01 February 2010

On the point of teaching

An excellent piece on being able to see the wood for the trees in relation to teaching;
In discussions of “effective” teaching, we often hear about the “objectives” that teachers should spell out and repeat, the “learning styles” they should target, the “engagement” they should guarantee at every moment, and the constant encouragement and praise they should provide—all in the interest of raising test scores. The D.C. public schools IMPACT (the teacher assessment system for D.C. public schools) awards points to teachers who implement such practices; Teach For America addresses some of them in its forthcoming book.

Except for the misguided notion of targeting learning styles, none of these techniques is wrong in itself. But together they raise a barrier. Instead of bringing the subject closer to the students, this heap of tools proclaims: “No entrance! The subject is too hard without spelled-out skills, too boring without adornment, and too frustrating without pep talks and cheers!”

Worse still, such techniques take precedence over the lesson’s content. A literature teacher is evaluated not for her presentation of specific poems, but for stating the objectives, keeping all students “on task,” reminding them about the relation between hard work and success, using visuals and manipulatives, and, ultimately, raising the scores. It matters little, in such a system, whether the poem is excellent or trivial, what kind of insight the teacher brings, or what the students might take into their lives."
My sentiments exactly, as I've note before on the blog  and on the site. And thanks to Sheffner for saving me the trouble of looking up those urls for myself!

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12 October 2009

On evaluating the one-off lecture

OK, it happened, and indirect feeedback via a colleague who could not attend but who spoke to people after the event was that it had been well-received, even remarked on as a "proper academic lecture" (not sure whether or not that is a compliment!)

There are of course standard procedures for evaluation, including the usual feedback sheets and the like. Such procedures are unsurprisingly not routine on this course, and it didn't seem appropriate to introduce them--after all, this was from the students' point of view just another session in a regular timetable. It was my decision to get all self-conscious about it.

So just a few remarks on practical aspects, and then a more general thought.
  • time-keeping and pacing is always tricky the first time around; I seem to have got it pretty well right, though.
  • The presentation? You can see it via the link on yesterday's post, but the version there has been annotated and expanded. I don't like too much content on the slides, and I tried to use them as headings to show the students where we were. That was OK with a heading like "fashions and fads", but not really satisfactory when I talked ever so briefly about a particular theorist; I was using slides cannibalised from another lecture including images which may not have been the very best choices. 
  • Delivery? A guy at the back said he couldn't hear me in the first few seconds. I thanked him and talked louder, but I didn't continue to check--which I could have done very easily with the traffic-light cards all the audience had. Specifically everyone had a red, a yellow and a green A5 card, with which they could signal answers to questions, like "If you have never heard of Skinner, show a red card. If you've heard of him but don't know much about his ideas, show yellow. If you know quite a bit about him show green..." It's clickers-lite, but a lot easier to manage spontaneously.
  • As to use of the cards; they were appreciated and commented on afterwards, and they are so easy to use. No downside, if you sort out the logistics of distribution. As ever, it is not merely the technical advantage they confer above a simple show of hands which makes the difference--it is what the very fact of issuing them and using them says about the kind of interaction the lecturer wants within the session. They send a message--"I want you to be able to communicate back to me".
  • And as for that great bug-bear of the lecture, attention-span, that little bit of activity every few minutes seemed to get the students re-engaged. Visual clues suggested they were still with me at the end of the session.
  • The two-minute buzz-group exercise came almost exactly half-way through; frankly it was as much about breaking the session up as it was about content, but some of the ideas were interesting enough to weave into the rest of the session. It also gave me a chance to nip out and buy an extortionately priced bottle of water--why no water-coolers?
More generally, though; did the session achieve its objective of providing an orientation to learning theories so students can engage with them on a fairly deep level? As ever, I think the argument was clearer to me than it was to them, and I perpetrated the sin I have been trying not to commit for years and years (and which I can avoid as a part of regular teaching); I elaborate arguments in the hope of making them clearer, but in practice I am obscuring and burying them in a mass of marginally relevant detail. Once I get into the swing of a lecture I can always think of more stuff to pile in. When it is something I do regularly, I can prune it and filter it so that what gets said is what needs to be said and no more, but I'm still not good at that on a one-off basis.

And is a lecture, at this stage in their programme, the appropriate means of communicating such a message? Probably not, but given the constraints it was a reasonable strategy to choose.

One comment my colleague heard was that I had rubbished some current fads, or even sacred cows. Indeed I had, and I now wonder whether or not I should have done. After all there was a team of about a dozen other colleagues attending, most of whom I don't know, and I may well have stepped clumsily on a few people's toes. I'm pretty sure the students enjoyed it, but that's not the point. Had I had more notice I could and should have circulated some of the proposed content in advance for comment; who knows, perhaps one of those colleagues will have to deliver a session next week advocating learning styles! An interesting and open question about the responsibilities one has to the rest of the team...

Still, I have to admit that I enjoyed myself thoroughly; not something to be aimed for, but a good spin-off if it happens.

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03 October 2009

On an "outstanding" lesson

I've just been channel-hopping and came across Teachers' TV. It was citing an example of an "outstanding" lesson on elementary geometry for, I guess, 9-year-olds. "Outstanding" is Ofsted's term, by the way.

Not only was the lesson poorly constructed, but just under the surface it was teaching rubbish...

  1. The teacher gave several instructions but then qualified them with, "but before that, you need to..."

  2. She put up a small text slide outlining the lesson objectives. Why? This is teacher-speak, which means nothing to learners, who have no interest in framing stuff this way. Basically, in order to make sense of this kind of specification of steps towards a goal (if that is actually a good metaphor) you need to be able to stand outside the experience, to see the map of the journey; and of course very few learners can do that. Indeed, probably none of them... not even postgrads. So all this "explanation" does is to confuse further.

  3. Most egregiously though, it reproduced precisely the offence I experienced at the same age. I can remember the class vividly. It was the first half of a Friday afternoon, just before Art or the Story which wound down the week, probably in the Spring of 1953 or thereabouts.

    We were given exactly the same exercise as the pupils in the programme. Construct a triangle (actually, these pupils had the triangles drawn and cut out for them), then use a protractor to measure the angles, and add them up to arrive at the magic total of 180 degrees.
Except that they didn't! As I recall, my total was about 183 degrees, and the girl next to me got 178 degrees. Neither our understanding nor the teacher's (OK--to confuse the issue but to explain much else, this was the bizarre year when my mother was also my class teacher) could cope with "margins of error". So there was a meta-learning in this lesson:

The theory and received wisdom is correct. If your experience differs, it is wrong. 

It was repeated many times afterwards, in practically every "science" lesson in particular throughout my schooling. To be fair, it wasn't surprising in those days. I was in secondary school in the late '50s when budgets were very tight, and the improvisation of equipment was taken for granted. 

But things have changed; we are no longer constrained by limited facilities (at this level). And while I and my peers understood at some level that our practicals were just playing at science, children today are accustomed to something more definitive.

I don't want to get hyperbolic, but forget "objectives" and aspirations, and get down to more realistic "takeaways" including the unintended ones.

About twenty years or more ago, there was a late night Open University programme on "Professional Judgement". [See; Dowie J and Elstein A (eds) (1988) Professional Judgement; a reader in clinical decision making Cambridge; Cambridge U P] It was fascinating, and I am amazed now to find out how old it is, but the relevant point is that at the end of each programme, there was space given to --as I remember-- an academic from the LSE, to critique the assumptions and the methodology of the preceding argument.

That's the way to promote sound development of practice, not facile and fiddled "demonstrations" of what "ought" to have happened.

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01 September 2009

On another overview of on-line education. Are the geeks backing off?

A few days ago I drew attention to a report from the US Department of Education on on-line learning.

I should have waited, because now there is an interesting parallel report from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities / Sloan National Commission on On-line Learning.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Marc Parry introduces his piece thus;
They worry about the quality of online courses, say teaching them takes more effort, and grouse about insufficient support. Yet large numbers of professors still put in the time to teach online. And despite the broad suspicion about quality, a majority of faculty members have recommended online courses to students.

That is the complicated picture that emerges in "The Paradox of Faculty Voices: Views and Experiences With Online Learning," part of a two-volume national study released today by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities—Sloan National Commission on Online Learning. ...

The major survey of public colleges and universities found that 70 percent of all faculty members believe the learning outcomes of online courses to be either inferior or somewhat inferior, compared with face-to-face instruction.

Professors with online experience are less pessimistic. Among those who have taught or developed an online course, the majority rated the medium's effectiveness as being as good as or better than face to face. But in a potentially controversial finding, even among professors who have taught online, fully 48 percent feel it is either inferior or somewhat inferior.
And for those hooked on the hard stuff, here is a discussion of attending a virtual conference in Second Life.

Rather more polemically, Mark Bauerlein draws attention to the impoverished nature of on-line and mediated communication in the WSJ. Read the comments, too. (And incidentally he mentions the recent death of Edward T Hall, anthropologist and author of "The Hidden Dimension"--on cultural aspects of the management of physical space--and "The Silent Language", to which Bauerlein refers. Hall was 95; his website has not yet caught up with his death.*)

It's all interesting in its own right, but most encouraging is the more considered and balanced evaluation of technology-based teaching and learning which is emerging. The Second Life example particularly is a comment on the former geek rhetoric, "We can, therefore we should". Instead, there is a more realistic question about the added value of doing stuff on-line (and the added costs).

But there is also an issue about whether people like us are really equipped to comment on what the student experience might be. They, it is argued, are "digital natives" who have grown up with all this technology and to whom it is totally transparent and natural. We did not, so we shouldn't project our own reservations onto them...

* Oh dear--I can't resist. The question of who will up-date one's website with news of one's death is a new problem. But it is not as exotic as the question concerning, it appears, some American evangelicals who believe in the Rapture (Google it if you are not into eschatology), when Jesus will return and true believers will be taken into heaven, leaving the rest of us behind. The problem is, who is going to look after the dog? No worries! Rapture Pet Care has it sorted. A dedicated band of atheists will...

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26 May 2009

On clickers

A good overview of a promising technology to enhance large lecture teaching; but as ever 80% of the functionality can be addressed by giving students coloured cards to wave. It could not be simpler.
  • Think of the maximum number of alternatives you might want in a multiple-choice quiz. Four? Somehow issue each of your students with four different coloured cards. Say, red, yellow, green, blue.
  • Now you can stop your lecture at any point and pose a quiz, to check understanding of a particular point. Just put up a slide wutlipleith the multiple-choice answers, each associated with a particular colour. On your mark get everyone to show... you can take it from there.
  • But red and green in particular have strong connotations... You can use them to monitor understanding of points you have made--or prior understanding. All that is needed is a verbal cue. "Have you got that? If you're pretty sure, show green and I'll move on. If you are a bit 'iffy' show amber and I'll check out where the problems are. If you haven't a clue, show red and I'll go over it again..."
Since I don't commonly lecture to large groups, I had largely experienced this "technology" as a member of the audience, and only used it as a lecturer for demo purposes. A few weeks ago a colleague and I were team-teaching a group of about 400 students, and we used the technique. We had planned to use it just two or three times. But the feedback was so vivid and immediate and the students took to it so well, we used it much more than that. You could see clusters of students who had problems, for example, so it was possible to go to them and find out the specific issue. On a couple of occasions there were students waving red cards without being prompted; they didn't understand and it was much easier to do that than to speak up about in a group of 400.

Clickers are more flexible, and they are remarkably cheap (especially if each student buys their own and uses it over their college career and then sells it on...) But bits of cardboard? Must be the biggest ever return on investment in educational technology!

And of course I would be remiss not to acknowledge and thank Phil Race, who has refined the use of cardboard and post-it notes to a fine art, as a minor gloss on a great career. I'm delighted to hear that he is continuing his assocation with Leeds Met in an emeritus capacity.

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25 May 2009

On re-launching the sites part 1

It's the big finale, folks!

The funding runs out at the end of this academic year, and so I have embarked on a real root-and-branch up-date of the sites, so I don't have as much to do when no-one is paying. I think I have dealt with the "learning" site, and I have up-loaded it back to the server in the last few minutes. I'm sure I have missed something; in that case please let me know.

I'll start on the "teaching" side in a day or two (given that I do have something which passes for a life, besides this). That site is bigger but less complicated. And then I'll move on to "Doceo", which has had a partial re-vamp already.

And of course I shall carry on without external funding (and my gratitude to the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme of the Higher Education Academy for supporting this for the last five years--it was not meant to go on so long, but they have been really supportive and understanding), although I may have to resort to carrying Adsence or similar. Hey, don't let Susi know, but I can probably afford it in any case---and she might even contribute to keep me out form under her feet...

I'll notify the next stages via the blog, too.

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07 May 2009

On the personal touch

Just when it seems that everyone is going over the top for e-portfolios and that egregiously infantilising application, PebblePad — the Times Higher Education once again comes through with a feature on the distinctive feature of UK universities (albeit cast largely in the discourse of the "unique selling proposition"), namely personal contact between academics and students.

There ain't no substitute.

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06 January 2009

On "brain-based" education

Not only is this a beautifully clear exposition and an exemplary simple video, it is also an important corrective to a lot of rubbish!

And, of course, see this one about "learning styles" (which just happens to coincide with my own view here!) Willingham's site also has a lot of material well worth reading.

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19 November 2008

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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27 March 2008

On books and blogs (roughly)

You may have noticed that the blog has had a re-design. Frankly, I managed to break the previous template with a tweak too far, so I had to choose another but then I couldn't resist messing with it a bit...

So, being self-referential, that coincides with a message from a correspondent enquiring whether I have written or am going to write, the book of the site. I get such emails every other week or so, which is gratifying, but I usually respond very briefly; "No!" or words to that effect. Perhaps because I have been working on (grandiose term! I have been messing about with...) the re-design, on this occasion I decided to explain myself a little. And the more I got into it, the more interesting the issue became. (And of course, now I have a ready-made explanation to refer other correspondents to in future.)
I hear [an author my correspondent mentioned rather unflatteringly] is doing well out of his books and his consultancy; good for him and others (some of them friends of mine) in the same business. But in business terms his "offering" is really rather different from mine. People pay up-front for his expertise. Either they buy books (or more likely, libraries buy books), or they engage him for staff development sessions and pay for it. They do this because they have reasonable expectations of the quality of what he will offer, and he doubtless takes considerable care to deliver to meet those expectations. It's a traditional model, and it does tend to lead to slightly staid and conventional material.

The web is an entirely different medium; it is far more casual. People only have to click on a link to come to my site, and they can leave just as easily. They can glance at a page for six seconds (I read that somewhere, but this is not a topic I reference punctiliously); if it is not what they are looking for they can move on at no cost.

I get over a million unique visitors a year (as you may know, web hosting companies provide incredibly detailed statistics). But over a quarter of those visitors (28% at the latest count) only look at one page; presumably they then decide it is not for them and they move on. I get appreciative notes from people like you who stick around—and many thanks for them—but all I know about the others is that they did not stick around, because visiting a web-page is not like picking up (still less, buying) a book.

And for me that means that I can mess about a bit. I'm not constrained by much of a contract with the reader, and certainly no financial one. I can do my "heterodoxy" stuff, without taking it too seriously; see http://www.doceo.co.uk/heterodoxy/index.htm I can crack jokes, and if some people don't like them and move on, that is no big deal. I can take risks.

I could of course even misrepresent ideas and be sloppy or biassed or unfair about the material, and that is the risk you as a reader take if you decide to trust me. Even Wikipedia is monitored by editors; personal sites aren't. There is no peer review process, and no quality assurance mechanisms. (Actually, I did take the first steps to setting up an "advisory committee" in 2005. Several of the people I approached pointed out it was a bad idea—the Unique Selling Point of the "brand" was my distinctive voice. Of course they may just have been trying to get out of serving on it...) Certainly, no-one should trust just my site.

There is also another, quite different reason for choosing this medium. It is what accounts for its appearance in the first place: and although books can manage it quite well, readers rarely make use of the facility;

Hyperlinks, and non-linear reading. About half of the present material on the "learning" side of the site started life in the form of handouts in the mid-90s. I used to give handouts to support lectures. But they were only about one topic—the topic of the lecture. And it frustrated me that my students, even Master's level students, were not making the connections between the topics. They were not fitting individual ideas into a coherent (or even incoherent—even better) whole. I was impressed by how the "Help" files of various packages used hyperlinks to help create such connections, and I found a package which would build such .hlp files from word-processor files. So I distributed these things on floppy discs... Eventually, web access came along and I put them up there. (Fortunately before VLEs, or the whole thing might have got stuck in that dead-end, but that's another story...) But the hyperlink is critical; it enables readers to construct their own mental image of the topic, rather than being dragged along by an author.
That's the rationale behind the web-sites. The blog is different again.

The point, in terms of teaching? We use many media, and often treat them as interchangeable. They're not. Often the differences don't matter much, but sometimes they do, and they go quite deep.

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