28 April 2011

On a new(ish) approach to presentation

Just in passing: I'm probably late to the party, but I'm coming across more and more examples of an excellent approach to adding animation to talks.

It's associated particularly with RSA Animate: the latest example concerns a talk by Ken Robinson on changing educational paradigms.

...but Jorge Cham is also in on the act: see his take on the physics of dark matter, here.

For some reason it greatly appeals to me--I'd be interested in other examples (there are plenty of RSA animates on YouTube I know about) and information on the practical implementation. Is it done with something like SmoothDraw, perhaps? Apparently that is what Sal Khan uses for the Khan Academy clips (which are well done, for all my reservations about the pedagogy).

26 April 2011

On "cognitive theft"

When I observe students teaching, one of the commonest issues to draw to their attention is the use of rhetorical questions--not in the sense in which a politician might use them in a speech, but in the much more mundane sense of asking the class (usually) or an individual (occasionally) an apparently straightforward question, but then answering it for them.

Partly, it appears, this arises because of fear of "dead air", as broadcasters call it. I would say "silence", but part of the fear is that it won't be silence--it will be filled with a cacophony of off-task chatter, and that may take previous minutes to settle again. There's also the self-doubt which comes from being unsure whether you have pitched the question at the right level, or whether indeed the class have learned anything which may enable them to answer it.

At one level, of course, the unintended effect of such practice is efficiently to train students not to bother to answer questions. After all, all they have to do is keep quiet and you will do it for them. Moreover, there is zero chance of being humiliated by getting the answer wrong, and only the most trivial chance of being challenged with a follow-up.

This post takes the matter further. The author argues that in relation to teaching maths at least, to deprive the student of the opportunity of answering (by doing it for her) is to commit "cognitive theft"--the denial of an opportunity to learn.

(The post includes an interesting video of a TEDx talk by Gary Stager around this issue. The tone is rather self-important, and of course school-focused, but excerpts would make a good discussion starter in class.)

The post goes on to discuss the maths teaching approach of Sal Khan (of the Khan Academy) who emphasises direct instruction in techniques to solve problems, and suggests that it comes close to cognitive theft, too. Khan's approach has attracted quite a lot of attention in the maths-teaching blogosphere, and there are some thoughtful posts on it here.

The issues posed go much wider than maths education and schools; from my own area of interest, instruction in algorithms to reach the right answer but without knowing why --in any field--is a way of faking an understanding of threshold concepts, and is ultimately self-limiting and another form of cognitive theft.


Thanks to Jim Hamlyn; he thought he'd missed the boat because of my frivolous later post, it appears, but commented:
A post on cognitive theft disappeared into the ether and I'd just dug out a link especially. Och well, here it is anyway:

 ...on the Khan argument.

On a bank holiday

What was supposed to take an hour or two took all day in the garden. As ever, coming back to doing this kind of stuff after months away, I found tools missing, broken, or blunt. I went up to son's to collect stuff he'd borrowed and not returned--he wanted advice on something to do with the electrical circuits--so that took an hour. (And he'd broken some of the implements he'd borrowed yesterday...)

(Almost) everything which could go wrong with the trellis project did go wrong, including drill bits breaking in the hole and wood splitting, and the trellis coming apart while being cut to size...

But no sooner had I finally got it in place, than (same) son phoned--he and partner had bought some new curtains and a curtain pole. Could he borrow the power drill again to put it up? And--since he'd never done this before--could I show him how to do it? As well that I did, because he met the traditional problem of trying to drill into a hidden steel lintel. I had to come back home to find some different screws, but we got it up.

By this time I realised I had only eaten a banana and a croissant for breakfast and nothing else all day, but there was no time to cook anything much for dinner, so I'd call at the supermarket and pick up something nice. It's a public holiday, so they closed at six and thanks to the steel lintel it was now half-past...

We found some leftovers in the fridge, of course, and son came round later to take me for a pint... So all's well that ends well, but I'm glad that everyone is back at work tomorrow (briefly--there's another holiday for some reason on Friday and the following Monday is May Day Bank Holiday), so perhaps I can relax!

24 April 2011

On challenging beliefs

This post draws attention to:
...self-affirmation.[...] Basically, it goes like this: when your beliefs or world view is threatened in some way, you’re likely to respond defensively. However, if you are able to affirm another part of your world-view positively, you are likely to be less defensive in the first instance.
(It's not new--the reference [full citation in the linked post] is dated 2000--but it's one of those things you are unlikely actually to come across unless you search on just the right terms, and every researcher seems to invent their own.)

My personal terminology for challenging existing ideas is learning as loss, or "supplantive learning". A quick glance at the link (or an even quicker one here) will establish the parallels.

What I find interesting about the slightly different perspective of the research discussed here is the way in which it meshes with what I discovered empirically and even experientially about the critical importance of personal credibility when trying to teach people things which run counter to what they already know.

For teaching (adults) in the context of professional practice it is utterly critical. Self-affirmation seems to suggest a relatively weak effect of establishing common ground with someone over practically anything (as Robinson's musical taste examples show) which nevertheless grants you a hearing and overcomes some resistance. The issue in a professional context is not merely about some areas of cognitive agreement, but about whether you have ever actually been there and done that... (see the links below for examples).

"In my experience" trumps "research demonstrates". No contest.

Unfortunately experience may be crap...

See also (manually generated):
On credibility (30.10.10)
On credibility (25.2.06)

h/t David Robinson

20 April 2011

On deliberate practice (golf)

Thanks to Jason Kottke for the pointer to this site, where Dan McLaughlin is putting the "10,000 hours deliberate practice" idea to the test, to see if he can get up to professional standard in golf.

The principle is attributed to Malcolm Gladwell (who doesn't need any more free publicity--there's less to him than meets the eye) but the research is based on the work of K Anders Ericsson (here's a link to an accessible article.)
So what does correlate with success? [...] All the superb performers he investigated had practiced intensively, had studied with devoted teachers, and had been supported enthusiastically by their families throughout their developing years. Later research [...] revealed that the
amount and quality of practice were key factors in the level of expertise people achieved. Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born. These conclusions are based on rigorous research that looked at exceptional performance using scientific methods that are verifiable and reproducible. (p.1)
Our research shows that even the most gifted performers need a minimum of ten years (or 10,000 hours) of intense training before they win international competitions. In some fields the apprenticeship is longer: It now takes most elite musicians 15 to 25 years of steady practice, on average, before they succeed at the international level. (p.4)
It's interesting to put the idea to the test in this way.

The definitive reference is: Charness N, Feltovich P, Hoffman R and Ericsson K (2006) The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance Cambridge; C.U.P. (Beware, it's 900 pages!)

I've also discussed the idea here, here, and here.

On approaching the task of research

The link is to Keith Lyons' blog, where he has an interesting piece extracted from the introduction to his Ph.D (which accounts for the datedness of the references) about the relationship between personal experience in the education field, and undertaking research about it, particularly the relationship between the research and his (or her) subjects.

For any of my dissertation students embarking on their empirical work, and anyone looking back on their own research journey, it is highly recommended.

18 April 2011

On Dorling (2011)

I've finished a book!

Not writing one--that has a couple of years to go at least--but reading one. I blame the net. Not only am I constantly washed over by waves of RSS feeds with fascinating and informative diversions (you don't know about RSS? You don't want to know about it. It's third only to twitter and facebook as addictive net; I've eschewed the first two, but RSS...) but Nicholas Carr may be right.

That's not entirely fair or accurate, but occasionally I have a log-jam on reading. I have six or seven books literally piling up to read.
  • (Six or seven? The "or" is MacGregor's (2010) History of the world in 100 objects . When I was a child in the '50s, I was occasionally given a sweet bar (similar to our currant (sorry!) cereal bars, but made principally of dried fruit) by a shop-keeper uncle. My mother never let me have more than a quarter of it, on the grounds that it would be "too rich" for my digestion. (Come to think of  it, that other three-quarters seemed to vanish never to re-appear)  Like those bars, I am rationing myself on this book, just as I am on J D Barrow's (2008) Cosmic Imagery; key images in the history of science [I've now lost track of all these recursive parentheses, sorry!]
But! I finished the one linked to from the heading. Incidentally, I'm not signed up to any ad-sense-type scheme. Here's --edited with l'esprit de l'escalier what I posted on Amazon...
He's a (human) geographer, not an economist. And I mean "human" as opposed to "physical", rather than "robot"... But he writes like an economist. A Scandinavian economist.

I bought this book because I enjoy quirky takes on social issues, and the teasers on the cover e.g. "Why more divorced people live by the sea than anywhere else" attracted me. But it is far more political and structural than that. The entertaining stuff is there, but it tends to be buried under rather preachy rhetoric.

So: I liked--

A refreshingly different angle on Britain. There's a confluence of social disciplines (they're not "sciences"), in which economists, sociologist, and now geographers comment on the same things from different angles. Dorling relies on public data for his raw material, and ingeniously and persuasively interprets it. And he is not afraid to celebrate the positives and to castigate the scare-mongering press and politicians.


There is statistical overkill. Some sections are like being beaten over the head with a statistical piledriver. Nerd that I am, I quite like teasing the implications out of stats, but not like this.

And there's a lot of repetition. Repeated with slight variation. Several times... The editor should have been much more ruthless.

And the route from observation to data to interpretation to solution is far from as linear as Dorling implies. Hence the preachiness. (I incline to agree with him, which actually makes the sermon more irritating.)

11 April 2011

On making learning easier by making it more difficult...

This is the other side of the coin (although from a different angle) from this post.

Do you make your handouts and slides clearly legible and easy to read? This article argues (inclusivity considerations aside) that you may be doing your students a disservice.

Up to a point, perhaps... But it's always interesting to entertain a counter-intuitive angle.

06 April 2011

On being condemned to be free...

This is a somewhat self-indulgent post, so feel free to move on. But it is my blog...

A confluence of stimuli as usual:

First, a succession of tutorials this afternoon with students trying to get to grips with the course policy of (not merely permitting or encouraging but) demanding that they construct their own "submission" of evidence that they have met the required outcomes at the required level. A majority, as usual, started by saying something to the effect that they had never encountered anything like this before, and they didn't know how to draft the learning contract... and then they (and their more confident colleagues) proceeded to explain brilliantly how they would do it with reference to their practice and their dilemmas and alternatives and... And then they were disconcerted when I said, "Great! How are you going to tell that story?"

Second, my partner is away for a week. It so happens that today marks six months since our dog died. In his final year he needed a lot of care; walks of course (v e r y  s l o w walks), frequent measured feeding, and insulin injections twice a day. And for a decade or more we have not been away together overnight because in part of his distress. (Yes, we know... don't bother to comment!)

I dropped my partner at the station, and drove back home. And let myself back into a house with no human or animal presence making any demand on me. Bereavement, in a sense, but not quite the same. It's the disorientation rather than the loss which takes the foreground. The requirement to make choices in the absence of guidelines/parameters...

So. I'm up beyond my bed-time.... Perhaps I would be more empathic to the students were I to have the tutorials tomorrow!

(Incidentally, the heading refers to J-P Sartre's (1945-49) tetralogy (I think) Les Chemins de la Liberte. Don't bother to read them--life is too short.)

01 April 2011

On a special date...

Just came across this classic from Panorama on  1 April, 1957.

Unfortunately embedding is disabled, although the NYT seems to have managed it (with better quality) here