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 Naively I thought we knew most of what there is to know about the use of pens in education; granted they only really superseded slates (oh!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.