May 11, 2014

Difficult vs. Easy, A Reply

This post is a reply to David Didau (@LearningSpy) – Squaring the Circle: Can Learning Be Easy and Hard?  I urge you to read it because it poses a very good question and he brings, as always, a lot of research to discuss this issue.

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Bjork’s work, that I introduced you to a year or two ago, tends to take over the educational debate, as Willingham’s work does.  Excessive cognitivism (or any other theory of learning) obstructs the bigger picture of learning because it focuses on a limited set of variables or just one in some cases – either internal (e.g. memory), relational (e.g. social learning), emotional, you name them.

Some points.

If performance (what the student does – writes an essay, draws a rectangular prism etc.) is a poor proxy for “learning” (Bjork), then it is quite difficult to *infer* the “learning“ that takes place (learning being an internal mechanism/process). Note that we cannot pinpoint with precision what the student “learned”: we can only deduce based on – surprise – performance. It follows then that we can only use this vehicle (performance) to assess student “learning”. Which gets me to the next question: what is learning then and how do you know? Continue reading

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April 28, 2014

Making the Learning Whole

In anticipation of my post 2 on education wars I needed to make a separate entry for David Perkins’s 7 principles of learning from his book Making the Learning Whole.

 

“Here are the two most popular answers to approaching complexity:

  1. ELEMENTS FIRST: Ramp into complexity gradually by learning elements now and putting them together later.
  2. LEARNING ABOUT: Learn about something to start with, rather than learning to do it.

Continue reading

April 13, 2014

Education between Wars and Understanding (1)

“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” (G. B. Shaw)

 

It is perhaps our greatest strength and our deepest vulnerability to believe in something. Education makes no exception when it comes to beliefs and values that underpin every single act of our teaching. Those who think that they possess a strong independent mind, unaltered by bias, fall prey to overt or hidden ideologies, even as they claim their neutrality by invoking research. In doing so, they forget that “research and politics are inextricably bound together.” (Cohen et al, Research Methods in Education). Continue reading

March 2, 2014

Hattie, Strawman Fallacy and Gurus in Education

“He was impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.” (Graham Greene)

Nothing is more annoying, and in certain cases more dangerous, than a pseudo-intellectual. You know, one that skims a brief article here, reads a little bit there, and then makes a “compelling” case against something. Worse is, however, when his or her blog post gets re-tweeted over and over again so that it becomes a mantra in education.

To me, this ultimately boils down to ethics. I understand your desire to change the status quo or to advance a certain view (value, belief, theory, or whatever you have in mind), and for sure this revolutionary intent and constant war against the current state of things is part of what we call “passion”. What I do not understand is the misuse of information in order to promote this change.

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This week I came across this blog post (Three Shockers from the Guardian) in which its author criticizes three articles – one related to collaborative learning, the second to problem-solving, and last to Hirsch’s developing of the Core Knowledge Program.  What I find most ironic is that the blogger is definitely *not* aware (dare I say not well-read?) about each of the points he attacks. He uses random quotes from Hattie’s work Visible Learning and cherry picks from the effect-size list only what would serve his intention. Moreover, he shows lack of reading of Hirsch’s work and brings a straw-man argument to engage in the debate. I would like to analyze his post as I find that more and more educators slowly fall back into accepting gurus in education they most relate to and discard little by little the qualities that make us critical thinkers. For that, you need to read widely. Secondly, you have to learn more viewpoints, to be literate in terms of learning theories and pedagogy, and to analyze a lot of research – including those that create cognitive conflict and disprove some of the beliefs you hold. Thirdly, examine your own philosophy of education and see where your biases lie.

Let us then start with Hattie.

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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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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). Continue reading

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. Continue reading

January 26, 2014

In Search of Good Research (2)

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” (Benjamin Disraeli or not, sic!)

       In his introduction to Reading Educational Research – How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered, Gerald W. Bracey states, “Misleading statistics abound. “ His entire book is an illustration of this claim, starting from the very chapter (Data, Their Uses and Their Abuses) to the final part (Testing: A Major Source of Data – and Maybe Child Abuse).

*As a side note, I loved reading in the Foreword about his struggle to expose statistics abuse for years as he demystified the politics behind many U.S. educational programs, institutions and policies (No Child Left Behind, NAEP – National Assessment for Educational Progress and more).  At the time of writing this book he was losing a part-time job at George Mason University because, as Jay Mathew remarked, “The school couldn’t take the heat that often follows Bracey in his scholarly travels.” – in other words, he was too direct in his approach to truth.

The book is full of examples that support the 32 Principles of Data Interpretation and guides the reader to a deeper understanding of how data is collected, presented and used. I will only selectively refer to some of them as I cannot obviously make a summary in a single blog post.

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Principle 1: Do the arithmetic

Failure in doing the math occurs mostly in examples that track changes in data over time. Continue reading

January 24, 2014

In Search of Good Research (part 1)

WARNING: I am a fan of slow reading so if you are looking for a brief inspiring blog post this is not it.

Research and rule.

Paraphrasing Caesar’s Divide et impera,  I would say that research has been perhaps one of the most powerful tools in shaping education systems and policies. As such, we owe it to ourselves to understand the research process better so as to go beyond the biased views we all hold and to question at all times everything we read under the category of “research” and/or “study”.

I happen to have finished three books on research (Research Methods in Education, Louis Cohen et al; Reading Educational Research, Gerald W. Bracey; An Introduction to the Philosophy of Methodology, Kerry E. Howell) and, more than 1,000 pages later, I am still left with one question. You will see it at the end of this post.

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