29 July 2012

Items to Share: 29 July

Education/academic focus
Other Business
  • George Miller has died It's amazing to find how authors of utterly classic papers in psychology have been with us until so recently--the reference to his Magic Number Seven--plus or minus two is in the linked piece.
  • Fairies (Chronicle of Higher Education) Geoff Pullum seems to be fated perpetually to kill the hydra-headed "Eskimo words for snow" myth, but "British words for rain" may be a contender for replacement.
Oh--and these...

27 July 2012

On the myth of perfection

Ofsted has just published the new Common Inspection Framework for Learning and Skills. It is supposed to "raise the bar" yet again.

While looking for something else, I came across Frank Coffield and Sheila Edward's excellent--and, for an academic article, very outspoken--2009 paper; "Rolling out 'good', 'best' and 'excellent' practice. What next? Perfect practice?"*  It's a critique of the muddled thinking and confused rhetoric which has beset the efforts to impose arbitrary top-down "improvement" targets on the "learning and skills" sector in the last decade, and a litany of ill-conceived initiatives based on assumptions, preconceptions, political imperatives and almost anything other than evidence and research. Indeed, Coffield and Edward make a good case for saying that the sector was never broken, so attempts to fix it were always likely to do more harm than good.

Taking a slightly different approach, I want to question the whole idea of standardised quality criteria. C and E discuss the decontextualised approach of Ofsted, but they don't really engage with the way standards work differently according to the level of skill to which they are applied, and thus the inherent philosophical inconsistency of applying set criteria. I have argued more generally (here) that at the level of competence, one practitioner of a discipline will share almost all her relevant skills and attributes with her colleagues, but as she becomes more proficient and eventually expert, her skill-set will become more individual. Indeed, as anyone gets more experienced in a field, she or he will draw on a stock of learned responses, behaviours, tactics, expressions--all for better or for worse arising from having tried them and found them to be good enough (that is of course why getting the experienced person to change entails loss, and is hard to manage). It is highly probable that not all of those responses will represent "best practice"--but that is difficult to judge**. What is fairly likely is that they will be relatively consistent, and the fact that they fit together may be more important than isolated peaks of excellence.

In complex areas, judgement of advanced practice comes down largely to matters of what one can only call "taste". Was Britten "better than" Walton (or Mozart); Cezanne "better than" van Gogh? Music or art critics may perhaps venture (at their peril) to argue the point--but that is the point, the comparison is essentially arguable. So it is with teaching. You can only pretend that such a quality as "perfection" exists if you can arrive at a consensus.

But teaching is about trade-offs and opportunity costs and implicit (or even explicit) values. Which matters more in the piece of written work--the ideas, originality and creativity? Or correct punctuation and gramma and spelling? Both, of course, but in any given case you are likely to privilege one set of values over the other, and it's all arguable. What matters more in this session--following up on that fascinating digression a student has raised? It may not be central to the syllabus, but it may open the door to a deeper understanding of the principles of the subject. Or making sure that you stick to the scheme of work, because otherwise your colleague who takes the parallel seminar will be out of step?

The pursuit of perfection or any single model of excellence is a self-limiting process under messy conditions--it guarantees that none of the several potential peaks you could have reached will be attained. And by extension, that is why an adversarial inspection regime creates a dead hand of mediocrity on a venture; it is time for that approach to be used on the banks, but perhaps teaching might enjoy the more collaborative, consultative and even "cosier" regime they have enjoyed. But not bonuses***.

* British Educational Research Journal, vol. 35; no. 3; pp 371-390. (Not available on open web.)

**Kahneman D (2012) Thinking--fast and slow (London; Penguin) is very good (chs 21-22) on questions of such judgement, pointing out that in well-defined situations, simple algorithmic approaches often work better than more sophisticated ones, but that in messy situations, nothing at all may work. Teaching is a messy business, and Ofsted have very little evidence base to give any credence to their judgements on the basis of the tiny sample of practice they observe; which is not to say that they may not be much more valid and reliable in their approach to other products of their inspections. It's just that in relation to their core business they ought to be "in special measures".

***Watts D J (2011) Everything is obvious, once you know the answer London; Atlantic Books.  p.51 on the distorting features of financial incentives, among many studies.

18 July 2012

On changing the name

You may have noticed that the masthead of the blog has changed--although I don't quite follow all the implications of changing the url, etc., so I've left them with the original "Recent Reflection" label.

As I've commented a number of times--most comprehensively here--the idea of "reflective practice" has come to mean less and less, and have fewer demonstrable benefits, in the 30 or so years since its popularisation, so it seems hypocritical to trade on it in the title to the blog. The intentions and the content will not change, of course.

Thanks for reading!

15 July 2012

Items to Share: 15 July

Education Focus
Other Business

08 July 2012

Items to Share: 8 July

Education focus
Other Business

On a short conference paper

(As I start to write)  This time last week I had just presented a very short piece at the 4th International Threshold Concepts Conference in Dublin, on behalf of colleagues Peter Hadfield and Peter Wolstencroft, and myself. They were not able to attend. I'll post more about the conference when I've digested it a bit more. This is about the paper, and the experience of presenting it.

This page has the slides, synched to my talk, and a draft of the paper version which will be amended and put forward for the proceedings volume (subject to peer review, of course).

The first thing to strike you is probably that there is precious little resemblance between them. This is the first time I have been asked to submit a written draft of a whole paper before delivering it, and the experience has clearly underlined the enormous difference between the media. At another session, one of the presenters started by actually reading his paper--and although not technical, it was almost completely incomprehensible. Fortunately, he abandoned the tactic after five or six minutes, and the whole thing immediately came alive.

The call for papers originally went out at the end of 2011, and we duly prepared an abstract which represented some of our thinking at that time. Of course, once it was accepted, we largely turned our attention to other things, and only returned to it a month or so before the conference--by which time, of course, our reading in the area had deepened, and we had gathered more research material (the source material was all collected by ourselves and colleagues through the normal processes of running a course--student work, professional journals, records of teaching observations, material from class discussions, etc.) Some of the original ideas did not hold water, some were much stronger; and all had been changed by our discussions; neither of the final products bore much resemblance to the original abstract.

So, for example, the written paper has many more references to the social policy and organisational context of teaching in vocational education, which could be expressed concisely with a few references. But those do not work in a live presentation to a diverse international audience. Instead, the whole argument is addressed in one slide with a caption (10-11 minutes in), of a concept map of pressures and influences and responses within the sector--about which all one could say, and the only impression one could leave, was that it is all terribly complex but also consistent, a perfect storm of a need for control.

The verbal/visual presentation has of course to unfold in real time. And it was not helped by the incidental factor that on the second day the 20-minute limit was cut back to 15 minutes to allow for questions; it was a sensible decision but it could have been anticipated--there must after all be a vast amount of practical wisdom out there about running academic conferences. But perhaps it is not deemed important enough to record, report and share? Given the typical arrogance of academics, that would not surprise me.

The written version, on the other hand, permits cavalier leaps up and down the text, and re-reading and pursuit of references. It does not have to rely on first hearing as the definitive version, so it can handle complexities which a listener cannot process at one pass. (I'm sure all this has been exhaustively researched by others who have lots of other interesting points to make, but I really can't be bothered to pursue the trail. It's a downside of access to literature online, that it's not just a possibility, it's an obligation.)

More than that, I can't talk academic (academically?). Let me loose in a classroom or a tutorial in the coffee-shop, and I'm all analogies and metaphors, and anecdotes and illustrations. Every new jargon term is naturally linked with a (usually) apologetic (in two senses) illustration. Ask me to write, and I employ economically dense terminology because a reader has discretion over the time she devotes to the text which she encounters more or less all at once...

But, of course, the real-time presenter has more control over pace, and (although barely acknowledged in academic circles) dramatic effect. (Except when you lose 25% of your time a moment before you start...)

So the whole thing was a bit of a damp squib; all build-up, and no bang. So it goes.

And I did leave out at least one critical point. That was the principle of equifinality (written version) or "ending up in the same place from many different starting points" (verbal version). What the system seems to be trying to engineer out of the system is the possibility of students floundering, getting lost, disoriented, demoralised... Those are indeed psychological correlates of liminality, but they can also occur for many other reasons--they are not in themselves evidence of liminality, which is an ontological, not a psychological, condition. They also happen when courses are poorly designed, or students poorly matched to them, or teachers lack enthusiasm, or... And they can also arise when you try to squeeze out the possibility of liminality. So possibly the liminality argument is not falsifiable in Popper's terms. (No-one picked up on that.)

04 July 2012

On expectations...

Thinking back* on that easy tutorial (see previous post), I was reminded of how much I (and colleagues) have come to expect a pattern following Kubler-Ross's "five stages of grief":
  • denial
  • anger
  • bargaining
  • depression
  • acceptance
Actually, although most references discuss these stages in relation to the prospect of death, K-R identified them as "Five Stages of Receiving Catastrophic News"--which may make them more apposite for a failing grade than a death sentence.

And indeed I have encountered all these responses in tutorials--but not necessarily all of them, nor necessarily in that order. There's an interesting critical article on them here.

I'm struck by the potency of the stage model, and the apparent desire of end-of-life and bereavement counsellors to latch onto it despite its lack of evidence. Going back to an earlier discussion of Berger and Luckmann's externalisation/reification/internalisation process, the K-R model seems to have been reified and then internalised, despite the externalisation impetus being relatively weak. Interesting!

Kubler-Ross E (1969) On Death and Dying (various editions)

* I don't do "reflection".

On an easy tutorial

I did a "recovery" tutorial today. The label varies across institutions, and indeed I don't think we use the term, but it's a tutorial for students who have failed an assessment and have another chance to "recover" it so that they can progress to the next year. They are often difficult, with students in argumentative denial, and so I prepared carefully (on a "just in case" basis because it was clear this referral was an outlier for this student), and cursed the fact that for some reason I couldn't get the commented hard-copy submission or even the Turnitin report. So I felt a little under-prepared...
    Interesting, isn't it? I feel under-prepared to uphold a judgement I--and the second-marker and the moderation system--have delivered on a piece of work. The rule is clearly "pass until proven fail". That may be an analogue for the judicial process, but in academe you used to be obliged to earn a pass. Or was that always a fantasy?
I met the student in the coffee-shop (I don't have an office any more). She greeted me by waving a printout of her work, and declaring, "Well, I've just read it again, and it's a load of total twaddle, isn't it? I can see why you failed it." (No mention of  family difficulties she had experienced at the time which meant that it was an achievement to submit anything at all.)

OK! No defensiveness here. On to stage two--what to do about it?
    This is tricky. How much guidance can one offer? Coaching to the goal is clearly not acceptable. Students need to get there under their own steam. But in many cases it's a matter of piecemeal revision--a bit more on this, some evidence for that, a more balanced judgement on the other. But sometimes there's a flaw at the heart of the piece. Somehow it has set off in the wrong direction from the start and no amount of patching will get it back. That's a tough judgement to give, and even tougher to accept.
She was there before me. "There's no point in messing about. It's back to square one. I need to re-write from scratch."

There followed a few minutes' discussion of the balance between theory and practice, and how she had failed to discuss theory in the context of practice and vice versa, and whether she could use an historical perspective to evaluate changing approaches to teaching and assumptions about learning...

I don't really need to see that piece of work.