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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

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.