28 January 2012

On "Borgen"

I've just emerged from watching another two hours of Borgen on BBC4. It's possibly even better than the West Wing, principally because as a few critics have pointed out, Danish politics are more intimate and personal than the vast US stage.

Danish politics? After the Killing and of course Hamlet a while ago, that seam must be exhausted, surely? Far from it, but I am interested in just what compels me to commit two hours on a Saturday night to watching a pair of episodes (incidentally, one episode at a time is a feast; please don't force-feed us). And it is a compulsion. I did have a couple of other things to do this evening, but I didn't do them. I did not even open this infernal machine while it was on.

Partly that was because it demanded my full attention because it is subtitled (although there are occasional disorientating moments of perfect unaccented English). I could not let my visual attention wander and rely on background hearing to make sense of what was going on, so for example, checking email while watching is not an option. Similarly, but more surprisingly, muting the sound and relying on the sub-titles just does not work for some reason. The content is in the subtitles, but the paralanguage is on the soundtrack and the main visuals.---That is the takeaway point from a teaching perspective, but;--

It has lots of other things going for it... It's rather late to pick up many of the themes by now, but 80% of each episode stands on its own.

Just a pity if you missed the reason why Kasper is such a lying s**t. That didn't need subtitles, and I've never seen anything like it, but it was brilliantly both discreetly graphic and could not have offended any naive viewer. It does relate to this recent post.

Items to Share (28 January)

The Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips 

"On the Mechanics of Choice"; good summary article on the psychology of decision-making

A perceptive but sceptical discussion of Apple's further forays into the education market, raising again whether technology and education are on divergent paths.

Is this a game-changer? MIT Mints a Valuable New Form of Academic Currency.

Vindicated! The Power of Introverts: A Manifesto for Quiet Brilliance (review article)

Cambridge Nights: Late Night TV-Style Show Takes Deep Look at Scientific Thinking

It's been a slow week, but this is daftly delightful and even uplifting--even if you are not a Doctor Who fan! (15 mins)

...and forfeiting all intellectual gravitas, watch this on the Canadian space programme. (1:30)

26 January 2012

On abuse undetected for years

The story is here. A teacher at a primary school in Somerset was convicted today of 36 counts of the sexual abuse of children during his 15 years of employment at the school, many of them taking place during classes, and despite concern having been expressed by colleagues on thirty occasions. The head teacher has been dismissed.

How could that happen? All too easily. I wrote in a similar area here. In view of some of the comments I received on that post (now deleted, of course) I want to be clear that I am not making excuses for anyone and still less condoning child abuse.

Several times in my career I have come close to having to report abuse, of elderly people and people with learning disabilities and mental health issues as well as children. I'm relieved to say that I have never had to make the call because someone else more closely involved has beaten me to it. Once I decided not to make the call, and it appears that I made the right judgment, although...

I have also been on the fringes of many cases, talking to social workers and others about their experiences. And in a different capacity as a teacher trainer, I have sat in on many many "safeguarding" training sessions.

I do know the ropes, both in policy and principle, and in practice.

Cut to the chase... the reporting system is misconceived. It's a top-down idealised model. Whoever you are, if you have suspicions of abuse, report to your supervisor.

That is the worst possible scenario...
  1. Your supervisor is your boss. An abuse report is the last thing she wants to hear--so unless you have a group of supporters (who may well evaporate at the least sign of opposition), you are not going to approach. It is not a good career move.
  2. Because the boss may refer it up the line to her boss, but despite the formal procedures, boss1 is in the same position to boss2 as you are to boss1. Follow?
  3. Regardless of the number of stages before external action is taken, the default action at each stage is of course denial: "It's probably all a misunderstanding/mistake/personal issue/ will sort itself out..."
  4. And the longer that goes on, the worse will be the consequences if there is an inquiry, so cognitive dissonance sets in...
The problem is that supervisors/managers/headteachers are just not equipped to respond proportionately to concerns. My admittedly anecdotal experience over many years is that at their level the safeguarding training does not work. It is experience which counts. Faced with one case every few years, and a vague idea of what ought to happen (which rarely does) they have no idea of a graduated and nuanced response. There are two positions; Denial and Disaster.

The matter needs to be taken out of their hands.

However fallible our social workers are (and of course by the nature of their task they get no publicity for their unsung achievements, just their disasters) they've been there before. They are pretty good at sorting through malicious referrals, deluded suspicions, reasonable concerns, serious cases, and emergencies. Referrals do not faze them. They can do proportionate responses, discreet investigations, re-assurance of reluctant victims and families

Good grief! I've got a positive proposal!

So the safeguarding/reporting procedures need to be changed. Regardless of what you are taught: If you suspect abuse,  
  • first report it to the NSPCC (the organisation is far from perfect, but it is accessible and ubiquitous and not in hock to any local interests), and 
  • then to your boss. 
You don't need to admit to having made the referral--it's better if you do, of course. Having a named referrer "gives the inquiry legs" as they say.

Many years ago I taught on a continuing professional development course on pastoral care for teachers. During the coffee break, one of them took me aside and sought advice about one of her pupils, who (she believed) was being abused at home. I explained the formal procedure, but she stopped me,"I know all that, but, if I pass this on, she'll end up in care--and I've seen what happens to children in care--her chances in life will be blighted. And if I don't, she'll continue to be abused, and learn that there is no point telling anyone because nothing happens..."

It's always a difficult call.

21 January 2012

On the journal scam (ctd.)

Following on from this earlier post; there is a protest here from someone much closer to the situation than me.

[Up-date 26.02.12] More.

Items to share (21 January)

  • ...and here on normal and formal language. I'm an ironic formalist; I know the "rules" and sometimes decide to break them (as does Pullum). It's not the same as not knowing the (sensible) ones.
  • Lecture by Nassim Nicholas Taleb on impact of failures within systems; one of the few people who seems to see systems as they are, rather than as we would like to believe them to be.
  • We know crows are bright, but who would have thought they went in for snowboarding? Thanks to Ben Goldacre for the link

"Maslow had a nobler humanity in mind than the one our cult of the self produces in barbaric multitudes. [...] The prospect of a race of moral giants has issued in a breed of selfish twerps, with a sizeable proportion of genuine degenerates. How the highest democratic longing — to realize the best in one’s nature — has been debased into a pervasive complacency, even a widespread monstrosity, is more than an interesting question in intellectual history; it is a grave and ongoing public catastrophe."
  • V S Ramachandran's quick tour of some of the most intriguing case studies revealing the powerful, adaptive potential of the human brain.

19 January 2012

On disclosure

Yet again I have been asked about my presence (or rather lack of it) on Facebook and Twitter, and Google+ and LinkedIn and... I'm not going to go in to all the details about what such sites expect one to disclose about oneself; it's all old hat. That isn't my problem.

My problem is about imposing on other people. I did sign up for Facebook some time ago, and obviously clicked some buttons without reading the small print, as 99% of users presumably do. It then proceeded to "invite" all my gmail contact to be my "friends" --I've been on the receiving end of this too many times to mention, and so I know how much of an imposition it is, not to mention the implied snub in refusing to "friend" someone. (The usual verb in the real world is "befriend"--that does have its dark side, too, but its paradigmatic relationship is rather richer than this impoverished online version.) I then spent over an hour crafting, pasting and editing dozens of apologies to them. Actually, it did bring some people to mind whom I had neglected, but that did not make up for my unintended imposition.

LinkedIn I can understand. It's about networking and business and work. I just don't respond because I'm semi-retired. I'm interested in doing things for people who are sufficiently interested in me to seek me out--which ain't difficult because there is a contact link at the bottom of all my web-pages. I'm no longer in the business of promoting myself, but I can see it makes sense.

But there is a degree of arrogance in other social networking sites, an assumption that other people will be interested in me and the minutiae of my life, to the extent that I can push it at them. It fits with and feeds off the inanities of  "celebrity culture". To a certain extent writing a blog buys into the same idea, of course, so I'm already guilty, but I'm not going to compound the offence.

I suspect--although I can't see how to test this--that there is an inverse correlation between the interestingness (horrible clumsy word, but I can't find precise synonyms) of a person and their compulsion to project themselves to a diffuse cloud of acquaintance on the net. Up-dating a defined community of family, friends and colleagues is a different matter, of course. Even so, I'd rather be selective and incremental--it's about interaction and conversation rather than broadcasting.

No, Google+ circles are not the answer, although a tiny crawl in the right direction.

I've bored you long enough. Should I send this?

16 January 2012

On journals (and Pozzo and Lucky...)

I wrote recently about the arrogance of the publishers of academic journals. I have to declare that I have now heard from the real human editor of the journal in question, who took the trouble to write personally to apologise for the form letters from the publishers, and who is probably as put upon as the rest of us...

And today I came across this piece, which speaks for itself.

But it reminds me of one of the most bizarre incidents of my academic career.

It was a warm summer afternoon in the mid-'90s. My colleague and I were sitting on folding chairs on the grass outside our building near the campus entrance discussing something or other.

A man in an unseasonable heavy black overcoat came by, followed by his associate/assistant/servant/slave who was pulling a very large trolley case. Initially black overcoat asked for directions to Reception, but he had no clear idea of whom he wanted to see or details of any appointment, and being rather cravenly polite and not having a door to shut in his face, we allowed him to state his proposition/pitch.

(If you are familiar with Waiting for Godot, Pozzo and Lucky are the best parallels.)

Briefly, he wanted us to sign up PhD students from the Arabian Gulf area. He was not particularly interested in our areas of expertise or research, although when I referred to social sciences, he suggested that a Deputy Chief of Police in one of the Emirates would be an ideal candidate for me to "supervise". He was a little disappointed that we had no expertise on campus in chemical engineering--to his ?credit, my father's and brother's background in that field was not sufficient for him to point students my way...

The deal was that his clients would sign up for a part-time overseas doctoral programme with us. We would not have to do anything except process the proposal and the assessment. All the supervision could be arranged locally. For the viva (defense) the supervisor and external examiner (and companions) would be flown out to the Gulf and accommodated at 5* level, and would then be keynote speakers at a major conference to celebrate the award (for which a suitable fee would be arranged payable to the individuals rather than the institutions) extended to a two-week vacation, courtesy of /not clear/you don't need to know/.

The trolley-case was full of theses, and glossy commemorative volumes of the "conferences" including pictures and profiles of UK supervisors and mentors. (I never bothered to check up on them.)

And bound volumes of journals, with respectable titles such as those listed in the link above. All of them, Mr Overcoat was keen to stress, have ISSN numbers (as if that guaranteed academic respectability. I don't know if Viz comic has got one, but it could have). He could guarantee acceptance of papers in such journals, and even recommend us for the editorial boards or even editorships...

We accepted his business card, but explained that the registration process was a little more complex than that, and after an hour or so, he took the hint.

...and asked for directions to Cambridge...

14 January 2012

Items to share (14 January)

Rather a fallow week this week.
  • What's the difference between a "neat" idea and a "brilliant" one? Or a "weird" one and a "terrible" one? Explore here.
  • I'm currently working further on rubbishing the notion of reflection. According to research pointed to in my piece on that, "grit" is a more reliable indicator for success as a teacher than any capacity for reflection; here is a TED talk on grit.
  • Late addition; if you despair about young people and their education, watch this. OK--these young women are exceptional, by definition, but the comment stream is also interesting.

08 January 2012

Items to share (7 January)

1) Not only do you not know what will happen, you don't even know what can happen [...]. Then reason, dream of our Enlightenment, is an insufficient guide to living your life. We need reason, emotion, intuition, sensation, knowledge of our culture and our evolved humanity. 2) Because you do not know what can happen you cannot make normal probability statements about what you cannot know: [...]. (So management from the top as if you knew and could optimize is often deeply wrong). 3) Radical emergence occurs all the time, Turing machine to the Web to Google, Facebook and the Arab Spring.
  • If you want to know how people go about thinking through courses from the bottom up, using experience, theories, coincidences, epiphanies... then read this piece by Paul Maharg on designing a graduate diploma in law. There's at least a term's work in it!
  • At the nominating session for the American Dialect Society 2011 Word of the Year,  Geoff Pullum made "a strong case for his favorite word of the year, assholocracy." (Thanks to Language Log)

04 January 2012

On phasing out feedback.

Thanks once again to Bruno Setola for putting me on to this very interesting take on feedback (and I can recommend his site for some interesting further work on TCs).

This is an invited lecture (the whole video is 88 minutes) from Royce Sadler of the Griffith Institute for Higher Education, Griffith University, Brisbane, given for the WriteNow Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, and organised by Liverpool Hope University in May 2010.

At first sight Sadler directly contradicts Hattie's major finding from his meta-analysis--which is in itself interesting enough to make him worth listening to. But there is more to his approach than that, bearing in mind that he is talking about the assessment of complex learning among university students, rather than for example the development of simpler skills among children.

The abstract is here. I am not going to cover the entire lecture, but to give pointers to some of the most interesting parts of the argument below the video:

(The video starts with introductory remarks by Lin Norton and Bart McGettrick. The numbers are the time index from the very start of the video. Numbers in [square brackets] refer to my notes at the end.)
  • 25:45   Sadler argues that feedback is over-rated, and outlines the basic argument. 
  • 35:00   Writing feedback on students' assessment tasks is both demanding and time-consuming for the marker, so we are entitled to ask about the return on investment of this activity. Many students don't even pick up their work after marking, still less read the comments, still less learn from them...
  • 37:30   The basic problem is that giving feedback is about telling students what the problems are and how they might improve; we no longer think that the "transmission" model is a good way of teaching content, so why should we think it's a good way of conveying feedback?
  • 44:00   Students are rarely familiar enough with the process of marking/grading work to have any idea what actually constitutes quality--a good piece of work--so often what we tell them means nothing to them and they don't know what to do with it. [1]
  • 52:00   Accomplished practitioners in all disciplines no longer rely on other people giving them feedback based only on externally determined criteria. They know for themselves;
    • When and how to adjust their provisional plans, as they are going along.
    • What issues they can ignore; what doesn't matter (and of course what does).
    • They notice inconsistencies in their own work, and take steps to correct them as they are going along. [2]
  • 58:00   But students do not yet have those skills. So the challenge is how to inculcate them. We have them, based on hours and years of practice in assessing students' work, but that does not mean that we can communicate them.
  • 71:30  Sadler describes one approach to developing students' skills in self-monitoring and -assessment in tutorial:
  • He gives out a sample piece of submitted work. He asks the students;
    • Does it address the task as set?
    • Is it any good? (He refuses to set out the criteria for them. [3])
    • Why do you say that?
    • What advice would you give about how to make it better?
I don't think there is a single mention of "reflection" in the entire lecture!

[1]  It's not only students. This is a little-mentioned feature of involving less-experienced colleagues, such as postgrads (and here), practice supervisors and mentors in the assessment process. They may be highly- experienced as practitioners, but not as assessors. A course on which I work matches each student with a work-place based mentor, who receives some training and undertakes some direct assessment of teaching, among other duties. But many mentors only work with one student, and often have fallow years with none at all. They will undertake just four formal observations with each student over two years--and those may well be the only occasions they use the observation protocol. The tutors do dozens or scores of observations every year, and develop a common approach to making judgements, but we can never be sure that mentors have had a chance to internalise those standards. No--you can't address the issue with more reams of spurious "guidance"...
[2]  Sadler goes on to suggest that waiting to give feedback until after a piece of work has been finally and formally submitted is pointless and counter-productive. The point at which to make suggestions for improvement is when the student still has a chance to implement them. A course on which I teach and which I helped to design many years ago was recently severely criticised in an internal review for permitting "dry runs", when students could submit partially completed assessments in advance for just such feedback. The basis of the criticism was that it conferred an unfair advantage on those students who made use of it. This seems to me to suggest that the reviewers did not have a clue... They had lost sight of the idea that being able to produce a good piece of work on a well-designed assessment task is what we are all working towards; effectively handicapping students by denying them feedback when they can use it is a grodd distortion of the process. (Yes, there is a cap on how many times it can be done...)

[3]  He is of course helping them to develop their own frame of reference, and capacity to notice factors germane to the quality of the piece. But I wonder how he learned this bit? I was asked a few years ago to contribute to a staff development event on "Assessment on Taught Master's Courses", a joint enterprise between two universities. I devised an exercise which was almost identical to Sadler's except that the participants were themselves experienced tutors and assessors at Master's level--and it ground to an embarrassing halt when they all claimed they could not judge how good the samples were without the rubrics and criteria to guide them. I felt very remiss for not having provided  them, and--even worse--unprofessional, because I know what I am looking for, and the qualities and trade-offs to notice. I suspect now that they felt them same but could not admit it in front of their peers. I feel a little vindicated that Sadler adopts the same approach.

There is something similar underpinning this piece by Gary Klein--in quite a different context!

01 January 2012

On celebrating ignorance

The perpetual cry of all but the semi-mythical intrinsically-motivated student is, "What do we have to learn this for?"  Although I do recognise that it is a legitimate question and do try to answer it, on the whole I don't empathise with it.

(And I don't count, "Because it will be in the exam!" as a legitimate response. On the other hand, I'm sometimes hard put to, to think of anything else in the case of some silly syllabi)

I've built what there is of my distinctive career on encountering and exploring resistance to learning, so why am I extolling not learning?

Because there are some areas in which learning really is just loss. There is no ultimate upside.

A good friend once gave me a small cushion embroidered, "Life is too short to drink bad wine". Perhaps. But only if you know that it is "bad". And as this study shows, despite all the hype and bull, nowadays "it's all a matter of taste" is much more significant than so-called authoritative judgements (as reflected in pricing).

Several years ago, I argued slightly differently: why should I learn more about wine, when all that would achieve would be to make me dissatisfied with what I could afford, and spoil my enjoyment? Now it appears that my dissatisfaction would itself be a con!

I have no doubt that there are some people who can tell the difference which warrants pricing some wines higher than others. But is that the same as claiming that some wine is "better" than another? I do remember about twenty or so years ago when it was possible to buy really execrable wines--a judgement which would be shared by almost everyone. But, like the spurious research on IQ differences between various demographic groups, closer investigation apparently shows that nowadays intra-group variability is greater than that between groups; and that comes down to acknowledging that personal taste is what matters.

So--all I might achieve by studying wine-tasting (given that I have no business interest) is to acquire some spurious basis for deprecating some wine which I would previously have greatly enjoyed. In favour of spending a lot more on other stuff of very dubiously demonstrable superior quality?  Seems quite pointless.

Happy New Year, and feel free to enjoy cheap wine!

(in moderation, and qualified by all the weasel words of pusillanimous bureaucracy...)

And here is argument/evidence that the emperor's clothing effect may extend to musical instruments, too...