Sunday, 28 September 2014

Teaching is an art, not a science!

One of the phrases that annoys me no end is the TTC stating that 'teaching is an art, not a science'. It annoys me for principally three reasons. The first is that it forces a false dichotomy. 'Do you think teaching can be a science like physics? No? then it's an art'. Fortunately we're not actually required to choose one or the other, after all, as Willingham notes, medicine isn't a science in the way physics is, but science can help to inform it. Likewise, science can help to inform education. 

The second is the overwhelming asymmetry in the number of claimants. that is, hardly anyone, anywhere, is claiming the opposite. Search online and you'll find It's really quite hard to find supporters of the 'actually, teaching is a science' position. 

The troops are massing, but the enemy is nowhere to be found. In fact I was only able to find one supporter. Daniel Lindley Jr wrote a paper in 1970 titled 'teaching is a science not an art'. Interestingly there are quite a few papers and blogs on this subject where the author will say 'some people claim teaching is a science' but almost never any citation or link to where I might find the people allegedly saying this. Sure, there are people who say teaching is both an art and a science, but no one fighting for a 'science only' vision of teaching.

The second interesting thing about this statement is exactly when it's used. As there is seemingly no one promoting the idea that 'teaching is a science' the phrase tends to appear to support a whole raft of unconnected propositions. For example, you can use it when attacking the 'broken' education system:

When criticising teacher grading:

When railing against common core

When railing against tests in general. 

When promoting the value of student placement. 

When warning against the deindividualization of students

when promoting...erm...'vital infusing core values'(?)

and of course when arguing that students 'are not fish'

It doesn't really seem to matter how disparate the ideas may be, you can, it seems, use this phrase as an all-purpose battle-cry. The notion that someone, somewhere is trying to 'sciencify' education seems to terrify some even though it's not entirely clear who is trying to do that. 

Among my reading of researchers and educators I have yet to come across anyone claiming that education should be, or can be an entirely scientific endeavour.  John Hattie (2009:2) calls teaching an 'art'. Tom Bennett, the director of researchED calls it a 'craft', as does Daniel Willingham. And Ben Goldacre in his paper on education notes that "being a good doctor, or teacher, or manager, isn't about robotically following the numerical output of randomised trials." In the EFL world, Rod Ellis writes that while research is important it is 'not capable of providing teachers with recipes for successful practice' (2008:xxiv). 

When so many people are railing against an imaginary foe, we have to wonder why? Science attempts to be objective and exact, art is a bit more subjective. Hattie (2009) notes that teachers operate on an 'anything goes' model of best-practice and insulate themselves against criticism with the unspoken law that "I'll leave you alone, if you leave me alone to teach my way"(2009:1). In other words, classrooms can be personal fiefdoms where a teacher the power to teach any way they like. Could it be that the notion of someone, somewhere trying to systematize some aspect of teaching, and make teachers' more accountable, threatens the convenient status quo?

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Questionnaires are hard

Q1. Have you ever illegally downloaded movies from the Internet or engaged in other forms of copyright infringement?   Yes/ No 
One of my favourite parts of teaching postgraduate students is helping them when they start planning their research. They almost always plump for questionnaires and then ask their friends to fill them in. Like many students, they seem to think this is the easy option. But actually questionnaires are somewhat like temples in Indiana Jones films. One false move and suddenly you're running in a blind panic as a large bolder tumbles after you, and a pit full of snakes opens at your feet. Metaphorically speaking. 

Many of my students look glum when I tell them that questionnaires can often have very poor response rates even dropping as low as 10%. This isn't really surprising, just ask yourself how often you willingly click on an online questionnaires (sure thing website, I'm happy to sit here and fill out your survey! Really! I've nothing better to do) 

When numbers get low there is a danger of non-response bias which means the non-responders outnumber the responders and therefore your result may not be representative. Even when people do respond their answer are subject to response bias. The question above, for example, asks about 'illegal downloading' and so the the likelihood people who see themselves as generally law-abiding, but yet who download movies may not answer truthfully. This is known as social desirability bias, and it's not the only response bias

Biases aside, question writing is a minefield. The question at the top is no good for a few reasons. firstly, it asks two questions which can be confusing. Secondly, it uses language which some respondents might not understand which may lead to them abandoning the whole thing. They might also do this if the survey is too long and boring, or if the answer options don't allow them to give the answer they want. It's also not a good idea to have leading questions, irritating questions, questions that use negatives (or double negatives) or even too many open ended questions.

I read a lot about surveys recently since I've been trying to write one with Nicola Prentis over the course the last 3 months and it only has about 10 questions. It had several pilots (and we still found flaws when we released it). One question in particular had endless rewrites -can you guess which one? Hopefully all this has whet your appetite! Go and take our survey here! 

Go on! 

right now! 

Monday, 8 September 2014

Woo watch: the minimal pair

I've always wanted there to be a good TEFL podcast on itunes, then two appeared at once. TEFLology and The Minimal Pair. Initially I was excited by this but recent episodes of the minimal pair have left me rather disappointed.  

Their most recent show touched on 'grammar snobs', something I have a keen interest in. From two university educators, I expected,  an enjoyable and thorough debunking of silly prescriptivist rules. Alas the hosts seemed keener to stress that people ought to 'know the rules before they break them' and further stressed how important it was for people to 'follow the rules'. There was never any discussion of why 'the rules' are rules or whether they should be rules at all. One of the hosts seemed a little distraught that Steven Pinker had recently suggested we don't need to worry that much about 'dangling modifiers' and said 'there goes my lesson plan for next week'. -A lesson on dangling modifiers? (O_o)

Oddly 'the pair' defined prescriptive grammar as 'the real technical rules' and descriptive grammar as 'just making yourself understood'. This to me showed something of a lack of understanding of these terms, particularly when one host spent much of the segment relating descriptive grammar to 'textspeak' and saying of it 'if you're in some sort of emergency state and you need to make yourself understood, then whatever'. 

Descriptive grammar (or more properly descriptive linguistics) is just recording  the way people actually communicate. Prescriptive grammar is the way one particular group believes everyone should communicate. One sentence can be viewed differently by both groups. 

For example, with my family I, like many British people, say things like 'where's me coat gone'. Descriptive linguistics would suggest that 'me' is used as a possessive by some people in some situations instead of the more standard 'my'. Prescriptive grammarians would tell you that 'me' is just 'wrong' here and you should stop saying it. Obviously there is a place for both of these approaches, but prescriptivism tends to be the one people take to heart. Humans, for reasons I can't work out, adore being told what 'the rules' are and enjoy even more the delicious thrill of telling others that they're 'getting it wrong'. 

This prescriptivism love-in though, would not normally be enough to land them in the woo watch column. In a later section, when 'the pair' discuss the pros and cons of using PowerPoint to teach, one of them notes how good PowerPoints can be guessed it...visual learners! Apparently, "some students just learn better when they have an image presented to them." It was with great dismay that I heard the host refer listeners back to a special they'd done on visual learners so back I went, and listen I did 

Now I've heard podcast episodes on learning styles before, but this went one further. They presented a segment on both audio learners and visual learners and promised an future episode on kinesthetic learners. were these really the same people who were suggested the use of PowerPoint to teach was controversial? 

So there you have it; prescriptivism and learning styles all in one podcast. Oh 'minimal pair' why must you taunt me!  Later in the episode one of the hosts noted how important it was to teach critical thinking. I couldn't agree more.