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

        08 November 2013

        On a story of paranoid schizophrenia

        As I posted on 1 September, Clive Travis' memoir (rather too cosy a label, though) has been published. This is the review I published on Amazon --more or less; I lost some last minute edits...
        Picking up this book is like being accosted by the Ancient Mariner. “He holds him with his glittering eye—/ The Wedding-Guest stood still,/ And listens like a three years' child:/ The Mariner hath his will.// The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:/ He cannot choose but hear;/ And thus spake on that ancient man,/ The bright-eyed Mariner…” (Although Travis is not that old.)

        It is a personal account of experiencing years of paranoid schizophrenia, both untreated and treated. The story unfolds inexorably and compellingly, although the reader has no idea where it is going. The real world and the delusional world drift vertiginously in and out of focus. It gives the lie (in Travis' account) to the notion that the world of a person with schizophrenia is "meaningless"; on the contrary, his account in the earlier part of the book is of a world too full of (delusional) meaning. Everything, every word in a headline, every glint of a metallic sign, every musical reference in an advertisement, carries a message. And without any artifice, with a bald but rigid first-person narrative, Travis takes us there.

        And it is not all depressing--sometimes he even enjoys the new insights into the world vouchsafed by his MTRUTH, a device (he believes) implanted in him by security services in order to monitor and control his behaviour, and there are indeed flashes of humour. And it is all illuminated by his encyclopaedic knowledge of later 20th-century music and culture (which I don’t share so I missed many of the references).

        I won’t say I couldn’t put it down. Often I was only too relieved to put it down. But I had to pick it up again… This is not just playing with a cliche in book reviews; what Travis conveys so vividly is that hallucinations and delusions and mood swings are not things one can opt into or out of if you are mentally ill. They are there all the time, they your experience, and you can’t stand aside from them. And so it is with this book--when I was not reading it, it haunted me…

        The classic literary material on the experience of schizophrenia is buffered and filtered. Apart from the technical literature, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is not just ancient but also clearly “novelised” (and arguably not an account of schizophrenia by a modern definition); Mary Barnes; a journey through madness and even One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which is principally an anti-psychiatry rant) are slanted to favour an ideological perspective… This is not a literature review, but Travis has no axe to grind, no angle to argue; he is amazingly non-judgemental about the professionals he encounters; however shadowy their portrayal. He does not blame, although readers might not be so generous, in the face of frequent apparent indifference and inflexibility.

        It’s a weighty book, both literally and figuratively; the format is large and the margins narrow and the main narrative is 474 pages. It does not pretend to be literature, and I'm sure it will attract some critical reviews by people who want to read it as such, but that is not the point. In a sense it is the antithesis of literature. It seeks to remain true to Travis' experience, and if that experience is rambling and picaresque, that is what the book is. If it were more literary, I would have taken an axe to big sections--the account of six months in Africa is fascinating but over-long; the chapters on his exploits in Cornwall and Edinburgh are testimony to Travis’ resilience and resourcefulness, despite his illness, but don’t at the time add much to our understanding of the whole story, although they make more sense once you get to the end. The style is critical to the experience of reading it. It keeps you off-balance; “Is this actually happening? Is it a delusion?”

        Some years ago, I was much involved in training for people undertaking statutory duties under the Mental Health Acts. I and my colleagues struggled to find authentic, no-axe-grinding accounts to use as case-studies. Alongside the dispassionate clinical exemplars of the diagnostic manuals which identified "behaviors" and "symptoms", we were looking for real, specific, personal experiences. The story Travis tells is exactly that but also much more. I wish it had been available then, and I’m sure that a wide range of readers will find it eye-opening and illuminating now.
        Disclosure: I do know the author, who now contributes to such courses, and I did attend the launch event.
        ...and he did offer to buy me a pint this evening in the pub, but I refused in the interests of critical integrity (and pomposity).

        04 November 2013

        Items to Share; 3 November

        Other Business
        • All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines - Nicholas Carr - The Atlantic 'The experience of airlines should give us pause. It reveals that automation, for all its benefits, can take a toll on the performance and talents of those who rely on it. The implications go well beyond safety. Because automation alters how we act, how we learn, and what we know, it has an ethical dimension. The choices we make, or fail to make, about which tasks we hand off to machines shape our lives and the place we make for ourselves in the world.'
        • The joy of cemeteries » The Spectator 'A cemetery [...] is a sort of social history theme-park. There are fashions in funerary ornamentation — urns, angels, Jesus — just as there are fashions in names. Whenever I visit a graveyard, I am instantly absorbed by names; names that have stayed with us — Thomas, William, Emma, Elizabeth, Rebecca — and names that, for some reason, have not: Herbert, Winter, Ethel, Mennel. Ignatius...'