I love buttons. This is the contents of my button tin, tipped out onto one of my favourite trays. I’ve been collecting these buttons for as long as I can remember – some were handed down by great grandmothers, some were spare buttons from clothes long gone, others (like the frogs, ducks and butterflies) bought online because they caught my fancy. In the middle of the picture are three silver buttons with stars – spares from my wedding dress which I made myself five years ago. When I was a child, I used to tip out my buttons on to one of mum’s trays and sift through them looking for my favourites – a starfish, some that look like a robot face, others I think are pretty.
And then some ugly ones – big, brown monstrosities – who would choose these?
So many memories contained in one small tin. Perfect.
Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. I think that’s probably true of many things and not just limited to technology – that many things that others do look like magic from the outside. And if this is so, then there’s a lot of important lessons to be learnt by those of us who are interested on how folk learn, and how we teach. Here’s a couple that spring to mind.
First, if all we do is look at an end product without having an awareness of the underlying process, it’s easy to assume that others are creative geniuses who can effortlessly manipulate images, write poetry, compose songs, draw wonderful pictures … and so on. But, of course, as Edison probably didn’t say, genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration – there’s a lot of hard work going on in the background that is invisible if all you see is the end product and not the processes of creation. Of course, some people are more talented than others, and sometimes what we are doing is so engaging that it doesn’t feel like hard work, but as they say where I grew up – you don’t get owt for nowt – you have to put in time and effort to get results. This ought to be obvious – but often it gets forgotten. And this is unfortunate, because if you think others do things easily that you find hard, the temptation might be to give up without trying – and there’s obvious implications for formal learning from this. One that particularly annoys me is the folk who assert that they are bad at maths, when really they are just not willing to try. Of course mathematical ability like musical ability, takes practice.
Second, if you just look at the outputs of a particular model of learning without understanding its underlying principles, there’s a risk that if you try to copy it you’ll get it badly wrong – and one way of explaining why this happens is to suggest that it’s happening because you are practicing ‘cargo cult science’, and mimicking the wrong parts of the process. In particular, if you don’t understand that any good model of learning in underpinned by sound pedagogical principles (whether those designing the model are aware of these or not), then you will probably not know which parts of the design should be copied and why, and you risk copying ritualistic behaviour and missing the features intrinsic to authentic learning. Let me try to explain what I mean.
‘Cargo cult science‘ is a perjorative term used by Richard Feynman in 1974 in order to describe an approach to education which, I think, is as common now as it was when Feynman first described it:
I found things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you’ll see the reading scores keep going down–or hardly going up–in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There’s a witch doctor remedy that doesn’t work. [This is an] example of what I would like to call cargo cult science.
So, what is cargo cult science and why is it so problematic? Well, a ‘cargo cult’ happens when one culture observes the practices of a more technologically advanced culture, wants to get hold of those technologies, and so mimics those practices in the belief that this is how they can also get these ‘magical’ technologies. For example, during WW2 the Allies set up temporary bases on Pacific islands. Islanders observed what they perceived to be ritualistic behaviours, such as marching around with rifles, and concluded that the soldiers were practicing religious rituals which summoned up western goods (cargo). After the Allies left, the islanders tried practicing the military behaviour they’d seen in the belief that by performing what they believed to be religious rituals, the western cargo would appear. Of course, it didn’t.
Let’s consider a recent example of this. In 2008, Stephen Downes and George Siemens developed a course that was opened out beyond the 25 campus based students – the original MOOC. MOOCs like this, with an emphasis on connections and interactions, are often called cMOOCS.
In 2011, two Stanford educators, Peter Norvig and Sebastien Thrun, developed an online course and offered it out for free enrolment. Other courses followed. These xMOOCs, as they were labelled, superficially resembled the earlier cMOOCs, but I suggest that they are, in fact, an example of cargo cult science. Despite Thrun’s audacious claim that xMOOCs were going to change HE forever, and that in 50 years there might only be 10 institutions in the world delivering HE, xMOOCs are turning out not to be the force for change that some thought.
So why might this be? Well, this post is already too long, and I want to post it before 2017 ends, so I’ll just quickly sketch my argument. I’d suggest that in trying to emulate the original MOOCs, the educators did not pay attention to the underlying principles of connectivism and connected learning, and so the rich, authentic learning experiences that happen in cMOOCs such as CLMooc, and connected practices such as DS106, are not carried over to the xMOOCs.
Now, don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing inherently wrong with institutions and companies offering free courses to anybody who wants to sign up for them (although actually there might be concerns, and I’ll return to this in a future post), but the only thing that the earlier cMOOCs share with the later xMOOCs is the name.
xMOOCs focus on delivering content – typically by giving learners videos to watch. But this style of delivery is not well suited to any of our best theories of learning because it treats learners as consumers. If, when you focus on the earlier MOOCs and see how you can mimic them, you look at how learning can be delivered to a massive audience for free, then using pre-recorded videos and online quizzes is an answer. But this cargo cult version of a MOOC is a pale shadow of the original.
I think that HE can learn a lot from cMOOCs, but massification and the delivery of online learning for next to no cost are not lessons that are worth learning.
“Giraffe Witch Doctor” flickr photo by CrazyUncleJoe shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license
Twitter gets a lot of bad press, for many reasons. But, for me, it’s a place I find like-minded friends who are generous, caring and creative. So today’s #DecDoodle is a Twitter dove with an olive branch – symbolising my hope that 2018 will continue to be a time of sharing, making and of love.
I think that the best way to describe CLMooc is to show the audience some of the many collaborations that have happened over the years. I’ve got some ideas, but I’d like to ask all of you what, of all the stuff that’s happened, you think I should be talking about. So I’ve set up a Google Doc and I’m hoping you’ll share some ideas with me. Here’s the link.
I’ve had two things on my mind this week – the first is the amazing cover of Little Boxes by Walk off the Earth:
(this is a serious earworm – catchy tune and lyrics which are political satire as relevant today as when the song was first written in 1962); the second is how to make assessment and feedback useful to students. And, actually, I think that both of these are connected.
It strikes me that often feedback is spoken about as something that teachers give to students – and that when students say, as they do over here every year in the NSS results, that they are not happy with the feedback they were given, pressure is put on teaching staff to give more feedback. But if we’re constructivists about learning – and we are, aren’t we? – then surely feedback should be something that we are helping students to construct for themselves, not something that we are giving to them.
I teach on a large level one course, and the bulk of the assessment on that course is by we tutors marking a 1500 word essay and a 90 minute exam (where they write two essays). The essay (worth 50% of the mark) is handed in in week 6 of the course, marked and handed back in week 9 with written comments, the exam is about 4 weeks after that. That’s not great – students are waiting for a long time before we tell them how they are doing (there are weekly MCQ quizzes, but they don’t test their ability to write or construct a philosophical argument, so they are of limited use), but the real problem with this design of assessment and feedback, imo, is that it treats the students as passive recipients rather than as active learners. I’m not meaning to single out Philosophy at U of Glasgow as being particularly bad – it’s just one example of a common method of assessing undergraduates.
The real issue is, I think, that we’ve accepted a constructivist model of learning, and we realise that students learn better when they are actively engaged with their learning, but we haven’t yet looked at how we might get students actively engaged with their feedback. But when you think about it it’s obvious – isn’t it? If students learn better when they construct things for themselves, then they will learn better if they are able to construct their own feedback. And, of course, there are plenty of ways that this can happen.
I like putting students in charge of their own learning – I’ve been using versions of the Jigsaw Classroom for many years now because it ticks so many boxes, and one of the things that it does it gives students opportunities to self-assess and get a feel for how they are doing compared to their peers – but the most powerful way of assessing students is to give them opportunities to construct their own feedback and to recognise that their judgments are at least as good as any so called expert. David Nicol’s REAP project has convinced me that peer review, or peer critiquing (which ever you want to call it)* works not because students get feedback from their peers, but because as they construct feedback for their peers they are also making judgments about their own.
So why have I called this post “ticky-tacky feedback”? Well, it’s because when I am sitting marking piles of anonymous undergraduate essays it’s hard to see the individuals behind the writing, and it is all too easy to turn into a marking machine and reward those students who follow the set formula, and that is wrong for so many reasons. If all we are doing is assessing for the sake of assessment, and not for the sake of getting students engaged in their learning, then, as WOTE say, “they are all put in boxes and they come out just the same”.
I’m glossing over a lot of stuff here, but you get the point.
* Students don’t mark each other in this model – and that’s important. They provide comments without giving a mark or grade.
I rewatched a superb TedX talk yesterday by Tesia Marshik called Learning styles & the importance of critical self-reflection. She talks about the myth of learning styles and the danger of believing in them, and it’s a powerful and persuasive critique. What particularly struck me watching it this time was her explanation of how we store what we learn in terms of meaning, and a few of us had a long conversation about this afterwards.
Years ago my mum taught remedial maths to secondary school children. They didn’t want to be there – they didn’t see the point. But most of the boys wanted to have a motor bike when they were old enough, and most of the girls wanted a fairy tale wedding, so mum’s brainwave was to give them all a project of planning for their bike, or wedding, or whatever else it was that they wanted. So, rather than ask them to do abstract sums, she got them to work out a budget for something they really wanted – she gave maths a meaning for these students.
When I’ve thought about this before, I’ve thought about it in terms of giving students reasons to want to learn, and I still think that’s true, but I think that putting it in terms of helping them to find something that makes it meaningful to them is a better approach. I can give my students instrumental reasons to study philosophy – because they want to pass the course for example – but these reasons don’t actually help them to learn anything. Helping them to make it meaningful to them, on the other hand, is helping them to store it in a way that will be valuable to them – it will actually help them to learn.
The picture at the top of this blog post, by the way, is from the talk. Apparently the board on the left is an actual game of chess, and the one on the right is just random pieces. If you show these images to folk who can’t play chess, they’ll only remember where a few of the pieces are on each of the boards. But if you show them both to expert chess players, they’ll remember where most of the pieces on the left hand board were, but do no better than the novices at remembering where the ones on the right hand board – the left hand board means something to them. I think that’s a stunning demonstration of Marsik’s argument.
Here’s the talk in full – I recommend it. I’m now off to think more about the implications of this for how we assess and give feedback to our students, and how I can frame this in the context of my thesis and CLMooc
Hmmm, I just tried to sign up to Instagram again. Now, I know that I don’t own the name NomadWarMachine, but I use it across so many platforms that I identify with it as strongly as I do with my “real” name.
But somebody else has taken it (stolen, I am really thinking) it on Instagram so I can’t have it. Pout. So after sulking for a while I tried to sign up with the name I use for Skype (another place where a usurper stole my nomad name).
But somebody else has stolen that as well. And to add insult to injury they have never even posted there.
This is not funny – this is my identity! I’m trying to laugh, but it matters. Well, not the second name so much, but my “real” social media identity. That’s me, and when the name’s not available for me to use then I don’t want to use that platform. Gah.
No, not a map of cats, but a map for cats. Specifically, this is a map of the downstairs of our house and the back garden. Each X marks a spot that is owned by a cat or that a cat finds exciting (or both).
Today’s inspiration for #Mapvember comes from Deleuze and Guattari’s writings on the rhizome. This is one of the passages in A Thousand Plateaus (ATP) that I return to again and again:
Make a map, not a tracing … What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real … The map is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification. It can be torn, reversed, adapted to any kind of mounting, reworked by an individual, group, or social formation. It can be drawn on a wall, conceived of as a work of art, constructed as a political action or as a meditation … A map has multiple entryways, as opposed to the tracing, which always comes back “to the same.” The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged “competence”. (D&G ATP pp 12-13)
To me this is the essence of #CLMooc, #DS106 and the whole participatory HOMAGO culture. Don’t copy (trace), but remix. Ignore instruction. Flout, subvert. Pirate, appropriate, make it your own. Refuse to acknowledge plagiarism as a problem. Honour the artists, writers, poets and musicians you admire by making your own versions of their work. Inspire, and be inspired.