28 April 2009

On communicating about risk

We have all heard about the imminent pandemic of swine flu.

But it has to be recognised that the media cannot be trusted, particularly because of how much they relish disaster scenarios, on all fronts. See Davies N (2009) Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media London; Vintage.

Which is not to say that it is not going to happen as predicted. But we are very bad at understanding risk; see Taleb N N (2008) The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable London; Penguin.

The link is to a sensible and well-informed piece which points out the limited correlation of perceived and real risk.

Now wash your hands!

27 April 2009

On the evolution of dumbing-down

There is a political/commercial side of the alleged process of dumbing-down--the pressure for greater "achievement" rates, etc. But there is also a logistical side, a trivial equivalent of the "banality of evil" demonstrated in the Eichmann trial... Just how does it work?

When I started to create my site on learning, I explicitly set out to address "An introduction to theories of learning for college, adult and professional education" I found that in order to discuss key ideas of assimilation and accommodation, I needed to mention Piaget. But he was primarily a developmental psychologist.

So he was interested in the unfolding potential of the child. I was concerned with its product in the adult, but I needed to sketch in a simplified account of his view of the developmental process, on another page, and just for completeness...

This has become the most viewed page on the site, much to my annoyance!

What happened? There is no agreed way to tag for academic level, on the web... Searchers have latched onto a much-distilled account of an idea, and reproduced it because it has been the most immediately comprehensible account. That was fine for my target audience for whom it was a side-show, but not to be presented as a definitive account.

And web-searchers do tend to stop at, and believe, the first few instances of the search result. But what has now begun to happen is that I am being approached by authors and publishers with requests to reproduce part of the page in text-books they are working on. So for some readers, this diluted version of Piaget's developmental sequence is acquiring an authority it certainly does not deserve, and I perhaps a reputation for over-simplification.

In my present revision I am inserting a caveat on the page, and I have also taken to declining some of the requests; I hope that helps.

23 April 2009

On having fun with a gloomy Dane!

But since his great enemy was Hegel, how come he doesn't figure?

Thanks to the Browser

20 April 2009

On reflection; the general embodied in the particular. Or is it?

OK, this has got little to do with learning and teaching; but it does illustrate the process of reflecting to disclose a general process embodied in a particular incident--and its limitations...

To set the scene, I've just changed my car; this is how I commented to a friend;
As the salesperson had warned, I was phoned this morning by a pleasant woman from their head office to check out some details. Quite unnecessary, but apparently part of their standard quality assurance procedure enjoined on them by their regulator (in this case, the Financial Services Agency, the self-same outfit which failed to regulate the banks...)

I'm sure there was some b***s****ing going on, but the call naturally became a sales pitch for something called "gap insurance". Not cheap travel insurance for a "gap year" back-packing, unfortunately. It is designed to cover the shortfall between what an insurance company would pay for a car written-off in an accident and the price one paid for it. £399 ($US 600) for three years. I politely declined. The caller then informed me that because of FSA rules, I would have to sign to the effect that I had been informed about the product but had declined it, before I could collect the car.

I explored this with her for several minutes. I deconstructed it as, "You are telling me that I cannot buy a car for cash, without explaining why I don't want a totally unnecessary financial product, solely because you have told me about it?" To her credit she agreed it was so, but she was only...
It did cross my mind to refuse to go through with the purchase on the grounds of more nannying micro-management of how we handle routine risks, but I concluded it would merely be a gesture which would rebound on no-one except us, since it probably now applies across the board. But it did feel like a small defeat...

16 April 2009

On a new bubble?

Perhaps we shouldn't rely on on-line services to archive our stuff?

13 April 2009

On Obscurantism

It's a delight to have this available on-line (the article dates from 1970). All academics should read it regularly!

Thanks to the Browser for the link; note that this is another dangerously time-wasting page, a more journalistic and political version of Arts and Letters Daily.

11 April 2009

On not so much a job, more a way of life...

Friday—Good Friday—was a sort of second-class public holiday in the UK. (I leave aside the theological dimension.)

Nowadays I work part-time. Sorry. I get paid for working part-time. I was reminded of that yesterday by an email from my "line-manager"...
Digression! Times Higher Education this week has been themed on the interface* between academics and administrators, particularly this article.
However, she or he wrote:
I have checked with HR what happens about your hours and the public holidays. Apparently all public holidays have already been factored into your leave allowance. This means that if you normally work on a day that a public holiday falls then you have to take it off your annual leave allowance, but if you don't normally work that day then it does not affect your leave or hours. So, for example: If you are usually at work on Friday then that day has to come off your annual leave allowance. (My emphasis)

I don't have the kind of mind which wonders whether or not this is fair--and I am thankful that on the whole the system has played fair with me. So far.

No, my issue is rather different. When I worked "full-time" there was no real problem. (There could have been, of course. "Academic freedom" is an important area. But my current concern is much more trivial and domestic.)

Then, I was never not working. My wool-gathering while walking the dog ---was work. My boredom watching an over-hyped film ---was work. My attempts to re-create that Platonic souvlaki I had in Bristol of all places ---were work. My serendipitous encounter with an argument or quote in reading for pleasure in another discipline ---was work. You get the point.

  • Remember, I work in "education", as opposed to, say, quantum physics, or the law of intellectual property, or archaeology. "Work" requires few specialised resources or equipment, at least in its early stages. And the boundaries of the discipline are notoriously fuzzy...
So, much to the annoyance of my wife, who reckons that the boundary was always drawn in favour of "work", I just did not draw the boundary. The same issue is explored here by an academic in the US wondering what compulsory unpaid leave amounts to.

So, again, what does working "0.4" mean, for an academic? Two days a week? Yes, notionally. And I still have default days of attendance at the university, but now that the classes schedules for those days are over, they make no sense...

In the final analysis, "0.4" means 0.6 not at work. And that is hard work. It means gardening (it is not accidental that the civil service calls suspension, "gardening leave") or decorating or anything which precludes thinking... (and much as I dislike both activities, they don't work in that respect). Can't do it. So blow the whole thing. The role of academic, even in a spurious "discipline" like education, is not something one can pick up and put down; it is (for better or for worse) an identity. I am reminded of a point I made in a previous post;
(I asked Mr Lyward what he had asked the student ... 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.)
So am I "at work" as I write this?

* "themed on the interface" I really do have to congratulate myself on coining a truly vacuous example of management-speak which may well become a classic, going forward!

09 April 2009

On gilding the lily

From a forum to which I apparently inadvertently subscribed;
"Have you considered using a site like Jing, to record student math problems such as an equation or formula. Students solve the equation on the smartboard, save the Jing video and then upload it to a wikispace or moodle."
Why? Where is there any demonstrable payoff in terms of learning for using such a convoluted process? Is it not just possible that this obsession with using technology will distract/detract from the mathematics?

I have unsubscribed.

08 April 2009

On more in this vein

Following on from the previous post; I have been reading Ben Goldacre's excellent Bad Science (London; Fourth Estate, 2008, and see his blog here), and came across this quotation (I quote at greater length than Goldacre), which struck me as apposite;

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war [WW2] they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas -- he's the controller -- and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.

Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they're missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system. It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school -- we never say explicitly what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty -- a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid -- not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked -- to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can -- if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong -- to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.

from Feynman R (1986) "Cargo Cult Science; Caltech Commencement Address, 1974" in Surely you're joking, Mr Feynman; adventures of a curious character London; Unwin Paperbacks p.340

The extract in blue refers precisely to the "going through the motions of scholarship" I castigated earlier, but the overall quotation goes further. Feynman argues against the process of simply assembling evidence in support of a case, and this accords with a point I make in discussing the characteristics of M level writing;
Most people ... amass a great deal of material to support their argument: but at Master's level this is not enough. You need to test the argument. So you also need to amass evidence against it, and to take account of counter-arguments and alternative positions, discussing either why they are not applicable in this case, or why you find them inadequate, inappropriate or morally reprehensible.
I'll return to this in a future post I'm beginning to think about discussing the usefulness or otherwise of theory. (But the above point is the only time I will ever aspire to refer to my views in the same breath as those of Richard Feynman!)

Incidentally, Feynman has latched onto only the most obvious features of the cargo cults, which are rather more sophisticated than he allows for. See inter al. Worsley P (1970) The Trumpet shall sound: a study of Cargo cults in Melanesia London; Paladin which takes a broadly Marxist perspective...

03 April 2009

On the shibboleth of Harvard referencing

A course with which I am associated has just received an external examiner's report. It has one general paragraph at the beginning--confirming the level of the course--and another short one at the end, deploring the little actual use made of theory, but the rest of the two pages is entirely given over to criticism of the standard of referencing in the sample of assessments, and to the failure of the markers to pick it up on each and every occasion.

The course leader and I, who are both external examiners in our own rights, frequently joke about referencing as a standby if one happens to be at a loss for something to say in a report; "If in doubt, you can always complain about the use of the Harvard system..." But this report was bordering on the obsessional.

I am something of a stickler for correct citation. I am frequently thanked by readers for the automatically generated references at the bottom of my web pages. But in the context of a professional course, I wonder whether colleagues do not sometimes lose sight of the wood for the trees. Note the qualification, "a professional course". One of the reasons cited by the examiner for the emphasis on correct referencing concerned the possibility that course participants might proceed to a higher level academic course where correct protocol would be obligatory, so better for them to learn to do it correctly now. Indeed, but... that applies to a limited number of students, whose referencing is usually OK anyway. The course in question is a professional course, undertaken by most students because it is now a condition of employment; some do happily get the bug (up to doctoral level, even), but the majority want their licence to practice and will be content with that.

So I am puzzled by this disproportionate attention paid to referencing. I am particularly puzzled by the insistence that it always be corrected. We emphasise the quality of feedback we give to our students, and we are keen that they should read it, discuss it with us in tutorial, and learn from it. And of course that will include correction of poor referencing practice, up to a point. What does obsessional attention to every detail of punctuation in a bibliography say about what we think is important about an essay or project? Indeed, what other aspect of marking should get less attention in order that this can get more? As I remember, the examiner suggested that work could even be referred until it was re-submitted with an immaculate list of references; what does that say about what is important?

(Incidentally, I have recently re-read Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger, which was first published in 1966, and I was interested to note that while she occasionally uses the name (date) flag within the text, she more frequently cites works as I have done hers, with full name and book title. Nor would her bibliography be acceptable to our external examiner. The Harvard system apparently originated in 1881--and is not referred to, according to Wikipedia [sorry!] in any of Harvard University library's web-pages. Not many people know that. But just when did it take over the world? It was not common practice in my undergraduate days.)

I suspect that referencing has become a shibboleth for ulterior reasons. It is one of the few respects in which a submission primarily on the practice of teaching can be "correct" or "incorrect", so it becomes where the academic credibility of the work resides when confidence has been lost in passing professional judgement. The Harvard system of course is correct/incorrect because it is a wholly artificial (but nevertheless sensible and effective) system. Practice is much more muddy.

The scholarship of teaching and learning is in danger of becoming the scholasticism of teaching and learning as its insights are overtaken by its proxies.

The examiner wants more evidence of theory being used. Why? I'm far from saying it should not be used. I do tend generally to agree with the examiner on this (after all that is what I teach), but we do need to go back to first principles and ask what the theory is for. Is its absence from our students' work evidence of their ignorance, or of the theory's irrelevance? (Usually, both, and other things, of course.)

I tell students at the start of one of my modules that we shall be exploring some fascinating ideas, but in the final analysis it does not matter whether or not they can attribute an idea to Bernstein, Bloom or Bruner, Pavlov, Piaget or Poppleton, any more than it matters whether a gardener can say who made his/her spade. It does matter what they do with it; whether they can use the essence of that idea to inform their practice. "Informs practice" is of course a very difficult criterion to assess. "Able to cite theorists in support of practice" is much easier.

At one of the institutions for which I act as an external examiner, I was struck by some tutor notes on the sample of assignments I received recently. (They were generally helpful notes, in the spirit of "feed-forward" [Race, 2005]) "You need to make more use of journal articles." Again, why? The implication seems to be that it is what proper academics do, and that is reason enough. No; articles are useful for what they say and how you can use that (or argue with it), not just because they are usually inaccessible, both in terms of finding them and reading them, so that the act of citing them is an indication of your academic dedication!

And since this has developed into a fairly substantial rant, I might as well include my incomprehension at the use of quotations in much academic writing. I shall now break my own rule and quote, but from myself;
Only use quotations when:
  • the author has made a point particularly well, and probably more concisely than you could say it, or
  • you are going on to discuss in detail what she or he has said at this particular point.

Do not use quotations simply as a way of proving that you have actually read the book or article!

(Atherton, 2008)

In short, it's about time we looked anew at some of our hallowed academic conventions, particularly in the context of professional learning; I suspect that they are symptoms of "mission creep". Under the guise of guaranteeing the legitimacy and authority of material submitted for assessment, they are actually directing attention to a sterile academic game, in which superficial and peripheral characteristics are being elevated in importance beyond personal critical thinking, reflection, argument and evidence of developing practice.

And as Mary Douglas implies--but does not directly argue--where ritual categories and acts are most fiercely defended, it is often precisely because of their lack of meaning in any objective sense. It is because of what belief in them says about the believers; that they are characterised as people who share these particular beliefs. Failing to share the belief is not simply being "wrong"; it is an act of heresy or treachery.


Atherton J S (2008) Doceo; Assignment Presentation Guidelines [On-line] UK. Available: http://www.doceo.co.uk/academic/assignment_presentation.htm Accessed: 4 April 2009

Race, P (2005) Making Learning Happen London: Sage

oh, all right--you may after all want to read it;

Douglas M (1966) Purity and Danger; an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo London; Routledge and Kegan Paul