26 May 2012

Items to share: 26 May

Education Focus Other Business Asides

21 May 2012

On handing on...

(19 May 12) The Olympic torch has arrived, and the relay begins...

Chelsea (football/soccer team) have won the European champions' league, in what some commentators have claimed to be the last gasp of an ageing team. I have no idea about that in detail, but the handover to the next generation is a periodic make or break challenge for any long-term organisation.

When Star Trek returned to TV in the 1987, the series was identified as "the Next Generation", and indeed it represented a shift in values, perhaps from the free-wheeling '60s to the more formal and task-oriented '80s.

And at a minor level, the coincidence of minor personnel "churn" and institutional re-organisation in our network of teaching centres means that at unpredictable ("stick and slip") intervals we are faced with the challenge of passing on the torch--or even the "brand"--of the programme to a new generation.

All of which brings to mind the challenge of passing on--or adapting--underlying values, rather than formal structures.

In the case of  the PCE programme, the quality assurance procedures have been mind-boggling. For various reasons (none to do with the programme itself) it has been inspected by Ofsted three times in the past five years as well as reviewed by its validating body (now abolished); it has recently emerged from a routine quinquennial review by the university, and last year a couple of typos in the documentation prompted an intrusive (and, it transpires, unauthorised) review apparently motivated by the personal animosity of a senior figure in the Faculty, who is now no longer with the university...

Stefan Collini (2012:107ff.) points out that the procedures and metrics of "quality assurance" are good at ensuring and indeed enhancing the rigour and comprehensiveness of everything which does not really matter in universities.

But how does one pass on the vision and the distinctiveness of the programme, which cannot be contained by the details of second-marking samples and moderation and module specifications (syllabi)?
    It could of course be argued that possibly they should not be passed on. Perhaps they were misguided to begin with. Perhaps they have been overtaken by social, political, economic--even heaven help us, technological changes. After all, this programme was first validated in 1996.  It's true that it has dropped increasingly out of step with relentless policy initiatives in the sector, but even the hostile unauthorised review of 2011 did not try to make a case on that basis.)
The community of practice which is the teaching team on the programme (around forty people at any one time in ten colleges, and fifteen or so who regularly attend network meetings) is the bearer of the (sorry! Hate to use the term, but it is  the most powerful) of the "brand". Its ultimate origins may be found in a range of philosophers and educational theorists and practitioners but its proximate base rests on the two people who have been with it from the beginning, and both of us have now retired.

For the rest of the community, the characteristics of the programme can seem quirky, because they have only encountered them in their "mature" form, and were never involved in their development. The programme leader who has recently retired--and who has been by far the most significant figure in the development of the course--has frequently commented over the past few years how much time in network meetings has been spent in explaining over again the original rationale behind, for example, the policy of negotiating submissions through learning contracts rather than setting assignments--and occasionally discovering that the policy has been sacrificed to administrative convenience by some (generally peripheral) tutors.

So do we now have to recognise that it is futile to cling to the past out of some misguided delusion that the course is our own creation? Indeed, may we have become so obsessed with its quirks that we are no longer able to evaluate them dispassionately? May they be merely trivial decorative flourishes which mean nothing or may--as some students and probably tutors believe--actually obstruct learning?

Quite possibly. But then it may be the sense of working on something different and distinctive which enthuses and energises colleagues teaching the course, and gives them a sense of belonging to a team... even if that which is distinctive does not instrumentally matter that much. That certainly seems to be the experience of colleagues at one of the colleges in the network, which has changed their validating university, for irrelevant reasons; they have reported a sense of loss. One neglects such an agenda at one's peril.

But spare a thought for those who are taking up the baton, and their challenge of making the course their own--putting their stamp on it--while engaging with issues of loyalty to a prior generation.

And read the Saber-Tooth Curriculum. (There's a note on it, here.)

Collini S (2012) What are Universities For? London; Penguin

19 May 2012

On reasonable demands

This is one of those confluence posts--when several sources flow together... (started a couple of months ago, but re-animated by further prompts--5 onwards below).
  1. We have just had a Study Day at which Kathryn Ecclestone raised pertinent questions about current approaches to assessment--particularly in the further and vocational education sector, but also at more advanced levels. The students discussed those issues in discipline/setting specific groups and articulated their particular concerns and solutions on posters.
  2. A few months ago I was an external member of an exam board when I had to express concern about the very detailed brief--almost a recipe--for the production of an assessed piece of work at Master's level. (Since fixed)
  3. But the leader of the dissertation module on one of our Master's programmes has recently approached the tutorial team, requesting suggestions for reading as the basis of the literature review for the dissertation
  4. ...and in the past few hours I've had two, much appreciated, thank-you emails from readers of my pages on the structure of a dissertation, and writing at Master's level. #1 is the proximate cause of this post, but it is fuelled by #2 and #3, and #4 poses the question whether I am complicit in this game--if that is what it is.
  5. A couple of former colleagues* and I are working on a conference paper concerning the inability of current educational systems to accommodate liminal states on the part of students. Liminality occurs in conditions of qualitative change (I've elsewhere used the term disorientation for the experience of liminality, with a slightly different emphasis). A precursor of the paper can be found here.
    Karl Marx (Capital vol 1.) argues that "Merely quantitative differences beyond a certain point pass into qualitative changes." We can turn that on its head and suggest that because that is the case, and qualitative change generates liminality, therefore quantitative changes need to be constrained below that trigger point.
  6. Stefan Collini (What are Universities For? Penguin, 2012) in a well-argued (but padded, repetitious and under-evidenced enlightenment-style "pamphlet") contends that the managerialist rhetoric of current neo-liberal politics in which everything has to be accountable and costed, has forced those who would run universities (and indeed other educational institutions) to embrace spurious metrics as distorted proxies for fuzzy contestable aims such as "education" and "scholarship" which are no longer accepted as goods in themselves. In particular he refers to fatuous notions of "continuous improvement" "beyond excellence"--that can only work if the standards do not change. Discontinuities--gear changes--are inimical to the model...
All this is not to fall into a jeremiad about the state of further and higher education; there's plenty of evidence of its achievements, and I continually come across people producing great work, for whom and for which I have great admiration. But they're having to do it despite the structures and the culture of the institutions.

And many of them are not even aware that it could be different. Or that by becoming complicit in merely implementing a cravenly incremental model of curriculum and learning, they are becoming part of a problem rather than that of a solution.

* Peter Hadfield and Peter Wolstencroft

Items to share: 19 May

Education Focus:
  • The Learning Spy - Who inspects Ofsted? General verdict--the model is not fit for purpose. (I'm working on a post on what happens to good ideas in education when they become institutionalised.)
Other Business

    18 May 2012

    On hoarding

    There have been a number of recent TV programmes in the UK on compulsive hoarders. The programme template is simple; show us the grotesque extent of the subject's hoarding compulsion (including revealing pest infestations and their by-products...); dramatise their struggles to throw out their stuff, with the alleged help of therapists [discounting the potentially much more potent and prolonged presence of a TV crew with a clear story to tell, backed up of course with a legal contract...]

    Eventually, the former hoarder is shown in their now uncluttered and cleaned up house, protesting their relief at having room to move, and being able once again to access their bathroom and kitchen.

    The formula raises a host of issues. Let's leave aside the question of the status of compulsive hoarding as a psychiatric disorder (a very live issue since we are currently in the consultation period for an [or even the] authoritative manual on this), important though it is.

    Instead, let's return to the former hoarder, consider how long she or he remains free of the problem and a rather more venerable way of describing what happens:
    Luke 11:24-26:
    24 When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out.
    25 And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished.
    26 Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first.
    Unsurprisingly, treatment is very difficult and uncertain. Without necessarily adopting any kind of religious discourse, it's all about taking something which served some psychological purpose--however bizarrely and counter-productively--and often not offering anything in exchange. One of the few frameworks which addresses this explicitly is drama therapy, in particular the Magic Shop exercise.

    Its principles are applicable not only in cases of pathology, but also in teaching, wherever learning or change is experienced as loss.

    13 May 2012

    Items to share: 12 May (belated)

    Education focus:
    • Do We Need the Next Generation Science Standards?: OK, the question presupposes "No", of course. It's US-centric, so the point of the link is not the detail--it is the downright incomprehensibility of the whole thing, and losing sight of the wood for the trees.
    • Prezi - The Zooming Presentation Editor Prezi continues to evolve and become more flexible, but I confess I haven't found it as useful as I expected. Its vertiginous zooms require great restraint, and are often more distracting than illuminating (same goes for the dancers above), and there are ways of getting the same effects (for teaching purposes, at least) with more conventional means.
    Other business:
    • Saturday 8 May 1669 (Pepys' Diary): Why mention this now? Because this "real-time" replay of the world's most famous diary--with scholarly annotations--concludes at the end of this month, and although the archive will continue, there's something about the quotidien revelations which relies on their sequential publication, especially because much of Pepys' life was as boring as ours! I hope there will be a replay. 

    05 May 2012

    Items to share: 5 May

    Education Focus
    • The Learning Paradox (Farnam Street) On "productive failure" (another version is here). This works for students who will not be de-motivated--an appropriate "mindset" is critical. (See also Tim Harford's latest: "Adapt; why success always starts with failure" [2011])
    • Against Chairs Silly opening, but overall an interesting account of the history of the chair. Don't just sit there!
    • Pseud's corner-- a film about Slavoj Zizek I'm getting all post-modern... I'm drawing attention to this only in order to encourage you to ignore it. Although since the linked article takes a similar stance, perhaps two negatives make a positive? A few years ago, I did spend/waste almost a working week trying to suspend disbelief and evaluate this guy, from his own writings; so Zizek (or his gullible academic acolytes) robbed me of time which I could have spent more profitably washing the car or cleaning the cooker or doing practically anything. They deserved (perhaps) seconds, and I gave them hours.