06 February 2010

On "refuting"

"I refute (an allegation)"

Can one do that? Surely "refuting" is the result of some judicial process, rather than a personal claim? I may reject or deny or contest an allegation, but some other body has to refute it?

(This post is all my own work. I deliberately consulted no external sources on this definition; that is the point.)

On responsibility for climate change

There's another survey tonight whipping up a fuss about the declining proportion of the population believing in "man-made" (sic) climate change.

It doesn't matter! IF it is happening, it is futile to allocate "blame". There is an implicit assumption that if "we" caused it, "we" can sort it out.

Not so.

On a thoughtftul consideration of what constitutes plagiarism

No--I'm not posting this (merely) because I am quoted approvingly. Jim Hamlyn explores what "plagiarism" means in the context of a discipline in which (critically, implicit) allusion and reference matter a lot, and provides much food for thought.

01 February 2010

On the point of teaching

An excellent piece on being able to see the wood for the trees in relation to teaching;
In discussions of “effective” teaching, we often hear about the “objectives” that teachers should spell out and repeat, the “learning styles” they should target, the “engagement” they should guarantee at every moment, and the constant encouragement and praise they should provide—all in the interest of raising test scores. The D.C. public schools IMPACT (the teacher assessment system for D.C. public schools) awards points to teachers who implement such practices; Teach For America addresses some of them in its forthcoming book.

Except for the misguided notion of targeting learning styles, none of these techniques is wrong in itself. But together they raise a barrier. Instead of bringing the subject closer to the students, this heap of tools proclaims: “No entrance! The subject is too hard without spelled-out skills, too boring without adornment, and too frustrating without pep talks and cheers!”

Worse still, such techniques take precedence over the lesson’s content. A literature teacher is evaluated not for her presentation of specific poems, but for stating the objectives, keeping all students “on task,” reminding them about the relation between hard work and success, using visuals and manipulatives, and, ultimately, raising the scores. It matters little, in such a system, whether the poem is excellent or trivial, what kind of insight the teacher brings, or what the students might take into their lives."
My sentiments exactly, as I've note before on the blog  and on the site. And thanks to Sheffner for saving me the trouble of looking up those urls for myself!

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27 January 2010

On evidence-based practice

The linked article examines what the Teach for America programme claims actually makes for good teachers and teaching. Among many other points;
"For years, Teach for America also selected for something called “constant learning.” As Farr and others had noticed, great teachers tended to reflect on their performance and adapt accordingly. So people who tend to be self-aware might be a good bet. “It’s a perfectly reasonable hypothesis,” Ayotte-Hoeltzel says.

But in 2003, the admissions staff looked at the data and discovered that reflectiveness did not seem to matter (1) either. Or more accurately, trying to predict reflectiveness in the hiring process did not work.
What did predict success, interestingly, was a history of perseverance—not just an attitude, but a track record. In the interview process, Teach for America now asks applicants to talk about overcoming challenges in their lives—and ranks their perseverance based on their answers. Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and her colleagues have actually quantified the value of perseverance. In a study published in TheJournal of Positive Psychology in November 2009, they evaluated 390 Teach for America instructors before and after a year of teaching. Those who initially scored high for “grit”—defined as perseverance and a passion for long-term goals, and measured using a short multiple-choice test—were 31 percent more likely than their less gritty peers to spur academic growth in their students. Gritty people, the theory goes, work harder and stay committed to their goals longer. (Grit also predicts retention of cadets at West Point, Duckworth has found.)
But another trait seemed to matter even more. Teachers who scored high in “life satisfaction”—reporting that they were very content with their lives—were 43 percent more likely to perform well in the classroom than their less satisfied colleagues. These teachers “may be more adept at engaging their pupils, and their zest and enthusiasm may spread to their students,” the study suggested.
In general, though, Teach for America’s staffers have discovered that past performance—especially the kind you can measure—is the best predictor of future performance. Recruits who have achieved big, measurable goals in college tend to do so as teachers. And the two best metrics of previous success tend to be grade-point average and “leadership achievement”—a record of running something and showing tangible results. If you not only led a tutoring program but doubled its size, that’s promising.
Knowledge matters, but not in every case. In studies of high-school math teachers, majoring in the subject seems to predict better results in the classroom. And more generally, people who attended a selective college are more likely to excel as teachers (although graduating from an Ivy League school does not unto itself predict significant gains in a Teach for America classroom). Meanwhile, a master’s degree in education seems to have no impact on classroom effectiveness (2).
(1) One in the eye for reflection!
(2) And so much for the new Master's in Teaching and Learning.

On Epaminondas

What a weird trail!  Prompted, I admit, by the mention of Sarah Bakewell's book on Montaigne on "Start the Week" (BBC Radio 4) I dug out my unread copy of his selected essays and started to read.a

Aren't his sentences long? I wonder if there is a debate among translators about how much you can muck about with sentence and paragraph construction without violating the original author's style.

And in the first essay in this selection I find a mention of Epaminondas, a Theban general.

My only prior encounter with this ridiculous name, around which I struggled to get my tongue almost 60 years ago, was in a most egregiously racist children's story, of which I had not thought for half a century. Actually, it was not the one referred to in the heading link; it was "Epaminondas and his Mammy's Umbrella" (Sorry, I can''t provide full bibliographic details at short notice--but courtesy of the web you can read it here!)

I have no idea what to make of this. I have no opinion other than revulsion at the casual racism of fifty years ago--but a recognition that these were the default values which I shared as a child (I do remember being puzzled about the ungrammatical dialect).

This is an occasion for negative capability, and I note with interest but no conclusion that it is almost exactly a year since I last blogged on that.

25 January 2010

On explaining grades

The linked piece is a column (dated yesterday but I think I've seen it before) in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Gina Barreca of the University of Connecticut. What I found most remarkable was not the piece itself but part of the first comment:
"Nobody should explain a grade to a student."
As flat and dogmatic as that. On the contrary, nobody should ever give a student a grade without explanation.

The principles of formative assessment (or "assessment for learning") suggest strongly that students can learn an enormous amount from good feedback. Indeed, Hattie concludes that the single most effective way of improving learning is to give "dollops of feedback". And all assessment can be formative. The mark or grade is simply a summary or proxy for the feedback, but it is so abstracted as to give practically no information. On a course on which I currently teach, there are no grades, just "pass" and "refer" (which caan lead to an outright "fail"). But there are dollops of feedback.

Last week one of the participants--"student" is not quite the word for well-qualified professionals in their fields who happen to be learning to teach that field--did ask a colleague for a grade.He demurred, but he could see how uncomfortable it made her. She had been through school, an undergraduate degree and a Master's getting grades all the time; a piece of work had not been properly assessed unless it got a grade, as far as she was concerned even if as in this case, it carried credits if it passed.

It's interesting that the education system is so hooked on grades; in the rest of the working world we get plenaty of feedback, but only in teaching do we get graded (by Ofsted)*.

I suspect that the sub-text of the original comment is that no student should ever question the judgement of a faculty member, however arbitrary.

*Not entirely true, but substantially so.

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22 January 2010

On instant qualitative analysis

I've been messing around with Wordle. In particular I wanted to assemble a number of definitions of "learning" and to explore their similarities and differences in emphasis. and it does a fantastic job of that;

It occurs to me that it provides a very easy tool for the quick analysis of qualitative data such as transcripts of interviews. See here, too for its use in a similar way to reveal two different positions in a political debate. I'm sure others have got there first, but it seems to have plenty of potential...