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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20 March 2008

On process and fluidity

(The link relates to the programme of 20 March 08, on Kierkegaard; there may be ways of retrieving it after 27 March, but you may have to root around for them!)

"In our time" today was about my old mate, Kierkegaard. The gloomy Dane. Not a barrel of laughs, most of the time. But nevertheless capable of being witty and playful on occasion. I did not understand that when I first read him, on the cusp of my twenties; but then I was never good at "framing" what I was reading, at that age. I took it all terribly seriously. Jane Austen was great literature and therefore "profound" and certainly not funny; no wonder I didn't enjoy her. Then.

To the point(s);
  • I've read a large proportion of Kierkegaard. I have read and still possess Kaufmann's definitive two-volume critical biography. I took a course on him. I've used his work even in the unpromising context of a manual on professional supervision in group care (Atherton, 1986). I've relished getting the allusions and jokes in David Lodge's Therapy (1995)...

  • But I may have missed his point. The contributors this morning suggested that K. used so many pseudonyms in his published work because there was no definitive K-ian position. Like his hero, Socrates, his point was in the process rather than the product; in the debate rather than the conclusion.
(This is where we begin an asymptotic approach to relevance to learning and teaching...)
  • Did I miss the point as an undergraduate because I was simply not intellectually mature enough to engage with these shifting points of view? Quite possibly; certainly Perry would suggest as much. (I'm working on my own page on Perry.)

  • So, is it reasonable to expect undergraduates to exhibit this required sophistication? This is a big deal. It may lead us to decide that there are some ideas we can't teach (to standard, school-leaver) undergraduates. If we do, they'll get them wrong. It's not their fault or their lack of intellectual capacity, they are just not ready for them, yet. This is the same argument as Loukes and others engaged in about children's capacity for religious understanding in the '60s.

  • I suspect (nay, know) that we frequently get this wrong. In a well-meaning attempt to steady a moving target, we attempt to render "that which is to be learned" as something static. Just as mathematics was almost incapable of dealing with moving (and certainly accelerating/decelerating) objects without the tools of calculus, we can't conceptualise the learning (still less, the teaching) of something which is perpetually changing.

  • We try to freeze it, so we can teach it. Flexible skills are reduced to standardised techniques. We don't teach languages for fluency, we teach for "getting by in routine situations--always assuming the native speaker responds in a standard fashion". We don't teach cookery, we teach recipes and isolated skills... We don't teach appreciation of literature, we teach either the pre-existent opinions of earlier critics, or standard "methods" (a.k.a. recipes) of analysing/deconstructing the "text". But there are qualitative leaps (almost like Kierkegaard's leaps between his "spheres of existence") between these levels of understanding.
  • Regrettably all of this is made almost obligatory by the rhetoric of "achievement" instantiated (I wondered whether I would ever manage to use that word! Look it up.) in—of all things—the funding formulae of further and higher education. It comes back to the goal displacement I discussed earlier.
Moral? Gooood question! It relates to Bateson's levels of learning, certainly, but also to a number of other issues... I'll return to the theme.

18 March 2008

On the return of rhetoric

It's not got much to do with the topic of this blog, but this must be a candidate for one of the great speeches of the decade, at least.

Even Andrew Sullivan agrees.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

13 March 2008

On goal displacement/mission drift in Further Education

On Tuesday the Guardian published a paid-for supplement for the Quality Improvement Agency for lifelong learning. Its front-page article, "Progress Report" includes this;
"This is the first year ever that in all types of providers--work-based learning, adult and community education and colleges--the failure rates are below 10%," says Andrew Thomson, the QIA's chief executive. "They are about 3 or 4% in the case of colleges. And success rates are the highest ever."

Success in further education is tightly defines as the percentage of people signing up for a course that finish having achieved all the requirements. The success rate across the sector in 2006/7, according to data just released, had risen to 77%.
The same edition of the paper's Education Supplement includes an article expressing concern at the standard of training received by early years child care staff. After discussing the alleged decline in standards embodied by the current NVQ2 and even NVQ3 qualifications in the field, the article concludes;

So, are training providers passing students who don't make the grade?

Davies words her answer carefully. "Naturally colleges want to get 100% pass rates, so some of the students who are coming through these courses are being very much supported. Which is good, of course, but it is very much in the college's best interests to support those students to pass."

Two points; "success" and "achievement" are now defined solely in terms of retention and qualifications, and there is no longer any necessary connection between those "qualifications" and actually knowing or being able to do something. Qualifications, which are proxies for capabilities, have become aims in their own right. This is something which disturbs teaching staff in all sectors.

Second, this does not just lead to a dumbing down of the qualification to the level where only 3-4% fail, it also leads to unrealistic coaching to get people through. That might not matter so much in areas where there is no expectation that the holder of a qualification will at the very least be a safe practitioner, but it is unacceptable when issuing what are effectively licences to practice.

More on this from a slightly different perspective here.

05 March 2008

On deliberate practice

I am reading Richard Sennett's (2008) The Craftsman London; Allen Lane. It is a brilliant attempt to make explicit the implicit or tacit "knowledge" which underpins craft skill; and it fails. I've read a couple of reviews, such as Roger Scruton's in the Sunday Times and Fiona MacCarthy's in the Guardian. They are both respectful and enthusiastic, but also suggest that he has missed out somewhere. Perhaps we want him to. Perhaps craftsmanship ought to be a little mysterious?

Sennett tackles his topic in the form of an erudite meditation, in the manner of Montaigne, albeit at much greater length. This is becoming, it seems to me, an ever more popular genre; I've also just read Lewis Hyde's (1983/2006) The Gift, and Thomas De Zengotita's (2005) Mediated and I confess I have given up on Michael Frayn's (2006) The Human Touch. They are all fascinating and provoke admiration at the range of material and allusion they contain, but they do tend to attract attention more to the author than to the topic, and on the whole they stay within the author's intellectual comfort zone.

The linked article from the title of this entry (pardon the political allusions in it, which will soon be very dated) is much more hard-headed and of course journalistic. It is almost certainly more useful; and I wonder why Sennett (I must confess I still have 50 pages to go) does not draw on this well-established research tradition. After all, he draws lessons from playing music and boning a chicken...

However; watch this, and think about what kind of practice regime these guys have to engage in to exhibit this effortless and entertaining skill.

02 March 2008

On creativity and education

TED is a brilliant site, full of thought-provoking stuff. Ken Robinson's piece is a virtuoso performance as a performance, as well as of course containing some really worth-while insights. Sadly, if you go to the TED site itself and read some of the comments, there is a distinct failure to understand that this is all part of a conversation and debate...