Research Diary #1: It’s alive!

I’ve scavenged pieces of metaphorical flesh, roughly joined them together and applied a jolt of electricity. This blog is alive once more.

Time has moved on, and I am now a 2nd year Educational Doctorate (EdD) student at the Institution of Education. I’m using this blog to keep a fortnightly diary to help me reflect on my research. It will record good intentions, muddled thinking and missed deadlines, as well as the occasional burst of insight it if comes knocking.

The first year of the EdD was a smorgasbord where I got to try lots of different things. I wrote 5,000 word essays about the academicness of academic managers, how students make elective student choices, and the equity of group discussions. It was thought provoking. It was (sometimes) fun. It was an awful lot of work. Now, the training wheels have come off. For the second year I have to complete a 20,000 word Institution Focused Study (IFS). I’ve chosen to focus on something that I think will a) be interesting and b) be of practical use to my institution. As such, I will be researching what informs student expectations of study at a postgraduate creative arts institution.

I think student expectations are an under-researched aspect of educational inquiry. So does Michelle Morgan.  If students express dissatisfaction with their experience then I think the first instinct is to ‘correct’ the thing that students were most dissatisfied about (sometimes described as the ‘you say, we did’ approach). However, what if the problem doesn’t lie with what happens, but rather what was different about what happens and what students expected to happen? I can best explain this in an analogy.

Imagine that you are about to drink a cup of milky tea. Let’s say that you like milky tea. You take a sip. This is going to be great. Except it isn’t. It is disgusting. It’s the worst cup of tea you’ve tasted since the last time you used out-of-date milk. What has gone wrong? You look closer and realise that the tea is too dark. And it smells funny. That’s because it’s not a cup of refreshing tea. It’s coffee. You’re drinking coffee, which is fine because you also like coffee. Now that you know that its coffee you can enjoy it. The first taste was horrible because you were expecting tea and got coffee. The second is better because you were expecting coffee and got coffee. The drink hasn’t changed. Your expectation of it has. I want to investigate whether a similar process takes place in postgraduate study.

To date, I’ve written a research proposal, which is awaiting approval by my supervisor. Then I need to complete the UCL research ethics process. I want to start my research in May, which gives me just enough time to shake of a EdD slump I experienced after successful completion of the first year. To aid me in this I’ve set myself a challenge: can I read 100 papers/book chapters in 100 days. I’m starting on the 19th March. Wish me luck.


This is the end (for now)

Wow. I’ve done it. 12 months, 12 concepts. 48 posts. Around 17,000 words. That is a lot a naval-gazing.

In those 12 months I have learned that

This has been a really useful thing to have done, and a real test of discipline. That said, I think the one thing that I was lacking last year was other people to bounce ideas off. Therefore, I’m taking a break from weekly blogging to think about what to do next. Thanks to Ros for contributing her thoughts to the debate about Professional Learning Communities.

Ta da, Chris

And finally…

It’s the last post of the year. I’m going to post once more about  ‘Conversational Model’ and then  in the New Year do a couple of posts summing up my experience of blogging about educational ideas for a whole year.

I’ve found this theory useful in prompting me to think about the nature of feedback between peers and between the student and teacher. However, I’m not sure that the theory has sparked any new ideas in relation to well worn themes such as the importance of sharing perspectives, applying knowledge and reflecting on the process of doing so. For me, it’s real value lies in the relationship between principles and processes.

In threshold concepts there is a ‘correct’ concept to be learned that –  when internalised – inducts you into a school of thinking. In the Conversational model, there is no correct concept. Concepts are continually interrogated each time that a simulation takes place. This demands that both student and teacher are both explicit about what those principles are, and prepared to adapt (or abandon) those principles if the evidence does not support them.

Let’s demonstrate this in a less abstract fashion. If I am learning to play a piece on the piano I can take very different approaches. I can memorise the notes and their timing, and through repetition develop a muscle memory of where my fingers go. Or I can try to work out what the ‘rules’ of the piece are (i.e. which key is it in, what rhythms repeat etc.). Understanding the principles of the piece makes learning and playing it less overwhelming as I’m applying a few rules rather than trying to process hundreds of disassociated bits of information.  The key (no pun intended) difference with Laurillard’s theory is that not all of these rules are fixed in advance.  I need to keep reflecting on what I’m playing and how I’m playing it, ideally with help from someone who also has experience in doing so.That is the main lesson that I’m going to take from this theory: it isn’t enough to learn something once, you have to be prepared to unlearn it too.


Insert comment here

The Conversational Framework needs teachers. More specifically it needs them to deliver useful feedback. The question that I asked last time was, in effect, what’s so special about teachers’ feedback.

In order to answer that, I’m going to try and catalogue the types of feedback.

Type 1: Opinion

  • Examples: “I like that”. “That is horrible”. “It lacks something.”

Whether delivered by teachers or students these statements are generally useless. At an emotional level, it is nice to hear that someone likes something that you do – particularly if you respect the person saying it – but it doesn’t give you much else to go on. Worse, it can encourage you to become dependent on someone else’s good favour.

Type 2: Clarifying

  • Examples: “Why did you do that?” “What would you do differently next time?” “What were your influences?”

This type of questions can help a student to reflect on their work without implying a direction. They also help the questioner understand the otherwise implicit aims and processes involved in its creation. They can also feel a bit generic (i.e. can be asked of anyone at any time).

Type 3: Referential

  • Examples: “Your work reminds me of…”. “Have you seen….?”

This type of feedback helps to place the work in a critical or historical context, or provides a valuable stockpile of references for the student to investigate at a later date. It can also be hugely annoying to hear (i.e. gives the impression that your work is unoriginal or a pale imitation of something better).

Type 4: Thread-pulling

This is the type of feedback that I find hardest to define, but is perhaps is the most important. It takes as it’s starting point that any presentation of work leaves a number of figurative threads dangling. The role of the teacher is to identify what those threads might be and begin to tug at them. In this case the teacher is helping the student be asking specific questions that relate to both the conceptual foundations of the work and the manner in which it has been developed.

None of these types are exclusive to either a teacher or a student. However, I think it more likely that teachers  – by virtue of their expertise or experience – would have an informed position on which to give feedback of types 3 and 4. If so, this is the dialogue that Laurillard’s framework depends on.

Hypothetical scissors or sellotape?

In the diagram used to illustrate the Conversational model the teacher is on the left, and the student to the right. What happens if you take a big pair of hypothetical scissors and cut across the middle? In this new model the student still gets to test out and refine their conceptions through research. They don’t, however, have someone to a) share their conceptions with or b) give feedback. Does this matter?

You could, for example, replace the teacher in the diagram with another student. This would give both students the opportunity to have this dialogue. It might not be quite as authoritative (I’m going to assume that teachers are generally more conceptually sophisticated and have more experience to call upon) but it could be argued that a lack of authority might enable a freer and more equitable discussion. What then, is the particular benefit of having a teacher giving the feedback?

If we go back to Meyer and Land’s notion of ‘Threshold Concepts’ then you could argue that the role of teacher’s feedback is to ask troublesome questions. Those questions would help the students make the paradigm shift to a new way of thinking (i.e. the earth is formed of tectonic plates, species evolve etc.) that is already part of the teacher’s worldview. As such, the purpose of this feedback is to help the student reveal the implicit assumptions that they are making and encourage them to engage with alternative perspectives. That sounds good in principle but how does this work in practice?

For my next post I think that I’m going to try to imagine some questions that a teacher would ask that a peer would not? Only then can I get a sense of whether I’ve been right to start snipping with my hypothetical scissors or whether, instead, I should be reaching for my hypothetical sellotape.

I want a word with you!

This month’s theory is Diana Laurillard’s ‘Conversational Model’. It takes as its starting point the idea that higher learning is a ‘second order’ experience that involves making sense of the perspective of others. As such, learning should be designed as a dialogue between student and teacher that enables this sharing of conceptions and experience.

Laurillard presents a four-fold typology of learning and teaching models to demonstrate her argument:

  • Storytelling: the teachers shares their knowledge with the student
  • Discussion: the teacher and student share knowledge through negotiation
  • Discovery: the student tests their knowledge through research guided by the teacher
  • Collaboration: the student and teacher share, test and revise knowledge through the act of collaboration

She argues that advances in learning technologies have enabled an increase in the number and complexity of simulations that provide a perfect vehicle for the fourth – and most profound – type. Key to this is that the simulation should make plain what each participants conceptions and goals are, and provide an opportunity to test out, evaluate and reflect on the choices that are made.

This theory places more emphasis on the teacher than many that I’ve discussed this year. In some of those theories the teacher’s role is the light the blue touch paper and stand well back. Here the teacher is a constant presence in the dialogue. A sample of the characteristics defined as enabling effective teaching/learning demonstrate how important that presence is:

  • Teacher must provide environment within which student can act on, generate and receive feedback on descriptions appropriate to the topic goal
  • Teacher must use feedback on students’ conceptions to revise the focus of dialogue
  • Teacher must provide feedback to students based on their tasks and conceptions
  • Teacher should support process where students relate tasks and experiences to the topic and topic goals

That is a demanding set of ambitions! My task this month, is to work out whether that is too demanding.

Clever us?

The big question from last week was: can the system be clever when the individuals within it aren’t?

A common example of group intelligence is the fairground game of guess-the-number-of-sweets-in-the-jar. The chances of any one individual guessing correctly are low. However, the chances of the average of many guesses being correct is high (for a fuller analysis of the phenomena and an explanation as to how it breaks down when people get to discuss their guesses see this excellent article from Discover Magazine). So, in this case, every single individual could be wrong, and the collective could be right. Score 1 for Connectivism.

However, does this work for more complex calculations? There are plenty of counter-examples where collective wisdom breaks down. It could be said that our inability to address the threat of environmental catastrophe and the recent credit crisis are perfect examples of the madness of crowds. Jaron Lanier in his book ‘You Are Not  A Gadget’ argues that collective decision-making breaks down when not dealing with simple value-free calculations, and that any celebration of ‘mob-rule’ mentality is both misguided and demeaning:

If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we’re devaluing those people [creating the content] and making ourselves into idiots.

Anyone observing the ebb and flow of trends on twitter would be hard-pressed to disagree.

So, we are back to a familiar model where an individual adds a pole to the scaffold of human knowledge for the next person to clamber on. This is a tried and tested approach and forms the basis of academic peer review across the globe (i.e. show us what you found and how you found it). As such, the Connectivism theory is not wrong in valuing the process of learning over the product. Neither is it saying anything new.