11 October 2013

On two out of three

I noted at the end of this earlier post*:
I'm beginning to think of a model of trade-offs in constructing primarily informative sessions--but I'll come back to that in another post.
This is that other post, but it has grown a little.

It's really very simple--to the extent that I'm sure someone else has commented on it before much more perspicaciously than I can, and yet I've not found it. Please don't patronise too much when you point out how inept I have been in not finding it!**

So, in a primarily informative teaching setting, there are appear to be three major factors which affect the final "product".
  • I use the unfamiliar term product, because I am thinking here of the considerations of design and planning. It may well be that "no plan survives first contact with the enemy/students" (von Moltke) but there still has to be a plan, and in situations like J's, where for "enemy" or students, just read "audience", from whom there is little feedback, the plan is critical.
You can only maximise (at most) any two at the expense of the third (or the rest). This is a property of the system and independent of your excellence as a teacher. And much as policy-makers or inspectors or managers or anyone else may bluster and regulate, it will always be the case. And no, technology is not a magic solution; it may increase the overall capacity of the system--although often not as much as they hope--but it doesn't change its fundamental properties. (The whole thing can be seen as a sort of educational analogue of Ohm's law, but I'm not going to go there...)

In this case, the factors are (remember this is about planning and delivery, top-down rather than bottom-up), in no particular order, other than convenience for yet another acronym; PAD:
 Note; being at the top is not intended to privilege "accessibility"...
  • Pace; how long is it going to take to teach this stuff? Or its converse--how long have I got to teach this stuff (a.k.a. cover the syllabus)?
  • Accessibility; how much effort are we going to make to ensure that everyone understands it? Or of course, how much can we take for granted on the basis of prior knowledge?
  • Depth (or Detail); how far are we going into it? We all know the "wide and shallow" versus "narrow and deep" trade-off. That is located within the depth aspect of the system.
Apart from its suitability for an acronym, P A D points to the increasing contingency of the aspects of the system, which nevertheless influence each other...
  • Pace is largely dictated by resources--principally, of course, time.
  • Accessibility is an issue inasmuch as it relates to external variables such as selection criteria and assessment regimes and "inclusivity" provisions. (The quotes are not snarky, they just flag reservations about some of the naive and fatuous proclamations in this area by those people who don't actually have to make it work.)
  • Depth is usually what suffers as a consequence, because it is the dimension which is most directly under the control of the teacher--who is rarely powerful enough within the system to negotiate the conditions which would permit targeting the depth she wants.
Precisely this discussion came up in class a few weeks ago, when three students, all of whom work in offender [i.e. prison] education, talked about how the introduction of new "functional skills" curricula was making it very difficult for them to do anything but "teach to the test". The curricula are arranged in two-week blocks, supposedly tailored to pre-specified levels of prior achievement, and contain substantial chunks of content, all of which has to be "delivered" within the constraints. The inevitable outcome is a superficial coverage of material to enable the learners to tackle the assessments, but without time for consolidation, for making connections between items of knowledge, or proper engagement with any of their difficulties.

Education is a world of trade-offs. When is anyone apart from teachers and learners doing to recognise that, and respect the agonised debate which must follow?

    *   Incidentally, that earlier post arose from J's request that I give him some feedback, despite his years of experience. Atul Gawande makes just the point of the need for such feedback, in an admittedly rather long-winded but watchable lecture here (video). The full lecture is 80 minutes, but for nuggets about coaching teachers and doctors and basketball players and the place of coaching in the working system, watch from 54m onwards.

    ** In a different context: Ferguson (2009:302) tells of the "trilemma" identified at the Bretton Woods summit in 1944:
    '...according to which a country can choose any two out of three policy options:
    1. full freedom of cross-border capital movements;
    2. a fixed exchange rate;
    3. an independent monetary policy oriented towards domestic objectives'
    (You would have thought the architects of the Euro would have been paying more attention.)


    Ferguson N (2009) The Ascent of Money; a financial history of the world London; Penguin

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