Tag Archives: Learning

Ramblings about reading and writing and learning

Interesting article about writing and speech: http://blog.oup.com/2013/02/academic-speech-patterns-linguistics/

I am always a fan of reading work aloud to rewrite it, which the author advocates. However, I’ve also marked a number of pieces of work in my life written by students using their spoken understanding of language, and their accents, and pronunciation can lead to some real confusion (‘being’ written as ‘been’ for example, because that’s how it is said in parts of the North East of England). So while I I am a strong advocate of making sense of writing through speech, and writing in far more straightforward ways than many academics seem to favour, I also believe that people also write better if they read. Many of the students who wrote ‘been’ were not readers. They would not normally read novels, or even read a newspaper regularly. They read, with some difficulty the academic texts they were directed towards. They often commented on how these texts and articles were difficult to understand, and in fact when writing an academic critique would sometimes comment on something being ‘badly written’ because they didn’t understand the conceptual thinking the author was expressing.

I would often find myself discussing with these students the challenge of writing about concepts and complex theoretical ideas in simple ways. I would also suggest that reading academic writing was like doing aerobics of the brain – if you practice and practice it gets easier and you get better at it, and your academic reading muscles become much more flexible. However, sometimes I probably agreed with the students assessment – some academic writers were not communicating their ideas very well.

I also admit to a real concern that these same students would learn how to write from these academic articles and from the feedback I and my colleagues provided on their written work. If that is all the input they have on what good writing is, what do they learn?

This seems to me to be an argument for getting students reading non-academic material – in the US some universities have ‘common reading programmes’ for all first year students, often with a book (usually fiction) agreed for all new students before they arrive. These are often novels which provoke discussion and thinking and students are provided with opportunities to discuss the book as a group. Admittedly USA degree programmes are more likely to be 4 years (in England, and much of Europe programmes are usually 3 year), which gives time for the first year to be about orientation and broader education. Whereas a 3 year programme means hitting the discipline ground running, making it hard to get agreement across an institution that taking the time for general reading would have value. But we also face ongoing frustrations from academics who teach about the writing abilities of the students. We can’t expect school (Pre-18) education to do everything, but should we expect them to get students’ reading and writing ready for HE? I’m not sure they do expect this in the USA, and if they do there is still room for ongoing engagement with reading, given their common reading programme. I wonder if we should learn something from this?

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Thinking about subject disciplines and assessment

A percentage of my work involves helping academics in HE think about the design of their teaching and assessment. My priority in this work is helping them explore the variety of ways they can create good learning environments for their students, and can help the wide range of students now in HE in the UK to succeed. However, there are days when I feel deeply frustrated about the ways in which the cultures and codes of disciplines constrain imagination and creative teaching. Of course on good days it’s the other way round: discipline perspectives and ideas produce a richness which enhances teaching and learning.

I work with staff from a breadth of discipline areas and have learned to approach ideas and issues in different ways (heh, sometimes I even dress differently when I work with different discipline teams!). Ive learned too, to value the variety of ways of thinking that come from different subjects and approaches. Sometimes taking a good idea from one area and translating it to another is a deeply satisfying part of my job.

Today hasn’t been one of those good days though. I’ve had a conversation about assessment in science and listened to a really forward thinking teacher argue that they should have more exams in their faculty because that’s what other science faculties in other universities do. I tried to suggest that maybe they were ahead of the game and other universities should be copying them (not the other way round) but apparently they don’t want to be outliers. I was also informed that employers in these disciplines like exams too.

But there is plenty of evidence that exams (of the blind time constrained kind, which is what was being advocated) don’t actually test what graduates (in any discipline) need to know. Being good at exams is a very useful skill for passing exams! It appears to have little real transferable learning to offer (unlike presentations, project reports, practicals, and even, to some extent, essays). In a modern world, having a good memory for facts (vital for success in exams) is a far less useful tool than having good research skills (relevant for projects and essays for example) or being able to build or produce something (practicals). There is fairly strong evidence that exams tend to encourage surface and rote learning, but we keep being told that our employers and our society want deep thinking, analytical, adaptable, reflective, creative workers and citizens.

In a UK post 1992 University, where many students have already done relatively badly in conventional exams before they get to the University (it has always interested me how many students having done badly at school under an exam model blossom in a HE context which is not too wedded to exams), using an exam method only reinforces their lack of success, whereas one of the potential advantage of some modern university learning is that it provides an environment for enabling students from diverse backgrounds to flourish and succeed.

It is frustrating to me that this retrograde thinking in favour of a return to a traditional assessment model, ‘because that’s what other science programmes do’, runs alongside a context where promoting diversity in assessment and encouraging the idea that assessment can improve learning has been on the table for quite while! And where so many good developments in both teaching and assessment have been happening across all disciplines, including science.

If you are interested in ways to think about assessment in the sciences, its worth looking at Phil Race’s guide. He also suggests ways to make exams as effective as possible so this isn’t an anti exam guide! It’s available here
http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/ps/documents/practice_guides/practice_guides/ps0069_designing_assessment_to_improve_physical_sciences_learning_march_2009.pdf

NB just in case anyone wondered, Im not against exams per se. In fact, oddly enough, I was pretty good at them myself (i’ve not had a use for that particular skill for a fair number of years though!)

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Thinking organisations

Can a whole organisation be a thinking environment (Klein,2009)? And how might we achieve this?

I’m not going to answer these two questions by the way; at least not today! Instead I’m going to think about the questions a bit more. That might be frustrating, but if the idea is to encourage thinking, then that’s where I’m going to start. (but if anyone out there has already done the thinking and has some answers, please share!)

In a recent conversation with a friend who had also attended the thinking environment workshop with me (see previous posts on thinking environments, 1 and 2), he talked about the need to create thinking time within the whole system or organisation. It seems that higher education, at least in the UK at the moment, is full of small actions and behaviours which are not coming from deep thinking, but which have significant impact. Our thinking is all over the place. How can a system based on the notion of deep thinking and deep learning, (maybe it is a separate discussion to unpack whether ‘higher’ learning is intrinsically deeper learning) be so focused on surface thinking and actions?

In another conversation, with a different friend, who also works in HE, we bewailed the frustrating and unconsidered institutional mind. It’s like a HE institution actually has a mind of its own, it’s not the people in it who are deciding on actions but the being that is the institution. And these institution beings are not using deep thinking – if you set them an exam they would be regurgitating random remembered facts as evidence (‘Karl Marx was born in 1818, he wrote the Communist Manifesto’ – in answer to ‘discuss Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism?’). So what impedes thinking? According to Klein: fear.

So what can we do? Klein suggests that several things reduce fear and enable thinking, including: attention (through attentive listening), appreciation, incisive questions, allowing feelings to be expressed, creating ease, and consequentially time to think. But how do we do this for an institution? Where do we start? Answers on a postcard, or better still in the comments box below …

(This blog is partially in response to Klein, N. 2009: More Time to Think and partially in response to interesting conversations with colleagues and friends)

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Writing with personality and passion

This is the kind of blog entry I wish I could write http://leavingcertenglish.net/2011/05/ict-in-education-conference/ It combines style, creativity, work and the personal. It has feeling as well as evoking feeling in the reader. The writer invites us into her learning world and into a sense of adventure. It also acknowledges weakness but not in a self-indulgent way. It is also interesting! It provokes the reader to go away and think about learning. I found myself thinking about the ways in which we make sense of new learning through the familiar and loved, through our own personal worlds. Mostly we don’t talk about that aspect of learning. This blog piece reminded me that learning is emotional and tangled up with life.

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Thinking Environments

Some while ago I read Nancy Klein’s Time to Think, and found the ideas resonated. Key to her ideas is that we need to work to ‘create the conditions for people to do their own thinking’, which sounds pretty straight forward until you really try to do it. The whole notion probably begins with the idea of transformative listening (there are 10 components, but listening is where you start).

Not long after reading the book, I tweeted about it in the hope of finding people who were working with Klein’s ideas in their own HE context, but didn’t get any responses. I and some colleagues did try out some of the ideas but somewhat halfheartedly.

Earlier this week I attended an all day workshop on the thinking environments approach. A key aspect of the approach is the idea that each person is their own expert and it is in our capacity to create a situation where they can find that expertise – we listen, create space and provide the context for thinking, thus enabling them to access their own expertise. We might need to provide some information, but answers come from them. I really love the idea of this, but find it really quite challenging in practice: I am addicted to providing solutions! To make this approach work for me, I need to let go of my lovely list of possible solutions, which I offer up to folk when they come with an issue, and open up the possibilities for them to find their own, better, solution.

Well, I’ve been having a go, and it seems to work! I actually found it really satisfying rather than a bit frustrating, which, to be honest, is what I sort of secretly expected. I have found it gave me greater respect for the people I worked with in this way. I also felt the time we spent was much more productive. So far, I have only used this approach in 1 to 1 meetings, but my next task is to try it with groups. We’ll see how it goes, and whether I can manage to keep from falling back into my shopping list of solutions approach!

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Workflow reflections again

I said I would come back to the workflow issue again, and a pertinent factor in workflow thinking this last week has been the death of my home phone line. It died on Wednesday eve and we’ve been net-less ever since (suddenly I regret getting an iPad without 3G). As a consequence, however, my workflow has been somewhat interrupted. Everything is suddenly a little bit more tricky and is requiring more thought. It is more of a stutter than a flow in fact.

I am working on a chapter with a deadline for the end of the month, and in fairly typical fashion in my current workflow style, I have a folder of emails with links and notes I’ve accumulated on my work outlook account, which I suddenly can’t access so easily. I’ve put some bits in Evernote too, and can’t sync without the net. I know it’s not life threatening or really that much of a drama but it’s contributing to my ongoing thinking about workflow and learning.

I finished up spending half of Friday, which would have been a key writing day, thinking about my own development rather than about the chapter! I usually write as part of my development thinking and i didn’t even do that on computer or iPad but worked on paper. The time was really productive.

It was strangely timely too – I had met with my mentor earlier in the week and I took the unexpected personal development time to move forward with some of the things she and I discussed – in fact I spent a whole morning revisiting a 360° I’d done a couple of years ago and thinking about the changes I’d implemented and the ones I hadn’t and where I am now, and where I’m going next, scribbling notes all over the old feedback.

So, the stuttering effect of no net has actually given me unexpected time to really embed learning I’d put aside.

But I’ve still got to write the chapter …

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Reflections on workflow part one

I’ve been thinking about workflows this week. I recently ran a workshop for academic staff on using mobile technologies in teaching. Probably worth me saying that I didn’t run this alone – I am in no way a specialist with any kind of tech, but I am interested in how anything and everything relates to teaching and learning – I was working with a learning technologist. Anyway, in prepping for this session, I came across several different examples of people’s workflows in relation to the various kit in their lives, and in my typical ‘coming late to the table’ approach, I started to reflect on my own workflow practices.

I have an iPhone, iPad, laptop and work based desktop PC, so I’m seriously kitted out (I also have a kindle but I managed to break that last week, and just to show my workflow isn’t very effective, I haven’t yet sorted out arranging a replacement! Although I do have cover for it – so you can see I do some planning ahead, since I am famous for dropping things!!). Some of the kit is pretty new, and I’m still playing around with ‘software’, so I am really in the process of developing new workflow practices.

If I’m honest, I am often in search of better processes. Somewhere out there is the perfect time management tool for me, when I find it, life will be so much easier ; ) As an aside I am currently using an app called DailyWorkLog for work stuff and the iPad inbuilt reminders tool for home stuff, plus the inbuilt diary for an overview (yep, I can hear you groaning, it’s messy, but you should see my real world desk?!). I could go on about time management tools for ages, but I won’t because this entry is supposed to be about workflow reflections.

However, in some ways this digression to time management tools is relevant because it highlights one of the problems with thinking effectively about workflow – getting lost in the detail. How I manage the time, isn’t actually how I do the work. I’ve been talking with a colleague who is coming to grips with both beginning study for her phd and her relatively new iPad, and it’s amazing how much time we spent considering which storage tool would be best (Evernote, Dropbox, etc etc). This ‘time spent’ is important because the main aim of the discussion was to reduce the amount of time she spent on emailing documents to her supervisors, or even to herself to then upload to Dropbox. She, like me I guess, believes that somewhere out there is the perfect tool for making life easier. (I might come back to the issue of time spent and time wasted and reflection in a different blog entry)

So back to thinking about workflows. When I started my degree (in the early 1990s) I submitted hand-written essays, but by the end of my second year there was a growing expectation that they would be word processed, and by the end of my third year, it was a requirement. So in the process of learning about my subject and about myself, which was huge for me, I was also reinterpreting the notion of writing about what I was learning. It was an interesting journey that I have never really reflected on it that way. I did recognise at the time that writing directly onto a computer radically changed my writing (I didn’t write and then type up, from very early on I wrote straight onto the machine from my notes), and my search processes actually (I got into an index card approach), and liberated me enormously, but this was caught up with the dynamic experience of discovering my intellectual self (that sounds pompous, but it was a real life change) so I never thought it through as being shaped both by studying for a degree AND engaging with new technology.

But I guess we do learn in repeating an experience with our eyes opened a bit, as well as in doing something new, so here I am with a whole new set of technology thinking again about writing, research and learning. Am I going through another intellectual and personal step change? What a truly exciting thought – I hope so ..

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