29 November 2010

On not networking...

I'm now on Facebook! By mistake. It all got out of hand, and I have been deluged with messages, some from people I have never heard of who want to be my "friend", and others from people I really respect and like who are--if not offended--at least bemused.

I'm backtracking fast! But presumably there is some point to all this social networking stuff. How come I don't get it? Apart from being a socially inept introvert, that is? I've sent a variant of the following post to everyone I believe might have been affected...
My apologies to everyone who has received gratuitous and importunate messages from Facebook in my name.  I did not expect that those of you who steer clear of it--as I did until I followed up a link onto the slippery slope--would be approached to sign up.

I joined in the first place to investigate whether it was a viable alternative to the clunky Virtual Learning Environment used by the university (particularly for those of our students in community education programmes who do not have access to such portals). The team discussed it and decided that it was not secure enough, so dropped it.

In a moment of madness last night--prompted in part by nagging emails from Facebook about some people I know trying to reach me (FB knows where I live, of course) I revisited the site. I was invited, I thought, just to check who, on my address lists in gmail, etc. was already on the site. I was naive and didn't understand how it worked; it asks for an inch and takes a mile.

So far, the only reason I can see not to "deactivate" (apparently there is no way to delete completely) my account is that it would be rude to those of you who are making good use of it. I'll keep it open for a week or so, in case someone wants to persuade me otherwise.

A few people have noted that they can't "friend" me. I must have had the good sense to disable that option when I first signed up.

In the meantime I have battened down the privacy settings to their tightest. There is some marginal convenience in being able to send the same messages to all one's "friends" at once of course, but all email packages offer the same facility. But why on earth I would want "friends of friends" to know anything about me by default, I can't imagine. And if I want something completely public it goes on the blog.

On the other hand, you are of course entitled to conclude that I'm a miserable luddite curmudgeon and you are better off without me. That's fine; there's no need to tell me, because that is the default position... :-)

27 November 2010

On the Socratic method

I came across this quotation while marking over the summer:
“...the Socratic approach where you do not need to tell students anything, just ask them the right questions so that they will find out for themselves...”  (Reece and Walker, 2006: 118)
At least the referencing was punctilious. I must be missing something, I thought, because the quotation is a gross distortion of the "Socratic method" (if indeed there is such a thing).

And then I thought--I'm pretty sure this student has not read Plato*, because otherwise s/he would not have had to refer to one of the standard textbooks to explain what the "method" is.

But (I merely raise the question--the answer may be a clear "yes!" [in the original Greek]) have R and W (standing simply as proxies for many other writers in the field) actually read any Plato?

19 November 2010

On toxic training

Has teacher training become part of the problem rather than the solution? I'm speaking of the Higher (HE) and general Post-Compulsory Education (PCE) sector here.

As so often, I'm prompted by events and discussions which seem to be pointing in a general direction.

First--perhaps trivial, but perhaps symptomatic. Two MA students, whose dissertations I was supervising, confessed that they weren't interested in what mark they got, they just needed to pass. One teaches in PCE, the other at a university. They explained they were very busy, and so they had to be careful with how they invested their time, but that they needed the post-graduate award for career purposes. It is hard to think of a more cynically strategic approach to study--and this from people engaged in teaching beginning professionals. (They got their wishes, but only just.)

Second--Sean posted about his experience on his own MA course, on this occasion drawing attention to his fellow course members' lack of inclination to do any work outside class, resulting in ill-informed discussions and a general sense of futility. (Earlier, though, he commented on similar reluctance to work beyond the session in the very different setting of a WEA class on navigation--I may get round to that in another post...) He asks,
"Has the education system now bent so far backwards to accommodate strategic learners that even people who presumably must once have been interested in getting to grips with the thing they were studying now do the bare minimum? Or is this (as I hear it may be) how most PGCEs are now, rewarding conformity, strategic learning, and technical compliance, rather than any deeper understanding?"
Both, I think.

Third--(and slightly tangential, I confess)... Graham Gibbs' short but magisterial report on educational achievement in HE appeared in August and I blogged about his presentation based on it it here. Among his observations (p.24) is:
"High levels of detail in course specifications, of learning outcomes and assessment criteria, in response in part to QAA codes of practice, allow students to identify what they ought to pay attention to, but also what they can safely ignore. A recent study has found that in such courses students may narrow their focus to attention to the specified assessed components at the expense of everything else (Gibbs and Dunbar-Goddet, 2007). Students have become highly strategic in their use of time and a diary study has found students to progressively abandon studying anything that is not assessed as they work their way through three years of their degree (Innis and Shaw, 1997).

I learned at the age of about seven that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. (I was visiting neighbours on my own, and for the first time I was allowed to have as much sugar in my tea as I wanted. I put in four heaped teaspoonsful, and it was revolting!) The same goes for designing teaching, as for any other complex activity. Complex interactions between ingredients/variables do not seem to have occurred to the powers that be...

(Is there anywhere in LLUK standards or Ofsted criteria or similar bumf, a call for less of anything? Have they never heard of the art that conceals art?)

There is a perfect storm conspiring to distract us all in the direction of surface --or at best strategic-- learning, to attention to the signifier rather than the signified.

Perhaps it will all change next week...


Atherton J S (2010) Doceo; Values, Effort and QA [On-line] UK: Available: http://www.doceo.co.uk/tools/values_qa.htm  Accessed: 19 November 2010

Gibbs G (2010) Dimensions of Quality  York: Higher Education Academy [On-line] available: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/York/documents/ourwork/evidence_informed_practice/Dimensions_of_Quality.pdf  Accessed: 19 November 2010

Gibbs G and Dunbar-Goddet H (2007) The effects of programme assessment environments on student
York: Higher Education Academy

Innis K and Shaw M (1997) "How do students spend their time?" Quality Assurance in Education 5 (2), pp. 85–89.

16 November 2010

On unintended consequences down the line...

 (Actually this post has been held back for several weeks to anonymise it for readers who may also be my students; some details have been changed for the same reason.)

I've put it off for several days, but I've finally commented on a complicated (second) draft submission from a student.  It's complicated because although she is British by birth, English is her second language. She is a graduate (in fine arts) but her written expression is nowhere near graduate level. And when my colleague pointed out that problem to her, on her first module assessment, she protested that no-one had ever picked her up on it all the way through university, probably because of her ethnicity (and perhaps because literacy was not much assessed in fine arts, and even dyslexia is becoming "normalised"--not necessarily a bad thing of course...).

But now she is teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL)! She has been seriously let down by PC sensibilities, and she won't pass the course if she can't catch up, and if she doesn't pass she can't carry on working... She's clearly trying very hard, but I'm not sure she has the background knowledge to make full use of my feedback, and there's a limit to how much assistance it is fair for me to give...

So. Do I provide feedback as I would to anyone else? Do I make allowances for her linguistic heritages? Or is that simply patronising and indeed colonialist? Or do we arrange specialist support for her? Or do I disregard her claimed (but so far unassessed) dyslexia as worthy of support, but not her heritage? ....

Do I apply the same pass criteria as I would to anyone else? I have to answer "Yes", to that. The obligation to guarantee minimum standards for the sake of the students and even the employers must outweigh others. But clearly her teachers at school and university have colluded in the past to avoid confronting problems. Moreover, the exam boards must have done the same, because her grades were sufficient for her to get to university.

(This bit is current) On Saturday we had one of our Study Days. The theme on this occasion was "Race and Gender, Inclusivity and Diversity"; and the speaker quoted from the report of the Victoria Climbie inquiry (Laming, 2003),
“It may be that assumptions made about Victoria and her situation diverted caring people from noting and acting upon signs of neglect or ill treatment”
More telling, however, in the present context:
"It was the belief of two senior staff managers from Haringey that some staff had difficulty in reading practice guidance because of problems with literacy. (Laming, 2003, para. 1.60)
I've commented on this tragic case in relation to the ultimate cruelty of "kindness" here. (For some reason, the transcript of the Climbie Inquiry to which I refer is no longer on-line.)

14 November 2010

On performance

I have to confess that music is not a big part of my life. I am puzzled by people who go around with their ears plugged by pre-digested musical pap, isolated (and thus insulated) from the rest of the world. I can't help feeling that negates the point of music. Surely it's a beautiful (or at least organised) noise which enhances what life offers, rather than masks it.

I've just been watching a programme on Neil Diamond. Insofar as I have ever been a fan of a performer (as opposed to a composer ... leaving aside Frank, Bing, Ella, Peggy, Louis, Benny, Cleo ... OK, the argument breaks down) I quite like his work.

His repertoire is limited, mostly to his own compositions. I have great respect for that, and I'm not going to make any snarky remarks to detract from what he does.

But I am wondering about what it is like to perform the same material over and over again, for years. I see the listings of concerts and stand-up gigs, and hear the tales about "life on the road", but behind all that is the sheer grind of doing the same stuff over and over again. I and my colleagues are lucky; we may have to repeat a lecture two or three times within a week, but usually it doesn't then come round again for a year.

Perhaps it is because we are so privileged that we perpetuate this fiction about "reflective practice"?  That is merely an indulgence for people who are lucky enough to get to do something different every day, rather than variations on a basic theme--however sophisticated, skilful and state-of-the-art. The more specialised become the realities of practice--in personal injury litigation, or prostate surgery--the more routinised they become, (and the more they "belong" to a team or community of practice than an individual) and the less relevant  it becomes to reflect on them.

01 November 2010

On "self-theories", "mind-sets", popularisation and framing

I want to add to the website some stuff on mindsets, self-theories, and the like, so I have of course gone back to primary sources, and I have just finished (re-) reading Dweck (2000) (the whole thing, just to be sure. But the critics are right: it's a hologram. The whole is contained in each chapter--possibly in each page).

It's now ten years old, so I sought out something more recent, but nonetheless accessible (i.e. not paywalled academic articles). Dweck produced a popular version in 2006 called Mindset so today I did something for which there is still no real substitute. I went to a serious bookshop and found it on the shelf, with a view to spending my own money on buying it (although as Susi reminded me, I would claim it against tax).

Oh dear. I'd read the reviews on Amazon of course (increasingly it's due diligence for reading list recommendations) across the board. And the one-stars were right. Half an hour in the bookshop (Heffers is the kind of bookshop where you can spend half an hour with one book--as long as you don't crack the spine) re-framed my reading.

One regretful reviewer had suggested that the publishers would have pushed for a popular version without formal referencing and attribution and the usual academic apparatus. Perhaps so. Like one of the reviewers, I found the book in the "Self-Help" bay rather than the "Psychology A-Z" bay.

And generally, as an avid consumer of "popular science" books which enable me to develop an appreciation of areas which I lack the background to enagage with in their raw form, I would have no problem with this--indeed, I would welcome it.

But in this case... Stripped of its scholarly accretions, it amounted to nothing more than:
If you regard attributes--however positively rated--as fixed and given, you are stuck and tend to give up when faced with difficulties; see them as malleable, provisional, and any assessment as merely "where you are now", and you will face set-backs as challenges...
That is banal as a bit of folk-wisdom. But if it has research-based support it may be important...

  • I'm confused about how to deal with this stuff. I say that because it is rarely said, and readers of this blog--if any there be--need to know that it is OK to be confused. "Negative capability" rules, OK?

  • Dweck's book comes with an effusive endorsement on the cover from Robert Sternberg --premier league psychologist-- but who happened to be a colleague of Dweck.

  • I confess I have not done a detailed count, but I guess that at least 20% of the 15 pages of references include her as an author. (Not always lead author, and the convention is of course that the supervisor is included as an author when the work is done by grad. students...)

  • But I didn't find any dissenting voices or arguments, even when I went on line to look for them. That can mean at least (but not only) two things
    • First that the argument is unassailable--academe (particularly in the softer areas of scholarship) doesn't do that. Dispute is the fuel which keeps it going, for better or worse. Or of course

    • That no-one can be bothered to test it with a view to refuting it. It's either trivial or untestable (or no funding body will stump up the funds)

    • Or of course that the work has been done but no-one will publish it...
So I am interested in the uncritical acceptance which seems to have greeted this work. Such reviews as I have found have only commented on the lack of detail in the synoptic book, the unexamined assumptions about the extension of research from young children to pretty well everyone, and the less well-evidenced (and admittedly more tentative) claims about applicability to other areas of personality.

I suspect that it fits with the Zeitgeist, and particularly with a US tradition of self-help which has contributed to the "positive psychology" movement over the past ten years or so; Dweck does not appear in Barbara Ehrenreich's entertaining but devastating Smile or Die; how positive thinking fooled America and the world (2009) but she might very well have done so. After all, Dweck's analysis shares the individualism and neglect for external factors which characterises so much of what Ehrenreich castigates.