30 November 2015

Items to Share: 29 November 2015

Other Business

23 November 2015

Items to Share: 22 November 2015

Education Focus
  • The Illusion of Knowing | David Didau: The Learning Spy 'Advanced Learning has commissioned me to write a piece about the uses and abuses of data in schools. My thesis, if that’s not too grand a term, is that while data can be extraordinarily useful in helping us make good decisions, too much data leads, inexorably, to overload. When we have too much data we start doing silly things with it, just because we have it. The cost of bad data is the conviction that we have figured out all the possible permutations and know exactly what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. This is an illusion.'
  • Are We Clear? Tips for Crafting Better Explanations 'How many explanations do you think you offer during a full week of teaching? Explanations are one of teaching’s most central activities and yet something we rarely think about, in general, or how we do them, specifically.'
  • The importance of knowing what doesn’t work | The NFER blog  'We are a long way from academic journals, let alone the press, giving equal weight to null or negative findings as compared to those that demonstrate a positive effect. Null or negative findings are, of course, just as important as positive ones. A school spending its valuable Pupil Premium resources on an intervention that is demonstrated to be ineffective can quickly change tack to something that has greater weight of evidence behind it. Was there robust evidence for or against the other book club programmes the DfE was considering when awarding its funding? Probably not.'
  • Letting in the Monster | Sam Shepherd 'There was a silence in the class. They’re a friendly but not naturally chatty group, but this time things felt distinctly like there was a great thing hanging unsaid in the classroom: not so much an elephant in the room as a glowering shadowy monster hulking in the corner. It was practically tangible. So where do you go with that? I thought. I bumbled and fluffed for a bit, realised that the thing was still there, and said, quite simply and openly to the class: “OK, let’s talk about it. Talk to the people near you about how you feel about the events in Paris.”
 Other Business
  • Nobel Prize for physics awarded to man who successfully connected to free wi-fi [newsthump.com] 'The Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded to a man who successfully connected to the free wi-fi in his local Wetherspoons. The achievement was widely regarded as a functional impossibility by the scientific community, but peer-review of his actions has concluded that he did indeed connect for long enough to check the final scores and his lottery numbers whilst having a pint of Speckled Hen.'
  • Robinson v Furlong: a case study in witch-hunting | spiked  'Many historic-abuse cases kick off with a journalistic exposé, followed by national appeals from campaigners and state agencies for more ‘victims’ to come forward. We have become inured to the pre-identification of an alleged perpetrator, the nature of the behaviour being investigated and the timeframe and place in which it (allegedly) occurred, followed by a proliferation of complaints, which are taken to be mutually reinforcing. This cautionary tale from Canada on how not to witch-hunt should be required reading for UK journalists, media organisations, judges and law-enforcement agencies.'And it is also interesting on aspects of good and bad practice in journalism—parallel to practices in social research—which most of us are unaware of.
  • The Space Doctor’s Big Idea - The New Yorker 'There once was a doctor with cool white hair. He was well known because he came up with some important ideas. He didn’t grow the cool hair until after he was done figuring that stuff out, but by the time everyone realized how good his ideas were, he had grown the hair, so that’s how everyone pictures him. He was so good at coming up with ideas that we use his name to mean “someone who’s good at thinking.” Two of his biggest ideas were about how space and time work. This thing you’re reading right now explains those ideas using only the ten hundred words people use the most often.' From the amazing Randall Monroe (alias xkcd): more at Randall Munroe Draws His Own Conclusions | TIME

17 November 2015

Items to Share: 15 November 2015

Education Focus
  • Can Online Learning Ever Beat the Real Thing? | Big Think 'To most, the question of whether online learning can beat the real thing probably sounds rhetorical: Of course — one assumes, a real teacher in a real classroom must always be better than learning through a screen. The case against online learning has been made in a series of strongly worded critiques of “massive open online courses” (MOOCs), however in a recent article in Nautilus, Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University, has made a strong case to the contrary. Oakley describes a variety of “terrific pedagogical advantages” that can be applied in online learning
  • BPS Research Digest: Older people appear to be especially good at remembering things that interest them  'Our memory abilities begin to diminish in some respects as early as our twenties. But the picture isn't entirely bleak. A new study published in Psychology and Aging explores the possibility that an older person's curiosity or interest in a subject can reinforce their powers of memory. Following this view, old age is associated with forgetting more of what you don't care about, but the ability to remember what matters to you is preserved or even enhanced.
  • 3 Rules of Academic Blogging - The Chronicle of Higher Education 'Blogging — self-published, regular, semiformal, potentially public writing — fits academic life beautifully. Just pick your platform carefully, use the experience as a way to write new things, and, most of all, write for the sake of writing. And then just maybe, readers will follow.' 
Other Business
  • In praise of dignity and justice | David Didau: The Learning Spy  'Now, Campbell and Manning suggest, we are entering a new era of morality: the culture of dignity is being subsumed by a new culture of victimhood. In this new culture, it is no longer assumed that everyone possesses dignity and worth. Instead, it is assumed that insults and slights are an attack on our honour and must be redressed. In contrast to the culture of honour, victims are not expected to seek this redress alone but to appeal to more powerful others for support. According to Campbell and Manning, this involves “building a case for action by documenting, exaggerating, or even falsifying offences”.'  See also this (I hope rather over-egged) report: The Halloween Costume Controversy at Yale's Silliman College - The Atlantic 'A fight over Halloween costumes at Yale has devolved into an effort to censor dissenting views.'
  • Reproducibility Crisis: The Plot Thickens - Neuroskeptic 'There have been many published studies of romantic priming (43 experiments across 15 papers, according to Shanks et al.) and the vast majority have found statistically significant effects. The effect would appear to be reproducible! But in the new paper, Shanks et al. report that they tried to replicate these effects in eight experiments, with a total of over 1600 participants, and they came up with nothing. Romantic priming had no effect. [   ] So what happened? Why do the replication results differ so much from the results of the original studies?
  • How Failing Better Could Advance Science [nautil.us] 'It is this unordinary meaning of failure that I suggest scientists should embrace. One must try to fail because it is the only strategy to avoid repeating the obvious. Failing better means looking beyond the obvious, beyond what you know and beyond what you know how to do. Failing better happens when we ask questions, when we doubt results, when we allow ourselves to be immersed in uncertainty.

09 November 2015

Items to Share: 8 November 2015

Education Focus
  • Learning Technology – what next? | FurtherEdagogy 'I want to set my stall out before you read on. I’m a huge advocate of learning technology and believe that it will play an important role in education going forward. I’ve written articles that have advocated the need to use technology, its importance and how to maximise its use here and here. However, just recently, I have started to question my thinking. [   ] I know I wasn’t alone in embracing and running with new technology in the ‘early years’ and I hope that I’m not alone in realising that there is a place for it and that place is when it serves a purpose – filling a gap. Aside from the fact that the technology I was using may not have had the impact I first thought, it seems less and less innovative software/apps are appearing – just more of the same stuff. I haven’t seen anything of late which has solved a problem.'
  • Wrong lever! | teaching personally 'At the root of this [emphasis on continous improvement through micro-management] is an inability to accept that there are some very important things over which we have very little control. And key amongst those, particularly with the older students, is their wider culture and attitudes. It may be necessary for schools to claim they have total control over student outcomes, but I am afraid it just isn’t so. Even Hattie accepts that. I am not going to suggest there is nothing we can do to tackle complacency and over-confidence in students, but I think it is foolish to expect to bring about a rapid, profound change – or that coercion will achieve it.'
  • Why is teacher assessment biased? | The Wing to Heaven 'Teacher assessment discriminates against poorer pupils and minorities, and generates significant workload for teachers. Tests are fairer and less burdensome. They deserve a better reputation than they have, and a greater role in our assessment system.'
Other Business
  • 100 years of the unconscious - Philosophy and Life 'This month marks the centenary of Sigmund Freud's seminal 1915 paper on the unconscious. In this episode of Science Set Free, Rupert Sheldrake and myself [Mark Vernon] discuss Freud's understanding of this dynamic, hidden part of the human psyche. We look at the different ideas of Carl Jung, and also ask how the unconscious links to perceptions of the soul and morphic fields.'  

05 November 2015

On scalability

 Apologies: I wrote this a while ago, but somehow never posted it.

Not many people will probably have heard BBC Radio 4's File on 4 programme on 17 or 22 March, but it deserves a wide audience—and is still available as a download. It was called “Sick of School?” and was about teacher stress—as the web-page describes it:
Is the pressure on teachers reaching crisis point?
Record numbers are leaving the classroom and thousands of teachers recently responded to the Government's workload survey to say they were struggling with their workload. They blamed the pressure of Ofsted inspections and pressure from school management.
Official absence statistics are silent on the causes of sick leave - but now File on 4 reveals new figures on the number of teachers off long-term because of stress.
Jane Deith hears from those who say they were pushed to the brink by the pressure - some suicidal and others hospitalized or diagnosed with depression.
Teaching has always involved long hours and heavy workloads but, with schools' performance open to unprecedented scrutiny, some education academics argue that the 'surveillance culture' is now seriously harming teacher's health and their ability to provide high quality education.
Are they right? How alarmed should we be about the mental well-being of our children's teachers?
For anyone professionally involved in education, the picture will be recognisable, but the tales told by teachers who have left the profession (usually anonymously and “voiced by an actor”, because of the draconian terms of the “compromise agreements” under which they leave), are harrowing. There are more readily available in the educational blogosphere—the Echo Chamber meta-blog is a good place to start. Here is a specimen post today.

The issues seem to be particularly extreme in schools, but they are shared in FE and indeed in HE (consider Marina Warner's recent piece on why she resigned from Essex). I belong to an occasional walking group of former colleagues and friends, most of whom have exited from academic life via a compromise agreement—we refer to ourselves as the “escape committee”.

The proximate causes of this exodus vary. The programme made much of the pressure of Ofsted inspection regimes, only partly because being inspected is inherently stressful, but also because the stakes are so high, at the systemic level. School gradings affect everything; from funding to recruitment and retention of teachers, and to head-teachers’ jobs. One voice on the programme compared their position to that of football managers—one poor result and you are out.

And the practice associated with dealing with staff who succumb to stress, as recounted in the programme—although obviously the stories are selected for effect—is presented as gratuitously brutal and humiliating.

What is going on? What has happened to collegiality? To pastoral care? To mutual support? To trust?

Stefan Collini suggests in What are Universities For? (2012) that there has been a cultural shift in these institutions. As I summarised one of his arguments in a post a few years ago:
'[He] contends that the managerialist rhetoric of current neo-liberal politics in which everything has to be accountable and costed, has forced those who would run universities (and indeed other educational institutions) to embrace spurious metrics as distorted proxies for fuzzy contestable aims such as "education" and "scholarship" which are no longer accepted as goods in themselves. In particular he refers to fatuous notions of "continuous improvement" "beyond excellence"--that can only work if the standards do not change.'
That's not enough. There are still plenty of well-intentioned and pleasant people who work in these institutions. Some of them even manage to conduct themselves in accordance with those old-fashioned values, but I fear that they are under ever-greater pressure...

It strikes me that part of the problem is that those abandoned values are just not scalable.

Large modern people-processing institutions are characterised by anonymity, by pressure to get things done, by standardisation of “product”, by fragmented roles and instrumental rather than personal engagement (at least in the formal structures) and so on. The values of collegiality, mutuality, and trust need time to develop and emerge, and time is at a premium.

Mutual respect and support cannot be legislated into existence; they require people to accommodate to each other and make allowances—and that of course means tolerating inconsistency.

And schools and colleges are complex structures characterised also by the emotional charge which attaches to their members, and their tasks. Success and failure, inclusion and exclusion, safety and risk, create emotional dynamics which have to be managed. That is of course usually achieved by denying them and attempting to impose control at a surface level.

There used to be a sub-genre of educational writing which attempted to take these issues seriously associated for me with the work of  Elizabeth Richardson and Isobel Menzies-Lyth in the 'sixties (within the Tavistock/Kleinian/psychoanalytic tradition), David Hargreaves (social psychological tradition) and Isca Salzberger-Wittenburg (psychoanalysis again) in the 'seventies. Unless I've taken my eye off the ball too much, it then went fallow, to resurface (pardon the mixed metaphors!) in the work of Andy Hargreaves (from America) in the '90s and to date.

Re- reading them today, their discourse is barely recognisable. It has to be admitted that the “research” component tends towards the anecdotal and subjective, and would be criticised harshly today*; but the richness and the depth is remarkable.

They come from a less instrumental and more humane era (albeit one castigated from the present for sloppy approaches to education, with the beginning of its end marked by Jim Callaghan's famous/notorious “Ruskin Speech” of October 1976.) and the subordination of all educational values to economic imperatives.


Becker H S (2014) What about Mozart? What about Murder? Reasoning from cases London; University of Chicago Press
Hargreaves A (2002) “Teaching and Betrayal [1]” Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, Vol. 8, No. 3/4 (Accessed 31 March 2015) Note; this paper is cited as just an example of Hargreaves' oeuvre and because of its accessibility.
Hargreaves D (1972) Interpersonal Relations and Education London; Routledge and Kegan Paul
Menzies-Lyth I (1988) Containing Anxiety in Institutions: Selected Essays, volume 1 London; Free Association Books
Richardson E (1967) The Environment of Learning London; Nelson
Salzberger-Wittenberg I, Williams G and Osborne W (1975) The Emotional Experience of Learning and Teaching London; Routledge Education (1993 edn. published by Karnac Books)
Webb P T (2005) “The anatomy of accountability” Journal of Education Policy Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 189–208 (accessed online 9 April 2015

* On the other hand, I'm also reading Howard Becker's latest. (Yes, that Howard Becker.) It is on “reasoning from cases”, and seems set to rehabilitate some aspects of the methodology of those 40-year-old studies.