Wednesday, November 07, 2012

On Education: "Standard" knowledge vs "Messy" knowledge

So here's more on the link between knowledge and qualifications, and as usual the little quotes lead on to big questions. Here's a favourite of mine:

"Ofqual's report also criticised the content of some text books, saying they were so focussed on a particular exam that they failed to cover the subject in any broad fashion."
What does this mean? What does it highlight? The "conflict" in education really is neatly summarised here. On the one hand we have knowledge which is "so focussed on a particular exam". On the other hand, we have knowledge to "cover the subject" broadly.

Forget all the debate on teaching methods and exam equality. The real crux of the matter is whether knowledge is a social mechanic, or a technical one. That's to say: are you teaching and learning in order to compare individual performance, or are you teaching and learning in order to help students act within situations requiring knowledge of an issue?

As a technical person, you might think I'm all for the latter. But I'm not - both of these have merits and rationale, but must be kept in balance somehow for the system as a whole to be effective.

A social rationale will tend towards natural homogenisation and a race to the "norm". This is a little to do with "teaching to the test" and trying to "game" the system, but really it's a direct linkage to the ideal of having "standards" for knowledge. Once "standards" are in place (and especially under a competitive economic paradigm that encourages most-for-least), the corpus of knowledge will move towards a "social common denominator" approach as everyone rushes to be comparable to everyone else. Anything "non-standard" is dangerous as it makes you less comparable.

A technical rationale is a "messy" one in that it is supposed to provide knowledge which can be adapted to any situation (within the defined boundaries of that knowledge). "Messy" knowledge is inherently anti-standard because it involves creativity on the part of the wielder, unknowability on the part of the situation, and quite often random chance.

Some people like to believe that the technical rationale is the one that's taught, and that social rationale is the one that's assessed as a side-effect. But anyone that's been through the education system knows that in a socially-imposed learning context (large classes, heavy emphasis on results, etc.), any pressure moves "learning" towards not-taking-risks. That is, nobody ever missed University for following the textbook, in the same way that "nobody was ever fired for buying IBM".

(Once a social monoculture approach to education is in place, all blame can be shifted to the "system" - or those in charge of it - which naturally re-empowers the same people who were supposed to be empowering others.)

Currently there is no "answer" to this conundrum, because politically we shy away from assessing "creativity". Our 20th-century thought models look at "subjectivity" and whimpers away into a corner. Setting the "norm" and seeing how well people can follow it is the only form of assessment we have, encouraged ever more by larger class sizes, greater distance between one generation and the next, and rapidly-evolving socio-technical networks outside of the educational sphere (think IT curriculums).

Ironically, as we follow the increasing idea of treating students more and more as "individuals", we end up forcing them to look more and more like each other. Any "individualism" is a microscopic customisation of preference onto which media flashlights stare incredulously. ("Skirts an inch shorter!" "Kids slightly more obese!" "etc!") Does this further compound the problem, in terms of the system acting in the opposite direction that we think we're acting in?

Education is hitting a crisis point. Is it ready to re-think itself in order to get others to think?


Friday, November 02, 2012

Making the grade (up)

Pressurised teachers 'marked GCSE too generously'

I just can't be bothered to comment really. Seriously. What's really irritating is this quote:
Ofqual chief executive Glenys Stacey said: "We have been shocked by what we have found. Children have been let down - that won't do."

"Shocked"? Really?

"Won't someone please think of the children?"

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Spinning Sarah's Law and the Branding of Legislation

I love this Press Release from the Home Office on the use of Sarah's Law in its first year. It actually reads backwards. I've copied and pasted it here for study purposes, but I'll paste the headline and first 4 paragraphs in reverse order.
If [an] individual has convictions for sexual offences against children or poses a risk of causing harm then the police can choose to disclose this information to the parent, carer or guardian.
(Emphasis added. Note that this category of offences is actually two categories - sexual and other. Theresa May is happy to conflate the two though, as is the later headline, when she refers purely to "predatory sex offenders" in her comment later in the release.)
The scheme, known as 'Sarah's Law', was rolled out across all police forces in England and Wales from 4 April 2011.  It allows anyone to ask the police to check whether people who have contact with children pose a risk. 
Is it a scheme, a law, support, or what? The use of the word "Law" is hammered home in its branded nomenclature for sure, but here it seems to be described as a general system of information. The use of the word "Law" alongside someone's name is even more fascinating; the scheme is to open up information on the offenders, and yet the focal name is that of the victim.

The tying of legislation to a historical individual is curious to begin with - the formalisation of the idea that law is a memorial, the idea that "we shall not forget" through the use of branding. But is it Sarah's law? If a law is based on an individual, why should it be applied to all? On the other hand, if it has been put in place to assist many others like the named victim, is it not their Law as well? Or do all of the un-named victims in the same position, through such branding, become amorphous - to be identified as "Sarah" no matter what their gender or background, in the same way that the Anonymous hacker group adopt a persona of Guy Fawkes?

This individualisation of the masses, the turning of the "many" into "someone", is worth keeping an eye out for.
Over the last 12 months the police have received more than 1,600 enquiries and over 900 formal applications.  At least 160 disclosures relating to child sex offences have been made, together with at least 58 made concerning other offences.
Finding information on what these "other offences" are is tricky - the Press Release doesn't mention them or give you a link to them. This Guidance Document PDF gives slightly more though:

In order to put a scheme in place that raises public confidence and increases the
protection of children the Disclosure Scheme will therefore include routes for
managed access to information regarding individuals who are not convicted child
sexual offenders but who pose a risk of harm to children. This may include: 
• persons who are convicted of other offences for example, serious domestic
violence;  
• persons who are un-convicted but whom the police or any other agency holds
intelligence on indicating that they pose a risk of harm to children. 
There would not however be a presumption to disclose such information

That seems fair enough - but needs to be remembered when these "other" offences make up just over a quarter of the figures quoted with a fair bit of hand-waving.

The final (first) paragraph:
More than 200 children have been protected from potential harm during the first year of the Child Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme, it was announced today.
"Have been protected from potential harm"? How does that work? I'd rewrite this to say "may have been protected from potential harm". A double-possibility always does wonders for a sense of perspective.

Which gives us the final headline:
'Sarah's Law' protects more than 200 children in first year 
Makes more sense now, doesn't it?

(More than that picture of a snowy swing does, anyway.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

No such thing as a right answer

I'm amused by tales of 3 impossible questions in recent AS-level exams, but also by the quotes attributed to (the fairly generic) "students":

Students have complained that even if the questions are discounted, it is difficult to know how much the overall grade could have been affected by the time wasted trying to interpret a wrong question.

I remember being taught a fairly non-linear approach to exams - if questions are worth the same amount, do the easiest stuff first. It's not a question of whether the question is impossible or just difficult - it's a matter of point-scoring in an allotted time.

Which begs the question (another one) - should students deliberately get rewarded for creative approaches to exams? What if we encouraged more creativity through something more "engaging" than a simple list of questions with a bunch of possible answers?

In the real world, some tasks can be done, and some can't. Some can be done, but may take an inordinate amount of time. Some may require knowing other things first.

Working out how to approach a series of questions is often far more important than answering the questions themselves.

Maybe we actually need more impossible questions, not less.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Co-ordination, not Cuts

The reasons why one of the ID databases cost £5.2m - and was ultimately scrapped - shed a lot of light on why current methods to cut public purses are fairly doomed:

But poor planning, inter-departmental disagreements and data security risks prevented it from being developed.

Get it yet? It's nothing to do with how much staff you have. It's only faintly related to what your Chief Execs are being paid.

It's everything to do with how well we co-ordinate.

Taking credit, avoiding blame - these are no longer useful skills in a network world. (Were they ever?) Until this is addressed, and co-ordination becomes a passion, the idea of "efficiency" is a sham.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Paranoid Anti-Terrorism Advert Banned

Who comes up with these ideas? Oh right, people who have their own community somewhere else.
In the advert, a man says: "The man at the end of the street doesn't talk to his neighbours much, because he likes to keep himself to himself.

"He pays with cash because he doesn't have a bank card, and he keeps his curtains closed because his house is on a bus route."

It then says: "If you suspect it, report it."

The whole disruptive and insidious nature of Acpo is pretty revealing:
"sometimes what appeared to be an insignificant behaviour could potentially be linked to terrorist activities".

...or, in other words, any non-agreed behaviour is suspicious. Anything that we've decided might be suspicious today should be reported. You can't have a community if you're all dead.

Good on those who reported this advert. If this kind of claptrap paranoid propaganda doesn't count as "anti-social", I don't know what does.

ASBOs: The Next Generation

Been on holiday, so just catching up with Theresa May's speech on anti-social behaviour and where the coalition Tories are driving ASBOs next. It's worth a read - there's a lot of good rhetoric in there. Which, on the flipside, throws the proposed measures into a rather lacklustre light in comparison.

On the one hand, it's hard not to agree with the sentiment that localism is key to addressing the anti-social culture. Indeed, this blog would argue that centralism and unquestionable power inevitably leads to a notion of discontent and delinquency. "If I can't control it, no-one can." Perhaps this imbalance of control and expectation over young people extends to far more corners than we would care to own up to.

So moving power and responsibility (the two can't be separated in this case if we're to take the subject seriously) to citizens must be a part of the solution. But here we must be careful. One set of citizens having "power" over another set of citizens is the status quo - don't be confused by the shiny cars or black uniforms. Delinquency comes about through prejudiced exclusion in the first place. Cause and effect are the same thing.

So saying that young people "want to make something of their lives, and we have to help them do so" is a good start. The problem is defining what that something is for them. Money is not always a good motivator.

Saying that it's about "encouraging young people to take responsibility for their communities" is a good start. That "the National Citizen Service will help" achieve this makes me wary. Young people in particular are wary of any central banner - because with banners come stipulations. Young people should not be "sponsored" in order to feel like citizens.

Then there's the usual gumpf about alcohol, and it's depressing to see no change in attitude here. Yes, alcohol is a catalyst - an excuse - for much unruly behaviour. But it's also far too easy a target. Blaming alcohol is like blaming video games for violent behaviour. With greater punishment for those providing alcohol, expect even more paranoia against this "ASBO Fuel" and even less understanding of how to enjoy it, rather than abuse it.

Finally, May wants to citizens "hold the police to account by publishing detailed local crime data and mandating regular beat meetings". Besides being bemused at the idea of "beat meetings", I wonder about the general move towards splitting the accountability of the police to "citizens", but mandating yet more initiatives on how this accountability is to be carried out. If citizens are to really work better with the police, shouldn't the extent and methodology of this feedback be up to them?

There are some interesting opportunities here - for young people. I've seen young people generally put together a more cogent and coherent argument than their elders, and demonstrate some very real grips on the world around them. That they have few enough outlets for this astuteness is, IMHO, part of the problem, of course. But a move towards "localism", combined with some shrewdness, could provide a route for this cunning in a way not thought of.

Are young people in a better position, for instance, to take up gripes with the increasing "anti-socialness" of ubiquitous urban advertising, say? Or the rise of chain stores? Or the removal of green spaces? Or how about loud, drunken businessmen on trains? Or people who are old enough to drink but apparently not to know better than throwing up in a children's playground?

There are a lot more instances of "anti-social" behaviour than those under 25 can take credit for. May doesn't seem to realise that delinquency is not part of the detachment of young people - it is part of the detachment of all of us, just as we like to judge each other for doing the exact same thing. It is a general unease and disatisfaction, one which young people merely have the energy to express with so much more gusto.

I have faith in the next generation. They can show us how to behave better, how to care about the world around them, and for themselves. But even with the grand rhetoric of May's speech, they're going to have to fight to do it.