28 April 2012

Items to share: 28 April


  • BPS Origins An excellent interactive timeline (from 1900) of the history of psychology--I hope it continues to grow in detail.
  • "Rupert Murdoch--a portrait of Satan" Adam Curtis reprises an earlier feature on relations between the BBC and Murdoch; not as conspiracy-focused as usual, but compelling nonetheless.
  • A Point of View: In defence of obscure words Will Self--inimitable (fortunately)--but I have to agree with him this time. A few months ago I was instructed to remove all Latin phrases from a course handbook (syllabus), particularly the notoriously difficult "et al." in case the students didn't understand them. I had naively thought we were in the business of expanding their understanding, not restricting ours... I somehow never got round to complying, and as expected no-one ever checked, and the person making the demands has quietly left the university.
Education focus 
  • Great Lives: George Lyward (BBC Radio 4) I only met GL twice, shortly before he died and some maintain he was then "past it", but even so he was simply one of the most extraordinary people I have ever encountered. This is a great attempt at a tribute by Tom Robinson, but sadly it was bound to fall short... 

21 April 2012

Items to share: 21 April

Education focus:
Other Items:

20 April 2012

On the counter-productiveness of compulsion.

The Higher Education Academy is advertising for accreditors. They will check applications for HEA fellowships, and programmes leading to eligibility for them. The work is moderately well-paid and flexible, and it sounds just up my street, if I behave myself...

If I decide to apply, and get through the filtering despite being flaky on "Wide experience of working with the UK Professional Standards Framework"*, I can imagine that a sensible question at interview would be;
"Tell me, Dr Atherton, what do you think are the major challenges facing the PFS programme in its implementation in HEIs?"
I would have to answer "resentment" (followed by credibility). I can't trace the source of the adage that "managing academics is like herding cats"**,but it is very apposite.

I've not done any formal research on this, but I am sure every colleague involved in "teacher training" in the HE sector will recognise the issues...
  • From a discussion at a conference--about learning and teaching in HE and therefore attended by enthusiasts--in Sheffield in the late '90s, when the new Institute for Learning and Teaching has announced its membership scheme: "Why would I be stupid enough to join the ILT, and announce my interest in teaching? I'll just get lumbered with the first-year teaching and lose time for research!"
--and now it's a "requirement"--
  • "I've been in education for almost twenty years as a student--I think I should know something about teaching."
  • "It's bad enough trying to get your head around preparing lectures in your first year, and all the other rubbish we get dumped on us--that no-one ever told us about in advance--and then you want to take away our Wednesday afternoons for a compulsory teacher-training course. Dual professionalism my backside."
  • "This is all ideologically driven--principally to provide jobs for the girls (mainly), because they wouldn't be employable anywhere else in the university."
  • "It's an insult to have all this patronising jargon-ridden gobbledygook which passes for "research" in educational circles--mainly half-baked and methodologically very dubious progeny of long-out-dated fads from psychology and marxist theory--shoved down the throats of people who do actually know some stuff in depth."
  • "...and who in the Faculty is actually going to sack me for not getting a PGCert. in three years? And has anyone ever failed one, anyway?"
I first started teaching on a PGCert in Learning and Teaching in HE in 1996, and of course it was then voluntary. (It was the first stage on the MA in Learning and Teaching.)  The requirement to undertake the course has been introduced piecemeal by different universities--I think it was introduced where I worked in 2003.

So it was a joy to teach for seven years, with keen, motivated, and of course very bright colleagues as one's "students". We tended to start the three-hour session with one of the group reviewing something from the reading list for a nominal fifteen minutes. It was not unknown for them to fail to reach the end of their prepared remarks by the refreshment break 90 minutes later, such was the discussion. And I don't think I ever finished my prepared material. That's where I formulated my mayonnaise model of teaching.

Of course they were critical, and of course there were some who were very irritating. Motivations were mixed. In the early days we had some older colleagues on the course who had been at the institution since before it became a polytechnic. Now it was a university and they were acutely aware of how under-qualified they were--and this course seemed the easiest way up. There were others changing tracks because their research career was stalling. And some were "encouraged" to attend because even their Heads of Department recognised that they did not even reach the very low and informal bar which represented the expected standard of teaching.

But they were receptive and participative.

Eventually, it became a requirement for all new members of staff without an existing teaching qualification to undertake the course, and that had knock-on effects. The numbers grew, of course, and that limited the opportunities for such highly participatory approaches to teaching. Heads of Department made representations to the Centre which ran the programme (it was not based in the School of Education) to make it more convenient, and more "practical". The Centre recruited more staff, with teaching qualifications but without the academic credibility which came from being based in a faculty (even in a School of Education, which is traditionally low in the academic pecking order). The course was revised and re-validated, responding to the explicit requests for more practicality and application--so the approach became more didactic. And structured.

Dissident voices became more apparent. More time was spent justifying the very existence of the course--and more was also spent on inducting the participants into the QA procedures and paperwork of the institution. The Centre was absorbed into the ever-expanding Human Resources Department, and lost even more credibility. The course was no longer seen as a resource and a stimulus, but more of a penance, with lower and lower expectations of how it might help improve teaching...

That story is perhaps a little over-stated, and it is not the whole story, but I know from speaking to former colleagues across the country that it is repeated with variations from Russell Group universities to post-1992 institutions.

So how do you get colleagues to believe that the content of the course will actually help them, and make teaching better, easier and more enjoyable?

    *   How much more is "wide" than "some"? Does "working with" include "complaining about" and "failing to understand"? [I shan't mention this qualification in the application, but if it comes up I shall at least know someone at HEA reads the blog!]  

    **  Although my own contribution to the source hunt is that I first heard it used by Diana Laurillard at an Open University conference in Milton Keynes in 1997; although whether it appears in the transcript of her paper I don't know; it must have been fairly fresh because is got a genuine laugh. ( Laurillard D (1997) "A systems model of individual learning applied to organisational learning and the HE system" Paper at "Applying Systems Thinking to Higher Education" conference, Open University 12 July 97. [Read more: The Politics of RBL http://www.doceo.co.uk/rbl/polrbl.htm#ixzz1sVqmzXBE Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives] )

    15 April 2012

    On sources for courses, so to speak

    I'm planning a book. The opportunities afforded by e-books for almost direct sales (not to mention the prospect of 70% royalties if one plays one's cards right, given that the external funding for my sites and blog dried up three years ago...) are very tempting.

    I have been wondering how to "pitch" it. Not in the sense of how to sell it, but how to find the right "voice" for it. And as I took a walk this afternoon, I realised I had already written it! At least, I wrote 40,000 words of it about fifteen years ago, and then life got in the way (and the publisher didn't like it) and it came to nothing. But it is still there on a backup drive, so this afternoon I sat down to read it.

    One: the publisher was right.

    Two; the content is OK, although of course way out-of-date (both academically, and in terms of my views), but I no longer have any idea of why anyone would want to read it, presented as it is. I'm pleased to find some of the grunt work has been done, of course, although I suspect that everything will have to be re-written from scratch. But it's unreadable; it's clear and well-structured but utterly lifeless. And...

    Three; that is in no small measure because I used the author/date referencing system (a.k.a. "Harvard"). It's not merely a technical device--it transforms writing. Not in a good way.

    In my retired leisure I have been reading a lot of interesting stuff, for pleasure. Several years ago I suffered Acute Fiction Failure. For some inexplicable reason I find myself incapable of engaging with novels any more, even old friends; the last one I finished was Ishiguro's Never let me go. Perhaps that was just too haunting?

    However! I've been devouring dozens of "popular" science/economics/social science/op-ed books and admiring their balance between doing justice to the content and being accessible to the reader. And clearly one of the ways in which they manage that balance is by using end-notes.

    So that set me thinking about academic writing styles.

    Sadly, the academic style I have become used to is primarily defensive. It assumes a hostile reader--a marker (grader) in the case of the student, or a peer reviewer in the case of a researcher. Hence the obsessional APA  referencing--never mind that the in-text citation continually interrupts and distracts from whatever "flow" the argument might have. And the adoption of the passive voice as default, as if to claim any personal involvement in the research is to give a hostage to fortune--although I am pleased to note that does seem to be in retreat, a little.

    It is certainly not about communicating any enthusiasm or even interest in the subject.

    Clearly the document of record, the peer-reviewed article reporting serious new findings in a serious discipline, needs to be scrupulous; but frankly looking at what passes for scholarship and even research in the dubious world of education, most of the published bumf is not in that league. It's glorified op-ed, covering itself in the fig-leaves of scholarship to conceal its nakedness.

    In many cases, the imponderables and immeasurables of the topics under discussion mean that is all we can aspire to. (And it's not helped by the pressure on academics in these soft fields to produce and publish ever more papers, just for the sake of it, without ever asking whether the world will in any sense be a better place for all the futile effort they devote to papers which will eventually aspire to a citation index of zero.)

    I am returning of course to topics I have touched on here and here.

    But the point this time is a little different; the authors and publishers of the books I have been reading, however serious (Kahneman, for one, is a Nobel laureate) are able to wear their scholarship more lightly and to concentrate on communicating their ideas, presumably because they are on trial in the market-place rather than in the more vicious arena of their peers.
    "The reason that academic politics is so vicious is that the stakes are so small." (often attributed to Henry Kissinger, probably wrongly--but the fact that I checked it out is itself a sort of recursive demonstration of the idea...)

    They use end-notes. That is not in itself a big deal, but it does mean that the author can write so as to give priority to the argument, but also allow the reader to get at the supporting evidence if she wants to.

    Ouch! I did actually start to write; "..it betokens a rhetoric which privileges the argument, while facilitating access to the scholarly evidence..." Sorry!!

    ...and yet... The two versions do not actually say quite the same thing. Enough!

    Meanwhile, back at the ranch... The different styles suit different contexts, of course. But having been corralled into writing academically for years, I am obsessed with buttressing the most banal assertion with scholarly scaffolding, and of course in-line author/date citation is the most in-your-face way of doing that.

    It's a con, of course. How often do you check even the source of the reference, never mind the content? So the concern of critics of this dangerously slack end-note style, that without at least numbered in-line references the reader cannot be sure that a statement has a legitimating provenance, is merely academic posturing.

    (And any self-respecting pedant will note that the preceding sweeping assertion is not supported by any references. That's because I can't be bothered, and it is purely unsubstantiated opinion, in any case.)

    Even more to the point... I realise I don't know how to write in this accessible style.
    • Carol Dweck wrote Self-theories; their role in motivation, personality and development in 1999. It's a solid and accessibly-written, if rather repetitious, academic book (APA referenced). Someone must have persuaded her that she could do something more popular, based on it. The chimerical outcome is Mindset: how you can fulfil your potential (2006) --the bit after the colon is the giveaway. Decades of (arguable, but) properly rigorous collaborative, peer-reviewed research, gets presented as '70s self-indulgent, self-promotional, psychobabbled pabulum. Sorry, but however well it sold, she didn't bring it off.

    • Jonah Lehrer is the primus inter pares of people who can bring it off:
      Lehrer didn’t invent his area of work. He is of a kind with Malcolm Gladwell and the Freakonomics authors, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. [...] Like those authors, Lehrer is making a career of a tried and true structure: find a compelling anecdote to support counter-intuitive research from science and academia, and sum it all up with a pithy conclusion.
      Yet Lehrer and his ilk are popular for a reason. They make the hard-to-decipher work of scientists comprehensible to everyday readers and, at times, they give readers a belief that they too might be capable of extraordinary achievements.
    My proposal is not as formulaic as that quote would suggest, but it does put its finger on the art which conceals art, and which I am coming to realise, may well take a long time to acquire.

    Fascinating what can follow from a "simple" change in referencing conventions....

    14 April 2012

    Items to share: 14 April

    Education focus:

    You Don't Remember Anything You Learn at School. Do You? - Lincoln Allison remembers lessons at Lancaster Royal Grammar School and University College, Oxford
    Lucky guy (as was I). But it's not the same now, is it?

    Felipe Fernández-Armesto recalls a golden age when learning was treasured (Times Higher Education)
    I thought I was heterodox, sometimes! (http://www.doceo.co.uk/heterodoxy/education.htm)

    The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever (Wired.com) On the free open-access courses on Artificial Intelligence.

    Should Effort Count? Students Certainly Think So (Faculty Focus) --in terms of marks.

    To flip or not to flip? The pros and cons of flipped classes: new material presented on-line, class time spent on exercises and practice.

    Reading the dictionary (Joi Ito's Web) 'Shouldn't we be looking at the Internet as an amazing network enabling "The Power of Pull" and be empowering kids to learn through building things together rather than assessing their ability to complete courses and produce the right "answers"? (Comments also interesting.)

    More generally:

    The Knight’s Song, or What is a [scientific] theory? (Evolving Thoughts) Not as hard going as it first appears!

    (Mark) Twain on inference about the past (Evolving Thoughts)

    Age and wisdom: Older and wiser? (The Economist) Americans get wiser with age. Japanese are wise from the start

    The human advantage: middle age (The Washington Post) A cheering take on our middle years!

    What the 'limits of DNA' story reveals about the challenges of science journalism in the 'big data' age (The Last Word On Nothing)

    John Cleese on the 5 Factors to Make Your Life More Creative (Brain Pickings)

    Are humans naturally religious? (First Things)

    The Chocolate-and-Radish Experiment That Birthed the Modern Conception of Willpower (The Atlantic)

    10 April 2012

    On "reflective practice" as a threshold concept

    This is in danger of becoming a little arcane! Is "reflection" (in the Schon/Kolb/Boud/Moon and co. sense) a threshold concept? And what difference does it make to anything if it is?

    The story so far--starting a couple of years ago, I've been doing occasional presentations, in many cases in association with Peter Hadfield, on re-evaluating the notion of "reflective practice" and its usefulness a quarter-century after it was promoted in a rather different professional culture. The other day I was invited to do a session in the Open Lecture series on learning and teaching at the University of Greenwich, and Peter was able to come too. So it was that we went through the lecture on the train, on my laptop, and he posed the question whether reflective practice is a threshold concept.

    Yes of course! ...Well, no. ...But it ought to be! It matters because this idea tests some of the supposed criteria for threshold concepts (although it has to be granted that those for TCs are tighter than those for RP--excuse the initials but they should be obvious by now). And certainly, the origins of TCs were found in the "Ways of Thinking and Practising" (WTP) which Entwistle identified. In many disciplines, RP is regarded as central to their WTP, and it is certainly intended/assumed to transform practitioners' approaches to their practice. It is considered not as an additional item of knowledge, but as a transformational perspective or frame of reference.

    In practice it doesn't work like that. And it so happened that the other day I did a teaching observation of a student actually teaching a module on "reflective practice" on the final year of an undergrad programme in... social work/ nursing/youth work/ community development/ informal education (It was one or more of those--I'm being coy for ethical reasons, but it doesn't affect the argument: and this has nothing to do with the performance of the student--we had interesting issues to discuss which concerned context and background and style, but her core performance was fine*).

    RP is regarded as a theme (perspective) running through the entire programme, but the existence of a discrete module accords it the status of (merely) additional knowledge. I can see how it happens, of course. As I cited in the lecture:
    Whilst many authors [...] have expressed doubts regarding the wisdom of formally assessing reflection, the currently favoured 'alignment' model of curriculum development ([...] makes it extremely difficult to make the development of reflective skills a core element of the curriculum design without it being overtly assessed. Despite my own reservations regarding the ethics
    of assessing student reflections [...] even I would struggle to envision a curriculum where reflection was central to the learning strategy but absent in the design of assessment.
    (Hargreaves 2010:91)

    Two aspects in particular struck me:

    Making it into a discrete module had transformed it; it was no longer the same activity. As Reflection (I'll capitalise it in its RP sense so I can use the more general term uncapitalised) was originally recommended by Boud and Schon et al, it was a characteristic of the accomplished practitioner, and effectively something which he or she could not help doing. In that form it is a reactive process, not a proactive one. It is something which takes place because one is that kind of practitioner, not in order to become one.

    For the Greenwich lecture, I looked up the phrase "reflective practice" on Ngram: I noted that when I published my first book, on Professional Supervision in Group Care in 1986 (written of course in 84-85), the term "reflect / reflection" appeared only once in the index, and then in a specialised context. The ngram graph seems to show that the idea came out of nowhere in the 'eighties.
    So if we are to believe one proponent of RP, practice prior to its identification could only be, "at best
    uninformed, and at worst ineffective, prejudiced and constraining" (Hillier 2002: p.xi) which is self-evident nonsense. It's clearly a case of  Jourdain's syndrome--the Moliere character who discovered he had been speaking prose all his life without knowing it. Identification and labelling is the first step in the process of systematisation, and that is what the Schon and co. started to do. Indeed, Schon was clear about his intentions. Nevertheless, that inevitably started a process of change.

    As I explored very briefly in discussing Bruner's cone of experience, in order to talk about an "enactive" experience, one has to step back and enter the "iconic" or even the "symbolic" zone--and such a step is an act of abstraction. So the act of reflection is in itself an abstraction and to talk about reflection is even more of an abstraction. And after talking about it for 25 years, and codifying it and evaluating it and representing it within Learning Outcomes and Module Descriptors--it has become something different.

    In particular it has become (at least on this course), a label for an approach to action-planning and target-setting, where despite the rhetoric of self-directed learning, the action and targets need to fit within the pre-determined framework of the curriculum. It's putting it too strongly to suggest any element of "indoctrination", but as Hargreaves points out above, when you start to assess Reflection, you have to go down that route.

    Perhaps that is not too bad an idea, really. There's nothing wrong with becoming proficient in planning and meeting targets. In current working systems and cultures, indeed, those skills may be more use than Reflection, but I did not get the impression that this position has been arrived at consciously and deliberately (let alone Reflectively).

    The students had learned it. Only problem, I (and my student) were no longer very sure what "it" was. And I did not know whether the students believed in it, or were just going through the motions, because they (at the end of three years, after all) knew very well how to play the game. It's nothing new: I've just found this, which I wrote in 1998:
    An external examiner on the social work course commented at the assessment board that although he was satisfied by the way in which anti-racist and anti-discriminatory practice was being taught on the programme, he saw little evidence from the work he had read, that students were actually using any of these principles, despite the fact that they were explicitly marked on the extent to which they were incorporated in all assignments. Discussion with some of the students after the final assessment revealed that for at least some of them:

    a)  The teaching represented a form of political correctness to which they knew they were supposed to pay lip-service in order to pass the course, but they did not actually believe that it was any use as a principle of practice.

    b)  More than that, several regarded it as inimical to their effective practice, because of the self-consciousness it engendered.

    Reflection is no different.

    But now it doesn't sound much like a concept, "akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress." (Meyer and Land, 2006:3)

    And yet it started off that way. It's just that in its journey from being a necessary feature of a professional's manner of reacting to her practice, to this compliant choreographed process of planning to address external targets, it seems to have had a run-in with the Dementors and lost all its energy. It continues to exist as ritual knowledge, which has a “routine and rather meaningless character” (Perkins, 1999, p. 8**). I know it, but I no longer know why I know it, or what it is really for.

    Instead of opening doors, it is closing them.

    I am coming to realise, rather belatedly, that the threshold quality of a threshold concept, and the transformative potency of reflection, do not lie in their content as such. It lies in the manner in which learners are prepared to let them permeate and act on other areas of knowledge. And clearly caging these ideas up in discrete modular boxes and then treating them as mere additional gobbets of knowledge to be assimilated is guaranteed to emasculate them; we need to take the risks inherent in letting students engage with accommodating to them.

    * "Fine" does not do her justice, but we do not grade observations, and so I'm not going to use a term in Ofsted's vocabulary. Sorry if that is meaningless to anyone, but you're not missing anything!

    ** Many thanks to David Stone for finding this accessible source!


    Hargreaves J (2010) "Voices from the past: professional discourse and reflective practice" in Bradbury H, Frost N, Kilminster S and Zukas M (eds) (2010) Beyond Reflective Practice; new approaches to professional lifelong learning Abingdon; Routledge

    Moliere (Poquelin, J-B) (1670) Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (play)

    09 April 2012

    Items to share: 7 April 12 (late)

     Education focus
    Other items
     And an Easter present:
    • Dropbox just got even better! Disclosure, for everyone who signs up on my recommendation I get more free space--but then so can you when you recommend it in turn. And I don't know if it works from a blog. Who cares? This is the easiest conceivable FREE "cloud backup solution". Yuck. Did I write that? (As long as you are not a paranoid security nut.)
    You can also browse this "stack" here.