30 September 2013

Items to Share: 29 September

Education Focus
  • 'Strings Attached' Co-Author Offers Solutions for Education - WSJ.com 'What can we learn from a teacher whose methods fly in the face of everything we think we know about education today, but who was undeniably effective? As it turns out, quite a lot. Comparing [...] methods with the latest findings in fields from music to math to medicine leads to a single, startling conclusion: It's time to revive old-fashioned education. Not just traditional but old-fashioned in the sense that so many of us knew as kids, with strict discipline and unyielding demands. Because here's the thing: It works.'
  • ... and leading on from that; Another Problem with Assessment for Learning: Scenes From The Battleground “why would somebody continue to spend time learning something they can already do?” The trouble with this is that this question has a very simple answer, and that answer is “practice”.' You don't stop when you get something right (or even when you can't get it wrong).
  • James Flynn: Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents' | Video on TED.com 'It's called the "Flynn effect" -- the fact that each generation scores higher on an IQ test than the generation before it. Are we actually getting smarter, or just thinking differently? In this fast-paced spin through the cognitive history of the 20th century, moral philosopher James Flynn suggests that changes in the way we think have had surprising (and not always positive) consequences.
  • Students Don’t Go to College to Learn | Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed. 'During a year-long research sabbatical, Cathy Small, a professor of anthropology at Northern Arizona University, enrolled as an undergraduate student in her own university. As a teacher and an anthropologist, she wanted to better understand student culture. What do students do with their lives while in school and why?'

Other Business

  • The Work of Conversation - Lingua Franca - The Chronicle of Higher Education 'I am teaching an undergraduate course called “How Conversations Work.” Taking this course is a great way to become so self-conscious about how you talk that it becomes hard to have a normal conversation at all. “It wears off,” I promise the students, knowing that this statement is half-true.'
  • Without conversation, philosophy is dogma – Nigel Warburton – Aeon 'The point of philosophy is not to have a range of facts at your disposal, though that might be useful, nor to become a walking Wikipedia or ambulant data bank: rather, it is to develop the skills and sensitivity to be able to argue about some of the most significant questions we can ask ourselves, questions about reality and appearance, life and death, god and society.'
  • Onora O'Neill: What we don't understand about trust | Video on TED.com 'Trust is on the decline, and we need to rebuild it. That’s a commonly heard suggestion for making a better world … but, says philosopher Onora O’Neill, we don’t really understand what we're suggesting. She flips the question, showing us that our three most common ideas about trust are actually misdirected.' 

28 September 2013

On an academic conscience (1)

A friend and colleague (he's both) and I are contemplating a new book. Broadly speaking we want to get behind the simplistic prescriptions about teaching (after school onwards) in the textbooks, and give more experienced practitioners (those of them who still have the energy and enthusiasm) something to get their teeth into to develop their work further.

So I've started with a mind-map of possible topics... I know what I want to say about them. Most of them have been touched upon very briefly on my sites. My co-author is doing the same thing. But we are stuck with the academic mindset (which usage perhaps needs to be distinguished from Dweck's—stop it!)

I am just emerging from Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature. I'm very impressed and almost persuaded, but I confess I have skipped and skimmed to get to the point of emergence. [696 A5 pages of main text . 40 pages of endnotes in 8pt font (I guess--no, the typeface and size is not identified on the ID page) and 32 pages of References in 6 or 7pt]—and he has been lambasted by critics for lack of evidence for his argument. Clearly quantity does not guarantee quality in this sphere, but he is careful to set out the limitations of his methodology.

The book is an argument—not quite a polemic, but a case. But he is an academic and he has fallen among academics (Is. 6:5). They are indeed his own tribe, but that only fuels both their viciousness and pedantry.

Robert Wright's Nonzero; history, evolution and human co-operation ("A work of genius" according to Bill Clinton [who he?] on the blurb) covers some of the same ground. But as one of the endorsements enthuses, "Wright carries his learning lightly". [334pp octavo main text; 51pp of sometimes quite discursive endnotes; 15pp bibliography--yes, I know bibliographies and references are not the same, but I'm going by their own labels. I refer to the UK Abacus edition of 2001. Octavo is about 80% of A5.]*

Wright is a journalist. Their code is more permissive.

I've been listing the topics I want to address, and despite my general familiarity with the field, I find myself staring into the abyss. To claim academic respectability for my contribution, I really need to be familiar with everything in the field. And that of course means that the field gets ever narrower, until our own conventions have proscribed me from commenting on anything which matters in the real, messy, world.

My abyss (not having the resources of Pinker, who acknowledges around 70 helpers--and who wouldn't be flattered by a request for assistance from him?) is contemplating never being able to make any general point with sufficient academic authority to be taken seriously. Or more significantly, being paralysed by the thought that I shall never be able to say anything...

And if I do want to claim academic respectability, I shall waste years of my life boring myself silly in order to check and dismiss reams of academic dross of no conceivable interest--generated by taylorite/stakhanovite bullsh*t-generation targets...

Er? In the space of 508 words, I have moved from naive enthusiasm to jaded trudging. What happened? Increasingly, academicism has that effect on me

And I haven't mentioned ethics committee clearance.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
(wasn't that by some guy called Snow, or Winter, or something?)

* But I can commend Wright. His The Moral Animal is the first—and I think the best—of his three major books, but they are all impressive and readable (his reading of Jesus in the latest book is very uncomfortable—and all the better for that).

On a traditional and egalitarian education brand.

A few weeks ago, I posted about educational brands, arguing that one factor contributing to the poor quality of educational research and debate is the incomparability of the—often unstated—values implicit in different approaches to "education".

Today there is an interesting post by Andrew Old on The Echo Chamber re-blogging site, which is refreshingly explicit about its value-base and its approach to educational debates. It presents a useful model (introduced earlier in more detail here) to locate its own position.

23 September 2013

Items to Share: 22 September

Education Focus
Other Business

20 September 2013

On "sluts"

Godfrey Bloom has lost the UKIP whip for referring to women who do not clean behind their fridges as "sluts". Story here (it's not easy to find a report which concentrates simply on this issue, because Bloom seems to be a profligate disaster-monger).

At one level this may seem to be merely a confusion of connotations: Bloom claimed that he used the term "merely" to mean a "lazy housewife" rather than the current usage of "a woman who is indiscriminately generous with her affections". (I quote from memory)

He also claimed that the—apparently predominantly female—audience took it in good part as a joke.

I'm not terribly interested in the political correctness aspect of this debate, just in the mind-boggling ineptitude of this politician.

My argument would be based on Bernstein's language codes. Managing restricted and elaborated language codes is a key skill for a politician—there's always a dangerous gulf between how you speak to your political intimates and to the public. But failing to understand how any word, phrase, or sentiment might "play" with outsiders is simply political incompetence at Level 1.

It may well work as part of the wacky, maverick, protest shtick—but not when you want voters to trust you.

16 September 2013

Items to Share: 15 September

Education Focus 
  • Your subject is of no use - Blog - Harry Webb's Cocktail Lounge - There you are, prattling on at some length about graphs of quadratic functions or the formation of oxbow lakes and you are suddenly pierced with an arrow straight to the heart. That question. “But when are we going to need this in real-life?” (Thanks to Webs of Substance for the link.) 
  • It's the Little Things That Count in Teaching - The Chronicle of Higher Education "Every so often, it's worthwhile to focus on the less 'serious' aspects of teaching and learning—on the little things that, seriously, may not prove so little after all." Indeed, to see them as 'little things' is to do a serious disservice—these are practices which set the scene and the culture, and prepare the ground for learning—neglect them at your peril.
  • When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning - Ben Orlin - The Atlantic "Some things are worth memorizing—addresses, PINs, your parents’ birthdays. The sine of π/2 is not among them. It’s a fact that matters only insofar as it connects to other ideas. To learn it in isolation is like learning the sentence “Hamlet kills Claudius” without the faintest idea of who either gentleman is—or, for what matter, of what “kill” means. Memorization is a frontage road: It runs parallel to the best parts of learning, never intersecting. It’s a detour around all the action, a way of knowing without learning, of answering without understanding."
  • Hannah Arendt Recommending her 1954 essay on the Crisis in Education (US focus) "The general crisis that has overtaken the modern world everywhere and in almost every sphere of life manifests itself differently in each country [...] In America, one of its most characteristic and suggestive aspects is the recurring crisis in education that, during the last decade at least, has become a political problem of the first magnitude, reported on almost daily in the newspapers. To be sure, no great imagination is required to detect the dangers of a constantly progressing decline of elementary standards throughout the entire school system,..." Plus ca change...!
  • Don’t import the scourge of scientism into schools | Frank Furedi | spiked "[T]he principal problem educators face today is not the dearth of educational research or a lack of evidence about ‘what works’, but rather the increasing absence of any opportunity for them to exercise professional judgment and to learn the value of what Aristotle call phronesis – the virtue of judgment. Experimentation in education should be part of a teacher’s everyday life. What we need is a pedagogy that is integral to the experience of the classroom, not procedures inappropriately imported from the field of health." Another typically combative contribution to the debate sparked by Ben Goldacre's Bad Science paper from March; I linked to a couple of other ripostes from here. (This is a brilliant thread for discussion in class.)
  • ‘We must take students beyond their everyday lives’ | Joanna Williams | spiked "Many teachers today have an actual fear of knowledge. They find it frightening, threatening, dominating, and oppressive.’ Michael Young, emeritus professor at the Institute of Education in London and author of Bringing Knowledge Back In, is determined to challenge what he sees as a turn against knowledge in education. ‘The crucial role of schools is to give pupils access to knowledge that they won’t get from their experiences and that takes them beyond their everyday lives’, he tells me. ‘As society gets more complex, this becomes ever more important.’ 
  • And at the level of practice: Pedagogy Unbound. "A place for college teachers to share practical strategies for today's classrooms ... Discover practical tips for this semester. Check out the latest tips below, browse by category for specific kinds of tips, or share what's worked in your classroom."
Other Business
  • Systemic Causation and Syria: Obama’s Framing Problem « George Lakoff  It goes beyond Syria; Lakoff makes a good stab at the almost impossible task of explaining what he calls "systemic causation". I tried all through my teaching career to get this idea over—and only ever succeeded accidentally and unrepeatably. But it is a heck of a threshold concept! "From infanthood on we experience simple, direct causation. We see direct causation all around us: if we push a toy, it topples over; if our mother turns a knob on the oven, flames emerge. And so on. The same is not true of systemic causation. Systemic causation cannot be experienced directly. It has to be learned, its cases studied, and repeated communication is necessary before it can be widely understood." 
  • Revisiting Milgram's obedience experiment: what did he actually prove? - Boing Boing  "The wrinkles in Milgram’s research kept revealing themselves. Perhaps most damningly, after Perry tracked down one of Milgram’s research analysts, she found reason to believe that most of his subjects had actually seen through the deception. They knew, in other words, that they were taking part in a low-stakes charade." Very interesting revisionist take on one of the most famous experiments in psychology ever.
  • Are You Drinking Too Much? The Myth Of Moderation - Forbes "Today, it’s easier to solve a trigonometry problem in your head than to get a straight answer about how much we should be drinking each day. I’ve been conducting a very anecdotal survey over the past several months, asking friends what they have been told by doctors about drinking. One friend was counseled to limit her intake to 3 glasses a day. My doctor advised me to adhere to the 1-2-3 rule (one drink a day, no more that 2 at one time, no more than 3 days a week). Another friend remarked that her doctor just told her ‘in moderation’. Well, one man’s moderation is another man’s bacchanal..."

14 September 2013

On reading and raiding

I have been ploughing through some textbooks recently. But critically, in the sense of trying to get at their underlying perspectives, and what aspects of their subject they "privilege". I may possibly return to that, but this post is prompted by a more straightforward kind of criticism--how unreadable most of them are (yes, I know this is a sweeping generalisation).

I think it comes from the fragmentation of a subject which follows from the project of having to say something about every aspect of it, and all at about the same academic level. That is of course inimical to privileging any aspect, and imposes a spurious even-handedness on the whole, which is particularly exacerbated when awarding and accrediting bodies start making demands, such as in the case of requirements of some states in the US to deal with evolution and "creation science" evenhandedly.  *

Whatever the reason, the focus is usually on isolated topics divided by sub-headings, with copious use of box-outs, and exercises and other sign-posting devices such as "in this chapter you will learn about..." or even specifying by number the competences or performance criteria addressed. It becomes impossible to read for any length of time to get any semblance of a coherent argument.

This turns the reader into more of a raider, who turns to the text-book in search of a particular gobbet of information, and makes her get-away as soon as she has found it, preferably in a form which she can use as a gratuitous quotation in the assessment she is working on--after all, if there were no assessment in the offing she would not be touching the book in the first place.

I am becoming more convinced that text-books are inimical to deep learning. That's one reason why I am working (together with a friend and former colleague) on an alternative or even antidote to them in the teacher education field. This will--we hope--be far from even-handed. It will be about, appropriating Nietzsche's phrase, "philosophising with a hammer"**.

But I'm beginning to understand the text-book authors' problem. How do you assemble the content so as to constitute a coherent whole? Actually, I was well aware of this years ago—that was when I latched onto the idea of a hyper-linked "site" which would enable users to link pages to each other according to their own interests and concerns rather than a pre-determined pattern. In a sense, I am taking a step backwards in thinking in terms of a book.

I suspect that what lies behind this is the epistemology of writing about a professional practice. That is epistemologically unstable. It all too easily flips from a commentary on practice, to a prescription of criteria to which practice ought to conform—but it is much more difficult to go the other way.

And that is what has happened to the text-books—on teaching, at least. So they have helped to redefine the trope in terms of playing an academic game, which is about passing assessments which may well be far removed from valid measures of what really counts. No wonder all the students do is raid them for ammunition in the assessment war.

I'll let you know if I find a way out of this jungle. (Apart of course from the obvious one—don't use text-books...)

* And of course do read Feynman's expose of maths textbooks from 1964, which brings in a whole different dimension of corruption in the US system—as well as being hugely entertaining as he always was. 

** That is the sub-title to his Twilight of the Idols ("Götzendämmerung", 1889), about which Walter Kaufmann comments:
"It is usually assumed that he means a sledge-hammer. The preface, however, from which the image is derived as an after-thought, explains: idols 'are here touched with a hammer as with a tuning-fork'." (1954: 464)
 Kaufmann, W (ed. and tr.) (1954) The Portable Nietzsche New York; Viking

This post links—in that it follows from the same stimulus of planning our book—to another On an Academic Conscience coming shortly.

09 September 2013

Items to Share: 8 September

Education Focus

  • Is Inquiry The Magnum Principium of Teaching? "In our view inquiry is the sin[e] qua non of experiential teaching and learning. When teachers advocate inquiry, they are talking about a philosophy of teaching and learning that is rooted in social constructivism and humanism. Inquiry evokes a sense of wonder..." Persuasive. But here's the other side... Discovery-based Ignorance : The Last Word On Nothing It's all very well but not if the foundation of sheer accurate knowledge is not there. Discuss!
  • The Promise and Peril of Outcomes Assessment - Commentary - The Chronicle of Higher Education The US system of HE even now allows far more autonomy to individual professors than the UK, but there is concern about the consistency of standards and the value of qualifications--hence this debate. "[H]ow much the students' outcome scores represent growth or improvement over where they began is anyone's guess. Indeed, there is scattered evidence suggesting that, when it comes to mathematical competency, American college students show a net decline from the beginning to the end of college. [...] Even if more colleges use before-and-after assessments to measure change over time, the data are of limited usefulness unless the college has some way of knowing why some students learned more than others."
  •  Book review: "It's the curriculum, stupid" - Daniel Willingham It's Willingham week! "[T]here is a primary postulate running through the psyche of Koreans, Finns, and Poles when it comes to education: an expectation that the work will be hard. Everything else is secondary. So anything that gets in the way, anything that compromises the work, will be downplayed or eliminated. [...] Several consequences follow from this laser-like focus on academic rigor. For example, if schoolwork is challenging kids are going to fail frequently. So failure necessarily is seen as a normal part of the learning process, and as an opportunity for learning, not a cause of shame.
  • Social Loafing (a.k.a. free-loading) and its implications for the use of groupwork in class. As ever, little consideration is given to the demands of different kinds of content, but a useful discussion-starter.
  • Best of the APA Style Blog: 2013 Edition  Good grief--how geeky can you get? But if you are embarking on a course which uses Harvard/APA (yes I know they're obscurely different) this may actually be a useful resource.
  • A Masterclass In Physics "Today I'll walk into a classroom of advanced undergraduate physics students and begin teaching them about the stars. It will take 13 weeks, beginning with the basic principles of astrophysics and ending with the structure of the Milky Way. I will chart that path, as I do every year, by kickin' it old school with chalk on a blackboard. And today, as I do every year, I'll wonder if I'm doing the right thing."
Other Business
  • Why the other queue always seem to move faster than yours « Mind Hacks "Sometimes I feel like the whole world is against me. The other lanes of traffic always move faster than mine. The same goes for the supermarket queues. While I’m at it, why does it always rain on those occasions I don’t carry an umbrella, and why do wasps always want to eat my sandwiches at a picnic and not other people’s?"
  • Logo, Bullshit & Co., Inc. | Information Architects  "Everybody likes logos. Everybody wants their own logo. Everybody wants to make their own logo. Everybody has a computer and some fonts. Anybody can make a logo. What makes designers think they are so special?" Reads like special pleading to me.
  • Kevin Rudd Does a Jed Bartlett  A propos the West Wing clip I mentioned last week--here is Kevin Rudd (then current, but now former Australian PM) doing it for real. (Thanks to Iain Dale for the original link, but his post on it seems to have disappeared.)
  • The Social Life of Genes: Shaping Your Molecular Composition "Your DNA is not a blueprint. Day by day, week by week, your genes are in a conversation with your surroundings. Your neighbors, your family, your feelings of loneliness: They don’t just get under your skin, they get into the control rooms of your cells. Inside the new social science of genetics." A really interesting corrective to the "it's all in the genes" perspective. Incidentally, I've just finished Jesse Prinz on Beyond Human Nature in the same broad area of argument (Penguin, 2013: please buy from your local independent bookshop!)
  • Schneier on Security: Our Newfound Fear of Risk "We're afraid of risk. It's a normal part of life, but we're increasingly unwilling to accept it at any level. So we turn to technology to protect us. The problem is that technological security measures aren't free. They cost money, of course, but they cost other things as well. They often don't provide the security they advertise, and -- paradoxically -- they often increase risk somewhere else. This problem is particularly stark when the risk involves another person: crime, terrorism, and so on. While technology has made us much safer against natural risks like accidents and disease, it works less well against man-made risks."

04 September 2013

On missing the point...

The National Student Survey results came out a few weeks ago. This is how one vice-chancellor commented on the results in a general staff message (lightly edited/redacted):
I am grateful for the efforts and contribution colleagues have made towards achieving this improvement in performance. It is clear though that there is much work to do if we are to [...] reach [...] our strategic plan targets. [...]

In September, we will be circulating a course by course analysis of performance (compared to the university sector) to each Head of Department (HoD) and relevant Associate Dean (Student Experience). Each HoD will then be expected to engage with Course Co-ordinators [...] to determine priority areas for each course.

Following this, NSS Course Level Action Plans [...] will require completion by HoDs / Course Coordinators and submitted to each Associate Dean (Student Experience) who will advise and recommend enhancements (where appropriate). Course Level Action Plans must be submitted to the appropriate Associate Dean (Student Experience) by no later than [...]

Faculty Level Action Plans will then require completion in mid-November.
There will be regular reviews of progress with NSS Course Level and Faculty Level Action Plans at Faculty Executive meetings and at the Vice Chancellor's Student Experience Group. Course Coordinators are expected to discuss performance and progress against NSS Action Plans with colleagues and, crucially, students at the start of the academic year and routinely thereafter on a fortnightly basis.[...]
In terms of conventional Quality Enhancement and management terms, I'm sure that this is regarded as really good practice. After all, the results for this institution were higher than ever before, but he is not content with that. He's got a clear plan of action, which identifies responsible roles and a reporting system and target dates. The plan includes consultation (although the term itself is not used) with "colleagues and, crucially, students".

But it does rest on a "customer service" model--and that must be contestable within academe. It's the rhetoric of the customer being always right, and as I have banged on about many times, its seemingly benign effects can seriously undermine good teaching (not to mention failing to trust academics to act on their professional values, even if they occasionally upset students). See here and here.

Moreover, it assumes that NSS results are valid, and a good proxy for a good educational experience (hard to define--see this post on branding). They are effectively only at the first level of the Kirkpatrick model, that of "Reaction". It would be really interesting to poll these graduating students in five years' time, to evaluate the impact of these details on their subsequent life and work experiences--Kirkpratrick's fourth level.

But principally, my concern is with the assumption that overall quality can best be improved by a head-on assault on the "problems". It assumes that final-year undergraduate student are reliable judges and that their views can be taken at face value. To take a common concern among academic staff, surface learning students often want to be spoon-fed, and administrators may be so in thrall to the voice of the customer as to demand compliance, to the ultimate detriment of the learning experience and the value of the qualification.

On my weekly listing of items to share, I recommend this post from "patter", on obliqueness, or "obliquity" which is the version I prefer. It would be refreshing to find some of the corporately-minded managers of institutions considering whether that might not be ultimately a more productive approach.

After all, as Graham Gibbs pointed out, following McNay (1995), of four kinds of university culture; collegial, corporate, bureaucratic and entrepreneurial, the corporate and the bureaucratic are the least effective--so why are they so keen on embracing them?

Universities are behaving like addicts; they daren't go back on their dependence on a dangerous and destructive culture and organisational model, because things would have to get worse before they got better, and since they now have directly-paying "customers" and public "consumer satisfaction surveys", they would collapse before they could return to collegiality, and entrepreneurship seems pretty risky.

But they could perhaps back off a little from trying ever harder to impose spurious second-rate uniformity on some of those genuinely original and creative offerings which could be the grit in the oyster.

03 September 2013

On branding

Fred Inglis ranted about universities as "brands" in the THE a week or two ago. It's a great berserking piece, from which we may conclude that he does not like the idea, and I can sympathise. But rather than fall for prescriptive marketing-speak, it may be that the frame of the "brand" is a useful lens through which to look at a lot of educational discourse, rather than the particular sense in which Inglis takes it, as the way in which institutional market positioning reaches back into institutional systems and culture.

I started writing the following post in January in response to a regular commenter, but it stalled. He asked,
"I've heard the term 'differentiated instruction' thrown around teaching conferences here, but not really looked into it in detail. Do you know if it is merely VAK in another guise, or is it actually more sophisticated?"
I replied in part;
'What indeed is "differentiated instruction"? I've been following this stuff for a while, and I've concluded that it is simply a brand.  And that is a major reason why educational "research" doesn't seem to get anywhere!  I looked up "differentiated instruction" in Hattie's magisterial meta-analysis, and it didn't appear, simply because the label did not exist when the source research was being done. It may indeed be an extension of "learning styles", although to be fair it does seem to embrace more factors, and not to be tied to any particular labels. It seems to be associated with Dr Carol Tomlinson although I don't know whether it is her brand, as it were.'
Two things occur to me.
  • First; in the hard disciplines of science and technology, and even in linguistics, and possibly sport, there is substantial (but imperfect) agreement about terminology--indeed, arguments about the boundaries between (say) physics and chemistry or other disciplines may well be the most fruitful areas for research. From psychology softwards, labels for areas of study or even concepts within the disciplines get fuzzier, more protean and more contestable. Indeed, their definition has become an issue in itself (see the DSM-5 debate/fiasco--for once the Wikipedia link is what it is all about).
  • Second; practically all of this stuff is focused on teaching children. It is conceivable that some of the ideas are valid for the compulsory sector, but they diminish in significance for older students. By the time we get students, they have had 12 years messy training in surviving good, bad and indifferent teaching. Great! They have survived*. They may bear some scars--don't we all?--but they have learned versatility in learning, sometimes despite the teaching. That may be what all the "learning how to learn" guff is about... So possibly higher education has got it right--concentrate on the content! By the time you get to university you should have got over all that "learning styles" stuff; indeed, you have shown that you have.
But that said there is a lot more to branding ...

I've been looking it up. A phrase which comes up frequently is "your promise to your customer". Two things strike one immediately--the first is that the notion is firmly rooted in trade. You have something to offer, and the relationship is buyer and seller, and that does impose a framework on the transaction. Numerous commentators bewail the culture of the "student as customer", as embodied in metrics such as the National Student Survey**. They have a point; Graham Gibbs (following McNay 1995) identified four forms of organisational culture in universities; collegial, corporate, bureaucratic and entrepreneurial, and argued that the first and the last were conducive to excellence (in different ways) but the second and third inhibited it--and the "student as customer" is clearly a creature of the corporate mindset. But of course students are customers, to the tune of £9k p.a. in England, so the rhetoric of the marketplace is pretty well bound to swamp the whimsical voice of the collegial "scholar".

The other aspect of the formulation is "your promise", and as the marketing idea explains it, that embraces everything the seller/provider offers. Including, again from a marketing perspective, the intangibles and aspirational features. "Cool", "Style" and the like are integral qualities of brands. So, more mundanely, are "value", or "basic".

These are not simply quantifiable descriptive features of a "product", such as might be used in a Which consumer review. They are often values which frame the way in which other qualities are viewed. That is why marketing departments regard them as so important. They don't just add a value; they multiply it.***

And so a major point of the brand is to differentiate it from other brands. A side-effect of this (or perhaps it is the main point) is to ensure that when comparing cars or chocolate bars or banks one can never compare like with like. Which? magazine takes a positivist spin on this, and compares on the basis of shared attributes, but that can never be a complete account, because those attributes are prioritised differently for different brands.

Look at the appealing (if frustratingly vague) ideas for a "New Educational Paradigm" from Sir Ken Robinson. His brand is explicitly opposed to one which defines the success of education by its capacity to prepare students for the labour market; as he says later, ""If you're interested in the model of education, you don't start from a production-line mentality" (he really ought to acknowledge his debt to Bowles and Gintis [1976], and later to Hudson [1967] inter alia).

But the "production-line mentality" is exactly the branding offered, for example, by Blunkett (1998):
"The fostering of an enquiring mind and the love of learning are essential to our future success.[...] We [...] need a well-educated, well-equipped and adaptable labour force. To cope with rapid change [...] we must ensure that people can return to learning throughout their lives. [...] we need the creativity, enterprise and scholarship of all our people."
(It makes more sense in context, and yes, I know it's ancient but I really can't bear to go looking for another example!)

Or look at the vicious arguments which rage between the theorists: 
Gene Glass, a former president of the American Educational Research Association, introduced an electronic discussion forum on research priorities with the following remarks: “Some people expect educational research to be like a group of engineers working on the fastest, cheapest, and safest way of traveling to Chicago, when in fact it is a bunch of people arguing about whether to go to Chicago or St. Louis.”

With research understood in this way, it should not be surprising to find that the education profession has little by way of a solid knowledge base on which to rest its practices.

Carnine cites this in support of his (conservative) argument that woolly-minded constructivists are muddying the waters to obscure the clear evidence that Direct Instruction (following Engelbaum, and including phonics) is the only way to teach the basics. Vested interests are not interested in the clear results of research...

But shift the perspective a little, and Paulo Freire is just as rude and caricaturing about "banking education". He extols the virtues of the "pedagogy of the oppressed", which is much more respectful and empowering. The only problem (and I concede I draw some simplistic conclusions from Taylor [1993] and other studies) is that it was not very effective as a literacy programme and nor did it promote any effective political empowerment. Even so, its values trump the mere (claimed) "efficiency" of the banking model, in the eyes of its adherents.

This argument is a well-trodden path, of course, and there's no point in re-treading it yet again. But we do need ways to transcend it.

Carnine (in the naive days of a dozen years ago!) held up medicine as the "mature" profession which had resolved the problem and was progressing inexorably towards the sunlit uplands of certainty and truth. Sorry! See Goldacre, and Ioannidis ... (and DSM-5, and as this post asserts, "Every time someone compares the medical and teaching professions, a fairy dies.")...

It can't be done. Perhaps Which? has it right after all. Separate out the researchable basics from the ineffable glosses. Perhaps the early Wittgenstein had it wrong after all. "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." No, it's all the more reason to keep talking about those essentially-contestable ideas, in lots of different ways.

But when I start being pretentious enough to argue with Wittgenstein, it is time to shut up!

*  OK. Some didn't. I've just been editing my page on inclusivity etc, and I'm struck by how little attention is paid to developing resilience by overcoming obstacles, and how much emphasis there is on removing them....

** On the NSS and its methodology, see this letter in the THE, 22 August 2013. And there will be a forthcoming post, too, "On Missing the Point".

***So; compare the brand values of electronic products (This argument is based on total ignorance and speculation). Say Which rates the products on three fairly objective scales and they all score the same: Performance--6/10; Reliability--7/10; Usability; 5/10...
One is from Huawei (who?) Rate them 0.5 on brand credibility.  So 6+7+5=18. 18*0.5= total rating 9.
The other is from Apple (wow!) That rates at 2x on brand credibility. So 6+7+5=18. 18*2= total rating 36.
Or value to consumer = brand (quality1 + q2 + q3...)


Develop a tagline : A former Dean at a university where I once worked, who was rather keen on importing ideas from business, led a session for colleagues on the market positioning of the university. She admitted that given its place in the league tables, particularly for research, it would be unrealistic to make grandiose claims for it--they needed to consolidate a position in the middle. So, in all seriousness, she suggested the tag-line, "Aspiring to Mediocrity".


Blunkett D (1998) Foreword to The Learning Age: a renaissance for a new Britain London; Department for Education

Bowles S and Gintis H (1976) Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life New York; Basic Books.

Carnine D (2000) Why Education Experts Resist Effective Practices (And What It Would Take to Make Education More Like Medicine) Ohio; Thomas B Fordham Foundation, online available http://www.edexcellencemedia.net/publications/2000/200004_whyeducationexpertsresist/carnine.pdf accessed 23 August 2013

Hudson L (1967) Contrary Imaginations; a psychological study of the English Schoolboy London: Pelican.

McNay I (1995) "From the collegial academy to corporate enterprise: the changing cultures of universities", in T. Schuller (ed.) The Changing University? Buckingham: SRHE/Open University Press.

Taylor P V (1993) The Texts of Paulo Freire Buckingham; Open University Press

Wittgenstein L (1922) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (tr. C.K. Ogden), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Items to Share: 1 September

Education Focus
  • How to Teach | Webs of Substance "In this hubristic post, I shall imagine that you are a new teacher who is about to embark upon a teaching career in a secondary school and that I am an experienced teacher who knows what he’s on about..." 
  • Academy Fight Song | Thomas Frank | The Baffler "The truth is that rip-offs like this abound in academia—that virtually every aspect of the higher-ed dream has been colonized by monopolies, cartels, and other unrestrained predators—that the charmingly naive American student is in fact a cash cow, and everyone has got a scheme for slicing off a porterhouse or two." 
  • Everyday strategies – in praise of obliqueness | patter The direct approach is not always best; Pat Thomson discusses the oblique approach to change management. Regardless of the specific methods she looks at, I'm well aware that some things just cannot be taught directly, but it is very difficult to write about how to create indirect conditions to help people to learn indirectly. In more general terms, there's a good discussion in John Kay's Obliquity: why our goals are best achieved indirectly (London; Profile Books, 2011).
  • How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists | Violent metaphors "But to form a truly educated opinion on a scientific subject, you need to become familiar with current research in that field. And to do that, you have to read the “primary research literature” (often just called “the literature”). You might have tried to read scientific papers before and been frustrated by the dense, stilted writing and the unfamiliar jargon. [...] Reading and understanding research papers is a skill which every single doctor and scientist has had to learn during graduate school. You can learn it too, but like any skill it takes patience and practice." A useful introduction--if rather dogmatic for my discipline(s).
Other Business 
  • 16 useless infographics | News | theguardian.com "If it's an image that displays and explains information quickly and clearly, it's an infographic. But we've collected some that are head-craning, eye-squinting, eyebrow-raising nightmares that leave you more confused than before you clicked 'next'.
  • Sinister Minds: Are Left-Handed People Smarter? : The New Yorker "Lombroso [...] might not have been so far off the mark when he hypothesized that by looking at someone’s hands, we could learn something about the inner workings of their minds—though those workings have more to do with cognitive achievement than any inclination to commit highway robbery. Michelangelo and da Vinci were left-handed, after all. 
And a book recommendation 

  • OK, this is a little different. Clive Travis and I have been regulars at the same pub for years. He is living with and overcoming paranoid schizophrenia. He is a highly intelligent and articulate observer of his own condition and his experiences at the hands of social and medical service--he now contributes regularly as an "expert patient" to training programmes for Approved Mental Health Professionals to perform statutory duties under the Mental Health Act (to which he has himself been subject in the past) and is a member of the Governing Body of our local Mental Health Trust. He's now written about his experiences very perceptively: the book originally came out a few years ago, but he is re-launching it now. If you are in any way affected by, or just interested in, these serious issues, do read it. And argue with it--no two people's experience of illness or of lay or professional response are the same...