30 April 2008

On meltdown

The reductio ad absurdum of the loss of academic trust.

23 April 2008

On primary sources of chaos

Nowadays, even respectable writing often relies on secondary sources. One of the most-cited ideas of the current period is that the flapping of a butterfly's/humming-bird's/mosquito's wing in Peru/Brazil/Panama (it's usually South America) can cause a hurricane/typhoon/tornado/flood in the US/Russia/wherever.

Click on the heading link for the primary source, from Ed Lorenz (1917-2008), and get the answers right next time you use it.

But thanks too for the secondary source which put me on to this (the full link will break the layout).

On gloriously silly evidence of education

A classicist's commentary on Doctor Who (12 April 08); but read the comments! Hint; scroll to the bottom and read them chronologically, id est upwards.

08 April 2008

On dyslexia and the structure of language and learning

The linked article reports on neurological research on dyslexia among English and Chinese speakers, suggesting that its manifestations in brain activity are quite different.

That's not unexpected, given that the structure of alphabetic writing and that using Chinese idiographs (apologies if I got that term wrong) is so radically different. Chinese readers have to remember the shape of thousands of characters; alphabetic readers need to remember only about forty standard phonemes and a few wild variations (such as the notorious "-ough"), even in English.

Much of the work on cultural differences in approaches to learning, such as that of Biggs (1996)* comments on Chinese students' ability to (apparently) learn by rote, and their (apparent) adoption of surface learning approaches; but it goes on to suggest that this is deceptive. My own conversations with Chinese academics suggest that they do not recognise this account; indeed, the deep/surface distinction seems less than helpful to them.

Speculating wildly, but someone may even now be taking this up— might the difference in approach have little to do with "Confucian heritage", but more with orthography? Indeed, may both the Confucian heritage (do read Karen Armstrong's wonderful The Great Transformation [2007]) and the approach to learning stem from the "brain-training" associated with learning vast numbers of discrete items?
  • Indeed (do excuse me, I feel a geekish episode coming on; feel free to stop reading) Nakamura (1964)** suggests that Chinese thought tends towards the concrete (rather than speculative or spiritual), which might perhaps reflect their ability to handle large numbers of discrete items in working memory at a time...?
However, does this pose questions not only for teaching and assessment methods but also the construction of curricula for Chinese students (given their ever-greater importance in both the HE and FE sectors)?***

*Search for [Biggs "confucian heritage" student learning] for a range of useful references
** Nakamura H (1964) Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples (tr. P Wiener) Honolulu; University of Hawaii Press [I knew I'd be able to cite that some day; it's earned its continuing place on my shelf!]
*** I'm not going down a Sapir/Whorf line on linguistic determinism, but the Chinese record on human rights, at home, in Tibet, and by neglect in Africa is very grim. It's just a little too tempting to speculate and generalise too much and sail close to the racist wind, though.

On personal preferences in learning

Not "learning styles"! That idea is useless and counter-productive, but nonetheless people do have preferences about how they learn best.

And the material on my sites certainly appeals to some of them; I'm lucky enough receive a handful of emails most days from readers who have taken the trouble to say they have found them useful. Some of them compare my work favourably with other material, not infrequently "official" material from a college or university. It's flattering, but in the interests of dispassionate evaluation it needs to be approached critically. Here's how I responded to one such email today—
"How nice of you to get in touch! Feedback like yours is always encouraging, and much appreciated.

But don't be too hard on [the university]! There's a lesson in all this...
  • You turned to my page after wrestling with their material. It's quite possible that had they not laid the foundations you would not have been able to make sense of it with the help of my page.

  • And quite possibly you looked at a few other pages before settling on mine; it just so happened that my approach clicked with you, just as I'm sure it fails to do with lots of other people who never tell me about it.
It has always been thus in teaching!

02 April 2008

On e-tailoring (emperors, for the use of)

Excuse the cryptic title. The link is to Phil Beadle's stimulating column in Tuesday's Education Guardian. He discusses the current obsession with "e-learning" in education, in very sceptical terms.

Education is periodically swamped by waves of fads, which (usually) retreat leaving only a little damage. We are hearing a little less about "learning styles" nowadays, "accelerated learning" has passed by, but "inclusivity" is breaking all over the shore (it's made all the more potent because few people know what it is, and it appears to have no downside—until you try practising it, of course, and see what it does to all the students who are not "special"...)

But few of these illusory panaceas have been embraced as enthusiastically as e-learning, partly of course because it is a very profitable business. Beadle points out how in schools it introduces a layer of mediation between pupil and the topic of learning; instead of learning how to produce silk-screen prints, he points out, children are encouraged to simulate Warhol's effects on a computer. Calculators came in twenty or more years ago, and mental arithmetic had to be re-introduced as a specific disciplines because the mediating technology substituted for the mental skill. Richard Sennett points out that computers in architecture, for example, can actively militate against the development of craft skills.

I used to argue against e-learning on the grounds that the technology placed an accessibility barrier between the learner and the material; until the computer interface was transparent and taken for granted, it would be very difficult to engage with the material. The ubiquity of computers is such that nowadays such a consideration does not apply for most university students, although it may well matter for older learners. However, when e-learning substitutes for rich direct experience, it cannot but deliver an impoverished version; it needs to be relegated only to those areas where it unequivocally adds to the overall experience as nothing else can.

01 April 2008

On seeing

The "next blog" link at the top of most Blogger pages is horribly addictive. There is an option to turn it off, but it really irritates me to find a site which has done that, so I can't do it myself.

I gave in to the urge this evening, and came across this page. It's not really that remarkable, I suppose. But I see these pictures of rather mundane objects (particularly the toilet roll) and wonder at the gift this photographer has to frame and select this stuff to produce two or three stunning images a day. I carry a camera at all times, but I don't see what this person sees.

How do people learn that? (I don't buy that "innate talent" fudge; people get better at this kind of thing so they must be learning...) And how does one teach it? (Oodles of supportive but honest critical feedback is a sine qua non I know, but what else?)