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.'