18 August 2014

Items to Share: 17 August 2014

Education Focus
  • Motivating Students: Should Effort Count? | Faculty Focus '[H]ere’s what’s troubling me. Most students want to get grades with the least amount of effort. If they can get an A or B with an hour or two of studying once a week, or by doing nothing until the night before the exam or paper is due, that’s how much effort they’ll make. Unless students fall madly in love with the content, most won’t expend any more energy than they need to.'
  • The Beef with Personal and Social Development | Sam Shepherd 'I’m not averse to changing behaviour: it could easily be argued that that is the whole reason for education. I’m not averse to telling students things they need to do in order to become better language learners, nor to requiring behaviour change in the context of an ESOL classroom. However, PSD seemed, both explicitly and implicitly to be about conscious lifestyle changes based on a specific socio-cultural viewpoint.'
  • Students learn more if they'll need to teach others | Futurity '“When compared to learners expecting a test, learners expecting to teach recalled more material correctly, they organized their recall more effectively, and they had better memory for especially important information,” says John Nestojko, a researcher in psychology at Washington University in St. Louis.'
  • First impressions in the higher ed classroom [teachinginhighered.com] 'First impressions in the higher ed classroom are crucial. There is even some indication that students’ perceptions on the first day will be almost identical to how they will eventually assess the professor on the final course evaluation. Here are a few ideas for starting the semester strong:'
  • Brain training games won't help children do better at school [theconversation.com] 'Darren Dunning and colleagues at the University of Cambridge gave seven to nine-year-olds up to 25 sessions of either CogMed working memory training or active control tasks. Then they measured whether training improved performance on additional measures of working memory, and broader skills including mathematics, reading, writing and classroom-based skills (such as following instructions). They found improvements on working memory. Crucially, however, these improvements did not extend to improvements on any of the broader skills.'  
Other Business
  • What’s Up With That: Why It’s So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos | Science | WIRED  'You have finally finished writing your article. You’ve sweat [sic] over your choice of words and agonized about the best way to arrange them to effectively get your point across. You comb for errors, and by the time you publish you are absolutely certain that not a single typo survived. But, the first thing your readers notice isn’t your carefully crafted message, it’s the misspelled word in the fourth sentence.' 

  • Talking therapies can harm too – here's what to look out for [theconversation.com] 'People seeking therapy should always talk to a practitioner who provides good quality treatment that’s appropriate to their needs. Because research shows that even the innocuous-sounding “talking therapies” (essentially counselling and psychotherapy) can be harmful for some when they’re unsuitable.'
  • Steven Pinker: 10 'grammar rules' it's OK to break (sometimes) | Books | The Guardian 'How can you distinguish the legitimate concerns of a careful writer from the folklore and superstitions? These are the questions to ask. Does the rule merely extend the logic of an intuitive grammatical phenomenon to more complicated cases, such as avoiding the agreement error in "The impact of the cuts have not been felt"? Do careful writers who inadvertently flout the rule agree, when the breach is pointed out, that something has gone wrong? Has the rule been respected by the best writers in the past? Is it respected by careful writers in the present?'
  • 250 years of English grammar usage advice: HUGE database includes history of hopefully and others '[N]ewer usage guides tend to discuss a greater number of usage problems than older ones do. This suggests that more usage problems are "discovered" than disappear, either by being "forgotten" about or resolved. Furthermore, the database mainly contains usage problems relating to grammatical issues rather than word-choice or spelling. It seems then, that grammatical issues don’t easily "go out of fashion," something that happens more easily with problems of word choice, spelling or pronunciation.'
  • The Case for Conversational Writing | Vitae  'I’ve heard some of my college-level colleagues [complain] that students don’t know how to write academic prose. [...] Why should they? The fact that they’re students, and that they’re operating in an academic environment, does not make them academics. Nor will more than a fraction of them go on to become academics, thank goodness. The overwhelming majority won’t be writing academic prose in their professional lives, so why should we be teaching it to them in college, much less high school?'

12 August 2014

On the Curse of Knowledge

"It goes by many names, and many psychologists have rediscovered versions of it, including defective Theory of Mind, egocentrism, hindsight bias, and false consensus. They're all versions of an infirmity afflicting every member of our species, namely that it's hard to imagine what it's like not to know something that you do know."
(Steven Pinker, 9 June 2014)
In some measure, the curse of knowledge is the dark side of threshold concepts. Not of course that all knowledge comes into that category by any means, but TCs are where people get stuck, and hence where the curse of knowledge is most potent.

One respect in which knowledge can be troublesome, according to Perkins (2006), emerges when it is irreversible; once you know how to read (any given script, of course) it is impossible not to read. And correspondingly difficult to imagine what it is like to be unable to read. (It is a salutory exercise to take a piece of writing in an unfamiliar script such as cyrillic or arabic, together with a crib sheet, and just to try and sound it out—never mind the sense.)

And of course the curse of knowledge is especially problematic for teachers, because they need to see the world to a certain extent through their students' eyes, and to understand their ignorance. It's generally considered to be bad practice—and of course it is—but we have all at some time or another had to teach something we are not very familiar with. In its most extreme form it is a matter of keeping one chapter ahead of the students in the textbook. And just sometimes it works remarkably well, because you can recall yesterday when you too were wrestling with where to put what in double-entry book-keeping...

In my very early days in further education, I remember a conversation in the canteen when an older colleague posed the question whether it was possible to know your subject too well to be able to teach it effectively.  And of course it is. Willingham (see here) points out that the expert does not learn or use their knowledge in the same way as the novice—that is one reason why it does not make sense to teach "thinking skills" in the absence of a knowledge base on which to exercise them.

But it is our job to get alongside the novice and first to understand how he sees the world, in order to alter that understanding. And that is where knowledge is a curse.

Or a handicap*. We expect and encourage students to overcome their handicaps; without getting too airy-fairy about this, we can learn through overcoming our own.

See also: Wieman C (2007) "The “Curse of Knowledge,” or Why Intuition About Teaching Often Fails" APS News November 2007 (Volume 16, Number 10)

Perkins D. (2006) "Constructivism and troublesome knowledge" in J. H. F. Meyer & R. Land (eds.) Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge, pp.33-47. London; Routledge

* PC alert!  The current rhetoric deprecates "handicap", but here it is the best term I can think of. Think of it in respect of sport, and racing in particular.

11 August 2014

Items to share: 10 August 2014

Education Focus
  • Knowledge is what you think with | Webs of Substance 'Instead of spending serious consideration on improving the teaching of content knowledge, we have been sold a classic bait-and-switch. Yes, there is a problem with students forgetting things or forming misconceptions or failing to link ideas or finding things a bit boring. This is all true. But the solution is not to stop bothering to teach content in favour of some ill-defined, vague and frankly soulless load of old nonsense.'
  • Closing the feedback loop | You're the Teacher [ubc.ca] 'Remembering [a] situation [when I denied some feedback] helped put me into the mindset of students receiving critical feedback [...] and not believ[ing] it, getting angry, indignant, even lashing out. When that happens you are not even allowing yourself to think that the feedback might be true; since it doesn’t fit with who you think you are, your own evaluation of the quality of your work, the truth must be that whoever said that is simply wrong.'
  • The Rise of the Helicopter Teacher [chronicle.com] 'Teaching and parenting share this in common: In both relationships, the goal is to produce independent and self-sufficient human beings. The risk that helicopter parents run is that they will raise children so coddled that they have a hard time functioning on their own in the larger world. So too with the way we have infantilized our students. Afraid or unwilling to challenge them, we pass them through with perfectly good grades but without much of a sense of how to work on their own or think for themselves.'
  • Let’s stop trying to teach students critical thinking [theconversation.com] '“Critical theories” are “uncritical theories”. When some theory has the prefix “critical” it requires the uncritical acceptance of a certain political perspective. Critical theory, critical race theory, critical race philosophy, critical realism, critical reflective practice all explicitly have political aims.' [Discuss!]
  • Humanizing Academic Citation – Lingua Franca - Blogs - The Chronicle of Higher Education 'For years now I have been talking with graduate students about what it means to be entering the academic conversation in their field or subfield. “All your work has to do,” I tell them, “is further the conversation one useful step.” This goal, I think, feels more manageable than, say, “solving the problem,” and it has helped more than one student I know get over writer’s block with an essay or dissertation chapter. The goal of most academic scholarship is not, after all, to end the conversation.'
  • Teacher competence [teachinginhighered.com] 'Every single time I get on a plane I’m really glad that the plane is not being flown by someone who just always loved planes.' Teacher quoted in review of Elizabeth Green's new book about preparing teachers better (W. W. Norton and Co.)
Other Business

04 August 2014

On Master's level.

The Scottish Higher Education Enhancement Committee (SHEEC) and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) have just published a “Mastersness Toolkit” online  which outlines the seven attributes characteristic of study at taught Master's level; Abstraction, Autonomy, Depth, Complexity, Professionalism, Research and Enquiry, and Unpredictability:

It promises to be very useful as a way of helping both students and colleagues to get their heads around what is expected at this level.

If you are interested in this, you may also like my pieces on Writing at Master's Level and the Structure of a Dissertation.

Items to Share; 3 August 2014

Education Focus
  • Feeling Unable to Learn | Faculty Focus 'I’ve just had one of those in-your-face learning experiences. In fact, it was so unnerving that I’m not sure I can even write about it. It all started when I bought a new computer and, as a result, had to learn an entirely new email system. Although not an unusual or difficult situation for most college teachers, it turned into an absolutely awful experience for this learner. I haven’t felt such frustration, anger, and despair for a long time.'
Other Business
  • The Way We Live Our Lives in Stories | Edge.org [Jonathan Gottshall] 'No matter where you go in the world, no matter how different people seem, no matter how hard their lives are, people tell stories, universally, and universally the stories are more or less like ours: the same basic human obsessions, and the same basic structure. The structure comes down to: stories have a character, the character has a predicament or a problem—they're always problem-focused—and the character tries to solve the problem. In its most basic terms, that's what a story is—a problem solution narrative.'
  • Against happiness: Why we need a philosophy of failure | Prospect Magazine '[T]he spread of depression is partly a side-effect of our addiction to happiness. Conversely, understanding why we are so miserable should liberate us from being too miserable about it. We can feel good about feeling bad. In other words, we need a decent philosophy of failure to save everyone from thinking what failures they are.'
  • Playing an Instrument Is a Great Workout For Your Brain: New Animation Explains Why | Open Culture 'Neuroscientists using fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and PET (Positron Emission Tomography) technology to monitor the brain activity of subjects listening to music saw engagement in many areas, but when the subjects traded in headphones for actual instruments, this activity morphed into a grand fireworks display. [...] This massive full brain workout is available to anyone willing to put in the time with an instrument.'
  • Experimental Theology: Search Term Friday: Strange Loops and Theology I don't usually include links to religious material, but this meditation from Richard Beck on the relevance of Douglas Hofstadter's exploration of logic and maths to thinking about aspects of religion is fascinating—as anything to do with Hofstadter is pretty well bound to be. 

01 August 2014

On "Why Don't Students Like School?" (Willingham)

You may have come across Dan Willingham. He features regularly in the posts of several education bloggers who crop up frequently in my Items to Share on Mondays, and his crystal-clear and devastating demolition of the VAK reading styles nonsense has been viewed almost 235,000 times on YouTube. But his central published work in this area is;

Willingham D T (2009) Why Don't Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom San Francisco; Jossey-Bass

The plain language of the title sets the tone for a refreshingly jargon-free book aimed at the general interested reader, principally parents and teachers, whom he addresses directly. So each chapter heading is a question, expanded upon in the opening paragraph, and followed by an answer. Selected sources and references are available as end-notes to each chapter (under the useful heading of “less technical” and “more technical”, but don't interrupt the flow. There are copious graphics and photographs (perhaps too many of those, some of debatable relevance) and box-outs which summarise major points. All this is the familiar apparatus of the text-book, but the book as a whole  does not give that impression. On the contrary, it reads like the transcript of an animated (albeit one-sided) conversation.

In other words, within the confines of the book format, Willingham can practise what he preaches. But what is that?

In the introduction, he says that the book;
“began as a list of nine principles that are so fundamental to the mind's operation that they do not change as circumstances change. They are as true in the classroom as they are in the laboratory and therefore can be reliably applied to classroom situations.” (p.2)
And that is what it is; an exploration of the nine principles. (from pp. 210-211)

Cognitive Principle

Required Knowledge about Students

Most Important Classroom Implication
1 People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers What is just beyond what my students know and can do? Think of to-be-learned material as answers, and take the time necessary to explain to students the questions.
2 Factual knowledge precedes skill. What do my students know? It is not possible to think well on a topic in the absence of factual knowledge about the topic.
3 Memory is the residue of thought. What will students think during this session? The best barometer for every lesson plan is “Of what will it make students think?”
4 We understand new things in the context of things we already know. What do students already know that will be a toehold on understanding this new material? Always make deep knowledge your goal, spoken or unspoken but recognize that shallow knowledge will come first.
5 Proficiency requires practice How can I get students to practice without boredom? Think carefully about which material students need at their fingertips, and practice it over time.
6 Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training. What is the difference between my students and an expert? Strive for deep understanding in your students, not the creation of new knowledge.
7 Children (and adults*) are more alike than different in terms of learning Knowledge of students' learning styles is not necessary Think of lesson content, not student differences, driving decisions about how you teach.
8 Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work. What do my students believe about intelligence? Always talk about successes and failures in terms of effort, not ability.
9 Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practised in order to be improved. What aspects of my teaching work well for my students, and what parts need improvement? Improvement needs more than experience; it also requires constant effort and feedback.

* my addition.

Willingham is not claiming novelty for any of these ideas—in fact directly the opposite. Many readers will find familiar references and names (although Ausubel does not appear to get a mention in ch.4—this does not pretend to provide a comprehensive survey of the work in the field).

The odd thing is that all this does not add up to an answer to the question in the title, but who cares? It's an excellent intorduction. This is not likely to be available at your local indy bookshop, so for once I'll post the Amazon link.