 and even NVQ3 qualifications in the field, the article concludes;

So, are training providers passing students who don't make the grade?

Davies words her answer carefully. "Naturally colleges want to get 100% pass rates, so some of the students who are coming through these courses are being very much supported. Which is good, of course, but it is very much in the college's best interests to support those students to pass."

Two points; "success" and "achievement" are now defined solely in terms of retention and qualifications, and there is no longer any necessary connection between those "qualifications" and actually knowing or being able to do something. Qualifications, which are proxies for capabilities, have become aims in their own right. This is something which disturbs teaching staff in all sectors.

Second, this does not just lead to a dumbing down of the qualification to the level where only 3-4% fail, it also leads to unrealistic coaching to get people through. That might not matter so much in areas where there is no expectation that the holder of a qualification will at the very least be a safe practitioner, but it is unacceptable when issuing what are effectively licences to practice.

More on this from a slightly different perspective here.