03 October 2009

On an "outstanding" lesson

I've just been channel-hopping and came across Teachers' TV. It was citing an example of an "outstanding" lesson on elementary geometry for, I guess, 9-year-olds. "Outstanding" is Ofsted's term, by the way.

Not only was the lesson poorly constructed, but just under the surface it was teaching rubbish...

  1. The teacher gave several instructions but then qualified them with, "but before that, you need to..."

  2. She put up a small text slide outlining the lesson objectives. Why? This is teacher-speak, which means nothing to learners, who have no interest in framing stuff this way. Basically, in order to make sense of this kind of specification of steps towards a goal (if that is actually a good metaphor) you need to be able to stand outside the experience, to see the map of the journey; and of course very few learners can do that. Indeed, probably none of them... not even postgrads. So all this "explanation" does is to confuse further.

  3. Most egregiously though, it reproduced precisely the offence I experienced at the same age. I can remember the class vividly. It was the first half of a Friday afternoon, just before Art or the Story which wound down the week, probably in the Spring of 1953 or thereabouts.

    We were given exactly the same exercise as the pupils in the programme. Construct a triangle (actually, these pupils had the triangles drawn and cut out for them), then use a protractor to measure the angles, and add them up to arrive at the magic total of 180 degrees.
Except that they didn't! As I recall, my total was about 183 degrees, and the girl next to me got 178 degrees. Neither our understanding nor the teacher's (OK--to confuse the issue but to explain much else, this was the bizarre year when my mother was also my class teacher) could cope with "margins of error". So there was a meta-learning in this lesson:

The theory and received wisdom is correct. If your experience differs, it is wrong. 

It was repeated many times afterwards, in practically every "science" lesson in particular throughout my schooling. To be fair, it wasn't surprising in those days. I was in secondary school in the late '50s when budgets were very tight, and the improvisation of equipment was taken for granted. 

But things have changed; we are no longer constrained by limited facilities (at this level). And while I and my peers understood at some level that our practicals were just playing at science, children today are accustomed to something more definitive.

I don't want to get hyperbolic, but forget "objectives" and aspirations, and get down to more realistic "takeaways" including the unintended ones.

About twenty years or more ago, there was a late night Open University programme on "Professional Judgement". [See; Dowie J and Elstein A (eds) (1988) Professional Judgement; a reader in clinical decision making Cambridge; Cambridge U P] It was fascinating, and I am amazed now to find out how old it is, but the relevant point is that at the end of each programme, there was space given to --as I remember-- an academic from the LSE, to critique the assumptions and the methodology of the preceding argument.

That's the way to promote sound development of practice, not facile and fiddled "demonstrations" of what "ought" to have happened.

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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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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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02 December 2008

On Yorick

The news story today concerns the use (or not) of a genuine skull in the graveyard scene opening the final act of Hamlet (Shakespeare c.1600). The skull was bequeathed by a concert pianist, Andre Tchaikowsky.

I knew him, Horatio! No, actually I didn't; but one day in October 1972 I was visiting a student on placement at one of the world's most amazing therapeutic establishments for young men, Finchden Manor. Do read this site. I was not quite 28 years old; two years older than the oldest resident in the establishment at the time.

I was ushered into the presence of George Lyward, the charismatic founder and Chief of the place. No, it was not a "therapeutic community" as now understood and discussed in the literature. It was far too autocratic. I could go on and on about Finchden Manor on the basis of my limited acquaintance in Mr Lyward's final years, but you can get first-hand testimony from the website.

Mr Lyward was indeed charismatic (in the Weberian sense). But his charismatic quality was one I had never before (or since) encountered. He made me feel that he was privileged to meet me. I was a callow 28! An upstart tutor on a social work course who had never done any social work in his life. A fraud, basically (although not deliberately so; I was so naive then that I did even know that there were some things a degree in European Studies did not equip you for). And Mr Lyward was honoured to meet me. It was not an act.

This of course was even more disorienting than being interrogated and put down. However, from the room next door came wonderful piano music. Trying to make conversation in my blundering way (nowadays of course, I should not have to "make conversation". We would immediately have got down to the forms and reports and checklists), I asked about the hi-fi, as I thought it must be. "No," said Mr Lyward, "that's not a recording. That's Andre Tchaikowsky practising for his concert at the Festival Hall. He's an old boy of Finchden, you know, and he comes back here to practise when he has something big coming up." Tchaikowsky had come to Finchden to overcome some of his trauma from growing up in Warsaw in WW2 and the loss of most of his family.

(An aside; when I ventured to get down to the material for the placement report, I asked Mr Lyward what he had asked the student [Steve Williams--I remember you, and it's an episode for you to be proud of, too] 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.)

That's as close as I got to Yorick, and to some other things, too.

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20 October 2008

On the potency of taking offence

This is only indirectly a teaching point, but it does reflect on the culture of our classrooms. This article and this one (both from rather right-wing perspectives, agreed, but that does not mean there is no virtue in them) make the point that sensitivity to possible offence is now a potent element in political debate at all levels--particularly where a shame-culture prevails (as it does much more than most of us would like to think). See also this report.

"Political correctness" (in itself a contestable label) in its most benign form, sets out not to offend anyone. OK, but that gives hostages to fortune in ceding great power to anyone who decides to be hypersensitive about, for example, being bald (sorry! "Follically challenged" I don't think that phrase was ever more than a joke anyway, and I can call it because I am myself bald...). Or being of a particular ethnic origin, or having a specific learning disability, or espousing a particular faith...

The fact that one falls into one or more of those categories (and several more) does not automatically make one a morally superior person, exempt from venal desires to take personal (or group) advantage from any strategic error by a competitor. (I'm looking at this systemically.)

If major players in a system elevate "not giving offence" to their primary moral principle, then they cede authority to whoever can be most easily offended. And given that "not offending" is th ultimate pusillanimity (wow! Did I spell that right?) they probably deserve the consequences.

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