12 October 2009

On evaluating the one-off lecture

OK, it happened, and indirect feeedback via a colleague who could not attend but who spoke to people after the event was that it had been well-received, even remarked on as a "proper academic lecture" (not sure whether or not that is a compliment!)

There are of course standard procedures for evaluation, including the usual feedback sheets and the like. Such procedures are unsurprisingly not routine on this course, and it didn't seem appropriate to introduce them--after all, this was from the students' point of view just another session in a regular timetable. It was my decision to get all self-conscious about it.

So just a few remarks on practical aspects, and then a more general thought.
  • time-keeping and pacing is always tricky the first time around; I seem to have got it pretty well right, though.
  • The presentation? You can see it via the link on yesterday's post, but the version there has been annotated and expanded. I don't like too much content on the slides, and I tried to use them as headings to show the students where we were. That was OK with a heading like "fashions and fads", but not really satisfactory when I talked ever so briefly about a particular theorist; I was using slides cannibalised from another lecture including images which may not have been the very best choices. 
  • Delivery? A guy at the back said he couldn't hear me in the first few seconds. I thanked him and talked louder, but I didn't continue to check--which I could have done very easily with the traffic-light cards all the audience had. Specifically everyone had a red, a yellow and a green A5 card, with which they could signal answers to questions, like "If you have never heard of Skinner, show a red card. If you've heard of him but don't know much about his ideas, show yellow. If you know quite a bit about him show green..." It's clickers-lite, but a lot easier to manage spontaneously.
  • As to use of the cards; they were appreciated and commented on afterwards, and they are so easy to use. No downside, if you sort out the logistics of distribution. As ever, it is not merely the technical advantage they confer above a simple show of hands which makes the difference--it is what the very fact of issuing them and using them says about the kind of interaction the lecturer wants within the session. They send a message--"I want you to be able to communicate back to me".
  • And as for that great bug-bear of the lecture, attention-span, that little bit of activity every few minutes seemed to get the students re-engaged. Visual clues suggested they were still with me at the end of the session.
  • The two-minute buzz-group exercise came almost exactly half-way through; frankly it was as much about breaking the session up as it was about content, but some of the ideas were interesting enough to weave into the rest of the session. It also gave me a chance to nip out and buy an extortionately priced bottle of water--why no water-coolers?
More generally, though; did the session achieve its objective of providing an orientation to learning theories so students can engage with them on a fairly deep level? As ever, I think the argument was clearer to me than it was to them, and I perpetrated the sin I have been trying not to commit for years and years (and which I can avoid as a part of regular teaching); I elaborate arguments in the hope of making them clearer, but in practice I am obscuring and burying them in a mass of marginally relevant detail. Once I get into the swing of a lecture I can always think of more stuff to pile in. When it is something I do regularly, I can prune it and filter it so that what gets said is what needs to be said and no more, but I'm still not good at that on a one-off basis.

And is a lecture, at this stage in their programme, the appropriate means of communicating such a message? Probably not, but given the constraints it was a reasonable strategy to choose.

One comment my colleague heard was that I had rubbished some current fads, or even sacred cows. Indeed I had, and I now wonder whether or not I should have done. After all there was a team of about a dozen other colleagues attending, most of whom I don't know, and I may well have stepped clumsily on a few people's toes. I'm pretty sure the students enjoyed it, but that's not the point. Had I had more notice I could and should have circulated some of the proposed content in advance for comment; who knows, perhaps one of those colleagues will have to deliver a session next week advocating learning styles! An interesting and open question about the responsibilities one has to the rest of the team...

Still, I have to admit that I enjoyed myself thoroughly; not something to be aimed for, but a good spin-off if it happens.

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23 June 2009

On implicit values

There is no better opportunity than the enforced leisure of a ten-hour wait in an airport to reflect on the conference we (two collaborators and I) have just attended.

The theme of this year's STLHE conference in Fredericton, New Brunswick was "Between the Tides"; quite appropriate considering that it took place not far (by Canadian standards) from the Bay of Fundy, home to the "highest tides in the world" according to its website. So it looked at negotiating the countervailing influences and pressures to which higher education--particularly in Canada--is subject.

Generally speaking conference "themes" are meaningless. They are cast so widely and blandly as to say nothing which might possibly discourage any attendance or any papers, so they say nothing at all. This one was different, and was structured around four dilemmas, explored principally of course in the Canadian context, but of much wider applicability.

They were;

  • disciplinary education vs. liberal education

  • physical environment vs. virtual environment

  • curricular learning vs. extra-curricular learning

  • institutional/professional autonomy vs. public accountability

I'm not going to go into them directly, but simply to point out that once you start exploring constructs such as these it almost inevitably leads back to the values implicit in them (cf. the "laddering" method in personal construct theory), and the theme of making explicit what is already implicit--so that it can be explored and debated--cropped up time and again in the papers I attended.

It was even there in our own, on "Safe teaching, risky learning?" in which we encouraged participants (it is the tradition to be quite participatory) to explore risk-taking in teaching, in a risk-averse "quality"-obsessed HE culture. (It is even worse in FE.)

What was encouraging was the extent to which such discourses and debates were readily accepted by the conference membership. The hegemony of utilitarian and neo-liberal discourse is being challenged; at least in Canada, at the chalk-face. ("PowerPoint" [blah] -face does not have quite the same ring...)

But what was challenging was to realise that what I had thought of as my stock-in-trade for many years, having grown old teaching social work, is now being being taken up and explored in many more disciplines, via many more frameworks. Instead of people wanting to impose an ethical or political framework on what are seen as basically technical issues such as curriculum design and the adoption of models of learning or even of student attributes---instead of that, there is a new recognition that those issues were never merely technical. They always contained (in several senses) implicit values, and perhaps the choice of technical means ought to follow the value-based ends?

What are these values? What are the frameworks? Hey, work out some answers. There are lots of potential ones!

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21 May 2009

On training child abusers

OK. The heading is a little dramatic, and I have no direct involvement with the Irish situation. Nor have I read the whole report. But I was involved in training "residential child care officers" in the '70s.

From 1975 to 79 I was the tutor-in-charge of the largest Certificate in the Residential Care of Children and Young People (CRCCYP) course in England. It was based in a College of Technology (up-market college of further education which in this case eventually became part of a university) and validated--very loosely by present standards--by the then Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, predecessor of...who cares?
  • Incidentally, I had no direct experience at all of practice in residential child care or any kind of residential social work, or indeed of any kind of social work beyond some volunteering at university.
  • but I did have a first degree in European Studies and a Master's in Religious Studies
  • and a sociological interest in "total institutions"...
  • and a year's introduction to the psychoanalytic approach to group relations
  • and I and the team of tutors, were really proud of the intensive educational and vocational programme we offered
Why mention all this? Because of what it suggests about the disconnection between the training--and probably the inspection--and the practice of care.
  • Some of the people I trained---and licensed to practise---were later prosecuted for abusing children in their care. (I find myself seeking to exculpate the course by claiming, "merely" physically, not sexually. As if that mitigated anything.)
  • Some of the practice placements we used were later shown to be the settings of abuse. The details are not always public (nor I admit are all the allegations tested), but it appears that in some cases "therapeutic" was a cover for "abusive" activity. (I am being scrupulous here. In the absence of evidence, both descriptors go in quotes. But New Barns, one of the establishments identified in the linked article below, was regarded as one of our very best student placements.)
  • One of the external examiners for the course was later convicted of child sexual abuse. (See here.) I became a friend of his; he stayed with me rather than go to a hotel when he came up for examiners' meetings (even that would be frowned upon now). We discussed how unjustly he had been treated in various ways for admitting to being gay. Above all I remember to my shame commiserating with him over the abuse he had received (including excrement through his letter-box, he said) over an item he wrote for his column in Social Work Today entitled "Sex and the Residential Social Worker" in which he argued for an end to the absolute prohibition of sexual relations between staff and residents--spinning it to imply that he was referring to establishments for morally and mentally competent adults with physical disabilities...
This is 30-year-old history. I am not trying to re-open old wounds. (That may indeed be a just and worthwhile project, but it is a different one.)

But I am not surprised that the Irish authorities in those day were so easily deceived by the abusers. I was certainly even more naive than other people in my position. I cringe now to think that only once, out of more than 300 students with whom I worked, did it even occur to me that he or she might be a premeditating abuser. (I did confront that person over his failure to obtain parental consent for a planned "expedition" with children. I never saw him again... but there was no evidence to pursue it further.)

Later, in 1979, trying to set up a crisis intervention project for young people at odds with their families, using volunteers, I was challenged by a Director of Social Services; "How are you going to guarantee that your volunteers do not abuse the young people?" Strange question. Well, they want to help, not hurt, don't they? And besides, this is a Christian project... How can you be so negative and suspicious? Pathetic response.

Ireland in the '70s was quite different from the rather-frayed Celtic Tiger of just yesterday. If we failed to see what was beneath our noses in secular social services in England, how much more likely was that in an Irish Republic in thrall to the Catholic church?

Now, of course, much is different. Fear of abuse has unsurprisingly become an obsession, to the detriment of some of the best practice of thirty years ago. Sadly, those abusive practitioners not only destroyed directly many young lives, but they also destroyed any notion of trust within the system. So that the possibility of rebuilding hope for those children who have already been abused is severely limited; for every school or children's home which dares physically to touch them, there are many which do not.

About fifteen years ago, I was peripherally involved in giving evidence to an enquiry into the peremptory closure in the middle of the night of Oxendon House in Leighton Buzzard. (The link is about the only useful one I can find on the web, interestingly.) The reason for the action was claimed to be that members of staff had been giving young people massages to help them relax before bed, under the supervision of a fully-trained masseuse. The parliamentary written answer states;
the acting principal of the home has been arrested by the police and that four other members of staff have been suspended. Following advice from the social services inspectorate, the county council is conducting an investigation into allegations of inappropriate therapies and restraint techniques and the general culture of the home. Meanwhile the home has been closed, the children relocated and 45 members of staff have been given leave of absence.The social services inspectorate is continuing to monitor the situation.
All criminal charges were dropped. A subsequent inquiry (costing, I was told, £250,000) found no abuse or wrong-doing, although some practices were "capable of being misconstrued". But there was nothing to merit the precipitate closure, nothing to justify the relocation of children who were just in some cases finding the firsrt safe place in their lives, or blighting the careers of the staff. The Director of Social Services was the one who resigned.

I'm rambling. That's what happens. It is very difficult to retain focus or perspective. There's a deep desire for some simple angle. Sometimes the most difficult part of reflection is to acknowledge that there isn't one.

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15 May 2009

On disputing "constructive alignment"

An interesting discussion of the limitations of Biggs' "constructive alignment" model for university teaching—which is referenced and outlined in the post. Briefly, Jones suggests that it leads to big top-down quality enhancement/staff development initiatives which just do not work. He proposes a more modest encouragement of "reflective alignment" which in effect says that if university teachers will just think more about what they are doing, they will not be able to resist improving it. This is in line with the Strivens article I have often drawn attention to.

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11 April 2009

On not so much a job, more a way of life...

Friday—Good Friday—was a sort of second-class public holiday in the UK. (I leave aside the theological dimension.)

Nowadays I work part-time. Sorry. I get paid for working part-time. I was reminded of that yesterday by an email from my "line-manager"...
Digression! Times Higher Education this week has been themed on the interface* between academics and administrators, particularly this article.
However, she or he wrote:
I have checked with HR what happens about your hours and the public holidays. Apparently all public holidays have already been factored into your leave allowance. This means that if you normally work on a day that a public holiday falls then you have to take it off your annual leave allowance, but if you don't normally work that day then it does not affect your leave or hours. So, for example: If you are usually at work on Friday then that day has to come off your annual leave allowance. (My emphasis)

I don't have the kind of mind which wonders whether or not this is fair--and I am thankful that on the whole the system has played fair with me. So far.

No, my issue is rather different. When I worked "full-time" there was no real problem. (There could have been, of course. "Academic freedom" is an important area. But my current concern is much more trivial and domestic.)

Then, I was never not working. My wool-gathering while walking the dog ---was work. My boredom watching an over-hyped film ---was work. My attempts to re-create that Platonic souvlaki I had in Bristol of all places ---were work. My serendipitous encounter with an argument or quote in reading for pleasure in another discipline ---was work. You get the point.

  • Remember, I work in "education", as opposed to, say, quantum physics, or the law of intellectual property, or archaeology. "Work" requires few specialised resources or equipment, at least in its early stages. And the boundaries of the discipline are notoriously fuzzy...
So, much to the annoyance of my wife, who reckons that the boundary was always drawn in favour of "work", I just did not draw the boundary. The same issue is explored here by an academic in the US wondering what compulsory unpaid leave amounts to.

So, again, what does working "0.4" mean, for an academic? Two days a week? Yes, notionally. And I still have default days of attendance at the university, but now that the classes schedules for those days are over, they make no sense...

In the final analysis, "0.4" means 0.6 not at work. And that is hard work. It means gardening (it is not accidental that the civil service calls suspension, "gardening leave") or decorating or anything which precludes thinking... (and much as I dislike both activities, they don't work in that respect). Can't do it. So blow the whole thing. The role of academic, even in a spurious "discipline" like education, is not something one can pick up and put down; it is (for better or for worse) an identity. I am reminded of a point I made in a previous post;
(I asked Mr Lyward what he had asked the student ... to do. "DO?" he replied. "I don't want him to do anything. I want him to be." He would have stood no chance as a "practice teacher" nowadays.)
So am I "at work" as I write this?

* "themed on the interface" I really do have to congratulate myself on coining a truly vacuous example of management-speak which may well become a classic, going forward!

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19 January 2009

On 45 years on

I'm an outsider (British, if you haven't noticed), and political comment is not the business of this blog, but today is Martin Luther King Jr. day in the USA, and tomorrow is arguably the most tangible fulfilment of his dream of 28 August 1963. There is a synergy here which cannot be ignored;

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20 December 2008

On structured reflection

Mike Arnzen's "Pedablogue" (I wish I'd got that name first!) has an interesting review of Reflective Practice in Action: 80 Reflection Breaks for Busy Teachers by Thomas S.C. Farrell. (I've not yet read it, so I can't comment directly on it.)

As the title suggests, it is about structured exercises to promote reflection. Read my comment on the blog post assuming Mike decides to publish it. And if you have any ideas about the second point I make I'd be really interested to hear them!

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