29 December 2009

On postponing pleasure

As we contemplate New Year's Resolutions... The link is about one it ought to be easy to keep; enjoy yourself--now! But it probably won't be.

The other side of the coin is a phone-in I heard this lunch-time while driving; it's full of wild generalisations and stereotyping as these things always are, but it addresses the question why the UK's children are among the most miserable in the developed world. One reason may be that they tend to be spoilt, and they are no longer taught "deferred gratification", or precisely that postponement of pleasure the NY Times article bemoans...

28 December 2009

On gifts

I know I am a difficult person to buy presents for, generally because there is rarely anything I want. Last year I managed to persuade family members to buy a goat or some other livestock on my behalf, for somewhere in the developing world, but they did not take to the idea again.

Money and tokens are last resorts. They send a message not only that "I give up on thinking what to get for you" but also "you are worth precisely £10, or whatever." At least with an actual object, the message of the financial value is mitigated by the thought, the empathic act of thinking what someone would enjoy receiving.

I rarely get this right, myself. For once I did this year, giving one grown-up son a mini-food-processor. He lives alone buthe is an enthusiastic cook. The next day he turned up extolling its virtues and accompanied by small bowls of dips and relishes all based on chopped raw brussels sprouts combined with a variety of oils, herbs, spices and other vegetables in a variety of exotic and very tasty combinations; he had spent the entire previous evening experimenting.

I received some presents yesterday, including two books from the "Humour" section of the bookshop, which it is unlikely that I shall ever read--the usual curmudgeonly rants about present-day life and culture which can be fun for a few pages if one's own prejudices coincide with those of the author, but which quickly pall. Giving books needs to take into account that they require the investment of time in reading them.

In the bookshop today I looked at the section they had come from, and I realised that practically all of that section, and the cookery books, and the celebrity memoirs at the very least, was taken up by books which are produced in order to be given, rather than read. And walking home I passed a new shop, which advertised its wares as "cards and gifts". Of course anything can be a gift (something else I received yesterday was two cans of kippers--but I do like kippers), but the suitability for "gifting" (and probably re-gifting and re-re-gifting for ever) has taken over from the intrinsic value of the object. Indeed in the case of many objects such as books, it is important that they not be used, and indeed that any packaging not be opened if they are to remain suitable gifts.

This is not new, of course. Bronislaw Malinowski documented the Kula Ring exchange among the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands in the South Pacific in "Argonauts of the Western Pacific" (1922) (see also here) in which the continual exchange of the same goods serves to structure and maintain social relations between the inhabitants of scattered islands.

Come to think of it, for many of us this pattern may make more sense that to concentrate on the utility of gifts...  It's one of those issues where process is more important than content.

See also Mauss M (1954) The Gift; forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies London; Routledge and Kegan Paul (preview available here)

24 December 2009

On Christmas

You can track Santa's progress over Christmas here (background feature here.)

Here's your seasonal Reading List 

Very best wishes for Christmas and 2010!

21 December 2009

On "Avatar" (no--I haven't seen it)

This link is about third-hand. And given that I have not seen the film, and may well not bother--I still haven't seen Titanic--why am I commenting? I haven't tracked back to the sources of the linked post either.

Partly because third-hand blog-posts with their accretion of comments are a cultural artefact in their own right...

But also because the quoted piece in the linked post struck a nerve with me.
    In the late 1960s and early 70s, I was involved with, and for a year lived in, a community house in Moss Side in Manchester. 
    (Google it and take your pick of the references: I've just discovered that the Hideaway youth club where I peripherally and ineffectually  volunteered booked a band called the CrossBeats in March 1967 just a couple of weeks before they played an obscure venue called the Cavern Club in Liverpool; they were booked by a certain Rose Drummond, who later married my housemate in 1970, Joe Burgess... and that was the first time I had heard of a mixed-race marriage, nine years before my own.) Wow, what you can turn up in a few moments!
Eventually, the house was compulsorily purchased and demolished, and (most of) us graduate do-gooders moved away to our middle-class destinies, basking in the moral and political glow of our transitory pretence of identification with "the disadvantaged". I spoke to a real resident of the area as we reviewed the project. He was very kind and appreciative about our well-meaning contributions to the area, but as best I can recall he said something to the effect that;
We do appreciate all you and your companions have done... but don't kid yourselves that you know what it is like to live in Moss Side, because you did it by choice. You have somewhere else to go, if you choose. We haven't.

On learning styles again

"The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated."
[Pashler H, McDaniel M, Rohrer D and Bjork R (2008) "Learning Styles; concepts and evidence" Psychological Science in the Public Interest vol. 9 no.3; available on-line at http://www.psychologicalscience.org/journals/pspi/PSPI_9_3.pdf accessed 21 December 2009]

The message is also getting out over the pond! Useful bibliography, too.

19 December 2009

On a new kind of university...

Overheard at coffee yesterday; the three aspects of an academic's job are research, teaching and administration. Traditionally, universities are regarded as research- or teaching-intensive. We are  breaking new ground as the world's first administration-intensive university.

17 December 2009

On a counsel of despair

Sean has done me the honour of a point-by-point rebuttal of some earlier points of mine; do read the linked post. He makes some very good points, and I don't think it's a good idea to get into an old-fashioned argument about them, but better to set them out before you and encourage anyone out there to respond to either or both of us.

Having said that :-)
  • My view of the both theoretical and practical impossibility of a universal model/template/method for teaching is not a counsel of despair; it's an invitation to relish a dance... Yes, I know it is task-focused and chemical engineering is hard (in several senses), but the dance is still there in the engagement and response with students' understanding (or failure to understand), and accumulating a body of practice wisdom about how to engage with both of those conditions. As Sean refers to his engineering expertise, I venture to suggest that it is not merely that teaching (and its admittedly patchy theory) does not live up to his positivist and pragmatic paradigm--but nor does his engineering practice, either (or that of any other expert).

  • And "2. Why do values and feelings matter in the context of engineering education?" You go with the "engineering is value-free" line here. I do not disagree, but the point relates to the human encounter which is  critical to teaching and learning, rather than the subject matter. Learning always involves feelings; boredom, fascination, frustration, achievement... and many more. They are not the prerogative of soft, humanistic topics. "I just can't get my head around these equations!" is an expression of feelings, and how a teahcer engages with it--ridicule failure and humiliate to motivate, or take the problem seriously and explore where the blockages are--are expressions of values in teaching. And so is the cost-benefit analysis a teacher engages in when deciding how much time to spend on helping an obtuse student versus getting through the syllabus. Values are not something we impose on our practice; they are implicit in it whether we acknowledge them or not.
Come on in, the water's fine! And the exercise will do you good!

16 December 2009

On presents to lay down...

This season, I have two great-nieces and a great nephew, as well as a step-granddaughter. The latter is no problem or indeed challenge in respect of presents; she is old enough to write a list, and we are close enough to her to respond directly (which is not, for the record, giving her exactly what she asks for).

But being at one remove offers opportunities. To "lay down" gifts for future enjoyment. In times past it might have been the beginning of a wine cellar. A generation ago, I typically gave the current "Whitaker's Almanack" as a record of the year of a child's birth, and perhaps as the foundation of a library.

Things have moved on. In particular, the net has largely marginalised that kind of contemporary/historical record. (What it cannot overtake, of course, are the casual, routine values/prejudices which are embodied in the reporting of the day, but the blogosphere more than makes up for that.

Last year, Gombrich's wonderful "A Little History of the World" had just been published in English, about 80-odd years late. It's too old for the children now, of course, but it will be there for them when they are ready. Any ideas about this year's equivalent?

10 December 2009

On getting published

I don't generally have a high opinion of what passes for scholarly literature in the education journals, although it is mostly unread and therefore in Douglas Adams' words "generally harmless". But when I read the linked abstract in what appears to be a respectable medical journal (at least, one listed on PubMed) I get worried.

Hat-tip to the National Center for Biomedical Information's ROFL blog (stands for Rolling On the Floor Laughing in txt-spk) for the link--and something of an explanation, here.

On evidence-based practice

In his blog (starting I think with this post) Brian Elsner is exploring the direct application of Marzano's principles of effective teaching based on his meta-analysis. Well worth following.

If you've no idea what all this is about, see here for a general orientation.

09 December 2009

On elegance

That's Design.

08 December 2009

On an ingenious approach to marking assignments

Steve Hill of Southampton Solent University has been experimenting with Camtasia, a screen recording package which also takes audio, as a means of recording his spoken comments on students' work, which he can then send to them.
Students submit assignments electronically using our Moodle-based VLE. I then get a student’s Word file on screen and edit it, whilst simultaneously giving a live commentary on the changes that I’m making. This is like giving a student their own personal tutorial.
Sounds like an excellent idea!

05 December 2009

On asserting "interestingness"

An epiphany while watching QI. An inviolable rule for teachers; never tell your class/audience "this is really interesting" before expounding on something.

It's a great example of two levels of communication at odds; a variation on the double-bind. If you have to tell them it is interesting, it isn't. Many years ago, a friend of mine was much given to this mistake, and it is only now that I realise that although some of what he said was indeed interesting, this "paradoxical operator" (hey--that's a good phrase--you read it here first) was always heard as the opposite, "Get ready for some boring stuff incoming!"

It is however OK to seek confirmation afterwards.

Isn't that interesting?

04 December 2009

On revisiting stuff

I had lunch today with a friend, who to my amazement was not familiar with TED talks. So although I have posted the link before, a couple of years ago I think, here's a taster... (But I do wish he didn't laugh at his own jokes.)

02 December 2009

On insisting on belief

Uncannily, this links to the previous post.

It appears that there is a resurgence of Political Correctness on some US campuses, and the linked article is getting hot under the collar about curriculum changes at the University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development.

A campaigning group called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education claims;
"If the Race, Culture, Class, and Gender Task Group achieves its stated goals, the result will be political and ideological screening of applicants, remedial re-education for those with the 'wrong' views and values, [and] withholding of degrees from those upon whom the university's political re-education efforts proved ineffective."
My reading of the University's web presence is that the above is a gross over-statement, but I don't want to get into that fray.

There's another take on the story here.

Instead, I do want to engage with the very fraught question, in some professional education programmes, of the assessment of student values.
  • these are often represented by beliefs --in the sense of assent to propositions--as just-about-assessable proxies for underlying value-commitments. 
(I'm currently reading Armstrong, 2009; one of her major arguments is the distinction between two senses of "belief", which I had hitherto believed originated with Buber but she shows has a much more venerable provenance, between pistis [crudely "commitment"] and emunah ["assent"]. She argues that the ascendancy of the latter sense is an Enlightenment phenomenon.)

Values are at the lowest level commitments to tolerating some inconvenience or hassle to act in a certain way. By extension, lack of preparedness to tolerate the hassle suggests that an opposing value may be inferred. (This framework I concede is very simplistic, but stick with me.)

Action is the gold standard by which values may be assessed. "Espousal" (Argyris and Schon, 1978) is not enough. But action demands an opportunity to act, and happily --and appropriately-- most practice opportunities in professional education programmes do not expose students to those demands.

So we are forced back on proxies; simulations and case-studies. These suffer from problems at both ends of the explicit-implicit spectrum.
  • Practitioners tend to favour explicit scenarios. "What would you do if...?"
    • Of course, this signals fairly clearly what you are supposed to do, which is usually not a matter of exposing one's values so much as one's familiarity with institutional procedures (when in doubt, ask the boss).

  • Teachers favour more subtle cases where there is an ethical/professional problem lurking in a seemingly innocuous case. (Confession: I really enjoy devising these.) But the convolutions of building the scenario may be so byzantine that we lose touch with reality.

    • [I once built a fantastic scenario around an obsessed persecuting ex-partner to pose questions --OK, legal rather than ethical-- for a class, only to be demolished by a participant who pointed out that the legal dispute was a civil rather than criminal matter and so all the subsequent argument was moot...  At last I may have found a way to recover some worth from those moments of utter humiliation.] 
Several years ago, one of our external examiners (for the social work course on which I then taught) observed in the meeting of the examination board that although it was clear that the students had been taught "anti-racist and anti-discriminatory practice" on the course, they did not make any use of their learning in their assessed work. [He had a vested interest, incidentally, having at the time recently written a book on the subject... I'm sure that this had nothing to do with his remarks.]

Indeed they didn't. Frankly they had more sense. They saw through the whole charade, as an exercise in compliance by their pusillanimous tutors. They had indeed learned from all the teaching, but they had learned simply how to play the game and profess assent to the hegemonic creed. They knew very well, in short, that what you say and what you do are quite different things. As does every grown-up person.

Yes, the values you practise are utterly critical to your work. But the last thing you want is to train people to be hypocrites. I have major reservations about the Minnesota programme, but as befits this blog they are principally about its educational assumptions rather than its political aspirations.

Oh, and if you are not craft-competent as a teacher, everything else goes out of the window.

But the argument has drifted a little, from the principle to the practice.
  • I'm training Anglican ordinands (hypothetically). It is (or used to be; I don't claim to be up to date on this) part of the contract that in order to be ordained they had to profess assent to the 39 articles of faith of that church. The requirement is notoriously much fudged, but it is clear and up-front and, critically, relevant. Presumably, if you don't want to sign up, you don't want the role...

  • I'm equally hypothetically selecting a candidate for a political party. They will have to be seen to espouse the part manifesto if the party is to endorse them; but it is as much the party's choice as theirs... And do they have to believe/accept the manifesto? Or just keep their reservations to themselves?

  • I'm training and of course assessing student social workers (not entirely hypothetical--I did actually do that for a couple of decades. See the point above about the external examiner's remarks.) It clearly matters what they do, but what they believe...? The PC argument is that "going through the motions in compliance with departmental requirements" is not enough. Only the practitioner who has taken to heart the transformational insights of anti-racism (see here) can proactively detect institutional discrimination before the formal procedures pick it up (let's leave aside the unfortunate side-issue that unwillingness to confront the cultural practices of minority groups has almost certainly lead to the deaths of a number of children and the suffering of many more--not to mention vulnerable adults...).
I can see the point of the Minnesota initiative. Indeed, some of the material which informed this paper was clearly coming from a similar base. But is it legitimate?

30 November 2009

On the further reaches of political correctness

via and thanks to; NCBI ROFL 

So you can now be critiqued on what you failed to say about a topic not germane to your subject? Brilliant! Not only is my discussion of Vygotsky to be dismissed because he worked in Soviet Russia, and I omitted to comment explicitly on how nasty that regime was, particularly under Stalin... I can live with that (although not the fact that a single student out of several hundred thought that he had the right to claim a hundred-plus hours of academic time to conclude that he had no case...) ...but by extension I can be condemned for everything else I did not mention.

Warning; the following is in danger of becoming practical ...

OK, it's easy to make fun of this academic/political zealotry, but there is a well-established way out, called a disclaimer.
I know that this raises issues of racism/climate change/vivisection etc. but there is no space to do justice to them here/ I need to concentrate on/ ... so I regretfully (or is that OTT for an academic piece?) have to leave those aside.
No guarantees of course. But it acknowledges the implications while setting them aside, and forestalls much criticism of assessed work. It doesn't work for peer-reviewed stuff, as I know all too well, and why I write a blog rather than highly-esteemed scholarly articles, read of course by no-one.

And that's my story...

26 November 2009

On a new think-tank and refreshing ideas

 I don't usual do direct political comment, but for once...

Philip Blond was on the Today programme this morning, talking about his new think-tank. He's coming from the Right, and Cameron is a fan, but some of his ideas must resonate with those of us for whom "New" (a.k.a. Old and Tired) Labout has run out of steam, and of road.

In particular he talked about the sheer cost to public services of regulation, inspection, bureaucracy and the compliance culture. He talked about restoring trust in services and professionals, and a new understanding of accountability. As anyone who has read some of my recent posts will know, that is a cause close to my heart.

He was less convincing the more specific he got (devolving community restoration budgets to the residents of sink estates is fraught with practical difficulties), but of course the outfit is only just starting up. So watch their space.

25 November 2009

On inspection overload

The link is to Frank Coffield writing in the TES about Ofsted's "Common Inspection Framework" for Further Education. Thanks to Peter H for showing it to me.

Interestingly enough, the Daily Mail has a front page lead today on how one in three schools is "failing to provide adequate teaching" according to Ofsted. A major problem seems to be that lessons are boring and uninspiring. It is of course just possible that it is the leaden hand of inspection which leads to that problem... Ofsted is part of the problem, not the solution.

Incidentally, the Mail arrives at the "one in three" figure from the finding that;
"Teaching in 2 per cent of schools - about 400 - was rated 'inadequate'. It was merely satisfactory in a further 28 per cent."
In Orwellian Ofsted Newspeak, "satisfactory" means "unsatisfactory"

24 November 2009

On being called into question

Literata (who is undertaking a PGCE [PCE] specialising in adult literacy) comments in her on-line reflective journal;
This course is making me feel strangely de-skilled in many ways. I've delivered management training, talks, seminars, workshops and creative writing classes for many years; [...] feedback has always been good and I've always thought that I can get information over to people and relate well to an audience/class. Now I feel like I don't know how to do it right any more at all; that my natural style has been compromised and I may be too old a dog to learn new tricks successfully.
And she goes on...
And yet I'm not impressed with the administration of the course nor the modelling of how to run a satisfactory course for students (...). The teaching of our two main tutors has been excellent, but the surrounding admin and support pretty useless.
She is pointing to a much neglected but very important aspect of in-service learning: its emotional impact. This is not a "touchy-feely" point--it's unavoidable.

I first noticed it thirty-five years ago, teaching on an in-service qualifying course for social workers. It hasn't changed, with experienced students.
(Nowadays it is routine to assume that people will decide on a career, commit to it, invest time and indeed money in training for it, and then go on and do it... Sounds logical, but what if the reality of practice is not what you thought it would be? In those days many practitioners in social work and indeed in teaching in adult education were not formally qualified at all, and if they sought an accredited qualification they did so only after deciding that this was a career for them, so they came to the course with several years' experience.)
Until the week before the course started, they had been working as more or less respected professionals. The default assumption by their colleagues and bosses had been that they knew what they were doing, until proven otherwise.

Then they became "students" and the world turned upside down. Now the onus was on them to demonstrate their competence from an assumed base of incompetence. For them, the experience of learning and progression was subordinate to that of assessment and judgement--and calling into question the skills and practice wisdom they had acquired so painfully in the real world.

No wonder they felt (and their counterparts today still feel) de-skilled. And when the official line about how to teach declares that your previous practice was crap, because it did not tick some fashionable box, you will go through a trough of morale. And as you lose confidence so you lose competence...
(Sometimes of course students' practice really has not met even basic standards, however conceived, but generally this is clear even to a lay observer. There is no getting round that has to be addressed and unless the student improves, they should fail).
The point?

We can't make such troughs go away.  We can re-assure students that they are normal and it is also normal to re-emerge with enhanced confidence. Indeed--in accordance with all the anthropological literature on rites of passage*--it is the preparedness to enter the trough/valley which is the prerequisite of change.

But you can only provide realistic re-assurance if you can demonstrate credibility and competence at personal, professional and institutional levels. The first two are under a degree of personal control (leaving aside some Taylorite middle-manager who decides arbitrarily to re-shuffle all the teaching half-way through the term), the latter frustratingly less so.
And the bureaucrats--nothing personal of course--have no idea of the impact of their systems on student learning until the problem becomes extreme enough for someone to complain:
  • This student has had the bailiffs call round for alleged non-payment of fees, which should have been met by the local authority, not her.
  • This student is half-way through the second year of the course and still does not have a registration number, so she can't access the VLE or the library.
  • This student has passed all his modules to date but he doesn't exist on the system so they can't be credited (but his fees have been debited...)

People are more likely to tolerate the risks and uncertainty of change if they have confidence in the course structure and administration. If they don't, they are likely to back off and go for surface learning or give up. That's why I am a little obsessional about such things as the quality of handbooks, and frustrated by administrative staff (particularly senior administrative staff) who have no idea how easily their cock-ups can undermine learning. Not to mention that it tends to be the academics, who are the public face of the institution, who tend to get blamed.

*  OK, my knowledge starts with van Gennep (1909) and it does conclude with La Fontaine (1986) but it does seem unanimous to that point.

There's more around this from a lightly different angle here. And the final remarks owe something to this paper.

20 November 2009

On framing and classical conditioning

I wrote a few days ago about our diabetic dog. He has to have his insulin shot twice a day, and he objects, understandably.

So what has learning theory got to say about this? It seems to be the province of behaviourism, since the subject is a dog, but even so it is a nice exercise to work back from experience via theory to strategy for the future.
  • After an initial couple of days when I crept up on him as he was eating and managed to jab him without him noticing, he noticed. In particular he felt the initial pinch and wriggled out of the way, which led to some mis-jabs which had to be repeated to unload the full dose--not a happy experience for either of us.

  • That meant eventually that I had to get a muzzle for him. I did so with regret, of course, and wondering whether this would simply lead to fear/aggression displacement so that the muzzle would become associated with the discomfort to follow. Strangely enough it hasn't. Yet.

  • I'm the one who wields the needle. (At the moment only, I hope...) Theory suggests that my presence will be associated with pain/discomfort and Rupert (yes, I know he ought to be a bear, but we haven't enough room for one--and indeed the prospect of pumping a bear full of insulin twice a day...) will go off me. On the other hand, we've been together for almost thirteen years, so there is positive prior learning to overcome.

  • And I have built one treat (a specific kind of savoury dog candy) into his daily food budget, so that he gets a small portion of that after each jab.

  • In the past couple of weeks we have settled into something of a routine. He accepts the muzzle. He growls and wriggles as I pinch him (to find a pocket into which to inject) and then--two times out of three--does not bother as I inject. On the third occasion he may squeal (no association with a particular site noted; all the sites are around the neck area where his skin is loosest) or wriggle hard, to the extent occasionally of bending the needle or requiring a second attempt.

  • Immediately afterwards I remove the muzzle and give him his treat, at which point his tail is wagging and he goes off to eat the treat.
What is he learning? It's a superficially simple situation but nevertheless very complex. So just two thoughts...
  • Apart from the practical aspect of muzzling him, just what message is he getting from the framing of the event with the muzzle and the treat? If he were a child, I'd be hoping he would construct it as a transitory ritual, which may be momentarily uncomfortable but always ends well--"A spoonful of sugar* helps the medicine go down.."

  • The actual act of injecting him takes less than five seconds, so the "creep-up while distracted" technique might well work again. But would that lead to him learning to be aware of a threat at all times, particularly perhaps when eating?
(*  Sugar is of course problematic in this case!)

As I wrote this, it was time to do it again. No problem with the muzzle; a second's delay after the pinch, and then a growl and wriggle with the jab to the extent of bending the needle and pulling it out... For the first time it took three tries to inject the prescribed dose.


19 November 2009

On the Charter for Compassion

This blog is, in the words of the strapline, "mainly about learning and teaching", and so I don't often draw direct attention to my own beliefs and values. I prefer to pose questions in that area rather than plug answers, although it is not hard to discover from my sites where I am "coming from". For once that cliched phrase is appropriate; I come from a fairly conservative evangelical Christian background. But that is not where I live, as it were. I am an apostate, a "back-slider", in a fascinated state of flux...
That makes it quite ironic that I am cited here in a blog post which represents with amazing precision everything I reject in religiosity, in its expression as well as its content!
A few weeks ago I answered the door to a Jehovah's Witness.

(I should say that I have enormous respect for the commitment and faith (pistis) of JW's. My great-aunt was one. And they have displayed faithfulness under persecution all over the world, not least under Nazism. And they keep coming, despite us slamming the door in their faces. I've experienced quite a lot of that, in both religious and political contexts, and it hursts more than one might think...)

Nevertheless they are "not even wrong", in my book. [Take the rant as read; for once this post is too serious to enjoy cheap shots.]  I can't remember the exact question they asked on the doorstep, but I shall try to do so in future, because their opening questions are actually Socratic in process, if actually meaningless in content. (That is not a cheap shot, it's an observation; and they are framed that way for a purpose. Teachers can learn a lot from them, and despite --or perhaps because of-- eschewing higher education, they do have some very good psychologists working for them.)

Whatever the question, I replied to my own surprise (that's the mark of good Socratic questioning), "Religion is among the highest achievements of the human spirit." (The others of course are science and art. No, not politics.)

And as Karen Armstrong has explored, despite its grotesque distortions which have led to intolerance and persecution and frightened  shit-scared authoritarianism, religious thinking (pace Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris et al) has led from many starting points, to the Golden Rule.
Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you
(Not, actually, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" Why? Think about it.)

The really subversive bit of this, of course, is the demand that one stand in the place of the other, in order to make a decision.

Armstrong wants to make this the basis of a Charter for Compassion, across the world.

Through the auspices of TED, it was launched last week, inviting people to sign up and affirm  it alongside the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sheikh Ali Gomaa.

The net is known for its vast numbers and surging enthusiasms.

At the time of writing fewer than 18,000 people have signed up.

It's a question, not an answer.

16 November 2009

On the nature of "health"

Our dog has recently been diagnosed with diabetes. Dogs only get Type 1 diabetes, which results in a complete shut-down of the capacity to produce insulin naturally, and means that he has to receive it by injection. Actually this is famiiar territory for us; out first Westie, William, was diagnosed at the age of eight and died of largely unrelated causes at 13. Rupert, the current Westie member of the family, is almost 13; but of course we ask ourselves whether we have created a diabetes-inducing life-style for our dogs. A.k.a. too many treats?  Frankly, thirteen is not a bad span for a dog, so we're not feeling too guilty about that.

But this does focus some questions about the nature of health. Things have moved on since William's day, twenty years ago, and I'm not sure that they have moved forwards. It may be worth making the point that William's vet for most of his diabetic career was himself a Type 1 diabetic--or it may not.

Principally they have moved on in terms of the prescriptivism of treatment. Then, I used to take William out for a walk in the morning, carrying a ladle, which I learned deftly to slip under him to catch a urine sample at the opportune moment. (He, of course, learned rapidly to delay his first pee as long as possible because I would drag him back home immediately afterwards because not only of our tight morning schedule with three children to get to school but also of the need to have a fresh sample...) I would dip a test strip for a second, wait for a minute, check the colour of the test area, and decide-- a bit up or a bit down or no change. I'd charge the syringe, and jab him (William was much more docile about that than Rupert, who needs a muzzle now--perhaps because I have lost some skill in the intervening 15 years...).

Today the vet tells me that urine testing is not accurate enough. Indeed the packet of test strips agrees that their accuracy is plus or minus 75%; I hope that does not mean that they can be three-quarters wrong in either direction--which is an overall potential 150% error!

She needs to have Rupert regularly for a "glucose curve" assessment, all day. OK, it's £50 a time, but we have insurance so that is not the point. Once a month or so? Last time, we adjusted day by day. (And the control conditions on the first visit were abysmal; we supplied Rupert's usual food, but he was stressed and wouldn't eat, so they fed him chicken instead...)

We did buy a remarkably cheap blood test kit, but that is another invasive procedure for Rupert.

He needs a regulated diet, and regulated exercise, and no extraneous treats... He has been prescribed a dry diet dog food (for which, incidentally, the directions are appalling) which he ignores in the face of his hunger.

Human health care stumbles along informed by Quality Adjusted Life Years as a guide, from which many recoil as a mechanistic approach to the valuation of experience. Animal health care has no taboo against euthanasia, and indeed we have had a previous dog (odd expression) clinically killed. But because it is simply a matter for the "owner" to sign a form and pay a fee, we have no guidance about the quality of life of a dog.

Rupert's not having as much fun as he used to, but he doesn't appear to be in any distress, and he is as capable as ever of bossing us about, so he'll just have to put up with those jabs twice a day.

The World Health Organization has a definition of "health", but I'm not linking to it. You can't handle this with reference to a dictionary.

11 November 2009

On a drop of water...

This is extraordinary and yet repeated billions of time a day. Sometimes science is just beautiful!

Thanks to 3 quarksdaily

09 November 2009

On teachers' admin workload

A brief but thorough summary of the bureaucratic workload which besets primary school teachers in particular--and we though we had it bad in post-compulsory education... From Mark Berthelemy's blog.

As ever, what does this say about the way in which teaching "professionalism" is regarded by the powers that be?

On the other hand, is that "professional" label earned?

08 November 2009

On community (whatever that is) adult education...

P. and I had a pleasant day at a graduation event at an associate college, although I don't think I shall go again, and I'm not sure the event itself will survive. It's billed as a "Celebration" (a.k.a. PR exercise) of the HE achievement of the college students; it can't be a graduation as such because that is the prerogative of the universities themselves.

In the days of B. College, which was a "community" college in the real sense, it made sense. We processed from the old Victorian primary school which had been converted into a college annexe, through the main shopping centre, parting the populace doing their Saturday shopping*, to the parish church, which was where the ceremony was held. The church was full, and at the buffet lunch afterwards, everyone seemed to be no more than one or two links away from knowing everyone else.

(*  At our "real" graduation a week or two ago, I heard a toddler ask his mother as we passed by in procession, "Why are all those people wearing those funny clothes?" She replied, "It's to show how clever they are." I don't know how the rest of the conversation went...)

Now two colleges have amalgamated, and the ceremony has moved into the city centre. And all indoors. Apart from a few odd graduates and indeed faculty standing outside the hall for a quick smoke, there was no public visibility at all. We robed up, chatted with other academic guests, formed into a procession and entered the hall to the usual organ voluntary, totally invisible to the city around us.

The hall was, as befits a meeting hall of a major city, too big. The attending graduates (perhaps 30% of those on the roster, but 60% for our course [!]) occupied little more than half of the central block of seats. Their families and friends were scattered in the surrounding arc of seats. It may be a distorted and subjective judgment based on the size of the space, but there seemed to be fewer graduates attending from the former two colleges than from the original one. One division had only two graduates to present out of the 20+ who were eligible.

And afterwards, we got not a substantial buffet lunch but tea/coffee and biscuits; I suspect the fallout of a trade-off of costs between the local parish church and a city-centre hall.

Afterwards, in the bar of the theatre next door, I had an interesting conversation with a college colleague who specialises in working with teachers of literacy skills. She reflected on recent government initiatives in basic skills (or--latest jargon--"functional" skills. Why am I suddenly struck with this urge to explore or even teach "dysfunctional skills"?)

She argued that while there was clear evidence that improving the teaching skills of literacy tutors has been effective over the past few years, it was not making much (or indeed any) difference to their target populations of disenfranchised and alienated people. Observing the practice of her students has taken her into seriously deprived areas of the city, and she implied (I don't want to put words into her mouth) that the issues were not about teaching skills, but about the encounter between bottom-up and top-down culture.

As I think about it, I would go further. The Moser report (1999) identified the basic skills problem affecting up to a quarter of the adult population of the UK [figures which have since been questioned, I must add]. From it arose one of the most obvious and downright stupid social engineering initiatives of recent times. Basic skills (literacy and numeracy--ESOL and later ICT are less significant) for adults were not being adequately addressed because many of the those teaching them were not sufficiently "qualified". [OK--I am short-cutting a lot of stuff here, I know...]

Many of those "insufficiently qualified" teachers were volunteers, recruited through earlier government initiatives. Indeed, they may not have been teaching perfect grammar, but;
  •  Many volunteers simply gave up (at least officially); they were offering something for nothing and suddenly they were being told they had to do this training and that assessment, in order to continue to do something for nothing... Ugh? (There is a clear and present danger that the same will happen to voluntary and informal work with children because of the "Safeguarding Children" provisions coming into force...)
  • there is evidence (sorry, this will take a long time to resolve and I'm not going there) that learners work better with teachers who are just a little ahead of themselves rather than stratospherically so. (See Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 1986 for the basic argument, and add a dash of Vygotsky for flavour.)

  • They were not "professionalised"; they were not identified with "schooling", at which these adult learners had by definition failed and from which many had been actively excluded. They may even have been (and some still are where neighbour helps out neighbour outside any formal scheme) the "organic intellectuals" identified by Gramsci.
Once more the obsession with direct, professional, technical fixes has failed to engage with the messiness of the real world, I fear.

06 November 2009

On getting to grips with academic writing

In case you should want to write like an academic (can't think why you should, but perhaps you are a student or wannabe professor), try this cheat facility from the University of Chicago writing program.

More seriously, if you want to polish your written style, see how they clean up a sentence every week, with wit and humour thrown in.

04 November 2009

On attaining "senior citizenship"

A.k.a. passing an arbitrary date --my 65th birthday. Yesterday, actually, but I had better things to do rather than mark it.

I am just laying down a marker here. I have no idea of the significance of this... whatever it is. The threshold does of course confer certain statutory benefits, such as a state pension, but most of the other benefits on the "health"-care fronts etc. were conferred at 60 to ensure equality (with women).

03 November 2009

On Levi-Strauss

I have no idea what to say. His death should be marked, but whether or not it is significant in any given discourse I don't know. I read much of his output and understood very little of it. I think that was the point.

02 November 2009

On the reality of research practice

"Research Confidential" is an edited volume of papers by young researchers with the subtitle, "Solutions to Problems Most Social Scientists Pretend They Never Have", and hence ought to be on the reading-list for every Research Methods course. The text-books rarely engage with the hassles and practical hold-ups which often seem to take up more time in the course of a research project than the substantive material itself.

The institutions which insist on approval by two separate ethics committees for a student simply to pilot the phrasing of questionnaire items on a few colleagues. The important interviewee who goes on holiday and can't be reached within the time-scale of the project. Even the critical book which has gone missing from the library. The choice of the wrong significance test. The misunderstood instructions on a questionnaire rubric. Chasing up non-responses to the extent of creating active refusals to respond. Not realising the recorder batteries have run down, or how much vibration the microphone has picked up from the vacuum cleaner in the room next door. Nonsense results because you trusted SPSS to deliver the goods without ever checking what it was actually doing. As well, of course, as being stumped by the definitive study in the area published just as you get round to the first draft of your own.

I'm not sure whether these and many more are covered, but they are the reality, and unless Research Methods courses engage with them, they portray a false picture of the researcher's experience. Indeed, the sheer existence of such a book, acknowledging the hidden cock-ups, is an important recognition that practice is always messier than theory, and that you shouldn't believe anyone who maintains otherwise.

01 November 2009

On "no pain, no gain"

According to this link, which focuses on skills rather than knowledge learning, the learning process itself is likely to be experienced as stressful and even negative, but the aftermath is more than worth it. The article says this is "Contrary to previous research" but does not cite that research. I would have thought that it came into the category of "bleeding obvious", personally...

31 October 2009

On a trick or treat?

For All Hallows' Eve.

On evaluation via twitter

You can also read the comments from New Scientist's reporting here.

The basic idea is that Twitter can be used by students to give feedback on lectures in real time, without any special classroom technology, such as clickers. I can see the attraction, but it necessarily entails students using laptops on-line in the class, and that must be distracting, even for the famed multi-tasking millennial students.

Dedicated as I am to keeping things simple, I'd still go for the old primary-coloured cards; their signalling is not as rich, and it is more teacher-centred, but they can easily add enough two-way communication to make the lecture an interactive experience.

See also:

30 October 2009

On taking my name in vain...

I'm semi-retired, and I have a little discretionary time. So I use Google Reader to aggregate updates from a range of blogs and sites of interest. Indeed, you may well be reading this via such a portal.

But of course I need to filter all this potential information. Among many other filters I include my own name, principally to find who is picking up on this blog (actually not a great strategy because my name as such appears rarely in these posts).

I share my name with several great photographers of the past and present. That's interesting because in my adolescence I aspired to be a professional photographer, but had to recognise that I lacked the "eye" to detect a picture in the blooming buzzing confusion of real experience... It's fun to come across their galleries.

I also share my name with a pastor of an evangelical church in Lexington, Kentucky, who posted the link about All Hallows' Eve, with which--shall I say--I would not wish to be associated.

And as well as being a fictional character in Arachnophobia, I am credited here (in real life to the best of my knowledge) with advocating the oral consumption of fresh human sperm for its protein value.

No wonder I'm mixed up!

27 October 2009

On the world upside down--again

The link is to a blog about a conference; "Workshop on the Impacts of Pen based Technology in Education". Naively I thought we knew most of what there is to know about the use of pens in education; granted they only really superseded slates (oh! perhaps that is what they mean by "tablets") and styluses in primary schools early in the last century, but if you count quills, they have been around in schools for hundreds of years...

20 October 2009

On inert knowledge

Two recent incidents;
  • A correspondent asked me where the "S.M.A.R.T." acronym came from. I didn't know, and that irritates me so I started to look. I still don't know the answer (suggestions welcome), although the sterling work of Mike Morrison demonstrates how hard these things are to trace. However, that is not the direct point of this post.

    My investigations naturally took me back to my shelf-full of teaching textbooks, and their chapters on objectives. And since I was looking for something other than what they were intentionally about, I saw them through different eyes, through a different frame of reference.

    And I found a lot of needlessly complicated distinctions without differences (frankly, I still hardly know the difference between a product and a process objective--and still less why it matters, or any evidence that it makes any difference in the real world) which serve no other purpose than to create "inert knowledge"* to be rote learned and tested as a proxy for practical proficiency which is so much more difficult to capture.

  • And a couple of days ago I did a brief session on referencing (podcast version here) in which I tried hard to stick with the principles and to play down the arbitrary elaborations of the rules. One student saw through this and asked why there were so many variants. I explained it in terms of the petty power of journals to dictate their own citation styles.

    "These people ought to get a life!" she declared. I replied, "They think they have."

    I'm not mentioning this merely because it is a rare example of me aspiring to an approximation to repartee, but because it illustrates what happens to fairly straightforward ideas when they get elaborated by those who have a vested interest in making them seem as complicated (or profound, as possible--after all, it's the same thing, isn't it? Isn't it?). 
Those of us who trade in such ideas and rules start to be absorbed in them and to take them out of context, so that we forget that the test of their value is their utility for practice, and start to believe that they matter in themselves. Then, if we aspire to some significance in the community of practice, we start to inflict them on the less well established members. And for them, entry to that inner circle comes to depend on their ability to say the right (indeed, precisely and dogmatically correct) things--with little attention paid to their capacity to practice.

Alongside this, the actual knowledge itself, which probably started out as being quite useful, is rendered inert and dogmatic.(See Peddiwell, 1939)

This is certainly the case in teaching, where the allocation of hours on teacher education courses no longer exhibits even the most tenuous connection with the significance or utility of what is being taught (and the practice of teaching modelled by the teacher trainers is not always up to the effective standard.)

But it has also become the case in relation to written expression--see this blog post on the deadening effect of arbitrary rules such as;
...The first paragraph of this essay contained five sentences, some run-on. The second paragraph of this essay was made up of only one sentence. It is my understanding that in many American High schools, this concise, accurate, and very clear one sentence paragraph would not be allowed in any student wiring (in English class or Science class) because it breaks a rule. The rule is that a paragraph has five or more sentences. WTF?.

I find this rule to be profoundly disturbing. [...] it does symbolize much of what is wrong about our system of education in general. This rule solves a problem (students not thinking enough about what they are writing) and in the process ruins the teaching of good communication. Similar arbitrary and capricious rule making plagues each area of our educational system.
There are various ways in which one might profitably "reflect" on this, from spluttering exasperation to a consideration of how it illustrates the perverse consequences of a "restrictive solution"... but all of them are likely to lead to the conclusion that the supposed "knowledge base" of a discipline has totally lost touch with practice.

I've touched on this before, from a slightly different angle (here).

There are a few more stages to this argument, but a blog post is not an article so I'll return to them later....

* Perkins D (2006) "Constructivism and troublesome knowledge" in J H F Meyer  and R Land (eds.) Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge London; Routledge.

16 October 2009

On knowing best

The substance of this is not my main territory, but the process interests me.

The Cambridge Review of Primary Education has just been published. "The most comprehensive enquiry into English primary education for 40 years" (i.e. since Plowden). It took three years, involved 28 major surveys and 31 interim reports and runs to 608 pages. It's not an op-ed piece in a newspaper.

The Department for Curtains and Soft Furnishings (DCSF) rejected it out of hand on the day of publication. Oh, and so did the Tories. There's no point in saying anything more, is there?

12 October 2009

On evaluating the one-off lecture

OK, it happened, and indirect feeedback via a colleague who could not attend but who spoke to people after the event was that it had been well-received, even remarked on as a "proper academic lecture" (not sure whether or not that is a compliment!)

There are of course standard procedures for evaluation, including the usual feedback sheets and the like. Such procedures are unsurprisingly not routine on this course, and it didn't seem appropriate to introduce them--after all, this was from the students' point of view just another session in a regular timetable. It was my decision to get all self-conscious about it.

So just a few remarks on practical aspects, and then a more general thought.
  • time-keeping and pacing is always tricky the first time around; I seem to have got it pretty well right, though.
  • The presentation? You can see it via the link on yesterday's post, but the version there has been annotated and expanded. I don't like too much content on the slides, and I tried to use them as headings to show the students where we were. That was OK with a heading like "fashions and fads", but not really satisfactory when I talked ever so briefly about a particular theorist; I was using slides cannibalised from another lecture including images which may not have been the very best choices. 
  • Delivery? A guy at the back said he couldn't hear me in the first few seconds. I thanked him and talked louder, but I didn't continue to check--which I could have done very easily with the traffic-light cards all the audience had. Specifically everyone had a red, a yellow and a green A5 card, with which they could signal answers to questions, like "If you have never heard of Skinner, show a red card. If you've heard of him but don't know much about his ideas, show yellow. If you know quite a bit about him show green..." It's clickers-lite, but a lot easier to manage spontaneously.
  • As to use of the cards; they were appreciated and commented on afterwards, and they are so easy to use. No downside, if you sort out the logistics of distribution. As ever, it is not merely the technical advantage they confer above a simple show of hands which makes the difference--it is what the very fact of issuing them and using them says about the kind of interaction the lecturer wants within the session. They send a message--"I want you to be able to communicate back to me".
  • And as for that great bug-bear of the lecture, attention-span, that little bit of activity every few minutes seemed to get the students re-engaged. Visual clues suggested they were still with me at the end of the session.
  • The two-minute buzz-group exercise came almost exactly half-way through; frankly it was as much about breaking the session up as it was about content, but some of the ideas were interesting enough to weave into the rest of the session. It also gave me a chance to nip out and buy an extortionately priced bottle of water--why no water-coolers?
More generally, though; did the session achieve its objective of providing an orientation to learning theories so students can engage with them on a fairly deep level? As ever, I think the argument was clearer to me than it was to them, and I perpetrated the sin I have been trying not to commit for years and years (and which I can avoid as a part of regular teaching); I elaborate arguments in the hope of making them clearer, but in practice I am obscuring and burying them in a mass of marginally relevant detail. Once I get into the swing of a lecture I can always think of more stuff to pile in. When it is something I do regularly, I can prune it and filter it so that what gets said is what needs to be said and no more, but I'm still not good at that on a one-off basis.

And is a lecture, at this stage in their programme, the appropriate means of communicating such a message? Probably not, but given the constraints it was a reasonable strategy to choose.

One comment my colleague heard was that I had rubbished some current fads, or even sacred cows. Indeed I had, and I now wonder whether or not I should have done. After all there was a team of about a dozen other colleagues attending, most of whom I don't know, and I may well have stepped clumsily on a few people's toes. I'm pretty sure the students enjoyed it, but that's not the point. Had I had more notice I could and should have circulated some of the proposed content in advance for comment; who knows, perhaps one of those colleagues will have to deliver a session next week advocating learning styles! An interesting and open question about the responsibilities one has to the rest of the team...

Still, I have to admit that I enjoyed myself thoroughly; not something to be aimed for, but a good spin-off if it happens.

11 October 2009

On the web-page from the one-off lecture

I'll get round to evaluating that lecture some time soon, but just to fill out the content, here's the resource page to support it.

On doing a "one-off" (written 8 10 09)

I have been asked to step in to do a single one-hour lecture to about 200 Secondary PGCE students tomorrow on "Major Theories of Learning", for reasons which don't matter. So I thought it might help concentrate my mind, and give some hostages to fortune (this is before the event, and I'll post afterwards, too), if I "talked through" some of my thoughts with whoever is out there.

In what follows, it is not my intention to be critical of the programme or of colleagues working on it. It is in the nature of the situation that I have a very limited view of the factors which went into its design. But it is a challenge, just as it would be for someone else making a similar emergency contribution to a programme I had designed.

Beyond my control/above my pay grade (basic VL contract): If you are outside the UK, the PGCE (I won't expand the initials--there is a big argument with policy implications over what they stand for!) is the basic qualification for graduates who wish to become teachers and acquire Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) in schools. (Yes, there are lots of other teachers who do not work in schools, but that is another story...) It is a full-time one-year course, which consists of 80% teaching practice in a school supported/assessed by a mentor, and 20% = one day a week in the university. In the unlikely event that you want to know more go here. This is, I think, the end of week three of the initial study block.

The programme concerned has, I am told, just this one lecture on learning theories. It is followed by a seminar, granted, but the topic of that has been decided already. It is based on the "Simple Minds" video, which is a very stimulating polemic (some parts of it are used here), but since I was not involved in the original planning, I am not sure what connection was being made between the lecture and the seminar.

The details of learning theory will be dealt with by practice-based mentors as they arise, I am told. If this happens, it is in my view the best way of dealing with the material. It will be anchored in experience and practice and responding to students' questions. I'm not sure in practice that mentors and students always have enough space to stand back from actual teaching and consider the underlying principles. But let's assume that it works.

So! The one and only explicit hour in the year which addresses the body of learning theory (we'll assume that it is confined to taught learning in young human beings.) How should I make the most of the opportunity?

I have a copy of last year's presentation, but the lecturer is not identified so I can't check anything out with her or him. But she (probably) was helpfully explicit about her Aims and the Session Outline (again, we clearly differ about tactics, but this was a well-crafted lecture. Come to think of it, why could she not have just repeated it this year?*). She identified the Aims of the session as;
  • To consider some of the major theories that try to account for how learning happens 
  • To explore how learning theories may help us to understand issues related to learning 
  • To think about the implications of these ideas for our work as teachers
That makes good sense. But it is Teacher-think. Precisely, of course, what this course sets out to endow on its graduates, and to which I shall appeal a little later, which is rather ironic.

I read through the presentation, trying to wear my hypothetical recent-graduate-teacher-trainee-to-whom-all this-education-stuff-is-rather-bewildering head. I got a headache from the hammer blows of bullet points telling me what I ought to know about learning theories. Unless I know this, I won't be able to be an effective teacher...

Apart from the self-evident fact that this is egregious bullsh*t (don't you think that the asterisk is overworked?), that is only self-evident to 40-year denizens of the swamp like me...
Isn't this putting the cart before the horse? I've just been in correspondence with a student elsewhere who has been very critical, in public (a mistake) about one of his lecturers, who clearly knows a lot about teaching, but has not connected that with how s/he does it.

I think I have to go for the "thinking-like-a-teacher" orientation. This of course buys into all the Threshold Concepts stuff I have been exploring for the past year or two...

But reality obtrudes. It's after 9 pm and I have to prepare the session for real rather than pontificate about it....

*  Does all this agonising about teaching actually matter? Does it make any difference? Wouldn't we do better relying on the Pareto principle?

10 October 2009

On approaches to teaching

Teaching is an applied discipline. So is engineering. To what extent can the discipline of engineering be applied to the theory and practice of teaching? This is an old question, but I'm enjoying engaging in a dialogue with a clearly accomplished and thoughtful engineer who has been teaching for some time, but has finally grasped the nettle of undertaking a PGCE/DTLLS, and has been less than impressed with what the course has had to offer...

Click on the link--read both on, and back, and do comment both here and on Sean's blog.

03 October 2009

On an "outstanding" lesson

I've just been channel-hopping and came across Teachers' TV. It was citing an example of an "outstanding" lesson on elementary geometry for, I guess, 9-year-olds. "Outstanding" is Ofsted's term, by the way.

Not only was the lesson poorly constructed, but just under the surface it was teaching rubbish...

  1. The teacher gave several instructions but then qualified them with, "but before that, you need to..."

  2. She put up a small text slide outlining the lesson objectives. Why? This is teacher-speak, which means nothing to learners, who have no interest in framing stuff this way. Basically, in order to make sense of this kind of specification of steps towards a goal (if that is actually a good metaphor) you need to be able to stand outside the experience, to see the map of the journey; and of course very few learners can do that. Indeed, probably none of them... not even postgrads. So all this "explanation" does is to confuse further.

  3. Most egregiously though, it reproduced precisely the offence I experienced at the same age. I can remember the class vividly. It was the first half of a Friday afternoon, just before Art or the Story which wound down the week, probably in the Spring of 1953 or thereabouts.

    We were given exactly the same exercise as the pupils in the programme. Construct a triangle (actually, these pupils had the triangles drawn and cut out for them), then use a protractor to measure the angles, and add them up to arrive at the magic total of 180 degrees.
Except that they didn't! As I recall, my total was about 183 degrees, and the girl next to me got 178 degrees. Neither our understanding nor the teacher's (OK--to confuse the issue but to explain much else, this was the bizarre year when my mother was also my class teacher) could cope with "margins of error". So there was a meta-learning in this lesson:

The theory and received wisdom is correct. If your experience differs, it is wrong. 

It was repeated many times afterwards, in practically every "science" lesson in particular throughout my schooling. To be fair, it wasn't surprising in those days. I was in secondary school in the late '50s when budgets were very tight, and the improvisation of equipment was taken for granted. 

But things have changed; we are no longer constrained by limited facilities (at this level). And while I and my peers understood at some level that our practicals were just playing at science, children today are accustomed to something more definitive.

I don't want to get hyperbolic, but forget "objectives" and aspirations, and get down to more realistic "takeaways" including the unintended ones.

About twenty years or more ago, there was a late night Open University programme on "Professional Judgement". [See; Dowie J and Elstein A (eds) (1988) Professional Judgement; a reader in clinical decision making Cambridge; Cambridge U P] It was fascinating, and I am amazed now to find out how old it is, but the relevant point is that at the end of each programme, there was space given to --as I remember-- an academic from the LSE, to critique the assumptions and the methodology of the preceding argument.

That's the way to promote sound development of practice, not facile and fiddled "demonstrations" of what "ought" to have happened.

24 September 2009

On a different way of conceptualising a curriculum

From D G Myers "Commonplace Blog";

A local private school has asked me to help revise and standardize the English curriculum. By the time its students graduate and head off to college, they should know, in my opinion, at least these core terms, arranged under three headings:


Allegory, Comedy, Drama, Elegy, Epic, Fiction, Lyric, Melodrama, Novel, Poetry, Satire, Sonnet, Short story, Tragedy

Formal components and structural devices:

Character, Couplet, Imagery, Meter, Monologue, Plot, Point of view (First-person Omniscient Unreliable narrator), Prose, Rhyme, Setting, Stanza, Stream of consciousness, Symbol, Theme and motif, Verse, Blank verse, Free verse,    Iambic verse

Elements of style:

Alliteration, Cliché, Conceit, Connotation and denotation, Diction, Irony, Metaphor, Onomatopoeia, Personification, Tone, Wit

The accomplished student ought to progress from definition to recognition of literary examples and finally to application of the terms in criticism.
 I've reformatted the list, but otherwise that is the whole thing. Is it idiosyncratic? Just one scholar's way of distilling the essential of his discipline? Or is this kind of list routine? It's certainly alien to British experience although I do note that it is a private school, and "local" presumably mean "in Texas".

But how would you feel if confronted by that list--or its equivalent in your own discipline--as a curriculum? Free? Lacking boundaries? Heaving a sigh of relief? Bewildered?

I note that despite all of this being (potentially) about literature, it is totally non-prescriptive about literature itself...

On a complete(d) site revision

At long last I have finished the current revision of the site (apart from some pages which are completely past revisability and which I shall now re-write.) So I think all the links work, but please let me know of any which don't, and tell me what ought to be there but isn't.

21 September 2009

On OHTs and other aspects of recent history

OverHead Transparencies/acetates/viewfoils...

From a blog reporting on a current cosmology and philosophy conference;
2:00: We kick off the afternoon with Sir Roger Penrose talking about entropy issues for cosmology. Penrose has enough clout that they have brought out the overhead projector so he can show his famous hand-drawn slides.
And well might they be famous! Do that in PowerPoint! (Yeah, I know you could scan them in, but it's not the same...)

It's just another reminder of rapid change. "University Challenge" this evening seemed to be characterised by many questions which I could answer without thinking, but the student teams could only guess at because they were just beyond their Ken (geddit? If you do, you are almost as old as me). What was the next in order?
"penny, threepence, sixpence, shilling, florin..."
 A farthing, guessed one team. A crown, hazarded the other. (It's a half-crown, a.k.a. two-and-six in the prelapsarian days before 15 February 1971) How could they not know that? Because they would not be born for fifteen years or so! But they did get Khruschev as the guy who banged his shoe on the podium at the UN.

The point? Embarrassingly I can't find the reference (if I do, I'll come back and edit the post). An academic in the States has published a warning list of allusions faculty might commonly make in lectures which will mean absolutely nothing to their students (except to show how out-of-date their professors are).

16 September 2009

On putting paltry talent contests to shame...

Indeed, Ukraine has got talent!

(Thanks to 3quarksdaily for putting me on to this.)

On cloning Dan Brown

Not only are the novels formulaic (although great fun), but this piece from Slate has the formula and allows you to write one yourself!

15 September 2009

On learning from listening (to the weather forecast)

Listeners to the BBC Radio 4 news programme "PM" have been complaining that no matter how hard they concentrate, they can't remember the content of sound-only weather forecasts. This has led to an interesting exchange on the programme blog, and the programme item itself is available to listen to at the linked page.

Why mention it? Partly because the weather forecast has probably been a feature of radio since the BBC started in 1922, 87 years ago. And they still have not got it right? Has no-one ever asked listeners or done a proper evaluation before now?

Or have listeners changed? Are they (we) less familiar now with taking in information solely by ear? Practically all information is presented by multiple channels nowadays, with interactivity wherever possible. Most students attending university today have never before sat through an hour's verbal exposition of a topic (even if "enlivened" by PowerPoint(tm) slides. They don't listen to sermons any more. Few items on the radio last for more than two or three minutes, even on serious programmes like "Today" (or PM). (Anyone mentioning "learning styles" at this point will be summarily ejected!)

Some listeners have suggested that a pattern be adopted similar to that of the Shipping Forecast--namely announce the region first in a standard form e.g. "North-West England" and then a brief statement of the weather in a similarly standardised form, "showers at first, clearing later from West". The listener could then use the announcement of the region as a cue to pay attention because the bit which interests them would be coming up. Less information, but more useful. And even more boring for the poor people from the Met. Office who have to deliver it, (they are proper meteorologists and not announcers) and who like to "tell the story" of the weather.

It's a question of short-term memory, of course, but also a microcosmic version of the problem of conveying information and ideas through lecturing.

14 September 2009

On a New Year

In the world of education, it is a New Year. Last Friday evening we had the induction meeting for the incoming cohort of the PCE course. Thinking about this post and the academic cycle I decided to go back and see whether my thoughts have changed about this marker over the four years of this blog. There has been no direct university intake for the past two years, so I checked 2006, and then 2005. For some reason the September entries are blank.

So I can start from scratch with a few observations/reflections;
  •  We had real business to transact last evening. Students were signed up and they left carrying their university ID cards! What am I getting so excited about? We'll come back to it, but at the severely practical level, this year is the first time, after four years of trying, that the on-line registration system has worked and people have received their IDs at once. Many thanks to B. and her team who went out of their way to turn up on a Friday evening and make this a reality!

  • But there was another agenda, too. Uncertainty/anxiety/excitement... We don't think much about the emotional challenges faced by students signing up for courses, and the extent to which those feelings frame their experience of the induction/enrolment process. This is not an over-blown touchy-feely sensitivity issue... Most dropouts occur in the first six weeks, I gather (sorry, I'll take this on trust. It'll take too long to research properly, but it is consistent with other research on crises and adjustment periods). You could see it in some of our (potential) students on the cusp of committing; I mis-directed one who was looking for the finance office, and when she came back for further directions she was clearly on the edge of giving up. This year the emotional agenda was more apparent than ever before; changes in the funding procedure mean that students are expected not merely to produce a letter from their local authority confirming fees will be paid, but actually to produce a credit card or a (large) bunch of used fivers in order to proceed.

    Psychoanalysts apparently used to argue (perhaps the remaining members of that endangered species still do) that payment was a critical part of the therapeutic relationship. It means, quite literally, that you value the therapy, and ensures that you will do your share to make sure it works. Without being so explicit, I am sure that "alternative therapists" and assorted charlatans also make use of the same principle. It's largely a matter of managing cognitive dissonance.

    The course, as recognised teacher training, is still (almost) free. But now, instead of all the nasty financial business being handled behind the scenes, students have to apply for funding directly, and then pay for the course personally. It will be interesting to see whether this does lead to a "consumerist" or "entitlement" disposition on the part of students, as colleagues have claimed to detect among fee-paying undergraduates.

  • This level of (admittedly apparently minimal--we may be diverse, but we are still British after all) emotional arousal may account for an observation by a colleague. He is new to the university staff, but not new to the programme, having been a (very successful) Centre Leader at an associate college for several years. He noted that delays in receiving university ID cards had been serious bones of contention among associate college students for years, despite the fact that they had minimal practical significance.

    What is going on? First impressions. First impressions frame later experiences. For traditional undergraduates there is not much point in trying to manage those first impressions beyond trying to convey a sense of underlying order and competence, because everything is up in the air for them. They may be leaving home, ... you can complete the list.

    But for mature students, paradoxically, who are not changing their whole lives; for whom a course is going to be a regular additional hassle for a couple of years; the cost-benefit judgement is different...
Until a couple of years ago, all our students were volunteers. The qualification was not required as a condition of employment in mainstream post-compulsory education. Now it is. For a few years, until the previous conditions have been forgotten, there will be an undercurrent of resentment among a few of the students that they have to do the course. And that will affect the course group. It won't, after a few weeks and all being well, be a "problem", but it will always be there like a dormant infection which may erupt and disrupt normal acitivity in unpredictable ways.

That undercurrent is powerful as students approach the start of the course. In the past, if it became dominant they could easily say "Stuff this--I don't need it! I'm off!" and walk away.

That's no longer as easy an option. Their employers expect completion and qualification, and the university has debited their card!

They are looking to us for re-assurance that they are not simply stuck with two years of time-serving penance.

And it may not be sufficient, but it is necessary. Re-assure them with competence. Administration staff rarely appreciate how much students' learning is framed by the emotional container of their efficient and friendly procedures.

Our admin. colleagues delivered brilliantly last Friday. They will probably never know, but they have probably set the tone for the entire run of the course here at the university. "Probably" because I'm not setting up a controlled trial...

13 September 2009

On Norman Borlaug RIP

Most people have never heard of him, but he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, and he has been credited with saving the lives of many millions of people in the developing world--more than any other person in history. He was 95.

On distrusting dogmatic forecasts

Another doubting voice about the unstoppability of e-learning.

10 September 2009

On turning right in my old age?

I have to concede that since I am sort-of retired and no longer have a full-time academic post (for which many thanks), I am marginal to discussions about course policy, etc. But...

The other day I was attending a committee concerning the part-time post-16 teacher education programme which has been a major reference point of my teaching for the past 13 years. I was there just to speak to a particular agenda item, but...

As is the way of such meetings, it got into a seemingly interminable discussion, in this case on whether or not there should be a (probably secret) fall-back date beyond a formal  deadline whch would give tutors discretion to accept work which (at the end of the summer vacation, mind) students had not managed to submit on time.

There were several minutes of this, with various tinkering amendments being proposed, and an emerging consensus that some accommodation did have to be made for those students who for no other reason than their ineptness, disorganisation and bone-idleness could not get their work in, lest they have to repeat a module at their own expense. (There are already perfectly fair procedures for a generous range of legitimate excuses.)

At last I couldn't stand it any more and butted in with, "This is supposed to be a course for grown-ups!" To which one tutor replied with feeling, "But they're not! They may have grown-up bodies but that's as far as it goes!" I muttered back that if you treat them like kids they will act like kids...

What was going on behind this exchange?
  • Regardless of the political/process issues behind my intervention, I was correct. The first of the explicit course values in the Handbook states:
...you, the students on this Programme, are competent adults, already acquainted with the field of work and study...
  • And that used to go without saying--up to a couple of years ago when the programme was still voluntary. Now it is obligatory, and my fellow-tutors teach it in college settings where their students (who are also their colleagues) are required to get the qualification as a condition of their probationary period.

    • So they are faced with with a great deal of management pressure to "whip" completion, for which trust to the maturity and self-discipline of the programme participants is not enough.
    • These pressures are explored in more detail in this paper, now published as Hadfield P and Atherton J (2009) “Beyond compliance: accountability assessment and anxiety, and curricular structures to help students engage with troublesome knowledge” in C Rust (ed.) (2009) Improving Student Learning 16; Improving student learning through the curriculum Oxford; Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, pp 158-170

  • So, or but, does this force a change in the course values? How should we balance pragmatism and principle? It's my belief that the course is not merely about attaining some specified "standard", (which is the term used by Lifelong Learning UK.) but about inculcating a commitment to self-motivated, self-authorised continuing improvement in practice based on... (it is so difficult to say all this without slipping into the devalued cliches of HR, or enormous pretentiousness.)

  • There's another example. One of the items at the meeting was a document proposing a structured approach to tutorial discussions, which some fellow-tutors believe is too tick-boxing, too hand-holding, even patronising, but which will be greeted with great enthusiasm by Ofsted--the outfit which inspects these courses (among too many other tasks .)
OK--but all that is just part of an important but routine debate about how much standardisation both ensures minimum standards but militates against the achievement of excellence, isn't it?

Yes and no. We could take this in the direction of a discussion of the virtues and vices of neo-liberal and conservative positions on social policy and intervention, which is clearer in the US rather than here (see the health care debate over there).

But this is a more personal and more reflective blog. What does my reaction say about me? Have I changed? Am I just being a grumpy old man? (Sadly, Keith Waterhouse has just died. I could only aspire to the accolade of GOM had I his command of the language, honed over 60 years in the popular press...)

There is another side to this, which is about attitudes to failure, of all things.

The liberal (that is short-hand; this is "neo-liberalism". No-one admits to espousing it [just as no-one declares, "I'm a fascist!". Not the same thing of course.]) --the liberal approach is deeply uncomfortable with failure, because of its association with personal suffering, which is regarded as both bad and unproductive. The downside of liberalism is that removing "failure" from the discourse also removes "success"; if failure is not an option, or has no downside, "success" does not count for anything.

The conservative angle is more robust, and tends not only to accept failure but also to demand it as evidence of the legitimacy of the "contest". The fact that failure may be attributable to factors for which the person who suffers its consequences can in no way be held responsible such as ethnicity, gender, or economic recession may be ignored (until "bad things happen to good people [like us]" when someone else must be to blame...)

Although never a social worker, I spent 20 or so years training them. Social work (or at least its rhetoric--which is often conspicuously at variance with the views of experienced [or perhaps "burnt-out"] practitioners) is of course a great bastion of liberalism and the redemptive potential of everyone. However, yesterday's broadside by the director of a major children's charity, calling for more early adoptions suggests the possibility of a swing back towards conservatism...

I have to confess that pragmatically (rather than ideologically) I am becoming more conservative. I don't think that I see that efforts to "help" actually work, much of the time. What seems so obvious to people in government is much less clear to people on the ground. ...

As ever, I am rambling. This is my fourth attempt to finish this post, which testifies to the extent to which this issue of the meaning of personal responsibility underpins so many other perspectives, as well as the protean nature of the debate. I can't take the discussion any further at the moment; perhaps I can revisit it later when another case kicks my thinking further along.

03 September 2009

On diversity and science fiction

A fascinating, and for once an encouraging, argument. Neurodiversity is not merely accepted but welcomed--argues the author--in the realms of SF fandom.

Is it as simple as to argue that if your preferred reading and viewing involves BEMs (out-dated acronym, I suspect--Bug-Eyed Monsters) you are both more comfortable with them, and more able to empathise with those who are "different" in real life? If that is the case, the implications for the school curriculum are considerable; but I suspect that it is a minor effect, certainly not enough to address identity angst among adolescents. The argument, after all, is more about self-selecting adult communities.

02 September 2009

On kakistocracy

"Kakistocracy". Wonderful word! I confess I have only just come across it, via the linked post, although Google has almost 29,000 links.

It means "government by the worst", and the very existence of the label rings bells for many of my acquaintance. The linked article takes a quite tightly-defined approach to its examination. I am not as academically constrained.

The Peter Principle (Peter and Hull, 1968) asserts that "in  a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence". This was expanded by the Dilbert Principle (Adams, 1995) that "leadership is nature's way of removing morons from the productive flow.” (Apologies for being lazy and using Wikipedia links. But both sources are humorous in intent. Correspondence to reality is a bonus...)

It's not as simple as that in reality. Let's look briefly at some variations.
  • My first serious job in education (apart from short-term locum posts in primary schools) was at the erstwhile Salford Technical College, in the Department of Business Studies and Management, headed by a certain G. H. in 1967. GH was a short balding tubby man with a comb-over who wore braces and his underpants outside his shirt. (All the previous information is factually true. I accept no responsibility for any contribution it may make to the formulation of a stereotypical image in your mind, however accurate that may be.)

    George (sorry!) was both incompetent and very successful. Under his leadership the department had grown from four to forty permanent full-time staff in six years, and student enrolments had increased to more than match that growth.

    In my previous job I had been introduced to the idea of the "sick leader". This seems an abstruse idea of no real importance, but it stuck in my mind because of its resonance with the wounded Fisher King in the Grail romances. Yes, that is indeed how my mind worked in those days...

    I did not make the connection until Tom M turned up after a couple of years as head of the marketing section. I don't know why he confided in me, but after six months he said, "GH is useless. If I'm to make anything of this section, it's entirely up to me. Unfortunately he'll get most of the credit." So he built up the section, both in spite of and because of the boss's incompetence. That is the genius of "sick leadership". It is of course risky...
  • I have perforce followed the career of another of my bosses. Without going into too much detail, this person left under a cloud. Nevertheless, their career path was upwards, and s/he re-emerged  as a Dean at another university where I was working, proceeding to adopt exactly the same tactics as had failed so spectacularly in his/her previous post but one.
There seems to be an invisible watershed somewhere in college and university hierarchies such that below it, incompetence leads to marginalisation and even dismissal (although it appears the route to that can be tortuous if this NY Times article is to be believed), but above it, it leads to being "kicked upstairs". And, in a kind of corporate cognitive dissonant denial, institutions and their leaders refuse to acknowledge what a disastrous appointment they have made, and provide effusive references to push the culprit even further up the ladder.

But where is that line drawn? And how do you know when you are above it?

Is there something about the culture of universities which makes them particularly susceptible to this pattern? After all, the two kinds of organisation cited in the linked article as fostering kakistocracy were Italian universities--and the Mafia.