28 July 2014

Items to Share: 27 July 2014

Education Focus
  • Mind Benders | Webs of Substance  Might Dweck's mindset model get reified and used as a label? '[M]uch of the discussion that I see on teaching blogs and websites does seem to take quite a reductive stance to the issues as if there are simple polar opposites [...]. Infographics are produced showing the difference between a growth and a fixed mindset – one good and one bad – but with no hint at a continuum or that it might just be a little more complicated than this. [ ] What if there are children in classes right now filling in worksheets to decide their mindset? What if we end up hanging this label like an albatross around their necks?' 
  • Examining Knowledge Beliefs to Motivate Student Learning | Faculty Focus 'There is no magic solution to the motivation question. Motivation for learning is an extremely complex entity and scholars disagree on how to measure motivation, evaluate learning, etc. (Schunk, 2012). I believe the heart of motivating students lies in the ability to reach the student at the beliefs level.'
  • How Tests Make Us Smarter - NYTimes.com 'tests serve students best when they’re integrated into the regular business of learning and the stakes are not make-or-break, as in standardized testing. That means, among other things, testing new learning within the context of regular classes and study routines. [ ] Students in classes with a regimen of regular low- or no-stakes quizzing carry their learning forward through the term, like compounded interest, and they come to embrace the regimen, even if they are skeptical at first. A little studying suffices at exam time — no cramming required.' By Henry  Roediger, one co-author of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.
  • Behaviour Blind Spot | Webs of Substance 'the crisis in school behaviour is a crisis of authority. The same anti-authoritarian stance that promotes discovery learning is the stance that favours permissive approaches to classroom behaviour.'
  • Teaching science with bad science: resources for teachers – Bad Science  'People often wring their hands over how to make science “relevant” to the public, or to young people. For me, this is an open goal: we are constantly barraged with health claims in popular culture, and evidence based medicine is the science of how we know what does good, and what does harm. Every popular claim is an opportunity to learn about the relative merits and downsides of randomised trials, systematic reviews, cohort studies, laboratory work, and more.' (You could build an entire course around Jo Willey--the Daily Express "health" correspondent!) 
Other Business
  • Above LA: A Top-Down Timelapse View of the Great Megacity | Open Culture 'Chris Pritchard tells us: “Above LA showcases the often unseen beauty of Los Angeles from above. It was shot on hilltops, mountains, and high-rise rooftops around the city and features a number of day to night transitions and rare weather. My goal was to capture the depth, beauty, and movement of a vast and bustling megacity from a new angle, and encourage people to get out and experience their environments in new ways. I never thought I’d appreciate this city so much until I spent countless hours staring at it from high above.”'
  • C S Lewis' "Till We Have Faces" [brandywinebooks.net] 'Dr. Peter Kreeft [talks] about "one of the greatest novel[s] ever written," C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces. Kreeft says one of the reasons it is such a good book is Lewis' wife helped him write it.' It is almost forgotten now... (Video, 1 hour)
  • BPS Research Digest: What the textbooks don't tell you - one of psychology's most famous experiments was seriously flawed Conducted in 1971, the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) has acquired a mythical status and provided the inspiration for at least two feature-length films. You'll recall that several university students allocated to the role of jailor turned brutal and the study had to be aborted prematurely. Philip Zimbardo, the experiment's lead investigator, says the lesson from the research is that in certain situations, good people readily turn bad. "If you put good apples into a bad situation, you’ll get bad apples," he has written.
  • The Conscientiousness of Kidspeak - The New Yorker  'The study they [three sociolinguists at the U. of Texas at Austin] conducted “aimed to investigate how the frequency of filled pauses and discourse markers used in the English language varies with two basic demographic variables (gender and age) and personality traits.” The researchers explain that, to do this, they “focused on three common discourse markers … (I mean, you know, and like) and two filled pauses (uh and um).”'
  • What playfulness can do for you - Ideas - The Boston Globe '... playfulness, as a personality trait, is not only complex but consequential. People who exhibit high levels of playfulness—those who are predisposed to being spontaneous, outgoing, creative, fun-loving, and lighthearted—appear to be better at coping with stress, more likely to report leading active lifestyles, and more likely to succeed academically. According to a group of researchers at Pennsylvania State University, playfulness makes both men and women more attractive to the opposite sex.'

26 July 2014

On revisiting a classic

I'm still wrestling with writing—the book on teaching, that is—and it is all the harder now that the academic year has finished, and I don't have the fuel of current practice to direct my attention. So I have turned back to some classics (at least in my assessment) to re-stimulate my thinking, and I thought I'd share some of my thoughts..

Richardson, E (1967) The Environment of Learning; conflict and understanding in the secondary school London; Heinemann Education (1973 edn.)

WorldCat.org lists 17 editions, including e-editions. I bought it used through Amazon for one penny (+ £2.80 postage, several other copies still available).

I nearly worked for Elizabeth Richardson. In the mid-1970s she was at the University of Bristol and looking for a research fellow for one of her projects, and I applied. I was able to claim a shared background; she had been heavily influenced by the (mildly Kleinian—Melanie, not Josephine) work on group relations which gave rise to the Tavistock Institute/Leicester University experiential (a.k.a. "working") conferences from the early '60s on. I had worked for the Grubb Institute—a sort of junior partner in the enterprise—and participated in several similar events. (They are still going—the 2014 event is the 68th, and takes place in August, and spin-offs are international.)

I went to Bristol for a very pleasant and stimulating interview, but learned that her research had moved on to work on local authorities' management of schools (they did a lot more of that in those days) rather than concentrating on the eco-system of the classroom, as I might now describe her focus. It's much easier to find the labels for her perspective now than it was then, which must say something about how much systems perspectives have permeated our thinking.

But that must lead to an initial observation; the language (and more important, the perspectives it embodies) are dated. There are of course references to grammar- and secondary-modern schools, and leaving school at 15 (so-called ROSLA did not come in until 1974, if I remember rightly), but that's just historical. It's the unselfconscious references to "bright" and "backward", and "coloured" pupils (not "students") which leap out, including this gem, "these were 15-year-old girls of pathetically low ability" (p. 147). It's the assumptions about streaming. And, most germane for a current reading, it's the default assumptions about the authority of and respect for the teacher.

And of course that is one of the key elements of this book. Because, regardless of the default assumption, no-one I have read since has so clear-sightedly and non-judgementally sought to uncover and explore what goes on beneath the surface of the classroom (and the school). I mentioned an "eco-system" earlier; Richardson approaches the class as an ecologist might approach a rainforest.

Much of the first half of the book is about what would nowadays be called "behaviour management". Much as I respect people like Sue Cowley and Tom Bennett, their approach is—although in many respects consistent with Richardson's (given that she doesn't do prescription)—simply pragmatic. It's about ground-rules and fire-fighting. And it works. 'Nuff said.

Except that Richardson does not stop there; enough has not been said. From a group relations perspective,  she regards almost everything which happens (and some things which don't happen) at several levels. Class behaviour has to be managed, certainly, but it is also evidence of the underlying emotional life of the group, both that which can be expressed and that which must be denied. And the teacher is part of this process, not an objective outsider, but as exposed as anyone else. Indeed, the issue of  how the teacher's anxiety can motivate problematic practice and inhibit good practice (especially holding back and doing nothing) is a recurrent theme.

It's a fascinating "lens" to use Brookfield's term, or frame of reference. It highlights (or "privileges" in the current jargon) a neglected aspect of the environment of learning, including the implications of the physical layout of classrooms (rather less of an issue now, I think. For my take see here and here) and time tabling.

By current standards, the argument is loose and merely assertive. Only in the boring chapters 7 and 8 is the referencing anywhere near current standards (and it's not "Harvard"!)

The originality dips from chapter 7 onwards and slowly climbs to the conclusion. Skim.

So? This is largely based on secondary education in the '60s, which was a different world in some respects, but still recognisable in those areas with which this book concerns itself. It may appear that the current competitive, high-stakes testing setting has invalidated the arguments and the admittedly anecdotal evidence base. In some respects they have. There are no effect-sizes from meta-analyses to support them. Some of the practice described in chapters 7 and 8 nowadays prompts responses such as, "Yes, but—what were they learning?" But they are not simply examples of the much-derided pupil-centred approaches of the '60s; there is a degree of rigour here, and interesting explorations of how rules and rituals structure the pupil experience to provide the security needed to tolerate the uncertainty of venturing into unknown territory.

It has to be said that translating all this to the world of post-compulsory education is not straightforward; Richardson is good on the how the default structures of primary schools and secondary schools (a single teacher working with a class on practically all subjects in the former case, and subject specialists taking classes only for their subjects in the latter) affect the role of the teacher and the dynamics of the class, but the school is still a stronger, more containing institution than the FE college or the university. The social and emotional ties (and splits) are looser in the college, but they are still influential, particularly on professional courses where a cohort of students work with a fairly small team of lecturers consistently over from one to four years.

Even so. There's a lot to learn. But sadly it can't be communicated in a half-day CPD session and that in itself may disqualify it... And no, it's not the same as "Emotional Intelligence". But the book is as good as it gets as an introduction, and if you are looking for a trajectory for professional development over a decade or a career, this could be it. It will certainly maintain your fascination with teaching.

23 July 2014

On Gary Klein on Insight

Klein G (2014) Seeing What Others Don't; the remarkable ways we gain insights London and Boston MA; Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

I first encountered Gary Klein (not in person, though) through his Edge interview in 2011. Anyone who has Daniel Kahneman as his warm-up deserves attention and respect. So when I spotted this book in Heffers the other day, I was immediately interested. Klein specialises in the psychology of intuition, decision-making, and here of insight.

But he does it naturalistically. He doesn't bring his subjects into a laboratory to put them through some experimental protocol; instead he listens to their stories of life in the real world. Indeed, sometimes he relies on historical records or news reports, contaminated though they may be. He sets out his reasons very cogently in ch.13 of the book. His approach is idiographic, rather than nomothetic, to use Allport's (1937) terms. He argues that standardised methods are by definition incapable of capturing the lightning strike which is "insight".

He embraces the messiness of contextual and confusing variables, but tries to find the common features underlying them all. This is typical of much educational research, too. It's one reason why so much of it is so poor. So it is good to read an account of painstaking qualitative research undertaken on an opportunistic sample of 120 instances of insight, with some discussion of necessary and sufficient conditions for accepting an instance, ranging from backwoodsman Daniel Boone rescuing his daughter from marauding "Indians", to the identification of the Aids virus—and the stories are terrific. Malcolm Gladwell should look to his laurels (and endorses Klein, but not this book specifically, on the cover).

Educational researchers could benefit from reading this account of methodology (scattered throughout the book), but... there's a lot left out.

And that is interesting, because from page 4, Klein introduces a notional equation:

(I've prettied it up a little: I may have occasion to use it...)  It's reminiscent of Herzberg on motivational hygiene. But if Herzberg's point (originating in the 1950s) was about minimising the downers, Klein is broadly about boosting the uppers.

He argues powerfully in Part II that emphasising "not getting it wrong", or minimising error creates a culture not only of "quality assurance" but also of risk aversion and closes the door on innovation, and he has the anecdotal evidence to demonstrate it. It's an important argument, but Klein is well aware of its limitations. His final section on creating an organisational culture which encourages insight is not convincing, but then it is speculative. Someone would have to give it a try...

That's the problem. It's the discourse, stupid. More precisely, it's the market. Klein has moved (according to his bio.) from academe, to government service, to consultancy. So his pitch has changed. That is not in itself a criticism; but it's not enough to explore the issues. In that world you need answers. Hence Part III of the book: "Opening the Gates; how can we foster insights?" which is definitely the weakest part, and indeed comes close to contradicting the insights of the earlier parts. Despite arguing that insights are disruptive and unpredictable (p.153) he ends up talking about how to manage their creation. It don't work like that.

Klein writes accessibly: sometimes too much so. Every point is referenced back to one or more of his case-studies, which makes the argument easy to follow if you can remember who Gopnik is, and what her distinctive insight is (about infants' "theory of mind"—and well worth remembering) but he does tend to treat his corpus of case-studies as definitive. He does pepper the book with disclaimers about the limitations of the studies, but in practice these are tokenistic. Ch. 13 is salutary on the problems of experimental design in this area, but his own approach does need monitoring for the likelihood of Type I errors, and would not be allowed to stand alone in sound academic circles.

But then they would come up with hedged, boring, qualified claims which no-one would be able to relate to or actually use.

21 July 2014

Items to Share: 20 July 2014

Education Focus
  • Stop this educational madness [spiked] (Kathryn Ecclestone) 'Beyond the trivial or cynical claims being made with regard to mental health, more people seem to find everyday life and education a constant source of distress. The idea that almost all people are psychologically and emotionally vulnerable is everywhere, and we need a wider debate about what impact this has had on how we teach and how we relate to people. We need to resist calls for more support and more intervention and start rethinking how education and other meaningful activities can lead to a world outside the self.'
  • Hard Evidence: at what age are children ready for school? [theconversation.com] 'When are children “ready” for school? There is much debate about when the transition between play-based pre-school and the start of “formal” schooling should begin. The trend in the UK primary school curriculum over recent decades has been towards an earlier start to formal instruction, and an erosion of learning through play. [] But the evidence from international comparisons and psychological research of young children’s development all points to the advantages of a later start to formal instruction, particularly in relation to literacy.'
  • Direct Instruction and the teaching of reading [theconversation.com] 'Direct Instruction is a teaching method developed in the United States in the 1960s, focused particularly on the needs of children with learning difficulties. Building on behaviourist learning theory, Direct Instruction breaks each learning task down into its smallest component and requires mastery of simpler skills before proceeding to more difficult skills. Students are grouped according to their achievement, teachers are provided with closely scripted lesson plans, students respond to the teacher orally and as a group, and the group does not move on until everyone understands the material.'
  • For lecturers, there is life beyond Death by PowerPoint  [Times Higher Education] 'By harnessing the power of images, academics can fully exploit students’ learning potential, says David Roberts.'  But my reason for selecting this is that it is totally unoriginal. People knew all this in the days of hand-written "overheads" (transparencies) and even using the black- green- white-board... And the Higher Education Academy are interested in his work? What does this say about the dissemination of the scholarship of teaching and learning, however banal?
Other Business

18 July 2014

On Hensher "The Missing Ink"

Hensher P (2012) The Missing Ink; how handwriting made us who we are London; Pan Books.

This is the review I posted to Amazon.co.uk. (one star) with some editing because Amazon readers would have some background information you wouldn't necessarily share:

OK. I didn't finish it. I threw it across the room at about p.135. (And reluctantly recovered it, to be fair for this review.)

This is such a wasted opportunity. There is so much to say about handwriting. There is a debate (principally in the States) about the necessity or otherwise of teaching what they call 'cursive' (joined-up) script. There is interesting (but early) neuroscience research about the difference between taking lecture notes by hand and by digital device.

Instead, we get a self-indulgent, self-admittedly sloppy (see jokey footnote on p.43), gratuitously padded (the useless "witness" testimonies between chapters), text clearly aimed at a limited coterie of the chattering classes (see the opening of ch.18 "When you are elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, as most English writers sooner or later are..." —which is egregious rubbish), which buries some interesting material under irritating ordure.

At the cost, indeed, of clarity. The examples of handwriting are not systematically chosen. There is no way to link the points made in the text to the illustrations (which are badly reproduced—although this book is not alone in this). I was particularly interested in the chapter on German orthography; I remember struggling with a book on „Deutschland und die Deutschen” for German O level in the late '50s. It was in black-letter typeface. (No, that's not the same as Gothic, at all--he does get that right.) But for all the discussion of the politics of orthography in Germany, where were the illustrations of actual handwriting? I have no clear idea of what Sütterlin or Fraktur actually look like.

At least Palmer's advice on writing with the whole arm (p.73-5) does provide some support for my own to teachers about how to write on boards!

14 July 2014

Items to Share; 13 July 2014

  • The Uses of Being Wrong - The Chronicle of Higher Education 'For all the intellectual benefits of being incorrect, however, how one is wrong matters. It is much less risky to predict doom and gloom than to predict that things will work out fine. Warnings about disasters that never happen carry less cost to one’s reputation than asserting that all is well just before a calamity. History has stigmatized optimistic prognosticators who, in retrospect, turned out to be wrong. From Norman Angell (who, in 1909, argued that war among European powers was unlikely) onward, errant optimists have been derided for their naïveté. If the global economy tanks or global economic governance collapses in the next few years, I’ll be wrong again—and in the worst way possible.'

12 July 2014

On Trivers "Deceit and Self-Deception"

Trivers R (2013) Deceit and Self-Deception; fooling yourself the better to fool others London; Penguin (p-back edition)

This is a quite extraordinary book. As Robert Trivers comments in the very last paragraph:
"One nice feature of the study of deceit and self-deception is that we will never run out of examples."
And indeed he finds them everywhere, from plants mimicking poisonous varieties, to male fish misrepresenting their sex to gain a reproductive advantage, to the competition within families between the maternal and the paternal genes inherited by offspring, to aviation and space accidents, to international relations and nationalistic myths, and of course religion.

Some of the material is clumsy and clunky and could have done with a brutal editor—principally in the more scientific passages where terms like "donor" and "recipient" are insufficiently precise for a naive reader to follow the argument (not sure he uses those terms, but you get the idea). There's an element here of going through the motions of establishing his unimpeachable biological credential, just so he can move on to the more interesting stuff...

And that stuff—particularly the historical material and the Chomskyan expose of the self-serving myths of US imperialism—is passionate and riveting, but I suspect highly contestable.

Trivers readily admits the limitations of current research in all the areas he covers, but he cites his sources only in end-notes. Generally I prefer this approach in "popular science" texts; author/date citation tends to ruin the flow for the reader, but it is not until you follow up the endnotes that you discover that a whole page of argument may be based on a single source, which may be highly contentious, and the surrounding dispute is not mentioned at all. Much of the discussion of conflict in the Middle East, for example, relies on the work of Robert Fisk—hugely respected, but equally hugely contested in the field, I gather. The intriguing idea that xenophobia and inter-group conflict and religiosity are higher in societies which carry a higher load of parasites and hence probably infections rely on four articles (albeit some in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B—but some of which are not fully referenced). The effect is dogmatic, but Trivers does include occasional exclusions where he acknowledges that he must paint with a broad brush because of the scope of the topic. Hence he starts chapter 12, on religion, with;
"A book could be written on this subject—no, a twelve-volume treatise..."
He is an avowed positivist and reductionist; the social "sciences" in his view forfeit any claim to credibility insofar as they drift away from biology. It's all in the genes, in the Dawkins mould, and he aligns his early thought with E O Wilson (of Sociobiology notoriety in the 70s).

He is also prepared to step into the picture himself, in anecdotes which rarely redound to his credit.

So he has a clear frame of reference, or lens, through which he views a vast swathe of biological to political activity, and as might be expected he finds deceit and self-deception wherever he looks—just as a critical theorist finds oppression and exploitation everywhere. The content and examples are fascinating and thought-provoking, but does the whole really work as anything other than another cynic's charter?


07 July 2014

Items to Share: 6 July 2014

Education Focus
  • What’s the harm in knowing your times-tables? | Webs of Substance 'Of course, you can get by without being able to quickly recall all of the times-tables. You can work them out if you have to. But this doesn’t represent a gain. It simply reduces the number of tools you have to think with and possibly wastes a bit of time whilst you have to work some of these things out. Given that such facts are stored largely subconsciously in the long term memory, they don’t get in the way of the process of conscious reasoning; they are merely called upon when required. Of course, if the facts are wrong then you do have a problem.' 
  • What the grammar gurus don’t get about how we learn [theconversation.com] '...what some grammar gurus forget is that the vast majority of language is not written, but spoken. Talk to a researcher who studies grammar in its natural habitat, and they will tell you that by just two years of age, children already have a deep understanding of grammar, far exceeding anything that our most powerful supercomputers can currently achieve.' 
  • BPS Research Digest: Exploding the 10,000 hours myth - it's no guarantee for greatness '"The bottom line," write Hambrick and his colleagues, "is that deliberate practice is necessary to account for why some people become experts in these domains and others fail to do so, but not even close to sufficient." What else matters? Another relevant factor, they say, is starting age. This correlates with amount of completed practice, but crucially, it remains a predictive factor even after subtracting the influence of practice.
Other Business
  • Future English: Johnson: Simpler and more foreign | The Economist'...whatever the long run might look like, the next few decades are set. No language has anything like a chance of displacing English. [] Interestingly, about two-thirds of English-speakers are not first-language speakers of English. To put it another way: English no longer belongs to England, to superpower America, or even to the English-speaking countries generally. Rather, English is the world’s language. What happens to a language when it becomes everybody’s? Shaped by the mouths of billions of non-native speakers, what will the English of the future look like?
  • The Role of a Critic [farnamstreetblog.com] '“In many ways, the work of a critic is very easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment.”'

06 July 2014

On Threshold Concepts in Vocational Higher Education

My session on TCs in vocational and professional higher education on 3 July at University Centre Grimsby is here. If you were there and want to comment, it is easier on this blog than on the static web-page itself.

01 July 2014

Items to Share: 29 June 2014

Education Focus
  • The beauty of annotating | Pragmatic Education 'Like dewdrops on a dragonfly, annotations are microscopic, fragile and beautiful. I’ve come to believe that they’re the most important secret for teaching literature; a hidden treasure trove, waiting to be discovered. '
  • The dip | Teaching In Higher Ed 'When I shared “the dip” that I had experienced in wrapping up each semester, [my colleague] shared that he, too, had that pattern throughout all of his years of teaching. He has been teaching more than 25 years and said that every class he taught had the frustrating time toward the end of it, when it seemed like the end just couldn’t get here fast enough.'  My own slightly different take is here.
  • I Hate Training Days | Sam Shepherd 'You probably have training days in some form or another, if you are a teacher, and you probably spend several days of your academic year student free and attending various workshops and presentations about one thing or another. Now, let’s be perfectly honest, in your life, how many of these have genuinely stuck with you? How many of the workshops have been so strikingly informative that you can measure their impact in your day to day practice?' 
Other Business
  • A spook’s guide to the psychology of deception « Mind Hacks '...a plausible psychological framework for practical deception and influence online. It draws on a mix of persuasion psychology from marketing, studies on scammers and con-men, the social psychology of trust and disclosure, studies of how stage magic works psychologically, and work on what makes organisations work effectively and what degrades their performance.'