31 December 2007

On the passing of a year and an era

I wrote some time ago about the death of Tony Nuttall. Now I've heard, a little late, about the passing of his more gloriously disorganised friend, Stephen Medcalf.

I knew him, Horatio... But there's not the point. The point is made well by Gabriel Josipovici (my personal tutor, although he won't remember that) in the obituary;

He would not have lasted long in the present academic climate, which is the poorer for turning its back on people like Medcalf ... who felt that what they were there for was to teach, to impart to their students the values they themselves had learned from their teachers and from the authors they admired.

Going through the obituaries, the word which sticks in my mind is "inspirational". He was probably deemed "research inactive" for the Research Assessment Exercises before he retired. The Quality Assurance Agency would have thrown up their hands in horror at him (more mundanely, it is claimed that the university cleaners refused to enter his office...) Some students would have not had a clue what to make of him.

But read this (which he was apparently encouraged to write by a former student, a certain Ian McEwan) for an insight into the mind of a humanist (not in the religious sense; Stephen was a devout Anglican). There are depths of significance and resonance here which are not merely affectations for publication; they were simply the waters in which Stephen swam, and they have a natural richness which few of us can share, for all our striving.

Alongside all the conventional wishes for health, happiness, prosperity, etc., I can't just wish Stephen's sensibilities to you; they represented years of committed and serious scholarly enjoyment, but it's never too late to start. So I had better get on with it!

22 December 2007

On plagiarism

I came across this story when idly pursuing links. (I can heartily recommend the site to check out scare stories and urban myths on the net.)

There is a variant in my experience. In about 1974 or '75 I was teaching on the "Certificate in the Residential Care of Children and Young People" (CRCCYP) programme at Salford College of Technology. Our external examiner was Chris Beedell of Bristol University. Following standard practice, we sent him a sample of student work before the assessment board meeting.

On this occasion, he took aside a colleague to say, "You may be excused for not noticing that three pages of this assignment have been copied directly from my book, but not for giving it only a 'D'!"

18 December 2007

On an online petition

I got this from Chris Pegler at the Open University, and I'm happy to pass it on. The petition already has over 16,000 signatures.

You are probably already aware that the government is intending to withdraw funding for students studying courses which are a lower or equivalent qualification (ELQ) to that which they already hold. They are perhaps studying a PG Certificate course and already have a Masters Degree. The idea behind this is to prioritise spending on those who do not yet have that level of qualification, but the change is likely to: a) cause problems to delivering lifelong learning - as it will affect older students and those changing career/reskilling; and b) be a nightmare to administer as there is no clear record of what courses students may have done previously. Students on the same course will pay different fees.

There are some proposed exceptions and the changes will be phased in over three years. There is also an enquiry. This is operating to tight deadlines and the DIUS recently announced a change to the date for submission of evidence. Submission now has to be made by 7 January 2008 (instead of 14 January).

The relevant web site address is http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/ius/ius_061207.cfm

You may be interested in responding yourself, or belong to an institution which you feel should respond. Or you might like to sign the petition at http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/ELQFunding/

13 December 2007

On time to learn

And on a lesser-known facet of Benjamin Bloom, who did do other things in the course of a long career.

As Lee Shulman points out, "mastery learning" rose and fell. It had quite a lot going for it, and to a large extent, our Adult Basic Skills programmes in the UK are influenced by it. And Bloom had a serious point, as does Shulman today. And we know that the practicability of responding to their point is limited by timetables and course designs and assessment regimes—and of course funding. But beyond a certain point, how much of the story is about "not enough time"?

Even at the level of basic skills, learning is not simply the incremental acquisition of ever more items of knowledge or skill. At some point it has to involve the capacity to organise and deploy that knowledge and those skills, and that is a different order of learning. As Bateson suggested, and the current thinking about threshold concepts supports, more at the same level will never of itself make the leap.

But we still don't know how reliably to teach this second-order stuff.

04 December 2007

On the perfect lesson

Last night I watched Heston Blumenthal producing the "perfect" chilli con carne. There is of course no such thing. (I had not thought of using cumin, I admit.)

And the notion of "perfection" (whatever it means, pace any surviving Platonists) is one which can appeal only to commercial caterers, to whom the food consumed is the single criterion by which a "meal" might be judged. The rest of us know, of course, that as long as the food does not fall below a certain threshold, we will judge the meal by the ambience and the company much more than their gastronomic pretensions.

Similar considerations apply to the evaluation of teaching sessions. Yes, there are clear(ish) thresholds below which practice fails to contribute to learning and may indeed inhibit it. But beyond that we can judge only very broadly. And that is where Ofsted inspectors and QAA reviewers (now of blighted memory) get it all wrong;
  • They tend to assume that the perfect lesson is the result of following a standard recipe (they deny it, of course, but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary). For Blumenthal, it may be true. The "perfect" chilli is contained in his recipe. But there is no guarantee that the diner will like it. Technically, the system is defined too tightly, according to that which lends itself to measurement/judgement.

  • They assume therefore that the process of teaching (and learning) is a series of tableaux or set pieces, which can be judged independently. Were the lesson objectives spelt out at the start of the lesson? (Yes = good; No = bad.) Thus we inculcate ritual knowledge (Perkins, 1999) with no understanding of its significance. Are the experiential targets spelt out at the start of the opera? the stand-up routine? the liturgy?
I could go on (I have just done you a favour and deleted five more bullet points), but, from Socrates to Laurillard (how is it to be in that league, Diana?) the highest-level learning is a conversation. It's dynamic, it's fluid... Time, and its story, is of the essence.

And the best chilli is rarely the hottest.

02 December 2007

On a brilliant initiative

I heard about this site through BBC Radio 4's iPM programme/show—which is in itself a very interesting innovation, structured as it is around a blog to which listeners can contribute ideas for features and spots within the programme.

But Planet-scicast? Not only is it about interesting young people in science (target group about 12-16 year olds, I think), but it is employing the methods of Web 2.0—YouTube, FaceBook, BeBo etc. to do so. Because the content is created by the students; that is a superb exercise in itself, it publishes the material (and it is quite an addictive, "sticky" site to visit) and they learn from watching others' videos, and it's a resource for teachers (using creative commons licensing).

Shut up, Atherton!—let them see for themselves; http://www.planet-scicast.com/films.cfm

01 December 2007

On more IQ debate

Here is more to go with my post of a week or so ago. Don't just read the main item, another essay by Flynn, but check out the follow-up ripostes and comments in the column on the right.