30 November 2008

On "Chinese Whispers" in the history of psychology

I've picked this up rather late, but it alludes to a substantial problem represented in professional education programmes, including teacher education. Rarely have lecturers actually read the original, primary sources for much of the research they report, and even where they have done so, they may have chosen to represent them in a manner which is more consistent with their own beliefs or interests than the evidence warrants. I confess I've done it, too.

28 November 2008

On doubting

OK, so there's nothing good on TV tonight!

Just as there was a happenstantial link between the previous post and its predecessor, so this one picks up on a linked theme with the post on "bad science". That ended with the question whether students doing a vocational qualification at National Qualifications Framework level 3 [that's roughly "A" level equivalent for UK readers] could sustain a distanced, etic, stance to ideas. The article argues, admittedly on case-study evidence and in an elite school in Israel, which may be different from the secondary school round the corner where you are, that it is possible.

On bad science in education

Do read this disconcerting account of a medical scientist's attempt to get someone from an educational awarding body to explain the presence of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo in an Edexcel Level 3 qualification in Health and Social Care. (The reference to Alan Sokal in the heading banner makes a tenuous link to the previous post.)

In brief the argument is that "it's not true and it doesn't work so you should not be teaching it." I have a great deal of sympathy with that argument, and it has particular potency in relation to alternative medicine (assuming that the positivist account is the only legitimate one). But go beyond the "health" component and start looking at "social care", and you will find very little which is demonstrably "effective" or "true". The corpus of "knowledge" in this area consists largely of best guesses and conformity with current values in the services, and not always shared by the population at large. It's not that there is a conspiracy to foist principles of "valuing diversity" or "empowerment" on any one; it is just that in the "care" arena no-one knows how to test and research the ideas. And it is not for want of trying.

(It's exactly the same in teaching—viz the egregious rubbish about "learning styles", and even "e-learning" which has been puffed over the past few years.) Until you have agreed and uncontested criteria of "effectiveness" or "truth", you can't aspire to a gold standard of what works.

The issue may not be about what is to be taught; after all, complementary medicine is out there and is big business, so it cannot be ignored. And social care has to work on some basis, even if we don't know which. Perhaps it ought to be about the stance which is taken towards it; why, for example, do many people—both practitioners and patients—believe that CAM works, even if the research (I know—they contest the methodology) says that it doesn't? They are not all charlatans and dupes, after all. The placebo effect is much more complex than is often portrayed, for example.

But—to come back to Edexcel Level 3 awards—can learners at that level (perhaps more significantly at that typical age) actually sustain that distanced stance. Must the wave of uncertainty collapse for them into true/false, right/wrong etc.? Some research suggests that it must.

Oh dear.

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On Levi-Strauss

No, not jeans!

Today is the centenary of the birth of Claude Levi-Strauss. Indeed it is his birthday, for he is still alive. But age is not his claim to fame; that lies in his theorisation of anthropology through "structuralism". He sought underlying principles of human thinking through the discovery of common themes in the culture and language of disparate peoples. That is as close as I will go to the edge lest I sink into mire of gallic intellectualisation; if you want to know more, google him at your peril.

I have no idea what to make of him. I read most of his major works thirty-odd years ago when I felt the need to justify myself as an "intellectual"--a need now happily past. Like many others, I wore my membership of the club of those who had finished The Raw and the Cooked or The Savage Mind, more as a badge of my conquest of tedium than as testimony to my own thinking having been informed in any useful way. Later, of course, he appeared to be a model of clarity and simplicity alongside his "post-structuralist" heirs.

Sorry to be dog-in-a-mangerish on his birthday, but he has outlived his reputation. Not because he was "wrong"--there is no way to demonstrate or argue that in his weird world--but because nowadays, intellectual fashion can pass over one in the course of a lifetime. And I still have no idea what he and his gang thought they were contributing to any understadning of the real world... But, he did persuade lots of people to play his game!

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25 November 2008

On automatic bibliographies

It had to happen! You can now get automatic bibliographies generated for you on-line, from information as minimal as a book's ISBN number. Try it!

Two words of caution, though;
  1. It does not set up the in-text flags for you, such as Jarvis (2006), and
  2. Its default format is MLA (Modern Languages Association) while like most social "science" disciplines, we use APA (American Psychological Association); in order to get that, you have to take out a subscription, but that is only $7.99 (just over £5.00) for a year.

24 November 2008

On a cookery show

The series is called "Indian Food Made Easy" and it does what it says on the tin. But...

This evening's show (available through the link in the title for just a week after posting) featured a guy who is a keen cook, and likes Bengali cuisine, but who has never cooked it for guests lest he get it wrong. I have no complaints about the show as entertainment, but to suggest that any of it was about learning to cook in an Indian style is mendacious.

Actual cookery in Bengali cuisine appears very straightforward. You would find similar directions on the label of a jar of Tikka Marsala sauce in the supermarket. (Yes, I know about that...) The magic comes from the spices, and their combination and balance--and this programme was merely (and vaguely) prescriptive about them. If you could follow the recipe before, you would be no better off.

The only "insight" was about how Bengali cuisine uses sugar. (I have doubts about that; the interaction of sugar and salt is more subtle than suggested.)

Why am I going on about this marginal programme? I'm not so naive as to believe that the producers are on a mission to improve the audience's cookery skills and eating habits. I'm simply drawing attention to a problem in pedagogy. One bottom line in the practice of an autonomous cook is mastery of heat and timing etc. But another is mastery of flavours, and that involves much basic memory as anything else until (I imagine/speculate...) there is an epiphany, and a few cooks are able to manipulate flavours in their minds and then test them in the outside world...

Where does the rote learning of recipes figure in this?

22 November 2008

On relying on textbooks

I had an enquiry from a reader in Romania, who teaches psychology to students taking the International Baccalauriate. She was initially concerned with the structure and tone of the textbooks, every more abstract and distanced from practice. But as we discussed it, it became apparent that it was more to do with the students' approach to the textbook... And then I had something of an epiphany. With the possible exception of two years spent teaching "A" level sociology (very useful experience, that; I knew no sociology at all when I started, and had an article published in the prestigious Sociological Review by the end of it. OK it was 1970-71...); with that possible exception I have never had to teach a course to a textbook, so I had not thought about how it works. I do keep a few standard undergraduate textbooks on my shelf as a quick way in to the "standard model" of particular areas of study, so I looked at how they were structured, and I realised...
It all stems from the assessment system, in practice. The textbooks are not about teaching psychology as such; they are about equipping students to pass the exams in psychology, which is quite different as you have understood.

Your students are highly anxious and focused on the assessment (and they are probably under pressure from their families to perform well). They /dare not/ concern themselves with anything else until they have passed their exams (by which time they may well have forgotten that they were once interested in psychology for other reasons...) I applaud your efforts to introduce group work, etc. but for them the bottom line is---"will it help me pass the exam?"

There is an extensive research strand exploring this issue; see http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/deepsurf.htm for an introduction, but none of it helps you to solve the problem unless you can change the assessment regime.

You will be familiar---more than I am---with the research on how a problem or challenge is "framed". You have no alternative but to use the frame, "This will help you to pass the exam." If you can get the students to accept that the groupwork or whatever strategy you propose will indeed help with that limited goal, they will rise to the challenge. However, they are--as you now know--very conservative. They find it very difficult to adjust to any approach to learning which does not seem aimed directly at the assessment; but you of course know that the direct approach is very limited...
Or am I on the wrong track? (Thanks to Oana for posing the original question.)

20 November 2008

On opportunity costs again

I keep on about threshold concepts almost as much as I do about Frank Coffield, and anyone familiar with the idea will be aware of the economists' favourite TC—opportunity cost. It is discussed very well by Robert Frank in his entertaining new book [Frank R H (2008) The Economic Naturalist; why economics explains almost everything London; Virgin Books]. I don't think he has ever heard of TCs, but he acknowledges the significance of the concept in very similar language (pp. 4-7).

Incidentally, the book is also based on an exercise he routinely uses in an introductory economics class; clearly an excellent teaching device!

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19 November 2008

On mentioning the unmentionable

And here, too.

Sorry I only found out with 45 minutes to go (GMT), but today was World Toilet Day.

Earlier on, a friend passed me a rather sentimental slideshow on a global "count your blessings" theme (duly qualified with some legitimate scepticism about some of the quoted statistics; but forwarded because the issues do indeed matter a lot). Access to clean water figured, as it should. Freedom from shit didn't. We are talking physical shit/faeces/bowel movements/excreta here. And it is indeed part of life. I seem to remember at school giggling at hearing that "excretion" was one of the criteria of life.

It won't go away, but getting its consequences to go away is probably the greatest and least glamorous public health challenge of our time.

What's it got to do with learning and teaching? For all his limitations; Maslow.

On less being more at Master's level

I have been on a validation panel today, grappling with the problem of how to specify modules at Master's level. It was very instructive.

The team developing the programme had understandably assumed that outcomes for a Master's level module would have to be more tightly specified than for a lower level course, in order to ensure that the learning and the assessment would be at greater “depth” than for an undergraduate module.

First, though, it is quite easy to specify “learning outcomes” for low-level courses. When people are learning the basics of any subject or skill, what any one person learns will have to be the same as any other learner. It's easy to assess, and “correct” knowledge or performance is clear-cut. It's not so easy at higher levels. Knowledge and “understanding” (not to mention, for those who care, the higher regions of Bloom, or Krathwohl and Anderson) may be contestable, and indeed one person's understanding or “take” on the subject may quite legitimately be different from their neightbour's. So when you get to Master's level it may be reasonable to specify that the outcomes will include so-and-so, but it may well be patronising and simply counter-productive to presume to set them out completely and exhaustively.

Even so, how do you incorporate the academic level requirements into the outcomes? It's traditional to use all those recommended “Bloom verbs” to produce “SMART” objectives. (What's the difference between an objective and an outcome, in this context? Strictly between ourselves, I no longer have to pretend that I know, and I don't care.) So the first-year students “list” or “describe”, the second-years “analyse” and the third-years “evaluate”... So Master's students? They “critically evaluate”, it seems. (That means in practice that they evaluate on the basis of one or more over-arching frameworks, showing that there are no simple answers.)

That is fair enough but it does risk becoming formulaic, and also implying that there is a correct procedure for doing it. The more specific the directions, the more restricted the outcomes, and the less the scope for the exercise of individual initiative and creativity (if that is desirable in your discipline, of course!) Master's students are experts, or at least nearly there. They need to be given their heads rather than constrained. (I am referring mainly to experienced practitioners of their discipline undertaking Master's study part-time, here; I am aware that full-time “second cycle” students who were undergraduates last year may not fit this picture.)

Personally I would rather just set out the aims of the module just so the students know what they are letting themselves in for, and recognise that the outcomes will be different every time it runs, and different for every participant. But that won't wash in the compliance climate where standardisation is all. So what can we get away with?
(Specify the level and assessment criteria at a scheme/programme level so you don't have to do it at a module level)
"On completion of this module, participants will (I prefer “participant” to “student” at this level);
  • Come to their own informed conclusions about the significance of...
  • Explore ... in the context of ...
  • Use ... as the basis of original work on ...
Or have I got it wrong?

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13 November 2008

On autistic insight into the student experience

The link is to another article in the "Passion for Teaching" series in Times Higher Education. It jumps about, rather, but apart from anecdotal experience, its chief source is a remarkable book, which I recently read out of sheer interest but without making the connections Blaisdell (the article's author) does to the student experience.

Temple Grandin is Associate Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, and a renowned expert on stock handling systems in abattoirs. She is also seriously autistic. Her remarkable book (Grandin T and Johnson C (2005) Animals in Translation; using the mysteries of autism to decode animal behaviour London; Bloomsbury [ISBN 0-7475-6668-2]) explores animals' (particularly dogs' and cattle's) experience of the world on the basis of parallels between their experience and that of a person with autism. To the academic reader's understanding it is written remarkably directly, even naively; but as it goes on one begins to understand why.

What Blaisdell does is to suggest that this account of the behaviour of animals in the abattoir can illuminate the students' experience in class--and it is not cheap "lambs to the slaughter" stuff.

12 November 2008

On diminishing returns

Maria Colwell, Jasmine Beckford ... Victoria Climbie, baby P. Children who died at the hands of their carers over thirty-odd years. From what I hear on Newsnight, one still dies every week. But there are 50,000+ plus children on "at-risk" registers. In other words, one in a thousand dies each year, out of those already deemed to be at risk. In Maria Colwell's day, we didn't even know how many were at risk.

I used to teach social workers. In the discussion of the latest tragedy I was pleased to detect no sign of the strident blame which characterised previous cases. I was pleased to see that Herbert Laming is being commissioned not to review this particular case in the usual blaming exercise, but to look at overall nationwide strategies and procedures.

It's tragic. There is no acceptable level of child abuse, let alone murder. But there is a law of diminishing returns. The NSPCC has a Full Stop campaign against child abuse. And so they should. I've worked with NSPCC staff and I have enormous respect for their work (as well as some reservations about their care for their staff injured in the line of duty). But practitioners know that "Full Stop" is marketing bulls**t.

The danger is that defensive practice which is aimed more at forestalling criticism than working in the best interests of the child will inevitably create more problems than it solves. And I do mean "inevitably"; it is built into the nature of the system. I know that we can never be complacent, and that more can always be done, but there does come a point at which enormous amounts of time, resources and effort can be invested to no discernible advantage. After all, the measure of "improvement" is something which does not happen.

In the public services nowadays, in education and health care as well as social services, and as in the economy, the one taboo is the admission that we do not know what is going on and a fortiori that there is nothing we can do about it. Powerlessness is not an option, but as Taleb points out in that odd and infuriating book The Black Swan (2008) it may be a necessary admission.

Having said that, how did a paediatrician miss a broken spine, or two police investigations decide not to proceed, or sixty visits by professionals not notice what was going on? Perhaps this time all the inter-agency working led to a diffusion of responsibility, to no individual being prepared to take individual responsibility for launching that horrible juggernaut of care proceedings?

Indeed, is it just possible that it was the sheer level of resources and number of personnel involved which introduced those unintended consequences?

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11 November 2008

On a threshold concept again

In today's Guardian Education section, Jonathan Wolff has an interesting piece on whether or not academics can or do indoctrinate their students. However, it particularly includes this point;

... the response students have to radical or challenging ideas ... depends almost entirely on where they start from. Take, for example, an idea that comes up when I teach Marx's Early Writings: that, contrary to the Christian teaching that God made man in God's image, man made God in man's image. And that's why our paintings of God show him in human form.

For some students, this thought is as close as they will ever get to a revelation. It puts into words something they have been struggling with, crystallising a thought, or at least a doubt, that has been festering in their subconscious. ... So, confrontation with radical ideas can be eye-opening - but only to those who were already hoping to open their eyes.

Other students - those who are fairly firm in their religious beliefs - will be charmed or appalled by what they think to be the naivety or superficiality of Marx's argument. Some will say, in a rather patronising tone, that they find his ideas interesting. Others feel angry, or almost frightened, when confronted with something so challenging. But I haven't come across a student who has said they have changed their religious convictions on reading Marx's texts. And why should their political convictions change either?

A great example of a threshold concept and liminal reactions to it. If you are not familiar with the idea, there are some links here. What is more, it is a threshold which is more about the affective than the technically cognitive component of learning, as Peter Hadfield, Renee Meyers and I discussed in a paper which still up for discussion here. Comments welcome!