27 January 2014

Items to Share: 26 January 2014

Education Focus
  • Reforming Education Requires another Way of Thinking: What is it? (artofteachingscience.org) 'In this post I am going to argue that the kind of thinking that will be required to reform education has been part of our culture for decades, but it runs counter to ways that reformists have been “tinkering” with schools, K – college. This “tinkering” is playing havoc on teachers, students, and parents, and seems to be no end in sight. [...] School can be reformed if we think differently.' 
  • BishopBlog: What is educational neuroscience? 'Neuroscientists can tell you which brain regions are most involved in particular cognitive activities and how this changes with age or training. But these indicators of learning do not tell you how to achieve learning. Suppose I find out that the left angular gyrus becomes more active as children learn to read. What is a teacher supposed to do with that information?'
  • Language Log » Epic software rant 'Why are certain types of software systems so reliably bad? In my understanding, it's a combination of the process of specification and implementation, the (mis-)education and general outlook of the designers and implementers, and the characteristics that the people in charge are actually trying to optimize.' Spoiler—it's about Blackboard.
  • Cheat codes to intelligence: touchpaper#7 | Pragmatic Education  'As a starting point, [...] we set ourselves the simple constraint of one page. If we had one page that distilled and summarised the research for the classroom, we asked, what would we like teachers to have access to, free, online and neatly packaged? [...] So here it is. "What do we know about how memory works? What can teachers can do about it?"'
  • Enough With the 'Lifelong Learning' Already - Advice - The Chronicle of Higher Education  'If cultivating lifelong learning in our students describes a desire for them to continue to pursue learning beyond college [...] I'm not holding my breath. I have 15 weeks with students in my introductory literature courses. In that time I am supposed to introduce them to basic literary genres, foster their ability to interpret the written word, and improve their writing and speaking skills. [...] But now, on top of all of that, I should also be making them lifelong learners? What would that even mean?'
  • Using the "Speed Dating" Model to Enhance Student Learning | Faculty Focus  'In reflecting upon their feedback, I had an epiphany: speaking directly with others about their work is similar to dating. In dating you have to ask questions to get to know each other and you must have a conversation to learn about the other’s experiences. [...] Employing a speed dating model in the classroom in place of a panel can be an effective way for students to learn a variety of perspectives in a short amount of time.'
Other Business
  • A Wonderfully Simple Heuristic to Recognize Charlatans (farnamstreetblog.com) 'Sometimes we can’t articulate what we want. Sometimes we don’t know. Sometimes there is so much uncertainty that the best approach is to attempt to avoid certain outcomes rather than attempt to guide towards the ones we desire. In short, we don’t always know what we want but we know what we don’t want.[] Avoiding stupidity is often easier than seeking brilliance.' 
  • Mustn’t Grumble : The Last Word On Nothing  '“Mustn’t grumble” culture explains a vast range of England’s unfortunate idiosyncrasies, from the fact that you can’t get a decent chicken salad sandwich in this country to the appalling state of drafty British houses to the lack of social upheaval. But it’s equally possible that the Brits have stumbled on the secret to a happy life. '
  • The myth of age-related cognitive decline (theconversation.com) '[A]s people get older, they gather more experiences, they learn more names for things, and they potentially better understand how the social and economic systems around them work – and this makes them slower. [...] So while youth has the benefit of speed and flexibility, age has the benefit of wisdom and guile … and slowness'.
  • How Lewis Carroll Can Improve Your Email | Steve Leveen huffingtonpost.com
    'Being a teacher, Dodgson decided to document his advice about how to write more satisfying letters. He did this in a delightful little missive called "Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing."...'  
  • The Humanities and Us by Heather Mac Donald, City Journal Winter 2014 (city-journal.org)
    'You may have heard the defense du jour, tossed out en route to the next gender studies conference. The humanities, we are told, teach “critical thinking.” Is this a joke? These are the same people who write sentences like this: “Total presence breaks on the univocal predication of the exterior absolute the absolute existent (of that of which it is not possible to univocally predicate an outside, while the equivocal predication of the outside of the absolute exterior is possible of that of which the reality so predicated is not the reality. . . . of the self).”And we’re supposed to believe that they can think?'

24 January 2014

On Tom Bennett's "Teacher Proof"

(Links have been collected at the end; by default they go to my own thoughts elsewhere on the topic and then to source material)

Tom Bennett Teacher Proof: why research in education doesn't always mean what it claims, and what you can do about it London/New York; Routledge, 2013

It is about what the subtitle says on the tin.

Bennett explicitly acknowledges Ben Goldacre, and he has taken up the baton of a Bad Science for education; indeed, he limits his discussion of Brain Gym (R) [there's always that (R); is this totally discredited "brand" so litigious that its mark has to be acknowledged on every utterance? Or are they taking the p***?] he limits that to less than a page on the grounds that there is nothing left to say after Goldacre.

The blurb calls it "unremittingly entertaining"—and Bennett tries too hard in that respect in the first section, with too many forced jokey footnotes, but settles down later into a much more relaxed informal style. Perhaps the jokey asides are just his way of trying to make epistemology and the philosophy of natural science and social "science" palatable. It's a courageous way to start such a book—it's almost guaranteed to put some readers off—but don't skip it because Bennett, like any good teacher, knows that he has to have the foundations in place before he can get on to the more exciting stuff. And, asides aside, he explains very clearly and well, and these chapters could even be used as recommended reading for introductory research methods courses.

Bennett then applies this critique to what he calls "voodoo teaching". (This is the second part of three: he deliberately and ironically follows the standard school three-part lesson structure which he critiques later.)

He first takes on "multiple intelligences" (Howard Gardner). He comprehensively rubbishes the idea, of course. But then he concedes that there may well be something in it—it's just that it's not at all new. Substitute the terms "abilities", "capacities" or even "talents" for "intelligences", and that's it. Bennett is also careful to be fair; he allows Gardner to point out how the ideas have been misrepresented (a sound and recurrent theme through the book, where applicable). That slightly blunts the edge of his battle-axe, but he makes up for it with the way he wields it—and in the body of the book there are fewer digressive jokes.

And so to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (and the derisive nod in the direction of Brain Gym). There is no need here to temper his demolition with respect for a professor at Harvard (as Gardner is). It is clear that NLP is simply rubbish, although he does stop short of calling Bandler and Grinder outright charlatans. I was a little disappointed that he did not take on the whole "Accelerated Learning" scam of a few years ago, of which Brain Gym was but one egregious aspect, but he's still got a lot to get through...

Next: group work. I was a little surprised to find that here, but then my background is in post-compulsory, higher and adult education, and much of what I teach is debatable (Bennett would not be able to stop himself mentioning that can be taken in two senses), so groupwork is a natural and appropriate tool. In schools it often isn't, and yet thanks in large measure to Ofsted, it is rammed down teachers' and pupils' throats. And there is no evidence to support it. Bennett refers earlier to Richard Feynman's idea of "Cargo Cult science", and in the following chapter to the principle of "turtles all the way down" (where there is no foundation to an idea other than "the literature", which is in turn based on more literature... ad infinitum). These are two of his most effective weapons, and he deploys them very well. And of course his feet remain firmly on the ground—he particularly warns newly qualified teachers against using group work, unless they are fully confident in their class management, for example.

Emotional Intelligence? I've always thought that just means being "grown up". Again, Bennett demonstrates the sloppiness, unfalsifiability, and value-laden assumptions of the idea, but takes care not to tangle with its originator, Goleman.

"Buck Rogers and the 21st-century curriculum": Turtles all the way down; beneath the claims that technological change demands a whole new curriculum focusing on resilience and adaptation and change and ... Bennett gets as political as he can manage—he shies away from any real discussion of the political implications of anything—when he points out in this chapter and the next one, how this agenda is being promoted by the big technology companies, on the push to sell unnecessary technology to schools. But Bennett is working up to tackle the big one. Sir Ken:
"I find it impossible not to like Robinson. [...] He is charming, erudite, quick-witted [...] But [...] while I agree with him on many things, there are many ideas he promotes that, while well-meant in root, bear potentially dangerous fruits." (p.117)
As ever, he is polite but still devastating. The rudest he gets is:
"being told how to teach by a non-teacher with a PhD in education is a bit like being told by a virgin how to get laid." (pp. 119-20)
(He attributes that to Christopher Hitchens.) He lets Robinson off too lightly.

The following chapter is about de-bunking the claims and gimmicks of digital technology in the classroom, and demonstrating that the claimed research base is at best flaky and possibly fraudulent. He touches on the vested interests in the game, but does not pursue them.

Next: the myth of the three-part lesson. It's only in the past few years that I have come across this, and discovered the stranglehold which it—enforced by Ofsted—has on the compulsory and FE sectors. I've actually made desultory efforts to trace its research base, with little success. Bennett has traced its base, but it is not in research:
"...there's loads of research that teachers need to have a structure to their lessons. What there isn't, is any appreciable evidence that having three parts to a lesson lead to any kind of measurable improvement." (p.141)
Bennett even confesses:
"I might not—whisper it—I might not even put my aim on the board because sometimes I want kids to work out what we're trying to do for them." (p.141)
At one level, heretics must die! At another, where have we got to when (despite the mock-heroic style) anybody thinks such trivia matter?

Learning styles: to me, this is shooting fish in a barrel. Bennett cites the standard refutations, and one or two more I was not familiar with, and is unequivocal. Learning styles are "demonstrable guano" (p.151). But while he cites Coffield et al. (2004) he does miss out on their effort to explain why "bad ideas won't quit". Without that context, it does rather look as though teachers are simply gullible. Coffield points out the ideological convenience of learning styles theory: it is the get-out-of-gaol-free card for politicians, policy-makers, managers, and all; if children are not learning it is all the teachers' fault for not differentiating enough on the basis of a spurious and unsubstantiated load of hogwash...

And so the list goes on and the chapters get shorter, which he explains; we are into the minor leagues. Gamification; it draws on principles of online game design to reward/reinforce learning in a way children can relate to. I know nothing about this, but his analysis seems sensible. Learning to learn: that, and "lifelong learning" are both shibboleths of adult education, and often meaningless rhetoric. Then we get into the freaky, faddy fringe, concluding with de Bono's "learning hats" and school uniform.

The third section is a short and eminently sensible and positive piece on how to respond to all these panaceas/prophecies of doom.

The book does betray some hasty editing—some repetition, evidence of passages being swapped around (with vague cross-references which don't work), some weird grammatical constructions, but nothing important.

What is important is that it is a necessary corrective to the egregious bullsh*t which passes for educational research, and an important text for all teachers who have more common-sense than their managers and inspectors (and even tutors, I'm afraid) who pump out, endorse and even insist on this misguided material. It's not merely that it is wrong and unsupported by evidence and only works, if at all, by accident (Bennett rightly insists that evidence and experience trump theory every time) but that its power is simply (and only) to undermine teachers' confidence in themselves and what they can see for themselves does work.


20 January 2014

Items to Share: 19 January 2014

Education Focus
  • What Components Make Group Work Successful? | Faculty Focus 'There’s lots of research documenting the positive effects of group experiences on learning outcomes. Less is known about the specific aspects of group experiences that contribute to their overall positive impact. Thomas Tomcho and Rob Foels decided to explore this question by looking at the research on group learning in the field of psychology, as reported in the journal Teaching of Psychology.'
  • Aha's Ahead - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education 'These moments [...] represent what is, for me, the heart of the humanities classroom. They are difficult to characterize and impossible to quantify. They are not examples of student success, conventionally defined. They are not achievements. I want to call them moments of classroom grace. [...] These moments do not reflect a linear progress from ignorance to knowledge; instead they describe a step away from a complacent knowing into a new world in which, at least at first, everything is cloudy, nothing is quite clear.'
Other Business
  • Garbage In, Garbage Out — Editor's Picks — Medium 'People often speak about “lying with statistics.” I would argue that some of the most egregious statistical mistakes involve lying with data; the statistical analysis is fine, but the data on which the calculations are performed are bogus or inappropriate. Here are some common examples of “garbage in, garbage out.”'
  • When ice attacks 'This incredible video shot at Izatys Resort at Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota shows an "ice shove," where currents, winds, or temperature differences push chunks of lake ice onto land like a drifting iceberg.' 
  • BBC iWonder: Introducing Interactive Guides 'a bold new brand whose mission is to unlock the learning potential of all BBC content.We know that people's curiosity is often sparked by BBC programmes, and also by the world around them. BBC iWonder is for these curious minds, and at its' heart is a new content format, interactive guides. Guides will invite people to lean forward, and actively explore a range of factual and education topics from Science and Natural History, Arts, History, Religion and Ethics, Food and more.' 

18 January 2014

On translating media

There were a few people missing from this week's session—for good reasons—and so I decided to record it and put it on the course blog. I always carry a camera and a digital recorder to class just in case, so the very basic technical requirements were met.

I've been posting presentations on Slideshare for years, and linking to them from blogs (most of them just for the sake of having public copy of, for example, a mentor training session). I've learned to annotate slides with speech balloons to provide brief comments in lieu of the missing speech track, and the results have been well received.

I've also done prepared "slidecasts" on the same platform, recording a dedicated speech track to elaborate the visuals, and of course video recordings of lectures. And other institutions have audio-recorded my sessions, and posted them unedited alongside the slides.

But I'd never before spontaneously translated a live lecture into a commentated slidecast, and it was an interesting experience...

I had the slides. I had the sound. All I had to do was to put them together (and Slideshare has tools for that)... Simples!

Yes, of course, in technical terms. But far from it as an editor...

First, I had to clean up the sound. It was readily intelligible, despite coming from a cheap digital recorder left on a desk, but low-level noise from the projector just made it more difficult to listen for an extended period. I am using Audacity—a clear candidate for the best freeware package ever; despite not having used it for a couple of years I rapidly got up to speed. (Hint; the help file and manual tell you the most difficult ways to anything. Just play with it and see what happens.)

Then I had to listen to it. That was the revelation. I'm a great fan of using video to help practitioners to polish their practice, but I hadn't realised how much the visual context influences the interpretation of the audio. My lectures on video are fairly coherent and fluent. It's clear when I stop talking for effect. Or when I am listening to a member of the class, and my next remark is an answer to her (even when the sound system does not pick up her point). Or why the sound perspective* changes when I cross the room to write on the whiteboard I use for notes, or return to the lectern where the mic is located; I don't go for a clip-on (lavalier) mic, because that needs another mic for the rest of the class, and since I do this stuff single-handed, mixing is not really on. Besides, one mic for me and another for everyone else may be realistic, but it does privilege my voice.

Take the contextual visual information away and, although you may have planned visuals (slides) on the screen, the audio assumes prominence and dictates the progression of the lecture.

My respect for radio presenters has multiplied. The ability to articulate without hesitation (repetition and deviation we shall leave to politicians) and "umm"s and "er"s really takes skill and practice. I thought I was fairly fluent as a teacher, and I was reasonably content with my performances on video, but the raw audio track really exposed... all kinds of things, but at several points how downright boring I am. I mumble. Confident points run into the sand and disappear. I like to use the best word and I have a reasonable vocabulary to draw on—but my hesitation while I find the mot juste is not suspenseful, just boring.

So my plan to do a rough-cut and just slash and burn my more egregious digressions hit the dust. Mumbles and hesitations had to go. And that takes a long time. About four times as long as the initial recording, even when you are reasonably proficient with the editor—and I had about 150 minutes. =10 hrs editing. Even longer if a technician did it for me.
But what about student contributions? Using a single mic, even in "meeting" mode, meant that some were inaudible; but since it was a small group and they could hear each other well enough, I had dropped my usual trick of repeating/paraphrasing the point so everyone could get it, and the contributor knew that I had understood it. (I didn't realise I had done this until I listened to the audio.) Should I keep them or dump them?

To a certain extent this is an issue about the "privileged" voice. Cut the digressions and asides and questions, stick with the prepared material, and the package will be much slicker and neater and shorter. Isn't that what listeners will want?

Yes, but... I make a point of picking up ideas from student contributions, and I may comment on them at some length, or not. In any event, I am likely to go to a whiteboard and make a note to expand on the point in the post-session blog. The live class can see what I am doing, so the "punctuation" and status is clear; without that context, it is all too easy to lose one's way in the audio stream.

It is of the nature of these spontaneous discussions that they can become rather rambling and time-consuming, and all too often they are of interest only to one or two students. (How to close them down and move on politely in the real-world class is often quite awkward—it's a lot easier online. But indiscriminate—or should that be discriminatory?—cutting can easily misrepresent the class as it appears on-line.)

And then there are the ethical considerations...

...and the question whether any of the members absent from the live session would really want to spend two and a half hours or so listening to this stuff, when some of the slides would stay on screen for ten minutes or more, while all the action is on audio. And, critically, they cannot contribute.

The live session had comfort and refreshment breaks, so I shall break it down into ten-minute slide-cast episodes, but I am beginning to realise what that entails in terms of navigation... and as this blog-post reminds me, it is very hard to skim audio material, so there's also the matter of what demands one can reasonable make on a listener's time.

Sorry, folks. Don't expect anything in time for next Tuesday!

* "sound perspective" refers to the consequences of recording close to the source (like pop singers who almost eat their microphones) or at a greater distance which takes in any ambient noise or echo.

[I could have linked you into examples from the session, but I didn't seek permission (from the students, of course... never mind the university).

16 January 2014

On blue sticky notes

I bought a multi-colour pack of sticky notes today. Orange, pale pink, deep pink, yellow, green. No blue. I checked my stocks. Very few blue ones, and all bought as single-colour packs. Search for them online, and there seem to be plenty available. As single colours.

What's going on? Ought we to be campaigning for blue integration?

13 January 2014

On English

On D G Myers' A Commonplace Blog the other day;
'More than two decades ago Alvin Kernan complained that English study “fail[s] to meet the academic requirement that true knowledge define the object it studies and systematize its analytic method to at least some modest degree,” but by then the failure itself was already two decades old. About the only thing English professors have agreed upon since the early ’seventies is that they agree on nothing, and besides, agreement is beside the question. Teaching the disagreement: that’s about as close as anyone has come to restoring a sense of order to English.

In 1976, in his early eighties, F. R. Leavis entitled a collection of essays The Common Pursuit. It was his name for the academic study of literature. No one takes the idea seriously any more, but nor does anyone ask the obvious followup. If English literature is not a common pursuit—not a “great tradition,” to use Leavis’s other famous title—then what is it doing in the curriculum? What is the rationale for studying it?
Indeed. I'm sure this is highly contestable, but it can be argued that English Literature as a field of study only dates from the beginning of the last century. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch ("Q"), the first King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at the University of Cambridge was not appointed until 1912, and the Faculty of English itself was only founded in 1919. It was almost immediately riven with dispute and disagreement about its task. Q was a curator of literature, who made his name with the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250–1900 published in 1900; his approach was that of "appreciative criticism". But it was not long before the discipline set out in different, irreconcilable, directions. In the late '20s;
[There were] rival forces within the School of English. I A Richards, the guru of the Cambridge English School, had just published (with C K Ogden) The Meaning of Meaning and Principles of Literary Criticism. His radical approach to the subject, rooted in science and psychology, seized [Alistair] Cooke's imagination.
Cooke's time at Cambridge was just before the real rise to prominence of Richard's alter ego, the lowering figure of F R Leavis; but the seeds of the Deconstruction movement were already being sown—not least by the work of [...] William Empson.
Clarke N (1999) Alistair Cooke: the Biography London; Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pp 28-29

Of course, Cambridge was probably not typical, but Cooke's experience certainly anticipates my own and that of countless later students:
"Once he'd left the University Cooke's enthusiasm waned. [...] In fact he'd reached the conclusion that English Literature as a field of study was essentially worthless. 'The curse to me of the whole literary school is that it's so hopelessly subjective. There's no way of testing anything, and ultimately it's a waste of time. You will read what you want to read, not what you're told to read, and you will develop your own tastes.'
Although I thoroughly enjoyed my undergraduate years, studying English literature was a mistake on my part—although also a consequence of very unimaginative guidance on the part of the teachers at my grammar school. That strand of my study (since I was at Sussex in its early days, it was only one strand) felt mostly like a penance to be undergone to pay for all the other dishes in the academic buffet, despite some brilliant teachers such as Stephen Medcalf and Tony Nuttall. When I left, I bought a couple of science-fiction books to read on the train home. I thought they were probably rubbish, but I was free at last! In fact, one of them was by someone called Asimov... I never touched anything approximating to the "canon" for 20 years, until a friend persuaded me Jane Austen was funny. How had I missed that?

Back to Myers' point—experience over the years suggests that literary criticism is principally a way of legitimising academic competition and feuding.

On dog-walking

In a reply to a comment on an earlier post, I wrote:
'Sorry for the self-indulgent reference to the significance of dog-walking; our last dog died three years ago, but we have almost accidentally acquired another as a favour to a friend--and among many other things I have re-discovered the value of our conversations on walks. Our last dog was lately arthritic and blind, and so our conversations were rather limited. Our new one is only two years old and currently principally obsessed with chasing squirrels, but I trust she will become more philosophical as she grows. '
I'd originally thought that my point was merely whimsical. I took my cue from Maryellen Weimer at the Teaching Professor here.

But as I was questioned about what I meant, I realised there was more to it.

There is a venerable poetic tradition of hypostatising an internal dialogue. I remember this Dialogue of Self and Soul  from W B Yeats (1933), but the tradition goes back centuries before that—which I am not going to go into.

It is also a therapeutic technique in the Perls Gestalt tradition, most directly in the "empty chair" exercise. The dog and I take turns in debating a point...

And I was right—the dog is not an entirely passive recipient of projections in this dialogue. She (in the present incarnation) can help or hinder the development of trains of thought, simply by distracting and interrupting with her own agenda; she may need cues to anticipate a kerb she can't see, or control when she over-reacts to another friendly, but much larger, dog... Those interruptions are indeed exiguous, but they do serve as a sort of Darwinian filter, stripping away the wool-gathering thoughts which can't survive the necessary re-direction of attention.

Perhaps I ought to credit her as co-author. Or at least editor?

I brainstorm possibilities with Woodie Weimer (the beagle who takes me for walks) as we make our rounds through the woods. - See more at: http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/why-i-blog/#sthash.SSSuBlrv.dpuf
I brainstorm possibilities with Woodie Weimer (the beagle who takes me for walks) as we make our rounds through the woods. - See more at: http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/why-i-blog/#sthash.SSSuBlrv.dpuf
I brainstorm possibilities with Woodie Weimer (the beagle who takes me for walks) as we make our rounds through the woods. - See more at: http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/why-i-blog/#sthash.SSSuBlrv.dpuf

Items to Share: 12 January 2014

Education Focus
  • What Components Make Group Work Successful? | Faculty Focus  'There’s lots of research documenting the positive effects of group experiences on learning outcomes. Less is known about the specific aspects of group experiences that contribute to their overall positive impact. Thomas Tomcho and Rob Foels decided to explore this question by looking at the research on group learning in the field of psychology, as reported in the journal Teaching of Psychology.' 
  • Pick one thing | Teaching In Higher Ed 'One piece of guidance I gave at the start of almost every gathering was to not to try to implement every good idea that participants heard about, but rather to pick one thing at each meeting that would be of most benefit...'.
  • The classroom walkthrough and student achievement - Daniel Willingham '[...]time spent on instructional leadership was NOT associated with student learning outcomes. But once "instructional leadership" was made more fine-grained, the picture changed. Time spent coaching teachers--especially in math--was associated with better student outcomes. So was time spent evaluating teachers and curriculum.'
Other Business
  • The Closing of the Scientific Mind Commentary Magazine 'The huge cultural authority science has acquired over the past century imposes large duties on every scientist. Scientists have acquired the power to impress and intimidate every time they open their mouths, and it is their responsibility to keep this power in mind no matter what they say or do. Too many have forgotten their obligation to approach with due respect the scholarly, artistic, religious, humanistic work that has always been mankind’s main spiritual support.'
  • How to Live: Lessons from Montaigne, Godfather of Blogging | Brain Pickings 'What separated Montaigne from other memoirists of his day was that he didn’t write about his daily deeds and his achievements — rather, he contemplated the meaning of life from all possible angles, and in the process popularized the essay as a form. [...] The 107 essays he penned range across the entire spectrum of human concerns — from the grandly existential, like death and the art of living, to the universally human, like fear and friendship and sadness and love, to the seemingly trivial, like the customs of dress. Above all, however, he was interested in the simple yet infinitely profound question of how to live...'  

06 January 2014

Items to Share: 5 January 14

Retrospective and Prospective
Education Focus
  • Double Standard of Critical Thinking — dyske.com 'Whenever I hear teachers and parents talking about how important “critical thinking” is, I feel bitter about their double-standard. I’ve met very few people in my life who actually welcomed critical thinking when it was directed at them.' 
  • A Systems Thinker Reviews The Atlanta Public Schools' Performance in Reading and Math[s] (artofteachingscience.org) 'Ed Johnson is a systems thinker. [...] His commitment extends to advocating the transformation of K-12 public education systems to humanistic paradigms from prevailing mechanistic paradigms. In this regard, he believes schools can not be improved by trying to improve the parts separately. It is a sure path to failure.'
  • Who learns in maths classes depends on how maths is taught (theconversation.com) 'the outcomes for different groups of students were dramatic in IBL classes compared to non-IBL classes. Implementing inquiry-based learning approaches in mathematics improved outcomes not only of high achieving students, but also females, future mathematics teachers and low achieving students.'
Other Business 
  • Talking Without Conversing (andrewsullivan.com) It's a familiar theme, but a couple more thoughts on the impact of digital communication on social relations.
  • The Closing of the Scientific Mind: David Gelernter (Commentary Magazine)  'The huge cultural authority science has acquired over the past century imposes large duties on every scientist. Scientists have acquired the power to impress and intimidate every time they open their mouths, and it is their responsibility to keep this power in mind no matter what they say or do. Too many have forgotten their obligation to approach with due respect the scholarly, artistic, religious, humanistic work that has always been mankind’s main spiritual support.' A substantial piece (6,100 words) but a meaty start to the year...

03 January 2014

On Sherlock and post-modernism

Over at Inky Fool, Mark Forsyth makes an interesting case for the appeal of the original Sherlock Holmes. He sees Holmes as a hero of the modernist era. As a typically vague "movement" in the arts at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries, he argues that they were preoccupied with the urban ( and particularly city) environment as fragmented. The default culture had tipped. The anonymity and the lack of ties and traditions and the anomie (remember your Durkheim?) left a generation or more of new urbanites groping around trying to renegotiate the old certainties of small rural communities. They did not know what was going on.

Holmes did, according to Forsyth. He fitted everything into a pattern; he made sense of the nonsensical,
'This is why we remember Sherlock Holmes much more than we remember any particular crime that he solves. [...] Through Sherlock Holmes the Modern Condition of fragments and incomplete stories is vanquished. He is another way of looking at the city.

Sherlock Holmes is not a crime-solver, that is incidental. He is an idea. He is the Messiah who can save us all from Modernism.'
So it is an interesting gloss (which I see one of the early commenters on Forsyth's post has noted) that the latest incarnation (or is "regeneration" the appropriate terminology given the incestuous relationships between the Sherlock and Dr Who franchises?) of Holmes is a supposedly super-cool modernist sleuth frankly lost in postmodern sea.
  • The whole trick of his supposedly formidable powers of deduction is indeed based on a modernist premise that every puzzle has a single right answer/interpretation. For all its failings, postmodernism does get beyond this and indeed plays with mutliple significations.
  • By this series, the supposedly tedious process of explaining (and thus rendering contestable) his "deductions" seems to have been dropped.
  • Sherlock was totally out of his depth with Irene Adler. (OK, he always would have been, but A C-D was rather constrained by the standards of the day...)
  • The last episode of season 2 was about crimes which weren't crimes.
  • Much of this first episode of season 3 was taken up with alternative constructions and interpretations of his "fatal" fall from Bart's.
  • ...and to cap it all the trick in the underground carriage of using the "off" switch on the bomb! "There's always an 'off' switch!" —is a line composed to be uttered by Matt Smith. But what if the labels are reversed? 

I started composing this post while walking the dog (what a delight to say that after three years!); I had thought I would argue for Sherlock being a post-modern take on hoary old stories—but she persuaded me that he hadn't changed. The world had.

Perhaps that accounts for his miserable track record?

There's another take on Sherlock as superhero in THE here.