25 August 2008

On 40 years on

Radio 4 is running a brilliant series of five-minute sound collages at five to five each afternoon, covering 1968 day by day. Last week, as the link shows, followed the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and the end of the "Prague Spring"; today covered the opening of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The counterpoint of the themes is fascinating. Almost as fascinating as recalling what I was doing this day forty years ago!

I was a "deviationist". While that sounds like some kind of marxist heretic who might be identified with the Czech dissidents, it was much less dangerous. A friend and I (with help from some assistants who were as ever much better at the task than I was) were volunteers leading a camp of a couple of dozen younger teenage boys from a Christian organisation (link here to its current incarnation) labouring on the Ffestiniog light railway in North Wales. We were helping to create a rising loop beyond Dduallt (pronounced THEE-a-cht) to go round the reservoir created for the Trawsfynydd nuclear power station to restore the link to Blaenau Ffestiniog.

In those days I had Freudian tendencies. I thought that boys who were keen on railways and train-spotting would be "anally-retentive" (obsessionally tidy and organised). How wrong can you be? We lived in an old Nissen hut at the end of the line. When the trains stopped running at about 6pm, we were totally out of contact with the rest of the world, other than listening to our transistor radios, until about 8am. The closest contact with civilisation was through Colonel Campbell, whose house was a 45-minute scramble away down a near-vertical but heavily-wooded face. (I seem to remember that he was merely "the Major" in those days.) He was the authorised person in charge of the gelignite for the blasting...

The camp owned an old minibus (bought for the duration and sold afterwards--cheaper than renting) which was kept in Porthmadog at the coastal end of the line. The radiator leaked, and so it was that, stuck in a traffic jam on a hot Saturday afternoon in August trying to cross the "cob"—the two-lane breakwater across the delta to Porthmadog—I turned the engine off to stop it over-heating, only to find when I tried to start it again, that it had seized up... Not only were we holding up the entirety of Welsh coastal traffic on the busiest day of the year, but rescue vehicles could not reach us... (Cue ground opening up to swallow me.)

On alternate days we were hewing away on the deviation, clearing the rubble from the blasting, or trying to create the required gradient with pick and shovel. 6am reveille for breakfast and bible reading to start on site at 7.30. Usually in the rain.

Wouldn't have missed it for the world—just a little ashamed that what we were playing at, others were doing for real, without the option.

On returning responsibility to people

I have been working on a presentation for a conference next week, exploring the extent to which curricula—particularly in professional education—are becoming ever more prescriptive. They demand that students (and tutors) simply comply with ever more specific external requirements rather than learn through experience and mistakes, and own that learning.

I was struck by the parallel with recent thinking on traffic management, of all things. The connection may be a little too distant to make it into the paper, but there's a fair amount about on YouTube, which lends itself to blogging about it. I think the parallels are obvious:

There's also an article about it here.

22 August 2008

On a "motherclass"

I went to Birmingham today, by train, and the journey was a succession of disasters (which translates as "mildly irritating delays" in the overall scheme of things).

But so it happened that I had to take a train from Coventry to Milton Keynes (about 1650 from Coventry, in case anyone wants to pin this down) and found myself in a seat in front of a mother with two young daughters of about 3 and 5, who articulated and projected very well. I resigned myself to an hour of purgatory. Instead I got an hour of heaven.

You are a mother on your own, with two girls, on a much delayed train to London which is packed. The three of you are sharing two seats. They are tired and a little fractious. It's a recipe for short tempers and peremptory orders and threats and...

No. I was privileged to listen (although not watch) from the seat in front. Mother responded with patience and courtesy to whatever the girls came up with, including burps. She played games to settle them (Let's see who can keep their eyes closed for longest) and when that didn't work she had other games for them (counting and reading, but more important, engaging and fun) and she responded to them with patience and encouragement. And clearly with love and pride--as well she might, because these little girls may well conquer the world.

I considered saying something to her as I left the train, but one of the girls was just settling down to sleep and I couldn't think of how to say anything which would not come across as patronising. So in the unlikely scenario that she or someone who knows her reads this, my thanks for more than making up for the delays caused by a fire on a freight train at Bletchley.

Not that she will care less; she has much more important concerns.

15 August 2008

On kidding ourselves

I'm really not sure what to make of this fascinating presentation. How does this relate to cognitive dissonance? What does it say about student choice?

04 August 2008

On essential reading

The link is to the Learning and Skills Network site where you can download Frank Coffield's excellent new polemical pamphlet; Coffield F (2008) Just suppose teaching and learning became the first priority London; Learning and Skills Network.

It's free, it's only 75 pages, it is well argued and meticulously referenced and even sometimes very funny. There is no excuse not to read it. Moreover, it is addressed principally to college management teams, so there is no excuse for them not to read it, either.

Post-compulsory education is stricken with the ideological hegemony of a crude instrumentalist approach to training and skills. All that means is that much of its practice goes unquestioned, and indeed that people are so immersed in current practices and assumptions that to question them would seem silly, rather like asking whether good health is a good thing.

Coffield above all shows that such questioning is very far from silly; as such this pamphlet could become the curriculum spine of a whole DTLLS course, and as such it would make much more sense than the dog's breakfast LLUK has produced.

He is well-known for co-authoring a report on Learning Styles in 2004. He notes that despite that report, even in 2006 support materials published by LSN (the same body which publishes this pamphlet);

...still blithely maintain[s] in the face of the evidence we presented that 'this does not mean that it is no longer relevant to consider learning styles' (Jones, 2007:).

How more explicit could we have been? Let me try harder this time. There is no scientific justification for teaching or learning strategies based on VAKT and tutors should stop using learning style instruments based on them. There is no theory of VAKT from which to draw any implications for practice. It should be a dead parrot. It should have ceased to function.

(Coffield 2008: 32. Emphases in original.)
However, if you really must use a learning styles questionnaire, he has devised a new one on page 65; Coffield's Learning or Teaching Styles questionnaire (CLOTS)

02 August 2008

On "Can't read, Can't Write"

This fascinating but in some respects quite misleading series is bound to be much used for teaching purposes in the coming year, particularly on DTLLS and similar courses.

Here are some more detailed notes which might help tutors to find useful (and less useful) sections for discussion.