30 March 2011

On making assumptions explicit

From Tyler Cowen's blog:

This is from a child and adolescent mental health group at University College London, but it could and should also count as “Ethos of the Blogger”:
•All research is provisional
•All research raises as many questions as it answers
•All research is difficult to interpret and to draw clear conclusions from
•Qualitative research may be vital to elaborate experience, suggest narratives for understanding phenomena and generate hypotheses but it can’t be taken to prove anything
•Quantitative research may be able to show hard findings but can rarely (never?) give clear answers to complex questions
And yet, despite all the challenges, it is still worth attempting to encourage an evidence-based approach, since the alternative is to continue to develop practice based only on assumption and belief.
For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.
And I'll point all my dissertation students to it.

Pity there's no original source cited; if anyone knows it, I'll be pleased to attribute.

24 March 2011

On the "front line"

A while ago I watched a "Newsnight" discussion on what it means to preserve "front-line" public services in an era of cuts. A couple of speakers tried to argue that the definition of "front-line" wasn't easy, but they came across as self-serving reactionaries preserving "jobs for the boys" [the sexism of the expression matches the datedness and factionalism of the principle].

The context was that of policing, and the simplistic distinction implicit in the discussion was between "proper" (sworn constables with powers of arrest) officers and everyone else. Proper police are more expensive than other employees, but there was no discussion of the more complex question, with which police managers are no doubt struggling every day, of the relationship between proper police and "civilian" staff.

As a rule of thumb, the role of back- or middle-office/support/admin. etc. staff is to enable the "front-line" staff to do their jobs. Sometimes, the best way of supporting the front-line staff is to increase their support.

I wrote this about two and a half years ago. It is generally proclaimed that the major tasks of a university are teaching and research, and that the people who actually perform those tasks are the academics.

So it is ironic that structures have developed such that a colleague has been increasingly required to undertake the "back office" functions to the exclusion not only of research, but also of teaching. In a School of Education.

Sometimes the way to make front-line services more efficient, effective and economic is to support (not "manage", "regulate", "quality-assure", "put in irrelevant services people in the front line couldn't give a damn about but which sap their time energy and motivation") them.

19 March 2011

On defensive teaching

The Wolf Report says;
Recommendation 9
Students who are under 19 and do not have GCSE A*-C in English and/or Maths should be required, as part of their programme, to pursue a course which either leads directly to these qualifications, or which provide significant progress towards future GCSE entry and success.
It so happens that earlier this week I observed a class on just such a programme. About a dozen students at a Further Education college, about to try to get their GCSE A-C Maths for their third or fourth time. I gather that when no-one other than their teacher (and possibly a Learning Support Assistant) is present to observe, they are quite lively (largely "off-task", as the current jargon puts it); but in the presence of (three--don't ask) observers they were subdued, compliant and even cowed.  

Some had special needs, including one on the autistic spectrum.

I was there (such is the apostolic succession/endorsement of our quality assurance systems) to observe the directly observing tutor and mentor, rather than the actual teacher... OK:
  • How soul-destroying is it for a learner to go round this track yet again? Some of those with "special needs" (who may excel in other areas) may never get to the finishing line. Is that going to shut them out from all further educational opportunities?
  • The assumption is that better teaching can overcome all obstacles. And "teaching to the test" is the way to do it...
The teacher, currently a student on a qualifying course (which is how I got involved), made a good stab at it. She used models and work sheets and a bingo game...

But the college had seemingly long ago given up all aspiration to anything beyond "getting the learners through". The lesson plan was resolutely focused on drilling learners for the test. A third of the time was devoted to recapitulating how to calculate area (about 8-year-old stuff I think) before moving on to the volume of rectangular and triangular prisms...

The observing tutors made some useful and ingenious suggestions about how she could improve her lesson and her practice within it. Some of them had not occurred to me, and I was impressed; clearly she is getting great support and she is already an accomplished teacher. She also had lots of ideas of her own.

But they're risky. They're unproven. They creep up on ignorance and lack of skill from behind and ambush it... They may not transfer to the exam situation....

When we do know conclusively on the basis of two or three failures that conventional approaches don't work?

08 March 2011

On proper reflection

The link is to a post in Sean's reflective journal, and I'm linking to it in answer to the occasional request for examples of good reflection.

 Why do I rate it so highly?
  • Because it is task-focussed. It is about teaching and doing it better and getting better results.
  • Because it is not about blaming anyone (so much so-called "reflection") is.
  • Because it shows careful planning of practice based on previous experience and (of course) reflection.
  • Because it entertains several potential explanations for changes, and lives with the complexity and uncertainty they entail.
  • And it sets up hypotheses for testing.
On Saturday I attended an excellent lecture by Kathryn Ecclestone, on the rise of "therapeutic education" (quick introductory article here, and Amazon.co.uk book link here) in which, among other things, she explored the extent to which "reflective practice"--and especially writing about it--has morphed into highly individualised and feeling-focussed introspection, rather than being about doing the job. This sample helps to reclaim some of that ground.

(And here is my own critique of reflection as often practised.)

[Disclosure; this is in danger of becoming incestuous, because this blog also appears on Sean's blog list, and I've commented briefly over there.]

03 March 2011

On technology and quality assurance

From a London Review of Books piece on Nicholas Carr's The Shallows:
There are two ways that computers might add to our wellbeing. First, they could do so indirectly, by increasing our ability to produce other goods and services. In this they have proved something of a disappointment. In the early 1970s, American businesses began to invest heavily in computer hardware and software, but for decades this enormous investment seemed to pay no dividends. As the economist Robert Solow put it in 1987, ‘You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.’[...] it wasn’t until the late 1990s that some of the productivity gains promised by the computer-driven ‘new economy’ began to show up – in the United States, at any rate. So far, Europe appears to have missed out on them.
The original IBM PC was launched in 1981. Deming formulated the principles of "Total Quality Management" in 1982. 

I previously wrote about "write-only" documents in the context of compliance and quality management here and here.

I wonder if there is a kind of Parkinson's Law about quality assurance, and one of the factors behind its explosion in the past twenty years is the availability of the technology to generate the verbiage on which it lives. Reinforced perhaps by spurious analogies between organisations and computers?

Would insistence on only original handwritten documents restore some sanity to the process?