30 March 2006

On blowing my own trumpet

...because as my mother used to say, "no-one else will blow it for you!"

It's not exactly media-hype; but thanks to Steven Jones for a very fair, if skilfully selective, account of our discussion at the link in the heading. So far, I haven't the
chutzpah to put a direct link on my site, but I'll get there!

I drafted what's above a week or so ago as soon as the article was on the web, but forebore to publish. It would be self-indulgent, I thought.

But my brother mentioned it to the former head of my primary(elementary) school (she actually took over after I left, but my mother was still teaching there... I haven't mentioned before that my mother was once my class teacher, have I? Well, doctor.........) She is 93; she wrote me a real (paper and ink) letter, in a beautiful teacher's hand, which was generally very complimentary.

But, she picked me up on my (reported) use of "bureaucratise". Had I succumbed to the very jargon I castigate?

Apart from being delighted at the feedback, I felt at once as if I were before her at the teacher's desk for having yet again mis-spelled "becuase" (sorry! "because"). Two reflections;

  • the potency of the teacher/pupil relationship. For better or worse, it has an impact fifty-two years later. The UK teaching development agency has a slogan, "No-one ever forgets a good teacher". I'm not so sure about that; few people forget bad teachers, either. But I am still challenged by her comment much more than I would be had it come from anyone else!
  • Her integrity; she gave me that feedback. It was I (I have to careful about syntax here--she might read this!--should I say "me" as assumed object, or "I" as the technically correct complement?) who volunteered the information, but she could not forebear to correct me.
I can't begin to express the happy confusion of feelings this exchange engendered. Mrs B retired 30+ years ago, but she is still a teacher at heart. There's a chiasmus here; "You can take the person out of teaching, but you can't take the teacher out of the person." It could work nastily, but this was wholly benign, and I was delighted.

26 March 2006

On planning

Just read this from Dwight Eisenhower, from Mardy Grothe's fascinating weekly newsletter (link in heading);

"In preparing for battle,
I have always found that plans are useless,
but planning is indispensable

That goes for teaching too.

23 March 2006

On craftsmanship

While in Madison, Wisconsin, my friend Peter and I visited the superb Capitol building with the fourth-largest dome in the world, according to the guide. But Peter drew my attention to the superb inlaid floors in different kinds of stone, laid with such precision, and (being about 90 years old) with the benefit of only what we would regard as very crude technology. I was reminded of this piece, which I wrote a few weeks ago, but did not upload because something else came up that day:

I've just caught, while channel-surfing, another of Fred Dibnah's wonderful programmes about the industrial revolution, which appear happily to be re-circulating on digital channels. Apart from having met Fred casually a couple of times at charity fund-raising events in Bolton Market Square and seeing his LandRover around when we lived in Bolton, I'm a great admirer on two levels;
  • his infectious enthusiasm for sheer craftsmanship in the Victorian age in particular, when engineering depended so much on the direct personal skills of craftsmen. (Pardon the implict sexism; women were also very skilled in operating the mchines, but the transience of their contributions is part of the point of this reflection.)
  • his skill in communicating it.
So I started thinking about our shared (if I may be so presumptuous) admiration for craftsmanship, and I realised that his is largely about the craft of product. He bubbles with admiration for a steam-engine or a mill, but of course—given that he was making a film about it—he could point to the product, and invite us to admire it, and by implication the skill of those who designed and made it.

There's another kind of craft; that of process. It is by definition ephemeral. It leaves only indirect "products", and we need to infer what went into their making.

Teaching is such a process skill. Its products may be evident, but indirect. Its proof, as a skill, is in ephemeral, moment-to-moment interaction, rather than in the product of the "successful student", because there are so many other factors which influence that "successful" outcome.

17 March 2006

On reading blogs and Pandas' digestive systems

Read a Blogger blog, and in most cases there is this seductive button at the top of the page which invites; "Next blog". I'm getting hooked on it. I just spent half an hour ploughing through pages in Spanish and blank pages associated with jewellery and adolescent self-indulgence, when I came upon;

"Waiting for spring is like [...] constipation. It's always so close to breaking free, yet it's stuck fast." (http://irisyapp.blogspot.com/ 14 March)

Which prompted me to the analogy with Pandas. They have to eat vast quantities of minimally nutritious bamboo every day (both shoots and leaves, of course) in order to survive; so they have to--er--"evacuate" most of it. Reading blogs is rather like that... Hope this one is the nutritious bit, but should I remove the blogger bar at the top?

16 March 2006

On emotional aspects of learning

This deserves more than simply a blog entry, but starting with this may prompt me to something more substantial in the future. With the exceptions of Illeris (2004), Salzberger-Wittenberg et al (1983?) and Willie More back in 1977-ish, and my occasional references, this is a sorely neglected issue.

Two prompts today; I stood in for P. to do a session for 3rd-year undergrads on "e-learning" on the "Adult Learners and Learning" module. It was rather a lacklustre performance, I confess. I had a lot of material but limited acquaintance with the group, and although they did the brain-storming* exercise very well—sufficiently well to render some of my prepared material irrelevant (thank goodness, I'd have hated to spell it all out). Still, one point which was missing was about the limits of social and emotional support available for learners on-line.

Even ordinary "additive" learning (as opposed to the "supplantive" learning I have researched) can be frustrating and exhausting, and as well as the importance of feedback (which the students picked up on), simple encouragement is very important. Impersonal on-line responses don't really cut the mustard on that count.

The second prompt was really close to home. I do not like the layout of this blog, so I have been trying to edit the template, with guidance from a tutorial in .net magazine. After two hours, I gave up. I could just about understand the html/xml markup involved, by dint of very careful reading, but there was just too much of it. I played with some of it but it had unpredictable results.
  • So I got "fed up" and decided it was just too complicated to bother with. I may return to it later (it's the diffference between its display in different browsers which really bugs me, although you probably couldn't care less).
That's trivial, but the general issue of frustration at not understanding, or of being overwhelmed by how much there is to learn, or lack of confidence that it will ever be mastered—it's all a very potent demotivator for our students.

Partly it is a matter of timing. I am a motivated learner (or at least problem-solver) in this area, and I am also used to long-term learning projects (see here for more on this than you may want to know) but I need to know that I am making progress. As it was, everything I did seemed to take me backwards. So I got frustrated and gave up. It's normal, but its implications are considerable, and often neglected.

So you are stuck with this clunky page design for a while yet! In particular, why does it just refer to the dates of the posts and not to their subjects? I'll sort it one day, but I've had enough for the moment.


*Some PC people seem to think that "brain-storming" is an unacceptable term. I gather that is not so according to a National Epilepsy Society survey; it is after all a positive and creative activity.

09 March 2006

On online surveys

This has little to do with teaching and learning, but a great deal to do with the credibility of on-line surveys (and hence with research methods).

I recently signed up with a survey company in order to manage a questionnaire to former students (which proved to be more problematic than I had anticipated, but that's another story). The signing up process included asking me whether I would like to earn money by responding to on-line surveys. I was a little intrigued, so I said yes.

Today I received the first request to participate. It proved to be a market "research" survey about chocolate and other snacks. I answered honestly, only to get to the end to get a message (sorry, I should have copied and pasted the wording) which said in effect that I was not the kind of person they wanted answers from! (So I would not get any credits for answering.)

From a methodological point of view, sampling from that small subset of consumers who sign up to respond to such surveys is very dubious in the first place (given that they in turn are a small subset of net-savvy people, who are in turn a small subset of the population --however defined--at large). But effectively throwing away answers which do not suit is the unforgivable methodological sin.

OK—they were only interested in regular consumers of chocolate bars and crisps and their preferences, andbut I buy them vary rarely. (I always buy a multi-pack of crisps at Christmas for some reason and then throw most of them away the next Christmas because I've just bought another pack... why?) But how legitimate is sampling from net-savvy, money-motivated geeks? Only if it can be demonstrated that those "qualities" are independently correlated with product consumption. Has that test ever been done? Who knows? I do know that I read the results of some very strange polls in .net magazine; I don't believe a word (or statistic) of them, but some credulous marketing executive might.

So what? That's their problem. I want valid and reliable research; trust me, I'm an academic!

05 March 2006

On a familiar assignment

A correspondent today asked about a familiar assignment on teacher education courses. He was asked to take a recent teaching session and to relate it to the learning theories he had been learning about (in this case within a thousand words). It's a sufficiently common assignment, although one which I have come to believe unhelpful, to pass on my response (with additions);

I replied:
  • "I've set exercises and assignments like this in the past (although not in 1k words!) From the tutors' point of view it seems like a good idea, encouraging reflection and application and the like. Unfortunately, the results are almost invariably disappointing, and that is not the fault of the students. It is because the assignment is based on a fundamental misunderstanding about the relationship between theory and practice.
  • Practice is a "blooming, buzzing confusion". It's multi-dimensional; it's protean; it's not repeatable; it's fragile--it always teeters on a knife-edge between success and disaster... And theory is neat, and almost static, and enshrined in supposingly authoritative books--and it focuses on just one aspect of everything which is going on in the class.
  • In other words, theories have a "range of convenience"; they are good at explaining some things, but have nothing useful to say about others. You cannot teach by applying theories. Gagne is the theorist who was most explicit about attempting to set up a template for lessons, with Ausubel coming up behind; but try to use their ideas to account for a whole session, and all you end up doing is explaining why you didn't follow their prescriptions. Just for fun, you might try applying my "mayonnaise" model (http://www.doceo.co.uk/tools/mayonnaise.htm) and seeing whether that works.
  • In terms of the three groups, it's important to note that they are not mutually exclusive. Following the "range of convenience" argument above, most self-respecting teaching will have elements of all three, but probably at different time-scales. Behaviourism is important second-to-second; cognitive theory informs session planning; and humanistic theory informs overall strategy (although of course it has implications down at the second-to second level).OK--now you are even more confused! Console yourself that you are confused at a higher level than before!
But there is more to it than that. The theory is supposed to be descriptive about effective teaching and learning. But we (teacher educators [or even "trainers"]) have made it prescriptive. In a broadly "scientific" framework, theory follows practice or experiment or observation; it does not dictate it. That's dogmatism.

No wonder so many teachers are dismissive of much of their training.

David Hume pointed out that you can't derive an "ought" from an "is" (http://www.doceo.co.uk/heterodoxy/) Theory in teaching is simply there to direct your attention to things which may not be obvious as you face a class, and to help you to move on from your initial natural preoccupation with your own practice to pay attention to whatever the students are learning.

In the final analysis, I could not care less whether the graduates of our courses can recite the theory, but I do want them to have used it to inform their practice--assuming, of course, that it helps to do that. Sometimes it doesn't. Much recent hoo-ha about "learning styles", for example, has really been counter-productive; see http://www.doceo.co.uk/heterodoxy/styles.htm but particularly the references at the bottom of the page.

Teaching is a craft, and just as your specification of behavioural learning objectives can never really aspire to create/generate/programme/whatever proficient practitioners in your own discipline, so it is with teacher education. Theory has its place, and it is an important place, but it is the servant of practice and experience.

02 March 2006

On practical working myths

I have written elsewhere about "learning styles", and I am sceptical about them, with good reason, according to the (rigorous) literature. However, a correspondent wrote yesterday about her own research into how her own students responded to the introduction of the idea; and her results were overwhelmingly positive. What is one to make of this? This is part of my reply (slightly edited);

I suspect that the issue is about empowerment and focus; regardless of the legitimacy of the VAK (this is one learning style model) idea, it does draw teachers' attention to how students experience learning. Indeed, it can present an empowering myth (quickly, "myth" in my terms is an account in which usefulness takes priority over truth; I wrote about it in a book in 1989 in a different context) which helps teachers to get a handle on their practice.

Further, they experience the presentation of the alternative strategies as more empowering than direct injunctions. For example, one source (sorry, not to hand at the moment) suggests that 38% of learners are primarily kinaesthetic, and a further 30+% are secondarily so. (The research methodology, based on self-selected respondents to a large net survey, is dodgy, and the questions themselves are not above suspicion, but still...) But... If you are a teacher (as you are) presented either with an injunction from on high which says, "Thou shalt make use of active hands-on learning wherever possible." how are you likely to react? "Yeah, OK." seems about right.

But: given the chance to discover exactly the same point through your own action-research and reflection? You will own it. It's your insight. You are more committed to it, and you are more likely to follow through. It's a variation on the placebo effect, I suspect; but the placebo effect is very powerful indeed.

Coffield et al quite rightly make the point that all this "learning styles" stuff has been used by Ofsted and other as a means to dump on teachers responsibility for issues which are actually beyond their control. But there is perhaps another side to this coin; the theory may give teachers a powerful strategy to believe that they are indeed in control.

And it doesn't have to be "true" to do that, as long as you believe it.