‘Dyslexia’ and the 21st century

I’ve been reading a lot about the brain recently (Susan Greenfield’s controversial book ‘Mind Change’) and it has got me thinking…

Most years there will be at least one student in each of my classes who has been diagnosed with dyslexia. When I get their exam script, it is accompanied by a document advising me on how I should mark the script while taking account of the student’s ‘condition’. In a nutshell, we are advised to mark ‘holistically’, to read the student’s work quickly to get a sense of the overall meaning and intention of the student rather than agonising over every single sentence.

Although I ask predominantly mathematical questions, I do also like to ask questions that require the student to write a page or less of text to explain a particular phenomenon. Students find these questions hard. But for many, their answers tend to be superficially incoherent and riddled with grammatical errors and meaningless sentences. At least, that’s the case if you read in a formal line-by-line way.

Part of the reason for the poor answers is that students have not prepared properly. Research by Daniel Willingham and others has shown clearly that the best way to study is to regularly self-test. In other words, students should test their understanding of a topic by challenging themselves to write answers to hypothetical questions on their chosen topic. If they adopt this practice-intensive approach to study they will not only understand the material better but they will get better at constructing coherent arguments.

However, even though we can be pretty sure that students are not studying optimally, the level of incoherence that I see is really difficult to explain. It is important to note that I see this in continuous assessment as well as exams. So it’s not a simple consequence of the pressures of the exam. To me, many students seem to suffer from a form of word blindness – they do not see what I see.

And so I’ve started to mark all my scripts as if the student has been diagnosed with dyslexia. Seriously. I read quickly and ‘holistically’ and get a sense of what the student is saying (or trying to say) rather than getting bogged down in analysing the meaning of every sentence. More often than not I sense that the student actually seems to understand the phenomenon being examined but does not have the ability to communicate in the conventional sense. I feel confident that if I brought him/her up to the whiteboard they would explain the phenomenon quite clearly with a bit of prompting. I don’t really like that I’m doing this but I suspect there are very strong cultural forces at work here.

It is interesting that dyslexia is closely linked with poor attention span and even attention-deficit disorders. I wonder (and I know I’m being highly speculative here and influenced by Greenfield’s book) if in an age where paying attention and concentrating for extended periods is becoming unusual, do many young people who have grown up in the digital age – the so-called Google generation - suffer from a form of ‘word blindness’ as a result, a kind of acquired dyslexia? Do they think and perceive in a way that makes them see, quite clearly, the intended meaning of a statement while those of us of an older generation are bogged down in the ‘correctness’ of it?

Posted in 21st century, education | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Neglecting the grass roots in STEM education

One of the perennial questions that comes up when people discuss the funding of sport is whether ploughing money into elite sport enhances the sport at a grassroots level. When a country or a province or a club performs well, it gives us a feel-good factor and the money seems to be well spent. Trickle down arguments are used a lot. In Britain, the enormous amount of money poured into track cycling has reaped huge benefits in terms of Olympic gold medals, but it is worth asking if this has paid off in terms of downstream benefits to society. Are more people cycling now and staying healthier? Has the feel-good factor had a tangible and lasting effect on society and the economy?

Over the last few years, elite Irish science has done very well indeed, rising through the international rankings and becoming genuinely ‘world class’ in a small number of disciplines. We are all very proud of these achievements. But while this has been happening we haven’t being paying attention to the grass roots of science.

In science, the grass roots are our undergraduate programmes. Our multinational high-tech industries and our largely state-funded research programmes are hugely dependent on our ability to ‘produce’ excellent BSc graduates who have the knowledge and the basic skills to make the transition to the workplace, PhD research and beyond. But our science programmes, and our STEM programmes generally, have a problem and it is this: we have no real strategy for maintaining and updating teaching laboratory equipment and most STEM departments in both the universities and the institutes have to largely ‘make do’. Anyone working at the coal face of teaching undergraduate laboratories faces an annual battle to simple keep experiments running, never mind making them current and relevant.

Poorly equipped laboratories can actually do real damage and not just by omission. Ageing or even antiquated equipment sends out all sorts of damaging signals to students, including the fact that undergraduate teaching is not taken seriously. One should never neglect the power of word-of-mouth and the reputation of an institution will be rapidly eroded if students get a sense that they are working at a distance from the ‘state of the art’.

This is a sector-wide problem and we need to come up with creative ways of solving it.

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Sorry students, you need to work harder

This is data extracted from studentsurvey.ie

student study habits

Students just aren’t working hard enough and they don’t seem to know how to study other than learn by rote.

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The algebra crisis

Ploughing through exam scripts today, I am going through the usual mix of the excellent, the average and the truly awful. Here’s a question: How does somebody go through six years of secondary school and one year of college and still commit the most basic of mathematical heresies? I’m talking about an inability to do the basic algebraic manipulations that are an absolute  pre-requisite for making any progress in more advanced mathematics, including calculus.  And it’s not just ‘weak’ students who make these mistakes, it’s students with high grades in Leaving Cert Maths and lashings of CAO points.

There is something going badly wrong at second level. While educational theorists and sideline commentators talk at length about ‘problem solving skills’ and ‘creativity’, our students are not acquiring the basic tools (and not just in maths) that they will need to develop into graduates who can confidently address real-world problems.

The thing is, lecturers have been talking about this for years and it is now commonplace for the universities and the institutes to  establish ‘clinics’ and ‘learning centres’ in an attempt to get our students up to speed. Why is it that as a nation we are happy to have our third level institutions teaching remedial mathematics? How on earth is that ok?

I think this represents a critical failure of our teaching and learning culture at second level. Learning basic maths is really an exercise in pattern recognition. When you see certain expressions, you know, based on your memory (forged by practice), what the next step should be. It’s a bit like the best chess players who can recognise patterns on a board and then draw on their extensive long-term memory bank of patterns to decide their next move.

But many students’ memories seem to be largely empty of automatically accessible mathematical knowledge and they seem to make fundamental errors based on reasoning that is superficially plausible but ultimately wrong. The common error

A/(B+C) = A/B+A/C

is a case in point. It  looks sort of reasonable but a student who had really immersed himself in basic mathematics (and learned the rules) would instantly know the correct ‘next move’ to make rather than deducing a move that is just plain wrong.

I fully appreciate that youngsters are growing up in a world of distractions, in a world where we all have difficulty focusing. But there are certain building-blocks that all disciplines have and they must be acquired even if it might be tedious to do so. Modern advances in digital technology have made information retrieval extraordinarily easy, but making sense of that information and using it to address real world problems, needs a scaffold of basic knowledge and skills. And too many of our students just do not have that scaffold.

I worry that those driving pedagogical change, including the design of new curricula for second level, do not agree with this point of view.








Posted in education, Leaving Cert, quality | 5 Comments

Learning Outcomes – not my cup of tea

Learning outcomes are “statements that describe significant and essential learning that learners have achieved, and can reliably demonstrate at the end of a course or program. In other words, learning outcomes identify what the learner will know and be able to do by the end of a course or program.

Now, that all sounds very innocent and plausible. Who could argue with any of it? Surely it’s no more than simple good practice.

I was at a meeting recently in which the words ‘learning outcomes’ were used a lot, accompanied by words like ‘track’ and ‘align’. (Everything must be ‘aligned’ these days.) Although I remained quiet, I was actually quite agitated inside. Although I fully recognise that third level education has had to change – for all sorts of perfectly valid reasons – I had a deepening sense that it had lost some of its ‘soul’, for lack of a better word. (Imagine having to write ‘learning outcomes’ for a module on Shakespeare’s tragedies.)

We no longer seemed to be talking about education in anything like the traditional third-level sense. No, the conversation sounded more and more like we were talking about some sort of advanced training course designed to ‘produce’ a generic graduate with defined ‘attributes’. This strikes me as somewhat ironic given this age of personalization, whether it be in education or medicine or entertainment. Indeed, learning outcomes are, in my view, part of a trend in modern third level education to control the student, something that is completely at odds with the stated aim of our sector to produce ‘independent learners’. (Words like ‘track’ and ‘intervene’ are now part of the normal discourse of third level education.)

Critics of the learning outcomes philosophy tend to be of a left-wing persuasion and see learning outcomes as part of a managerialist agenda, designed to monitor and control academic staff. I don’t think things are quite like that. I think learning outcomes are a consequence of the good intentions of often very dedicated people who perhaps need to have more faith in their colleagues. It seems to me that at the heart of the learning outcomes philosophy is a certain distrust of the individual academic, a lack of faith in his/her ability to design appropriate, well-structured modules and teach and assess those modules effectively. Or perhaps it’s a case of the system being driven by the unprofessionalism of a small number of academics who do not take their teaching seriously. (And that would be a managerial problem, not a system problem.)

Any good lecturer will have a clear idea in their head as to where they want their students to be at the end of a module and they will articulate that to the students. However, they will recognise that every class contains a wide range of students with diverse personalities, motivations and aptitudes. There will be no single destination for these students. Some will be happy just to survive; some will be unashamedly ambitious and work towards that First. The ‘learning outcome’ for everyone will be different. Completing the module will be a guarantee of very little really. For some, it will mean that have learned almost nothing, for others it will mean that they have acquired a broad and deep knowledge of the subject. That’s the way real education works. To quote our former Taoiseach, there’s a touch of the ‘smokes and daggers’ about learning outcomes.

Posted in education, Third Level | 6 Comments

The Pre-Exam Tutorial

I held a pre-exam tutorial for my second year class yesterday – at their request. So I arrive into class, the students get out their pens and paper and just sit there – waiting. Silence. “Ok”, I say, “What are the key issues you want me to address?” More silence.

Now, the module I was covering is very problem-oriented so I was at least expecting some questions relating to specific problems (from problem sets or past papers or whatever) that were causing difficulties. But nothing.

The obvious explanation for this is that the students turned up simply looking for exam hints, not to learn as such. But I think it’s more than that. I think students, even at third level, simply do not know how to study. They are so ‘brain-washed’ by their experience of second level that when they encounter a subject that requires a bit of thinking rather than learning off facts, they flounder around helpless.

It’s not that we need to teach students how to think (that’s a meaningless idea in my view), we need to change their mind-set. For example, I am often asked by students (even high-achieving ones) if they need to “learn off the formulas”. I try to explain to them that if they really commit to their studies, immersing themselves in the material, key equations  – ones that contribute to their understanding of the subject and provide them with the tools to actually solve new and previously unseen problems – will become embedded in their long-term memory. In a sense, their ability to recall these equations is a marker for their commitment to the subject. A good example of this would be a young physics student studying mechanics. It’s not that the student will ‘learn off’ Newton’s Laws, he or she will just know them from being immersed in the subject.

My tutorial eventually got going as tentative hands were raised but the recurring idea I tried to impress on the students is the need to go beyond the Leaving Cert mind-set, to become more tenacious and to study to understand rather than to ‘learn off’ exam questions.

For me, changing the student mind-set is the single biggest problem that we face in third level education.  I actually believe we need to incorporate some sort of motivation/personal development/career counselling modules into our degree programmes. We have all become used to the importance of psychology in sport and we know that individual sportspeople, and teams, can be transformed through psychology and leadership. We need to think seriously about how these techniques can be used to improve how our students learn.

Posted in education, Leaving Cert, Third Level | 1 Comment

2015 and a return to knowledge

In the last few years, an increasing number of educationalists have started to question many of the trends, and fads, that have dominated education in the last decade or two. Daniel Willingham, Ed Hirsch Jr., Daisy Christodoulou, Robert Peal and many others others have questioned popular ideas such as ‘learning styles’, ‘multiple intelligences’, ‘content-independent critical thinking’, ‘inquiry-based learning’, ‘21st century skills’; not to mention a general tendency to favour method and process over knowledge, and an obsession with an apparent ‘need’ to make education ‘relevant’ to the lives of young people. The last of these is a particular bone of contention for history teachers in the UK and is typified in Ireland by ‘Project Maths’ where it seems inconceivable to those who designed the curriculum that many youngsters might actually find maths interesting for its own sake, regardless of its relevance to daily life.

But who needs knowledge in the Google age? Surely all that is important is to be able to access knowledge and to have the skills (whatever they may be) to critically interpret that knowledge? Or so the thinking goes even though it would seem very obvious  that if one is to interpret knowledge extracted from Google, or elsewhere, one must have one’s own ‘database’ of knowledge. (Try Googling some random topic about which you know nothing and see how far you get.)

Many of these ‘new’ pedagogical ideas are plausible, seductive even. But the evidence for their efficacy, or even their very existence (in the case of learning styles), remain very poor. Even the ideas of one of one of the superstars of ‘new education’, Sir Ken Robinson, are being scrutinised and revealed to be all style and no substance.

My hope is that in 2015 we will begin to return to a more realistic view of education. Learning is not always fun and does not come naturally to us. Students are not toddlers, programmed by evolution to be incessantly curious about their environment. Learning requires study, practice, commitment and a recognition that even with the most ‘engaging’  teaching in the world, learning can be challenging. (The key to education is to get the level of the challenge right.) Furthermore, the foundations of creative thinking and all those higher order (‘21st century’) skills that people talk about are underpinned by discipline-specific knowledge and technique.

To some extent education has undergone something of an overshoot. In response to the often dreary approach to teaching that existed in the past, education has been gripped by a ‘learning is fun’ obsession, especially when it comes to maths and science. We need to find a new equilibrium, one that strikes a balance between the old and the new, one that puts knowledge (and skill) at the centre.

Posted in 21st century | Tagged , | 1 Comment