30 October 2010

On credibility

One of the perils of being in the business of teaching teachers is that your credibility is on the line whenever you "perform"; if you don't show that you can actually walk the walk, no-one is going to listen to you talk the talk.

In one of my sessions on the post-compulsory education course earlier this year, one of the (mature--as are they all) students was a little late. This was a sanctioned irregularity, but it meant that when he came in, it was to a class in quite heated and I suppose rather unruly debate. People were arguing across the classroom, there were three different conversations going on at the same time, and they were cutting across each other. It was all "on task", though, and it was not difficult to restore order and carry on with the class. Afterwards, the late student came up to me and said he thought that the behaviour in the class was inappropriate and disrespectful, and he could not possibly have taught in such chaos. He said it with reference to the class, but it was clear that it was just as much about me, and my apparent inability to control their behaviour, with the sub-text of, "if you let that kind of behaviour occur in your own class, how do you have any right to tell us how to control our classes?"

Quite right, too. Up to a point; he teaches teenagers, and there was no way in which I would have been prepared to allow anarchy in such a group. And we had earlier discussed the issue of teaching styles appropriate to different groups of students, in the course of which I had drawn attention to the need for a different approach on this course from that which would be needed with their own students. Nevertheless, I had in his view failed to model the skills of classroom management which  the course would in time assess him on, and in that sense he was right.

With all classes, credibility is critical. I'm acutely aware of that, in that I spent twenty years teaching under false pretences. I taught social workers, and I was neither an experienced nor qualified social worker (but I did have quite good academic credentials, and in those days that counted more with appointment panels than proper experience; I didn't fake anything).

After a while, of course, I could have faked it. For the latter ten years of my involvement, a staple of our Centre's menu of courses was ASW (now AMHP) training under the Mental Health Act 1983*. After years of listening to experienced social workers telling the stories of their practice, I would certainly have fooled any lay-person, almost all non-specialist social workers and a good proportion of the real McCoy...

* The actual terms don't matter; the point is that they were about the use of legal powers to detain people with mental disorders. And for the record, out of the five of us who taught most of those courses, two were experienced ASWs, one was a legal specialist, the fourth a mental health specialist, and I was the charlatan!

In practice, I was up-front about my lack of experience. Not only did it preserve me from gaffs which would have severely undermined my (and indeed our) credibility, but it could also be used to subvert the agenda of resentment among many long-established Mental Welfare Officers who--by statute--had to be retrained. Sub-text; "I'm not here to tell you how to do your job (because I'm not an expert on that), just to work out how it has changed in a new legal context..."

However! I was reminded of all this, which re-surfaces at the start of each academic year as you consider how to establish--as quickly and easily as possible--the most appropriate relationship with each new class. (Incidentally, you can't get it right. It's not your fault. It's a feature of the system.) And I remembered...

In the dim and distant past (at the latest 1972) I was an assistant lecturer grade A (which for some reason was even lower down the pecking order than grade B) in "Liberal Studies" (a weirdly idealistic educational initiative of the late '60s onwards in the UK to 'liberalise' technical education by teaching students anything they did not want to know about...) (Sorry about all the parentheses, by the way).

Liberal Studies was a statutory requirement of vocational courses, but course managers rightly regarded these sessions as superfluous and pointless and so they competed to schedule them for the least desirable teaching slots. Such as 7-9 pm at the end of a full day-release programme. And Friday afternoons, of course...

So it was that I acquired a class of about 20 electrical technicians from 6.30 to 8 on a Thursday evening. They were there because, and only because, if they did not appear on the register they would be reported to their employers. They in their turn couldn't care less, but hey! Any excuse to dock wages is good for the bottom line, right?

The class was not assessed, other than by attendance, so there was no incentive for students to engage with what I was teaching. So baiting me was the most entertaining way of passing the time...

"Psychology of Personality" was one of my standard packages for such circumstances. Most people are interested in themselves, after all. So we started with the Maudsley/Eysenck Personality Inventory. I used to use it in the first session with minimal introduction, get the students to score it, and then wait for my cue. That was the "What's it all mean, then?" question. (I make no claims for this as a scheme of work. It was a means of survival, that's all. I might be more sophisticated nowadays... or maybe not...)

This time it wasn't enough. In the view of a vociferous minority of the group, administering someone else's questionnaire did nothing for my credibility. One of them challenged me; "If you're a psychologist--prove it! Psychoanalyse me!".

[Note: this is not a verbatim quote, although given that the incident is almost 40 years old, I have not had to delete any expletives---but he did use the word "psychoanalyse", which would probably not be in the vocabulary of his contemporary counterparts. Whether of course he had any idea of what it meant, I know not. I attach no significance to this; I am merely trying to establish his terms. And I'm not a psychologist.]

I was on the spot, so I rose to the challenge. (I should have risen above it, but that is easier said than done, even with more experience than I then had...) I burbled banalities worthy of a tabloid astrologer, about "liking to be liked" and "feeling misunderstood sometimes", and he seemed to be listening. But I realised I had to take a risk and be more specific. I thought of the way he had taken the lead in challenging me, and wondered whether his emotional investment suggested he felt a little threatened. So I suggested that he had a problem with anger (nowadays we would talk about "anger management").

I thought I had blown it. He denied it (angrily). But then his mates laughed and joined in--"Too true!", "You've nailed him", "Spot on!", and in the face of the onslaught he conceded that occasionally he got a little carried away.

And my credibility soared. I had passed the test! And I survived. (We did not do evaluations any more sophisticated than that in those days...)

How perspicacious was I? Not very. I didn't become aware of how it worked until twenty-odd years later, listening to Radio 4 while driving the Northampton ring-road (strange how locations stick in the mind...) I was, unknown to myself, making use of the Forer (or Barnum) effect, which does indeed underpin newspaper horoscopes.

The only value I added lay in my guess about anger issues, which required little more than observation and basic inference. "And that has made all the difference."

29 October 2010

On the acceptability of originality, criticality and context.

I came to university with a history--at least in my mind; probably no-one else ever noticed. I failed O level English Literature (now GCSE, and apparently almost impossible actually to fail). I passed on a re-sit. But as far as I can reconstruct, given that the whole assessment process was inaccessible to scrutiny in 1960, I rose to the challenge of some question about Wordsworth (whom I hated at that time with a passion worthy of himself) by referring to Aldous Huxley's speculations* about the neurological or even pharmaceutical roots of Wordsworth's vision;
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell'd in celestial light,
Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood ll.1-4

Fifty years on, I think the marker was probably right! Chris Woodhead (a marmite figure if ever there was one!) has periodically made the point in his columns that schools are not about encouraging originality--pupils do not know enough at that age to make useful original contributions to anything; and even Diana Laurillard  argues that in science in particular, school and undergraduate study can be no more than an initiation into what is already known. (I think she concedes that an undergraduate final dissertation may perhaps occasionally have a touch of originality.) But of course by the time one embarks on a doctorate, the rubics will require "an original contribution to knowledge".

I've just caught up with two of Jim Hamlyn's recent posts; here and here.** The pedantry of the marker is mind-boggling, of course, but for me Jim's experience also poses the question of why he or she should find Jim's independent-mindedness so objectionable (even perhaps threatening) as to put in the considerable effort
required to nit-pick so obsessively. After all, this is a post-graduate course, and Jim's own discipline (art) is one which values and encourages creativity and originality and (critically) critical thinking, as this post of his demonstrates, so he can be trusted to have a handle on those values and attributes.

So where does the energy come from to set out so comprehensively to miss the point and to inhibit learning? After all, the marker could just have let things ride, and the outcome would almost certainly have been better on all fronts. I suspect that it has something to do with "the notion that the less meaningful a belief, the greater the passion and dogmatism with which it is held. This was observed by Swift (the war between the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians in Gulliver's Travels, 1726, ch. IV) so it's not exactly original, and of course as in that story, it is religious disputes which spring to mind as the most obvious examples." I'm quoting myself here, from another post on 3 March 09.

That also fits with points I made at about the same time about referencing, and the other day about the "fetishization of citation". All these "technical" issues are no more than proxies for valuable knowledge which works--and you know you are in trouble when the proxies are elevated above the substance, or you stop seeing the wood for the trees.

Returning to Graham Gibbs' keynote; one of his opening slides was a quotation (I didn't make a note from whom) to the effect that "there are just a few factors which make a difference in teaching, and we know what they are." He explicitly denied that was the case, although of course such a contention is the foundation of teaching development programmes; it is an article of faith which tutors on such programmes must believe, otherwise they would not be able to carry on "delivering" them.

I admit that I am having something of a crisis of faith. Gibbs' account of the variability of student experience and the importance of context, and even Hattie's acceptance that "everything works" (in some measure) (2009: 1) accord much more closely with my experience than practically anything in the teacher education literature. Also at the conference, Ray Land recycled to great effect a lecture from a few years ago when he stood in for a keynote speaker who got stuck in France; he took us on a tour of the changing context of education and students' lives, and concluded that current models of the university were being superceded.

When teacher educators start behaving like Jim's (and Sean's) examples, and many others, we have to conclude that the implicit deficiency model is flawed, because we do not have the authority to which we pretend. So perhaps it is time to see the lecturer as the expert in teaching in his or her context as well as a subject expert, and the role of the teacher educator as no more than a consultant to the practitioner.

In practice I think that is what I have been doing for years... Of course, it screws up conventional approaches to assessment, but that's OK.

*  Huxley A The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, Harper; various editions 1954-2004
** Of course I'm well aware that I'm accepting Jim's account as legitimate, and the whole story--but I have no reason not to, and this is the start of a meditation rather than an adjudication.

27 October 2010

On the "fetishization of citation"

Thursday's keynote at ISSoTL10 was by Jude Carroll, whom I met for the first time face-to-face after scores of email exchanges. She is best known for her work on dealing with plagiarism, of course, but in this case she was addressing issues around a transcultural approach to curriculum issues.

I was delighted to hear her inveigh against the "fetishization of citation". I've also touched on this issue here. Jude went so far as to say that this obsession with "correct" referencing was a phenomenon of the last ten years, and implied that it was symptomatic of a crisis of confidence on the part of academics in their own authority in a post-modern world. It's not so much an issue in the STEM* world, where there are real, objective and positivistic criteria for judging ideas. Like, "does it work?" If it does, who invented it is a matter for the historians and the (patent) lawyers.

Moreover, it is an approach which devalues the contribution and opinion of the student herself. Jude's piece suggested to me (she may well have said something like this, but I don't want to put words in her mouth), in the context of the internationalisation of the curriculum, an inability to handle the different ways in which prior knowledge is or may be dealt with by students of different backgrounds and from different disciplines.

She played with the manner in which direct quotations from other scholars had been used in presentations within this very conference.

Which set me thinking about the concurrent sessions I attended, and the ways in which such scholarly material had been incorporated and used. I caricature slightly when I say there was in a number of them a ritual obeisance to the literature, as part of what was frequently explicitly identified as a "literature review" section (many papers followed the traditional pattern of a published research paper or dissertation). Nothing wrong with that, except that in Perkins' term, the knowledge was often "inert". Not much was done with it. It was introduced in order to confer academic respectability on the session and then--with some notable exceptions, of course--it just lay there...

I think I detect that this is becoming ever more common, possibly because of search engines; it is so easy, with basic search skills, to go straight to an article in a peer-reviewed journal which bears in some measure on your subject. It will probably be a contribution to a discussion, in your own discipline, and very up-to-date. And it will probably say very little of interest, or ever have been heard of by anyone else. Your session may be the only citation it will ever get!

I actually made a note of several promising leads, and since getting back I have followed up some of them, to my disappointment.

I would have been much more interested in people making use of some "golden oldies" (my preferred strategy because I was always too lazy and too easily bored, and too busy, to keep up with new stuff unless someone used it or recommended it); or illuminating their arguments from parallels outside the immediate confines of their own disciplines.

In a "soft" discipline like "education", it is all too easy to build foundations merely on successive bundles of reeds, rather than rocks. But one may feel the need to be seen to be imitating academics in harder disciplines.

* Science. Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

26 October 2010

On reflection on reflection, again

I have just written up the notes from the round-table discussion at the conference last week--click on the header to go to them.

20 October 2010

On the importance of context

I'm at the ISSoTL conference in Liverpool. It got off to a great start with a plenary from Graham Gibbs. At the Washington conference in 2006, Graham piggy-backed an intervention on Diana Laurillard's plenary, to lambast the conference for academic and theoretical ignorance and sloppiness, asserting that 75% of the papers he had attended would not have made the cut for the Improving Student Learning Symposium which he had founded in the 'nineties.

This year the ISL symposium and the ISSoTL conference are effectively one and the same, and so (and in deference too to the shake-up he had given the SoTL community) Graham got to offer the opening plenary.

Which he did in exemplary fashion. First, he is a superb lecturer. Understated and unflashy, he lets the material speak for itself and steps aside so as not to muffle it. PowerPoint yes--very plain text-based slides which did not draw attention to themselves but to their content, black-and-white but for the key bits in red. Funny bits but no jokes. Sadly no questions because apparently he is now hard of hearing, but all brought in with precision timing of which the (BBC Radio 4) Today programme would have been proud.

So much for the process--what about the content? It was billed as being a reflection on 35 years of experience in pedagogic research, but it was rather more specific than that. It was about the importance of context for making sense of what we think we know about teaching.

Having been engaged in what amounts to a meta-analysis of research on teaching and learning in HE, Graham became interested in material which does not fit the general message. Simply, if research indicates on the whole a 0.4 correlation between, say, student participation in class and student achievement, the picture is far more complex than simply asserting that is quite a good correlation and so we ought to be encouraging more participation. The other side of the coin is a 0.6 absence of correlation, which is stronger. But of course the 0.4 figure is attributable to the choice of apparently straightforward variables to correlate, whereas the 0.6 is attributable to a whole host of amorphous variables which did not correlate. So you can't draw any conclusions, can you?

Well, yes, pointed out Graham. You can draw some conclusions about the ways in which the researchers approached their task, and how they sought likely variables to explore, in accordance with what they expected to find. And of course how they only sought to publish the expected and positive results, and how peer-reviewers might regard negative and inconclusive or ambiguous results...

So he investigated (some of) the anomalies, and was reminded of the significance of context, which meant that, for example, "student participation" might mean radically different things in different disciplines (a dance class in which a student did not actively participate--leave aside the injured student sitting in--would not be a "class" in a meaningful sense). A science lecture to a hundred or more students is not where you expect their active contribution--you would expect it in the follow-up seminar or problem class or hands-on lab class.
He examined, drawing on the universities with which he has worked across the world, and many different disciplines, the role of academic and professional disciplines in creating different pedagogic cultures and structures. He examined traditions across different institutions and how these were entwined with and inseparable from even such matters as the layout of buildings and staff hiring policies. He explored the quality guidance and criteria laid down by many bodies for evaluating the excellence (or otherwise) of courses--and showed that some of the avowedly best institutions might meet none of them. He showed that in some cases staff engaged in "industrial deviance", violating university policies where they actively inhibited the provision of formative feedback to students. The result was the students appreciated this bending of the rules as evidence of the staff interest, and succeeded. But this department seemed to be bucking a trend in the research--because when the investigators visited the staff were reluctant to confess to such "illegal" good practice!

He discussed the impact of organisational culture on the development of excellent practice; out of four kinds of such culture found in universities--collegial, corporate, bureaucratic and entrepreneurial, it was the first and the last which actually promoted excellence. The corporate and bureaucratic models were dead hands. So why has government and the quality movement (he did not mention the QAA, or Ofsted, by name) persevered in plugging precisely the least effective models?

And in passing he mentioned the irrelevance of specifying learning outcomes and objectives for every session... (Teresa, if you read this before I reply personally, that is what I shall say).

A masterful lecture, and sadly perhaps his last public address, he said. I do hope it appears, soon, in an accessible form.

And just before I started on the second half of this post, I read Sean's latest and characteristically challenging post--perhaps Gibbs has some answers for him.

P.S. -- Several people have commented that Gibbs has undermined everything he himself has stood for, for the past thirty years. I confess I am not sufficiently familiar with his canon to confirm that, but they may indeed be right. This holist, contextualised approach is contrary to the viewpoint of much research. It is idiographic rather than nomothetic, and scholars from humanistic traditions have been delighted to celebrate the claimed switch.

...and I have been reminded that he also claimed that increasingly detailed course specifications resulted in students learning less from the course. Counter-intuitive again, but the more detail is specified, the more students can target their study strategically in order to pass--and to pass well.  Which they will do with the minmum sufficient knowledge, never having had to engage with all that pesky background stuff which may help you understand but not directly to pass.

14 October 2010

On having no bearings...

My partner would love to get an affirmative answer to the question, "Does my bum look big in this?" She is skinny, and she can't find jeans to fit. When she commissioned me to go shopping for jeans for her in the States a few years ago, the shop assistant insisted I must have got the wrong measurements--no adult was that size.

However, she got wind via a friend, of a shop in St Albans (actually a menswear shop) which might well stock some to fit. She spoke to someone there on the 'phone and we drove down today, to find this little shop in a very elegant back-street. She had not mentioned prices on the 'phone, and I began to wonder when the guy found her several pairs to try on, and referred to them all by their labels--of which the only one I recognised was Versace. While she was trying them on, I browsed the shop and found a  nice cardigan--only £400. (You know you are getting old when "nice cardigan" is no longer an oxymoron.)
Fortunately none of the jeans fitted quite well enough (although there were bargains--at only £220) for her to splash out on them. But what amazed me, naif as I am, was how much one has to pay nowadays to look tatty and cheap. (Not that everything in the shop was like that...)

I wouldn't have picked that up as clearly in a womenswear shop--we went to a couple later and I realised I had absolutely no reference points for understanding "quality" in that area.

And that is the point of the anecdote. Not that fashion is silly (or indeed obscene in its self-obsessed self-indulgence, although it is) or that prices are ridiculous. No, it is the disorientation which comes from having no point of reference, no sense of standards by which to judge--anything.

I'm pretty sure that it is key to much marketing-oriented business to keep consumers on the back foot in this way, so they can provide a spurious "solution", such as a brand, to the intolerable abyss of disorientation. At least to the extent that they can be parted from a couple of hundred quid.

Here links indirectly

06 October 2010

On doing it myself

I was teaching from 4.30 to 6.30 this evening. Naturally (!) it was all supported with projected presentation material, so I had to set up my netbook and pipe output through the data projector. Half of the session was a micro-teaching exercise, which needed to be videoed so that the student could review his teaching and tell us about his evaluation next week. This was the first time I had used this equipment (my own, incidentally) in this room, so I needed to set up a backup system just in case... Sound is more of a problem than video.

(The car park "automatic" exit barrier broke down as I arrived causing a substantial tail-back of people trying to leave, which in turn caused delays for those of us trying to enter and park--so I was 15 minutes behind my planned schedule to begin with...)

So I was scuttling around the classroom, plugging in bits of kit. blessing my prescience in bringing an extension lead, setting up a tripod on a table at the back (and pleased that no-one commented on my climbing onto the table via a chair, as a violation of health and safety regulations...), attaching the backup camera to the window (yes--it's brilliant, see here, and this is not a paid endorsement) and then wrestling with getting my netbook to engage with the university wifi network... After the session, I spent ten minutes with next week's micro-teacher checking that the system could access streaming video.

A student drifted in early and asked innocently, "Don't you have technicians to do that kind of thing?"

Yes, we do. And I'm delighted to say that ours are very helpful and knowledgeable, and go out of their way to make things possible. But apart from the issues around their availability at these hours, I'd rather do it myself. Because;
  • many or even most of the students do not have access to instant technical support in their work-places. Modelling good practice is an interesting issue on this programme, but some aspects are clear. Being able to make the kit work is basic and applies to all settings, so I ought to be able to do it, too.
  • Technicians have to work to institutional policies. Dropbox is a brilliant tool, but here colleagues can't use it on their work machines because they do not have "administrator" privileges to instal it.
  • And if I have some idea of what is going on "under the bonnet/hood", it is more likely that I can fix it with least disruption to the class.