27 October 2014

No Items to Share this week.

Sorry—been busy!

23 October 2014

On Howard Becker's latest...

...and possibly his last. We hope not, but he is 86.

Times Higher Education review here, including:
This book is a delight. Howard Becker is that rarity: an academic writer who brings you into his presence, makes you comfortable, then entertains and educates you from first to last page. He is a writer who effortlessly communicates his enthusiasm and general glee with a career going back to the sociology department of the University of Chicago in the early 1950s, and still enthrals himself and his devotees as he approaches his tenth decade.
He's been a hero of mine—and every other aspirant sociologist of the era—ever since the '70s, when he wrote his seminal Outsiders; studies in the sociology of deviance, including his famous paper generally known as "How to smoke pot" (not as deviant as it sounds—it's a discussion of the social elements contributing to how the drug experience is interpreted).

Mnay times I've used his email conversation with Shirah Hecht about teaching a research methods course as an exemplar of informal mentoring,

And his classic 1972 article on "A School is a Lousy Place to Learn Anything In" which antedates all the situated learning (Lave and Wenger) stuff but makes the arguments so much more clearly. [It's not easy to access online for copyright reasons, but many thanks to David Stone, who wrote in 2011; "I was happy to discover that my institutional subscription gave me access to the original Becker article. Just in case others should be as lucky, here is the DOI link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/000276427201600109 "] The formal reference is (1972) “A school is a lousy place to learn anything in” American Behavioral Scientist, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 85-105,  reprinted in R J Burgess (ed.) (1998) Howard Becker on Education Buckingham; Open University Press.
(I've reserved the only copy at Heffers in Cambridge, so there!)

20 October 2014

Items to Share: 19 October 2014

Education Focus
  • The Missing Link | Webs of Substance 'I think that we can all agree that Bloom’s taxonomy is a terrible way of viewing learning. This is not because it really isn’t based on anything. Although it really isn’t; it’s just something that a committee of worthy people made-up. It is not even because Bloom’s tries to generalise the movement from simple to complex across widely different subjects. Clearly, different subjects proceed from simple to complex in their own sweet ways and Bloom’s just encourages whole-staff training meetings where people talk in vague and general terms. However, this is still not the main problem. Talking in vague and general terms might be a waste of time but it is not actively harmful.'
  • Why Doctors Need Stories - NYTimes.com 'In the past 20 years, clinical vignettes have lost their standing. For a variety of reasons, including a heightened awareness of medical error and a focus on cost cutting, we have entered an era in which a narrow, demanding version of evidence-based medicine prevails. As a writer who likes to tell stories, I’ve been made painfully aware of the shift. The inclusion of a single anecdote in a research overview can lead to a reprimand, for reliance on storytelling.' So also for education?
  • Brain baloney has no place in the classroom | Pete Etchells | Science | theguardian.com 'Unfortunately, because they’ve been around for so long, neuromyths have taken hold in a broad range of aspects of everyday life. Nowhere is this more problematic than in the education system. A new article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience this week has cast a critical eye on the issue, and reveals some worrying statistics about the extent to which brain baloney have infiltrated the beliefs of teachers around the world.'
  • Instructional Design Based on Cognitive Theory | Faculty Focus '“Stop thinking as a subject matter expert and start thinking as a designer. Try to remember what it was like not to be an expert. I think that, at a certain point, if you know something so well, you almost assume everyone else does. [the 'curse of knowledge' (my insertion)] Sometimes you forget the struggles you had learning a particular concept. Oftentimes if you can step back from the subject matter expert role and think as an outside objective observer, a lot of these things take care of themselves,”
  • Some Surprising Findings About Learning in the Classroom | Mempowered 'The quality of the teacher doesn't affect how much students learn (that doesn't mean it doesn't affect other factors — e.g., interest and motivation). Low ability students learn just as much as high ability students when exposed to the same experiences. More able students learn more because they seek out other learning opportunities. Tests, more than measuring a student’s learning, reflect the student’s motivation.'
  • A Don’s Life: A Latin learning parable 'There is a bigger issue here about the whole basis of learning -- and the need to break the increasingly common assumption that you are only "learning" when you are "being taught", when actually you are learning best when your head hurts in the library (that's a fact that sits uneasily next to the idea that you should divide your £9k a year by the number of contact hours you are receiving....).
  • The surplus model of school improvement | David Didau: The Learning Spy 'Great school needs great systems. And a system which fails to value the contribution of every member of its workforce is a long way from great. The deficit model recognises that some teachers ‘get it’. They comply, they’re able to juggle impossible demands and somehow perform the Monkey Dance on cue. They are rewarded. And everyone one else is under threat. But not because they’re not working hard, but because they’re not meeting the expectations of ‘experts’.
  • The Surprising Problem of Too Much Talent - Scientific American  'For both basketball and soccer, [researchers] found that top talent did in fact predict team success, but only up to a point. Furthermore, there was not simply a point of diminishing returns with respect to top talent, there was in fact a cost. Basketball and soccer teams with the greatest proportion of elite athletes performed worse than those with more moderate proportions of top level players.
  • Why is Singapore's school system so successful, and is it a model for the West? [theconversation.com] 'What then do Singaporean teachers do in classrooms that is so special, bearing in mind that there are substantial differences in classroom practices between – as well as within – the top-performing countries? What are the particular strengths of Singapore’s instructional regime that helps it perform so well? What are its limits and constraints?' See also here.

17 October 2014

On Mind-Sets and GCSEs

Tom Bennett has an excellent commentary on last night's Educating the East End. 

You can also catch the programme (in the UK) at 4oD here.

I'm commenting because this episode is a case-study of two Year 11 (16-year-old, GCSE high-stakes exam candidates). Both of them have "issues" which are jeopardising their achievement in their exams, and their counterparts regularly turn up in FE, perhaps trying to recoup their failures at school. (As indeed did my son.)

One is Oscar, who is a "high-flier" of whom much is expected, but who is not delivering the work; he is making excuses and procrastinating, in the most articulate and charming way imaginable. I wanted to strangle him and bang his head against the wall...

The other is Paris. He features in this clip, in which he recognises clearly that his (mildly) disruptive behaviour in class is a defence mechanism—he is afraid that he will fail. Indeed he expects to, and he is is determined to embrace it. If his fate is to be "failure", he will make it happen and hence retain some illusion of being in control.

Obviously we have only a highly selectively edited version of the story, but in the end they—thanks largely to the tough love of their teachers—come through.

But there is a theme underlying these cases, broadly fitting with Dweck's theory of  "mind-set". Reading between the lines, Oscar does seem to have acquired a "fixed" mind-set about his abilities, which bequeathes a degree of insouciant confidence (even arrogance), until he encounters a challenge he can't easily rise to, or the possibility of failure. If you believe your abilities are innate and fixed but you do not achieve at the level they predict, then you need to seek an external reason for that—even if it involves playing a self-defeating game such as procrastination.

Paris is the mirror-image, possibly with a hint of learned helplessness?

14 October 2014

On time travel and not getting it.

No, not that! Even if this does go back to the '60s.

We are moving (Update. Were. It's fallen through.) After twenty years in this house, we have accumulated a great deal of baggage— psychological, social, possibly cultural, and certainly physical. Packing is a big deal, and what to take and what to dump presents difficult decisions, particularly because we are "down-sizing" in some respects. The battle of the books has been won, I think, although I shall do some judicious culling. But then there remains the question of the "papers" (as they would be termed were I a person of any significance). No US university has so far bid for them (although the opportunity is open until the next recyclable rubbish collection a week on Tuesday). The shredder has been working overtime already. But I'm not going for a scorched-earth policy; I'm sampling my past.

In particular, my undergraduate days (1963-66, U. of Sussex). I retained much more that I'd thought; handouts, lecture notes, and essays, together with my forays into undergraduate journalism and documentation of my ecumenical activism. And it has been fascinating for me to read—but probably not for anyone else.
  • I was by no means as good, academically, as I thought I was. Granted, a "B" was an acceptable mark in those days, but finding a "C-" mark on one of my finals papers made me wonder however I managed to get a 2(i). (Hitherto I believed I missed a 1st only because I answered only three instead of the required four questions on the very last exam. But the evidence of the paper itself shows that I did tick four questions, I have to admit. Interesting how we can kid ourselves—a theme much explored by psychologists and others in recent years—especially here.)
  • I managed to spend at least two years missing the point of literary criticism—"It would not have gone amiss to pay some attention to other aspects of the novel than the plot." "The intentions and the perspectives of the author and the narrator are not always the same thing." "You treat [this early 19th-century French text] as if it were contemporary—where is the recognition of the culture of the readers?" "You speak of 'we' as if all readers and audiences approach the play in the same way..." Even the essay* I have celebrated for 49 years as my only straight "A" was far from the masterpiece I thought; "An interesting and ingenious argument indeed, but (Henry) James is not a pamphleteer... Are there no contrasting undercurrents?"
  • (A couple of days later) Yes, I really did (and still do) miss the point of literary criticism. (I had no such trouble with history and philosophy.)  I remember reading (and even buying) volumes of lit. crit. and ploughing through them, wondering what was the point? Fellow-students read out their essays in tutorial, replete with sage quotations from the critics. I could never do that. It just didn't make sense to me. It still doesn't (with a qualified exception for Wayne C Booth—reference below). I went back to the primary source and relied on my personal judgement, having no time for the scholarship of centuries.
The bit which may be of some interest to other readers, however, arises from this reflection. For all I bang on about threshold concepts nowadays, I clearly never got many of them when I was an undergraduate, and haven't even now. I lack a literary sensibility. I don't even know what it means to "think like" a literary scholar or critic.

And yet, I had no such problem with philosophy and history. For philosophy the key TC is "This is the way things are. Come on and argue. If you're hard enough."

For history: "Once/if we agree on what happened, it's about how it connects and counts and means and matters."

The morning I finished finals (they were a big deal in those days: ten exams in 13 days covering all the courses taken in the preceding five terms—and the whole degree resting on those results alone—or at least that was what they told us..), my bags were packed and I headed for the station. I looked at the bookstall, and my sense of relief was palpable; I did not have to read any of this stuff. I bought a thriller which I can't remember, and Isaac Asimov's first book in the Foundation trilogy (it later expanded). I remember reading it on the train and being somewhat sniffy about the style... but I read little fiction beyond science fiction (some of it very sophisticated) for almost two decades.

I now recognise those formative comments on my essays as nudges toward the mindset of the literary scholar, but they didn't work. I still haven't passed that threshold.

I happen to be reading, on a friend's recommendation, Harry Eyres' memoir Horace and Me. (Classics seem to be big this year. I've enjoyed Mary Beard's revisionist Confronting the Classics, and Daniel Klein's Travels with Epicurus is riding well up the charts; Klein wears his scholarship very lightly, as they say. It is there, to be sure, but the images of slowly savouring** the day, of sun and wine and olive groves... do somewhat swamp it!)

Horace and Me is quite an enjoyable read, (although I am struggling to finish the final 50 pages, and it's not that long) but... Eyres is a poet***. He uses Horace's (65-8 BCE) poetry as a commentary on his own life, and some of the meditations—on the pre-eminence of friendship, for example—are useful lenses/mirrors for reflection. But. Why should I be interested? It's not that it is merely self-indulgent, it's just that—for better or worse—I have failed to acquire the perspective he wants to share.

Thinking back, my tutors were right. I read literature searching for the moral of the story. Occasionally I got beyond that, to see a particular piece as an "example of" a particular style or philosophical stance, and got intrigued as to how that viewpoint was communicated—and deeply admiring of the craft of writing. But felicity of literary expression and rhetoric vary independently of the truth and value of content, and I was naively looking for the latter.

And literature has no necessary foundations. It's turtles all the way down. It was not until I discovered empirical social science that I felt there was somewhere to stand... I was disabused of that silly idea years later, of course.

So clearly I have missed some threshold concepts. OK. Without them—and of course I don't know what they are, or else I would perhaps have got them—I am excluded  from the ranks of people of literary sensibility.

But I de facto joined a different, less respected, club, of those who supposedly aspired to be social "scientists". (Proper scientists rightly won't let us join theirs, of course.) That's the ontological impact of TCs.

* 'Was Henry James a philistine? Discuss with respect to "The Portrait of a Lady" and "The Spoils of Poynton".' My argument somehow aligned these questions with Kierkegaard's "spheres"—aesthetic, ethical and religious... (The rhetoric of the question, I think I argued, privileged [pardon the modern shorthand] the ethical over the aesthetic...) Remember this preceded all the structuralist and po-mo b***s**t by about 20 years. The most radical framework of the day in this respect was Wayne C Booth's "Rhetoric of Fiction". I read it at least twice and enjoyed its insights—but totally missed the point that it was about a method and a perspective rather than simple information/ideas about the novels it analysed.

** Eyres suggests that carpe diem should be read as taste the day rather than sieze the day. I think savour (probably savor across the pond) is better although perhaps less faithful. If such matters interest you, I can heartily recommend David Bellos Is that a Fish in your Ear? (2011), on the challenges of translation..

*** He is a published poet, so he has some credibility. Anyone can claim to be a poet!


Booth, W C (1961) The Rhetoric of Fiction Chicago, Ill. University of Chicago Press (later ed., 1983)

13 October 2014

Items to Share: 12 October 2014

Education Focus
  • Is it teachable? | Webs of Substance 'When someone presents an objective that seems just a bit too fuzzy then it is worth asking whether it is actually teachable. It could save us from a lot of messing about.'
  • Why I Don’t Like Rubrics | Vitae [Chronicle of HE] 'In my experience, rubrics generally fail in practice because they're not good rhetorical tools. Most rubrics do not speak a language that students understand. Too often, in trying to isolate the skills we want students to master, we fall back on vague and abstract language that means little to them. I don't know about your students, but telling mine that they should "employ language to control the ideas" or "reflect the generativity of the topic" doesn't really help them understand why they can't seem to do better than a C+. Yes, you can work to use more effective language on your rubric, but the problem remains that, abstracted from actual assignments, rubrics often fail to show students what is expected of them in real terms.'
  • Coming Out About Learning Outcomes | Sam Shepherd 'Sometimes a lesson isn’t about the product, but the process – and by their very nature, learning outcomes detract from this. There should still be opportunity for reflection and discussion of what learning happens in a lesson, mind you, it’s just that it shouldn’t be seen as requirement at the beginning of the lesson: why not develop the learning outcomes as the lesson progresses, rather than rely on their conscious application at the beginning?
  • 7 Mistakes to Avoid When Writing Multiple-Choice Questions | Faculty Focus 'In this article, we will examine seven common flaws in the construction of multiple-choice questions that students can exploit to help them select the correct answer based on their testwiseness rather than content knowledge. By recognizing these common flaws, you can learn to write better questions for your tests and quizzes.' 
  • On Yoga and Teaching Writing - Advice - The Chronicle of Higher Education '[The yoga teacher's] pedagogical choices [...] reflected her larger intention of inviting students to become active participants in their own journey toward understanding yoga. I wonder what would happen if we in higher education adopted a similar mind-set. Consider the corollary: If our larger intention was actually to invite students to become lifelong writers rather than college students passing a course, how might that shift the ways in which we read and respond to their writing?
Other Business
  • The Dog Mom’s Brain – Phenomena: Only Human 'On an intellectual level I understand that having a dog is not the same as having a human child. Still, what I feel for him has got to be something like maternal attachment. And a new brain-imaging study backs me up on this.'
  • A little knowledge : Nature News & Comment 'The trend in science is towards greater openness and data sharing. Communication is instant and in real time; knowledge has never been more fluid. Science traditionally argues that this is a good thing. There is no inherently good or bad technology, goes the mantra, only good and bad applications. Is the same true for all forms of knowledge? One way or another, we could be poised to find out. 

06 October 2014

Items to Share: 5 October 2014

A sparse week!

Education Focus
  • Group Work | Webs of Substance 'The value of group work has been exaggerated and the resulting ubiquity of poor-quality group work should be a serious cause for concern.'
  • Awkward Silences, Embarrassing Moments | Sam Shepherd '...it occurred to me that in all my teaching career I have never, not once, taught learners how to avoid communication. [...] We’ve all been there – those awkward moments when you’ve asked the wrong question to the wrong person and at best there is silence and discomfort, and at worst anger and tears. They happen a lot, sadly.'
Other Business