12 June 2010

On pictures and words

The other day a friend and former colleague and I met for lunch, as we do every few months. He, being a resident of the Potteries (that part of Staffordshire which came to prosperity in the early 19th century through the entrepreneurship of people like Josiah Wedgwood) gave me these two plates. Based on the familiar Willow Pattern tableware (originally from the Minton pottery) these up-date the familiar scene to reflect the Potteries (on the left), and London (on the right).

RK explained how he made use of them in short courses on promoting entrepreneurial activity; instead of setting a groupwork brief of writing the characteristics of a proposed project, he insists on it being drawn. He described the way in which the task divided groups, but also how profitable it was because of the effectiveness of the post-presentation discussion--what would be known in an art school context as the critique. (Identified by Lee Shulman as their "signature pedagogy".)

I was prompted to recall, on the train on the way back, I an exercise I used to use with students (on teaching programmes) around getting them to define their view of the teaching and learning process. Some of the more obvious images, from the trigger slide, are below; I used this in order to pre-empt participants from latching on to the cliches...

I used to ask them to work in groups to generate their own images of the process, to draw them on a flipchart or acetates, and then to present them (the delights of primitive technology--you can do it with an electronic whiteboard but it's a lot of hassle) to each other, and get the crit. going in that way. A useful variant was not to allow any verbal explanation by the presenters--the rest of the class had to deconstruct their offering.

And that in turn set me thinking about one of the texts I read long ago about a technique used in health-care for exploring critical incidents, known as "Illuminative Incident Analysis" (Cortazzi and Roote, 1975). This too centres around drawing the incident, in as cartoon-like a way as the group members are capable of, in response to guidance and structured questions. The authors insist on the use of pictures as a way of getting around how words can so easily be used to fudge meaning rather than reveal it.

(Of course it is precisely the capacity of language to carry so many connotations and levels of meaning which makes it so rich, but in this context that was seen as getting in the way of the task.)

As I recall, for example, a review of potentially serious incident on a hospital ward, included in a discussion the phrase, "a nurse in a tizzy". They draw out the possible connotations of that phrase, including implications about competence and stress (and nowadays they might note that for staff involved whose first language is not English, such an informal usage might be meaningless...) But if the speaker had to draw that nurse, so much more might emerge--she might be surrounded by clocks, cartoon patients, doctors, managers and even paper-work might be depicted pulling her in different directions and her head might be spinning. There would be the role-set, a picture of demands on time, all there at once (a completed picture is an instantaneous non-linear representation)...

Prompted by the latest round of marking I am struck by the current ubiquity of the bullet-point. The use of a bulleted list is quite a pointer to the student not having really got the idea, because paradoxically it removes the structural dimension from the account, indeed my contribution to an educational Devil's Dictionary would include;
  • Bullet points: the most effective way of reducing an idea to less than the sum of its parts.
(Yes, it's deliberate) But draw a picture (much better than a diagram) and you have to pin your colours to the mast.

I wonder what is gained and lost in the interpretation of, say, a novel into a graphic novel (or vice versa) as well as the re-telling of tales on film and video.

I have no time for the "learning styles" rubbish, but the use of many different media in communication for teaching is not merely a matter of pandering to that fad, it provides opportunities to explore different features of the content, too.

Cortazzi D, Roote S (1975) Illuminative incident analysis London; McGraw-Hill

see also:

Rich A and Parker D (1995) "Reflection and critical incident analysis: ethical and moral implications of their use within nursing and midwifery education" Journal of Advanced Nursing 22:6 pp 1050-1057


  1. Your Willow Pattern plates explained in four contrasting stories:

  2. I find it fascinating that a professor would be so dismissive of the concept of learning styles as nothing more than a "rubbish" fad.

    I wonder how many of your colleagues agree with you, compared to teachers of young learners. I suppose it makes a difference when you primarily deal with adult students who have already gone through a number of educational filters to voluntarily be in your classes.

    There is a fair amount of research into learning, the brain and accessibility- from Harvard University, for example- that would seem to me to rather emphatically contradict the belief that catering to learning styles is a waste of time.

    Adapting what you do to those you manage or lead to optimize performance- certainly a related concept to learning styles- is something long taught in business and military leadership courses.


  3. Anonymous9:33 am


  4. I didn't post the link to my summary page on learning styles, because I've done so so often before, but here it is, with further sources: http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/learning_styles.htm

  5. Anonymous10:34 am

    Is there any subject on which you do not hold a strong but ill-informed opinion, Matthew? Who do you like for the World Cup?

  6. And to be fair, I think Sean is an idiot while I'm sure he believes I'm a moron.

    I'd still buy him a drink.



  7. I've had to reject an immoderate post.

  8. James,

    It's your blog.

    But if you were going to censor inflammatory, perhaps you might have started with Sean's nothing-but-personal attack attack when he said I was "ill-informed" without anything of substance.

    What exactly was "immoderate" about what I wrote?

    I think you're wrong about learning styles being important in education, at least for children, and I said as much. You called learning styles "rubbish," which is rather strong language. (I'm going to guess you and Sean have NO experience teaching children.)

    I don't see where I crossed the line, and I don't think I made it personal with Sean. Perhaps heated, but where was the personal attack? Unlike, I submit, his comment which you posted.

    His comment, which you moderated, has nothing of substance to support his claim that I was "ill-informed." And it was an assertion presented in a distinctly snide tone.

    How exactly am I "ill-informed" with something I am involved with every single day of my life? Maybe there is disagreement, but that's a different issue.

    If you are going to selectively moderate based on opinions you agree with, then you aren't really offering the chance for a real debate through your blog.

    If you are looking for an echo chamber, you obviously got it with Sean.

    Which is perfectly acceptable for a blog, but that means this isn't a place I wish to participate in. I came here to debate the issues because I felt you were honestly thinking about things in a really interesting way.

    I guess I was wrong.

  9. Anonymous10:28 am

    You are incorrect in your assumption as to my opinion of you, Matthew. Based on my limited interaction with you, it seems fair to say that you are consistently incorrect in understanding people like me, but are always confident in your assertions. Reflection on this might teach you some interesting things about yourself.

    However, as ever, you haven't answered the question-who do you like for the world cup? A man could make a fortune betting on you being wrong...;-)


Comments welcome, but I am afraid I have had to turn moderation back on, because of inappropriate use. Even so, I shall process them as soon as I can.