25 February 2006

On credibility

Last weekend I was at an old friend's 59 364/365 unbirthday party. (In other words, he greeted me at the door with "I'm not sixty yet!") Being 61 1/4 I couldn't see the problem.

His former doctoral supervisor was there. That was really nice; my friend completed his Ph.D 35+ years ago, and he has remained friends with J., his supervisor, ever since.

I've only met J. once before, decades ago. He is a world-class expert on robotics, and had just returned from teaching a short course on it in Biarritz. Technically, he ought to have retired a while ago, but he keeps going and gives the impression of being about a quarter-century younger than he is. Crucially, he is a practitioner in the commercial field, as well as an academic.

However, to the point. He was talking about his experience of teaching, and how much he got out of it. He knew nothing of my interest in this, so his comments were completely unsolicited; I was merely a listener. But reflecting on his regular visits to Biarritz, he commented (I paraphrase, I was not in researcher mode and I don't usually take a recorder to (un)birthday celebrations);

'The thing is, that I can relate my material to practice. I can introduce an equation, and say "this is really important! I've used this so many times in the past, and it has really helped us." and, "now this equation is really elegant; but to be frank, I can't recall every having used it in the past twenty years."'
I could immediately relate to the issue, but I confess I had not realised how important it was in a convergent discipline such as engineering. I'd naively assumed that this was positivistic stuff, where ideas and theories either worked or they didn't; and it was a surprise to find him talking, from vast experience, of the prioritisation of "really useful" ideas, and of how these were validated by his reference to experience.

Having real-life practical hands-on experience to draw on has always been an important factor in my teaching experience, principally because for almost thirty years I was pulling an academic con-trick. I was teaching social workers, without ever having been one myself (although with accumulated classroom experience I could have passed myself of as one, and I did have some voluntary work in relevant areas of practice to fall back on.)
  • No, blow the excuses, I was just an academic; I did not know by acquaintance what I was talking about. So I had to fall back on drawing out, and helping to make sense of, my learners' experience. I had authority as a "teacher", but none from experience. On the one hand that made it easy for students (who invariably had some practical experience, because that was a criterion for admission to the courses) to dismiss me; on the other it honed my practice skills in teaching and particularly in listening to them. But if well-grounded practitioners dismissed me as an airy-fairy theoriser, they were probably right to do so.
Now, of course, I teach about teaching; and I've really been there, done that, and learned from it. Perhaps that was the greatest relief in my switch of disciplines, from covert pretence about practice to real experience. But, I hadn't previously realised how potent a factor it was in less emotionally charged disciplines. It made sense when someone asked, "Have you ever had to take a child into care, and away from her parents?" or "Have you ever sectioned anyone under the Mental Health Act?" because I was well aware of the emotional turmoil involved. To discover that the ability to refer to personal experience carried as much weight in engineering was quite a revelation.

15 February 2006

An ESOL teaching Journal

More for language teachers; this is a useful reflective blog on teaching ESOL, but at fairly advanced levels addressing issues of pronunciation and prosody. It helps if you know that "IPA" stands for "International Phonetic Alphabet".

14 February 2006

On learning to distrust experience

(Apologies, Jim. This was originally a post just to you, but on reflection I thought this edited version might be of more general interest, and I'm into "reusable learning objects". Wonder if it will get any comments?)

What students learn by default in what we call the education "system" is distrust of their own experience. I remember, in the '50s, doing science experiments at school in what was of course then a seriously under-funded system (but I don't think funding has changed it much). The experiments always came out "wrong" (OK, chemistry experiments were more reliable, but physics stuff never worked because all the equipment was worn out); so we did them and wrote them up, and then the teachers told us what ought to have happened, and the results we should have got. The scientific method was turned on its head! So what we learned was that really that science was what the teachers told us it was, and any efforts on our part to test the hypotheses were bound to fail. What kind of message was that? Precisely the message that our schools and universities are now set up to convey.

In the '60s, I kid myself that I could have got a 1st (rather than my 2:1) if I had actually been able to read what the literary critics said about the works we were set to read. As it was, I was arrogant enough to rely on my own reactions to the primary texts; but more to the point, lit. crit. was and remains quite incomprehensible to me. Lord knows how I should fare on present-day courses!***

I'm complicit. I have just done some marking of assignments which require student teachers to draw upon their own (often extensive) experience, and I have complained in more than half of the cases that they do not do sufficient justice to the literature (despite good accounts of their practice, which are critical, analytic and reflective). Why should they? Much of what passes for "literature" (i.e. what someone has managed to get past an editor and much-vaunted "peer review") is trite rubbish, saying little about the subject, but more about the writers ("I'm an academic--I'm determined to be noticed!" [By whom?]) or their situation (it's publish or be damned in UK universities today, with the Research Assessment Exercise 2008 looming.)

Academe has always been a game. Cornford (1908) (yes, the date is correct) set it all out in bitter detail, including this little gem which I happened to find on the web while searching for the date;

The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent is that you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case....Every public action which is not customary either is wrong, or, if it is right, it is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.
(From his wonderfully astringent "Microcosmographica Academica") It's worthy of Sir Humphrey! (Character in the sitcoms "Yes, Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister" -- in fact I half-remember that he quotes this gem.) I actually (tongue-in-cheek) wrote something to this effect on someone's essay.

The bottom line of the hidden curricula in so many courses is--"don't think for yourself!" and unless somebody else said it first and got it published, it doesn't count. Frightening!

So once most students escape from this game (apart from those who go on to be academics, who think that the game is the same as "life") they are firmly and surely inoculated against both original thought and testing against evidence.

Dick Cheney may have a problem with his aim. Academics' aim is better; they are firmly aligned on their own feet.

Now I'm going to take something for my dyspepsia!

***Actually, I'm kidding myself. I might still not have got a first, but I really blew it because I did not read the rubric on my very last paper in finals which told us to answer four questions, rather than the three required on all the preceding twelve papers. Am I bitter? Forty years on? Yes!

13 February 2006

On "A Word In Your Ear:"

This could get incestuous, but I'm apparently not the only person concerned about levels of HE teacher-training; this blog is well worth following (and that's not only because he says nice things about me—although it does help—flattery is not common currency in our world.) Jonathan has a more specific subject focus than I do, and whatever your own subject, it's interesting to hear about how things look from that angle; it may not be so different in engineering, or history, or...

There are links to other HE blogs on my "About this blog" page (lick on the logo at top-left), but given the ferment in the sector, we are under-represented (probably because most people are too knackered to spend the time). Still, if I have missed one, let me know.

10 February 2006

On listening to lectures (again)

Building on Wednesday's posting;

The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) carried an article today on Richard Sennett. (Sorry I can't point you directly to the article, it's in the "Subscription only" area; but you can get a sense of his ideas from Laurie Taylor's "Thinking Allowed" programme on BBC Radio 4 of 18 January, including a chance to listen to whole thing. It is well worth listening to.)

However, the article starts, painstakingly re-typed as a short quotation which does not I think violate copyright (hey, I care about mine, I respect others);

'Just after Richard Sennett arrived in the UK in 1999 [...] he got his first introduction to British bureaucracy in the form of a teaching quality officer* [who] sat in on a lecture on Max Weber and [...] seemed to be busy writing throughout. Sennett later found out that the officer was ticking boxes for the number of times he made eye contact in the lecture. When Sennett later asked the officer what he felt he had learned about Weber from the lecture, the officer said that he was not interested in Weber. "The content was not important, just the process," Sennett says.'
GARNER M (2006) "'Craftsmanship' is laid low by quick-fix fever"
Times Higher Education Supplement 10 February 2006 (No. 1,729) p. 18
[* "Teaching quality officer" sounds like a QA commissar; I'm almost certain that, particularly at the LSE, this is something of an overstatement. And, for what it's worth, eye-contact in lectures does matter, as I have noted earlier in this blog; but the point is still well-made.]

We'll come back to that. However, today I discovered (not before time) the virtues of the "Blank" (sometimes "Black") button on the remote control for the data projector. It simply shuts down the projected image, and it is liberating! It overcomes quite a lot of my objections to the use of presentation packages in lectures. There are other ways of achieving the same effect, but not as simply and elegantly; I hope your kit has got a similar facility.

That set me thinking about writing a page, which I may do shortly, on the sensitive use of presentation package techniques ("ppt" -- any resemblance to a certain trademarked Microsoft file extension is entirely intentional, but you can get just as impressive results from OpenOffice, which is free, and you can even save the results as ".ppt" files—rant over).

But reflection often rambles, and in this case the article and the eye-contact point and ppt came together. I had noticed the eye-contact issue in a teaching session where I could not understand the language much of the time; so my mind was highly focused on the process rather than the content. On the other hand, I do observe many teaching sessions (as a teacher-educator) where I find it hard to concentrate on the process because the content is so interesting; in fact, it is a good marker for a good session that the process slips out of my attention**)

And so, (I have finally got to the point) I do sometimes find myself able to empathise with the students. And ppt often sends many of the wrong messages. I'm not quite as convinced as Edward Tufte that "Powerpoint(tm) is evil!" but I can see his point, from the receiving end. Imagine sitting there (as a student) in the lecture theatre being bombarded with an inexorable barrage of bullet points. You will eventually think, "Gee, there is so much to know about this stuff", and "I have to remember this!" So your naive aspirations as a student to understand the subject are driven into the ground by the pile-driver of (apparently essential) "facts". Most of them, of course, are not "facts". They are mainly the lecturer's cues about what to talk about next, but she thought it would help the students to flag them all; after all, aren't "visual aids" desirable? Yes, but...

On Wednesday, I would have appreciated a few markers as to where we were in the argument, but the argument was what mattered, much more than the individual components of the evidence, and Trevor Phillips knew that. Using ppt to flag every stage and every point is in danger of of devaluing the whole in favour of the parts—and then we complain about "surface learning". It's not the whole story, but in some measure we asked for it!

** I have only once actively slipped out of role as an observer, though. I was observing a really good Access class at a college, when the teacher (my student) referred to the work of Roy Nash on how self-fulfilling prophecies and labelling processes happened in the classroom (mid '70s); I had actually been present at Roy's initial presentation of his work, and it just seemed the right thing to do to pipe up and say so, and to bring alive what might otherwise have been just another dry reference. (Sorry, this research does not show up on a web search.)

08 February 2006

On listening to a lecture

I have just returned from attending the annual Gaitskell Memorial Lecture at Nottingham University, given this year by Trevor Phillips.

It prompted thoughts at two levels, neither of them to do directly with its content, which was very impressive, but not part of the remit of this blog. (How often do you get that on a blog? [It does not necessarily set a precedent!])

I was not making notes, so the fact that I recall all this is some testimony to his lecturing style; and he was lecturing rather than speechifying. He respected his audience (mainly academics and their friends); at an early point he referred unapologetically to "Butskellism" (my initial metasearch for the term on the web, qualified with references to Gaitskell, got only seven results) but presumably knew the reference would not be missed by the middle-aged UK academics who constituted (at a rough guess) two-thirds of the audience. The lecture was delivered without any visual aids at all.
The first concerned the simple problem of following a lecture, a point I have made elsewhere. He is a very accomplished speaker; he is after all a former (and occasionally present) broadcaster, and very easy to listen to. He had a few jokes, mainly at the beginning, at his own expense ("Thanks for the introduction. It helps clarify things; I have lost track of the number of times I have stood up to speak and people have been disappointed because they expected the guy who reads the ITV "News at Ten" or more recently, the fellow who advertises the Halifax Bank!") He had interesting new information, and provocative perspectives, and he both illustrated and lightened the tone with anecdotes, such as the one about the multi-racial day-centre in Glasgow which fundamentally worked on women's shared hatred of their daughters-in-law; a great inversion of the mother-in-law joke tradition. The teaching-observation protocol which is (unfortunately) indelibly printed on my brain was filling up with approving ticks.

But I can't sustain attention forever, however interested I am. At one point he referred to a poll which asked people to identify the ethnicity of their twenty closest friends. Afterwards at the reception, someone commented to me, "I lost the argument at that point; I was trying to list my twenty closest friends!" When you lose track of an argument, how do you tune in again?

My mind wanders, and then returns. But what am I listening to, now? I don't know. Is it a major point, or a gloss, anecdote (illustrating what?) or an aside? I am relying purely on auditory material. Trevor, on the other hand, had a script (and this is where it is important for the rest of us) . As an accomplished speaker, he did not so much read it, as use it as a list of cues on which to elaborate. But his script (which I have not of course seen) will have been laid out in paragraphs, and even bullet-points within paragraphs. The level of his points would have been clear to him, but his purely verbal delivery gave no idea to the (momentarily interrupted) listener as to what they were listening to.

At one, early, point (as I recall) he distinguished between under-achievement of ethnic minority people due to discrimination (OK, familiar territory; I used to teach social workers), cultural factors (sit up here; is he--chair of the CRE--going to say it is their own fault?), and systemic factors (what are those? this is a new idea!). So I was primed to hear interesting stuff on the latter two factors. I heard a lot of interesting stuff, but it did not fit with those categories, so I could not organise it.

I am not setting out to demolish a really interesting lecture, by any means; I am just trying to give some indication of how it might have made more impact as a whole, from the point of view of a member of the audience.

(Oh, the second level, too. That was to do with the hidden agenda of how Trevor's comments might be reported. I've said enough already, and this particular issue does not rate highly on the scale for most teachers and lecturers; it's sufficient to say that we were in the presence of a master. I am not being cynical or sarcastic at all, here. I know something of the waters in which he must swim, and they are full of sharks. This was a master-class in how to get the important messages across without offering oneself up to be eaten; but that's not really an issue for this blog.)

03 February 2006

On training and education for academics

I have just—checking the clock— spent an hour responding to a new colleague expressing concern about the vagueness of the course he is presently taking on teaching in higher education.

  1. I don't want to waste that hour (not that responding to R. would be a waste, but it might be even more useful.
  2. His concerns are real and pose interesting questions, so they are worth sharing and inviting wider comment.

Apologies if some of what follows is not entirely clear; it is part of a longer thread, but of course I have no authority to post the rest of it; (it starts by referring to some useful guidance my correspondent had received from a more experienced colleague on how much support one could give undergrads with their assignments.)

"****'s response is useful and helpful at the level of tactics, and represents an appropriate response in teaching a large undergraduate module. And implicitly he makes a very sound point about consistency and fairness in the way in which we deal with student requests for guidance.

On the old MALT, on the other hand, partly because the smaller numbers permitted it, and partly because it was PG, and partly because assessments relied more on drawing on experience, I was equally explicit in encouraging draft submissions. Since (at this level where it doesn't really matter much) I couldn't really care very much whether people complete and get a qualification or not (that's their business) and I am more interested in what they learn along the way (because of, in spite of, or independent of, the teaching). [I am not sound on this, and have in the past received some stick from the university and QAA about it; so what?] I'll help as much as I can within the constraints of responsibilities to other students and other courses. The argument that some students benefit from this at the expense of others seems to me to be spurious, at that level.

On the PGCE/Cert Ed, we use a system of "submission proposals" to clarify the process, with the expectation (but not obligation) that students will use the proposal form to help clarify their ideas and then clear them with the tutor. It is basically a formalisation of the process **** described so well. Our proposal form (downloadable from http://www.dmu.ac.uk/~jamesa/pce/download/ also includes a section for students to specify the tutor and mentor help they need, and we can either sign up to it or not. For more on the general approach see http://www.learningandteaching.info/teaching/learning_contracts.htm

The choice of the approach to use is of course strategic rather than tactical; and given the variety of disciplines and courses represented on the PGCertHE, it is more appropriate to concentrate on the strategic issues, as you will appreciate given your previous experience. People on the course will be working with a variety of assessment techniques and strategies, and each of them needs to decide what is appropriate to their own context. The tactical considerations of the implementation of the strategies are matters which can only really be examined within that general context. We do appreciate, however, that there is something of a problem here, because the assessment strategies are often pre-specified for the modules beginning lecturers are called upon to work on; their immediate concerns are to do with implementing what they are lumbered with.

The strategic curriculum-planning decision, however, must be that it will not always be thus. For better or for worse, we generally get only one stab at introducing colleagues to the range of assessment strategies; we aspire to the state where, when those colleagues are devising their own modules and courses, they will be able to think widely about the appropriate principles, strategies and techniques to create a valid, reliable and fair assessment policy. We are working with a similar situation to that which you experience in undergrad. business education; some of the questions which we need to address are not part of the experience of our students, so they may respond with "chance would be a fine thing!" With more experience under their belts, they will eventually value what is being taught--but in the absence of a phased CPD programme which introduces new and wider material as our students experience of the task expands, some things have to be introduced when they may be considered merely "academic" (in the pejorative sense of the term).

Ideally, in the way the course is set up, mentors with direct experience of the subject area and the context should be able to provide this kind of detailed guidance, which you have received from ****, and the overall course and individual mentoring should be complementary. We have to confess that this complementarity does not always work, but it works well enough not to shift the balance between the two, and we have always worked to develop further the mentoring component.

Yes, it is frustrating; but frankly, so it ought to be. Perhaps it ought to be more so. Frustration is an excellent stimulus to reflective practice. Your previous posts have clearly demonstrated your commitment to this. One of the features of academic life, across the board, is that everything is arguable. Partly this is because the desired outputs--the bottom line--are contestable (vide. my insouciance about achievement, supra) [And we go in for pompous obscurantism as in the previous parentheses], and partly it is because the academic frame of reference is necessarily questioning and indeed sceptical (which sometimes shades into the cynical, I fear).

Within academic discourse, too, there is a question of level about the PGCertHE. The view of the HEA (in their statement on professional standards which will come out later this month--see http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/ for the latest news) is broadly that lecturers' professional programmes should be at M level. Given the previous academic level of most or even all HE academic staff, that makes sense; as far as their own disciplines are concerned. M level, being highly academic, is highly strategic and very sceptical.

On the other hand, as new practitioners of a very practical discipline, there is an argument that courses should be training at HE 1 (NQF 4 or even lower). You may be a world-class biochemist, but that has no correlation with your ability to teach.

This is a real circle-squaring problem, represented in practice by the decision on the previous MALT programme to assess "Teaching in Practice" "only" at HE level 3. "Only"? HE level 3 is final-year undergraduate level. In a practical discipline, the practice of a final-year engineer, or graphic designer, or nurse, or even teacher, is expected to be very sophisticated; not least because they have had at least three years of practice on projects and placements. Why should we expect that because of their expertise in a totally unrelated discipline, lecturers should be able to work practically at HE 3 after only one year?

But it gets worse. Now it all has to be at M level. Master's level "mastery" of the moment to moment practice of teaching cannot, in my opinion, be achieved with less than five years' practice. It simply needs at least that much time to try things and evaluate them, and to repeat the cycle and refine them, and to grasp the wider implications, and to try again... The fudge is to assess via writing about it, so-called "praxis". It is not the same thing. In my view, M level direct practice is University Teacher Fellow standard. I lost this argument in the validation process, but it is still a very important one.

Sorry--you have set me off on a rant, and I have been writing for an hour. Time for bed, said Zebedee.

Please comment; I just got my first comment on the blog, after a couple of months of posting. Thanks to "unknown"! But the comments are what bring these things alive, so get on with it!

01 February 2006

On learning languages

Just listened to this (available on-line for a while). I do not teach languages, but I teach many people who do; there are some very challenging and stimulating ideas here.