30 June 2014

On an oxymoronic comment

I moderate the comments on my blogs—not a terribly onerous task—and today I picked up this contribution from someone on a class blog from 2007. Interestingly enough, it's the second in the same vein in a month.
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(The link has been disabled.)

At first I was amazed by its incoherence and bare standard of literacy. How could a message like that possibly encourage someone to sign up for a "service" purporting to provide essays? How could they be so incompetent?

But then I thought of a point made in Levitt and Dubner's latest book, which I haven't read, but the Guardian review may be on the button. They muse on the continuing illiteracy of 419 scam spam and phishing messages. You would have thought the scammers would have learned by now to do it more professionally. Levitt and Dubner apparently argue that the grammatical errors and clumsy expression are deliberate filters to ensure that only gullible and less sophisticated readers are taken in.

That would certainly work in this case; anyone who responded to such a message would certainly be floundering and desperate.

But given the present concern about international students being admitted to British universities on the basis of dubious evidence of their English language skills, these essay mills appear to be in a lucrative business. 

23 June 2014

Items to Share: 22 June 2014

Education Focus
  • "Active learning" in college STEM courses--meta-analysis - Daniel Willingham 'Scott Freeman and his associates (Freeman et al, 2014) conducted a meta-analysis of 225 studies of college instruction that compared “traditional lecturing” vs. “active learning” in STEM courses. [...] Student performance on exams increased by about half a standard deviation. Students in the traditional lecture classes were 1.5 times as likely to fail as students in the active learning classes.' 
  • How to manage behaviour with praise | Webs of Substance '[...] we introduced ‘Assertive Discipline’; an American programme developed by Lee Cantor. Aspects of the training materials made me cringe and there was little suggestion that it was based upon anything more than experience, but in the absence of anything else, it began to form the basis of an approach that I have used ever since..' 
Other Business
  • A Don’s Life: Time Management 'I have picked up a few "time management" tips -- on the job. For example, start booking appointments from the end of the day backwards (they tend to sprawl less that way, for reasons I dont quite understand). Try booking appointments at slightly odd times (12.05, rather than 12.00) -- as it makes it rather clearer that your time is squeezed.'

16 June 2014

Items to Share: 15 June 2014

Education Focus
Other Business
  • The Turing Trick – The Chronicle of Higher Education 'On Monday morning, the news was everywhere that the famous Turing Test—in which a computer program tries to convince people that it is a human being carrying on a normal conversation—had been passed for the first time.' 
  • Writing In The 21st Century | Edge.org 'Steven Pinker begins by stating his belief that "science can inform all aspects of life, particularly psychology, my own favorite science. Psychology looks in one direction to biology, to neuroscience, to genetics, to evolution. And it looks in another direction to the rest of intellectual and cultural life— because what are the arts but products of the human mind which resonate with our aesthetic and emotional faculties? [...] There's no aspect of life that cannot be illuminated by a better understanding of the mind from scientific psychology. And for me the most recent example is the process of writing itself [...]'

10 June 2014

Items to Share; 8 June 2014

Education Focus
  • A physicist weighs in on the rigor of education research - Daniel Willingham 'Can you use the results of your research to predict with some accuracy what will happen in a new situation? A common mistake is to believe that in education one ought to be able to predict outcomes for individual students; not necessarily so, any more than a physicist must be able to predict the behavior of each atom. Prediction in aggregate—a liter of gas or a school of children—is still an advance.' 
  • A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop - Scientific American scientificamerican.com
    'New research [...] demonstrates that students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more. Across three experiments, [...] students [took] notes in a classroom setting and then [were] tested [...] on their memory for factual detail, their conceptual understanding of the material, and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information. Half of the students were instructed to take notes with a laptop, and the other half [...] to write the notes out by hand. As in other studies, students who used laptops took more notes. In each study, however, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops.' and:
  • What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades - NYTimes.com 'Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.'
Other Business
  • New Statesman | How mistakes can save lives: one man’s mission to revolutionise the NHS 'After the death of his wife following a minor operation, airline pilot Martin Bromiley set out to change the way medicine is practised in the UK – by using his knowledge of plane crashes.' Excellent piece—but no reference to Atul Gawande's "Checklist Manifesto" (2010), strangely. Education rarely experiences such critical incidents—but there are things to learn.

02 June 2014

Items to Share: 1 June 2014

Education Focus
  • Motivation and instruction | Pragmatic Education 'In a series of five blogposts, I plan to explore what we as teachers can do about motivation, self-control and willpower in school. There’ll be stories of elephants, chimps and bees; mindsets, biases and self-fulfilling prophecies. The heroes of the story will be Carol Dweck, Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein, Jonathan Haidt, Kelly McGonigal and the Heath brothers. Going beyond the cognitive psychology I’ve been exploring, this is a journey into our social, intuitive minds.' and...
  • Motivation and emotion | Pragmatic Education 'As a student, what makes you look forward to the lesson? It’s not so much what you have next, as who you have next. Emotional interactions between teachers and students are some of ‘the most powerful hidden dynamics of teaching’, according to Robert Marzano, as they are ‘typically unconscious’.'
Other Business
  • The Five Second Rule « The Dabbler 'The five-second rule is a widely repeated belief that food dropped on the ground will not be significantly contaminated with bacteria if it is picked up within five seconds of being dropped.' 
  • Nigeness: The Missing Forecast '...[H]ow deeply entrenched the Shipping Forecast is in our national culture. For most of us, of course, it serves no useful purpose and is largely incomprehensible, but it operates at some deeper level as a quasi-liturgical celebration of our maritime heritage and our status as a sea-girt island afloat on mysterious waters, storm-prone but somehow ordered.'
  • Rory Sutherland — This Thing For Which We Have No Name [farnamstreetblog.com] 'Most of the progress that’s made in business is made through a kind of trial and error where you accidentally stumble on something that’s successful. Of course, the way business works quite well is that things that are unsuccessful get killed off fairly quickly and things which are accidentally successful get invested in; a very crude feedback system but it kind of works, broadly speaking.' 

01 June 2014

On Set Books

It's unlikely that you have been able to avoid the arguments now simmering around changes to the syllabus and set books for GCSE English Literature.

Here is part of a post I first wrote in 2012, which touches on some of the issue from another angle:
I passed the local branch of a chain bookshop on Saturday, now featuring the "back to school" window display. Prominent was a "study guide" to To Kill a Mockingbird --presumably a set text again for some exam or another.

Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, is 86 and reclusive. I wasn't surprised to see a "study guide" in the window, but it did set me thinking about what had been made of her wonderful story, whose very accessibility and gentle power has conspired to its reduction to a commodity--knowledge about it can be traded for exam credits, while the point is lost.

I'm not merely speculating here. Robert Westall was my art teacher at school. We became friends and remained so for thirty years until his death. [...]. As the link shows, he was a wonderful author of stories for children and young adults, acquiring many awards for works from his debut novel The Machine-Gunners in 1975 to posthumous publications. The Machine-Gunners was serialised on BBCtv in 1983 --and of course found its way to being a "set book" for 16+ examinations...

I don't remember when it was first set, or when the first cribs came out (for examples of current stuff go here and scroll until you get to the title--I make no comment at all on the quality of the resources offered. They are simply an accessible example of the kind of material on offer.) But I do remember discussing it with him.

I congratulated him. He'd really made it! And—since he was always something of a contrarian—I didn't really take it seriously when he said he wished it hadn't happened, and that perhaps he had a right to be consulted about it. (As far as I can remember, the first he found out about it was from his publisher or his agent, because they had been warned to increase print runs and approached about annotated editions. But then, most set authors are dead already, so...)

But his argument was persuasive. He did not want young people to see his work as "the kind of stuff they made you read at school." Once they saw it in that light, he would have lost them.

And of course he was right.
Of course it's just possible that Gove is really a big fan of Harper Lee and John Steinbeck, and trying a kind of paradoxical injunction*. By removing them from the required list—forbidding and banning them, he may be making them transgressive and thus all the more attractive to adolescents...

* Introduced in Watzlawick P, Beavin J and Jackson D (1967) Pragmatics of Human Communication New York; W W Norton.