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June 23, 2010
I have completely transformed this workshop following the last time I ran it when I felt that I had provided too little content for participants to engage with and reflect on. (For my pre- and post-workshop blog reflection, please see: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/alisonlecornu/entry/pcapp_workshop_assessment/) How to provide content in an appropriate, stimulating, motivating yet appropriate way is my big challenge of the moment. It is, I think, the biggest challenge that relates to my having adopted a largely reflective approach that invites participants to contribute their own experience. While all the feedback to my sessions indicates that this is a welcome approach which participants find effective and 'dignified' (they don't feel like students!), I am aware that many, even most, actually do come wanting to leave having learnt something concrete that they can take away and put into practice. While this can, of course, come from their peers (and is often all the richer for that), I also sense a desire for the 'expert' to convey what contemporary scholarship considers important and convey too what some of the principles of good practice are.
My challenge is that in general I have experienced quite a strong resistance to the approach which means I, as the expert, prepare a powerpoint presentation and stand or sit in front of the class and deliver it. Even if (as I always would) I built in plenty of opportunity for discussion, group work, etc., there still seemed to be a sense of resentment that (I think) may have been linked with the fact that this approach finds it very difficult to adapt if someone comes with significant experience and feels they are being talked down to. The PCAPP context is unlike most teaching situations, since although there is some continuity of participants (we see most people for all 10 obligatory workshops) there is no continuity of content and it is impossible for those of us in the LDC to ascertain in a meaningful way who will benefit from what degree of input at what level, and equally impossible for us to know who comes with what level of experience.
So I changed my approach to a primarily participant-driven model, structuring my sessions in such a way that participants' experience provides a significant degree of content, but I am left with the above conundrum!
For this session, I have done something quite different, and I have designed the workshop around the Deliberations website hosted at London Met University. There are some excellent resources there on Assessment, and the advantage of using the website in the session is that I am introducing participants to a really useful resource that I hope they will get to know well enough to be able to refer to in their subsequent practice. It also means they hear new and different voices to my own, as well as being provided with and having the opportunity to engage with a good degree of content. My decision to use the website provoked new challenges, though. Does the Teaching Grid have enough PCs for each participant to work alone? Do I want them to work alone? Can they work in pairs or small groups around a laptop? Some of the articles are quite long. Will they all read at the same speed? Do I (or they) want long periods of silence while everyone is reading? Will they consider this any better than listening to me with my powerpoint?! Would it be any better?!
I found a way forward through these questions by deciding to direct the participants' reading. I have prepared a short set of questions which are designed to focus on the most significant dimensions of the content, the answers to which they will need to find by surfing the site. The TG has promised about 12 laptops, which means the best course of action is almost certainly for people to work in pairs or small groups (there are 15 attending). I hope that by making the questions the focus of the activity, rather than the text, the reading will be more fun and less intense, allowing for discussion and conversation as they hunt for the information as well as once they've found it. There is a great paper on the site called 'Changing Assessment to Improve Learning'. It is the summary of an interactive keynote session led by Prof Phil Race at the 1st Northumbria Assessment Conference UK in 1996. However, it's very long, so I've decided to mimic the original session, using some of the questions Race used to initiate thought and discussion. In order to introduce some added value, I have prepared these using Clickers (hand held voting remote controls), so I will be asking participants to vote on a range of issues to do with assessment. This is the only paper from the website that I have photocopied so that once we have engaged with its content, small groups can go and discuss, comparing their own responses with those of the people who attended the original session.
Will it work? I can only try it and see. But that's what teaching is, evaluating my practice, seeing if I can find ways of addressing the issues that I think need(ed) attention and then evaluating again. Feedback from participants is therefore crucial. Hence this blog.
December 17, 2009
I am delighted, once again, to hear from you. Please don’t worry about offending or upsetting me. You won’t, because I too can sense that you too are genuinely concerned to reflect and dialogue candidly and openly. Thank you.
I will need time to digest what you express, so won’t try to engage too much with the content of your email here and now. I am off on holiday tomorrow evening for the Christmas period and will appreciate the space to return to what you say and think it through. If I remember rightly, you were also articulating something of the same in the THES discussion. Instinctively I think you have an excellent point, although I equally instinctively want to respond by suggesting that reflection on teaching and one’s own role as an educator is equally as appropriate as reflecting on the learning that is taking place. Teaching and learning are partners in dialogue (that word again!) and I suppose I have exposed my reflection on my role in my blog and paid less attention to the learners’ learning primarily because I think I have a responsibility to self-examine, have experienced success in changing my practice resulting in better learning taking place, and in a public forum such as a blog I don’t want to second guess, perhaps erroneously, what is going on with my learners. That’s why I am so keen that they speak for themselves.
Your comments remind me of the position taken by Marton and Booth in their 1997 volume ‘Learning and Awareness’ where they argue very much for a study of the process of learning that begins with and focuses on the learners themselves, rather than on the internal/external interaction of teaching and learning. In a previous email you ask whether I am familiar with Rogers. Yes, of course, and Dewey, and many others to whom a student-centred approach to teaching and learning owes much. I agree that Rogers probably over eggs his pudding; Dewey too, undoubtedly, and many would consider that the thinking of these great educationalists had an adverse effect on British schools and schooling during the 60s and 70s. I come from a strong background in distance- and e-learning, together with 5 years of teaching English as a Foreign Language in Spain and France (with commensurate training and qualifications) and eventually did my PhD in Adult Education. I focused on how a particular subject discipline (theology) influences the way in which students learn.
I have taken the liberty of copying and pasting all our emails into my blog. Please do let me know if you are uncomfortable with that. I can easily edit every post.
I would be interested to hear more about you. Where are you based, and what is your background?
Many thanks for your recent e-mail. It was nice to hear from you.
First, and in reply to your question, I confirm that you are welcome to quote me in your blog. That comment also holds for this email if you so wish.
Second, your e-mail puts me into a dilemma. On the one hand, I warm to your candid and open manner. But, on the other hand, your manner tends to encourage a more than usually honest response, and I fear that you might find my response annoying, condescending, offensive, upsetting or absurd. On reflection - or perhaps it is something else - I think I will choose the latter option, because I sense that you may well find my response absurd.
I have read your email several times, and it strengthens my impression that you are deeply and honestly concerned with your teaching, and its effects on your students. But I believe that there is also a fundamental and very common error in the position that you take. Perhaps I might be permitted to try to convey what I have in mind with an analogy. I believe that the approach that you - and, in my experience, most educationalists - take, is like a person who wishes to understand the movement of tides and does so by measuring the salinity of the water.
I write like this because it appears from almost everything you have written that your focus is on teaching, and I believe that such a focus is at best on a secondary matter, and more often than not deeply misleading. I believe that the latter is the case because only a moment of reflection indicates that teaching has the aim of fostering learning; and, if that is the case, teaching is merely a tool towards encouraging a far larger aim, namely, learning. And if that is the case, it follows that a teacher’s focus should be on learning. It then further follows that a focus on teaching - understandable in egocentric terms - tends to blind a teacher to implications of the foregoing simple facts.
I have also found that when teachers begin to focus on learning, many of their concerns about their teaching diminish. It is as if, when one focuses on learning, teaching takes care of itself. Or I could say that I have found that, when teachers focus on learning, their concerns tend to change almost radically.
For example, as there is no serious difference between studying learning and studying physiology - or any other mental process, and indeed any other subject - concerns about not being condescending tend to be no stronger in the teaching of teaching that in the teaching of any other discipline. In the same way, the problem of imparting knowledge in a non-didactic manner becomes a problem in the teaching of all disciplines, especially factual ones. And perhaps most important of all, one's focus shifts from what one is doing, to what one's students are doing; and when that happens, one begins to see that much of the talk about being a reflective practitioner is generated by what happens to be fashionable, - as is so often the case in education.
At risk of sounding fanciful, I'll add that I believe that a preoccupation with being ‘a reflective practitioner’ is also, to a considerable extent, one more manifestation of the cult of the individual that is endemic in the West. From such a perspective, one might also see that a concern with being a reflective practitioner can slide very easily and very often into self-indulgence.
I've done my best to express my position as briefly and simply as I can, and past experience suggests that I am very unlikely to have been persuasive. And it is of course also the case that I may well be wrong.
Lastly, I very much hope that you sense that I do not write in order to criticise you. That is not remotely my intention. On the contrary. As I've noted, I much admire your candour, and I have largely written as I have in response to this.
With very best wishes for Christmas and the New Year,
I am delighted to hear from you and very honoured to receive feedback. Thank you. My first inclination was to copy and paste some, if not all of your comments, into my blog, and if you choose not to do that yourself, may I ask your permission to do so? Your points are entirely pertinent, although I would like clarification about point (2). I also hope you noticed that while I 'accused' you (respectfully, in intention, if not conveyed adequately in tone) of having been 'verbose', I also recognised and affirmed your correct, perceptive and valid comments on the THES blog. Your contribution was vital and significant.
You are entirely correct about the role of teaching and communicating content (point 1). It is something I reflect on vigorously and am hugely aware of my discomfort in this area. I am constantly wrestling to find what I consider an adequate balance as well as appropriate means of informing the people who attend my workshops and courses about the scholarship of teaching and learning; it is something which I was working on this very afternoon as I led a workshop on Assessment Practice and Strategies and I came away dissatisfied with the approach I had taken. I have committed myself to writing a pre-workshop blogpost and then a post-workshop blogpost, so will be writing on that within the next day or two.
Thank you too for the encouragement to keep on posting. My aim is to model reflective practice, despite the fact that I may not model it perfectly. It is the prime way that I have chosen to handle the lived-out behaviour that was articulated in writing in the THES paper. I hope that participants will read my pre- and post-session reflections and understand so much more not only about how I decide to impart content, but also about classroom management, and hence how my pedagogy is consciously designed to meet a whole variety of needs. It's early days, but so far so good; behaviour in my sessions has improved enormously and feedback is excellent. The next step is to get participants themselves to contribute to the blog. The first did so today! So I hope to construct a bigger community of reflective practitioners...
Here am I being verbose in my turn: your point exactly! Ah well...
With very best wishes
This blog has attracted the attention of Eric Sotto, a respected and experienced educational developer and author. I feel privileged to engage in dialogue with him. He has given permission for me to copy our email correspondence into the blog.
He first wrote me with the following email:
I've just come across your blog, and thought you might like to have a few general responses.
1) Much of what you write is on how to avoid a conventional teacher/student situation, and the allied question of how to encourage a collaborative atmosphere in a classroom in which everyone feels inclined to participate. I warm to such wishes, but believe that you omit a consideration of something essential. This is that learning is not only a matter of debating, but also a matter of taking in factual information. Although I did not read all the earlier entries in your blog, I did not find any consideration of this essential matter. In short, how are factual matters, and especially the matter of scholarly evidence, to be brought to the attention of students in a non-didactic manner?
2) Your entries strongly convey that you not only believe in but also practice honest reflection. It also so happens that I am personally strongly attracted to such a quality. However, it seems to me that your focus on honest reflection eventually results in the neglect of an attempt also to view the matter under consideration in as objective a manner as is possible. Indeed, I note with respect and affection that your focus on honest reflection sometimes leads to what a critical person might consider self-indulgence.
3) You often mention student centred learning, but I have the impression - it can be no more - that you are not closely acquainted with the originator, Carl Rogers, of this notion. Among other things, the position that Rogers advocates is at odds with the requirement for knowledge to be assessed by objective criteria; and his focus is so completely on the individual, that he tends to ignore the needs of a community.
4) I thought your comments on what I sought to do in that debate posted in the THE plain unkind. My first responses were, I believe, succinct, but I had so much flak and rubbish thrown at me by the great majority of participants that I thought I must respond as best as I can. I also believe that in your blog you are often guilty of that of which you accuse me. But this item is of course not very important.
5) Lastly, I do hope you will continue to express your concerns on this matter of teaching and learning! The topic is of course very important.
Kind regards, Eric Sotto