Notes From Some Staff Development Sessions

Active Learning – Three Video Programmes (8/11/96 – 1200-1330)

The overall pack seemed quite impressive (video plus booklet), the team was keen and there was a good deal of enthusiasm for this project – a talented youth  leader/trainer demonstrates his skills working with young people on a variety of ‘games and exercises for teachers and for youth and community workers to use with groups to stimulate learning’. There were two main sorts of problems, for me, both arising from an (understandable) enthusiasm to make videos before, or instead of, planning the educational experience as such:

The old problems that arise in educational videos when the form can come to contradict or distract from the message. As examples (all discussed more widely in the literature), the expert was shot sometimes in three-quarter profile, slightly from below and from the waist up, as he argued his case enthusiastically. This is sometimes known as the ‘propaganda shot’ and is associated with, teaching, preaching, patriotic speeches or other attempts at persuasion, and I wonder what sort of effects would be forthcoming on the audience – personally, I felt sceptical almost immediately. The expert is also accustomed to talking to groups of youths, not to cameras, leading to another problem – the roving eye of the teacher looks shifty and evasive in mid-shot or close-up. More generally, there is the old problem of what to show while an expert is talking to camera – the videos avoided the cliches of the row of books of study, but showed us rather interesting things going on in the background instead (kids juggling, for example). Not only was this rather more interesting than what was being said (I suspect), but it also raised questions about how ‘normal’ these kids were who were demonstrating the games – these are examples of intertextual distractors, of course.

The educational issue of effectiveness and use. I found the booklet as informative as the video, and much more portable. The links between the video, the range of available books and the booklet tended to be discussed in marketing terms (there is a gap in the market for the video, apparently): participants to the discussion also noted that the booklet explains things in more detail, and that the video illustrates the games ‘just like you’d have in a book’. At the OU there were tighter justifications: the video might be used to show things that are hard to describe in words or still photos (are there any in this case?). This links with more abstract discussion in Media Studies about what moving pictures mean. In practice, to test the components would require some controlled experiments, of course, at the evaluation stage, involving trials with video alone, booklet alone, and then both (and some sort of measure of effectiveness, of course – how many games were remembered? How much was motivation or confidence increased?).

The same issues arise with use – how (and what) would people learn from this video exactly? As far as I could see, these questions were not raised by the makers (part of the usual neglect of the audience and the reception context of educational pieces).The whole production seemed dominated by the values of media production rather  than by educational effectiveness (as is so often the case) – the exercises made ‘good video’. The expert himself said that the (vital) processing of the results, the talking about the games, the skilled counselling work afterwards would not make good video – and this is the usual paradox. 

At this point, the discussion slid into another issue – the video as an element in the promotion of youth work (e.g. as some sort of answer to the problems of youth crime), and, at one point, as a promotion for the College: I’m just not sure that the same video can meet both functions. As a specific point, there was a lot of discussion on the tape about the benefits of role play, how playing the games encourages effective communication and decision-making etc., but it is hard to catch the context of these remarks – were they (a) objectives to be attained by the games demonstrated on the video? (b) the observed results of careful evaluation? or (c) claims made to help promote the exercise, to dignify it with some ‘educational’ purpose?

The Science and Art of Communication: an introduction to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (12/11/96 – 1400-1700)

This was a very full and intense session (only 4 participants [then 3] and LD), with much to learn and to think about. Five handouts were issued (and two references given),and some detailed notes taken. After some reflection, it is now possible to think of pros and cons:

The pros include:

1. NLP seems to offer a number of techniques and skills to encourage a good deal of reflexive self-monitoring. These range from general principles to reflect upon (such as ‘the map is not the territory’), through techniques to notice,  record and analyse one’s own ‘mental sets’ (probably not NLP language) (such as ‘inner game’ techniques to avoid unhelpful blocks, and the use of several metaphors like ‘running a video’ to help us visualise), to concrete examples of practical sessions on overcoming exam stress.
2. The spirit of NLP is relativist enough to help us focus on the communication or learning difficulties/competencies of others. The whole intent is to help us observe and analyse the language (including non-verbals) of others the better to help them reflect: techniques and checklists (e.g. those on the handouts provided  – ‘Meta Model Patterns –Deletion Examples’, or ‘Meta Model 2’) are quite thought-provoking here, and are sensible if only as heuristics to assist in the asking of suitably open-ended questions (a particular problem for me, on occasion). Other techniques – such as ‘eye-accessing’ are more dubious, but even here can serve as heuristics. Techniques like these boost the confidence of the user, even if they don’t actually stand up to more rigorous testing?
3. The more general discussion also proved useful in sharing ideas, especially in comparing and contrasting teaching and counselling contexts. At the very least, being reminded of the problems counsellors encounter (e.g. careers counsellors) helps teachers context their work and avoid too narrow a focus on purely cognitive, ‘mastery’ models of teaching and learning
The cons are routine (critical) social-theoretic objections:
1. The approach seems based on the model of the types of petit-bourgeois communication (read as ‘elaborated code’? or Bourdieu’s ‘high aesthetic’) which are generalised as (universally applicable and ideologically innocent) ‘precise  communication’. The purpose seems to be to foster such communication in restricted code speakers to prepare them for the communicative climates of schools and modernised work. There is no critique of these climates – ‘Most human problems derive from the models in our head rather than from the world as it really is’. This is ‘ego-psychology’ designed to adjust individuals to their contexts? Excessive individualism overdetermines this insufficient grasp of social and political context (although there is a procedure called ‘ecological mapping’? which might bring back such contexts). There is a rugged individualism in the technique of modelling successful individuals? 
2. More generally, there is no apparent room for an unconscious level (no repressed elements beyond rational recall and rethinking, no collective, mythical, ideological legacies). The ‘person’ in such ‘person-centred’ psychology runs the risk of being the ‘normalised’ person of current society (the constantly reflexive self-monitoring even looks a bit like the ‘narcissistic personality’ in Lasch’s work on postmodern USA).
3. NLP seems ethically and politically blind in its emphasis on technique. It is placed cheerfully at the disposal of senior management and student counsellors alike (and arms salesmen?). There seems to be a model of welcoming industrial changes of the kind we have experienced in the UK recently as inevitable (with some sort of mission to overcome the ‘blocks’ produced by a failure to welcome such change?). Careers counselling is about helping us to adjust to the market without question (as an example of a possible manipulative turn to understanding how others think) – do managers need counselling to help them rethink their practices, or are they entitled to recruit people who will conform to their routines? 
4. The mechanistic metaphors (video recording, programming, ‘reaccessing a resource’, mapping) for the workings of human thought might also be a problem as well as a helpful heuristic. The model of the ideal learner offers distinct ‘levels’ linking behaviour to higher- order matters like ‘spirituality’ – it would be nice to see this path traced for NLP itself.
5. There are some methodological difficulties which might be glossed by NLP’s insistence that it is both an art and a science, both a therapy and a (meta) theory, using both metaphor and scientific hypotheses, both relativistic (‘The language patterns used by each of us is [sic] neither good or bad’) and rather dogmatic in its use of terms like ‘Deletions’, Distortions and Generalisations’. It would be nice to know how the eye-access material was tested and validated, whether it is learned or neurologically programmed, universal or culturally variable, and whether the patterns are repeated for other questions. How valid an indicator of mental states are physical behaviours like eye movements (we heard of rather different work on the meanings of eye movement in the session), and to what extent are the techniques behavioural manipulations claiming to affect mental states (‘magic’)? The presentation (and no doubt the writing) could itself be scanned for persuasive deletions, nominalisations, generalisations, tactical manoeuvres and rhetorical flourishes, of course.
Clearly it is too early to judge and further reading and discussion is needed. Meanwhile it is possible to proceed with NLP as a set of heuristics to be deployed and validated pragmatically, while holding back on buying the whole package!

Tackling the Problem of Poor Writing (9/12/96 1400—1500, Room 313)

This was a session run by two colleagues keen to raise the problems of poor student writing and to suggest some ways to establish good practice (principally the use of regular clinics offering sessions on ‘well-structured essays’, drop-in workshops, speakers from journalism, discussions of model essays and so on. Good writing could also be stressed on redesigned coursework forms and in seminars). The main issues for me were:

Whether we could agree, in fact, about what constitutes ‘good writing’. It is clear, for example, that one colleague feels that ‘academic writing’ is too elaborate, too unclear and too evasive. I can agree in principle, of course, but I would want to defend specific academic styles and the use of specialist academic language, where the intentions are clear. In the most controversial cases, it is clear that there are attempts to create deliberate ambiguities, for example (in, say Adorno), and that this is done deliberately to resist the kind of linguistic closures he cites in this critique of ‘identity thinking’. There are also Derrida’s strictures on the attempt to write in social science as if there were no problems with the concepts and their applications. 

Although I can see that our students are interested in normal types of clear and simple communication, I would be unwilling to see work like Adorno’s or Derrida’s as simply in error, or as a kind of restrictive practice (as in the old fears about academics deliberately trying to confuse people so as to cover their inadequacies). It is clear we would probably want to disagree about this in terms of the acceptable types of writing in Media Studies especially – apparently some students had said they found they were being encouraged to write in a style which would not be acceptable ‘in the real world’, but this would not be a fault for me, in that the whole point of critical academic work is to break, where necessary, with concepts and styles associated with ‘the real world’.

It was clear that the issue raises all sorts of strong feelings. For me, this is because language is not a technical matter entirely, but a social one. People classically use linguistic practices (including the use of ‘correct’ pronunciation, spelling or punctuation) as a social closure device (in Bourdieu’s words). My own stance would be that ‘correct’ rules must be seen as reflecting the values of certain dominant groups and are not just simply ‘right’ or ‘agreed’. However, it is important to teach students how to use the dominant styles, but again this is not a purely technical matter for me. I can remember the tendency for me to reinterpret ‘advice’ on these matters as an insult to me and to people like me: the speakers/writers being rebuked and ridiculed for ‘incorrect’ language use were my friends and family! Clearly, a much more sensitive and sophisticated approach to the teaching of ‘standard’ English would be required in my view.

At the most specific level, it is still unclear how best to teach ‘correct’ rules and styles. This is a special problem if you see these approaches as options, socially-rooted and context-bound, and not just simply as ‘correct’ (there is still much debate about this, of course, raised acutely for me again on re-reading Collins’s book on social theory, which discusses those major writers who see the development of ‘elaborated’, ‘distanced’ or ‘reflexive’ language use as tied in to the development of advanced industrial societies and not just to the emergence of an elite). It seems important to revisit the whole issue of whether such styles are best taught specifically as ‘skills’, or allowed to ‘emerge’ from participation in academic work itself, and as part of that work: perhaps students will develop more suitable styles once they want to enter the academic world, as they read more academic writing, as they feel more secure in that world and so on.

From Prejudice to Problem-Solving: teaching the skills of thinking  (21/1/97 13:05—13:55 in 311)

This session offered an unusual approach in  both offering discussion of some basic schemes to assist learning in the natural sciences and placing the discussion in a socio-political context.

The study skills section offered an approach that reminded me of Polya’s classic in maths – a problem-solving approach based on methodical steps to grasp the problem, devise a plan to solve it, carry out the plan and review the results. Specific techniques included thinking of additional inputs to bridge the gap between the known and the unknown, and using models of various kinds (iconic, symbolic, analogous and mathematical). It was suggested that models can be wrong but still useful – eg as in Euclidean geometry, which is still useful for terrestrial navigation, or the Bohr model of the atom. More generally, the learning context was also stressed, the need to ‘prepare the mind’ with thought, sleep, and unconscious sources of creativity: the latter is needed for the construction of analogies for example. Prejudice can block suitably open problem-solving though – so English audiences did not like Leibniz’s calculus, while the Nazis saw Relativity Theory as ‘Jewish’. Outsiders were often the great innovators.

The whole discussion seemed based on a Popperian notion of theory choice as risk-taking, and on the connections between science and the ‘open society’. Oddly, though, the speaker is famed for supporting the cause of astrology as a crypto-science (although he seemed to want to accept it only by reducing it to standard science – e.g. by rendering astrological warnings about bad days during various conjunctions of planets as an ideological account of the real mechanisms of changes in magnetic fields). 

Inevitably, I thought of the usual critiques of Popperian views – that they describe elite science, the rare moments of grand theory-formation and -choice, that they therefore act as an ideological gloss on the real (much more mundane) activities of ‘normal’ science. The ‘open-ness’ of Popper’s open society is also highly debateable, of course, as George Soros’s recent policy interventions have reminded us. 

Would study skills based on these rare and elite moments really be useful to the practices of normal students following normal curricula, solving problems pedagogically (i.e. where solutions were already long established), rather than facing the great breakthrough moments? Do you have to know how Einstein (allegedly) thought of Relativity (or Galileo of the pendulum) in order to solve the pedagogic problems in a first year science exam?. There is a clear danger of reproducing the tendency of other study skills programme – to construct an idealised student facing an idealised learning task, rather than tackling the immediate problems of real students faced with real tasks.

However, it is good to consider study skills problems in fields other than the humanities and the social sciences

Unconscious Aspects of Learning and their Implications for Self Knowledge and Our Understanding of the World Around Us (FD) 7/3/97 1300—1400 in Annex 11E1

This session mirrored a session I attended on the 3 March (an occasional paper, given by a colleague in Education). The speaker offered a number of examples of the ways in which unconscious material can influence conscious activity, and used examples in counselling and in education. The illustrations offered here and in the earlier session served as powerful reminders of the important personal and emotional contexts of education within which (or on top of which) the rational processes of learning take place. Freudian theory tended to predominate in the early discussions, but, later, more Jungian and non-freudian themes appeared too, apparently as part of a broader project to critique the perceived over-emphasis on ‘rational’ thinking in education.

My comments and thoughts on both occasions turned on the following critical points:

1. Did the unconscious also affect ‘normal’ learning, or was it just apparent as an influence in ‘pathological’ cases? All the examples seemed to be drawn from such pathological cases, and I was interested to see if Freudian theory was being confined to ‘ego-adjustment’ cases, or being tried out as a broader social theory. Neither speaker seemed to have thought out the implications of Lacan and the ‘linguistic turn’ in Freud, for example (far more common in using Freudian theory in sociology or media studies).
2. How did Freud measure up as a contributor to the broader project of critiquing ‘rational thinking’? I was not sure of the relation between freudian work and the material on ‘right-brain’ thinking, on learning in the womb, and on subliminal (telepathic?) communication, which the speaker introduced in the latter half of the session. Much of that work seems rather dubious in many ways, with its reliance on dated or limited experimental data or on anecdotal material, and, in social sciences at least, Freud’s work is usually contrasted to such approaches, and claimed for a more rational (not positivist of course) approach to mental phenomena. Of course, some feminist critiques have made this point critically. I need to revise some of these arguments and to trace out the connections between Freud and these later approaches – two speakers in a few days both traced out this track from Freud, so it must be well established in some traditions somewhere.
Getting Published (Prof CR) 15/3/97 1230—1400 in 129

I helped to organise this session and was asked to chair it, having worked with CR over a number of years. He offered a fascinating if not exactly comforting glimpse into the world of big commercial publishing. In some ways, the message was pessimistic – most books are commissioned, in effect, and it is hard to ‘get known’. Further, commercial publishers are interested in making sales (!), and need budding authors to convince them of the commercial, as well as the academic virtues of the proposal. Academic journals, and university presses, might offer more scope for what used to be called the ‘scholarly monograph’ (classically based on a PhD). On the other hand, textbooks, written deliberately for a known market, might be commercial successes, but not be rated very highly by the RAE.

Underneath this apparent pessimism was some sound advice, however:

  • Budding authors should try and get known by giving conference papers, doing reviews, writing articles for journals, and even honing their writing skills with student handouts and staff papers, or self-published material.
  • Authors need to get to know what is required, what is current, what people are interested in discussing and reading – this is a more profitable route to publication than having a personal interest, doing a PhD, and trying to write it up afterwards.
  • Actual proposals should bear in mind the criteria and the operations of the publishers. They should explain where the book fits into other published accounts (or breaks with them), who might read the book. They should bear in mind that more sales take place in the US market (and, for specialist collections, in Asia) than in the UK, and so illustrative examples should not be too parochial.
The choice of publishers should reflect RAE interests these days too – there is little interest at present in electronic journals, for example. Some publishers should be avoided if they offer contracts only in exchange for some contribution towards production costs (there are 2 such publishers, apparently). Publishers expect authors to be giving them exclusive access to proposals or articles.

Voice Awareness (GS) 29/10/97, 1300—1400 in Room 18

This was a practical session designed to provide some basic techniques to protect the voice from strain. I had encountered the session before but had missed the first half. This was a much abbreviated version.

The session proved very useful in reminding us of the strain under which we  put our voices when we teach. A technique to remind ourselves involved ‘triggers’ which we can use to prompt some essential preparations for speaking – GS left a post-it on her PC, for example, to remind her to relax her neck before going off to teach after a session at the keyboard. Other useful techniques involved the use of rest, the need to avoid dehydration, and the use of ‘soft attack’ techniques to prevent vocal strain – one for me might me to Americanise my glottal stop. We were urged to develop the tonal qualities of our speech too (very important for me) by considering its range, appropriate pitch and resonance.

Overall, I found this a useful session, and could quite see why trainee teachers had asked for, and enjoyed, longer workshops. I would like to see the approach broadened (not necessarily by GS, of course) to include other repetitive strain injuries like keyboard RSI, or  postural strains such as ‘marker’s neck’.

 Assessment: Policy and Practice (DEH), 6/11/97 1300—1400 in 129

I led this session, and developed my own interest in assessment in distance education. I had included a section on the concept of unintended consequences in Weber’s work to introduce the broad possibilities on a gap arising between policy and practice. Briefly, unintended consequences arose in (a) complex systems with different ‘levels’ and subsystems – such as in the UKOU and (b) where people were able to reflect on policy and act so as to adjust the consequences – as in universities, where people can specialise in reflection. This concept explains many of the features of modernity for me, and helps set a framework for discussion of matters like assessment which avoids personal blame.

I went on to consider one kind of unintended outcome associated with measurement errors and how they can be incorporated into assessment practice. A spreadsheet (enclosed) illustrated the ways in which numerical grades can be manipulated once obtained, in ways which are possible but which can be senseless – assigning an average score for gender codes, for example, or adding together and averaging scores for a variety of unrelated values (such as age, IQ, height, weight and gender). ‘Weighting’ can also be affected if there is considerable unintended variation in the range of the variables – in this case the age range was so large as to permit a student to gain first place overall, after averaging, despite her lowly place in all the other tests.

The implications were then discussed for actual practice from this clearly absurd exercise, and my contribution to the discussion turned on summarising my published work on the OU (Harris 1987).

The second kind of unintended outcome turned more on the reflexive capacities of the assessed to ‘play the game’. Some classic studies of student instrumentalism were summarised (Becker, Miller and Parlett), and then the discussion was linked to the famous work on learning styles associated with Ramsden and Entwistle (see below). The gradual emergence of the ‘strategic orientation’ was noted, and an interesting discussion took place on whether such an orientation might be becoming more common as mature students, part-time students, or self-financing students entered the academy in greater numbers.

Overall, I enjoyed this session, and benefited from the discussion. The feedback forms seemed quite positive too (summary enclosed).

Equal Opportunities (TH) 11/12/97 1300—1400 in 315

This session followed the story of equal opportunities issues as they have developed from a concern with class, race and gender (not very much on class, I felt), to broader awareness of other categories of inequality (such as disability and religious belief) to more ‘cultural’ matters such as individual bullying, harassment and stress.

The discussion was focused by considering handouts on the College’s policy, the policy of another HEI, and a recent publication offering more detailed guidelines. Much discussion turned on the inadequacies of the College’s policy, which remains very much at the level of broad commitments, certainly when compared to the detailed provision for monitoring and improvement of targeted practices in the other pieces.

It turns out that the College has delegated authority for equal opportunities to an Assistant Principal (few present were aware of this), and that a steering group had been left to wither. The College policy offers the grievance procedure as a means of redress for anyone treated unequally, although I believe it to be rather fruitless (I did not share this with those present).

In my own view, the College is far too committed to a ‘sponsorship’ rather than a ‘contest’ system in terms of recruitment and promotion, despite some welcome recent changes. In this atmosphere, meritocracy is a dangerous and radical idea, and it is better to play safe by recruiting and promoting people who are ‘known’ (i.e. those who have contacts with members of the College already). Such a system accounts for something like 6 or 7 appointments to my Department alone, to my knowledge, many of them now quite senior. As a result, a fundamental commitment to equal opportunities seems unlikely, except as a marginal or tokenist activity.

The College now does have a policy on the recruitment of people already known to members, as a result of a general revision of its procedures. As far as I know, there have been no implications as yet for people already employed on that basis. The grievance procedure has also been revised, in my view to make even more difficult the effective investigation or pursuit of a grievance against any manager. The new policy on bullying and harrassment looks well-intentioned, although similar ones have been criticised. There is still the problem of defining these key terms, for example: it is for the person bringing the case, on the one hand, yet there is also a test of what a 'reasonable person' would think. In these circumstances, a very wide range of behaviour could be either condoned or condemned. The College wants to reserve the right to punish those bringing vexatious complaints, which could act as a further disincentive.

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