27 January 2010

On evidence-based practice

The linked article examines what the Teach for America programme claims actually makes for good teachers and teaching. Among many other points;
"For years, Teach for America also selected for something called “constant learning.” As Farr and others had noticed, great teachers tended to reflect on their performance and adapt accordingly. So people who tend to be self-aware might be a good bet. “It’s a perfectly reasonable hypothesis,” Ayotte-Hoeltzel says.

But in 2003, the admissions staff looked at the data and discovered that reflectiveness did not seem to matter (1) either. Or more accurately, trying to predict reflectiveness in the hiring process did not work.
What did predict success, interestingly, was a history of perseverance—not just an attitude, but a track record. In the interview process, Teach for America now asks applicants to talk about overcoming challenges in their lives—and ranks their perseverance based on their answers. Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and her colleagues have actually quantified the value of perseverance. In a study published in TheJournal of Positive Psychology in November 2009, they evaluated 390 Teach for America instructors before and after a year of teaching. Those who initially scored high for “grit”—defined as perseverance and a passion for long-term goals, and measured using a short multiple-choice test—were 31 percent more likely than their less gritty peers to spur academic growth in their students. Gritty people, the theory goes, work harder and stay committed to their goals longer. (Grit also predicts retention of cadets at West Point, Duckworth has found.)
But another trait seemed to matter even more. Teachers who scored high in “life satisfaction”—reporting that they were very content with their lives—were 43 percent more likely to perform well in the classroom than their less satisfied colleagues. These teachers “may be more adept at engaging their pupils, and their zest and enthusiasm may spread to their students,” the study suggested.
In general, though, Teach for America’s staffers have discovered that past performance—especially the kind you can measure—is the best predictor of future performance. Recruits who have achieved big, measurable goals in college tend to do so as teachers. And the two best metrics of previous success tend to be grade-point average and “leadership achievement”—a record of running something and showing tangible results. If you not only led a tutoring program but doubled its size, that’s promising.
Knowledge matters, but not in every case. In studies of high-school math teachers, majoring in the subject seems to predict better results in the classroom. And more generally, people who attended a selective college are more likely to excel as teachers (although graduating from an Ivy League school does not unto itself predict significant gains in a Teach for America classroom). Meanwhile, a master’s degree in education seems to have no impact on classroom effectiveness (2).
(1) One in the eye for reflection!
(2) And so much for the new Master's in Teaching and Learning.

On Epaminondas

What a weird trail!  Prompted, I admit, by the mention of Sarah Bakewell's book on Montaigne on "Start the Week" (BBC Radio 4) I dug out my unread copy of his selected essays and started to read.a

Aren't his sentences long? I wonder if there is a debate among translators about how much you can muck about with sentence and paragraph construction without violating the original author's style.

And in the first essay in this selection I find a mention of Epaminondas, a Theban general.

My only prior encounter with this ridiculous name, around which I struggled to get my tongue almost 60 years ago, was in a most egregiously racist children's story, of which I had not thought for half a century. Actually, it was not the one referred to in the heading link; it was "Epaminondas and his Mammy's Umbrella" (Sorry, I can''t provide full bibliographic details at short notice--but courtesy of the web you can read it here!)

I have no idea what to make of this. I have no opinion other than revulsion at the casual racism of fifty years ago--but a recognition that these were the default values which I shared as a child (I do remember being puzzled about the ungrammatical dialect).

This is an occasion for negative capability, and I note with interest but no conclusion that it is almost exactly a year since I last blogged on that.

25 January 2010

On explaining grades

The linked piece is a column (dated yesterday but I think I've seen it before) in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Gina Barreca of the University of Connecticut. What I found most remarkable was not the piece itself but part of the first comment:
"Nobody should explain a grade to a student."
As flat and dogmatic as that. On the contrary, nobody should ever give a student a grade without explanation.

The principles of formative assessment (or "assessment for learning") suggest strongly that students can learn an enormous amount from good feedback. Indeed, Hattie concludes that the single most effective way of improving learning is to give "dollops of feedback". And all assessment can be formative. The mark or grade is simply a summary or proxy for the feedback, but it is so abstracted as to give practically no information. On a course on which I currently teach, there are no grades, just "pass" and "refer" (which caan lead to an outright "fail"). But there are dollops of feedback.

Last week one of the participants--"student" is not quite the word for well-qualified professionals in their fields who happen to be learning to teach that field--did ask a colleague for a grade.He demurred, but he could see how uncomfortable it made her. She had been through school, an undergraduate degree and a Master's getting grades all the time; a piece of work had not been properly assessed unless it got a grade, as far as she was concerned even if as in this case, it carried credits if it passed.

It's interesting that the education system is so hooked on grades; in the rest of the working world we get plenaty of feedback, but only in teaching do we get graded (by Ofsted)*.

I suspect that the sub-text of the original comment is that no student should ever question the judgement of a faculty member, however arbitrary.

*Not entirely true, but substantially so.

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22 January 2010

On instant qualitative analysis

I've been messing around with Wordle. In particular I wanted to assemble a number of definitions of "learning" and to explore their similarities and differences in emphasis. and it does a fantastic job of that;

It occurs to me that it provides a very easy tool for the quick analysis of qualitative data such as transcripts of interviews. See here, too for its use in a similar way to reveal two different positions in a political debate. I'm sure others have got there first, but it seems to have plenty of potential...

16 January 2010

On the demise of another craft

I feel for this story. I have groped and fumbled round darkrooms, and loaded developing tanks under bedclothes and backed off from developing colour film doubting whether I could maintain the required temperature tolerances. I was never much good at it, so I really respect the skills of the masters (and mistresses) of the craft.

So let's celebrate the skill, and even mourn its passing, but its time is past, and PhotoShop and its competitors have the field. Get over it and move on!

But there is one difference, and it matters from a training point of view.

A year or so ago I asked Antonio (real first name) after a session I observed on his photography course, why the course still included "old-fashioned" analogue techniques (using film, and developing and printing it). Because, he told me, of their irreversibility. If you can "undo" and start again, and again, and again, there is little incentive to learn (as opposed just to try again).

So: to what extent does the cost of failure contribute to skill learning?

And--cost to whom? Sponsor, "provider", student...? what difference does that make?

15 January 2010

On living in the future

Excellent site; a children's book from 1972 showing what everyday life would be like in 2010, with comments. Some predictions quite odd, but others very prescient. H/t Boing Boing and the Browser.

11 January 2010

On the education of nurses (in the USA) --and parallels

I know that some readers are in nurse education, so you might be interested in this new report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in the USA [link from post title]. It parallels in some respects the plan for nursing to become an all-graduate profession in England by 2013. That proposal has been met with some scepticism in the UK.

It does seem that what Etzioni (1969) called the "semi-professions" have been making strenuous efforts in the latter half of the last century to enhance their status. As the citation below shows, he identified teachers, nurses and social workers as the main semi-professions, although since he was writing there are many more candidate occupations. I used to teach social workers, and more recently I have been teaching teachers, among whom have been nurses taking what the Nursing and Midwifery Council terms a "Recordable Teaching Qualification"--so I have a certain amount of knowledge in the area.

When I first taught in a primary school in the early sixties, some of my colleagues had only one year's training, or indeed higher education; they were known as "Emergency Trained" in a scheme developed in the aftermath of WW2 particularly to replace the large numbers of male teachers lost to the occupation. The norm was two years (although there was one teacher on the staff, apart from myself, who was quite untrained). Graduates did not have to be trained.

The first social work course I taught on was just a year long, with no specific entry requirements other than at least six months experience in residential child care. When I moved on from social work education, the Diploma in Social Work was just two years long, but in practice only taken by mature people (in age, at least) with some prior experience. The standard qualification has only been an undergraduate degree for a few years. Strangely at my former institution it is a Bachelor of Science award. Recently, (December 2009) the Social Work Task Force has reported, recommending the equivalent of a probationary year for newly-qualified staff, with extra support and supervision and the estbalishment of a National College for Social Work (presumably to replace the National Institute for Social Work which was closed in 2003...)

And nursing is now either a Diploma or Degree qualified profession, in both cases following a three year course. It moved from being work-based training with study blocks to coming under the auspices of universities in a programme called "Project 2000" from 1992 onwards. This was itself influenced by practice in the USA.

So what?

The first point is that as the fully-qualified staff have moved up the professional scale in each occupation, much of what they used to do has been taken over by lowlier and less-trained people. So much of the routine activity in nursing (and crucially the long-term and continuing patient contact) is now undertaken by Health Care Assistants, whose basic qualification is at National Qualifications Framework (NQF) level 3. Classroom Assistants have become increasingly important in schools, they may have minimal training or be relatively well-qualified with a Foundation Degree; from being primarily concerned to help children with special educational needs, their roles have become broader to the extent that the may be asked to "deliver" lessons using material prepared by a "proper" teacher. And social work has always relied heavily on an army of poorly-paid residential or domiciliary care assistants, nursery nurses and others often with very basic National Vocational Qualifications. So a caste division is established.

Of course, the fully-qualified staff cease to be direct practitioners--they become supervisors and managers. And because of the  institutional anxiety engendered by the fact that direct "user" contact is increasingly undertaken by under-qualified staff, the quality assurance procedures have to be tightened which means that the qualified staff spend even more time in their offices dealing with paperwork... There is also a view which may or may not be legitimate that the new generations of highly-qualified staff are coming to see direct contact, particularly of a routine and even menial kind, as "beneath them".

And... Many commentators have made the point that raising the bar for the final qualification is likely to entail raising entry requirements and thereby excluding  many potential candidates from under-represented groups. I'm not entirely convinced by this argument. Further and higher education institutions are in practice going out of their way to create ladders through sub- and para-professional qualifications to full professional recognition. And--purely on the basis of prejudicial respect for dozens of people I have had the privilege of guiding to that recognition--I need actively to be persuaded that people following this route are not the very best all-round practitioners in their fields. Their commitment, stamina, and practical experience (tempered perhaps by their toleration of being taught by prats like me--putting up with that is not  a commendation)! ...does not merely add--it multiplies their practice wisdom.

But. From a different angle--

What is happening to those left behind?

Policies of social mobility which encourage able people to transcend their origins are great. Up to a point...
  • in a norm-referenced world, for everything which goes up, something must go down.

  • Gramsci (1971) (Italian marxist theorist imprisoned by Mussolini) was concerned about the development of "organic intellectuals" among the working class. Roughly, "traditional intellectuals" are people who think of themselves as such; organic intellectuals are people who undertake intellectual work without recognising themselves or being recognised by others. Gramsci argued that organic intllectuals were a by-product creation of the ruling classes, but that they also had counterparts "embedded" as we should now say within the working classes, in voluntary and community groups, in unions, in churches (not sure where he stood on religion) and families. In his view it was vital that they be enlisted to lead the revolutionary struggle.

  • The problem from this perspective is of course that educationally-promoted social mobility may be seen as "creaming off" the working-class organic intellectuals, thereby leaving working-class communities leaderless and even more disenfranchised than before; hence, it may be argued, "sink estates" and so-called "broken Britain" (and perhaps vulnerability to right-wing demagoguery), as opposed to Hoggart's account of pre-WW2 working-class life in "The Uses of Literacy" (1957).

  • The rise of the semi-professions fits into this argument because of their accessibility to aspirants.
Push the argument further (perhaps too far?) and it suggests that raising the bar for the semi-professions does not enhance but undermines not only the quality of the service they offer, but also the quality of life of a large proportion of the population...


    Etzioni, A. (1969) The Semi-professions and their Organisation: Teachers, Nurses and Social Workers, New York: Free Press

    Hoggart, R (1957) The Uses of Literacy; Aspects of Working Class Life London; Chatto and Windus

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    08 January 2010

    On textbooks

    As you know, I am about to start teaching a module which I last taught (conforming--or not--to a different set of guidelines/requirements/regulations/standards, but we can ignore them) ...I last taught two years ago.

    But I have actually been planning this run of the module, partly because I do suppose I have to pretend to pay some attention to the new standards (which, although still meaningless, are actually less restrictive than the old ones). In fact the specified outcomes for the module are so woolly that the only guidance is contained in the shibboleth of "inclusivity".

    (My unregenerate dark side still thinks that this is a euphemism for "dumbing down to meet unrealistic and arbitrary government targets", but really I do know better. Honest!)

    One practical manifestation of this exercise is that I have been obliged actually to open the textbooks which we recommend to the students. (Only if you recommend them do you get to keep the inspection copies of the latest editions which the publishers so obligingly send at fairly regular intervals. It's quite an ingenious Catch-22. The students and/or the library will buy the latest edition anyway [although not necessarily of this particular textbook which is one of many very similar offerings]. Either, we can recommend it so as to get a free copy, or we have to buy it in order to understand what the students are referring to.

    ...Or of course ignore the textbooks altogether apart from commenting adversely on scatter-gun arbitrary quotations from them which add nothing to assessed work other than demonstrating that the student has ritually bowed before the Supposed Authority sufficiently to extract a few irrelevant words...

    Sorry for the splenetic rant. (I'm jealous, really. I want to be invited to write the definitive textbook. As if.) There is a more serious point to this post:

    It is about what "textbooks" do to their subject-matter. Probably under pressure from editors and publishers, authors have to contort and distort their topics to fit published syllabi or standards, and the effects of doing so are wholly pernicious;
    • they "send a message" that reading and expressing an interest in this material for its own sake is improbable or even impossible--it has to be packaged as stuff to be "covered" in the interests of getting a qualification. In other words, it positively encourages surface learning, while at the same time doubtless inveighing against it. I am a devotee of popular science books. Granted, they don't (always) go into the (technically) difficult stuff and steer clear of maths (apparently someone told Stephen Hawking that each equation in his book would halve its readership) They start from the assumption that their subject is inherently fascinating, and they (authors, agents, publishers...) will be happy if they manage to ...er, make money. But in this market, for once, making money is a good proxy for a good product. Not so in the textbook market which is artificially created by examination boards and accreditation bodies...
    • they regurgitate mainstream and conventional wisdom, with little report of dissenting voices and debate; simply because anodyne regurgitation (is that an oxymoron?) gets people through assessments. Evidence? Follow the treatment of a controversial topic (say, learning styles) through several editions of a textbook and see how it shifts to accommodate the conventional wisdom... 
    • they package ideas within the discourse of their avowed subject matter; I remember "Psychology for Teachers" and "Psychology for Social Workers". The selection of topics is not so much the problem--it is the stipulative rhetoric with which the material is pushed out.
    Or am I just too much of an idealistic academic? Is it not simply trivial in the overall scheme of things?

      On the consequences of early specialisation

      Michael Ruse has a great debatable point here.

      05 January 2010

      On (probably) the last time round...

      ...and the first time.

      I'm teaching a module this term both for the first time, because the arbitrary professional validation requirements have changed---and probably for the last time, because I am supposed to be retired and there is certain to be a clamp-down on the part-time staff budget in the light of the recent swingeing cuts.

      When I was contemplating retirement a few years ago, I continually reassured myself that if I could just teach this module one more time, I would really get it right. This may be the "one more time". But the aspiration embodied at least two fallacies;
      • that it was all up (or "down"--it means the same thing) to me as the teacher. It's the myth of teaching as performance. It's a small part of the reality, but only a small part. There is no fixed "performance" standard. But there is a standard of fit with  a particular student group.
      • and even more that it was my self-assessment that mattered. Teaching is about bringing about learning: 
      • A man that looks on glass, On it may stay his eye, Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass, And then the heav'n espy.
        (George Herbert, 1633, The Elixir)
        Teaching is the glass, learning the heav'n.
        More prosaically, keep your eye on the ball--not the bat.
      I'll be re-visiting some of the issues raised by this module, no doubt.

      03 January 2010

      On identifying a fundamental problem

      OK, this is a little more explicitly political than my usual posts, but --allowing no doubt for the cherry-picked anecdotal "evidence" verging probably on urban myths, which I have to see behind every tree in the media nowadays*-- Jenni Russell's diagnosis of what has become of Labour's naive interventionism does seem spot on.But even she does not see Cameronism as a panacea...

      * Do read Davies N (2009) Flat Earth News London: Vintage which is an enormously eye-opening expose of the present state of journalism (or "churnalism" as he calls it, and I suspect he's a bit naive about drugs policy, but even so...)