30 November 2009

On the further reaches of political correctness

via and thanks to; NCBI ROFL 

So you can now be critiqued on what you failed to say about a topic not germane to your subject? Brilliant! Not only is my discussion of Vygotsky to be dismissed because he worked in Soviet Russia, and I omitted to comment explicitly on how nasty that regime was, particularly under Stalin... I can live with that (although not the fact that a single student out of several hundred thought that he had the right to claim a hundred-plus hours of academic time to conclude that he had no case...) ...but by extension I can be condemned for everything else I did not mention.

Warning; the following is in danger of becoming practical ...

OK, it's easy to make fun of this academic/political zealotry, but there is a well-established way out, called a disclaimer.
I know that this raises issues of racism/climate change/vivisection etc. but there is no space to do justice to them here/ I need to concentrate on/ ... so I regretfully (or is that OTT for an academic piece?) have to leave those aside.
No guarantees of course. But it acknowledges the implications while setting them aside, and forestalls much criticism of assessed work. It doesn't work for peer-reviewed stuff, as I know all too well, and why I write a blog rather than highly-esteemed scholarly articles, read of course by no-one.

And that's my story...

26 November 2009

On a new think-tank and refreshing ideas

 I don't usual do direct political comment, but for once...

Philip Blond was on the Today programme this morning, talking about his new think-tank. He's coming from the Right, and Cameron is a fan, but some of his ideas must resonate with those of us for whom "New" (a.k.a. Old and Tired) Labout has run out of steam, and of road.

In particular he talked about the sheer cost to public services of regulation, inspection, bureaucracy and the compliance culture. He talked about restoring trust in services and professionals, and a new understanding of accountability. As anyone who has read some of my recent posts will know, that is a cause close to my heart.

He was less convincing the more specific he got (devolving community restoration budgets to the residents of sink estates is fraught with practical difficulties), but of course the outfit is only just starting up. So watch their space.

25 November 2009

On inspection overload

The link is to Frank Coffield writing in the TES about Ofsted's "Common Inspection Framework" for Further Education. Thanks to Peter H for showing it to me.

Interestingly enough, the Daily Mail has a front page lead today on how one in three schools is "failing to provide adequate teaching" according to Ofsted. A major problem seems to be that lessons are boring and uninspiring. It is of course just possible that it is the leaden hand of inspection which leads to that problem... Ofsted is part of the problem, not the solution.

Incidentally, the Mail arrives at the "one in three" figure from the finding that;
"Teaching in 2 per cent of schools - about 400 - was rated 'inadequate'. It was merely satisfactory in a further 28 per cent."
In Orwellian Ofsted Newspeak, "satisfactory" means "unsatisfactory"

24 November 2009

On being called into question

Literata (who is undertaking a PGCE [PCE] specialising in adult literacy) comments in her on-line reflective journal;
This course is making me feel strangely de-skilled in many ways. I've delivered management training, talks, seminars, workshops and creative writing classes for many years; [...] feedback has always been good and I've always thought that I can get information over to people and relate well to an audience/class. Now I feel like I don't know how to do it right any more at all; that my natural style has been compromised and I may be too old a dog to learn new tricks successfully.
And she goes on...
And yet I'm not impressed with the administration of the course nor the modelling of how to run a satisfactory course for students (...). The teaching of our two main tutors has been excellent, but the surrounding admin and support pretty useless.
She is pointing to a much neglected but very important aspect of in-service learning: its emotional impact. This is not a "touchy-feely" point--it's unavoidable.

I first noticed it thirty-five years ago, teaching on an in-service qualifying course for social workers. It hasn't changed, with experienced students.
(Nowadays it is routine to assume that people will decide on a career, commit to it, invest time and indeed money in training for it, and then go on and do it... Sounds logical, but what if the reality of practice is not what you thought it would be? In those days many practitioners in social work and indeed in teaching in adult education were not formally qualified at all, and if they sought an accredited qualification they did so only after deciding that this was a career for them, so they came to the course with several years' experience.)
Until the week before the course started, they had been working as more or less respected professionals. The default assumption by their colleagues and bosses had been that they knew what they were doing, until proven otherwise.

Then they became "students" and the world turned upside down. Now the onus was on them to demonstrate their competence from an assumed base of incompetence. For them, the experience of learning and progression was subordinate to that of assessment and judgement--and calling into question the skills and practice wisdom they had acquired so painfully in the real world.

No wonder they felt (and their counterparts today still feel) de-skilled. And when the official line about how to teach declares that your previous practice was crap, because it did not tick some fashionable box, you will go through a trough of morale. And as you lose confidence so you lose competence...
(Sometimes of course students' practice really has not met even basic standards, however conceived, but generally this is clear even to a lay observer. There is no getting round that has to be addressed and unless the student improves, they should fail).
The point?

We can't make such troughs go away.  We can re-assure students that they are normal and it is also normal to re-emerge with enhanced confidence. Indeed--in accordance with all the anthropological literature on rites of passage*--it is the preparedness to enter the trough/valley which is the prerequisite of change.

But you can only provide realistic re-assurance if you can demonstrate credibility and competence at personal, professional and institutional levels. The first two are under a degree of personal control (leaving aside some Taylorite middle-manager who decides arbitrarily to re-shuffle all the teaching half-way through the term), the latter frustratingly less so.
And the bureaucrats--nothing personal of course--have no idea of the impact of their systems on student learning until the problem becomes extreme enough for someone to complain:
  • This student has had the bailiffs call round for alleged non-payment of fees, which should have been met by the local authority, not her.
  • This student is half-way through the second year of the course and still does not have a registration number, so she can't access the VLE or the library.
  • This student has passed all his modules to date but he doesn't exist on the system so they can't be credited (but his fees have been debited...)

People are more likely to tolerate the risks and uncertainty of change if they have confidence in the course structure and administration. If they don't, they are likely to back off and go for surface learning or give up. That's why I am a little obsessional about such things as the quality of handbooks, and frustrated by administrative staff (particularly senior administrative staff) who have no idea how easily their cock-ups can undermine learning. Not to mention that it tends to be the academics, who are the public face of the institution, who tend to get blamed.

*  OK, my knowledge starts with van Gennep (1909) and it does conclude with La Fontaine (1986) but it does seem unanimous to that point.

There's more around this from a lightly different angle here. And the final remarks owe something to this paper.

20 November 2009

On framing and classical conditioning

I wrote a few days ago about our diabetic dog. He has to have his insulin shot twice a day, and he objects, understandably.

So what has learning theory got to say about this? It seems to be the province of behaviourism, since the subject is a dog, but even so it is a nice exercise to work back from experience via theory to strategy for the future.
  • After an initial couple of days when I crept up on him as he was eating and managed to jab him without him noticing, he noticed. In particular he felt the initial pinch and wriggled out of the way, which led to some mis-jabs which had to be repeated to unload the full dose--not a happy experience for either of us.

  • That meant eventually that I had to get a muzzle for him. I did so with regret, of course, and wondering whether this would simply lead to fear/aggression displacement so that the muzzle would become associated with the discomfort to follow. Strangely enough it hasn't. Yet.

  • I'm the one who wields the needle. (At the moment only, I hope...) Theory suggests that my presence will be associated with pain/discomfort and Rupert (yes, I know he ought to be a bear, but we haven't enough room for one--and indeed the prospect of pumping a bear full of insulin twice a day...) will go off me. On the other hand, we've been together for almost thirteen years, so there is positive prior learning to overcome.

  • And I have built one treat (a specific kind of savoury dog candy) into his daily food budget, so that he gets a small portion of that after each jab.

  • In the past couple of weeks we have settled into something of a routine. He accepts the muzzle. He growls and wriggles as I pinch him (to find a pocket into which to inject) and then--two times out of three--does not bother as I inject. On the third occasion he may squeal (no association with a particular site noted; all the sites are around the neck area where his skin is loosest) or wriggle hard, to the extent occasionally of bending the needle or requiring a second attempt.

  • Immediately afterwards I remove the muzzle and give him his treat, at which point his tail is wagging and he goes off to eat the treat.
What is he learning? It's a superficially simple situation but nevertheless very complex. So just two thoughts...
  • Apart from the practical aspect of muzzling him, just what message is he getting from the framing of the event with the muzzle and the treat? If he were a child, I'd be hoping he would construct it as a transitory ritual, which may be momentarily uncomfortable but always ends well--"A spoonful of sugar* helps the medicine go down.."

  • The actual act of injecting him takes less than five seconds, so the "creep-up while distracted" technique might well work again. But would that lead to him learning to be aware of a threat at all times, particularly perhaps when eating?
(*  Sugar is of course problematic in this case!)

As I wrote this, it was time to do it again. No problem with the muzzle; a second's delay after the pinch, and then a growl and wriggle with the jab to the extent of bending the needle and pulling it out... For the first time it took three tries to inject the prescribed dose.

Hmmm...

19 November 2009

On the Charter for Compassion

This blog is, in the words of the strapline, "mainly about learning and teaching", and so I don't often draw direct attention to my own beliefs and values. I prefer to pose questions in that area rather than plug answers, although it is not hard to discover from my sites where I am "coming from". For once that cliched phrase is appropriate; I come from a fairly conservative evangelical Christian background. But that is not where I live, as it were. I am an apostate, a "back-slider", in a fascinated state of flux...
That makes it quite ironic that I am cited here in a blog post which represents with amazing precision everything I reject in religiosity, in its expression as well as its content!
A few weeks ago I answered the door to a Jehovah's Witness.

(I should say that I have enormous respect for the commitment and faith (pistis) of JW's. My great-aunt was one. And they have displayed faithfulness under persecution all over the world, not least under Nazism. And they keep coming, despite us slamming the door in their faces. I've experienced quite a lot of that, in both religious and political contexts, and it hursts more than one might think...)

Nevertheless they are "not even wrong", in my book. [Take the rant as read; for once this post is too serious to enjoy cheap shots.]  I can't remember the exact question they asked on the doorstep, but I shall try to do so in future, because their opening questions are actually Socratic in process, if actually meaningless in content. (That is not a cheap shot, it's an observation; and they are framed that way for a purpose. Teachers can learn a lot from them, and despite --or perhaps because of-- eschewing higher education, they do have some very good psychologists working for them.)

Whatever the question, I replied to my own surprise (that's the mark of good Socratic questioning), "Religion is among the highest achievements of the human spirit." (The others of course are science and art. No, not politics.)

And as Karen Armstrong has explored, despite its grotesque distortions which have led to intolerance and persecution and frightened  shit-scared authoritarianism, religious thinking (pace Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris et al) has led from many starting points, to the Golden Rule.
Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you
(Not, actually, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" Why? Think about it.)

The really subversive bit of this, of course, is the demand that one stand in the place of the other, in order to make a decision.

Armstrong wants to make this the basis of a Charter for Compassion, across the world.

Through the auspices of TED, it was launched last week, inviting people to sign up and affirm  it alongside the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sheikh Ali Gomaa.

The net is known for its vast numbers and surging enthusiasms.

At the time of writing fewer than 18,000 people have signed up.

It's a question, not an answer.

16 November 2009

On the nature of "health"

Our dog has recently been diagnosed with diabetes. Dogs only get Type 1 diabetes, which results in a complete shut-down of the capacity to produce insulin naturally, and means that he has to receive it by injection. Actually this is famiiar territory for us; out first Westie, William, was diagnosed at the age of eight and died of largely unrelated causes at 13. Rupert, the current Westie member of the family, is almost 13; but of course we ask ourselves whether we have created a diabetes-inducing life-style for our dogs. A.k.a. too many treats?  Frankly, thirteen is not a bad span for a dog, so we're not feeling too guilty about that.

But this does focus some questions about the nature of health. Things have moved on since William's day, twenty years ago, and I'm not sure that they have moved forwards. It may be worth making the point that William's vet for most of his diabetic career was himself a Type 1 diabetic--or it may not.

Principally they have moved on in terms of the prescriptivism of treatment. Then, I used to take William out for a walk in the morning, carrying a ladle, which I learned deftly to slip under him to catch a urine sample at the opportune moment. (He, of course, learned rapidly to delay his first pee as long as possible because I would drag him back home immediately afterwards because not only of our tight morning schedule with three children to get to school but also of the need to have a fresh sample...) I would dip a test strip for a second, wait for a minute, check the colour of the test area, and decide-- a bit up or a bit down or no change. I'd charge the syringe, and jab him (William was much more docile about that than Rupert, who needs a muzzle now--perhaps because I have lost some skill in the intervening 15 years...).

Today the vet tells me that urine testing is not accurate enough. Indeed the packet of test strips agrees that their accuracy is plus or minus 75%; I hope that does not mean that they can be three-quarters wrong in either direction--which is an overall potential 150% error!

She needs to have Rupert regularly for a "glucose curve" assessment, all day. OK, it's 50 a time, but we have insurance so that is not the point. Once a month or so? Last time, we adjusted day by day. (And the control conditions on the first visit were abysmal; we supplied Rupert's usual food, but he was stressed and wouldn't eat, so they fed him chicken instead...)

We did buy a remarkably cheap blood test kit, but that is another invasive procedure for Rupert.

He needs a regulated diet, and regulated exercise, and no extraneous treats... He has been prescribed a dry diet dog food (for which, incidentally, the directions are appalling) which he ignores in the face of his hunger.

Human health care stumbles along informed by Quality Adjusted Life Years as a guide, from which many recoil as a mechanistic approach to the valuation of experience. Animal health care has no taboo against euthanasia, and indeed we have had a previous dog (odd expression) clinically killed. But because it is simply a matter for the "owner" to sign a form and pay a fee, we have no guidance about the quality of life of a dog.

Rupert's not having as much fun as he used to, but he doesn't appear to be in any distress, and he is as capable as ever of bossing us about, so he'll just have to put up with those jabs twice a day.

The World Health Organization has a definition of "health", but I'm not linking to it. You can't handle this with reference to a dictionary.

11 November 2009

On a drop of water...

This is extraordinary and yet repeated billions of time a day. Sometimes science is just beautiful!


Thanks to 3 quarksdaily

09 November 2009

On teachers' admin workload

A brief but thorough summary of the bureaucratic workload which besets primary school teachers in particular--and we though we had it bad in post-compulsory education... From Mark Berthelemy's blog.

As ever, what does this say about the way in which teaching "professionalism" is regarded by the powers that be?

On the other hand, is that "professional" label earned?

08 November 2009

On community (whatever that is) adult education...

P. and I had a pleasant day at a graduation event at an associate college, although I don't think I shall go again, and I'm not sure the event itself will survive. It's billed as a "Celebration" (a.k.a. PR exercise) of the HE achievement of the college students; it can't be a graduation as such because that is the prerogative of the universities themselves.

In the days of B. College, which was a "community" college in the real sense, it made sense. We processed from the old Victorian primary school which had been converted into a college annexe, through the main shopping centre, parting the populace doing their Saturday shopping*, to the parish church, which was where the ceremony was held. The church was full, and at the buffet lunch afterwards, everyone seemed to be no more than one or two links away from knowing everyone else.

(*  At our "real" graduation a week or two ago, I heard a toddler ask his mother as we passed by in procession, "Why are all those people wearing those funny clothes?" She replied, "It's to show how clever they are." I don't know how the rest of the conversation went...)

Now two colleges have amalgamated, and the ceremony has moved into the city centre. And all indoors. Apart from a few odd graduates and indeed faculty standing outside the hall for a quick smoke, there was no public visibility at all. We robed up, chatted with other academic guests, formed into a procession and entered the hall to the usual organ voluntary, totally invisible to the city around us.

The hall was, as befits a meeting hall of a major city, too big. The attending graduates (perhaps 30% of those on the roster, but 60% for our course [!]) occupied little more than half of the central block of seats. Their families and friends were scattered in the surrounding arc of seats. It may be a distorted and subjective judgment based on the size of the space, but there seemed to be fewer graduates attending from the former two colleges than from the original one. One division had only two graduates to present out of the 20+ who were eligible.

And afterwards, we got not a substantial buffet lunch but tea/coffee and biscuits; I suspect the fallout of a trade-off of costs between the local parish church and a city-centre hall.

Afterwards, in the bar of the theatre next door, I had an interesting conversation with a college colleague who specialises in working with teachers of literacy skills. She reflected on recent government initiatives in basic skills (or--latest jargon--"functional" skills. Why am I suddenly struck with this urge to explore or even teach "dysfunctional skills"?)

She argued that while there was clear evidence that improving the teaching skills of literacy tutors has been effective over the past few years, it was not making much (or indeed any) difference to their target populations of disenfranchised and alienated people. Observing the practice of her students has taken her into seriously deprived areas of the city, and she implied (I don't want to put words into her mouth) that the issues were not about teaching skills, but about the encounter between bottom-up and top-down culture.

As I think about it, I would go further. The Moser report (1999) identified the basic skills problem affecting up to a quarter of the adult population of the UK [figures which have since been questioned, I must add]. From it arose one of the most obvious and downright stupid social engineering initiatives of recent times. Basic skills (literacy and numeracy--ESOL and later ICT are less significant) for adults were not being adequately addressed because many of the those teaching them were not sufficiently "qualified". [OK--I am short-cutting a lot of stuff here, I know...]

Many of those "insufficiently qualified" teachers were volunteers, recruited through earlier government initiatives. Indeed, they may not have been teaching perfect grammar, but;
  •  Many volunteers simply gave up (at least officially); they were offering something for nothing and suddenly they were being told they had to do this training and that assessment, in order to continue to do something for nothing... Ugh? (There is a clear and present danger that the same will happen to voluntary and informal work with children because of the "Safeguarding Children" provisions coming into force...)
  • there is evidence (sorry, this will take a long time to resolve and I'm not going there) that learners work better with teachers who are just a little ahead of themselves rather than stratospherically so. (See Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 1986 for the basic argument, and add a dash of Vygotsky for flavour.)

  • They were not "professionalised"; they were not identified with "schooling", at which these adult learners had by definition failed and from which many had been actively excluded. They may even have been (and some still are where neighbour helps out neighbour outside any formal scheme) the "organic intellectuals" identified by Gramsci.
Once more the obsession with direct, professional, technical fixes has failed to engage with the messiness of the real world, I fear.

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06 November 2009

On getting to grips with academic writing

In case you should want to write like an academic (can't think why you should, but perhaps you are a student or wannabe professor), try this cheat facility from the University of Chicago writing program.

More seriously, if you want to polish your written style, see how they clean up a sentence every week, with wit and humour thrown in.

04 November 2009

On attaining "senior citizenship"

A.k.a. passing an arbitrary date --my 65th birthday. Yesterday, actually, but I had better things to do rather than mark it.

I am just laying down a marker here. I have no idea of the significance of this... whatever it is. The threshold does of course confer certain statutory benefits, such as a state pension, but most of the other benefits on the "health"-care fronts etc. were conferred at 60 to ensure equality (with women).

03 November 2009

On Levi-Strauss

I have no idea what to say. His death should be marked, but whether or not it is significant in any given discourse I don't know. I read much of his output and understood very little of it. I think that was the point.

02 November 2009

On the reality of research practice

"Research Confidential" is an edited volume of papers by young researchers with the subtitle, "Solutions to Problems Most Social Scientists Pretend They Never Have", and hence ought to be on the reading-list for every Research Methods course. The text-books rarely engage with the hassles and practical hold-ups which often seem to take up more time in the course of a research project than the substantive material itself.

The institutions which insist on approval by two separate ethics committees for a student simply to pilot the phrasing of questionnaire items on a few colleagues. The important interviewee who goes on holiday and can't be reached within the time-scale of the project. Even the critical book which has gone missing from the library. The choice of the wrong significance test. The misunderstood instructions on a questionnaire rubric. Chasing up non-responses to the extent of creating active refusals to respond. Not realising the recorder batteries have run down, or how much vibration the microphone has picked up from the vacuum cleaner in the room next door. Nonsense results because you trusted SPSS to deliver the goods without ever checking what it was actually doing. As well, of course, as being stumped by the definitive study in the area published just as you get round to the first draft of your own.

I'm not sure whether these and many more are covered, but they are the reality, and unless Research Methods courses engage with them, they portray a false picture of the researcher's experience. Indeed, the sheer existence of such a book, acknowledging the hidden cock-ups, is an important recognition that practice is always messier than theory, and that you shouldn't believe anyone who maintains otherwise.

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01 November 2009

On "no pain, no gain"

According to this link, which focuses on skills rather than knowledge learning, the learning process itself is likely to be experienced as stressful and even negative, but the aftermath is more than worth it. The article says this is "Contrary to previous research" but does not cite that research. I would have thought that it came into the category of "bleeding obvious", personally...