29 August 2006

On not being able to say something.

I drove back from a short break this evening, and became increasingly impatient with Radio 4's unctuous celebration of the centenary of the birth of a pretentious and patronising second-rate poet. I'm not usually po-faced, but to write;

in the same year as Guernica (not sure of the exact chronology) is not post-modern ironic (neither of which ideas would have made sense to Betjeman [even if they do to any of the rest of us {I must get out of these nested brackets}]) No brackets; it is simply crass.

Is this a rant about Betjeman? No, actually. It is just an illustration of an issue I fell to thinking about having switched off the radio.

My substantive meditation (if there is such a thing) was around the extent to which we are conditioned to think of "learning" as a static state which can be assessed by "snapshot" methods such as examinations. In email exchanges with several correspondents (thanks, Renee) I have come to suspect that this may be inadequate--and indeed that it is not "merely" academically inadequate, but that it seriously constrains educational policy and practice... Exciting stuff! I'll write an article about it!

But--leaving aside the fact that fewer people will probably read the article than will read this blog--how long will it take me to produce an academically acceptable piece which will pass peer review, by including a literature review testing the proposition that the conventional wisdom of educational theory treats "learning" as a static achieved state..? It's the kind of task you assign to a Ph.D student, so assuming you are a nice supervisor who is going to grant him or her a few months to add their original gloss for a thesis---30 months? Forget it.

Of course, a journalist could make the same point on the basis of a couple of days on the net and ringing up a few interested parties for quotes.

And a blogger doesn't even have to get past basic editorial control.
  • Did Betjeman write those lines before or after Guernica? I don't know; it may simply be a cheap shot on my part with little basis in fact. Regardless of the historical facts, did B. know about Guernica? Where were his sympathies (if any) in the Spanish Civil War?
But this line of thought raises further questions. What is the premium of ---shall we say, "credibility"--- actually conferred by full academic referencing? Does it actually matter very much?
  • Clearly it does in some subjects, which are more or less clearly cumulative; Newton stands on the shoulders of giants.
  • But in the humanities and the social sciences and professional disciplines, when did you last read a dispassionate literature review (other than from a librarian)? Indeed, when did you last check such a review? There is so much stuff out there that there is no way I could read it all, still less evaluate it. And I certainly do not know whether this literature review or that "truly" represents the literature in a particular area.
Academic practice may need to be scrutinised as a form of restrictive practice. In many cases it serves no particular purpose apart from making it difficult to get published, prolonging the process, and inflating the egos of those of us who edit and referee the journals. (RAE aside).

It certainly has very little to do with increasing anybody's understanding of anything.

03 August 2006

On drilling or dancing

A couple of days ago, one of those juxtapositions which really get the reflective juices flowing.

I have been marking some assessments which require the inclusion of schemes of work and session plans. I have been both impressed and appalled by what has been submitted. I'm impressed by the precision of the paperwork, especially the required itemisation of the special needs and learning styles within the class. This one, for example, has "three learners with possible ADHD, and four with possible dyslexia, although none are yet fully assessed." Fine; I have little problem with that. The "little" problem concerns how the pre-emptive labelling is handled, and that is not revealed in the documentation.

Alongside that, we have session/lesson plans which are specified to the minute. Seven minutes to take the register and introduce the objectives of this session. Twelve minutes of PowerPointy presentation of the substance...

I have also just been reading Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" It's a well-written journalist's book. It betrays its journalistic origins in that any point made more that 1500 words previously has to be re-stated in case it has been forgotten; and it is peppered with quotations from interviews. OK; this guy took the trouble to go and interview his informants, but given that they have (almost) all published their results and findings, why? (OK, we know why--it adds that human touch, he told me, as he stirred his latte with four sugars...) The material was actually covered rather better in 1998 by Guy Claxton.

They come at it from very different angles, but dig beneath the surface, and there are very different views of thinking and learning implicit in these sources. It's easy to see the first as "mechanical". It's the sausage-machine model. Get the teaching right (including all the spuriously reified differentiation of learners--the must-know, should-know, could-know stuff, and the "extension activities" to stop any disruption from learners who manage to finish ahead of schedule) ...and they will learn. "Build it and they will come!" This is a bizarre inversion of the Field of Dreams idea.

In the interests of alliteration, for me it is the "drilling" model. I'm not going to get all touchy-feely romanticised naive-humanistic about this. My experience has been, I admit, mainly in "soft" teaching areas. Not with "soft" students and classes, by any means; but the bottom-line cognitive taxonomy issues have not loomed terribly large. And I know that they count for much more for other teachers, but...

Even in those areas, like teaching law (which is precise and even pedantic) the best laid plans are often waylaid by events (...oh boy! we've just moved into a whole different discourse. I'll leave it with this link) In the real world, as Gladwell suggests, teaching is more like a dance.

Dancing (at which I am very bad) involves (or did until 50 years ago, and I confess to being occicentric here --- hands up if you have encountered that term before) momentary dynamic flexible sensitive response to one's partner.

That's relatively easy one-to-one, of course. One Fred; one Ginger. And they rehearsed! Result--superb craft and perhaps art. One teacher; 30 learners? Can they dance?

It has been done. It is done every day; more often than one might think.

But a drilling ideology will never result in dancing.

So, on the whole, being an optimistic kind of guy; I look at those minute-by-minute session plans and think, "These are bureaucratic fictions". And when I sit in to observe teaching, it worries me if you follow them. OK; the minuet is a very prescribed dance. Oh pursue the analogy for yourself................

Interesting, isn't it?