Monthly Archives: December 2015

Conversation is not Dead – using threads for discourse

This may go against the grain of those versed in dialogues and rhetoric based on classical systems, but debating – as far as I can see it – is dependent on the ability of people to frame contributions synchronously. A huge affordance of Technologies for Learning is the asynchonous: being able to self-edit and convey exactly what we want to communicate carefully. This is helpful, since it saves time and tangents in discourse, where others deviate by leaping on mistakes made by some in articulating points succinctly.

Discussion threads, such as wall posts, around VLEs or MOOCS or on Twitter, tend to be asynchonous, people can return to them and they are continuous. This helps let people in who cannot think on their feet and who may be shy to contribute in oral discussions. Threads can have impact on inclusive practice via mobile dialogue sustained over time in continuous dialogues through social media. A theoretical formula for online discussion threads aimed towards learning goals follows that arises originally from Habermas Theory of Commuicative Actions (1981), which categorised communciation types in how we negotiate the social world.

Warren and Wakefield‘s Learning and Teaching as Communicative Actions builds on Habermas’ original premises:

  • Normative actions – best understood as ‘norms’ or regulated behaviours, conduct, or what a teacher outlines for correct procedure and expectation, i.e. ‘no swearing in the thread, keep contributions focused and/or responsive to others comments, challenge but justify providing further information where possible, etc.’. A contract of obligation and agreement is established; though fairly standard, if negotiated with students, this can have empowering and equalising functions.
  • Strategic actions – directions of what to do phrased as imperatives (i.e. ‘submit proposal by Friday’) from teacher to student group. According to Warren and Wakefield, they are framed with two resulting options: Accept/Reject. These actions reinforce the authority of the instructor in a sense, since if the imperative is accepted, then the student recognises it as ‘useful’ to their objects. In my analysis of social networks for learning, these are the primary responsibilities of a teacher, but more advanced students can support the context, activity and peers by issuing clarification, reminder notifications, or tips to others on how best to be organised or complete work.
  • Constative actions – this is where dialogue forms into discussion threads, with members posting ‘claims to truth’ which can lead to rejection and counter-claims, aimed at realising the negotiation and constructive critique of theoretical understanding between agents in challenging validity and providing evidence or further discourse. An instructor should have a discrete presence, acting as mediator as required and helping to summarise or seek clarification; this is probably served best where an instructor begins by posing truth claims, i.e. ‘Romeo and Juliet are responsible for all the subsequent violence in the play’.
  • Dramaturgical communicative actions – individualised expressions of what Habermas labelled Lifeworld: the internal realities of member agents. In Warren and Stein’s (2008) view, these may take shape as creative materials arising reflectively from the dialogue, framed around subjective experience but integrating and applying what has been discussed into multimodal literacies (posters, poems, art works). We may possibly see these as User Generated Content in other formats and prgrammes, or as assessable objects arising from Activity.

Much of this is based on classroom practice and the actions appear limited. I would add to this by recommending a Problem-based real world communicative actions approach, particularly in FE, vocational or HE, so scenarios become the context for discussion, i.e. for teacher training ‘the use of social media enables greater differentiation with summative assessment of programmes of study’ as a truth claim, but accompanied by a list of profiles of learners with tangible difficulties, such as students with dyslexia, second-language learners, students wishing to personalise assignments, those who have difficulty with attendance, etc.

Further, inclusivity to this could be enhanced through applying the Thinking Circles restorative practices, particularly in early stages with the promotion of all members to make a formal greeting, response , contribution or by acknowledging the presence of all members, in line with the first stage of Gilly Salmon‘s model of e-learning, so that discussions don’t become galleries of disrespect, like the House of Commons (based very much on the Oxbridge models of ‘He who scoffs loudest to the shrillest jeers’). This can enable curation of discussions by members themselves, rather than the teacher, and encourage the confidence of lurkers or ‘legitimate peripheral participants‘ who, in an oral classroom discursive context, may become frozen as spectators to others dominance.

Wakefield and Warren – Learning and Teaching as Communicative Actions: Social Media as Educational Tool, from Using Social Media Effectively in the Classroom, 2013, by Kay Kyeong-ju Seo (Routledge).






1 Comment

Filed under Communities of Practice, Learning technologies, Mobile Learning, Philosophy, Uncategorized

On the Great Tweeting EdTech showdown

Big duke off between two educators on Twitter this weekend. In the Tech Corner with the funky specs it was Jose Picardo. In the Trad corner with the Tweed shorts it was Martin Robinson.

All day Saturday, into Sunday and… still at it as of Monday evening. (No marking for them, because Jose has a robot doing his, while Martin’s students homework is to practice Latin conjugations in the mirror).

To sum up:

Martin: Technology should be ripped out of schools (later downgraded to ‘used less often’), with some claims that some teachers are pre-set to Powerpoint mode, which is odd because I would have thought most teachers are pre-set to ideas and knowledge on syllabus mode. We all agree with Martin that professionals shouldn’t seek out tech for techs sake, but as Jose countered, this says more about poor teaching than poor tech.

Martin: Tech. Faustian. Pact.

…no, lost me there. I’ve read Faust, but can’t recall any mention of iPads.

I agree with him: young Faustian natives may well be too immersed in screens. Personally, I hope that it’s in educational contexts that they learn that they can use those screens more meaningfully, less passively (or for watching people play Monopoly, as some of my students tell me. OK, Martin, you win). Yet knowledgeable practitioners like Jose ensure they will and this debate further illuminated some people’s lack of confidence with how to use.

I am also concerned, as I’m sure Martin is, about quality provision, the richness of conversation, the future role of the educator, the dilution of nuanced ideas into bullet-point tidbits (I could argue most study organised into constrained syllabus offers only glazed immersion into ideas, by whatever method it’s delivered, offering more to those with an intrinsically gleaned curiosity).

The problem I have is that none of the above has any clear relationship to learning technologies beyond speculation. Carolyn Marvin (1988) talked about how claims of ‘boosterism’ that surrounded the 19th and 20th Century innovations in telephony and electricity were countered by social concerns.

Martin offers research studies and media reports that claim the same: concerns about apparently authentic values being undermined by the technological determinist view that it wields an influence over social and psychological forces, regardless of context, or – more importantly – how such tools are being used. Yes, we are in a highly material age, but we have for some time been in a highly material age of reproduction, of convenience and corner-cutting; but if nothing else, the weekend Thriller in December Tweet-down showed that dialogue still thrives, while reflecting how technologies are socially shaped and socially shaping.

I suggested that the whole debate was pointless. There’s always research to contradict research. There are always challenges and opportunities and more challenges and more opportunities to make from them. People will choose to do what they do, using what tools and methods they wish. People have different paradigms. Meanwhile, progress progresses.

Technology has traversed a few Moore’s Laws since a similar Robinson v Picardo was played out by Clarke and Kozma over the formers famous ‘media as a neutral vehicle’ remark. Now, in Web 2.0 we have a more “participatory web”, more advanced tools with which to realise pedagogical practice, and we may be starting to find more ways to potentially isolate and analyse the variable affordances and empirically see what’s enabled.

Anecdotal bit

In FE, on this re-sit course I teach on, we have huge problems with engagement and – particularly –attendance. The social network I use with my students is routinely visited by them and is a free service that we seldom use in the classroom.

It may be obscure to isolate its use with improved success in results, but I didn’t set it up for that, I wanted to try to construct Communities of Practices. Nor do I view results as its primary affordance: communication is the affordance.

Some of the GCSE re-sit students I teach have, quite outside of my direct influence, used it to support themselves. They situate their selves to it “as a base” – where they would use textbooks in Maths, according to them. They also openly share answers and information and socially support one another’s affective issues; mobile and agile they ask for feedback, for clarity, for resources. We’ve blended its use into lessons to facilitate collaboration, to allow more opportunity to do creative work (otherwise difficult, given the time intensity of the course) and set up Open Publishing of work with student community feedback (this they claim has helped their confidence with writing). It’s improved wider ICT skills with adults obtuse to computers, it’s pulled people back onto the course through social cohesion of the community; it has supported a student’s successful completion after moving from the area and continuing the course. It supports multimodality: dyslexic students who have posted videos and images interpreting language techniques, who report that they can re-read materials to understand them, checking with me or others, and even one who reports that he subsequently routinely corrected his grammar on Facebook after using it and helped to teach his kids to read from doing the course and its constituent elements – one part of which is the online social network.

These aspects of social learning may not be measurable answers in an exam; the description may even be regarded as pop-psychology. They may not be evidence. They are not ground breaking or original. They are qualified by my research. This may not improve critical thinking or knowledge of Triumvirate (what?). Well, all contexts are different… but please can we stop viewing the square root of education as grades and qualifications. When you teach adults who have been let down by schools (or themselves, or whatever cirumstance chances upon the marginalised) in the past, you can see incredible, human values of education. Further Education. That face-to-face classroom interaction is highly necessary. The rest is a bolt-on, possibly necessary, bonus.

The causal link between these things with the network is disingenuous. I cannot claim soundly that ‘it’ caused any or all of these things, but ‘it’ – just like the classroom it mimics, transcends and replicates on screens all around town – plays its part. Teachers and institutes say so, research says so, and students’ have said so. Would we dispute them, most of all?


Leave a comment

Filed under education, FE, Uncategorized

VAK aint my bag

A lot of tweeting concerning learning styles going on. I mean, a lot. Clearly learning styles are cobblers. I haven’t given them any thought since my PGCE year and even then they seemed sort of bolted on to pedagogy, as I recall.

Besides anything else about evidence, effect sizes, control groups and all the rest, two things have always struck me about the narrow VAK(uous) notion:

1.Students are likely to buy into it – and mostly categorise (or have been diagnosed (ho ho ho)) themselves as ‘visual’, which is interpreted by them as pretty pictures and colours – usually moving in mesmerising animation (like a fruit machine). A book is visual, of course, but hardly ever will a self-professed ‘visual learner’ claim they need to read in order to learn.

Thus, when a student states they are “a visual learner” to me, I blink, nod slowly, then stare into the distance, zoning out auditorily, while waiting for the ensuing chats about VAK-styles to subside.

2.Even if there were some truth to this stuff about learning styles, it’s fairly obvious that in learning people should be stretched out of comfort zones in order to challenge their pre-existing patterns of behaviour and activity. If students like watching videos all the time because it helps them to understand things, then the last thing they need in an environment supposed to be stimulating is to watch videos.

Learners obviously need diversity in learning activity. The same goes for learning technologies, of course. All very well, but sometimes switch it off. Doing continually unexpected – rather than repetitive – activities is surely the stimulas approach to take. Why  always resort to a particular method or style?  Of course, learning tech is rich in diversity, but in itself it can be put aside from time to time.

Funnily enough (and by the by) as I teach the re-sit English course with very, very disengaged students, one thing I’ve recently noticed is the willingness of their majority to do so-called old-fashioned, Social Cognitivist ideas. They adopt need-to-know attitudes, rather than the ‘why bother‘ masks they wear when trying to discuss the nuances of meaning in poetry. What I’ve regarded as ‘filler-activities’ suddenly become focused on. I expected groans of apathy when I mentioned we were doing grammar.

Actually, such reproduction exercises including: spelling tests (students seem to really enjoy these), diction (seriously), or reading around the room and straight-up, front-of-room, fill-in-the-blanks Grammar from the board, showing proper control of relative pronouns, correct uses of commas, subordinate clauses and all that nutritonal stuff..all have proved engaging without any styles claims being used to swerve work.

I think that’s the issue with ‘learner style’; it’s a license for denial and has – in the past – been pulled out of the bag when I’ve suggested we do, say, collaborative editing or textual analysis. I suppose its because style is just too personal; anytime you don’t fancy doing something you can resist with a ‘Not my style’.

For me, some ‘not my styles’ include golf (visually or kinesthetically), shopping centres (mainly kinesthetically…nope, in all respects come to think of it), Radios 1 and 2 (auditory), Selfies (visually – mainly because my mug never gets invited in on any), chain pubs (in any respect), all-you-can-eat buffets (ditto), and lukewarm or sugary tea…which isn’t of any the categories, so that seals it: VAK is wack.



1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Words, don’t come easy to me

Scissors; gauge; carburettor; dermatology; physiology; wrench; sous chef; concrete; maintenance; nutrition...”

Recently, a vocational teacher sent our English department an email, inviting us to improve student vocabulary by way of a spelling test of assorted Plumbing terms.

After wondering how the Sports, Catering, Health and Social care, Media make-up or Public Services students would manage with Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, I politely thanked him and blocked further correspondence.


Acrlontirile Butadadin Sttyr…Streyl..some LEGO.

Re-sits, the subject surely no one wants to deliver. I’ve been doing it a few years now (before the Wolf Review recommended the re-sit as policy) and see trends among students who just ‘turn-up’. They arrive to a classroom from a workshop, a sports field, a salon studio. I’ve made the mistake in the past of thinking those students generally aint with it, but give them a acrontlierile butedine styragfome pipe and they know their stuff. They just loathe Steinbeck. (And so might I, if I’d done it once, didn’t see the point and then had to do it again…and again). How far would I get in a lesson on hydrogen peroxide hair dyeing?

Hattie has written that retaining students (i.e. holding them back a year, which is similar to the re-sit culture), has devestating effects on students staying in school long-term: “It would be difficult to find another educational practice on which the evidence is so unequivocally negative” (99: 2013). We’ve made it policy – and the stats show that success rates are low (41% nationally). My question is why the college re-sit has to replicate the school GCSE? Why can’t it take a different form?

Differentiation is always a challenge in teaching; in FE you can add ‘vocational differentiation’ to ability, background, age, gender, etc. How to make it relevant to disinterested students (who may have struggled in schools) in the first place, let alone how to differentiate to learners whose focus on training is (rightly) sharpened to their vocational specialism is explicitly a problem of FE. Sometimes there are opportunities for ‘vocational differentiation’; sometimes you have to just crack on with the curriculum and hope the materials are meaningful and the students remain open-minded.

A pretty damning verdict came in from OFSTED on the ability of FE colleges to provide English and Maths this week. It says: (52: 2015)

 “In the weaker providers, attendance and punctuality in English and mathematics classes was a common problem. It is unsurprising that learners choose not to participate given the issues often raised about the quality of teaching in these providers. A typical report on an inadequate college described it in the following way: ‘teaching and learning in English and mathematics are poor, both in discrete lessons and when taught alongside learners’ main studies.’ “

This is a sad, and very general, indicment of our profession; having worked in 3 colleges in English departments (on the south coast, in London and in the Northwest), I see only fully committed, highly prepared professionals.

I often see student absences or persistent punctuality problems, literacy issues that staff aren’t always equipped to deal with, poor access to resources, a negligible attitude by other departments towards the re-sit course, and limited coherence at the point of Enrolment communicated to students about the value and importance of English and Maths. What I’m trying to say is that it’s not teaching staffs fault that English is the poor relative, it’s someone elses.

I’m being facetious (partly).

The OFTSED report hones it’s Sauraman eye-of-scorn on leadership in FE, but the Wolf Review only came out in 2012. This didn’t leave much time to prepare for an influx of students (one report puts the number in England of ‘failed to get a C at secondary level’ at 126,700 students in 2014), nor prepare departments and staff, before readying a damning verdict. I’m not saying the report’s verdict isn’t warranted, but it could take this fully into account before criticising provision.

I think it’s a violation to neglect somebody’s access to reading and writing; I know the values of literacy and literature (I’m an English teacher), I know there is social capital to be had from culture, but what really concerns me is the tension between vocational and re-sit. Within all my groups each and  every year, there is a very small minority who are intrinsically keen to get the qualification (or be switched on to it). The rest, at best, turn-up – often late. In brow-beating them about attendance, it can affect their attendance and attainment across college. A college shouldn’t be a place they reluctantly come to, especially if it’s one course they are coerced into doing (so the DoE can compete on the PISA tables).

I’m not naive to the complexities of this re-sit phenomenon – my PhD is based on it. At college, word is that we have students who (rarely) come to college just because their parents get tax credits for them to  be enrolled (and off the dole). So, it’s even more important, then, that colleges need to become more engaging, not less. I know this falls on teachers and I need to make my lessons compelling. Well, how about liberating English from the standard curriculum then and letting us innovate? Simply, the GCSE is not fit for purpose as a re-sit qualification in FE and, I believe, does more harm than good in terms of cross-college attainment. Bold. Alternatives?

  • Projects that improve digital literacy alongside traditional literacy;
  • Projects that self-determine what the student wants to research and communicate understanding of – the translation of which as objectives can then be negotiated between student and teacher;
  • Multimodal assessment methods rather than terminal exam assessment;
  • Duration of course based on initial assessments and students meeting leveled targets;
  • Activities linked to wider social contexts, it less formal, linked to the immediate social world outside, rather than archaic textual analysis (empirical evidence: my 16-19 year-old students seem to really struggle to make meaning of the world, currently, and are more vociferous in discussing and inquiring about it than in lists of language techniques).
  • Enrichment opportunites into the wider world to expand horizons: literacy activities.
  • Personalised links to subject vocational specialism and professional communities, incorporating work placements or shadowing, involving Process over Product, especially Procedural Knowledge.
  • Larger scale problem-based learning tasks

Embedding and accrediting literacy skills is as easy as ABZ. It doesn’t take Shakespeare or poetry analysis to improve literacy – and that is the end result.

OFSTED slams provision? There are pragmatic, alternative options to re-sits. Anything other than the one-size-fits-all George and Lennie ‘General Certificate’ approach. There’s so much room for literacy improvement to maneouvre with personalised learning and the Government can take an initiative on this.

I know these dashed blog thoughts are flawed; it’s a constant pity to me that English texts and language, which I’m so passionate about are not of interest to students, but English Level 2 can be contextualised in different forms and FE should reflect that. And if OFSTED think the stats are bad now, wait for Gove’s new syllabus to bite next year. Personally, I think getting kids of 16-19 to stay in college should be the main thing. The re-sit risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Leave a comment

Filed under FE, vocational education