31 August 2012

On messy practice

Formal science writing--what I call the "narrative of explanation"--presents a neat and tidy step-by-step process of introduction-methods-results-discussion grounded in a non-existent "scientific method" of observation-hypothesis-prediction-experiment followed in a linear fashion. (Shermer, 2012: 62)
At the same time as reading this very interesting exploration of the neuroscience of belief, I am undertaking the annual penance of reading textbooks for courses whose reading lists need to be up-dated. Most of them are dire.But of course this time I have been reading them against the background of how P and I are planning to tackle some of the same material, and that has made their assumptions stand out.

They do not count as "science writing", of course, but they present a similar idealised and unproblematic account of teaching, which bears only the most tenuous resemblance to reality. This came to mind again the other day when a former student wrote to recommend a website to me, and a planning model. (The ADDIE Analysis/ Design/ Development/ Implementation/ Evaluation model from Don Clark.) I had actually written about this before here, arguing that although it might be a good formal representation of the process, I don't know anyone in the real world who operates in such a way. Apart, that is, from my correspondent (and his colleagues) in the military--although he, too, maintains that the instructional designers just pretend to do it that way to placate their managers. And as he has often quoted to me, "No plan survives contact with the enemy" (von Moltke) --or perhaps with the students. At least it ought not to.

It can of course be argued that the textbooks are just presenting a simplified model, because that it what everyone begins with, and then they modify it in the light of experience. That is fair enough, but I am coming to the conclusion that the writers seem to believe what they write. In a fine gesture of consistency, they are applying to their own writing practice the same kind of dumbed-down incremental view of learning as I seem to have been regularly castigating for a couple of years (here, for example).

In the context of our book, I'm struck by the way in which the textbooks are focused, with the standard device, for example, of listing the applicable professional standards at the beginning of each chapter. So one (a 2001 dated but representative text which happens to be at hand) introduces a chapter on planning teaching with:
"The ideas and advice in this chapter relate mainly to the following areas of skills and knowledge:
  • Introduction stage: skills B1a, B1c, B1, B2a..."
(I'm not going to reference it--it's unfair!) It then goes on to consider items in short sections with an exercise and points to think about at the end of each. And to be fair it's all quite well done--better than I could do in this format. OK, that's what textbooks do, but...

But... it all starts from the assumption that the authority of the standards is absolute, so if you can get a student to meet them, job done. That is of course rubbish. The standards are proxies and constructs, themselves the product of much wrangling and argument and horse-trading in smoke-free committee rooms. You don't have to be a relativistically oriented sociologist to see that--the very facts that they change when the job doesn't, that there are inconsistencies and contradictions within them, that they are aligned suspiciously and spuriously neatly with inspection framework, all testify to them existing at several removes from the job. It's no-one's "fault", it's just in the nature of the beast.

And then there is the assumption that if you want to get from A to B, the most reliable route is a straight line. But as John Kay persuasively argues in a business context, the best approach is often an oblique one--especially when it is not clear that the apparent objective is the real one. You may be in the business of aiming at something else, knowing that the apparent objective will be a necessary side-effect. More examples from Kay in his book (2010), and more about that here.

Indeed, as I seem to be arguing perpetually, most recently here, there is little or no evidence for many of the models and methods which are so dogmatically espoused and asserted by the educational establishment, or indeed that the obsessive process of digging up plants to see if they are growing can effectively do anything other than guarantee minimum standards. See here.

Torrance et al (2005) comment with reference to the "learning and skills" sector that:
Detailed tutor and assessor support, in the form of exam coaching and practice, drafting and redrafting of assignments, asking ‘leading questions’ during workplace observations, and identifying appropriate evidence to record in portfolios, is widespread throughout the sector and is effective in facilitating learner achievement and progression. (p.1)
Yes, "learner achievement and progression", but that is not the same as actual learning. It merely testifies to the achievement of the dubious proxies of the educational system, as Ecclestone (2012) argues. (It's not new--the point was made brilliantly by Howard Becker, forty years ago--and of course re-invented by Lave and Wenger (1991), Wenger (1998) see here.)

And as I have quoted before from Kay;
For over ten years, I built and ran an economic consultancy business, and much of our revenue was derived from selling models to large corporate clients. One day, I asked myself a question: if these models were helpful, why did we not build similar models for our own decision making? The answer, I realised, was that our customers didn't really use these models for their decision making either. They used them internally or externally to justify decisions that they had already made.
The issue is really about be able to embrace the messiness of practice--until we can do that we can't even recognise the meta-skills which are needed to be able to teach.

As I noted in "Items to Share" a little while ago, this post on "Experienced teaching looks a lot like jazz" makes the point.

Becker H (1972) "A School is a Lousy Place to Learn Anything in" American Behavioral Scientist September 1972 pp. 85-105. Reprinted in R G Burgess Howard Becker on Education Buckingham, Open University Press, 1995 (Public Library Location)*

Ecclestone, K. (2012) ‘Instrumentalism and achievement: a socio-cultural understanding of tensions in vocational education’, in J Gardner (ed)  Assessment and Learning (2nd edition) London: Sage Publications 2012

Note:  Hattie's meta-analysis, it has to be admitted, commends the effectiveness of "direct instruction", which is consistent both with the formal planning models and with SMART objectives and the like. I'm not denying that.

* This public library tag is an ingenious facility I have just come across; click on it, enter your post-code, and it will tell you your nearest public library which holds a copy of the book.

27 August 2012

Items to Share: 26 August

Education Focus
  • How Technology Can Help  Dan Meyers' exemplary account of how to use different levels of abstraction to teach maths (high school level, but generalisable) and how technology can facilitate the approach.
Other Business

25 August 2012

On a possible book

A friend and I are planning a book, probably an e-book which we can get out directly, and at a reasonable price. It will probably be aimed at the relatively new teacher in higher, adult, or post-compulsory education.

For me this is an opportunity to collaborate with a colleague with whom I have worked closely for about fifteen years, and whose areas of interest are fairly complementary to mine, although we also overlap. What he is hoping to get out of it, however, I'm not sure!

Clearly one of the important considerations has to do with the distinctiveness of the material and its arguments. When one does a proposal for a publisher, one of the standard questions is about how the proposed book compares with others on the market, and what it can offer which the others can't.

There are of course now dozens of "text-books" about teaching in post-compulsory education, most of them clearly focused on the standards laid down by the various bodies with fingers in the pie. They are almost all deadly boring, of course. I only say "almost" because I haven't read them all, but I have not yet found one which conveys anything of the excitement and fun of teaching in this sector--although some of the more thoughtful and less didactic "para-textbooks" manage that. That is the kind of book we want to produce.

So the strap-line could be, "what your Cert Ed/PGCE/DTTLS never taught you..."

The working title is Teaching Off-road, which calls for some explanation. Driving (or cycling) in the UK is heavily oriented towards reliance on the systemic infrastructure including metaled roads, signs, traffic lights, and rules. Similarly, much teaching is merely about getting from A to B within the rules--and it is deadly boring. But... (you can fill in the rest)

So we are planning to put it out initially as an e-book which we can revise in the light of comments; but your input to the planning would be much appreciated, and whatever makes it to the final version would of course earn at least a free copy as well as an acknowledgement. So do let us know what you would like to see addressed!

24 August 2012

On the return of shame-culture

Two things. First:

After a decade of fighting allegations of drug use and doping, Lance Armstrong has given up.
World Anti-Doping Agency president John Fahey says Armstrong's decision to drop his fight against drug charges,[...] was an admission the allegations "had substance in them". (Source)
That allegation only works by the rules of shame-culture, not those of guilt-culture, which apply in all reasonably advanced legal cultures. (I've outlined the distinction--which is not mine--here.)

It is perfectly understandable that Armstrong, against whom nothing has been proved, has finally decided that there is no way he can win; he can't prove a negative, so he might as well not bother. It's not as if it matters any more.

It is not possible to conceive of any evidence he could produce which would refute the allegations--that is the test of a shame-culture, whether in a class of students or a work setting or a political arena.


But the peculiar arrogance of the Anti-Doping Agency (there seem to be several outfits involved) is highlighted by their apparent belief that they can strip him of seven Tour de France titles. Just like that. As far as I am aware the USADA does not run the Tour de France. The contest operates under the auspices of the International Cycling Union (UCI), the world governing body--who have not yet pronounced on the matter.

I know only what I have picked up from the general media--not even the sporting press--so I may have it all wrong. I'm not an advocate for Armstrong--but I am interested in the peculiar construction of  "authority" in the sporting arena. Whether it is the IoC, FIFA, or a range of lesser bodies--and leaving aside the issue of corruption, which is clearly entangled with the culture--there appears to be a pervading atavistic shame culture, which is tied up with their unaccountability.

I first noticed this 40+ years ago in connection with a youth club I was associated with in Moss Side in Manchester. I remember a committee meeting at which we considered the implications of being fined--financially-- by the local amateur football league for not having fielded a team for a match, which put the very continuance of the club in jeopardy. I was sure they couldn't legally do that. My more experienced colleagues patiently explained to me that it made no difference; if you wanted to play football, you had to have other teams to play with, and that was arranged by the league, and so you had to play by their rules. In this case the league committee was merely bossy and a little unimaginative*, and there was no evidence of corruption, but it is easy how that might arise in such a context.

Add loads of money, and create a toxic, unaccountable and powerful sub-culture, which is reflected in shame-culture in an institution, a community, a church**...

*  And, as one of my colleagues observed at the time, what would one expect? These were working-class volunteers who were much more familiar with sticks than carrots, as opposed to us middle-class do-gooders who parachuted in to "help".

As one local commented, not unkindly, when I moved on, "I know you meant well, coming to live here; but the essential difference was that you were here by choice and now you can move on by choice. We don't have that choice." But that's another story.

**  ... or of course in the latter case, one which is powerful enough to over-ride the legitimacy of allegations.

23 August 2012

On the "decline" of exam achievements.

Two Thursdays in August are guaranteed education headlines in the UK. The second Thursday is when the "A" level (18-year-old school leaving exam) results come out, and the third Thursday announces the results for the General Certificate of Secondary Education (the terminal or way-station exam for 16-year-olds). Cue great debate about whether rising achievement = declining standards. This year, for the first time since GCSEs were introduced in 1988, there has been a decline in the proportion of highest grades awarded (in both sets of exams). So--is this a cause for celebration or lamentation?

I won't re-visit all the tired old arguments, although I was interested to note that an interviewee on BBC News 24, whose name I didn't catch but who is an experienced examiner, made very much the same points as I wrote about ten years ago on my "Heterodoxy" pages.

P is currently tutoring on an on-line Master's programme for another university, and a few weeks ago the tutorial team had a meeting about assessment policy, which he told me about. (Disclaimer; I may not be representing him accurately, and I made no notes*)
  • He was--possibly naively!--surprised at the level of discussion. After all, all present were both academics and professionals in education from a School of Education. P could not detect any evidence that the discussion was informed by research, theory or scholarship.
  • Since assessment is one of his areas of special interest, he noted that the discussion concerned principally:
    • The assessment load, both for students and for staff How did it match with the demands of other courses? What kind of expectations did students have about feedback?
    • Ensuring maximum achievement. What kind of information and guidance did the students require to know exactly how to get a good grade? How detailed and transparent should the rubrics and marking scheme be, to ensure that they had no grounds for complaint?
  • These are good practical issues, and he didn't really want to contest their importance (although the rubrics which emerged later are so hand-holding that he [and I] regard them as not appropriate for Master's level study).
  • But he was struck by the hegemony of criterion-referencing. Norm-referencing was never mentioned, except by him, and he had the feeling that some of the group didn't know what he was talking about.
Neither he nor I want to argue that norm-referencing would be an appropriate strategy for that course, but its apparent extinction is worthy of note. Simply, the distribution of marks/grades is as useful a guide as you are going to get as to whether the assessment criteria are pitched at the right level--there needs to be a constant conversation between criteria and curve.

And despite my thoughts referred to earlier on the norm-referencing implicit in the national exam system, I believe that the achievement of the "best" is an important guide to setting assessment thresholds.

After all, we have just had the Olympics, and the Paralympics are just around the corner. Such Games are the epitome of norm-referencing. No-one sets criteria to award a Gold to anyone who runs the 100m in less than 9.8s. Instead, the standards to be satisfied for entry to the Games are derived from the distribution of previous performances--and they continue to to rise. In the same way, (presumably--I really no nothing at all about this, but I am drawing on parallel experience and a little theory) in those sports--such as gymnastics or diving--which have to be scored by judges, the categories they use, their weighting and their criteria, are continually reviewed with reference to the bar-raising (itself an interesting metaphor) achievements of the past.

Beyond sport, too: To refer merely to criteria for requisite performance is both to;
  • Potentially fail to do justice to work which is "off the scale" and can't be adequately represented within existing criteria. Game-changing stuff.** 
  • and more importantly--to arrogate to current authorities the right to specify, determine and ossify current "good practice" as the determinant of (inter alia) professional admission. History is full of examples (usually, to be fair, recounted with benefit of great hindsight--Semmelweiss, Tesla...)

I've touched on this on the blog before:
* Shame! You don't (well, I don't), when I'm having coffee with a colleague and friend. More along these lines coming up later. Watch this space!

** Kuhn, of course. But less contentiously I've just been reading Brooks M (2011) The Secret Anarchy of Science London; Profile Books which is full of great tales of the good seeing the best as the enemy.

17 August 2012

On writing with this new-fangled technology

As I mentioned a few days ago, P and I have finally started on the book. It says something about my advanced age that the last book I had published came out in 1989. That was not exactly pre-computer, but it was close enough. I remember that I offered to send the publishers a word-processed manuscript* on file (I was up with the technology then!) but they declined, saying that it was more bother than it was worth. So I paid for the wife of a colleague to type up a fair copy from my MS onto several 5.25" floppies, and then imposed on a geeky clergyman friend to use his study and his BBC B computer (with 32k of RAM!) to edit them, and print them out.

The alternative was for me, or someone employed by me, to re-type partial or complete drafts. At least this time I was able to buy a little program called "Grease" (the name is a reference to an incident in David Lodge's 1984 novel, "Small World") which generated the index automatically--it had cost me £200 for to have someone compile it for the previous book (more than a third of total earnings; I get more from photocopying levies than I ever earned from sales...).

So despite writing innumerable structured documents and reports and reviews and webpages and blogs --I realise that I am now facing a blank wilderness, which I have to populate with ideas, with no boundaries or guides or constraints. No, that's not quite right. I don't have to populate it. It's what I want to do, but there is just too much choice about how to do it.  It's largely a function of the "freedom" to go back and cut and revise and insert, with the MS miraculously healing itself (and since I am careful about version control, the capacity to revert to a version of weeks ago in seconds.) Sartre talked about being "condemned to freedom"; I have a taste of what he meant.

Of course I have been assembling resources--papers written for this and that, lecture notes, and so on. In one afternoon I found 57k words on an archive drive, all more or less relevant to the book, but some of it fifteen years old. And all author/date referenced--a convention we are not going to follow this time (I wrote about the reasons earlier, here).

I'm still not clear whether to revise or to start from scratch, but in the meantime I have adopted what is probably the worst possible tactic--start at the beginning--recognising that the writing will all go through many more iterations than a paper-based process ever could. But will that make for a better product? On the evidence of student writing probably not. It's the constraints of paper which force so much greater attention to detail; sculpting in marble is different from moulding plasticine (Wallace and Gromit notwithstanding).

Yes, I know. You make a maquette in clay, and then you create the real thing in the permanent form based on it. But with this technology there will never be a permanent form, because I can always go back, and revise and update; the material is infinitely malleable, and since we are planning to publish electronically, at least initially, it will indeed "never be finished, merely abandoned" (attr. Leonardo or E M Forster).

* Even then a misnomer--"manuscript" means "handwritten", and of course mine was type-written.

13 August 2012

Items to Share: 13 August

Education Focus
  • Seth's Blog » Blog Archive » Tyler Cowen’s Unusual Final Exam An interesting idea, if you have to have exams. For a history course on my undergraduate degree, taken by only four students, tutored in pairs, the tutor asked us to choose the topics of our essays ourselves (one of us would read out her or his essay each week for discussion). When we arrived at the exam, the questions on the paper were simply the titles of the essays we had devised and discussed. And on a course I worked on for many years, there were no assignments set by the tutors--they were, and are, negotiated with the students.
Other Business

08 August 2012

On the fate of educational ideas

Two things. First, I promised a friend that I would put something down about the Threshold Concepts Conference in Dublin, from about a month ago; I've been remiss in not getting round to it.

What's prodded me to address it is the second thing; I've started (with another friend and colleague, P.) on a book--a sort of de-bunking book about teaching in post-compulsory education. It's not the best way to start such an enterprise, but I decided to begin at the beginning, in order to get the tone right. The draft will doubtless be amended many times. In the preface I wrote (forgive the lengthy quote):
Forget the silly and usually distorted and diluted nostrums which go by the labels of “inclusivity”, “differentiation”, “learning styles”, “assessment for learning”, and “reflective practice”… and the rest. They are too superficial to account for the complexity and richness of learning conversations.

They are however the current legacy of very well-meaning attempts to improve teaching, in most cases. (The exceptions concern some of the more egregious efforts of some learning-styles charlatans.) What has sadly happened, as Dylan Wiliam of “assessment for learning” fame has recently noted, is that they have been only half-understood, passed on through a process of Chinese whispers, and appropriated by managers—themselves under pressure to “raise standards”—until they are unrecognisable for what they originally were. They have been reduced to their proxies [...] in the form of whatever can be counted, and as always that process has lost sight of the wood for the trees. In many cases, by misdirecting teachers’ attention to the supposed signs rather than the real substance of an idea, they have become actively counter-productive and undermined efforts to develop a more sensitive and effective service.

And it should be said that the ideas in this book may well be headed for the same fate—they are not immune. Educational ideas have a limited shelf-life, and they may become actively toxic as they get to the end of it. That is not because the ideas were no good in the first place, rather it is because the environment has changed; as Heraclitus said, you can’t step into the same river twice. Each time needs its own prophets, and its own curriculum theorists, and pedagogues, and assessment gurus, all of whom eventually become out of date.
So it occurs to me that I should adopt the same stance in relation to threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. The ideas are about ten years old by now--possibly still not common knowledge, but the conference attendance was good (particularly given the general and Irish economic conditions: 280 delegates from 138 institutions, 16 countries and 4 continents) and generally enthusiastic. It has to be said that the conference was primarily the annual gathering of the National Academy for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning, which was hosting the TC conference as its theme--so it is possible that some of those attending from Ireland came primarily for that. And a decade is long enough to speculate about possible emergent trends. But of course I didn't get to attend all the parallel sessions, so these remarks are sweeping generalisations, as ever, another participant might feel she was at quite a different event.

The ideas have not been taken up by the educational establishment to the extent that they have become liable to the processes of distortion and dilution noted above. Partly this may be because they originate in the HE sector, which is not as regimented as compulsory education, and partly perhaps because as far as I can see, they don't serve anyone's vested interests (indeed, as we argued in our short paper at the conference, they may even be subversive).

The last conference I attended on TCs was the second one, four years ago--I wrote about it here, and I've been interested to re-read those remarks; they pointed to a degree of consolidation in the TC community, and a greater pre-occupation with liminality. That trend seems to have continued--although perhaps the fact that Ray Land's opening keynote in Dublin was on liminal spaces may have focused attention on it, and indeed Patrick Carmichael's closing keynote emphasised the learning journey, using Pilgrim's Progress as a trope. It may also have been because our contribution to a parallel session was also about liminality that it appeared to me to be a stronger theme than the idea of threshold concepts themselves.

Carmichael was also thinking about the ways in which TCs were being referred to at the conference, as:
  • analytical category
  • aspect of a model of learning
  • point of departure or point of focus
  • pedagogical strategy
  • boundary making/crossing object
  • materialising practice
  • reflexive discourse
(He expands on the list 6m 05 into the lecture.) Was this versatility an indication of the strength or the weakness of the idea? Can this jack of all trades of an idea really offer anything distinctive? There seemed to be a feeling that TCs themselves were coming to be regarded as subordinate to the liminal state--that was the distinctive characteristic of meaningful learning and change, and perhaps a TC was just one of several portals into it. Rather than emphasising the "portal" quality of TCs, "stuckness" was the defining characteristic.

I wonder whether that change of emphasis might possibly be attributable to a certain sense of disappointment with the "productivity" of the TC idea. Four years ago, I had a sense of being on the threshold (of course!) of a breakthrough in curriculum development--TCs could do justice to both the epistemological (content) and the ontological (process and psychological) issues. If only we could unearth the TCs within a discipline, they would provide the scaffolding on which the rest of the curriculum could be built. They would be the way-points on the learning journey to which Carmichael referred. I get the feeling that perhaps the promise has not been fulfilled, and even that there may be a little cognitive dissonance around, as attention is displaced to liminality; it preserves the overall framework, but plays down the original idea. It will be apparent that I am being very tentative here.

In Dublin I was struck by the relative absence of reports of empirical research on what count as threshold concepts in different disciplines, and the impact of building curricula around them, but that is not surprising (and it's hard to tell from the abstracts). There seemed to be more of that at Kingston--and as any visitor to Mick Flanagan's superb bibliographic site can see, there is no shortage of papers.

In Sydney, David Perkins introduced three ways in which TCs might serve, as object (goes beyond his "inert knowledge", but the term gives something of the idea), as instrument (or analytic tool) or as action (or frame of reference, or lens), and unpicked the differences and uses of each. What I would like to think we saw in Dublin was a move from seeing TCs as knowledge objects, to their characteristics as instruments.

There was a smattering of critical papers, examining the falsifiability of the idea, for example, or its potentially uneasy relationship with other theories, which confirm that it is entering the usual academic debate, and testify to its maturity. However, those I attended which looked at it in relation to other tools, such as the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky) or developmental stages in the Perry or Piaget traditions emphasised compatibility and complementarity rather than dispute.

At least they have been spared being taken up by Ofsted; "for a lesson to be rated 'outstanding' it must contain at least three threshold concepts..." as P. caricatured it yesterday.

This post was my evaluation of our paper.

07 August 2012

On being a charlatan

Old joke: two old hands discussing a newcomer with lots of ideas; "They say he's a 'guru'." "Why do they call him that?" "Because they can't spell 'charlatan'."

Yesterday I met a former colleague on the street. She has just retired and we chatted about the Factory (as my partner refers to the university). The conversation turned to qualifications for teaching, and the various routes to getting them; she asked about mine;

"I haven't got any." I said. She expressed astonishment... so I explained:

"My whole career has been based on false pretences. I taught social workers for over twenty years without ever having been a social worker, and then I taught teachers without having a teaching qualification."

(As the conversation went on, I was able to say that while I had drifted into social work education, I had been appointed to my later senior post by a panel who knew all my background--I have never conned anyone about it. And as for [post-compulsory] teacher education, I may not have a professional qualification, but I did have a quarter-century of experience and a Master's in it and a related Doctorate by the time I was appointed. And then there was the one-week course I was sent on by mistake in 1967 which ran out of ideas by Wednesday afternoon...)

I've since been thinking about what (if anything), this "means"*.

I am under no illusions: I ended up in the School of Education because of some horse-trading in an institutional merger in the mid-90s. Despite my record, the dominant institution could not accept having a social work department headed by someone without a professional qualification--that was fine by me, because the occupation as a whole was getting increasingly toxic. It remained amicable and effective for our team, but not so for our students and the practitioners in the field--so we can only speculate about what it was like for the poor clients (sorry! "Service users").

I've never been an "insider". That's had a couple of consequences;
  • I'm seen as the archetypal ivory-towered out-of-touch academic, with a string of degrees and without a clue about the "real world".  That has been a challenge; particularly in my social work education days, teaching courses to qualify social workers to perform statutory (ASW/AMHP) duties under the Mental Health Act, and taking them through possible practice scenarios; I couldn't claim I'd "been there, done that", as a couple of my colleagues could. Instead I had to become an empathic "sink" for the cumulative experience of the hundreds of practitioners we worked with, sharing their experiences rather than mine. It's been a brilliant discipline, but I don't know how to share it. No, "reflection" is not it.
  • But I have been able to maintain some distance from the hegemonic discourses (sorry! "taken-for-granted ways of talking about work stuff") of the discipline. I've added the theory (and encountered the ideology) after the practice. I had 12 years' teaching experience before I went for my M.Ed. (and most of the rest of the class had a similar background). The principal lesson I took away from those two (part-time) years was not to pay attention to academic educationalists, and to distrust much of what passes for research in education. That is because I only took the programme, in "Teacher and Higher Education" because there was none in "Social Work Education", but it was as close as I could get.
Swings and roundabouts.

*       Of course it doesn't mean any single thing... (I make this point to forestall commenters who write directly to me to make such fatuous points without being prepared to subject their inanities to public derision [I wish] on the blog comments.

05 August 2012

Items to Share: 5 August

Education focus
Other Business

03 August 2012

On what's become of universities

According to Simon Critchley (philosopher, formerly at Essex and now at the New School in New York):
Universities used to be communities; they used to be places where intellectual life really happened. They were also places where avant-garde stuff was happening. And that’s – in England anyway – completely ground to a halt. Universities are largely sold as factories for production of increasingly uninteresting, depressed people wandering around complaining. There’s been a middle-management take-over of our education, and it’s depressing. So universities, like the university I was at – Essex, which was a radical, experimental, small university, but had a bad reputation but did some great stuff – have become a kind of pedestrian, provincial university run by bureaucrats. That was one of the reasons why I got out when I got out in 2004.

So, I think what’s happened to British higher education is really terribly depressing. A lot of it was self-willed as well; you can blame a succession of governments. It began after the Labor government in the late 70s accelerated by Thatcher and then Major. We went from a model of there being a coherence, a union structure in higher education, to one where – with the disillusion [sic] of the gap between universities and polytechnics in 1992 – universities were increasingly treated like sort of small-scale corporations, yet with none of the inventiveness and freedom of small-scale corporations because they were still dependant upon the block grant subsidies from the government. So it’s a bewildering set of stupid policy adjustments over the last 20-30 years, which has meant that education is harder and harder to get, and teaching is of no importance. All that matters is research and such things. I’ve got a fairly bleak view of education, and certainly in the U.K.
 From an interesting interview here, via Andrew Sullivan