Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Some teaching reflections

I suppose I like to be awkward and perhaps yesterday I was more confrontational than is useful but some people need to know some truths and to start thinking and not being comfortable. The powers that be in the place where I work have decided that we need to redesign all of our courses and module moving to 20 credits from 15 credits. This is also an opportunity to improve our teaching.

Where I start from

I am a progressive. I hate lectures as they are poor learning/teaching events. I want students to be good thinkers and creative. I hate restrictive marking criteria and inflexibility as it does not allow you to properly assess students and for a statistician I think that quantitative methods in education are over-rated and over used as these are artificial and actually destructive metrics. The actual measures of success if the futures that your students have. So for me the League tables with the national student survey is a pointless distraction. The doctor gives me cough mixture, if they ask me if I like taking it I will say no, but it doesn't mean I don't get better and like its effects. The same with students. You ask them about courses when they are taking the medicine not when they have a job and they have recovered.

I talked about an experience of teaching a flipped classroom to 100 students and said how well they had done. So I was asked if the students liked it. 10% hated it and so there were all the grumbles about the student questionnaire. When I said I do not care about the 10% hating it there were even more grumbles. But let me reflect on that does the student questionnaire doesn't say do you hate bioinformatics? It says do you hate the university teaching and they hate the boring lecture far more. I meet my KPIs and student performance is good. They if they reflect on it find that they enjoyed it more and got more out of it. The ones who didn't are the non-reflective students who want to be taught but not to learn. We are not educating if we dumb down to that level, and we are not making the most of our students. But this illustrates the current fear of student feedback, which will become worse as students become "customers".

Teaching Anatomy and Physiology

Talking to the students these are courses that they hate. They are facts, facts and more facts and memorisation. I am a chemist by training and at my university they wanted us to learn the periodic table. The question is why? What good does it do students? Knowing what it means, as in which are metals, which are most reactive which is functional knowledge matters but the actual names of elements in their right places is irrelevant when I can look it up. 

Almost all groups agreed to condense the course and make it less broad but deeper and more about getting students to understand the complex concepts. Except the traditionalists who are worried about professional accreditation and want the students to know all those facts. So I asked why and they say about people putting the liver on the wrong side of the body. Ok so why is that going to cause a problem? If you are a doctor and diagnosing it might but they aren't going to be doctors they are going to be bio-medics and work in diagnostic labs where the need to know where the liver is will not be a daily question, and if they do want to know they can look at an anatomy chart. 

Isn't anatomy implicit in the physiology? Everyone else teaches it this way rather than wasting 20 credits on the tedium of anatomy. No there are important details they say. So what is the difference between endothelial and epithelial cells. As a non-biologist I replied that one is inside and the other is outside which is their literal meaning. But no this is not good enough they need to know more for anatomy. Why? I cannot quite work out why you need to know anything about their anatomy when the main differences are to do with proteins used in their connective structure and that endothelial cells do not promote thrombosis. So that is the lesson the physiology of blood flow their anatomy is IRRELEVANT. When you do need it you can look up a picture of their structure and an article on their composition. The functional learning is about clotting.

The final argument for doing it the old way was that recruiting was solid. That is a fools argument. It might be now but if you can't make yourself distinctive and show why you are better than the same tedious rote learning in other institutions higher in the league tables, you are soon going to be out of a job. As the Red Queen tells us you keep running to stay still. 

Facts, facts, facts

I am strongly against fact based courses. My colleagues argue that you need to know some facts to be able to construct more complex models and this is true but often not the ones we identify as important and not at the level we think they need to know. 

One of my colleagues gave an example of adding 2+2 as a fact. They did this because I am the maths person here and it is not a great example but it actually illustrates my point quite well. In maths addition is a functional knowledge. I do not store as facts all of the possible numbers I could add together in my mind. I memorise the odd ones but then I know the functional knowledge of addition. The same is true of multiplication. People who do mental maths each have their own special ways of cutting up calculations mentally. Trying to teach these to others with these mental maths skills is a bit of a pointless exercise as everyone has a different way of doing it. But most of the time pattern recognition helps and functional rules like odd numbers and even numbers and multiples of 3 divide by 3 - a very smart person can see why this is true in a decimal system.

So maybe we need to know that the liver does a lot of catabolic functions and what catabolism is, or that the kidney does filtering and homeostasis functions but do we need to know the air-speed velocity of the unladen swallow?

Monday, 25 August 2014

Casual Misogyny in the Evening Standard

I was reading David Sexton's film review for Lucy. It starts by calling Luc Besson the action-frog. Hardly an inspiring start to a review. But it was his description of Scarlett Johansson's lead character Lucy that was even more shocking.

"... she plays a dopey, gullible American student in Taipei, tricked by her boyfriend of just a week into becoming a drugs mule 'for ruthless Korean gangsters'. ... But when one of the thugs gives her a kicking, the bag bursts inside her and instantly makes her amazingly intelligent, fast and deadly..."
"Lucy, who up to this point has not been the sharpest knife in the drawer, wakes up superbright, impervious to pain and a lot more focussed, ..."

Nothing too objectional yet, except there is a tangential association with being dumb and being a female student, but surely if you are a student you have passed exams and might not be quite so stupid, naive perhaps. There is also the implication that she is easy with her boyfriend of one week. Every partner is of one week sometime, then it becomes two weeks etc. Then comes the last three sentences of the review.

"She becomes a sort of supreme internet, a popular conceit for obvious reasons, but not my idea of a dreamy outcome for the belle of the ball. Personally, I preferred Scarlett as she was on 20 per cent brain power. Or even a slutty 10."

Stop there, so he is saying a normal woman using 10% of her brain is slutty? Is he implying she is slutty because of the 1 week boyfriend? Or because she is blonde and female? Whatever way this is casual, everyday sexism. You might think that she was more fun to be with when she had the normal brain power than the souped up genius, but why does this mean she is a slut? If you can throw the word slut around so casually what does it mean about you opinion of women? It is this sort of misogynistic comment that feminist campaigners still have to fight. It is embedded in a lot of society and male culture, although there are some modest improvements. But for me this was unacceptable and I prefer to read Larushka Ivan-Zadeh in the Standard's sister paper the Metro, even with Daniel Craig's urgent penis .

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Quackery of Investment


This is what everyone is actually doing. You are just seeing if your system/model is better than the oppositions. It is like a poker game where the key is finding the other person's system. Once you get ahead (Goldman-Sachs) then you always win because you can always raise the stakes until the game is too rich for the opposition (Lehman Brothers).

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Player Piano

I have just finished reading Player Piano. It has some very memorable speeches and some very brilliant observations about people, but it is part of a cycle. We face the same dilemmas now. Do we want an automatic world? Would we be happy living a life of leisure while the machines do everything?

This machine Utopia has been coming ever since we invented machines, and it has been strong since the beginnings of the industrial revolution. The push-back is just as old. Vonnegut is telling the story of the Luddites campaigning against the automated looms and spinning frames. This was fictionalised by Samuel Butler in his novel Erewhon. Now the push is towards letting computers run our lives. This has been the inspiration for a lot of science-fiction authors. My favourite is Frank Herbert who wrote about this conflict in his Dune series. There the humans rebel in the Butlerian Jihad (a nod to Butler) and the machines of Ix are replaced by human computers enhanced by drugs - the mentats. But you do not need to look to science-fiction to see the rise of the machines.

Today I stood at the station listening to the automated message telling me that the next Circle Line train would leave in two minutes as I watched it leave as I go too late to the platform. Then the electronic screen told me I had 9 minutes to wait for the next train, before 3 minutes later the next automated message told me that the next train had just left Royal Oak and would be there in 2 minutes. As the echo of the message died away the next train arrived. Two minutes is shorted than I remember. At least I got to work a little earlier than I had anticipated. There I found a parcel from an online book-seller (not that one) that had been despatched by machine from a warehouse labelled and managed electronically. I was surprised by the contents as I couldn't remember ordering a teen fiction novel about a dancer. So I checked my order and it was supposed to be a textbook on epidemiology. So this is what we get with our technological, quality assured lives. The machines aren't going to take over the world anytime soon.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Meaning of Inequality

I have not found a more moving and motivating expression of inequality than this from Goran Therborn's "The Killing Fields of Inequality" p1.

Inequality is a violation of human dignity; it is a denial of the possibility for everybody's human capabilities to develop. It takes many forms, and it has many effects: premature death, ill-health, humiliation, subjection, discrimination, exclusion from knowledge or from main-stream social life, poverty, powerlessness, stress, insecurity, anxiety, lack of self-confidence and of pride in oneself, and exclusion from opportunities and life chances. Inequality, then, is not just about the size of wallets. It is a socio-cultural order, which (for most of us) reduces our capabilities to function as human beings, our health, our self-respect, our sense of self, as well as our resources to act and participate in this world.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

What is Education For?

It struck me that in "Western" society we have lost all direction. We no longer think about a good life, we just think of a life full of things. We have become obsessed with stuff and we have forgotten about happiness, except to think that more stuff will make us happier. Only when we know what we want can we use education to help give everyone what they want.

So if we don't know what we want, what perhaps do we value. We value experiences, perhaps even more than stuff. So is education fundamentally about experiences?

Could we define education as giving you access to experiences, or as something that enables you to have experiences? If you cannot read, then you cannot share the experiences of all those others who have written their experiences down. So perhaps literacy is fundamental to education and governments certainly make it one of the core targets. Being able to express your experiences and share those of others means that education certainly depends on being able to teach people to express themselves.

What about other skills such as the practical and vocational? If I am to experience what it is like to be a concert pianist then my education has to enable me to have that experience. I need to train until I reach the level where that performance becomes a possibility. If I want to understand advanced level mathematics then I have to share the experiences of all the mathematicians that have played a part in developing that theory. I have to be given the tools to access that experience.

There is also an indirect effect on the experiences that I have access to which relates to our excessive materialism and our focus on earning power as a product of education. That is we need money to access some experiences. I need to be able to pay to fly around the world and see different cultures, or to go skiing or to see the opera. But there is then the question of how this vocational push to education should be balanced.

So perhaps this is a good model of what education should be for. The question then becomes what should be core to education. What does everyone need to be able to experience the world and what parts of education are specific to the individual. Literacy and communication are possibly the essentials, along with some basic maths to make everyday life easier (adding and multiplying, areas and volumes but not much else). Then there is a place for art and literature, history, philosophy and technology and some guiding points of science and politics. But this would be an education focused on the experiences that the individual wants to access. It would be life-long learning as we change where we want to be and what we want to do. Perhaps this would be real education.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Second reply to a negative review of Collini

I need to explain by giving my own story why this review is so wrong and so flawed. This is someone who is a throw-back to the golden (but internally rotten) age of universities.

I have taught in a new university from the 1992 group, a Russell group university and currently teach at a former "crappy" poly from the 1 million group. I can say that each are different and none are faultless. The 1992 group university was where I got my degree and my PhD and became a lecturer. I was later made redundant from one of the expensive science departments because of the politics of R.A.E. and because of a business minded appalling New Labour Vice-Chancellor, who I still strongly dislike and because of whom I shred the alumni newsletter the moment it comes through the door. After this I moved to a university that at the time didn't have to say it was probably the best in the world because it was the best in the world. I had some good experiences there and learnt a lot, but I also learnt that the academics although smart were no different to myself and I never felt that they were special. They had a good social network and some were inspirational as teachers and researchers. But other were mediocre and the political fighting for funding and position was vicious. I then worked for a short while for a government lab before deciding I definitely miss the students and going to a former Poly with a distinguished history. I really like the teaching there and it is where as a teacher I make a difference. Sometimes the students are frustrating and it can be a struggle but I had never enjoyed my classes as much. So I have unlike Collini tried all the different levels and the egalitarianism does not mean that dim people get degrees. It means that less privileged people get an opportunity and we do not waste the most valuable resource - human talent.