Archive for February, 2014

February 22, 2014

Making Thinking Visible or How to Debate Poorly

It took me some time to write this post as I don’t generally engage in replying to particular bloggers – I , for one, have better things to do other than arguing with someone in the blogosphere.

Harry Webb posted back in December about the website Making Thinking Visible and called these routines “step-wise procedures” using Carl Bereiter’s arguments. This is his own description and I would like to deconstruct his arguments as he mistakes these techniques with teaching thinking programs.

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First, it is interesting (dare I say ironic?) that he uses Bereiter’s book (which I also read, namely Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age) to discredit the work and research behind Visible Thinking project – the title of the blog post is relevant in itself (“Thinkamajiks”). I say ironic because Harry is a “traditional” teacher (he always mentions that on Twitter) and Bereiter is quite a progressive mind, who sees inquiry (A) as a more effective way to learn, emphasizes motivation and mentions the importance of thinking as a social activity (B), all of which do not fit in the “traditional” model.

  1. To develop such knowledge, it is obvious that students must be engaged in inquiry. Passive uptake of knowledge, as in reading a novel or listening to a lecture, has its value, as I’ve argued earlier. But, to continue with the hiking analogy, it’s like viewing a movie rather than actually going on it.” (ch. 9, p. 338)
  2.  “It is time to take a broader view, in which thinking is seen as a primarily social activity (although always with an important private component). Ignoring these three- thinking as a social activity, how thinking relates to knowledge and motivation -reduces thinking to a set of parlor tricks.” (ch. 9, p.348)

Moreover, in the description of his own model (Knowledge Building), Bereiter states,

“As a constructivist approach, Knowledge Building shares many characteristics with the other constructivist approaches discussed earlier. That goal is to advance the frontiers of knowledge as they (the students, n.n.) perceive them. ‘As they perceive them’ is an important qualification when Knowledge Building is undertaken in educational contexts. Identifying frontiers and judging what constitutes an advance are essential parts of Knowledge Building, which students need to learn to carry out themselves, not depend on a teacher or a textbook to do for them.”

Now, let’s go back to Harry’s post.

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February 20, 2014

Always Evidence-Based Practice. Or Not?

I wrote about research here (Research and rule)  and here (Lies, damned lies and statistics) and I would like to draw attention to an interesting yet less questioned aspect of educational research: what are the limitations of evidence-based practices?

Phil Wood tweeted several articles and links (by the way, if you do not follow him you should) and I was intrigued about two in particular: “Why What ‘Works’ in Education Won’t Work” by Gert Biesta (Educational Theory, Vol. 57, 2007) and Using a Living Theory Methodology by Jack Whitehead (Educational Journal, 2008).

Biesta takes a critical look at the evidence-based practice rhetoric by analyzing the epistemology behind it, its role in shaping education policies and the relationships it creates within a democratic system.

“(…) evidence-based education seems to favor a technocratic model in which it is assumed that the only relevant research questions are questions about the effectiveness of educational means and techniques, forgetting, among other things, that
what counts as ‘‘effective’’ crucially depends on judgments about what is educationally desirable.”

Thus, “effectiveness” alone becomes the sole criterion for implementing a specific teaching method or strategy. Although apparently neutral (who would contest the need to use most effective strategies?), evidence-based practice does bear an implied assumption that teaching is, in fact, a simple cause-effect chain of teaching-learning experiences, and that the teacher’s work is simply to apply a particular intervention.

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February 9, 2014

Spelling Dosen’t Matter?

It is very likely that spelling wars will continue as they have for decades. That spelling matters… is a matter of perspective (and isn’t spelling such a nice way to play with language?…). Some claim spelling has become irrelevant. I much doubt that given the proliferation of social media platforms where writing is the main way of communication, but who am I to say? I am just a teacher and I still like my students to spell well. For a myriad of reasons.

Several approaches to teaching spelling were taken and if you wonder which one you should use I hope you will read about them all and make up your own mind. For far too long teacher autonomy and expertise have been undermined, and selection of practices has become a persuasion tactic or, worse, a war over what is “best”.

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Spelling is NOT arbitrary.

If the spelling of English words was based on a random variation then we would depend on rote and visual memorization alone – which is obviously not the case. It would take us perhaps a lifetime to memorize thousands of words – the sheer number of words in English language is paralyzing for anyone even dreaming of memorizing it. Patterns and connections can be found within any language system no matter how arbitrary it might seem on the surface (those who studied Linguistics like I did might have a good memory of Chomsky’s generative grammar or Halle’s generative phonology and their complex deep structures).

Researchers have estimated that the spellings of nearly 50% of the English words are predictable based on sound-letter correspondences that can be taught, and another 34% are predictable except for one sound.

“If other information such as word origin and word meaning are considered, only 4 percent of English words are truly irregular.” (Paul R. Hanna, Jean S. Hanna, Richard E. Hodges, and Edwin H. Rudolf, Jr., Phoneme-Grapheme Correspondences as Cues to Spelling Improvement, 1966).

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February 1, 2014

Engagement, Teaching and Bias

The cure for cynicism is simply to engage honestly. “ (Jeremy Paxman)

It is interesting how a single tweet can spark such controversy over a single word: “engagement”. Soon after I tweeted

“That is why I am suspicious of people who dismiss “engagement” in relation to school. That is part of your responsibility as a teacher. Students won’t learn just *because* you are an expert in your subject. Period. “

Tweet engagement

an avalanche of tweets, replies and threads of discussion – from my original point (“engagement”) to further related concepts (“expertise”) followed. People taking sides and soon being labeled as “traditional” or “progressive”, misapprehension of the word itself in relation to the school setting and gut-reactions based on personal experiences.

Two clarifications before I embark on the debate – they will come back in my post. I dislike intellectual laziness, and generalizations based on anecdotal evidence or teacher beliefs should be subject to scrutiny at all times, whatever the label you were given on social media.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..     A. Causation is NOT correlation.

Not a single element in the teaching domain *causes* learning per se in disjunction with others.

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