Dont buy the Sun.

Dont buy the Sun.
Hillsborough Justice campaign - Remember the 96.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

THe anthro Song

Nel absolutely hates this. ANd I sort of do as well. Except that the kid is so keen...

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Studying hard. Hard Studying.

Unpredictability and Indeterminism in Human Behavior: Arguments and Implications for Educational Research

1. Gary A Cziko, Associate Professor

This essay presents arguments for the view that complex human behavior of the type that interests educational researchers is by its nature unpredictable if not indeterminate, a view that raises serious questions about the validity of a quantitative, experimental, positivist approach to educational research. The arguments are based on (a) individual differences, (b) chaos, (c) the evolutionary nature of learning and development, (d) the role of consciousness and free will in human behavior, and (e) the implications of quantum mechanics. Consequently it is argued that educational research that attempts to predict and control educational outcomes cannot be successful and that educational research should focus on providing descriptions and interpretations of educational phenomena to provide findings that can be used to improve our understanding of learning, development, and education and to facilitate their evolution.

EDUCATIONAL RESEARCHER April 1989 vol. 18 no. 3 17-25

I have to admit, in the interests of fairness,but I have not read this full article. Therefore, criticising it, or even critiquing it, is impossible. But, I have learned a degree of caution as I have progressed through my academic trajectory. A 'spidey' sense has developed as I peruse the journal articles, a sort of bullshit detector. I have also found the English glottal tut very useful, as an audible aide memoire - 'dont read anything else by this idiot' - and judging by the quantity of tutting reverberating round the library, a lot of people have also found the same thing useful.

Having said all that I should re-emphasize that I should not criticize the above work. And I know you all know this is coming, so here it is........BUT when I read an abstract linking such grand themes, I hesitate. I have, myself, as the joint second best academic in England, been accused, by mine own spouse, no less, of delusions of grandeur and overambitious thematic association, when I claimed that savanna chimp reactions to fire fire completely proved the theory behind "Civilization: why?". So when I read an abstract such as the one above that claims to link chaos theory, quantum mechanics, psychology, learning theory, politics, philosophy and evolutionary biology I do have to wonder about its specificity. And when I re-read the abstract, it seems as if the author is merely saying "I dont like education being directed by their approach, I'd much rather it was directed by my approach" the spidey sense engages and a large 'tut' issues.

Related to this is my enforced further readings on 'situated learning'. Once again, admonished by RHB NOT to arbitarily dismiss ideas, I have struggled through papers on 'situated learning', 'communities of practise' and 'legitimate peripheral participation' attempting to glean some insight. This has proven very difficult. For me, it is as if I have been forced to watch a series of Manchester United games and comment objectively on the football on display. And this is not a careless observation. Lave and Wenger base their theories of situated learning on observations of a number of apprenticeships, including the tailors of Goa and those of Yucatec midwives. Taken in isolation, both apprenticeships apparently provide examples that certain types of social engagements are models for how learning ought to occur. For example, in Goa, the master tailors and the apprentices together negotiate (or construct) a community of practise where the roles of each person is legitimate. Essentially, apprentices are not empty vessels waiting to be filled, but are as active as the masters in constructing the community of practise. There is no didactic teaching, instead apprentices learn by engagement, and everyone's role is fluid and 'negotiated'. In short,the suggestion is that only if all parties are active in the learning process can proper learning take place and the types of social engagements they describe provide the (only) 'proper' context in which learning can take place.

These observations have led to a very successful business career for some people, advising business and organistaions on organisational structure. The idea, in a nutshell, is that by encouraging 'communities of practise', learning within an organisation or business is more effective.

This may appear to be pretty obvious and general,and it is, but if considered a little bit further (and I must, so you also have to) it implies that didactic approaches to education are less effective. Lecturing therefore, particularly, fact-filled top-down lecturing, is a big no-no because most classroom teaching approaches neglect negotiation. I have a number of objections to Lave and Wenger's work, but I will focus on just one.

While Goan apprentice happily works HIS way through a community of practice until HE becomes a master, happily co-constructing HIS!!! identity, and a Yucatec midwife merrily assimilates the knowledge of HER craft becoming highly respected members of their communities in the process, Wenger and Lave fail to mention the societies in which these idealised forms of learning occur. In practice, neither Goan apprentice tailors, nor Yucatec midwives have much choice of career, as both societies are highly stratified by caste and gender differentiated. This is not particularly a judgement on those societies, although I am happy to have been borne in neither, but how applicable to other societies, particularly Western societies are the examples given? The (short) descriptions do not include what happens to people who fail, or whether the practices the apprentices learn are actually the best way of doing things, or whether the boy borne to be a tailor would rather have been an actor. In most Western societies, we tend to choose our careers, our education and our gender identity, and are relatively free to leave "communities of practice" if we feel like, whereas Goan tailors and Yucatec midwives are not. Goan apprenticeship methods work because they have to, otherwise the people engaged in them dont eat. Seperately, Yucatec midwife apprenticeships work because it is uneconomical to establish a classroom dedicated to physiology and biology for the one trainee apprentice in each village.

After some reading, and much tutting, I have begun to conclude that the applicability is, at best, very general. Attempting to apply principles drawn from one set of cultural practises onto another entirely different culture always gives me the heeheegeebies, academically speaking. It is reminiscent of the way "primitive" peoples, or "Eastern philosophy" were romanticised by the West, and their lifeways generalised out of context, which led to unfortunate things like hippies. Anthropology is a double edged sword - it is important when studying the anthropology of 'others' to realise that we have an anthropology of our own as well.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Battle of Knobbly Knee

Dateline: 16 November,2010:

Its 8 am and excitement at Large Mansions is practically at fever pitch. In truth, I have not been able to sleep and I cant wait to find out what's going to happen.

"Have some toast, at least" says RHB, "You're too excited"

I refuse, and have to admit I am too excited. As a general rule, I love birthdays, and as a specific rule, I love my birthdays. Also as a general rule, I love presents, and as a specific rule, I love presents that are for me. , Convergently then I love shiny presents just for me, and today has dawned with the possibility that I will receive a particularly unique present built only, and specifically for me, and being made out of titanium, extremely shiny.

There is a down side, however, because in order to access said present, I have to travel across Hull to the Spires hospital. By way of explanation, the gift I am expecting,the thing I want more than anything else in the whole wide world (even more than a 1966 Fender Precision or a new Shimano gear assembly for the Crosstowner) is an operation on at least one of what Grasshopper has characterised as 'the knobblies'.

Without blathering on in too much detail about the circumstances arising that have required some repair to the knobblies, it became apparent two years ago, shortly after arriving in this country, that a hit and run accident whose major effect had appeared to be a demolision of the right elbow, had in fact resulted in far more serious, but less obvious damage to both knees. During recuperation from this spectaculrly broken elbow, knee problems which had previoulsy been 'niggles' became worse and worse. A brief consultation with the Sport Scientists at our gym revealed some pretty bad, but eminently fixable cartilage problems. SO, I booked an appointment with my General Practitioner who referred me to the physiotherapist attached to his clinic. That appointment went not well, mostly because I called the physiotherapist an idiot.

I was then withdrawn form that doctor's surgery and, here I have to admit some culpability, abandoned the matter for a while. However, shortly prior to our vacation in Turkey last year, I decided to re-address the issue, applied to a new General Practitioner and a made an appointment.

I would like to report that this resulted in a flurry of activity. Surely, I thought, the prospect of Hull losing its best scenic carpenter through injury would speed up the process. And doubly surely, dont I always hear on the news how 'Britain' has got the best health service in the world? So when I heard that Grasshopper had approximately the same injury, but diagnosed years after mine, I thought to myself 'HO! She (Grasshopper) thinks she's a bit of a smarty pants living in Canada, but now we'll see who's the clever socks. Living here, as I do, amidst the World's Best Health Service, I will probably be fitted with bionic implants while she's still being pushed round Walmarts' carpark on a sled. And, when Canada does eventually get round to fixin' her up, it will probably be some primitive beaver bone and moose hide contraption attached to her leg, while I shall have mini nuclear reactors powering my leg muscles.'

It was therefore with some jealousy that I recieved a missive from GH, some two months after her injury, describing an unpleasant period of enforced immobility, but an otherwise entirely successful medical procedure. GH's treatment (and I should'nt breach confidentiality here but I will) consisted of a two minute visit to her doctor, a quick coffee with the consultant, and the next week a relaxed keyhole procedure while evryone in the operating room drank Tim Hortons and ate donuts. By contrast, in the home of the Best Health Service in the World, it has taken five specialists, two scans, three different locations across the city and about eighteen months before, last month, I was referred to the local musculo-skeletal clinic, which ironically is two minutes walk away form my house.

AT that appointment, the specialist was examining my xrays and nodding sagely:

" do you see this?"

He pointed to the xray attached to the light box.

I leant forward and agreed that I saw the x-ray.

"Well that..." he said, pointing at the xray of my knee " an xray of your knee"
He looked at me expectantly. I said nothing, mindful of RHB's exhortations not to call any 'professional' an idiot, especially if they were (apparently she's just read some research about how bad people are at judging their own competence and the less competent they are, the worse they are at arriving at arealistic assessment of same).

He continued " and this xray does not show significant damage to the bone"

He looked at me again, but I maintained discipline.

"So, its probably some soft tissue damage" he hesitated slightly "which probably means a minor surgical procedure, which..."

"When?" I interrupted

"What?" he said

"When can I get it done? Now ? Let's do it" I began rolling up my trouser leg.

I should point out that I didnt actually say the above, nor did I roll up my trouser leg, but by God, King HArry and St George at this point I had been so frustrated that I wanted to and had even contemplated carrying out the operation my self utilising Toshack's supersharp claws as surgical tools and some elastic bands as replacement cartlidge. What actually transpired was that I left the appointment under the impression that a surgical procedure was imminent, and all I had to do was wait for a letter. I made chilli for RHB that evening in a fizz of excitement as I told her the news "Its finally going to happen".

When the letter arrived, I opened it carefully. Scanning its contents twice, I could see no sentence saying "Your appointment for an operation is ...." Instead, I was invited to call yet another telephone number, this time the number for Patient Choice, an initiative designed to help patients self-select their best options for care. I dialled as instructed:

"Hello, Patient Choice, how may we help?" a friendly voice said

"Well, I dont know" I said " I need to arrange an appointment for a knee operation"

"I see" said the voice," and who do you want to see?"

"I dont know" I replied "I know practically nothing about knee surgery. I suppose I would want to see someone good?"

"Well" said the voice, slightly less friendly " All the surgeons are good. Its up to you to decide which one though."

"Well" I said "What about seeing the best?"

"I regret we dont give out that type of information, I'm afraid" said the voice, sounding neither afraid nor regretful.

I began to worry I was in danger of alienating the voice, so instead of asking what the point of empowering me in respect of a matter that I know absolutely nothing about, I just asked to be booked into the soonest available date - 16 November, 2010. I put the phone down and called RHB "Its the best birthday present I could wish for" I told her. "Dont get your hopes up" she told me.

The end of this very long tale is that of course, this morning's appointment was not the operation, just the final, pre-operative consultation with the actual surgeon. I asked him as I left "Is his definitely it? definitely surgery?" . He concurred. "And all these other examinations, scans, xrays - there's nothing else wrong is there? Some serious underlying problem that you're not sure of?" No, he said, it just routine. Then ( he seems a very nice man) he went on to explain how the efficiency measures of the last few years, designed to filter out unnecessary appointments, focus treatment and act as a barrier to the (very) occasional hypocondriac have built up a layer of triple redundancy that is incredibly inefficient. Furthermore, at least in me, these efficiency measures have led to unnecessary appointments, no (so far) treatment (let alone unfocused( and the development of severe hypochondria in that I suspect I also have thrombosis, gangrene and a necrotising phage, such is the number of scans I have had.

NOne of this is a reflection on the front line staff, who on the whole are very professional, its more a function of an already bureaucratically inclined Government having no idea other than an ideology. While I never imagined my knees being involved in anthropological argument, it is here that we return to the idea of complexity and the collapse of society. Right now though, as long as it doesnt happen before the knobblies get fixed, I'll be happy.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Intrusive /r/

As you are probably aware, the Third year of my studies is upon me, and I am taking it very serioulsy. So seriously, in fact, that in addition to the usual academic research tools - Wikipedia, Twitter and what some guy down the pub thinks, I have started to use books. And not Len Clancy, or that guy who writes about the SAS either - good as that literature is. No some of the books I am using are to be found in the library.

I had thought that the library at University was like the library anywhere else - mostly fiction. As we buy most of our (fiction)books from Amazon I have not previousy bothered with any of the other floors of the library other than the anthropology section on the seventh floor, which I assumed (ie the seventh floor) was the non-fiction section of the library.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that ALL the other floors of the library were also non-fiction. There is almost a whole floor devoted to languages, for example. This was a huge surprise. I imagined that most languages were taught by the dictaphone technique and didnt think that anyone would bother writing any books about them because until you've actually learned the language, a book is pretty pointless. Once you have learned the language, the next obvious step is that you would start to read fiction and Amazon is perfectly good for this, so the need for loads of book titles that no-one understands is beyond me.

Nevertheless, I decided to roam this section of the library to see if there was anything worth reading, and discovered a book on linguistics which features an article on dialect acquisition. That article features these very words:

"A well-known categorical rule of SEE is R-lessness, the elimination of non-prevocalic /r/ in words like summer, water, north..........blah, blah .....shows that the Canadian youngsters.... have made [my italics] very little progress in acquiring R-lessness."

Literally stunning. Incontrovertible Proof, at last, that the brilliant anthropological/sociolinguistic observation I used to make is fact! Canadians DO add "r' to every single word they speak. And if a word already has one 'r' they add few more just to make sure no-one forrrrgets. Of course the brilliant theory this is all contained in doesnt end there. It goes on to explain that the reason Canadians do this is guilt and shame at leaving out other perfectly acceptable letters from words - like the 'i' in aluminium, for example, or most of the correct letters from 'donut'. . Linguistically speaking, who'd 'a thunk it?

Monday, 1 November 2010

When reading doesnt help........

There has been, during each year of my degree programme, an elephant in the room. Or rather, a stinker in the timetable - a module that sets one's teeth on edge just thinking about it. Unfortunately, as one of the main tasks I am supposed to accomplish at University is thinking, this means that some, but not all of my teeth, have been ground down to a nub. Or nib. I shall return to whether it is a nib or a nub later.

In my first year, it was the module "Manage your own Learning" , peppered with references to learning styles, that provided grist for the mill. Dubbed "Bring Your Own Beer" by a colleague now departed from the course, it uncritically presented learning styles as "fact" and endowed us with the knowledge that verbs are, in fact, called "do" words. In the second year, a module called Social Policy and Learning was about nothing of the sort, but was in fact a three month moan fest about the direction of about the direction of primary schools over the last thirty years(in the UK) from one (political) perspective. Despite the fact that I might agree with this perspective, after a month, the predictable line was presented at each lecture that teaching had undergone de-professionalization over those thirty years and this was, we were told, a bad thing. The obvious question I was obliged to ask after a few weeks was "Is it? Can Napoleon really have been that wrong?"

This, the third and final year, the guilty party is a work experience module I am obliged to attend. It is not so much that I am obliged to obtain work experience, it is that the theoretical framework that underpins the module is Situated Learning Theory. I could perhaps describe, at length, what my objections are to this, but perhaps its best to start with a quote:

"Legitimate peripheral participation has led us to emphasize the sustained character of development cycles of communities of practice, the gradual process of fashioning relations of identity as a full practitioner and the enduring strains inherent in the continuity-displacement contradiction" (Lave and Wenger, whenever)

I am almost tempted to say 'Nice words but what do they mean?', but I cannot. This is mainly because even the words are ugly. And these words are followed by more, usually the same ones, slightly re-arranged.

Compare the above with

"I am proposing that the ability to learn evolutionarily novel information is the result of two types of brain plasticity, both of which evolved to enable humans to cope with variation in ecological and social conditions within lifetimes"(Geary, 2008)

What follows is a load of specific tangible research findings - facts if you will - references, and nice graphs. And a conclusion.

Geary's stuff is truly a thing of beauty, made more so by the fact that there is a strong possibility he will be demonstrated wrong at some point. Wenger, on the other hand, cannot ever be shown to be wrong because nothing is ever said. Reading Situated Learning is like looking out of a plane window during a flight over the Atlantic - all you see is a vast swathe of undefinable grey. You know this impression is incomplete - there is a mass of complexity 'down there' but you cannot get close to any of the detail, you cannot actually touch, follow or describe any of the individual waves. You dont get to smell the ocean, feel the temperature. Ultimately it becomes boring and the beauty of the ocean is utterly lost.