21 April 2014

On nuances of loss

I've just finished Stephen Grosz (2013) The Examined Life: how we lose and find ourselves (London, Vintage).  As so often, it comes with lots of hype on the cover, but for once it may be justified.

It is a series of essays, perhaps meditations, or even reflections on some of his patients, their experiences and the experience of therapy. They are not case-studies—that term implies far too much distance. It is very readable, moving and thought-provoking.

Grosz is a psychoanalyst. That has always been a confusing label. He is not a medical doctor, not a psychiatrist. It's not even clear whether he is a psychologist (clinical psychologists treat behavioural and psychiatric problems in ways which do not involve medication or other physical interventions, usually based on established treatment protocols originating from academic and clinical research). He is a psychotherapist, technically, in that he practises "talking cures", but that is too broad a label, in that it now includes practitioners of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), who are very effective for "routine" cases of depression etc. (I hasten to add that there is nothing at all "routine" about the experience of clinical depression.)

Grosz is a lay (non-medical) psychoanalyst. Technically that implies that he is a follower of Sigmund Freud, but that is much less likely to be the case than 25 years ago, when he began to practice. Freud's daughter, Anna, gets a look-in in the book, but only when a young patient mixes her up with Anne Frank. Sigmund gets one mention in the bibliographic notes. So does Dr Seuss.

I labour this point a little because psychoanalysis (now much more a critical "lens" for the humanities than a serious approach to the treatment of neurotic disorders) does have a few very distinctive features:

It takes its time. As Grosz puts it;
"Most of my work [...] has been with adults in psychoanalysis--meeting with one person for fifty minutes, four or five time a week, over a number of years. I have spent more than 50,000 hours with patients." (p. xi)
It takes as long as it takes. It has to be acknowledged that "efficiency" is not psychoanalysis' strong suit, particularly when patients sleep all through their allocated time, and the analyst lets them ("Through Silence" p.199). And it does tend to support David Cohen's observation (from memory) about psychiatry in the USA, that the better qualified and the more skilled the practitioner, the more trivial the problems he deals with... And of course there is the skewed demographic profile of patients, because it is extremely expensive. But the other side of the story is that there is no need to push patients into pigeon-holes. (I remember a couple of professionals in the field--no idea of their professional labels--catching up  before a case-conference settled down to business. One said, "Oh, her? British Standard Low Self-esteem, level 3!")  Grosz readily admits formulating initial hypotheses about the problem, and then abandoning or refining them, or waiting months for the evidence to test them.

It contextualises the presenting problem within the life-space of the individual patient--and perhaps their family or immediate relationships. There's almost no jargon in this book, and indeed some trenchant dismissal of conventional wisdom (especially the "closure" myth; "My experience is that closure is an extraordinarily compelling fantasy of mourning. It is the fiction that we can love, lose, suffer and then do something to permanently end our sorrow..." (p. 209). Instead, there is a much more dynamic view, characteristic of humanistic depth psychology at its best: What is the point of this behaviour/reaction/experience? What does it do in this particular setting/relationship/personal history? What is it preferable to (i.e. defend against)? What is involved in giving it up?

This is, I think, the defining characteristic of psychoanalysis and its variants. Freud was wrong about practically everything, but every great innovator is practically bound to be. So was Marx. So was Darwin (less so, of course; he just didn't have the tools we have today). Initial formulations are simply starting points. But the recognition of what lies behind trivial issues and interactions (such as vacillating about whether or not to take off one's shoes before getting on the traditional couch [p.169]) and how minutiae can expose great themes is a transformative framework.

The sub-title, "how we lose and find ourselves", suggests that loss will be a major theme, as indeed it is. The section on "Changing" (pp. 121-196) discusses the issues of loss implicit in even the most beneficial change. It's long been an interest of mine, but while I have tried to explore some of the general principles in respect of learning (“Learning as Loss”), Grosz engages with specific instances and manifestations in the lives of specific individuals. His stories are far more nuanced than anything I could aspire to.

Incidentally, I was also reminded of a psychodrama exercise; the Magic Shop (Moreno, 1948), which focuses on the “bargain” of change, and how everything has to be paid for. It is a far blunter* instrument than Grosz would use, but I've used it effectively (I think!) in the past in an educational context.

* I almost wrote that it was a far too "gross" instrument... Now what would that imply?

Items to Share: 20 April 2014

Education Focus
  • Issues with Cognitive Load Theory | Webs of Substance 'This theory implies certain teaching practices. For instance, when learning new material, we should be careful to structure teaching programmes so that the concepts are broken down into small numbers of interacting elements in order to ensure that students can apprehend all of the required concepts in their working memories. As learning develops and relevant knowledge is built in students’ long term memories, we can start to make use of chunking and expose our students to more complex concepts. This is why the prior knowledge of our students is important and why teaching a group of students with a wide disparity of prior knowledge is problematic.' 

Other Business
  • The Poetry of the Trading Floor, Going Beyond Bears and Bulls - NYTimes.com 'Meanwhile, stags buy new issues in the hope of a quick return. Black swans swim in unexpectedly, as dishonest brokers perform goose jobs (promoting a stock to increase demand so that they can unload their inventory). And when all such people have been fired, the remaining dealers, left huddled together for warmth, are called penguins. The dogs of the Dow bark, but the caravan moves on. Bulls make money. Bears make money. And PIGS get slaughtered.'
  • The Surprising Science Behind Why and When We Yawn : The New Yorker 'At its most fundamental, a yawn is a form of communication—one of the most basic mechanisms we have for making ourselves understood to others without words. “It’s often said that behavior doesn’t leave fossils,” Provine says. “But, with yawning, you are looking at a behavioral fossil. You’re getting an insight into how all of behavior once was.”
  • Ants Build Complex Structures With a Few Simple Rules | Simons Foundation 'Ants might even shed light on the complex organization of the organ we use to study them — the brain. The behavior of an ant community resembles the organization of neurons into a functioning brain, [...] “Each neuron is relatively dumb, but if you take billions of neurons, they interact in a way that we have only scratched the surface of understanding.”'
  • The Stoic Reading List [farnamstreetblog.com]  'something I wish I had found a few years ago when I first started reading philosophy, a stoic reading list.'

14 April 2014

Items to Share: 13 April 2014

Education Focus
  • Tom of Finland Part 2: Should Learning be Fun? - Tom Bennett - Blog - Tom Bennett - TES Community 'I'd love to find some evidence to substantiate the claims that the Fun Learning camp makes- I'm like an atheist, glumly investigating every miracle hoping to find God- but every time I put my hand out it melts away like mist. [] Can learning be fun? Of course. Is learning sometimes fun? Undoubtedly. Should it be fun? That's a whole different question. Simply saying yes damns every act of learning that isn't enjoyable, and you would have to be completely bonkers to think that everything you learn should be fun as well. Almost everything worth achieving requires sweat, grit and the ability to stick with something when it's hard- also qualities I'd like to see in my students in general. I don't want them bored, but I have no problem if something they do is boring, if it's necessary. 
  • Joe Moran's blog: Fail better ''Teaching is mostly about failure, because it is based on conversation and words are always liable to fall on stony ground. Reading is about failure, because most of what we read we forget, and quite a lot of it is not as interesting as we thought it would be. Writing is about failure because, even if we manage to finish something and send it out into the world, we will mostly come up against a wall of indifference made of people who have other things on their mind and other things to read and write. [...] In other words, you just keep throwing enough mud at the wall until some of it sticks. Maybe you only have to succeed once, or at least to fail less catastrophically.
Other Business
  • Get Comic Neue The free and (a bit more) stylish successor to Comic Sans
  • Antifragile: A Definition 'The classic example of something antifragile is Hydra, the greek mythological creature that has numerous heads. When one is cut off, two grow back in its place.'
  • Looking For Tom Lehrer, Comedy's Mysterious Genius [buzzfeed.com] He's performed on and off (mainly off) since the '50s. His entire repertoire is 37 very dark and very clever songs... Taught maths at Harvard but never finished his PhD. Fascinating profile. 

10 April 2014

On the Whole Game

 (An expanded version of a piece for the student newsletter, with links and references.)

I took a workshop session at a recent Study Day on "Emotional Aspects of Learning and Teaching"—of course it had to be very selective, and I missed out one very important emotion; boredom. I was reminded of that at some of the teaching observations I have done recently, and how much of a challenge it poses to the teacher. When we express concerns about behaviour management, many of the problems follow from learners being bored.

Many years ago, David Hargreaves suggested that teachers fall into three categories; lion-tamers, entertainers, and "new romantics". Lion-tamers believe that learners do not want to learn, but they will if you crack the whip hard enough. Entertainers also believe that learners do not want to learn, but they will if you make it fun enough. New romantics are foolish enough to believe that learners do actually want to learn, and the job of the teacher is as much to get out of the way as anything else. Lion-taming is the position taken by many starting teachers—often because they are nervous. It is something of a dead end, because once students detect nerves, they close in. But there is something in both the other positions.

At least the entertainers recognise the pernicious effects of boredom—it's just that all too often overcoming it becomes the prime objective, often to the detriment of actually learning anything. The new romantics, while they may be accused of some naivety, are aware that teachers can sometimes be impediments to learning. If the prime requirement of medical personnel is "first of all, do no harm", that of teachers may well be, "first of all, don't turn students off".

And yet we do actively, if unintentionally, do that.

I'm thinking particularly of vocational courses I have sat in on over the past few years, and how boring they often are. The teachers try to liven them up with activities and an engaging manner, but they are trying to roll a rock up a hill, and the moment they relax the boredom rolls back in.

Why? There are many reasons of course, but one is the way the content has been pre-processed and pre-digested so that it can be taught in small incremental gobbets, each of which can be assessed and added to a portfolio. The learners go through the motions, and they do "achieve", but there is little connection with the real world in what they have to do, and it is indeed boring.

(And PowerPoint doesn't help, either. It defaults to bullet-points and there is nothing more calculated to fragment content and lose any sense of context and connection than a bulleted list. See, of course, Edward Tufte on this.)
“M... was teaching a group of nursery nurses coming to the end of their [...] course, and she was, as she said, tidying up loose ends. Their syllabus required them to have studied team-working [... ]

At a technical level, M. is a good teacher: she tried to draw information and ideas out of the students but since they had little experience to draw on, she could not get the “right” answers from them. […] At last, she put up on the whiteboard the three essential components of good team-working ... I thought at first, that was interesting. Then I put myself in the position of the students, who were dutifully making notes, and thought, they have to remember these points for their exam: there is a lot more to studying in this area than I thought. Perhaps I ought to make a note of these points for my own future reference?

Then I “woke up”. [...] I have been involved in team-working for the past twenty years, working in and leading teams myself, and conducting training and consultancy on it. There was nothing “wrong” with the three points on the board, but I had never conceptualised the issue to myself in that way, and I saw no particular advantage in doing so.[...] They seemed to represent the outcome of the text-book author’s search for three simple headings under which to organise his required thousand words on team-working. But for these students, this was now the definitive knowledge on the subject, to which their experience had to be subordinated ... As M. said afterwards, it was what they were expected to “know”... (1999)
On another of many occasions:
This class was part of an "access" course. (Access courses provide an alternative route to "A" levels for mature students wanting to go on to train for—chiefly—occupations such as nursing, social work, and teaching. Many access students are women whose youngest child has started school.) It was on Human Growth and Development, and concerned language acquisition, exploring the competing accounts from Skinner and Chomsky. It proceeded in a rather pedestrian but informative session for the first half, and then there was a brief comfort break. When the students came back, they were much more animated, swapping stories about their children and when they had started talking, and the mistakes they made. The teacher could barely get a word in edgeways...

Afterwards, she was very apologetic. "I'm sorry about the second half—I really let it get away from me, didn't I?" It took her a while to realise that those animated conversations in the second half would have provided a solid experiential base for the ideas of the first half, had she been able to swap the lesson round—and with a little more practice she could have drawn the formal "teaching points" out of what the students already knew at one level, but had not yet conceptualised.
    (And with one of my own classes);
    We were discussing the importance of making content relevant to learners' experience, and I referred to a session I had observed a few days ago, in which the teacher (also teaching about motivation, and stuck in a bind about having to "deliver" prescribed schemes of work, but doing her best) had taught well on the basis of "this is stuff out there which you need to know in order to pass the assessment".

    She could have connected and taught much better by drawing on the learners' shared interest in sport. This wasn't accidental. It was a course about "Sport Leadership" [...]

    But hey! Motivation and sport are topics made for each other.

    I know nothing about sport. [...] But even I could see this connection and use it to get the class discussing forms of motivation and the tactics coaches use to hype it up...
    (More on the observations behind these reflections here and here, and an interesting post about what professors can learn from coaches [in the US context], here. The Access example nicely suits Kolb's learning cycle, too)

    Attempting to reduce material to simple concrete items which can be made a note of or memorised sucks all the life out of it. It strips away the context, and it is context which brings it alive. Without that, the knowledge is in David Perkins' (and A N Whitehead's) term, "inert". It's not used—"it just sits in the mind's attic, unpacked only when specifically called for by a quiz or a direct prompt but otherwise gathering dust." (More here, from Perkins 1995:22)

    Put it into context and a sequence—draw on your experience, or better still get the learners to draw on their own experience if possible—and it becomes a story. Much more memorable and engaging.
    I sat in on a class last week which included why certain finishes might be used for partitions in a building. Sadly, the students were bored much of the time; they weren't concentrating, and they drifted off the task at the merest opportunity. The teacher agreed later that she had had to act like a sheep-dog, trying to keep them together and going in the right direction...

    But then—it might have been a slight digression—but the teacher was talking about how fast-food restaurants use bright colours, especially red, to get customers energised and more inclined to eat and move on, rather than to relax over a leisurely meal. I remember that and it will probably come back to me next time I have a hamburger, but I still can't think what the three types of building plaster are...

    And then during groupwork a student told a spontaneous—and relevant—story about how his firm had modified an original design in order to improve the customer's requirement for better soundproofing; the body language of the rest of the group clearly showed how the material was making sense and coming alive.

    David Ausubel (1968) famously (well, relatively, if you move in the right circles) said that the most important determinant of learning is what the learner already knows. From this he developed the principle (already known to good teachers for centuries, of course) of the Advance Organizer. It's an introductory strategy to put the lesson into the context of what the students already know, but in practice it can be used at any time, as the teacher mentioned above did, without being aware of it. Hattie rates them as just below average effect-size (0.38), but on the other hand they are so easy to use, what's not to like?

    And back with sport as a context, and with David Perkins; he explores these matters in what he calls the "whole game" approach to teaching:
    'Perkins sees two unfortunate tendencies in education: One is what he calls “elementitis”—learning the components of a subject without ever putting them together. The other is the tendency to foster “learning about” something at the expense of actually learning it. “You don't learn to play baseball by a year of batting practice,” he noted, but in learning math[s], for instance, students are all too often presented with prescribed problems with only one right solution and no clear indication how they connect with the real world.
    'The way to let young learners play the whole game is to find or construct a junior version of it. ...
    It is in many respects the obsession with enabling learners to "achieve" their qualifications, rather than actually to become better builders, hairdressers, nursery nurses or travel agents which leads to this denaturing of the course content and the stultifying boredom which besets many classes—and which learners compensate for by messing about.

    As ever, read Becker (again).

    Hargreaves D (1972) Interpersonal Relations and Education London; Routledge and Kegan Paul

    Perkins D N (2009) Making Learning Whole; how seven principles of teaching can transform education San Francisco; Jossey-Bass (Also discussed on the blog here.)

    07 April 2014

    Items to Share: 6 April 2014

    Education Focus
    • We're good at something, but what is it? PISA problems [Tom Bennett] '"Pupils in England are 'significantly better' at problem solving than the average for the industrialised world, the latest results from an influential comparative education study show. [] The country finished 11th among the 44 different international territories where 15-year-olds took new computer-based tests, as part of the last round of Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment).' But what does it actually mean?
    Other Business
    • Big data: are we making a big mistake? - FT.com 'Cheerleaders for big data have made four exciting claims, each one reflected in the success of Google Flu Trends: that data analysis produces uncannily accurate results; that every single data point can be captured, making old statistical sampling techniques obsolete; that it is passé to fret about what causes what, because statistical correlation tells us what we need to know; and that scientific or statistical models aren’t needed because, to quote “The End of Theory”, a provocative essay published in Wired in 2008, “with enough data, the numbers speak for themselves”.'