Thursday, 16 October 2014

Seriously Deep - first meeting notes

Reflective notes - yes they are quite long but primarily written for my own benefit so I have a record to look back on and from which to draw inspiration.

 Seriously deep by Eberhard Weber seemed an appropriate tune to start my journey with and was a wonderful mood setter as I set off past Colliford Lake. I love the willows and canal that run past Sawyers building on the Chelmsford campus so I followed up with another Weber offering; Quiet Departure it resonated with the canal but it is also a beautiful yet largely unrecognised work and that seemed appropriate as much great research goes unrecognised and a fair bit of rubbish hits the press.

Anyway I had a surprisingly easy drive up to Chelmsford in only four and a half hours and my afternoon on campus started with a really useful discussions with timetabling and other admin staff. It was great to meet Peggy King in person at last. What a wonderful team we have in the William Harvey building.

Moving on to the Friday evening meeting.

It was great to meet the other candidates on the course and hear their initial ideas for study foci. Considering we mostly did not know each other there was some fortuitous seat choosing with people with shared interests or work contexts mostly ending up close to each other. I love it when potentially chaotic systems demonstrate valuable random clustering like that.

I enjoyed Gerry Davis and Hazel Wright's session, it really clarified the nature and structure of the course and set out some key expectations.

Bronfenbrenner was mentioned early on in relation to coherence and focus. I have met is micro-mezo-macro diagrams before and found it useful to search for them in Google images as there are many examples of interpretations of the concept into different contexts. Concentric diagrams are fairly simplistic but can be effective reminders of where focus lies. Wenger's Community of Practice diagrams have a similar structure and have been useful in considering the legitimacy of different levels of online community participation in my own work.

Coherence and focus is going to be a key target for me as my interests are so diverse from muddy learning to geology, archaeology, genetics and a host of other interests. String theory sends shivers through my scalp and the latest developments in expansion theory bringing the multiple universe model into focus just blows me away.

1st lesson:
I must not get distracted.
I must not get distracted.
I must not get distracted.
I must not get distracted.
I must not get distracted.
I must not get distracted.
I must not get distracted.

So my starting point is to write about my professional practice: 'Set the broad scene, show where the focus lies within that scene.'

My practice has been fairly diverse over the last 18 years and the changing focus has been a key factor in why I have not previously completed doctoral study. Despite a wide range of work contexts everything I have done has some relevance to my proposed topic. I am sure that reviewing my practice in detail over 5000 words will be a useful way of reconceptualising my skills and redefining my focus. I am pleased that I have kept a reflective blog and a Google website for some time now as this will help remind me of details about my professional activity.

The first meeting prompted me to reflect on why I am embarking on this journey. I have never felt a need to gain formal recognition of my practice so why do a Doctorate and head towards the potential stressful rollercoaster of a ride that many experience? From my mid 20s I always liked the idea of being a headteacher and developing an independent school, Steiner and Montessori interested me but did not seem quite right neither did mainstream. My experience on the notschool project gave me further insight into alternative approaches and seeing supposedly 'unteachable' children go on to gain first class honours degrees and even a Masters was very thought provoking - am I looking for the research qualification to provide the evidence I need to move into school leadership or would I be happier developing a long term education project? Lots to think about but I must not get distracted!

There are a fair few sources that seem to agree that funding and acknowledgement of the value of outdoor learning is a problem, these include Growing Schools, the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom, the  Natural Connections project and the Forest Schools Association. I have also heard this from a wide range of education practitioners. The LINE  evidence based research via Natural Connections is gathering quantitative data to support the wide range of qualitative data about the benefits of learning outside the classroom. This is seen as one potentially effective way of legitimising the embedding of outdoor learning in teaching pedagogies. I do hope my own research will add momentum to this.

Meal time and we went to a lovely Vietnamese venue where fortunately for me the whole menu was gluten free. As can be seen below there was not a lot left when we had finished.

Saturday was led by Prof. Tim Waller who inspired confidence in that he was reassuring that we should not be influenced, in our choice of topic, by institutional vision or what we think publishers are interested in. Research focus is a personal choice based on individual interest. That reinforces the message that is part of my employment contract but it was good to hear endorsement of that view from a course director.

We were given not very long to write a paragraph about the "Professional me." The notes I made are below with some links added. 

I am an reflective and systematic educator who designs work based learning systems that are process .driven and aim to generate students who are critical reflectors and agents of change in the workplace.

One of my key interests is in analysing the complexity of systems. Beer's Viable Systems Analysis has been a key approach used to analyse my practice and to develop learning design.

I have designed learning systems which, at times, have been incompatible with my institution's vision. however; they have been appreciated by, and gained positive feedback from, many students.

I want to be someone who works with children and the practitioners associated with that field particularly in relation to learning outside the classroom. Consolidating and legitimising outdoor learning by linking creative approaches to the core curriculum is one aim. Another is to explore future gazing aspect, looking at what is and considering what might be in the future. This builds on work I have done at The Ultralab and with TELMap. 

Caring - nurturing - pedantic - flexible - visionary - explorer - researcher

collegiality - mutuality - respect

Tim illustrated incompatibility by reference to his experiences in Sweden with early years education. The key incompatibility related to risk and the comparison with the risk averse UK ethos and the contrasting approach in Sweden where risk is seen as legitimate.

Some notable features of the Swedish approach include:

  • Young children playing outdoors unsupervised;
  • making the journey to school on their own using cycle path networks; 
  • arriving home in the afternoon before parents;
  • having open access to wild place, for example; a setting with open forest to the rear where children may go unsupervised up to 1Km from the buildings. 
 I was prompted to think back to Juliet Robertson's workshop at Plymouth University where her take was that the outdoors is a risky place, we can not ensure total safety, however; by learning outdoors with children we can help them learn how to manage their risk. This is still a more risk averse approach to that deployed in Sweden. 

What I learned about the expectations of the course and about characteristics of good research practice. When we first developed the BA Learning, Technology and Research course it was described as a PhD for undergraduates. I had thought that this related particularly to two key elements:

1.  The process driven approach - learning about research strategies and applying them in the workplace to improve knowledge and behaviour.

2. The final year presentation of research findings to a workplace audience with the aim of gathering critical responses that can be later analysed to create a defense of learning - a Viva Voce approach adapted for undergraduates.

Although they are an obvious link, having now experience the opening EdD session, I now realise our integration of research principles goes much deeper than that. The course was founded on developing collegiality, mutuality and respect between students and tutors and encompases elements such as examining the nature and purpose of research, critically reviewing literature about a theory and then further exploring theory by applying it to examine their own practice in the workplace then reassessing the literature in the light of that experiential learning.

We place emphasis on understanding the nature of truth particularly in relation to the consideration of the scale and scope of their small-scale work based research. The dangers of poor semantics are something our undergraduates grapple with from semester 1 of year 1 and are intrinsic to good research practice. A model I use is that they should not construct statements such as: "My research had proved that xxx procedure is effective in the primary classroom." Far better is a statement that acknowledges the limitations of knowledge and particularly how scope and context impacts on those limitations. "This research was small-scale, it was carried out over only 4 weeks in one primary class. The findings indicate that in this context xxx practice is one that I have found to be effective in that...yyy. The weaknesses of the research were.... Plans to extend and consolidate my understanding of the efficacy of this strategy include..."

In our patchwork media and text approach every module concludes with a retrospective commentary on meta-learning. This builds in a constant cycle of reflective examination of how each student is developing their research skills.

I am glad to have the experience of tutoring such a system and am sure it will be very useful on my own research journey.

Not such a good journey home with lots of traffic on the M25 / M4 made worse by roadworks and speed limitations. I needed a rest near Exeter with a Costa coffee with two extra shots to wake me up. Train is just not particularly convenient as far as timing goes and I really don't like travelling through London. My niggling surfer's ear condition can cause vertigo on trains and changes in pressure can be painful such as when two trains pass in opposite directions at high speed it is like a hammer blow to the side of my head. The London tube is particularly uncomfortable. At least with my car I can stop whenever I need.

All in all a great experience.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Flexible study

On the BA LTR course we don’t set dates for formative assessment as the students are doing work based learning and have to fit work and study into a busy schedule. We do not even have synchronous timetabled learning schedules, interaction between students and with tutors is largely asynchronous. It is not unusual for discussions to be spread over several days or even weeks as relevant thoughts are added at times to suit individuals. Telephone or VOIP tutorials are available on a group or individual basis by negotiation with tutors. These may be in Google Hangouts, VLE discussions, G+ forums, Skype, Facetime or telephone.

In week 1 of a module students each develop an ILP to plan their study by adapting the suggested study schedules to align with their predicted workplace activities in a way that best suits them. That is an approach we have used since 2003, feedback from many students over the 11 years since we started indicates that this flexibility is very much appreciated by students and their employers. 

Anglia Ruskin University allow students up to a maximum of 20% formative feedback from tutors on their draft work for each module assignment. In our model, in order to maximise the value of formative assessment, each student decides which elements of their work they want tutors to provide the 20% feedback on and then requests that feedback as and when it is convenient for them. 

Assessment is by patchwork text and media so the modules are chunked down generally into 3 or 4 patches and a stitching section. A student with an outstanding approach to literature review (usually patch 1) shown in their semester 1 sumative feedback would not be likely to feel that they would benefit from further formative assessment of that skill in semester 2 so might focus formative requests on their experiential patches, or on the stitching which is a review of meta-learning. A student with weaknesses in all elements may well ask for a proportion of each patch to be reviewed by a tutor so they can improve across the board. Tutors may well make suggestions to individual students as to what might be a good approach for them but the choice lies with the student. This approach enables students to tailor their formative assessment to suite their own needs and also allows them to demonstrate good practice in independently managing their learning when they provide the retrospective self assessment of meta-learning in their final activity for each module. 

The form in which feedback is provided varies depending on which kind of media a student has used. On Word or PDF files adding digital annotation is straightforward using comments tools that put the comment in an extended margin with a line connecting to the element that is being commented on. The advantage of this is that a tutor comment is then directed at exactly which word, phrase or paragraph it is referring to. With some forms of media, such as video, animation or audio, direct annotation is not possible so a feedback sheet, or more usually an email message is used. Context cues are then included such as; On slide 3...  or: at point 2mins 30secs into the video....  The language of assessment criteria, learning outcomes, module suggested tasks or other scholarly practice standards/expectations is often used to show students what the expectations are. Where relevant, links to web sources such as the Anglia Harvard style templates, online study skills files, blog posts etc. are included to extend the guidance.

Why are we so flexible?
The ILP is a flexible planning document that is revised as semester progresses to show what has been achieved and what needs to be rescheduled.

During semester a teaching assistant may well have to go on a 5 day outdoor activities residential course with their class as part of their expected work duties. They are often unable to study during such a period due to long working days and/or poor internet/lack of IT equipment so need to adapt their study schedule to have a higher load on other weeks. Unexpected events such as Ofsted visits or personal/family illness can also interrupt plans. 

A student working in the DfE had occasional weeks where he was unable to study due to involvement in important government business. Our flexible approach meant he could negotiate his study around this and he was able to achieve some outstanding results, usually in the 80s, and graduated with a very good 1st class degree. He felt the degree was perhaps the only one in the country he could have done while maintaining his employment. 

I could provide many other examples of how the approach has benefited students in other work contexts going back to 2001 when working on a British Thoracic Society project where a specialist registrar commented that this approach was exactly what he needed, the time he was able to study was late; when the kids have gone to bed. Were we to have set rigid dates/times for study activities and formative assessment there would be problems for many students. As we are flexible, employers often show their appreciation by offering students study time during some working weeks to make up for times they have higher workloads and are not able to carry out study related activities.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

To show or not to show?

Some students like to see examples of work from previous students and some tutors like to provide them. One of the initial pedagogical elements devised in the Ultraversity project in 2003 was to discuss and to model good practice rather than to provide examples of it. 

I am still not keen on sharing complete assignments or even extracts from previous work with students. When I have done this in the past the result has been rather unimaginative reinterpretations of the shared assignment or in some cases students being put off / feeling stressed that they would not be able to attain the standard in the example. I also found I was doing a lot of tutor feedback that had to focus on helping students avoid potential assessment offences rather than encouraging and supporting their independent and original work. Sharing examples of mid level work in the 50% area will by its nature have errors in it that students may pick up on unless the tutor has annotated the example to highlight areas for improvement. Sharing work from the 80-100% range will provide examples with less error but this standard is not attained by many students and can provide a daunting read for students working at lower levels. I accept that for many it will be a good aspirational example, however; when that has been done I have had students contact me and say there is no way I can do that I may as well give up. For some there could well be a temptation to paraphrase bits of the work in their own assignment in an attempt to raise their grade or at the least to follow the structure rather than think out their own structure. 

A few years ago I shared an extract from a previous student's work in a reflective practice module that focuses on double loop learning.  The same double loop diagram was used by a fair proportion of students in their draft work and attributed to Argyris when it had actually been devised by the student who created the example piece I used. It was based on Argyris but was a variation and labelled as "After Argyris". I had to surmise that either none of them had read the original publication or they had done so and assumed that the diagram in the example came from a publication they had not found. Although there are sections in that module that would appear by nature to be unique, in that they are drawn from students workplace experiences where they identify significant events and apply a critical incident analysis to them, it was disappointing to see some close parallels in some student's work where critical incident analysis was remarkably similar​ to the example work in either the approach to using technology or the actual event and reflections on it. Of course in such situations it is difficult to be sure what has happened as similar incidents do occur, particularly in schools, and people do come up with similar ideas for how they can be creative with technologies but that year there was remarkably less variation between student assignments that was usual for that module.

Core literature review narrative is a particularly problematic area. Having read a successful student's lit review a student tasked with reviewing largely similar sources will find it difficult to avoid writing similar patterns of interpretation to the example piece, this may well be something they are not conscious of doing but occasionally it can be a purposeful copy. Analysing which it is can be extremely difficult and time consuming for tutors and other staff whose role it is to scrutinise work for academic offences. Either way there can be a problem when a student has slightly misinterpreted an author and others then follow that example thinking their correct interpretation must be incorrect. There is also the value that students gain from finding literature beyond what is provided in the reading list. Where an extract or complete lit review is shared students then all tend to include the extended reading that is visible i the example work rather than going on their own treasure hunt for literature gems and analysing what they find themselves.

In a final year module when I first provided an example of a flow chart type map of the scope of the impact of a student's major project work on herself and her workplace several students used that as a template for their own maps. The categorisation in the example was not suited to most students workplaces or major projects but nonetheless many attempted to align their map with it and the result was weaker than if they had had to conceptualise their own map from scratch. I would also argue that the learning they gained was also lower. 

I don't travel with my laptop very often but I when I do I am aware that there is a risk of losing it, I was once jostled and felt a hand try to take my bag when getting on a tube train, I actually ended up on the floor still gripping my bag. Since that incident I decided not to retain any student's work after marking has been completed unless there are special circumstances that would provoke me to do so. 

There are study skills resources provided by Anglia Ruskin University that give good ideas for improving work via generic resources and that set out expected standards at each level of study. The generic and module specific assessment criteria for each module are also an indication of what is required. Tutor feedback on draft work will ensure students know what to do to achieve a sufficient standard and tutor involvement in peer review discussions is another way we help students ensure they meet criteria and raise their standards. I have found that students do appreciate overarching advice and I tend to provide hints and tips as to how they need to raise their game as they progress to each new year. For example explaining that at level 5 the work has to move well away from descriptive or imitative narrative and they need to develop the ability to critically deconstruct what they read and develop a narrative that presents logical and persuasive arguments. We expect that over the year students will develop a concise and precise writing style that uses an extended vocabulary appropriate to the field of study. There should be no ambiguity or vagueness unless this is an intentional part of the assignment such as that which might be inherent in interview data they have gathered or in an alternative literacy piece where there is a clear reason to be vague such as in a play transcript with a character who is portrayed to illustrate the problems that vagueness caused during a significant event in the workplace.  Students are also expected to demonstrate the ability to discern when to use an impersonal and when a personal voice. There is an expectation that Harvard referencing will be perfectly in-line with the current version required by the university and that is demonstrated on the library templates. 

The study skills resources on the student part of the Anglia Ruskin University web site provide excellent information about strategies to develop scholarly practice. The pages about good writing strategies are comprehensive and very useful.​​

Students can also look to the literature in peer reviewed journals and academic blogs for good examples of academic writing - not all are well written, some are convoluted and overly complex but that is generally easy to identify. 

Setting Word, PowerPoint etc. to check a formal style of writing will identify more errors, such as; when you have used a passive voice. A passive voice is a sentence where you put the author's name or a key point at the end of a sentence rather than early on. It does get rather repetitive if every reference to a source is placed at the end of sentences and the flow of the narrative tends to be weaker. For example in the screen shot below you can see that I wrote a passive sentence then spell checked it, Word notes that and offers an active construction:

Below is a formulaic example that attempts to model one approach to the construction of critical narrative appropriate for level 5:

A, B and C seem to concur in finding this strategy valuable in that A suggests xxx and B aligns with that where she mentions xxx. Z set out to challenge the concept but was unable to sustain a challenge and did come to conclusions xxxx that all align with both A and B. It could be argued that D's findings xxxxx are a challenge to the concept but, unlike A, B and C, his research was rather limited in scope and in my opinion he does not provide a persuasive counter argument because xxxx. In my workplace we have used a strategy based on the work of B and it does seem effective in that xxxx. My initial feeling at this point is that the concept seems well founded... I now intend to explore this further by applying the strategy to xxx aspect of my own practice.

This has not been refined for writing style / syntax. What I have tried to get across in that formula is the combination of components; explanation, comparison, contrast, critique, link of theory to workplace practice, a tentative statement of stance and an intention to explore further through personal experiential learning. ​

There is a lot that can be done without sharing previous student's work and risking the pitfalls that can lead students into.

Flipping what?

A bit of a ramble I forgot to publish ages ago.

Flipping is everywhere just now, flipped classrooms, flipped learning, flipped academics. I know I am an old grouch but I am not particularly keen on the label, I have not really seen much new in it, just a new label for processes that have been used in learning for decades if not centuries.

Pupils doing lesson content in advance at home then discussing what they have learned with the teacher is something I did as a pupil way back in the 60/70s except many teachers called it homework and some brighter ones called it research. There were some teachers who would just give us sums to do or ask us to read or write about something then not take it much further but a fair few seemed to set research tasks then in class would revisit what we had found out with us, sometimes that would be in the form of a weekly class debate about a topic or 'show and tell' type activities that then involved discussing what was shown and told and giving it deeper relevance or wider context through group dialogue.

Flipping peer review? I feel that traditional peer review prior to publication can sometimes be of benefit but I do not think it is a necessary precursor to sharing what has been learned. It does not always 'validate' a publication with sufficient rigour. I know I am far from alone in having received feedback from two isolated reviewers that directly contradict each other. Presenting, or accepting, any research or learning as a valid truth is not great practice in my opinion. Presenting it as a stimulus for further research or for debate is a more sensible approach. Many peer reviewed papers have turned out to be way off the mark, many have turned out to have less than valid agendas particularly in Health related fields where huge profits can be achieved by influencing consumer patterns. As has been said peer review can include bias, self-interest etc. The peer reviewers, the media then the public may well not look deeply enough at what has influenced the research and whether the data collection and analysis was fair and rigorous. Millions of people mistakenly start to drink red wine, eat wonder foods, take supplements, cut out foods etc. sometimes this is a reaction to publicity that is based on weak or biased research. The viral take up of end of the world scenarios in relation to the supposed ending of time on the Mayan calendar in 2012 is a good example of that. Using the internet it was very easy to search out details about the Mayan approach to dividing time periods but many media publications and many people did not bother. It seems to be a characteristic of much of humanity to accept what seems credible and not to want to have adopted illusions overturned in favour of more logical conclusions. 'I believe in Father Christmas' is another that much of the western world like to accept. I have never promoted that belief with my children but neither have I challenged it, my most recent ones have reached an age where they realised it is all smoke and mirrors and are now pondering on why adults promote fallacy. They seem to be concluding it is for fun and entertainment, to have a lever to help them control behaviour, well done them for working that out, hopefully they will make the link to commercial gain soon enough and one day translate that learning into deeper and wider understanding of the nature of truth and illusion.

Some of my undergraduate students have reported finding more value in the debate that ensues when "...academics brain dump at the end of the day into YouTube, or on their blogs..." and other academics, practitioners and students then discuss what was published using the comments fields. In many instances I have to agree with them, informal publication is often about the now, it is at the cutting edge, it is not spurious but based on evolving reflections and new findings that may well be waiting to be reviewed and formally published. The delay between research findings being consolidated and the paper being written, then reviewed, then published, can lead to papers being out of date by the time they reach the journals. When a less formal publication is publicly peer reviewed by a range of academics and in a place where the author can join in with the conversation, it is fresh at the time of publication and there can be more value and validity than when a potential journal publication is reviewed by just two isolated academics and published a year or more later. In my experience a fair bit of literature based research is largely only of value if what is written is then considered in the light of experiential learning or used as a precursor to action based research. It can help us find out what others think they know but then we need to test whether the theory holds water in our personal context.

If learning styles / preferences got past the peer reviewers then I have little faith in the process. All I see is poorly designed questionnaires and weak psuedo-scientific theory. It has been hugely popular and lasted way longer than Brain Gym did. Often misinterpreted to the extent that is is detrimental to children.

Rather disappointed to find that many peer reviewed journals do not publish much in the way of negative findings. Perhaps they need to flip their criteria. I guess that is sort of understandable as "I tried X and it did not work." is not much of a read but particularly in health related research this can be critical information that is of huge value to others. Listening to a researcher a few weeks ago he posited that when a hypothesis is not supported by the research the hypothesis may often be altered. This is particularly the case when a different benefit to what was expected is uncovered. For example a hypothesis that xx treatment will cure baldness is unlikely to be published if the trial does not lead to positive results so there is impetus to change the hypothesis to show the research set out with a different aim. If there is sufficient incidental data it may turn into something like: "xx treatment has a positive effect in alleviating dandruff." I guess there is a feeling that it is better to be seen to find out what you set out to discover than to be seen to have disproved your hypothesis then noticed an unexpected benefit pattern in the data.