29 August 2010

On getting oriented

I've been trying to read John Gray's Gray's Anatomy (Penguin, 2010) which is a selection of essays written over the past thirty years; and I've been finding it very difficult. That is puzzling, because his writings are not terribly technical, nor do they pre-suppose a vast amount of background knowledge. Most of them were first published in unabashedly intellectual but non-specialist magazines.

So it was interesting to come across the linked piece from Mark Bauerlein on the Brainstorm blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education. He starts:
Over the years, I’ve spent some time reviewing items on reading comprehension tests, evaluating the passages selected as texts and checking the following eight or ten questions for accuracy, validity, etc. It can be a draining activity, scanning rather dry and often remote informational text, then spotting ambiguities or confusions in the questions that must be corrected.
One thing, I’ve found, lightens the load: a little knowledge about the passage material. Just a little bit helps a lot. Indeed, the difference between no knowledge and a little knowledge means much more than the difference between a little knowledge and abundant knowledge.
 (My emphasis) He then goes on to discuss other people who have made a similar point, and relates it to the curriculum. In so doing he makes a good case for attention to the necessary background knowledge of the humanities without which students cannot get traction, as it were, to engage with more specialist--even scientific--advanced study.

And my problem with Gray is largely that. It's not that I don't know whom he is talking about when he refers to Edmund Burke or Isaiah Berlin (or Michael Oakeshott--one of the reasons I bought the book), it is that for him and probably anyone who read PPE, they are not individual thinkers but representatives of a tradition of thinking, which one is expected to be aware of. It is that allusive quality which makes his writing so rich--as I appreciate when I recognise what he is talking about.

In all the talk about millennial students (there's plenty of references out there), and the supposed imperative to engage with them in the present and to acknowledge that in their world our taken-for-granted knowledge is dead there is little acknowledgement that without an historical perspective to provide an entree to taught material no-one is going to get the allusions and links. No, you can't just ignore the facts because everone can look them up. You can't just teach students to think if they don't know what they are supposed to think about.

It's not only a matter of millennial students; we are becoming increasingly aware that as English becomes the first global language, more and more students and readers and listeners have access to what we say. Great! The more people learn English, the better we can communicate, can't we? Well, no. They are learning Englishes, not one monolithic language with a standard set of cultural referents everyone can be expected to share. Those are not merely the casual references to literature or even current TV shows (I don't get those) which we drop without thinking about it, but catch-phrases and abbreviations and the whole allusive apparatus. Know how difficult it is to make or understand jokes in another language? It's because you need all that apparatus to understand their layered meanings.

Where this is going is to argue for more attention to be paid to helping students orient themselves in general terms to their areas of study. I suppose that is what I find them thanking me for on Learning and Teaching. info And it is what a recent correspondent is asking for with reference to Foucault; of course, sometimes one just has to say it's not worth the effort!

28 August 2010

On time travel

This has got little to do with teaching, for once. It is just extraordinary. Enjoy the technical stuff if you like (I do), but scroll down and watch the video. This is a test of Kodak colour movie film. From 1922.

As the linked article comments, it is like time travel; there is something about its immediacy which can't be accounted for by its obvious features. The colour process (two, rather than three colours were used), and the necessity for two lenses must have contributed to the soft focus effect and the translucency of the models' skin, but even so there is something very special about this glimpse of almost 90 years ago.

Some years ago some compilations of the Second World War in colour were shown on TV; there is a trailer and some extracts below:

We are used to seeing such material on the TV news in colour every day, and of course very familiar with the black and white images, and reconstructions in colour. And yet once again it is all so different when it is real and contemporary and yet in colour. The black and white versions and the reconstructions all serve to remind us that we are watching a completed story. Somehow the colour transports us back to when it was not clear how it would work out--rather like listening to the reminiscences of Battle of Britain pilots on the radio a week or two ago.

I'm sure the phenomenologists had a word for it!

On the maze of social work

Thanks to the Fighting Monsters blog, I've been introduced to this mini-action-maze on the Association of Directors of Social Work site. It has only four stages and is linear in format but it's a good try. It starts from a case-study, and at each stage you are asked what you would do and confronted with three alternatives, of which one is "correct" and leads to the next stage, and two are incorrect and take you back to the previous screen.

Going back to my now long-gone days teaching social work I have some reservations about its verisimiltude (why is this referral coming in at 4pm on a Friday? [OK, the Friday is necessary for the story] The school would have been aware of the injury from the morning. And I hate to say it, but the first response in many offices would be to leave it to the Emergency Duty Team--and it could be argued that would be right...) and about the practice, such as of going on a first visit alone. And although the responses to the wrong choices unveil what would have happened next had that choice been made, they don't actually explain why the choice is the wrong one. And it is enormously over-simplified...

Even so, it does pose real questions and could be used as a teaching aid in a wide variety of courses, even for qualified staff.

My own first take on the action maze idea was originally about supervision in a residential social work setting, but I've put one on the web about mentoring new staff in higher education, which people can try here. (Warning; it's technically pretty crude--it's been around for eight years now--and you may have to resize your browser window to get it to show properly.) I'm mentioning it principally because this one does not have any right or wrong answers; it simply has opportunity costs. Unlike undertaking a role-play or other simulation, all the possible outcomes are pre-determined (this maze has about half-a-million potential routes through it), so the cost of the mentoring session you do have is all the others you could have had but didn't. And since it simply has to stop when its (simulated) time is up, the judgement you make of what you have achieved is principally up to you. And actually, that is probably truer to the reality of most social work (and teaching) practice than the neat and tidy "Child Protection Challenge".

Incidentally Peter Davies (Davies and Mangan, 2007) argues that opportunity cost is a threshold concept in economics; it would be an interesting exercise to see whether a maze might provide an effective way of addressing it.

Davies P and Mangan J (2007) "Threshold Concepts and the Integration of Understanding in Economics" Studies in Higher Education 32 (6)

26 August 2010

On being WEIRD

A fascinating study which goes beyond tentative speculation (which has been around for a long time) to explore cultural issues in psychological research. And hence in educational research.

There has been a minor but significant interest in what Hansen (1979) called "educational anthropology" but it has tended to be highly occi-centric (is that a word? It is now. OED take note!) It is a substantial step to recognise that the responses of WEIRD* students are not necessarily the default. Even Biggs (2007) starts from a WEIRD-centric position.

* What does WEIRD stand for? Admittedly it is contrived, but read the linked article at least to find out.

Biggs J and Tang C (2007) Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student does (3rd edn.) Buckingham; OU Press and Society for Research Into Higher Education

Hansen J (1979) Sociocultural Perspectives on Human Learning: an introduction to educational anthropology Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall

17 August 2010

On reductionism in assessment

The link (valid until 23 August only, and only in the UK) is to a Radio 4 programme on the Advanced level examination in UK schools (except for those in Scotland) taken at the age of 18. It pays particular attention to A level English literature, concentrating on a question on Hamlet.

It considers how principally how the examination game is played and how students are trained unashamedly to get the maximum marks by engaging with the "Assessment Objectives" (AOs) of the subject, to the extent of a student readily saying that they can't start discussing the "texts" in class because that might take them away from the AOs, when they only have four weeks for each of their six texts.

The AOs for English Literature are;
  1. Articulate creative, informed and relevant responses to literary texts, using appropriate terminology and
    concepts, and coherent, accurate written expression.
  2. Demonstrate detailed critical understanding in analysing the ways in which structure, form and language
    shape meanings in literary texts.
  3. Explore connections and comparisons between different literary texts, informed by interpretations of other readers.
  4. Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which literary texts are written and received.
There's nothing much wrong with them as they stand. They do constitute a sub-set of the skills a critical reader ought to have, but...
  • To see a work of literature as a text, a technical product, is very partial. Babies and bathwater spring to mind.
  • This approach is even more stultifying that the French explication du texte.
  • But most of all it is disabling; I now have a much clearer idea of what my humanities colleagues are complaining about when they bemoan the inability of first-year undergraduates in particular to work independently, to value their own responses to a work independently of what will feature in the assessment, and even to read the whole of a novel or play or poem as a work of art. 
  • They have been drilled to fake appreciation.

11 August 2010

On manuals and text-books

The other day I indulged myself by going to one of the world's great physical bookshops to browse and buy.

Convenient as the online bookshops are, there is to my mind no substitute for physical browsing. And browsing in a bookshop and in a library are quite different experiences, which inform and feed off each other. In a library I look up the UDC/Dewey reference to find a text on a shelf and may browse round it to find associated stuff on a similar topic, but usually I am pretty clear what I am looking for, and either I find it or I don't.

The bookshop is different. Certainly it is organised--much more broadly--by subject area,  but then by author, which leads to some interesting juxtapositions on the shelves which you can't find anywhere else, other than perhaps in a particular person's library.

Almost as a penance for the browsing and buying motivated purely by my interests (and some potential presents--why else would I clean out their stock of Frankfurt H (2005) On Bullshit Princeton N J; Princeton University Press? *), I had a look on the education shelves, in particular those on teaching in post-compulsory education, to note if there were more recent editions of any of the standard works on our reading list.

There were, so I flipped through them to see where the differences were and, being in that context in the bookshop, I was instantly bored stiff. Truth to tell, of course, I have never read any of these things. I've raided them for bits of information and to give a reference to something for students, and I do read the next level of collections of papers and research-based studies and the like, but I don't read the text-books.

Thinking about this driving home, I realised anew that the text-books, in a professional/vocational discipline, may well be inimical to effective learning how to practise. The text-books have been contaminated, or perhaps more generously constrained, by the pernicious micro-managed compliance culture of post-compulsory education promulgated by LLUK and the now-defunct Learning and Skills Council (it's not often I link to something just to show that it's not there!), but that is not the whole story.

They have managed to reduce all the knowledge to something to be learned about (See here for a very quick and dirty exposition) rather than something to know by direct experience. (Sorry; that is a very sloppy usage of one of the most venerable distinctions in philosophy). It is a slab of indigestible dough sitting out there which needs to be consumed**. It is inert.

Some might recognise that "inert knowledge" like that, is another of David Perkins' categories of "troublesome knowledge" (2006).

Many of our teacher "trainees", especially those from craft and practical disciplines, experience these 400-page tomes as serious obstacles to learning how to practise. And Howard Becker, in his excellent 1972 article, which pre-figures all the "situated learning" discussions of the '90s onwards, shows how the culture and conventions of the educational system militate against the effective learning of practical disciplines.

Now Sean has identified another instance of this in the case of a textbook all about management which is a liability to his students who need to learn how to be entrepreneurs and to manage a small business.

This is not of course to deny that there is value in these books and their counterparts which fuel further investigation into policies and practices; after all, this blog in its trivial way fits within that tradition. But just as a weed is a plant in the wrong place, much of the literature is a stumbling-block to new practitioners.

As I drove home, I was asking myself why we were putting our new students through that obstacle course. There are many reasons, of course; the academic level of the course, the inspection regime, even our desire to show off our academic credentials by announcing that we know all this stuff--and a corresponding desire to put initiates through a rite of passage, whose irrelevance and futility is of course part of its potency. But none of it is about getting them to teach better.

So perhaps we should forbid them to read anything like these textbooks for the first year? (Bearing in mind that for some of the graduates, that will work as a paradoxical injunction which will guarantee they devour the reading list...) Let them gain knowledge by acquaintance first, like people do in the real world, perhaps?

Strangely, something like this is happening by accident. The current structure of teacher training in post-compulsory education in England and Wales requires that all new staff undertake a short, survival-oriented course at the start of their job (PTLLS) and then go on to a full two-year part-time programme as soon as possible. In practice, that "as soon as possible" may well be the beginning of the following academic year. So they get a year's experience under their belts (with support, theoretically) and will only then get all these books thrown at them. That won't reduce the academic step some craft colleagues have to take, but it will mean that they may be ready for this more formal approach to learning when it comes.

And the reference to manuals? There are some authors out there who have little interest in covering the standard ground, but just presenting concrete advice to newcomers. They don't write textbooks; they write manuals. Their agenda is set by what their readers want to know. At different ends of the scale, Sue Cowley and Phil Race stand out, but they are not alone. They may not go far, but they make a much better start.

On the other hand, avoid like the plague anything which is sub-titled "meeting the LLUK standards" or "achieving QTLS" (it doesn't matter what it means). Those sub-titles are testimony to the authors having lost the plot; they are writing to "cover" the inert knowledge entombed in the standards and the syllabi, as a very poor proxy for improving practice.

* Actually, I wasn't terribly impressed. The whole thing is really summed up on p.47, "the essence of bullshit is not that it is false, but that it is phony." It's a conceit, that's all.
** Sean has a very interesting blog post about bread-making, incidentally, here.

Becker H S (1972) "A School is a Lousy Place to Learning Anything in" American Behavioral Scientist vol 16: 85-105 doi:10.1177/000276427201600109
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.

09 August 2010

On writing a dissertation

This is what I have been up to when not posting to this blog. Honest!

These notes originate from my efforts to help an old friend undertaking a taught Master's course, at a university which seemed to devise its regulations around the key principle that under no circumstances should, or could, a supervisor be helpful. So my reaction to his first almost complete draft was to say that it needed to be completely re-organised; it was great content, but did not follow the conventions of a dissertation. Quite reasonably he asked how he was supposed to know that? This is a game he would only play once, whereas supervisors and assessors and external examiners are familiar with it. He suggested,
    "I should have found (useful) a model outline for the MA, like
    A. Intro could include..........and should not......
    B. Literary review could..... and should not..............
    C. Further Chapters could.... and should not...........
    D. Conclusion could ...and should not...... "
So this is my attempt to provide just that. I had just assumed that it already existed in practically every text on Research Methods, but on the basis of the sample I have consulted. it doesn't. I've already modified it in response to some very useful suggestions from people on lists I belong to, and plan to continue to do so—so please write to me (address in the footer) and together we can improve it further. Thanks.