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]