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.

01 September 2009

On choirs and communities

(The link may not work outside the UK.)

The Times called this BBC2 series, the first episode of which aired tonight (that's a verb I never thought I would use in real life), "engrossing and life-enhancing". It's about a talented and engaging choirmaster, Gareth Malone (who--despite his achievements, looks hardly old enough to have left school. You know you are getting old when the choirmasters start looking young...) starting apparently from scratch to build a community choir in a run-down suburb "ten miles north of London". I'm sure the back-story is more complicated and manipulated than the programme suggests, but for once that doesn't matter very much.

Community singing is a powerful activity. It was a powerful component in the Reformation, as the tradition of communal hymn-singing involved the congregation in the liturgy. Methodism, as a Protestant denomination, was built as much on the hymns of Charles Wesley as on the preaching of his brother John. In a secular context, sponsored community singing arose as a way of encouraging community involvement between the world wars. Not to mention its role in the Nuremberg rallies... "Powerful" is independent of "good/bad".

It has declined in recent years, it appears. I'm not sure what has happened to singing in school assemblies, which used to provide daily--if much derided--training in singing hymns and songs in unison, but as the programme points out, it survives only (for non-church-goers) in the raucous bellowing of the football terraces. A few years ago, one of our students suddenly died in his mid-thirties, in the middle of his course. His funeral was an impressive event. It was held in a small church in the middle of nowhere, but it was overflowing with mourners. But the singing of the two quite traditional hymns was sadly execrable--no-one of his generation seemed to know how to do it any more. In this programme, this decline seems to serve as a proxy for an overall decline in "community spirit".  

Here singing together is being enlisted as a form of community development, and the programme (to date) makes a very good case for it. Unfortunately it succumbs in some measure to the cult of personality. And that suggests (later episodes may, I hope, prove me wrong) that the benefits follow from the charismatic leadership of Gareth Malone.

The initial impetus may be his (and the BBC's). When someone presents themselves on your doorstep saying "I want to set up a choir!", the presence of a camera crew does hint that this is not merely a personal whim. My own research experience testifies to the impact of sound recorders--let alone video cameras--on the scene.

I don't in any way wish to detract from the BBC story. But I would like to set another, equally encouraging, story alongside it.

A standard exercise on our teacher education course, as on many others, is "micro-teaching". There are many variants, but essentially a student has to teach a short and focused topic or skill for a few minutes to his or her peers or perhaps to an imported group of learners. The lesson is then critiqued first by the "teacher", then by their peers, and finally by the tutor.

(Names may have been changed in the following account, but since it is wholly positive, this is merely a gesture to preserve the putative anonymity of a student whom I have not been able to contact to clear her permission... I hope you are now thoroughly confused.)

Sharon teaches business studies. I don't know the background but I suspect that confronted with the micro-teaching exercise she wondered what kind of free-standing topic she could tackle in 20 minutes. She decided to do something completely different (always a good sign!)

She sings in a gospel choir at her church. As far as I know she does not conduct or train it. But she undertook, in 20 minutes, to get the rest of the class to sing a chorus in  four-part harmony. And she did it. It was a little ragged, admittedly, but it was an impressive performance given the constraints. Apart from the participants, the only audience was me.

A few months on, we had our intensive residential block, leavened by elective sessions, offered by participants on the basis of their distinctive skills. Sharon agreed (rather than volunteered; such was the nature of the event) to do a 90-minute elective workshop for whoever turned up, on gospel ensemble singing. A dozen or so people turned up.

The conclusion of the block was a plenary presentation of findings from the subject-specific Interest Groups. Electives were side-shows, not featured. But my colleague directing the whole event was approached by a student--not Sharon--asking for a chance to perform before the whole 160-member group. He, of course, agreed.

They performed "Lean on me" in four-part harmony. And got a standing ovation. After 90 minutes from scratch (OK, they may have practised surreptitiously behind the bike sheds...) Sharon was gratified but (my inference) a little bewildered. She did not fully grasp what she had unleashed. She never set out to teach anything as powerful...

I can think of at least six plonking banal morals from this story---but none are as potent as the story itself.

On another overview of on-line education. Are the geeks backing off?

A few days ago I drew attention to a report from the US Department of Education on on-line learning.

I should have waited, because now there is an interesting parallel report from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities / Sloan National Commission on On-line Learning.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Marc Parry introduces his piece thus;
They worry about the quality of online courses, say teaching them takes more effort, and grouse about insufficient support. Yet large numbers of professors still put in the time to teach online. And despite the broad suspicion about quality, a majority of faculty members have recommended online courses to students.

That is the complicated picture that emerges in "The Paradox of Faculty Voices: Views and Experiences With Online Learning," part of a two-volume national study released today by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities—Sloan National Commission on Online Learning. ...

The major survey of public colleges and universities found that 70 percent of all faculty members believe the learning outcomes of online courses to be either inferior or somewhat inferior, compared with face-to-face instruction.

Professors with online experience are less pessimistic. Among those who have taught or developed an online course, the majority rated the medium's effectiveness as being as good as or better than face to face. But in a potentially controversial finding, even among professors who have taught online, fully 48 percent feel it is either inferior or somewhat inferior.
And for those hooked on the hard stuff, here is a discussion of attending a virtual conference in Second Life.

Rather more polemically, Mark Bauerlein draws attention to the impoverished nature of on-line and mediated communication in the WSJ. Read the comments, too. (And incidentally he mentions the recent death of Edward T Hall, anthropologist and author of "The Hidden Dimension"--on cultural aspects of the management of physical space--and "The Silent Language", to which Bauerlein refers. Hall was 95; his website has not yet caught up with his death.*)

It's all interesting in its own right, but most encouraging is the more considered and balanced evaluation of technology-based teaching and learning which is emerging. The Second Life example particularly is a comment on the former geek rhetoric, "We can, therefore we should". Instead, there is a more realistic question about the added value of doing stuff on-line (and the added costs).

But there is also an issue about whether people like us are really equipped to comment on what the student experience might be. They, it is argued, are "digital natives" who have grown up with all this technology and to whom it is totally transparent and natural. We did not, so we shouldn't project our own reservations onto them...

* Oh dear--I can't resist. The question of who will up-date one's website with news of one's death is a new problem. But it is not as exotic as the question concerning, it appears, some American evangelicals who believe in the Rapture (Google it if you are not into eschatology), when Jesus will return and true believers will be taken into heaven, leaving the rest of us behind. The problem is, who is going to look after the dog? No worries! Rapture Pet Care has it sorted. A dedicated band of atheists will...