30 December 2013

Items to Share; 29 December 13

Academe and Education
  • Reclaiming Rhetoric  (Pragmatic Education) 'It is time to put rhetoric, the study of powerful speaking and writing, at the heart of English curriculum. To end with a chiasmus, learning rhetoric will help our pupils use words powerfully to influence others, and resist being overly influenced by powerful words.' Can I also take this opportunity to commend Mark Forsyth's excellent The Elements of Eloquence (London, Icon Books, 2013)? (That's a kind of rhetorical question called erotesis. [p.65])
  • Why Christmas rituals make tasty food « Mind Hacks  'So, for those sitting down with family this holiday, don’t skip the traditional rituals – sing the songs, pull the crackers, clink the glasses and listen to Uncle Vinnie repeat his funny anecdotes for the hundredth time. The rituals will help you enjoy the food more, and carry with them an echo of our long history as a species, and all the feasts the tribe shared before there even was Christmas.' 
Other Business
  • Wine-tasting: It's Junk Science (Guardian) 'The first experiment took place in 2005. The last was in Sacramento earlier this month. Hodgson's findings have stunned the wine industry. Over the years he has shown again and again that even trained, professional palates are terrible at judging wine.'

26 December 2013

On the Panettone Ring

Does anyone actually eat panettone?

I wonder about "gift shops". The very term implies that what they sell is stuff which no-one would ever buy for themselves, and is therefore effectively useless and valueless. But that is a limited and utilitarian view, held only by people who believe in materialist rationality and common sense.

"Gift" has now become a verb as well as a noun. Its incidence, compared to that of simply "give" is still too small to yield interesting results on Google Ngram, but it draws attention to the act of giving rather than the object given.

And that has a very venerable tradition—much more important than the focus on the present itself. I started to explore this (it's Boxing Day, for goodness' sake!) and quickly got mired in diplomatic history and protocols—individually intriguing examples but...

...the real sense-making stuff comes from anthropology, of course. I'm sure there were lots of references to the Kula ring in the stuff I was skimming, but I missed them. Nonetheless I was nudged towards it.

It is—or was—a gift-exchange tradition in the Trobriand Islands of the South Pacific, researched principally by Bronislaw Malinowski, while effectively interned there during the first World War. An archipelago of about eighteen islands maintained cultural contact through a continual exchange of gifts—an exchange which was not undertaken lightly because it involved perilous journeys in open boats across open seas. The gifts increased in value as they were exchanged, but it was cultural rather than material value, accrued though the history of exchange. And for each one given, another was received (excuse the simplification).

There was no direct economic benefit from such exchange. Selling a gift-item outside the ring would be stupid. The objects themselves were (are?) found items such as shells, and craft/art work based on them.


R. came for brunch on Christmas Day, and apart from the general family exchange of presents, deposited a large box in the kitchen (half-hidden on one of the kitchen stools) without a word.

Classy tactics! We were too busy serving brunch (and clearing up) to pay attention. When the tide receded, the panettone was stranded. And R had disappeared for a few days climbing with a friend.

We suspect he got it as a gift from one of his customers—he wouldn't buy such a thing himself. Or perhaps a gift from the Italian bakery where he goes for breakfast when he is working nearby?

We have to eat it. Or pass it on. Or accept responsibility for "throwing food away".

Not a Kula ring. More pass the parcel.

23 December 2013

On rote learning, down the line

I'm an inveterate fan of University Challenge, although I still can't adjust to the announcement "Asking the questions..." not being followed by "Bamber Gascoigne" (who last appeared in 1987, apparently).

I've just watched one of the Christmas editions, and as usual—to the annoyance of my wife (who was trying to watch something else in the next room)—I have been shouting the answers at the numbskulls on the TV... How can these people fail to solve a calculation of area I would expect a 9-year-old not to break sweat over?

These editions are "friendlies" between alumni, closer to my age of course that the current students in the main tournament, and therefore with the benefit of greater experience of both life and trivia (if there is a difference—discuss).

Of course, this is just quiz show, and the questions favour those with arcane knowledge, but...

Rote learning has a bad press. (I could reference that, but life's too short.)

"Who was the Prime Minister (of Great Britain) on Christmas Day in 1913?" Asquith, of course. How do I know that? I didn't guess, or if I did, that guess could only be from a restricted pool of possibilities. Chiang Kai-Shek, for example, was never a realistic candidate. Nor was it a deduction; it was only later that I thought of wondering when Lloyd George came on the scene...

I just knew that answer (but I hadn't a clue about the two or three other parts to the question. And as I write "two or three other parts" I realise there could have been only two other parts to it, because of the scoring scheme. I've been following the show since 1962, on and off, and had not realised that I knew that— although of course I did...

One of the competing team members was a Director—or something similar—of Mensa ("the British high IQ society"). He was quite good at some of the maths questions, but did not really shine overall. That's OK; if you don't happen to have the basic factual knowledge, you are stuck, regardless of "intelligence".

Learning an additional language, for example, entails a lot of hard-slog memorisation—however palatable a teaching scheme tries to make it. The Michel Thomas approach, for example, does a great job of disguising that aspect of the task, but it's still there. There were a few questions tonight which drew directly on that basic knowledge. There were many others for which it was a prerequisite.

The knowledge vs. skills debate in mainstream education (referred to in many "Items to Share" on this blog) too readily neglects the inestimable advantage conferred—in terms of time and effort—by "just knowing" (factual) stuff.

Items to Share: 22 December

Education Focus
  • Inkfish: How Science Education Changes Your Drawing Style (fieldofscience.com) Hay (author of study) thinks students need to internalize scientific concepts before they can play around with them and make their own hypotheses. "Scientists do not simply know information," he says; "they put information to work to discover something new."
  • Teacher Educators are Teachers First by Practicing What They Teach (artofteachingscience.org) 'This is the first of several posts that will be published here about the art of teacher education. There is a rich body of research on teacher education, and I will make use of recent work that shows that teacher education is a vibrant and energetic field that is being led by a new cadre of educators who are willing to get out there and do it.' 
  • Autistic Answers Question the Questions — DYSKE.COM The linked piece is very funny, but not only funnly: 'A lot of these answers are actually not “Wrong”. Most of these answers show autistic tendencies. In any given situation/question, kids on the spectrum would see all possibilities as being equally valid. This actually makes them less prejudiced than the average people. But this also makes them naive. [...] The teachers who wrote many of these questions are relying on the kids to have this type of prejudice that would instinctively detect their intentions without spelling them out. But when autistic kids do not take anything for granted, and consider all possibilities, the teachers’ assumptions or prejudice are revealed.' 
Other Business
  • Good judgment in forecasting international affairs (washingtonpost.com) '[...] the Good Judgment Project forecasters have demonstrated the ability to generate increasingly accurate forecasts that have exceeded even some of the most optimistic estimates at the beginning of the tournament.' Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner are involved, and they both have great form in this area. 
  • In Our Time - Complexity (bbc.co.uk) Melvyn Bragg's consistently brilliant In Our Time discussion (Radio 4, 10.00, Thursdays) with the best introduction you can get to complexity theory in 45 minutes.
  • A Poor Apology for a Word - NYTimes.com 'The English “sorry” is a marker not of grace and decorum, but rather of a belief that one magic word has the power to decontaminate the world even as it both pacifies and reproves those who pollute it. “Sorry” is a mixture of decayed piety and passive-aggressive guile.'
  • Full of Interesting Strangers – Rands in Repose 'Your conference experience starts when you check in, and for very good reasons, conference organizers often provide you [with a] ton of schwag. Take the badge, politely decline the schwag. You don’t want it. Trust me. [...] The badge is the only schwag you need because a badge connects you with the rest of the conference and its design quietly affects how much you’ll get out of the experience.' How to thrive at academic conferences.
And very best wishes for Christmas and the New Year!

16 December 2013

Items to Share: 15 December

Education Focus
  • Why good teachers leave teaching (theconversation.com) Australian—but it's the same the whole world over, except perhaps in Finland. 'Too often new teachers are treated as “empty vessels” who are simply required to slot into existing programmes and methods. This would be fine, if all we want is to keep doing what we have always done in education.However, all the indicators tell us that what we’ve always done isn’t good enough anymore.'   
  • Hands Up (Scenes from the Battleground) 'I want to talk about the practice [...] of having a “no hands up” policy in a school which is intended to apply in all lessons. I consider this to be one of those ridiculous, wrong-headed reactions to a genuine problem.'
  • How best to teach: knowledge-led or skills-led lessons? (Pragmatic Reform) A very useful summary of the embattled positions, unfortunately marred by little reference to levels of study or the epistemology of subjects, and an odd take on Bloom, and neglect of dialectical processes (sorry about the jargon). In short, he acknowledges the variety of the curriculum, in respect of the pupils' experience over the whole timetable, but not that such variety also calls for different teaching methods. How about looking at constructivist chemistry, or cognitive PE? And here's Harry Webb's latest contribution to the debate.
  • Reading is fundamental. | More or Less Bunk Points which needed to be made about what different media (live lecture, video, textbook, source material) are good for, and how they needed to be treated as complementary rather than in competition, as MOOC advocates (and others) often treat them.
  • ...and even worse at the other end of the scale: BBC News - Newham College students 'never sat courses they passed' 'A college in east London has received large sums from the government by awarding qualifications to students who say they never took the courses.' Unintended (I hope) consequences of the neoliberal agenda of commodified education. 
  • Thoughts on Art and Teaching: Sense and Sensibilities (distinguishing and discriminating) (Jim Hamlyn) '...what differentiates novices from experts is that novices have not yet integrated their affective states into a conceptual system, with the consequence that their attempts to verbalise their feelings fail to do them justice. Experts, on the other hand, have a much more stable grasp of their conceptual system and the ways this describes and frames their underlying affective states. [...] What this research reveals is that experience alone is insufficient for the development of our sensibilities. 
Other Business
  • The beautiful guts of a motorcycle - Deus Ex Machina - Aeon Film (video) 'What would a motorcycle look like if you didn’t cover up its insides with bright sheets of plastic? Beautiful, says this craftsman, who is building a bike that proudly displays every tube, wire and bolt. Like the bookshelf of a scholar, the tools of his shop record the ebb and flow of his passions over the years. This film explores the intimate relationship between a man and his machines.' This is the video counterpart of Matthew Crawford's The Case for Working with your Hands (Shop Class as Soulcraft, in the USA). 
  • Parkinson’s Law (farnamstreetblog.com) 'We’ve all heard of Parkinson’s Law — “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” I bet you’ve lived this. After all, who hasn’t sat in an hour-long meeting that really ended after 30 minutes. The rest of the time is just filler. It’s already booked after-all. [...] More than that, Parkinson comes up with the brilliantly insightful Law of Triviality; “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.” '
  • Keyboard Consciousness 'The majority of typists couldn’t tell you how they type if they tried, according to a study published in October [...] The finding comes from a body of typists who averaged 72 words per minute but could not map more than an average of 15 keys on a QWERTY keyboard.' (Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the pointer.) 
  • The boy whose brain could unlock autism — Matter — Medium 'Imagine being born into a world of bewildering, inescapable sensory overload, like a visitor from a much darker, calmer, quieter planet. [...] Just to survive, you’d need to be excellent at detecting any pattern you could find in the frightful and oppressive noise. To stay sane, you’d have to control as much as possible, developing a rigid focus on detail, routine and repetition. Systems in which specific inputs produce predictable outputs would be far more attractive than human beings, with their mystifying and inconsistent demands and their haphazard behavior.'
  • Taking Photos Makes Your Memory Worse | Motherboard 'Two new studies published in Psychological Science found that people who took pictures of objects had more trouble remembering specific details about them, where they were situated, and even if they had seen them at all.' 
  • Why the cult of hard work is counter-productive (Steve Poole in the New Statesman) 'We are everywhere enjoined to work harder, faster and for longer – not only in our jobs but also in our leisure time. The rationale for this frantic grind is one of the great unquestioned virtues of our age: “productivity”. The cult of productivity seems all-pervasive...' 

09 December 2013

Items to Share: 8 December

Education Focus:

Knowledge vs. Skills
  • What I now tell my students about knowledge | Webs of Substance 'You might think this is a bit of a stretch but consider this: the evidence for transferrable skills is pretty limited. Yes, such skills do exist but they are far less facilitative than you might think. On the other hand, background knowledge enables reading and comprehension - something essential to future learning. Background knowledge enables critical thinking.' 
  • Why we shouldn’t close down the skills-knowledge debate | Pragmatic Education 'The point of this blogpost is to challenge those calls to move beyond the knowledge versus skills debate and its polarising binaries. I would urge those who make them to rethink these calls, and those who hear them to resist them. We are yet to excavate the full insight from the rich seam of the knowledge and instruction side of the debate. Cognitive science, international comparisons and statistical meta-analyses are not going to go away, and as they become increasingly sophisticated, we must not preclude thinking through this tension carefully.' 
  • What’s Essential in the Education Debate Part 2: Reason [A sort of meta-contribution to the substantive debate linked to above—about how it should be conducted.] 'As well as those who have no enthusiasm for truth in education debate, there are also those with no particular regard for rational argument. At its core, the issue is still the same one of truth. If claims are contradictory, arguments fallacious or inferences poorly thought out then false claims can be supported as easily as true ones. Those expecting to argue over education should be familiar with the most common informal fallacies, or at the very least be willing to look them up when required, yet I still encounter those who think it unfair or underhand to point out that their argument is invalid.'
  • Literature and Bureaucracy by Tim Parks | The New York Review of Books 'If I were asked what was the greatest problem in the university I work in today, I would definitely say bureaucracy: in particular, the obsession with codifying, regulating, recording, reviewing, verifying, vetting, and chronicling, with assessing achievement, forecasting achievement, identifying weak points, then establishing commissions for planning strategies for regular encounters to propose solutions to weak points, and further commissions empowered to apply for funding to pay for means to implement these solutions, and so on.'
Other Business
  • The Golden Mean: a great discovery or natural phenomenon? 'The Golden Mean – also known as the Golden Section or the Divine Proportion – is a mathematical concept that is typically traced to the 15th century, a period in which geometry served both practical and symbolic purposes. It is a ratio that defines a recurring relationship between a larger element and a smaller subset of that element.'
  • Simplifiers and Optimizers, by Dilbert creator Scott Adams - Boing Boing 'Some people are what I call simplifiers and some are optimizers. A simplifier will prefer the easy way to accomplish a task, while knowing that some amount of extra effort might have produced a better outcome. An optimizer looks for the very best solution even if the extra complexity increases the odds of unexpected problems.'
  • Why it's time to lay the selfish gene to rest – David Dobbs – Aeon 'if merely reading a genome differently can change organisms so wildly, why bother rewriting the genome to evolve? How vital, really, are actual changes in the genetic code? Do we even need DNA changes to adapt to new environments? Is the importance of the gene as the driver of evolution being overplayed?' (Robust comments follow) 
  • Home And Wet Andrew Sullivan gets all nostalgic (?) about the resilient persistence of old England.
  • The Practice of Advent [Experimental Theology] Richard Beck meditates on this first season of the liturgical year; it's not just about advent calendars, it's about gearing up to Christmas spiritually, and although Beck doesn't mention it, anticipating Judgement:The Collect for Advent: Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility; that on the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

02 December 2013

Items to share: 1 December

Education Focus
  • Universities could be encouraging students to cheat, without even knowing it theconversation.com 'We have plenty of evidence that classrooms which orient students towards mastery learning produce more substantive and longer-lasting levels of learning than those which orient students towards performance. A substantial line of research also suggests that when students perceive their classrooms as primarily performance oriented, they are more likely to cheat.'
Other Business
  • The Science of Hatred - The Chronicle Review 'What makes humans capable of horrific violence? Why do we deny atrocities in the face of overwhelming evidence? A small group of psychologists say they are moving toward answers. Is anyone listening?' (Probably not--the ideas have been around since the 1950s, and have been conscientiously ignored.)
  • Kerning, spacing, leading: the invisible art of typography theconversation.com
  • How to write about the north (Stuart Maconie) newstatesman.com 'Remember that different rules apply here and you must get the terminology right. Shoreditch is “edgy” whereas Longsight is “dangerous”. Bow is “real”, Whitehaven is “run-down”. Hackney is “gritty and bracing”, Rotherham is “bleak and menacing”. Other good words to drop are “blighted”, “desperate”, “red-brick”, “eyesore”, “hen party”, “fake tan”, and “Greggs”.'

01 December 2013

On failing, to learn

I've been asked to contribute a piece to a newsletter for work-place mentors on a teacher education programme; what follows is a slightly expanded version—I hope I'll get some interesting comments from the newsletter itself...
    Managers and Ofsted and even tutors on teacher-training courses often labour under the delusion that there are right and wrong ways of teaching.

    Certainly there are some very bad ways of "teaching", sometimes because they are downright immoral, oppressive, cruel and exploitative, sometimes simply because they do not work, and sometimes because they work all too well—except that what the students learn is not what they were taught. It's probably fairly easy to arrive at a consensus about that...

    "Right" and "wrong" are useless labels—they appeal to absolutist moral or axiomatic (e.g. mathematical) standards and those are rarely helpful frameworks to judge complex and messy practice. It would be more useful to refer to "effective" or "ineffective" practice, which of course invites the question, "effective for what?" That is a question which is rarely answered, beyond reference to organisational goals of recruitment, retention, achievement and perhaps employment.

    But the question of  "good" or "right" ways is much more complicated, because there are many such ways, and the choice will vary according to discipline and subject and group and what worked last week, and time pressure, and equipment failure and everything under the sun... You can plan until the cows come home, but as the Prussian General von Moltke put it:
    'No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.'*
    (or the students—not of course that the students are the enemy!)  He wasn't quite right in terms of teaching—it is possible to plough on regardless with Plan A and "deliver" the session, but the engagement will not be there, and it won't be real "teaching".

    I observe lots of sessions where I am provided with confident minute-by-minute lesson plans; one thing I can say with confidence is that any session which conforms with those projections will be missing something important. Reaction, adjustment, accommodation, dialogue.

    Teaching involves a myriad of trade-offs and opportunity costs and adjustments and dealing with unintended consequences.
    • Someone asks whether you can leave the slide on the screen for a little longer so she can take notes—is that the right thing to do? It will hold up the rest of the session (if only for a few seconds); but it will set a precedent. Is supporting note-taking the best use of time? 
    • You are questioning the group to check their learning. Good practice. But A clearly has not got it. Is he typical of the class? Should you invest time is getting him on board, because it would help a lot of others, too? Or is he an outlier? Should you make a note to offer him assistance later and plough on? Or just carry on regardless, on the basis that you can't win them all? 
    • The class is going well—much better than last year's. You set an exercise with a higher bar than before. Their success should do wonders for their confidence! Only it doesn't work out like that. Some of the class don't meet the challenge and are discouraged; some ace it and decide they don't need to put any more work in—the exam will be a doddle. Was it something you said? How do you recoup the situation?
    This kind of situation is the meat and drink of the mentoring process. (Sorry, veggies!)

    This is where you as a teacher, and your mentee too, exercise professional judgement second-by-second. You review, judge, prioritise (and at the same time you are swayed by subjective considerations, such as trying to keep to time, not being too hard on B who is struggling, being fed up with that obsessive berk C who is always asking questions about the assessment rather than the content, and...) and act. Like it or not, you act. And not acting is acting, too. (Someone is being mildly—probably unintentionally—disruptive by talking to his neighbour. You can intervene; that "sends a message" about your authority, and being heavy-handed... Or you can let it pass and do nothing. That also sends a message...)

    Every time we make one of these routine interventions we put our practice on the line. We take risks in the interest of some underlying principle about teaching or our survival in the job—although we may not be aware of what that principle is (or those conflicting principles are), and we risk failure.

    Great! In my experience as mentee, mentor and tutor, it is hard work to get people to learn from success. It worked; do it again! Relax; rest on your laurels. You plateau, particularly if you are already exceeding expectations. (That's the story of my culinary life; "good-enough" is the kiss of stasis.)

    But "right" and "wrong" are not what it is about. Those categories come into play only when a "higher" authority arrogates to itself the right to make such judgements. "Success" and "failure" are the kinds of judgement you make about your experiments—and every intervention in class is an experiment.

    (Also known as "trial and error". You can't get much more basic than that...)  

    Failure is critical to learning. The culture of retention and achievement-related funding and indeed of inclusivity, is in denial about the reality and importance of failure. Failure is not a condemnation of the individual, it is a signal about the existence of standards and the work required to meet them.

    As Samuel Beckett—about as far as you can get from von Moltke—put it:
    [...] failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho, 1983)
    That's why we do not grade teaching observations—because that would promote defensive practice, and the avoidance of failure, and forestall a lot of learning.

    Mentoring is about getting mentees to fail better.  

    * As quoted in Donnybrook : The Battle of Bull Run, 1861 (2005) by David Detzer, p. 233. As I checked out this quote, I came across the following fuller version, which struck me as even more apposite to teaching:
    'The tactical result of an engagement forms the base for new strategic decisions because victory or defeat in a battle changes the situation to such a degree that no human acumen is able to see beyond the first battle. In this sense one should understand Napoleon's saying: "I have never had a plan of operations."' ["On Strategy" (1871), as translated in Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings (1993) by Daniel J. Hughes and Harry Bell, p. 92]

    28 November 2013

    On education "research": a rant.

    I've recently been doing my duty as an external examiner on a Master's programme, and it struck me that most of the stuff which the tutors criticised for being too sweeping or unsupported by peer-reviewed, published evidence, was the interesting stuff.

    So I'm cutting to the chase on this issue, at least. Much of what follows falls short of the academic bar, but probably exceeds that of mainstream journalism...

    Much (probably most--but how do you tell?) of what passes for educational research is crap. There are several reasons for this:
    • No-one wanted to do it in the first place. Students, from final-year undergraduates, through master's and doctoral post-grad study are obliged to do dissertations, and so they have to find something to research. Frankly, the guidance they get is very variable, and often the research proposal (itself nowadays frequently formulated as an assignment for a Research Methods module) is poorly formulated. Usually it is far too big, often it includes value-judgements (are students with English as an additional language getting enough support?) and it's chosen for the wrong reasons. Those are usually related to its perceived ease, accessibility of subjects, and availability of resources--because of course this usually has to be funded out of the student's own pocket (unless it is full-time doctoral research as part of a team on a funded project.) Very rarely is the subject matter actually inherently compelling, or can it be seen to be useful.*
    • Once the researcher is in post, she (no disrespect to female colleagues, they are simply in the majority in Schools of Education and education in general), she comes under pressure to produce "research". Actually it's more specific than that--she is under pressure to produce publications, particularly articles in peer-reviewed academic journals that are unlikely to be read, except by people like her who have no interest in the topic itself, but need to "read up" on it for a literature review. And frankly, many of the papers listed at the end of articles will not have been read, at least not carefully. They are there because they were included in other articles... 
    • Of course, if she is lucky, she may get to work on a funded project. But in many cases in education there are no new resources for research, and indeed not even any remission from teaching time (and certainly no relief of administrative loading). So we can imagine a parallel with learning; there is deep research indeed, but more common is surface research, conducted purely as a means of getting a record of publication. 
    • And the pressure to publish and the growing expectation that in order to be employed in the first place one needs a Ph.D (even one in an irrelevant discipline, or so specialised as to be useless in an education context) --those factors are perverse drivers to generate quantity rather than quality.
    • Not only does that not augur well, but the researcher's grounding in methods is unlikely to be adequate. Most of it will come from a mandatory module on a Master's programme (there will probably have been a final-year undergraduate version, too--but frankly ...)  The typical "Research Methods" module will require two assessed pieces of work. One will supposedly test content knowledge; "Critically** compare two approaches to education research..." While the other will be a draft dissertation proposal, intended to focus the candidate's attention on the practicalities of dissertation research--but in practice serves to send the unjustfied message, "You now know enough about methods to apply them to a real project." 
    • Most of that comes down to "I can get away with a few interviews or a focus group if I'm pushed." underpinned strongly by "anything but having to do sums!"
    • I'm not a devotee of Randomised Controlled Trials as the Gold Standard for research in education--I part company with Ben Goldacre on this for reasons Andrew Old argued very well here and here--but the wriggling I see on the part of educational researchers just to get off the quantitative hook gets me squirming sympathetically.
    • They frequently argue that quantification is inherently positivist--a sort of robotic curse which afflicts those who count. No. Their problem is that quantification opens the door to all kinds of nasties---sample size, and standard errors, and (the Hallowe'en horror) significance testing if you venture into the Wild Wood of cross-tabulation! So they settle for a few descriptive statistics if pushed, preferably illustrated by pretty graphs courtesy of Excel (or SPSS) which tell us nothing.
    • Worse, they don't even know what they don't know (Rumsfeld, 2004) about quantitative methods.
    • It's not that quantitative methods are inherently superior to qualitative--the problems are that the drivers to select methods are rarely about suitability--they are about comfort and confidence and flexibility and even malleability.
      ...and then there is the question of what happens to the research, even if it is some good. Dissemination is very poor.
      • There's an unintended consequence of the poor quality of the work to begin with--the proliferation of not-very-good journals, which have arisen in order to exploit publish it. (After all, if it isn't published somewhere it doesn't exist, does it? ***) I'm not going into the all the academic publishing scams which beset us, but the net has of course made it much easier to pump out rubbish mediocre material via e-journals, and even to publish everything in return for a page fee. (Here is a recent newspaper treatment. and here is a list of them. [I can't testify to the accuracy of the details] I tell the tale of a bizarre prior personal encounter with this world here.) This is not of course confined to education. 
      • And the downside of peer review is the number of studies which do not get published (or even submitted for publication in many cases). They may not be very good (see above), but that is not the whole story. The more popular the topic, the greater the competition. Not-very-dramatic results (or too-dramatic "outlier" results) are less likely to get published. Replication of existing research--which is a really important if unsung (and unfunded) process to challenge or confirm the received wisdom--is less likely to be published. And in education in particular, anything which challenges received wisdom, however wrong it is, is less likely to see the light of day. (See this paper on the importance of replication and how it works in the case of the famous but dubious "Pygmalion in the Classroom" study. But see also here (and here: up-date 29.11.13) for a systematic attempt to replicate findings in psychology.)
      • Most of it does not get read. There is simply too much. (See David Colquhoun on this, buried in a long but interesting post on academic publishing in science; he makes the point that some journals foisted on the library of University College London as part of publishers' bundling deals just do not get read at all, and many more hardly ever. One of my own papers has racked up a grand total of just 38 citations since 1999--and that's not bad. That's why I cut out the middleman and publish directly online--but even that doesn't guarantee readers...)
      • And much of what does get read is only read because it has been hijacked and hyped by charlatans and vested interests. Who may be cavalier--to say the least--with perfectly respectable initial findings.
      • So we end up with research which gets published and deserves to be (hurrah!), that which doesn't get published and doesn't deserve to be (a category whose invisibility makes it very difficult to know about unless you happen to be someone like me who has had to mark and/or referee scores, if not hundreds, of papers over the years), also the Type 1 errors; research which shouldn't have been published but was anyway (which is not only unfair, but the status of being published confers a degree of credibility which is unlikely to be contested by reluctant researchers who--rightly--lack confidence in their own judgement; hence the egregious and embarrassing fiascos of "learning styles" and the like). 
      • And of course research which should have been published and wasn't (Type II error)--not that anyone is in a position to pronounce definitively on that...
          ...and then the process of "chinese whispers" (that doesn't sound very politically correct),
          • through students' half-understood lecture notes about papers they have not and never will read...
          • or text-book summaries, which try to distil complex ideas into a 200-word paragraph, and lay out all the theories/research/half-baked ideas/sheer bullsh*t alongside each other as if they didn't overlap and/or contradict each other in the interest of "even-handedness"...
          • or workshops from consultants on Continuing Professional Development days in schools and colleges; consultants who are aware above all of the bottom-line and the pre-eminent need to ensure they get another booking, so they are more entertainers than disseminators of accurate information... (in real life, of course, many of those consultants will moonlight as Ofsted inspectors, so they will be listened to avidly by members of Senior Leadership Teams, or whatever else they are calling themselves this week...) 
          • who will latch onto the the latest fad and push out a garbled version of it to their staff, in the hope that it will give them the edge when Ofsted next come calling... 
          • and the staff themselves, who are in the terminal phase of initiativitis, and almost as cynical as this piece, and who latch on the simplest and most banal aspect of what the "research" (the quotes testify to how far it is from the genuine article--however flawed) is purported to have recommended, in order to appear to be going through the motions...
          and the net result is that even the originators of some of the most influential ideas disown the ways in which they have been implemented. See, for example, Dylan Wiliam's considered judgement on the state of Assessment for Learning (AfL).

          What's the answer? In the AfL case, it may be found in meta-analyses, but only in part: their syntheses may be subject to just the same distortions as I have touched on above. And, as a perceptive course member raised with me a couple of weeks ago, they are designed to homogenise all the data, so you can't get at the needs of particular groups.

          Treat all educational "research" with suspicion. We need it, but we can't assume it's trustworthy. Even mine. (And this post doesn't even pretend to the soubriquet.)

          * There are some exceptions--chiefly action-research projects undertaken by practitioners, where publication is not the point, but improvement of practice is.

           ** "Critically" is critical, as it were. It's the magic word which confers M-ness on everything it touches, rather like the Higgs field confers mass...

          *** Action research is the exception--it exists in order to influence practice, even if that is only the practice of the researcher. Publishability is a bonus.

          25 November 2013

          Items to Share: 24 November

          • Questions You Should Never Ask a Writer - New York Times Doris Lessing: 'A successor to “commitment” is “raising consciousness.” This is double-edged. The people whose consciousness is being raised may be given information they most desperately lack and need, may be given moral support they need. But the process nearly always means that the pupil gets only the propaganda the instructor approves of. “Raising consciousness,” like “commitment,” like “political correctness,” is a continuation of that old bully, the party line.' 
          • Breaking Bad News | More Intelligent Life 'For decades, the way bad news was broken was, as one official British report put it, “deeply insensitive”. Now we do it better, thanks to the efforts of one American widow.'
          • Policy: Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims : Nature News & Comment '[...] the immediate priority is to improve policy-makers' understanding of the imperfect nature of science. The essential skills are to be able to intelligently interrogate experts and advisers, and to understand the quality, limitations and biases of evidence. We term these interpretive scientific skills. [...] To this end, we suggest 20 concepts that should be part of the education of civil servants, politicians, policy advisers and journalists — and anyone else who may have to interact with science or scientists.'
          • The evolving role of the Oxford English Dictionary - FT.com 'Lexicography, unlike journalism, is a field in which deadline extensions can occasionally be justified. James Murray (1837-1915), the indefatigable editor who oversaw much of the first edition, was originally commissioned to produce a four-volume work within a decade; after five years, he had got as far as the word “ant”. Similarly, the lexicographers toiling behind the neoclassical columns at the Oxford University Press, the dictionary’s home and publisher, have been forced gradually to extend their horizons. When work began on OED3 in the mid-1990s, it was meant to be complete by 2010. Today, they are roughly a third of the way through and Michael Proffitt, the new chief editor, estimates that the job won’t be finished for another 20 years.'

          23 November 2013

          On Register Sudoku

          The course leader has been chasing me for the register of attendance at the class I took a couple of weeks ago: I didn't bother to take one, so I was rather stuck. (Her predecessor was familiar with my relaxed attitude to such things and let me get away with it.) In mitigation, I had taken my first full-length class with the group, who are just beginning to establish themselves, and I didn't want to send them back to the beginning, as it were, just to introduce themselves to me--I'll get to know them soon enough. I could of course have used a signing-in sheet (or name-cards on the desk), as I would with a larger group, but I prefer to work at it in my own way, and if that means I can't do the register for a couple of weeks, then so be it.

          This was my response (lightly edited):
          This is like Sudoku. Or the pools. Perm any seven. I don't do registers-- almost 50 years in teaching and I've never really got the hang of them at this level!
          Still, there were 7 present, of whom two were women, and one was Kate because I picked up someone using her name to attract her attention. This week Adrian asserted he was there last week, because I thought he wasn't (it must have been the suit that fooled me). Keith definitely was. Jamal was. I deduced from some of the conversation that the other woman present was Lynne, because she is from PrivateCollege  and wasn't present this week. Geoff wasn't present because he'd sent his apologies. Ted has a straight attendance record and I think I remember him. In the end it came down to a toss between Colin and Ahmed and I went for Ahmed because if I'm wrong it will have fewer consequences for him...

          Who cares? Sorry!
          (Names have been changed)

          22 November 2013

          On reflection and defences.

          It was, of all things, a programme about a choir which tipped me to write about this. And given all the critical stuff I have written about "reflection" in the past (principally here) and my research on resistance to learning, I am frankly ashamed not to have got the point.

          The singer selected as soloist for the Birmingham City Council choir is a social worker in child protection. I've known and worked with scores of people with similar roles, including specialists with the NSPCC, and brilliant supervisors of students on placement. We have had in-depth discussions about reflective practice. But...

          All our discussions took place inside a bubble (the jargon is a "discourse") within which the desirability of reflective practice is a "given" (i.e. unquestionable). But Gareth Malone is a choirmaster (par excellence) and he talked to Siobhan (her name is public in the programme) as such. He asked her to draw on her experience to add depth to her singing, and she rose to the challenge, to the extent of tears--and emerged with a more mature voice.

          But her tears said a lot. I'm sure she's a great practitioner, but she goes home at the end of each day with more losses than "wins". Not her fault.

          Can she afford to be "reflective", as commonly advocated?

          I keep returning to Isobel Menzies' classic study of nurse socialisation. (Brief account here.)

          I was also reminded of this by a brief conversation in class earlier this week with a student from the military. The course has only recently started, and so there is quite a lot of reference to reflection, but we haven't been into it in any great depth. In the past, some (not all) military personnel have not really got it--they have gone through the motions and faked it for the assessments (hey--"faking reflection" is an interesting idea--I may come back to that...) but they haven't taken it on board, and you can understand why.

          On heritage and plausibility

          I was about to write to BigFoodConglomerate.com about a package of frozen haddock fillets. Initially it was about my pedant's delight in finding an error. 

          The sleeve carries a photo on the back purporting to be of "Harry Ramsden's restaurant 1928".  It could conceivably be from 1958, but  no earlier--the car appears to be an Austin A40 Somerset, produced from 1952 to 1954, according to Mr W I Kipedia.

          ...but who, in 1928, would photograph a chip-shop for the record? They come and they go and only Harry Ramsden's (to my knowledge) has become a national brand.

          And who, in the packaging design department--probably mean age 30?--could be expected to recognise those distinctive differences between "post-war" and "pre-war" cars at this distance, 60 years on?

          (The TV listings section of my Sunday paper has a small box on each page entitled "You Say", with snippets from readers' comments. (It's beautifully edited, to give trolls and pompous obsessives exposure to make fools of themselves, and compulsive reading.) Anachronisms in period drama is a perennial theme, and of course seen as evidence of terminal decline of the education system and indeed of civilisation as we know it.)

          But I'm posting about the error instead of just pointing it out, because it is not the mistake itself which matters--I'm sure I'm far from the first person to spot it. It could not, I think, be a genuine mistake. Somebody had to make a decision and sign off on a deliberate deception, however trivial. To testify to my own pompous obsessiveness, it is exploiting the trivial ignorance of the consumer to misrepresent the provenance of the product--quite unnecessarily because the picture itself is unnecessary.

          It doesn't do anything for the trustworthiness of the brand, so it works directly contrary to its intention.

          21 November 2013

          On training

          My car has been in for service today. I gather that I will shortly get an email questionnaire to evaluate my experience. I got that information when the front-of-house-guy said that my car would be returned shortly, after it had been washed. I asked why. It had been raining, there were muddy puddles everywhere, and more rain threatened. Because it was all part of the service, he said. The fact that it kept me twiddling my thumbs for 25 minutes before I could collect it and go was presumably also part of the service. But he did let slip about the questionnaire and that the franchise would be awarded points on the basis of my ratings--which would not accommodate a response to "Was your car washed?" of  "No, I declined because I wanted to get out of there and do other things."

          This is not a rant about the "quality" of the service. Everybody was quite efficient, very pleasant and helpful, and apart from that unnecessary delay and the price of it all, I'm satisfied.

          I'm merely reflecting on the fact that the staff are so well trained they behave like automatons.

          When we sat down to "do the paperwork" (and why am I always religiously addressed as "Doctor Atherton" --they've only picked up the title from one of my credit cards?) I became aware of the script:
          • OK, Doctor Atherton, this is what we have done for you today... ("for you" is the giveaway, like the supermarket cashier who asks, "Can you just enter your PIN for me?" It's the kind of pseudo-intimate bullsh*t propagated by corporate "customer-service" training programmes.)
          • This raised an interesting question--was the 25-minute wait fortuitous? Or is there some research somewhere which testifies to its capacity to soften up customers--they won't argue when their priority is just to get on with their lives? (Or is that a shadow of my recent reading about paranoid schizophrenia?)
          • He then went through a sheaf of paperwork, at least three itemised accounts, before presenting the summary of what I had to pay. (I did think of telling him to cut to the chase, but I was beginning to be interested in the script...)
          • In each case he was punctilious about the facts of what was being charged for, or not...
          • Apparently, the car could have failed the MoT (roadworthiness test) because the rear indicator lights were not the correct colour. That sounds extremely implausible, but I was assured that the bulbs had been replaced, "and we have not charged you for that".
          • [At this point I thought--"Kahneman!"* I don't know whether whoever had written the script/trained the guy had read Kahneman and Tvarsky, or whether they had arrived at the idea independently, but it was a beautiful implementation of what K calls "anchoring". Many consumer trading interactions are assymetric. I, the customer, have no idea of what is a fair price for the service the seller is offering. {sorry about the nested brackets, but I encountered this at the same business when I offered my previous vehicle for trade-in. I asked "What will you give me for it?" They said "What do you want for it?"--which would have manipulated me into specifying a default figure around which they could argue. If I set that too low, I would have effectively capped the trade-in price I could get.} so they define the situation, or the parameters of the game--they set a more or less arbitrary anchor for the bargaining.]
          • He then went through the rest of the invoice. I needed two new tyres; this bargain had been set up on the phone earlier. He had quite rightly told me about the tyre situation (I could have disputed the judgement because I had checked previously elsewhere, where the guy had --contrary to his immediate interest-- told me they were legal) I had to work out the hassle of deciding to go elsewhere for a better deal, and then getting the car re-tested... so I asked him the price. Quoted price; £97 each... But he would do it for £79 each, because I was an established customer... Sounds good, but where is the anchor? I could find it on the net, I'm sure, but how much is that worth?
          • On every other item, he showed me how I was getting a discounted rate because of  a deal I had signed up for earlier, and then --coup de grace-- showed me how much I had "saved", as I paid £200 more than I expected...
          There's nothing unusual about this, still less to be deprecated. It's what makes the wheels of commerce turn, and it has been going on for centuries--just lacking the meta-language to describe its principles.  

          Caveat emptor.

          Good--now I can simply cite this link in response to the incoming questionnaire.

          * Kahneman D (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow London, Penguin Books

          19 November 2013

          On the supposed antithesis of good teaching

          I've been asked to write something about my approach to teaching for a small publication we put out for work-place mentors for our post-compulsory education students. The format is to respond to some deceptively simple questions (and there is a 500-word limit for the whole thing). One question was:
          What would be your 'top tips' in relation to teaching and learning?
          The ideal teaching/learning situation is a conversation. All the techniques and the technology are about enabling that conversation (which may of course be physical and practical, but still a conversation). If you are getting the conversation going, then abandon all the stuff which might interfere with it; exercises and slides and tests and plans only count when they enable the conversation.
          That seemed the most succinct way of expressing my views.

          But then I got an email this morning about a broken link on one of my pages, and fortuitously it was to a paper by Howard Becker--one of my sociological heroes, still going strong and still teaching at 85. Actually it was not a formal paper, but an email exchange with one of his former students (Shirah Hecht) about teaching a research methods class (1997). Read it--it distils so much wisdom about teaching into a small space, and without any jargon, and says it all so much better than I can. But in particular, here is Howie responding to a question;
          Do I like teaching? To tell the truth, yes, I do. I pretty much hate most of what goes with it: departments and administrations and voting and meetings and requirements and all that. But I like sitting around with people bullshitting about interesting things, which I guess is my idea of what teaching really is, if it goes the way it should. [...]
          One secret about liking it, I think, is that I don’t try to bend anything to my will. I guess this is kind of a Zen thing. I’d use another metaphor. I try to find out where things are going and help them get there. I never try to impose my will because, fundamentally, I guess I believe that people know what they want to do and it’s not up to me to tell them they’re wrong, just to help them do it. If I think it’s a dumb thing to do I’ll show them why I think that, why it won’t get them where they want to go, or tell them to go somewhere else where they could find what they’re looking for. So I never have the sense of things not going the way I want them to in class, except when I forget all this sage talk and try to get them to do something they don’t want to do or, more likely, can’t do without more help than I’ve given them.
           ...only that is the antithesis of how we are expected to teach.

          18 November 2013

          Items to Share; 17 November (take 6)

          Education and Academic Focus
          • The battle of educational ideas: the resistable rise of therapeutic education | thelearningprofessor  John
            Field on Kathryn Ecclestone's inaugural lecture: 'On the whole, I find [the writers on "therapeutic education"] work interesting and provocative, but shallow. Remarkably, for former Marxists, their analyses are largely ahistorical, often comprising a contrast between critique of a very specific contemporary cultural pattern and an unsupported assertion that this did not occur in the past. They rarely attend to causality; no one knows how or why any particular deplorable cultural practice or belief has arisen. And finally, they are often less than impressive on what might be done to remedy things.' (I refer to this in an up-coming post, if I ever get it finished.)
          • Writing in my own words? | patter '...there are aspects of academic writing that are potentially damaging to the everyday ways of making meaning that we use, and that are used by the
            people with whom we research. It seems there are plenty of opportunities in the academy for censoring, flattening and symbolic violence via processes of editing.' (In particular the conventions of presentation which iron out the non-standard English of interview respondents, and thus lose their distinctive voices.)
          • And also from Pat Thomson: Quotations – handle with care | patter 'Expert scholars don’t over-rely on quotations. Unless they are conducting a textual analysis, they generally tend to only refer to the work of others where necessary. They do this by summarizing the key points that they use from others’ work. They use citations and footnotes rather than extensive quotations. They use a quotation only when there is no better way of explaining a particular point, or when they want to give a flavour of a particularly scholarly ‘voice’ – in addition to their own.'
          • The case of CASE | Webs of Substance '[Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education] has to provide the strongest evidence for far transfer that I am aware of. There is definitely something going on. However, I can’t help suggesting that extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence.' ("Far transfer" refers to transfer of learning over time, and also over disciplines.)
          • Why I don’t think OFSTED can be reformed | Scenes From The Battleground  'a reformed OFSTED would still be a bureaucracy that teachers and school leaders will have to second guess rather than a simple check on failure. Worse, unless more evidence is forthcoming that OFSTED has changed most of that second guessing will be based on the same trendy nonsense that OFSTED have been forcing on us for years now. Wilshaw’s decrees are not going to work. If we want teachers to teach, then OFSTED will have to go.'
          Hints and Tips
          • Improve Your PowerPoint Design with One Simple Rule | Faculty Focus 'Bullet points are basically ugly wallpaper thrown up behind the presenter that end up distracting and confusing the audience. The audience is getting a message in two competing channels running at different speeds, voice, and visual. It’s a bit like listening to a song being played at two speeds at once. The audience member is forced to ask themselves: Do I listen to the presenter (which is running at one speed), or read the bullet points (which I read at a different speed)?'
          Other Business
          • Doing Gender with Wallets and Purses » Sociological Images 'If asked what I thought would be a significant everyday challenge if I were a woman, I don’t think purse would have been high on my list. But, it was high on hers. She discussed remembering to bring it, how to carry it, norms surrounding purse protection in public, but also more intimate details like: what belongs in a purse? Purses and wallets are gendered spaces. There’s nothing inherent in men’s and women’s constitutions that naturally recommends carrying money and belongings in different containers.'
          • Norman Rockwell, Modernist « The Dish de Kooning remarked of Rockwell’s astonishing imitation of a Pollock drip painting, being viewed by a fancy gent in “The Connoisseur” (1962), “Square inch by square inch, it’s better than Jackson!”'

          13 November 2013

          On being out of practice

          I've just finished my first serious (3-hour) teaching session since April, and I'd like to apologise to the students.

          We (I think I can generalise here) get used to a certain lack of edge after the long summer break, but usually the introductory overview and briefing sessions explaining the handbook/syllabus are enough to free up the rusty bits and hone that edge a little. In my case, however, I am returning to tag-team teaching on a module in full flow.

          And I made a hash of it:
          • I got the timing all wrong for the first 2-hour slot (with comfort break). I had edited a familiar presentation on Hattie's work to structure the session, but I had failed to allow for this being the first proper class with the group, so they were much less responsive than usual (not their fault), so we "got through" the material much faster than usual.
          • I found myself fumbling for the right expressions (the mots justes), particularly when  responding to questions, which led to a halting presentation (and an understandable possible conclusion that I had not prepared properly--although they were too kind to say so...)  That may reflect age-related intellectual decline in general, but for the moment I'd prefer to put it down to being out of practice.
          • But the overall "voice" was wrong, too. I told them about meta-analyses, the method and the results (actually, I think I was rather better on the method--standardising results on effect-sizes--than I was on the results, which were of course the important bits) but I didn't teach them. I could have done that with a ranking exercise, for them to complete and then compare with the research results... The irony is that I had one ready, but I didn't set it up because on previous occasions it would have been redundant, because the points arose naturally in the course of conversation...
          • And in response to questions, I set too many hares running and left them to it. I hope to recover some of those issues later in the blog post on the session, but even so it must have left them confused and wondering what kind of idiot they have had foisted on them... (I'll link their blog to here, but I'd rather not point back to the blog itself, because I am hoping to encourage comments--which may be inhibited if they go beyond members and mentors of the course group.)
          The snack break prompted some rapid re-thinking. As usual there were several possible directions to go in: dig down into some of the issues I'd already flagged on the board;  proceed blithely onto the next announced topic regardless (the default if you follow your schemes of work); pick up on some themes touched on in the discussion, such as educational branding...

          I decided to go with the next item on the topic list. After the previous cognitive mush, they were entitled to a clearer direction. I didn't actually write off the preceding two hours; by now I had my brain sufficiently in gear to refer back in discussion to points which students had previously made and stitch them in to the current points (not however helped by my failure to make sure I knew all their names--there were after all only seven present tonight--I'd expected double that number and decided against yet another introductions exercise because they have already been through it--not knowing names is my problem, not theirs).

          That item concerned "use of resources". We are planning to go into this in more detail later, so I decided in the break to go through a venerable (although dare I say it, prescient?) presentation from 2001, and gut it for the present day. I decided to argue that the technology is not neutral and to look at the impact of available technology on the teaching and learning process--taking in printed books, slates, dedicated furniture and photocopiers along the way, and concluding with the malevolence of PowerPoint. The simple mantra helped structure the argument and I got some real push-back from a few group members...

          I quit a little early while I was ahead. I could feel dormant "senses", or foci of attention, stirring as the session proceeded. But my "takeaway" learning point is that lack of practice dulls not only the fine arts of dancing with students*, but also the grosser ones of making sense of a deck of slides.

          *  I'm currently reading George Lakoff and Mark Johnson on Metaphors we live by (U. Chicago Press; 2nd edn. 2008); they point to the prevalent metaphor of "argument/debate as war" and wonder what it would look like if re-conceived as "dance".

          11 November 2013

          Items to Share: 10 November

          Hints and Tips