Some thoughts about fairness after 30 years in DCU

I first came to DCU in 1986 as a sprightly young 23 year old with an MSc from Cornell and having seen a lot of changes over the years, it’s worth taking a bit of time out from marking to reflect. (Any excuse!)

There is no doubt that the third level sector is facing a lot of problems (not all resource-related) but it is important to recognise that many of these problems reflect wider trends in society, trends that are extremely positive, but which have a downside. Our society is fairer, more compassionate and more caring than it ever has been. Parenting is better, teaching is better, but our expectations of our pupils and students seem to be getting lower.

It’s interesting, for example, to see the reaction of everyone from students to teachers to parents when the Leaving Cert exams are held every June. It is particularly interesting to think about how people perceive the whole concept of fairness. Exams are seen to be unfair if unexpected questions are asked, if very challenging questions are asked, indeed if there is any suggestion that students have to do the very things that we claim we would like them to do, like thinking outside the box. There is a strong belief throughout our culture that for an exam to be fair, students must not be thrown any curve balls. There is also a strong belief that fairness demands that students know precisely what they need to do to achieve a high grade. Furthermore, people want a highly transparent and accountable marking system, one that enforces very strict marking schemes that must be followed rigorously by the examiners. All of these things lead inevitably to a culture of learning to the test. If we want to ‘deconstruct’ the Leaving Cert, then we, as a society, must revaluate many of our current ways of thinking about fairness, accountability and trust.

In third level we have made many changes supposedly in the interest of students but which may have caused a lot of harm. When we moved to a modularised and semesterised system, we made a conscious decision to organise and package our students’ learning into easily-digested, bite-size chunks, all with the best of intentions. (As an engineer with something of a systemising mindset, I was all in favour of modularisation.) But, in the process, we stripped our courses down, reduced the amount of contact time and ‘outsourced’ most of the work to the students themselves in the form of ‘independent learning’. We bolted on an American system which works well when students are forced to study continuously through the use of homework, quizzes, mid-terms and finals, but we tried to retain the traditional British and Irish values of students being required to drive and control their own learning. Unfortunately all of this was done at a time when students were growing up in a highly distracting internet age and it turns out that students do far less independent learning than we want them to. So, our students, whose study habits have been formed by the Leaving Cert but who no longer have the guiding hand of the secondary school teacher, use a just-in-time approach to ‘learn off’ small chunks of material, material which is often examined using final exams that are even shorter than those used in the Leaving Cert. This approach to learning, coupled with semesterisation, means that students retain very little of what they have learned from one year to the next. Anyone who has read even a smidgen of cognitive science will not be surprised by this.

It was also unfortunate that many of these changes happened to coincide with the turn of the century. The dawn of the 21st century seemed to create a sort of millennium mania in which everybody from experienced educators to education gurus like Sir Ken Robinson to companies flogging Edtech software (and now to Toy companies) began to suggest that education needed to be revolutionised. The basic notion being peddled was that because we lived in an increasingly digital world, everything had changed. The story went that the current generation was made up of digital natives who needed to learn differently and in different ways. Problem solving and creativity were re-invented as 21st century skills. The idea of actually knowing stuff was seen as a remnant of the 19th century. The idea of knowing things off by heart was singled out for particular scorn.

The result of all of these cultural and pedagogical changes was that we took our eyes off the ball. We began to accept that students studying engineering at college couldn’t do basic algebra and calculus, or that students at all levels had difficulty constructing grammatically correct sentences. We realised that students’ attention to detail was terrible but we tolerated it. We knew that students digital skills were not what they needed to be but we convinced ourselves that this generation does not need to be taught these things.

We’ve known all of this for years now and most academics I know are in a constant state of exasperation coupled with frustration. I think these feelings ultimately stem from confusion about what constitute fair and reasonable expectations of our students. But confusion about fairness is not unique to education.

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An engaging post about engagement

Have you noticed how the noun ‘engagement’ and its verb and adjective equivalents are used so much these days? These are catch-all words used to denote some sort of interaction between two or more parties and the beauty of them is that they are so vague they could mean anything.

So when Captain Jean Luc Picard says “Engage!”, he means “turn on the warp drive”. But when Tom Cruise ‘engages’ the evil Russians in his F-14, he’s actually attacking them with air-to-air missiles.

But ‘to engage’ can also denote an attempt to ‘attract’, as in engaging someone’s interest. It can also be used to denote employing or hiring someone as in “I engaged the services of a lawyer to get me off that speeding charge”. Of course there’s the obvious one of being engaged to be married.

These days, though, the verb ‘to engage’ can also mean just doing something. You might say something like “I like to engage in a little bit of five-a-side football” when it fact it would be easier and more logical to say “I play a little bit of five-a-side football”.

But very often, the verb ‘to engage’ is used quite deliberately as a means of saying something without really saying anything specific. An example might be: “We will engage with all stakeholders before making a decision”. In this context, the word ‘engagement’ is used quite deliberately because it is neutral; the precise nature of the interaction between the parties is left unclear.

The word ‘engagement’ is one of the most frequently-used words in education these days. Here’s a review article on it; it’s a 52-page exercise in semantics.

People say things like “students learn best when they are engaged” where ‘engagement’ seems to mean learning enthusiastically to the point of enjoying the experience. (Actually, the idea that you learn best when engaged as defined above is actually very arguable. In fact, it’s probably wrong.)

We also hear educators say things like “we need to do more to engage our students” or “students need to engage with their own learning”. We have the Irish Survey of Student Engagement even though it is more of a survey of the quality of the higher education system than a survey of the two-way interaction between the system and the students. By my reckoning it has only one question out of dozens that actually asks students what they put into their education as opposed to what the system does for them.

The basic problem is this: we all know that in this smartphone age, students have, quite understandably, very significant problems focusing on their studies. We also know that affluence has made youngsters less driven,  less hungry for success* and generally more fragile. Will we dare admit this in public though? In the main, no, because when you say these things you are likely to be labelled as old-fashioned or traditional or out of touch. You’ll be accused of 20th century thinking, whatever that is. And so the educationalists of this world, with their collective guilt complex, stand up at conferences using words like ‘engagement’ because it’s neutral and safe and doesn’t offend anyone. But in the end, nobody really knows what it means and hence they can get away with writing 52-page articles about it.

 

*This is just an anecdote but I recently reviewed applications  from first year students for a wonderful scholarship that we were offering. The five shortlisted candidates that we interviewed were all naturalised Irish; born in Pakistan, the Philippines, Poland, Nigeria and China. That may be coincidence but it does suggest a lack of hunger on the part the Irish-born students. All five of the students had come to Ireland while at primary school and had overcome big challenges in learning English and adjusting to Irish culture.

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My experience of coding

As an engineering student in the 1980s I did plenty of coding. The language I learned was FORTRAN and most of the code I wrote was designed to do calculations that would take too long if done by hand. I  have done  some coding on an off during my academic career but it was only when I did an Open University module in artificial intelligence that I did some coding that involved more than just doing numerical mathematics. In that module I had to design an ‘expert system’ (in Prolog) for fingerprint recognition and it was quite a different experience from what I was used to. Then in 2013, I published an engineering textbook that had lots of MATLAB code in it.

So what’s coding like? I think this is an important question because I get the sense that many people who advise youngsters to make a career in coding might not have done much of it themselves.

Anyway, here are some of my thoughts on coding:

  • It can be extremely rewarding when your code finally works!
  • It can be extremely frustrating especially when your code is doing things you don’t want it to do.
  • Coding can be quite addictive and you can become so engrossed in it that you neglect all sorts of basic things like eating or talking to people.
  • It is quite a sedentary activity and you need to make a real effort to get out of your chair and get some exercise.
  • Your junk food intake can increase dramatically unless you make a real effort to eat healthily.
  • Coding can keep you awake at night, especially if you work late, as lines of code flash before your eyes while you try to figure out what the hell your code is doing and why it is doing it.
  • Coding requires incredible attention to detail and can be draining if you do it for long periods.
  • Coding is both logical and creative at the same time. There is never just one way to solve a coding problem.
  • In my experience, coding suits a certain type of personality, typically those who love the challenge of solving problems for their own sake. For me, coding was always a means to an end and whether the code was efficient or elegant never really interested me. I suspect that true coders, i.e., people who could potentially make a career in coding, are different and see coding in a more aesthetic light. They are not happy with getting an answer. They are like Barcelona fans; they want to win but they don’t want to win ugly.
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Some thoughts on independent learning

The dominant mode of learning in third level education is ‘independent learning’. At least that’s what the numbers in our module descriptors imply. Yet, it would seem to me, and maybe I’m wrong, that the vast bulk of education research and innovation focuses on what is done in the classroom or the laboratory. Interesting, that.

Anyway, if you take the numbers in module descriptors seriously, we currently expect students to do upwards of 25 hours per week of ‘independent learning’ throughout a typical semester and pre-exam period. The Irish Survey of Student Engagement (studentsurvey.ie) suggests that the majority of students do nowhere near that amount of independent learning and we really need to ask ourselves if we’re just pulling numbers out of a hat.

In any event, what exactly do we mean by independent learning because many (not all) module coordinators provide little or no breakdown of what is expected of the student  when they do their independent learning? When my peers and I look back at our time studying engineering in the UCD of the early 1980s, we tend to boast that in contrast to the modern student we “drove our own learning” as one might say these days. We conjure up an image of ourselves as model independent learners. But were we really? In fact what we did was this: we studied our lecture notes (that we had transcribed in class), we did all the problem sets provided by the lecturers (practice!), and we made a particular effort to cover as many past papers as we could (tactical learning!). At the same time, we completed CA assignments such as laboratory reports and design projects. We rarely had to do any ‘outside reading’ and when we did it was usually because the lecturer was so bad it was impossible to take coherent lecture notes. In truth, our third level education was all quite structured and uncomplicated and the contact times were very high. Nonetheless, we were able to cope with the extraordinary changes that were to occur in the 1990s as a result of the rapid increase in computing power and the dawn of the internet age. (I think there is a lesson in there for those who suggest that the 21st century is somehow different and requires a radical shake-up in how we teach.)

Anyway, the key word in the above paragraph is ‘studied’. So, when we talk about ‘independent learning’ in 2016, are we really just talking about ‘study’ and by ‘study’ I also mean doing the prescribed reading that is typical of a course in the arts and humanities. Or, are we expecting even more from our students in this internet age? And if so, what is it that we are expecting?

Many people talk of there being a crisis in third level education without anyone being very explicit about where the source of the crisis actually lies. (I’m ignoring the resourcing issue here.) My own view is that the whole concept of ‘independent learning’ lies at the heart of everything. I really think we should see the concept of an ‘independent learner’ as something that we expect our students to become, not what we expect our students to be. Being a true independent learner requires lots of experience and maturity. It’s not easy learning on your own.

I think all of this boils down to expectations. What do we really expect from our students and how do those expectations differ as they progress from first year to final year? Of course, we should always expect students to study hard; to study to understand their subject, not to rote learn; to practice and self-test consistently over the semester, if not always for 25 hours a week on top of their contact time. Education is a partnership and our job is to chart a course through a subject for students. In time, our students should, if they come on the journey, acquire sufficient knowledge and skill to become the knowledgeable independent learners and (where appropriate) the confident problem-solvers that we want them to be.

In a curious way, our expectations of our students have become simultaneously too low and too high. On the one hand,  we do not seem to have any concerns about our grade distributions*  even though we know that our students spend far less time on ‘independent learning’ than we expect them to. On the other hand, we expect our students to emerge from our institutions as creative, critical-thinking, problem-solving graduates, with disciplinary knowledge depth but capable of approaching problems from multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives.

None of this adds up and the large black hole that is ‘independent learning’ is where we should begin if we want to reconcile our seemingly low expectations of our students and our very high expectations of our graduates. Food for thought for the people at studentsurvey.ie.

 

*Except, perhaps, for the grade inflation guys down in IT Tralee.

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Teaching, Learning and Barcelona

A recurring theme in education is that the way we teach students should mimic the role/job for which we’re preparing them. For example, there is a belief held by many that the way students should be taught science should mimic the actual process of being a scientist. This inevitably leads down the path of discovery learning and ‘learning by doing’.

There is a strong air of plausibility about this approach to education but it is worth looking at the world of sport for some counter arguments. Take a rugby team. A typical team will spend 80 minutes per week actually playing 15-a-side, full-contact rugby.  The rest of the time they are training. This training involves individual players working on their strength and conditioning; individual players working on their basic skills like goal-kicking or passing; smaller groups of players (e.g. the pack or the backs) working separately on skills and tactics that they, as a sub-group, need to perfect – scrummaging, for example. The point is that much of the training involves working on the building blocks required to make an effective rugby team.

When we watch the Ireland football team we often bemoan the fact that we play ugly football, football that inevitably involves hoofing the ball up the pitch in the hope that someone will ‘get on the end of it’. In contrast, even smaller footballing nations like Georgia seem to be more technically adept and more capable of playing incisive football. Of course, the ultimate footballing machine is Barcelona whose tippy-tappy football was on another planet in comparison with Ireland’s ‘route one’ approach. It is interesting that in the top footballing nations, youngsters learn to play the game in a way that is quite different from the way we do things in Ireland. Our youngsters start playing 11-a-side competitive football (‘mimicking’ the real thing) from a very early age, while in Spain and Italy the emphasis is on developing basic skills by playing in smaller teams on smaller pitches where skills like ball control rather than physicality are emphasized.

I could go on. Think of any activity whether it is golf, playing the piano, dancing or art.  In all cases, the way the activity is mastered involves a lot more than performing in a ‘real-life’ situation. Learning and ‘performing’ are rarely done the same way.

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Where the President got it wrong

In his recent speech to the EUA, President Higgins said the following:

“The challenge we face is that we must confront an erroneous a prevalent perception that the necessary focus of higher education must be on that which is utilitarian and immediately applicable. Such a view sees the primary objective of the university, and those who study within it, as being in preparation for a specific role within the labour market, often at the cost of the development of life-enhancing skills such as creativity, analytical thinking, and clarity in written and spoken expression. These are the skills that will be essential to the citizens of the future to make informed choices about life/work balance, about what constitutes survival and consumption, and what is meant by human flourishing, solidarity or humanity itself.”

I agree that much of the language used around higher education these days is utilitarian and that is something that is worth arguing about – but not here.

No, I’m more interested in the next sentence in which the President claims that the modern university sees itself as preparing students for a “specific role within the market place” at the expense of the “development of life-enhancing skills such as creativity, analytical thinking and clarity in written and spoken expression”.

In fact, one of the key ideas abroad in higher education these days is that universities are not preparing students for specific roles but preparing students for “jobs that don’t exist”. Ideas like this are at the heart of the “21st century skills” movement, a movement in which the very idea of teaching knowledge is downplayed in favour of teaching nebulous and essentially unteachable (at least in a context-free way) ‘skills’ like problem solving and creativity. It is a movement where it is suggested that we should be ‘teaching’ attributes like adaptability, grit and emotional intelligence. This is the movement that thinks that Google has changed everything and rather than transmitting knowledge to our students, we should be teaching students how to “create their own knowledge”. It is a movement in which inquiry-led and collaborative approaches to learning are viewed as inherently good and where more traditional forms of learning (e.g. study and practice) are characterised as learning by rote. It is a movement in which engagement is equated with learning and it is a movement which risks educating students to the point where they are not even capable of filling specific roles never mind adapting to jobs that are not supposed to exist yet.

The problem with our education system is that students are not acquiring very basic skills and like the pilot who panics and pulls back on the stick in a futile attempt to prevent his plane from stalling, we are panicking and focusing on the nebulous when we should be focusing on the tangible.

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Experience of an Education conference

Over the last couple of days I’ve been attending the New Perspectives in Science Education conference  in Florence. I gave a talk (an honest one!) on my experience of teaching on an interdisciplinary programme.

This is my first ever education conference and it has been an interesting experience. A few things have struck me:

  1. Nobody really seems to be addressing the quite fundamental issue of how we actually measure student learning. Most of the time we use proxies like ‘engagement’.
  2. Inquiry-based approaches are very popular and it is interesting that there are very few, if any, dissenting voices. IBL and PBL are presumed to be inherently good. Nobody mentions concepts like cognitive load, for example. Nor do people address the fact that when IBL and PBL approaches are used, there is a loss (in the acquisition of knowledge) as well as a supposed gain in ‘skills’.
  3. Many education researchers don’t seem to define what precise problem they are trying to fix when they innovate. There seems to be an underlying presumption that traditional teaching, in which the teacher charts a course through a subject for the student, and actually explains stuff to the student, is not fit for purpose.
  4. It seems to me that the education field as a whole suffers from confirmation bias. Innovation is always seen as a Good Thing and small-scale studies invariably claim to support the innovation in question.
  5. Some researchers are still fixated on learning styles.
  6. Many STEM educators believe that if only we taught STEM subjects in a more engaging and relevant way, more students would learn to appreciate and even love these subjects. (I don’t agree. I believe that science is fundamentally abstract and only appeals to a minority.)
  7. An awful lot of conference presentations are pretty dull. This is ironic given that this conference was an education one.
  8. The teaching of maths seems to be a challenge everywhere and the only solution seems to be to link maths with the ‘real world’, thus denying the very essence of mathematics. (Maths is an abstract language; you shouldn’t need to do experiments, for example, to justify the laws of probability.)
  9. It is interesting that many studies focus on teaching methodologies but make very little mention of the teacher. I would have thought that the teacher is the x-factor in all of education.
  10. Thankfully, I didn’t hear the phrase 21st Century Skills even once. Mind you, one presenter came dangerously close to mentioning “jobs that don’t exist”.

All in all, an interesting experience but I got the sense that group-think is a bit of an issue in education research.

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