15 December 2015

On break

Apologies for irregularity and non-appearance over the past few weeks due to circumstances beyond my control. I hope to resume properly in the New Year.

In the meantime—very best wishes for Christmas and the New Year!

30 November 2015

Items to Share: 29 November 2015

Other Business

23 November 2015

Items to Share: 22 November 2015

Education Focus
  • The Illusion of Knowing | David Didau: The Learning Spy 'Advanced Learning has commissioned me to write a piece about the uses and abuses of data in schools. My thesis, if that’s not too grand a term, is that while data can be extraordinarily useful in helping us make good decisions, too much data leads, inexorably, to overload. When we have too much data we start doing silly things with it, just because we have it. The cost of bad data is the conviction that we have figured out all the possible permutations and know exactly what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. This is an illusion.'
  • Are We Clear? Tips for Crafting Better Explanations 'How many explanations do you think you offer during a full week of teaching? Explanations are one of teaching’s most central activities and yet something we rarely think about, in general, or how we do them, specifically.'
  • The importance of knowing what doesn’t work | The NFER blog  'We are a long way from academic journals, let alone the press, giving equal weight to null or negative findings as compared to those that demonstrate a positive effect. Null or negative findings are, of course, just as important as positive ones. A school spending its valuable Pupil Premium resources on an intervention that is demonstrated to be ineffective can quickly change tack to something that has greater weight of evidence behind it. Was there robust evidence for or against the other book club programmes the DfE was considering when awarding its funding? Probably not.'
  • Letting in the Monster | Sam Shepherd 'There was a silence in the class. They’re a friendly but not naturally chatty group, but this time things felt distinctly like there was a great thing hanging unsaid in the classroom: not so much an elephant in the room as a glowering shadowy monster hulking in the corner. It was practically tangible. So where do you go with that? I thought. I bumbled and fluffed for a bit, realised that the thing was still there, and said, quite simply and openly to the class: “OK, let’s talk about it. Talk to the people near you about how you feel about the events in Paris.”
 Other Business
  • Nobel Prize for physics awarded to man who successfully connected to free wi-fi [newsthump.com] 'The Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded to a man who successfully connected to the free wi-fi in his local Wetherspoons. The achievement was widely regarded as a functional impossibility by the scientific community, but peer-review of his actions has concluded that he did indeed connect for long enough to check the final scores and his lottery numbers whilst having a pint of Speckled Hen.'
  • Robinson v Furlong: a case study in witch-hunting | spiked  'Many historic-abuse cases kick off with a journalistic exposé, followed by national appeals from campaigners and state agencies for more ‘victims’ to come forward. We have become inured to the pre-identification of an alleged perpetrator, the nature of the behaviour being investigated and the timeframe and place in which it (allegedly) occurred, followed by a proliferation of complaints, which are taken to be mutually reinforcing. This cautionary tale from Canada on how not to witch-hunt should be required reading for UK journalists, media organisations, judges and law-enforcement agencies.'And it is also interesting on aspects of good and bad practice in journalism—parallel to practices in social research—which most of us are unaware of.
  • The Space Doctor’s Big Idea - The New Yorker 'There once was a doctor with cool white hair. He was well known because he came up with some important ideas. He didn’t grow the cool hair until after he was done figuring that stuff out, but by the time everyone realized how good his ideas were, he had grown the hair, so that’s how everyone pictures him. He was so good at coming up with ideas that we use his name to mean “someone who’s good at thinking.” Two of his biggest ideas were about how space and time work. This thing you’re reading right now explains those ideas using only the ten hundred words people use the most often.' From the amazing Randall Monroe (alias xkcd): more at Randall Munroe Draws His Own Conclusions | TIME

17 November 2015

Items to Share: 15 November 2015

Education Focus
  • Can Online Learning Ever Beat the Real Thing? | Big Think 'To most, the question of whether online learning can beat the real thing probably sounds rhetorical: Of course — one assumes, a real teacher in a real classroom must always be better than learning through a screen. The case against online learning has been made in a series of strongly worded critiques of “massive open online courses” (MOOCs), however in a recent article in Nautilus, Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University, has made a strong case to the contrary. Oakley describes a variety of “terrific pedagogical advantages” that can be applied in online learning
  • BPS Research Digest: Older people appear to be especially good at remembering things that interest them  'Our memory abilities begin to diminish in some respects as early as our twenties. But the picture isn't entirely bleak. A new study published in Psychology and Aging explores the possibility that an older person's curiosity or interest in a subject can reinforce their powers of memory. Following this view, old age is associated with forgetting more of what you don't care about, but the ability to remember what matters to you is preserved or even enhanced.
  • 3 Rules of Academic Blogging - The Chronicle of Higher Education 'Blogging — self-published, regular, semiformal, potentially public writing — fits academic life beautifully. Just pick your platform carefully, use the experience as a way to write new things, and, most of all, write for the sake of writing. And then just maybe, readers will follow.' 
Other Business
  • In praise of dignity and justice | David Didau: The Learning Spy  'Now, Campbell and Manning suggest, we are entering a new era of morality: the culture of dignity is being subsumed by a new culture of victimhood. In this new culture, it is no longer assumed that everyone possesses dignity and worth. Instead, it is assumed that insults and slights are an attack on our honour and must be redressed. In contrast to the culture of honour, victims are not expected to seek this redress alone but to appeal to more powerful others for support. According to Campbell and Manning, this involves “building a case for action by documenting, exaggerating, or even falsifying offences”.'  See also this (I hope rather over-egged) report: The Halloween Costume Controversy at Yale's Silliman College - The Atlantic 'A fight over Halloween costumes at Yale has devolved into an effort to censor dissenting views.'
  • Reproducibility Crisis: The Plot Thickens - Neuroskeptic 'There have been many published studies of romantic priming (43 experiments across 15 papers, according to Shanks et al.) and the vast majority have found statistically significant effects. The effect would appear to be reproducible! But in the new paper, Shanks et al. report that they tried to replicate these effects in eight experiments, with a total of over 1600 participants, and they came up with nothing. Romantic priming had no effect. [   ] So what happened? Why do the replication results differ so much from the results of the original studies?
  • How Failing Better Could Advance Science [nautil.us] 'It is this unordinary meaning of failure that I suggest scientists should embrace. One must try to fail because it is the only strategy to avoid repeating the obvious. Failing better means looking beyond the obvious, beyond what you know and beyond what you know how to do. Failing better happens when we ask questions, when we doubt results, when we allow ourselves to be immersed in uncertainty.

09 November 2015

Items to Share: 8 November 2015

Education Focus
  • Learning Technology – what next? | FurtherEdagogy 'I want to set my stall out before you read on. I’m a huge advocate of learning technology and believe that it will play an important role in education going forward. I’ve written articles that have advocated the need to use technology, its importance and how to maximise its use here and here. However, just recently, I have started to question my thinking. [   ] I know I wasn’t alone in embracing and running with new technology in the ‘early years’ and I hope that I’m not alone in realising that there is a place for it and that place is when it serves a purpose – filling a gap. Aside from the fact that the technology I was using may not have had the impact I first thought, it seems less and less innovative software/apps are appearing – just more of the same stuff. I haven’t seen anything of late which has solved a problem.'
  • Wrong lever! | teaching personally 'At the root of this [emphasis on continous improvement through micro-management] is an inability to accept that there are some very important things over which we have very little control. And key amongst those, particularly with the older students, is their wider culture and attitudes. It may be necessary for schools to claim they have total control over student outcomes, but I am afraid it just isn’t so. Even Hattie accepts that. I am not going to suggest there is nothing we can do to tackle complacency and over-confidence in students, but I think it is foolish to expect to bring about a rapid, profound change – or that coercion will achieve it.'
  • Why is teacher assessment biased? | The Wing to Heaven 'Teacher assessment discriminates against poorer pupils and minorities, and generates significant workload for teachers. Tests are fairer and less burdensome. They deserve a better reputation than they have, and a greater role in our assessment system.'
Other Business
  • 100 years of the unconscious - Philosophy and Life 'This month marks the centenary of Sigmund Freud's seminal 1915 paper on the unconscious. In this episode of Science Set Free, Rupert Sheldrake and myself [Mark Vernon] discuss Freud's understanding of this dynamic, hidden part of the human psyche. We look at the different ideas of Carl Jung, and also ask how the unconscious links to perceptions of the soul and morphic fields.'  

05 November 2015

On scalability

 Apologies: I wrote this a while ago, but somehow never posted it.

Not many people will probably have heard BBC Radio 4's File on 4 programme on 17 or 22 March, but it deserves a wide audience—and is still available as a download. It was called “Sick of School?” and was about teacher stress—as the web-page describes it:
Is the pressure on teachers reaching crisis point?
Record numbers are leaving the classroom and thousands of teachers recently responded to the Government's workload survey to say they were struggling with their workload. They blamed the pressure of Ofsted inspections and pressure from school management.
Official absence statistics are silent on the causes of sick leave - but now File on 4 reveals new figures on the number of teachers off long-term because of stress.
Jane Deith hears from those who say they were pushed to the brink by the pressure - some suicidal and others hospitalized or diagnosed with depression.
Teaching has always involved long hours and heavy workloads but, with schools' performance open to unprecedented scrutiny, some education academics argue that the 'surveillance culture' is now seriously harming teacher's health and their ability to provide high quality education.
Are they right? How alarmed should we be about the mental well-being of our children's teachers?
For anyone professionally involved in education, the picture will be recognisable, but the tales told by teachers who have left the profession (usually anonymously and “voiced by an actor”, because of the draconian terms of the “compromise agreements” under which they leave), are harrowing. There are more readily available in the educational blogosphere—the Echo Chamber meta-blog is a good place to start. Here is a specimen post today.

The issues seem to be particularly extreme in schools, but they are shared in FE and indeed in HE (consider Marina Warner's recent piece on why she resigned from Essex). I belong to an occasional walking group of former colleagues and friends, most of whom have exited from academic life via a compromise agreement—we refer to ourselves as the “escape committee”.

The proximate causes of this exodus vary. The programme made much of the pressure of Ofsted inspection regimes, only partly because being inspected is inherently stressful, but also because the stakes are so high, at the systemic level. School gradings affect everything; from funding to recruitment and retention of teachers, and to head-teachers’ jobs. One voice on the programme compared their position to that of football managers—one poor result and you are out.

And the practice associated with dealing with staff who succumb to stress, as recounted in the programme—although obviously the stories are selected for effect—is presented as gratuitously brutal and humiliating.

What is going on? What has happened to collegiality? To pastoral care? To mutual support? To trust?

Stefan Collini suggests in What are Universities For? (2012) that there has been a cultural shift in these institutions. As I summarised one of his arguments in a post a few years ago:
'[He] contends that the managerialist rhetoric of current neo-liberal politics in which everything has to be accountable and costed, has forced those who would run universities (and indeed other educational institutions) to embrace spurious metrics as distorted proxies for fuzzy contestable aims such as "education" and "scholarship" which are no longer accepted as goods in themselves. In particular he refers to fatuous notions of "continuous improvement" "beyond excellence"--that can only work if the standards do not change.'
That's not enough. There are still plenty of well-intentioned and pleasant people who work in these institutions. Some of them even manage to conduct themselves in accordance with those old-fashioned values, but I fear that they are under ever-greater pressure...

It strikes me that part of the problem is that those abandoned values are just not scalable.

Large modern people-processing institutions are characterised by anonymity, by pressure to get things done, by standardisation of “product”, by fragmented roles and instrumental rather than personal engagement (at least in the formal structures) and so on. The values of collegiality, mutuality, and trust need time to develop and emerge, and time is at a premium.

Mutual respect and support cannot be legislated into existence; they require people to accommodate to each other and make allowances—and that of course means tolerating inconsistency.

And schools and colleges are complex structures characterised also by the emotional charge which attaches to their members, and their tasks. Success and failure, inclusion and exclusion, safety and risk, create emotional dynamics which have to be managed. That is of course usually achieved by denying them and attempting to impose control at a surface level.

There used to be a sub-genre of educational writing which attempted to take these issues seriously associated for me with the work of  Elizabeth Richardson and Isobel Menzies-Lyth in the 'sixties (within the Tavistock/Kleinian/psychoanalytic tradition), David Hargreaves (social psychological tradition) and Isca Salzberger-Wittenburg (psychoanalysis again) in the 'seventies. Unless I've taken my eye off the ball too much, it then went fallow, to resurface (pardon the mixed metaphors!) in the work of Andy Hargreaves (from America) in the '90s and to date.

Re- reading them today, their discourse is barely recognisable. It has to be admitted that the “research” component tends towards the anecdotal and subjective, and would be criticised harshly today*; but the richness and the depth is remarkable.

They come from a less instrumental and more humane era (albeit one castigated from the present for sloppy approaches to education, with the beginning of its end marked by Jim Callaghan's famous/notorious “Ruskin Speech” of October 1976.) and the subordination of all educational values to economic imperatives.


Becker H S (2014) What about Mozart? What about Murder? Reasoning from cases London; University of Chicago Press
Hargreaves A (2002) “Teaching and Betrayal [1]” Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, Vol. 8, No. 3/4 (Accessed 31 March 2015) Note; this paper is cited as just an example of Hargreaves' oeuvre and because of its accessibility.
Hargreaves D (1972) Interpersonal Relations and Education London; Routledge and Kegan Paul
Menzies-Lyth I (1988) Containing Anxiety in Institutions: Selected Essays, volume 1 London; Free Association Books
Richardson E (1967) The Environment of Learning London; Nelson
Salzberger-Wittenberg I, Williams G and Osborne W (1975) The Emotional Experience of Learning and Teaching London; Routledge Education (1993 edn. published by Karnac Books)
Webb P T (2005) “The anatomy of accountability” Journal of Education Policy Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 189–208 (accessed online 9 April 2015

* On the other hand, I'm also reading Howard Becker's latest. (Yes, that Howard Becker.) It is on “reasoning from cases”, and seems set to rehabilitate some aspects of the methodology of those 40-year-old studies.

02 November 2015

Items to Share: 1 November 2015

A fallow week this week!

Education Focus
  • Concept maps are rubbish | Filling the pail The title rather over-states the case, I think, because concept maps have broader applicability than for revision, as discussed in the post, but even so this is an interesting and research-informed critique. 

26 October 2015

Items to Share: 25 October 2015

  • Education’s Panacea Fever | @LeeDonaghy | Labour Teachers 'The way forward is actually something approximating another mania that briefly flared in the wake of London 2012 and Team GB’s success in the cycling events: marginal gains. Not the commoditised, hashtagged bandwagon it became on Twitter, but the acceptance that we need to continually seek to refine every aspect of our practice, and that improvement comes from the interplay of many different changes we make to what we do in the classroom.'
Other Business

19 October 2015

On being well out of it

Apologies for delayed posting.

As the new academic year starts, I am at last in the position of having no formal academic obligations. No teaching. No funded projects ("research" as such was never a major feature of my role—thank goodness). No external examining.

So I am now a recovering academic.

Academic life has always (at least, in the UK, in the later 20th century onwards.... [Ouch! It's struck again! I just can't bring myself to make the unqualified generalisations which everyone else bandies {sp.? I've never written that word before...} about)] claimed to be the last bastion of free speech and the disinterested (no—that is not the same as "uninterested"—although I generally go along with Oliver Kamm and Jean Aitchison et al.  in maintaining that language is as language does...) pursuit of truth.

Academe has long fallen short of those high ideals. They were probably always a fantasy, or at best an aspiration. And since the advent of "political correctness" and more recently "trigger warnings" and "micro-aggressions" (at present a N. American issue—but a diluted version will probably pop up here soon) speech is more constrained in academe than in any other sector of society. [Note: this paragraph contains no references...]

It isn't just a matter of free speech. The following egregious corporate-speak appeared in a job advertisement on behalf of the Times Higher Education's "University of the Year" a few weeks ago. The job is "Head of Directorate Office" which sounds grand until you see the salary, "up to £36,309". It's not clear what the post entails, but apparently:
'Supporting the senior team with high quality policy intelligence through research and data analysis, you will generate reports and briefings on strategic issues and manage a range of exciting projects.
[...] Emotionally intelligent, positive and solution-focused, you will have excellent interpersonal, communication and influencing skills. You will also be well-organised with a flexible, enthusiastic attitude, and a positive [...] customer-focused approach.
That is the kind of vacuous HR rhetoric you expect of an advert for a sales position in a second-rate competitor to Sunshine Desserts, rather than an academic institution. (OK, it's not an academic post, but even so you would expect the university to aim for a discourse in keeping with its academic aspirations.)

Sometimes even Laurie Taylor is understated...

Items to Share: 18 October 2015

Education Focus
Other Business

  • Carol Dweck Revisits the 'Growth Mindset' - Education Week '[A]s we’ve watched the growth mindset become more popular, we’ve become much wiser about how to implement it. This learning—the common pitfalls, the misunderstandings, and what to do about them—is what I’d like to share with you, so that we can maximize the benefits for our students. [ ] A growth mindset isn’t just about effort. Perhaps the most common misconception is simply equating the growth mindset with effort. Certainly, effort is key for students’ achievement, but it’s not the only thing. Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. They need this repertoire of approaches—not just sheer effort—to learn and improve.'

15 October 2015

Off topic: an accolade for Windows 10

My 5+ year old "netbook" (remember them?) ran bargain-basement Windows 7. So much so that I couldn't change the wallpaper. But then there came the chance of a free up-grade to Windows 10. It worked on my main laptop, already running 8.1...

But the netbook was hosting my favourite—very basic—graphics package. Snapgraphics. I got it free on a cover disc on a magazine, and it produced most of the graphics on my original website. It's a Windows 3.1 package (aka "app").

Having had problems with everything since Windows 95, and occasional random successes, it was clear that Windows 10 would be the final kiss of death for this "legacy" software. But I already had Windows 10 on another machine, and was actually very pleased with it; easy migration, improved startup time, more intuitive operation. So I bit the bullet and installed it.

There were a couple of failures in the installation. I had set the download to run, and left it to do its thing—it is 2160 mb after all. I returned to get the failure notice, but that was probably because I had not clicked acceptance of the T&Cs within the required time limit. Once W10 was installed, I clicked on the Snapgraphics shortcut (my desktop was perfectly preserved). As expected, I got an error message, to the effect that this program required the (something like) NTVDM module. But then that changed to a notification of automatic download of that module, and the initiation proceeded seamlessly.

Credit where credit is due; Windows 10 is a great technical achievement, and more user-friendly than earlier versions to boot (so to speak). And free!

12 October 2015

Items to Share: 11 October 2015

Education Focus
  • Banging Your Head Against Bad CPD | FurtherEdagogy Continuing Professional Development 'is [...] a raw, organic process and is unique to the individuals that undertake it, yet FE managers often make the mistake of trying to keep too much control. Controlling CPD to ensure that data can be captured (i.e. numbers attending, evaluation forms, observation grades, etc) negates the impact. This article aims to highlight where FE managers might be getting CPD wrong and how they may reconsider future CPD opportunities for teachers?
  • Reflections on Teach Like a Champion, 2.0 | A few thoughts on education 'I love Lemov’s obsession with the micro-techniques (‘instructional brush strokes’) of teaching. Teaching is a complex process, and with so many variables to consider it’s easy to resort to intuition to explain good teaching. A great teacher looks like a ‘natural’ – she is simply ‘being herself’ in the classroom. Similarly, it’s easy to resort to generic advice – “high expectations!” “Don’t smile til Christmas!” “More pace!” “Engagement!”. Lemov blows these platitudes apart by focusing not on the manifestations of effective teaching but on the systems, routines and procedures that underpin it.'  And Teach Like a Champion is Going Out of Print! (Sort of) - Teach Like a Champion There's a 2nd edition coming out.
Other Business
  • Steven Pinker: 'Many of the alleged rules of writing are actually superstitions' | Books | The Guardian 'The real problem is that writing, unlike speaking, is an unnatural act. In the absence of a conversational partner who shares the writer’s background and who can furrow her brows or break in and ask for clarification when he stops making sense, good writing depends an ability to imagine a generic reader and empathise about what she already knows and how she interprets the flow of words in real time. Writing, above all, is a topic in cognitive psychology. '

05 October 2015

Items to Share: 4 October 2015

Education Focus
  • Taking the Tech Out of Technology [facultyfocus.com] 'Somewhere along the line, our excitement over the latest technological tools has started focusing on the wrong thing. The excitement ought to reside in the praxis of teaching, not the use of technology.' 

28 September 2015

Items to Share; 27 September 2015

Sorry! An outlier. Nothing to report this week. Directly.

22 September 2015

Items to Share: 20 September 2015

Education Focus
  • Why sacrificing chickens will not help us evaluate teachers’ performance | David Didau: The Learning Spy 'Intellectually, philosophically, morally, the argument over whether teachers’ performance should be evaluated by grading their teaching by means of a lesson observation has been won. Ofsted have accepted the crushing weight of evidence that, despite what some people may choose to believe, there is no validity or reliability to such a grade. Unsurprisingly, there are many benighted souls who choose willful ignorance over enlightenment and insist on continuing a practice which has less accuracy than a coin toss.'

  • There Is No Theory of Everything - Simon Critchley in The New York Times 'Over the years, I have had the good fortune to teach a lot of graduate students, mostly in philosophy, and have noticed a recurring fact. Behind every new graduate student stands an undergraduate teacher. This is someone who opened the student’s eyes and ears to the possibility of the life of the mind that they had perhaps imagined but scarcely believed was within their reach. Someone who, through the force of their example, animated a desire to read more, study more and know more. Someone in whom the student heard something fascinating or funny or just downright strange. Someone who heard something significant in what the student said in a way that gave them confidence and self-belief. Such teachers are the often unknown and usually unacknowledged (and underpaid) heroes of the world of higher education....'
Other Business
  • Six easy ways to tell if that viral story is a hoax [theconversation.com] 'ordinary people are [...] starting to take a more sophisticated approach to the content they view online. It’s no longer enough to read the news – now, we want to understand the processes behind it. Fortunately, there are a few relatively effective verification techniques, which do not require specialist knowledge or costly software. Outlined below are six free, simple tools that any curious news reader can use to verify digital media.'
  • Rachel Laudan on the History of Food and Cuisine | EconTalk | Library of Economics and Liberty 'Rachel Laudan, visiting scholar at the University of Texas and author of Cuisine and Empire, [...] about the history of food. Topics covered include the importance of grain, the spread of various styles of cooking, why French cooking has elite status, and the reach of McDonald's. The conversation concludes with a discussion of the appeal of local food and other recent food passions.' Podcast and (occasionally poor) transcription.

16 September 2015

On Starting Again (and the 1k post)

It's the start of a new academic year, and for the first time in 48 years, I won't be there. I'm mopping up some assessment/progression business from last year, but I shan't be involved in starting a new cohort, or welcoming returning students.

For all but the first five years of my teaching career, I have been involved with programmes for professionals (or semi-professionals), and these are slightly different as courses from simply academic courses. There are obvious differences such as the year being interrupted by practical placements, and other aspects of concurrent engagement with the realities of practice, such as the role of professional mentors or supervisors, but there are also others.

For the students the course experience tends to be more coherent than for simply academic students. The student cohort passes through the process more or less together, and certainly in their first years will take most of their modules together—any options tend not to appear until relatively late in the course, and may well be tied in to placement settings.

For the staff, too, the course experience is different. Although there are large courses where the specialised input is drawn (often reluctantly) from members of academic departments—social work law is taught by the Law School, the psychology of learning (for teachers) by the Department of Psychology—in smaller courses everything may be taught by members of the course team. Sometimes the academic quality suffers because staff are appointed for their professional record and expertise rather than their academic excellence, but on the other hand the team may knit together and overcome notorious academic rivalries to complement each other and build on shared strengths. In two out of the three settings I worked in, that certainly happened. I leave it to any former colleagues who may be reading this to decide which that judgement applies to.

And the academic yearly cycle may be different. Other students have a freshers' week, which is primarily social (although it varies), and may be offered short piecemeal inductions to study skills, health and safety in the lab, or briefing on the Virtual Learning Environment. But then things just start.

Many professional courses start earlier than academic ones, offering one or two precious weeks for induction and orientation before the start of the "course proper", or routine timetable. This time is invaluable; investment in planning it and commitment to do it well pays—in my experience—enormous dividends later.
  • OK—I haven't done a controlled experiment, but I have played around with ways of approaching the induction for about twenty cycles, many of which were formally evaluated. The clearest message across the board was that "you can't please all of the people all of the time", but that however tackled, taking it seriously was generally viewed positively. "Boot camp" or gentle and supportive introduction—it didn't matter than much. But failure to use the time well or to deliver on promises was the kiss of death.
It's a cliche to regard time at "uni" as a "rite of passage", although I suspect many of those who invoke the phrase have never heard of van Gennep or Victor Turner or know anything much about how it works. It's merely tantamount to saying that this first experience away from home (for many but not all students) is a hinge point in the life-course. There is more substance to it than that, for many students. But for students on professional courses it is a more specific initiation. Academic students are faced with a haphazard existential predicament—"Who do I want to be, and what am I becoming?" Students on professional courses have a more focused basis; "What am I required to be (and do I really want to go there?)" And institutions, course teams, and accrediting bodies will make these requirements explicit (nowadays).
  • The first course I contributed to was a 1-year (42-week) intensive full-time qualifying course in residential child care (working in children's homes, etc.) In the early '70s it had a distinctly psychoanalytic/ personal growth bent—on the benign but naive assumption that the more fulfilled and liberated a person you were, the better you would be able to care for deprived (and often of course abused) children, although sexual abuse in particular was barely acknowledged at the time. The first course leader was reputed to have claimed, "We had thirty students on the course last year. We took them to pieces and put them back together again. We had enough bits left over to make two more students!" A world from a curriculum based on specified learning outcomes with behavioural performance criteria and required conformity to ethical guidelines (which are still on the sidelines, but may well amount to, "don't upset anyone!")
Another major difference concerns the age and background of these professional students. I once tried to have a minimum age of admission built into the regulations for a social work course—the proposal was defeated at the planning committee as "ageist", but surely that label could only apply  to a maximum age?

It makes an enormous difference to take seriously the practical, professional and, well, life experience of such students. Many social work courses, quite rightly, take into account previous voluntary or paid but unqualified work in their selection criteria. I lost count of the times when students in individual or group tutorials spoke about their experience of becoming students (particularly on their first placements). They found it very difficult to move from an employed (or established volunteer) position—often of several years' standing— where the default judgement on their practice was that it was at least satisfactory and they were trusted to act independently, to the "student" role where they had to prove their competence from the ground up. That is bound to happen, but the induction process can celebrate and make use of that prior experience.
  • In more recent years (still before it became a full degree) our social work course had a two-week induction period, including all the usual formal stuff. But the majority of it was based on a sharing exercise. The basic introduction was along the lines of: "Social work is a diffuse area. It involves work with a range of user and client groups, in a variety of settings—fieldwork, domiciliary, daycare, residential... None of you (or us, the tutors) have experienced all of these users and settings, but all of you have experienced some. Think about your experience (and lack of it).  Consider your stories, dilemmas, successes, failures. And your ignorance about what it is really like to...
  • Here are some yellow sticky notes—write a short note on them about your experience and then stick them on the wall over there. And some blue sticky notes—write about what you really want to know about, and stick them up over here. You don't have to put your names on them, but some identifier will help in the melee to come, and let's face it, eventually you will all get to know each other...
  • No, we're not going to organise this for you (except for some final details about timetabling and rooms which you can't practically undertake). Gather round your sticky notes (hint; start with the blue ones) and talk to each other about them. Call for people who make intriguing posts or questions. You will eventually coalesce into rough groups, and find yourself in at least two of them. We'll organise two or more cycles of meetings based on themes rather than people and those meetings will form the basis of group meetings for the next x days. Each meeting will be self-organising and disband at the end of its timetable slot, but should generate a list of outstanding questions to be addressed by the course "proper".
Of course it never worked as planned. But a) that's a fact of life in social work, b) it always (n=6, I think before I moved on) established conversations and meetings which might not otherwise have happened.
  • On a part-time course for teachers in further and adult education, there was less time to play with, but still enough for introductory (so-called "ice-breaker) exercises. Ours tended to be fairly conventional, but the list of questions used when participants introduced themselves (or perhaps each other) always included one about how many years' teaching experience each person had. It usually fell to me to keep a running count as we went round the room—and then to announce that there was cumulatively more than 70 (or whatever) years experience represented in the "student" group. That launched into a little spiel about the resources the course group contained and how much we would be helping them to learn from each other...
  • One of the other routines of the induction was known as "the Low-Down". Current students moving into the second year were invited to do a session on their experience of the first year. Warts and all. Tutors introduced them and let them get on with it, so we still don't know what they talked about, but I don't think anyone dropped out as a result of this exercise in transparency.
This is not about hints and rather boring tips for induction. It is about setting the scene and the mindset (not just in a Dweck sense) for the challenge of the course. I don't want to overstate it. Quite probably many courses manage the induction better, or tackle it purely as an administrative process and notice no detriment to student learning. OK.
  • And this may be special pleading, but I remember clearly the opening of one of the one-year courses. It happened to be just after I had succeeded in stepping down as course leader, and was replaced by a colleague. The first week was a bit of a shambles, because the timetables and handbooks were not ready until the third day. Not my colleague's fault—some problem with reprographics—and I felt for him. But the impact on the students was considerable—some of them were actively questioning whether to stay on a course which was so disorganised, and gave them no confidence about how the rest of it would be. My journal (yes, I really kept one in those days, and this ante-dated Schon and "reflective practice" by at least a decade) returns throughout the year to the theme of how inhibited and unadventurous the students were. There are of course many ways to construe and explain this, but the impact of the shambolic start is at least as plausible as any other account.
And the reaction of the staff team matters, too. Can we cope with uncertainty? Can we provide security?
  • Student expectations have risen over the years. The last course handbook I produced had 138 pages—but it was for a whole course and included all the module/unit bumf—and given that the course itself included topics like the role and content of handbooks (US— syllabuses/ syllabi) it was itself a specimen and teaching resource...
    But that assumes that the staff team want to create a secure base from which students feel free to explore ideas and practices, crucially including risking failure (if not in the course as a whole, certainly in occasional specific aspects).
    • On many social work courses in the '90s, that was emphatically not the case. I can't speak for the last 20 years, but that does not affect the argument. In those days they were ineffectually obsessed with "anti-racist and anti-discriminatory practice". It was not unusual for courses to start by putting participants on notice that any action or remark which could conceivably be construed as racist, sexist, or representing a range of other "isms", would have serious consequences, including ejection from the course (although I doubt that anything as practical as a fair procedure for establishing grounds was ever established on any course...*) It was all** about rhetoric and one-upmanship. (See here for a particularly egregious but not untypical example.)
    Actually, for once that is not my point. That is simply about the potency of the first few days to "set the tone" of such courses (and probably of many others, too), and hence —I would argue— the obligation of staff to take that into account in the design and tone of the programme. This "obligation" is not entirely disinterested, of course. Establishing a culture we can  all work with is very much in our interest, when you consider the amount of time and effort involved in trying to support/wrestle students who "got hold of the wrong end of the stick" in those first few days.

    I'm sorry to say I can't cite/find the source material, but in 2009 when I was working for Oxford Brookes University, either OCSLD or the Business School hosted a lunchtime seminar on the "first-year (student) experience", when Australian colleagues*** reported on their research in this area. What they described was consistent with my speculations here.

    It comes down to finding ways to communicate; "It will come out OK in the end. We know. We've been there, and we've supported generations of students on this journey."

    Whether you graduate is up to you.

    Whether you learn is a no-brainer. Of course you will. The question is "What?"

      * It is an extreme example, but—prior to legal "vulnerable adult" provisions—when it was reported that a student on placement was having a sexual relationship with a resident of a probation hostel, I was taken aback to discover that there were no college provisions to take any action, since there was no criminal sanction available. All the rhetoric had created no practical outcome: it took several weeks to draft an ethics policy for the course, and I'm not sure that it was ever implemented in formal sanctions. (The student in question eventually decided to leave the course, but the college insisted that he had the right to return.)
      ** Well, perhaps not all. Some people in the system--most particularly those from those groups which experience discrimination--were/are not playing games. But some/many were/are.

      *** This is entirely from memory. So if I've got it wrong and you know better, please tell me—and other readers. If I've got it right (January-July 2009, Wheatley campus) please help me refine the source. Thanks.

      This post has taken a while to assemble, so the crude Blogger stats are merely suggestive, but apparently it is the 1000th post since July 2005  Plus ca change... 

      See also: this post from exactly six years ago

      14 September 2015

      Items to Share; 13 September 2015

      Education Focus

      • Donald Clark Plan B: Hattie: Visible learning - the naked teacher - a primer 'Almost every educational intervention has a positive effect, to a degree, but what matters is to select those evidence-based interventions that work well and can make a real difference. John Hattie set out to examine, over 15 years, a synthesis of 800 meta-analyses of over 50,000 pieces of evidence, categorise, then assess their impact, namely students achievement.' and:
      • As the baby boomers retire, will there be an education bonanza? 'The baby boom generation has developed a taste for learning, but satisfying it is likely to prove a messy process. Going by current trends, late life learning will benefit those who are already most advantaged, and so further entrench existing inequalities in the quality of life among older adults.
      • So much talk about 'the brain' in education is meaningless  'You may have noticed a steady increase in the use of brain-based language in education recently. You may also have noticed that, beyond the creation of some lucrative learning tools, this language hasn’t done much to meaningfully add to the teaching/learning discourse. The reason for this is simple: although impressive sounding, the majority of educational references to the brain are devoid of any original, unique or prescriptive value. They are what we have come to call “neurosophisms”. '
      • What Success Looks Like — The Synapse — Medium 'Students either pass or fail; when they do the former, they succeed. That is generally the notion of success in education. Does this happen in the real world? Think of any successful person in society. Did they become successful because in one fell swoop they either passed or failed? No. The entertainers, innovators and creators who are all household names are successful today only because they failed. Some failed more than others. But they had an intangible trait that is missing when we in education talk about success. What they all possessed was resilience. To be truly successful, in school and in the “real world”, one has to be resilient. In education, this trait is most often glossed over. Where we lack is teaching students that it is okay to fail.' (More on this to come: see also the next link...)
      Other Business
      • Economists vs. Economics by Dani Rodrik - Project Syndicate 'Economics is not the kind of science in which there could ever be one true model that works best in all contexts. The point is not “to reach a consensus about which model is right,” as Romer puts it, but to figure out which model applies best in a given setting. And doing that will always remain a craft, not a science, especially when the choice has to be made in real time.'
      • BPS Research Digest: Mental effort is contagious 'If you're about to dive into a piece of work that requires intense mental focus, you might find it helps to sit next to someone else who is concentrating hard. According to an ingenious new study published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, mental exertion is contagious: if a person near you is straining their synapses in mental effort, their mindset will automatically intensify your own concentration levels.'  

      08 September 2015

      Items to Share: 6 September 2015

      Education Focus
      • The sticky problem of threshold concepts in music | Musings of a music teacher 'Meyer and Lande identify 'threshold concepts as portals that ‘open up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something’. Basically, these are the points at which students tend to become stuck, and if they remain stuck, they will not be able to progress further in their understanding. Identifying what they are is of enormous help in planning a good curriculum and sound teaching. [...] Of course, this got me thinking about what threshold concepts there might be in music. Where to start? With what music actually is?...''

      01 September 2015

      Items to Share: 31 August 15

      Bit later than usual but includes the Bank Holiday

      Education Focus
      • The sticky problem of threshold concepts in music | Musings of a music teacher 'Meyer and Land identify 'threshold concepts as portals that ‘open up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something’. Basically, these are the points at which students tend to become stuck, and if they remain stuck, they will not be able to progress further in their understanding. Identifying what they are is of enormous help in planning a good curriculum and sound teaching. [...] Of course, this got me thinking about what threshold concepts there might be in music. Where to start? With what music actually is?...' '
      • Research-based Principles of Instruction Applied to Workplace Learning  [3-star Learning Experiences] While it has been shown that there is absolutely no evidence in the scientific literature to support the idea that 70% of what we learn is via experiential learning, 20% learning from others and 10% formal learning (see De Bruyckere et al. in their Urban Myths about Learning and Education – Myth 3) it is of course true that informal learning and learning from and with others is very important, especially in the workplace. When we focus on social and experiential learning, it often remains unclear if employees are learning effectively, despite 360 performance reviews and subjective (manager and L&D professionals) opinions. Therefore, exploring to what extent proven instructional principles can be applied to the informal and non-formal ways of learning in the workplace, can contribute to making learning professionals more aware of what they need to be aware of, so to speak.
      Other Business

      • We’re All in Agreement, Right? - The Chronicle of Higher Education '[I]n these many hours of symposia, colloquia, and assorted fora, I’ve begun to dread a particular, coercive punctuation that has taken hold among the most-practiced speakers. [...] The problem is clear to everyone, right? So the only question is how to deal with it, OK? [...] I speak, of course, of those up-lilting, faux-interrogative, consensus-faking capstones to otherwise unsupported statements.'

      17 August 2015

      Items to Share: 16 August 2015

      Education Focus
      • Compliance by website Mary Beard on schools' response to the requirement to inculcate ‘British values’
      • It’s Harder Now to Change Students’ Lives, but No Less Important - Commentary - The Chronicle of Higher Education 'The forms, norms, and assessments that define higher education are becoming ever more routinized — for the students, faculty, administrators, and accrediting agencies. A Big Mac in Maine looks pretty similar to one in Oregon. The textbook being used for a class in Psychology 101 in New Jersey is probably the same one being used for a class in Psychology 101 in Iowa. Fast-food nation and higher education are becoming ever more homogeneous, and it’s not surprising that students are less engaged. Why should they be? Generic only goes so far.'
      • Chinese School: Whole-Class Identity | @jonbprimary 'We need a discussion about what kind of ‘learning environment’ teachers want to make within their classrooms, and joining children with their fellow classmates is an important topic to discuss. My argument is that this can only be done [...] by tying together school, local, and ultimately national identity, along with the class unit.'

      10 August 2015

      Items to Share: 9 August 2015

      Education Focus
      • Donald Clark Plan B: Understanding Carol Dweck - queen of growth mindsets 'Hattie confirms that Dweck’s research is exactly what has been found to have a significant effect on learner performance and she has similar theories to Black & Wiliam research and recommendations on feedback. The work of Anderson on deliberate practice can also be seen as an extension of her theories. Teachers, in particular, have found her recommendations ethical, practical and leading to marked changes in motivation and improved results.' And Clark has been busy this week:
      • Donald Clark Plan B: ‘The Strange Case of Rachel Doleza’: why diversity training does more harm than good  'The bottom line is that the vast majority of diversity courses are useless, especially when driven by HRs perception of avoiding prosecution. The problem centres around courses run in response to legislative and external pressures. Kalev found that , "Most employers….force their managers and workers to go through training, and this is the least effective option in terms of increasing diversity. . . . Forcing people to go through training creates a backlash against diversity." 'And even more...
      • Donald Clark Plan B: 3 fallacies about exaggerated teacher impact in education (Pasi Sahlberg) This is an old tale – the search for a silver bullet in education swings towards single, simplistic causes, that are not supported by research but popularized by cherry picked ideas from countries and reports that suit your political ideology or professional pride. When it comes to education we can’t let either ideological politicians or teacher lobbying define the future. We must objectify, as much as we can, through research, then focus on change.
      • What Kind of Feedback Helps Students Who Are Doing Poorly? [Faculty Focus] '[S]tudents perform poorly in our courses for a variety of reasons. Here are some students you’ve likely encountered over the years, as well as a few ideas on the type of feedback that best helps them turn things around.'
      • Want to raise the quality of teaching? Begin with academic freedom | Times Higher Education 'So let’s explain to our students and their parents that they will not be best served by league tables that smother the knowledge and creativity of their teachers, or which skew their education. They need something better than teaching by regulation. Let’s defend this academic freedom, not for the sake of academia but for the sake of future generations of students.'
      • The Dangerous Fantasy of Generalised Understanding | The Traditional Teacher '[T]he supposedly ‘higher’ cognitive phenomenon which is labelled understanding actually means more detailed and more complex knowledge, as well as the knowledge of how one fact links to another. At the highest level, this detailed and complex knowledge, along with the knowledge of relevant connections, is achieved by experts over many years of study. [ ] In contrast, the type of abstract of conceptual knowledge which is often labelled ‘understanding’ is low on detail. It might be termed generalised knowledge, and it is actually much quicker to master than the large amounts of detail which a genuine expert has at his fingertips. It’s so short on content that you might even learn it through group work, with a few prods to point you in the right direction.' (Read in conjunction with a related link from last week.)
      Other Business
      • Hospital checklists are meant to save lives — so why do they often fail? : Nature News & Comment 'In 2007 and 2008, surgical staff at eight hospitals around the world tested the checklist in a pilot study1. The results were remarkable. Complications such as infections after surgery fell by more than one-third, and death rates dropped by almost half. The WHO recommended that all hospitals adopt its checklist or something similar, and many did. The UK National Health Service (NHS) immediately required all of its treatment centres to put the checklist into daily practice; by 2012, nearly 2,000 institutions worldwide had tried it. The idea of checklists as a simple and cheap way to save lives has taken hold throughout the clinical community. It has some dynamic champions, including Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, who led the pilot study and has spread the word through talks, magazine articles and a best-selling book, The Checklist Manifesto (Metropolitan, 2009). But this success story is beginning to look more complicated: some hospitals have been unable to replicate the impressive results of initial trials.'