About Michael Hammond

I am interested in social research, new technology and education. I work at the University of Warwick.

School closures and educational disadvantage

We are now getting a better idea of the impact of school closures on children’s education (as I write this some students are going back to school but the picture is mixed, it is still not education as normal). Many schools have been going well beyond what is formally expected in supporting access to free school meals, contacting children at risk and supporting children on-line but there is overwhelming evidence that children’s learning has been adversely affected.

I noted in my previous blog that I was struck by the growth in live classes during this period of ‘lock down’ – i.e. synchronous classes where the teacher tries to as far as possible teach over Zoom, Teams or the equivalent in a style that mimics as far as possible what they would do in a physical classroom. Before ‘lock down’ live classes were very rare though I do remember some initiatives for hard to reach children, for minority subjects such as Latin when there not the numbers to teach in school, and on-line classes for gifted and talented students across a cluster of schools. Live classes were rare in most other countries too but were, I believe, a feature of rural schools in China.  My own on line teaching during lock down is limited. I have mostly been working  one to one with research students while the university is closed but I have done some live classes.  It is quite doable but there is a sense of talking into a void which makes you realise how many signals you pick up in a face to face classroom in ways that are hard to do on-line, especially if you are working through a presentation on a shared screen. Live classes can also feel overwhelming if you try to follow the chat feedback while listening for on screen questions at the same time. I think this means there is a tendency to ‘overteach’, or less politely talk too long and ask fewer questions, especially as on-line break out groups can be difficult to set up. Of course most school teachers  have been teaching far more live lessons than I have, and have developed confidence and skills with time,  but most look on these as a stop gap until institutions re-open.

So how has online learning been going in the school sector in England? In spite of the best efforts of many parents, teachers and students, recent research is suggesting that it has not been going well. School children are not accessing on-line classes as consistently as they did face to face but more striking is the disparity – the most disadvantaged pupils are getting the least teaching [1]. This seems primarily due to absent or inadequate technology which means that disadvantaged students cannot access the lessons in the first place. It is clear too that disadvantage is self-reinforcing. Parents with higher levels of education and professional jobs are better able to support the children through the school curriculum, are more likely to have networks to support their children’s learning and more likely to have access to adequate technology. They are more likely too to go to schools in which teachers have found it worthwhile to develop on-line resources prior to school closures. In contrast, in many schools in disadvantaged areas teachers have not developed the same level of  innovation on-line as significant numbers of students could not access anything they produced. Educational disadvantage has become a live political issue due to the very visible inequalities during lock down. But, in truth, differentiated outcomes have been particularly stark in England over many years and require something more than a quick fix to address.  School closures have simply accentuated the problem.

[1] Two recent reports give a similar picture:

Lucas, M.,Nelson, J. and Sims, D. (2020)  Schools Responses to Covid-19: Pupil Engagement in Remote Learning, Berkshire: NFER / Nuffield.

Montacute, R. (2020) Social Mobility and COVID-19: Implications of the Covid-19 crisis for educational inequality, London: Sutton Trust.

 

 

 

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What we can learn about technology from school closures?

Technology, Pedagogy and Education, a journal I am close to, has put out a call for papers on the Covid-19 and the role of technology in teaching [1]. The deadline for abstracts is soon, 17 April, so hurry if you are interested.  I’m not writing a paper for it but the lockdown has pushed those of us interested in technology and learning to reflect on how education is coping. Four observations:

  1. The lockdown has shown that there is no mystery, technology will be used when it serves a purpose. Researchers have always fretted that technology seems to be so under-used, but the message is clear that when teaching and institutional objectives align, technology will come into its own [2]. Though having said that I am surprised at the speed with which many institutions have responded and the willingness of so many teachers to suddenly start working online.
  2. We’ll get back into face-to-face teaching again after working online. This is not so much an issue for schools, they need to be face to face, but I think we will see the same in higher education as well.  There will, I hope, be a new flexibility around online learning but I hear from so many people that they do miss the direct contact even if the online teaching has gone better than they thought it would.
  3. Live lessons and webinars have worked. In the past live classes were always the least used of online tools within virtual learning environments, there were too many logistical demands and teachers did not like teaching to camera. Yet, when asked to, teachers have offered bursts of live classroom teaching, in some cases longer lessons.
  4. ‘How do you teach online?’ is still one of the least helpful questions about technology being asked. Instead let’s reframe it as ‘How can you be the kind of teacher you want to be when working at a distance?’. For example if you are an inquiry kind of teacher then get the learners exploring (e.g. ‘Using online and other available sources find out: Where did this Covid-19 virus start?; Why isn’t there a vaccine?; What does the future hold for schooling’ and so on). If you like group work then try asking groups to tackle one or more of the above questions together and report back (either live or by uploading a document to the group forum). If you like guiding learning then offer more input (eg lead the learners through a comparison of a false news site and an authoritative site reporting on Covid-19 and ask them to carry out a short comparison using online sources of their own). Only if that is the kind of lesson you are happy doing should you give them an hour-long live lecture!

I hope your online teaching / learning / entertainment is going well and look forward to talking about our experience when all this is over.

[1] Download here Covid special issue call for papers

[2] I write about this at more length in Hammond, M. (2020) What is an ecological approach and how can it assist in understanding ICT take‐up?, British Journal of Educational Technology, (early view).

Why do some people wear a Fitbit?

I was thinking back to a conference that took place some time ago on the theme of data capture, in particular to the presentations on wearable physical activity devices or trackers [1]. These were still fairly new at the time and I quickly picked up that the people in the audience, most of whom were much younger than me, were quite sniffy about them. This contrasted with their enthusiasm for hearing more about music streaming. We talked about this over coffee and one participant mentioned his disappointment that his partner would only listen to the same songs again and again on Spotify rather than accessing their Daily Mix (a collection designed to extend your listening based on what you had already accessed). I sympathised. In contrast there was not much talk about activity trackers; they were not cool and they were not going to take off.

Well, I don’t think trackers have turned out to be cool but they have slowly taken off, at least among certain social groups, though nothing like to the same degree as social media [2].  But it remains easier to see the limitations of the wearable devices than their advantages [3]. An obvious constraint on take-up is that users have to invest in hardware (wearable devices) to get the full benefit and this costs money and is another piece of kit you need to look after. There are doubts too about the accuracy of trackers and concerns over privacy and sharing of data.  Activity loggers can play into people’s anxiety about health and advertising can take the form of  gender stereotyping.  Ceaseless logging of physical activity can become an end in itself so that you end up gaming the system, e.g choosing your terrain carefully to increase step count. For that matter you can cheat outright – for example by attaching the device to a bike or dog! The key point, however, is that if you are comfortable about your fitness level the devices serve no real purpose; if you are naturally fairly active you just get on with it, you don’t need to measure what you are doing. This is even more the case when it comes to logging sleep activity. Those who sleep well don’t talk about it, record it or even think about it, they just do it.  In fact were they to monitor sleep they might well become more self-conscious and disrupt what was working perfectly for them in the first place.

So why trackers? They can help users who have a special need to focus on physical activity and this seems to be particularly the case as you get older and are aware of becoming less active. The evidence is fairly slim, surprisingly these are still early days in research of activity logging [4], but as Ridgers et al. (2016) put it ‘there are some preliminary data to suggest these devices may have the potential to increase activity levels through self-monitoring and goal setting in the short term’. This is not a ringing endorsement but sounds about right to me.

Aside from large scale quantitative work, we also need to know more about the experiences of wearing these devices. Again there are some papers often based on what particular types of wearer get out of it, e.g. those recovering from serious illness, using activity as part of weight reduction programme, older people. The key point made by Jarrahi et al (2018) is an obvious one, but worth repeating: if you are disposed to see wearable devices as motivating then you will find them to be, if not forget it.

Noticing gaps in the literature I spoke to people I knew who used activity trackers and asked them for their opinions. They had found the devices generally useful as they helped with focusing on activity levels. Users had particular goals in terms of improving fitness or weight watching so that if they noticed their step count was falling they would deliberately do something about it, i.e. go for a run or walk. Some spoke of friendly competition with others. The devices were worthwhile though their usefulness was linked to the short term goals they had set themselves, future use was less clear.

I don’t wear an activity tracker. However, I did once have a Garmin watch which I used for a while for tracking runs. I got some satisfaction from knowing I was improving my speed and I liked to check that I was pacing myself evenly. I got out of the habit of using the device when, as age was catching up on me, my times were getting longer rather than shorter. Of course logging might be most useful when performance is dropping but I felt knowledge of my own tail-off was only go to depress me. I also found charging the device to be a faff and worried about the power running out. At one point I was disappointed about a run because the battery had discharged half-way through and I would not get a full reading to download. This was ridiculous. Why did I need to measure it to believe I had done it and enjoyed it? However, even if I no longer use my watch, I still line up with other runners after a weekly Park Run to get my time recorded [5]. We clearly have no need to do this, so why do we do it? I found some comments by Engeström [6] useful here. Drawing on Vygotsky and Russian social constructivism, Engeström sees exercising agency (i.e. getting to do what we would know we want to do or must) as a two fold process: first design it and then do it (the execution phase). He gave the example of an alarm clock. Finding the will to get up earlier is not easy. The alarm clock helps reminds us that we must do it. However, an alarm set by someone else would not work, we need to have planned for its use, i.e. we calculate what time we need to get up and set the alarm accordingly. In fact very often the planning is enough and we wake up any way before or as the alarm goes off. I think tools to measure physical activity work in a similar way. We design the use of the tool, i.e. we personalise the device with our details, we look at captured data and we make judgments about what we need to do, and having designed it we feel encouraged to do it. We are using the device to put into effect an otherwise vague intention to take more exercise; the device is helping us do it. I don’t want to go out and buy a tracker or Smart watch but I am not as dismissive of them as my fellow conference participants once were. And I will still queue to log my time at Park Run even if the data are only pointing in one direction.

[1] Wearable devices will capture data on movement, including how far one has moved and how many steps completed. They will also do a calorie used count and may monitor heart rate, sleep length and sleep activity. Waterproof devices will do distance and strokes when swimming. Data can be shared by users.  Probably the best known companies for producing wearable devices are Fitbit, Garmin, Huawei and Withings. A smart watch is not dedicated to physical activity but will include physical activity tracking. A smart phone App such as Map My Fitness can log runs,  but does less than a wearable device.

[2] Estimates of numbers of users are in the tens of millions, e.g. 30 million estimated active Fitbit users and 55 millions Apple watch wearers, 20 million Map My Fitness users, These are large numbers but not in the same league as, say, numbers of Facebook users.

[3] There are several contributions on trackers and other devices to ‘The Conversation’ which are fairly sceptical of their value, e.g.:

Siek, K. (2020) Why fitness trackers may not give you all the ‘credit’ you hoped for [online]

https://theconversation.com/why-fitness-trackers-may-not-give-you-all-the-credit-you-hoped-for-128585

Duus, R. and Cooray, M. (2015) How we discovered the dark side of wearable fitness trackers

https://theconversation.com/how-we-discovered-the-dark-side-of-wearable-fitness-trackers-43363

Kerner, C., Quennerstedt, C. and Goodyear, V. (2017) Young people oppose Fitbits in schools [online]

https://theconversation.com/young-people-oppose-fitbits-in-schools-84311

[4] There are several systematic reviews, e.g. Ridgers et al. (2016) and Shin et al. (2019), with most concluding that there is not much to systematically review in the first place.

[5] Park run is a free 5km run held in many parks in UK [https://www.parkrun.org.uk] and now around the world.

[6] Engeström’s key example concerns ‘cheating slips’ used by students. These are notes which student might access during an exam but Engeström argues it is the making of the notes rather than the access to them that make them effective.

References

Engeström, Y. (2006). Development, movement and agency: Breaking away into mycorrhizae activities. In K. Yamazumi (Ed.)  Building Activity Theory In Practice: Toward The Next Generation. Osaka: Center for Human Activity Theory, Kansai University. (CHAT Technical Reports #1).

Jarrahi, M., Gafinowitz, N. & Shin, G. (2018) Activity trackers, prior motivation, and perceived informational and motivational affordances. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 22, 433–448.

Ridgers, N., McNarry, M. and Mackintosh, K. (2016) Feasibility and effectiveness of using wearable activity trackers in youth: a systematic review.  JMIR mhealth and uHealth 4, 4: e129.

Shin, G., Jarrahi, M.H., Fei, Y., Karami, A., Gafinowitz, N., Byun, A. and Lu, X. (2019) Wearable activity trackers, accuracy, adoption, acceptance and health impact: a systematic literature review. Journal of Biomedical Informatics, 93: p.103153.

 

 

 

 

Hunting sound

I was researching technology and international exchange the other day and came across two stories in the history of technology which were new for me. The first concerned World Tape Pals [1].  This was an organisation set up in 1950 to encourage the sharing of news and perspectives from people around the world. A kind of discussion forum before its time. The technology used was recorded tapes and members not only stayed in touch with family living overseas but linked up with people they had not previous met to share culture and languages – they were ‘sound pals’ rather than ‘pen pals’. In the mid-1960s the World Tape Pals was reported to have about 25,000 members worldwide though of course many more people would have used tape recorded exchanges in informal ways.

The story of Word Tape Pals led me on to a couple of articles on sound hunters by Karin Bijsterveld [2] [3].  Simply put sound hunting was about capturing everyday life and was popular, although always a very niche activity, in the 1950’s and 1960’s. At the time people were asking what they could do with the new technology of the tape recorder. Suggestions from the early manufacturers included recording the gurgling of a new born baby; capturing conversations with family members; recording concerts; dictating letters and so on. Bijsterveld shows some of this in the publicity photographs which put out – a couple of them are reproduced below [4].

Ambitiously it was suggested that with these recorders you could produce  your own radio plays, complete with special effects, or record yourself singing or practising a foreign language. But one further unexpected use of the technology was to ‘hunt sounds’. Sound hunters took out their devices – quite large and heavy reel to reel machines  – and tried to record ‘how everyday life sounded’: the noise made by an aeroplane engine; thow laughter in the street; the song of garden birds; the ringing of church bells; in fact anything and everything. Clubs of sound hunters grew up and competitions, including a kind of sound hunter Olympics, took place in which international teams were given limited time to produce a fully documented sound collage around a common theme.  These competitions were judged by level of difficulty and Bijsterveld (2004: 624) explains how one contestant, a salesman in wristwatches, set out to record the sound of wristwatches, for his five-minute production ‘Insomnia’:

During the recording each separate sound had to be isolated and subsequently much amplified, in order for it to be audible as a separate phenomenon on the magnetic tape… We did not succeed in fully suppressing the breathing and background noises …We tried for months and probably needed over 100 hours of work to realize these recordings.

My interest in sound hunters came about as I was simply amazed that this went on, on reflection I should not have been but it just appeared so whacky. Sound hunting is also interesting as it was a precursor and became entwined with more mainstream use of sound collage. For exmaple, in UK radio and television history you can sense the influence of sound hunting in the early radio series Radio Ballads [5] which aimed to collect songs, conversations and sound effects in a story of everyday life, and in the seminal use of sound mixing in the first Dr Who theme tune, 1963 [6].

Another reason why I found sound hunting so interesting was that it exemplified two of the ways we still respond to technology. First, the desire to capture everything (something today we see in our preoccupation with taking photos and monitoring how many steps we take). Second, the belief, pushed by manufacturers, that technology use will be creative even if this comes up against the reality that what is simpler or more instantly appealing takes over. In the case of sound hunting there was not enough to hold the attention, and in any case cassette recorders replaced reel to reel tapes and these were so much more difficult to access and edit. A further parallel between sound hunting and our attitudes to digital devices today is our belief that technology will break down international barriers only to find that they can also be used for control and surveillance. Bijsterveld (2013) provides a timely account of the first international sound hunter competition in 1972 in what was then a Warsaw Pact country, Czechoslovakia. Here the enthusiasts came up against eavesdropping by the security services and covert participation. This was capturing sound but with malice. Imagine such a thing!

References

[1] Scribner, C. (2017) American teenagers, educational exchange, and cold war politics. History of Education Quarterly 57(4) 542-569.

[2] Bijsterveld, K. (2004) ‘What do I do with my tape recorder …?’: Sound hunting and the sounds of everyday Dutch life in the 1950s and 1960s, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 24:4, 613-634.

[3] Bijsterveld, K. (2013) ‘Eavesdropping on Europe: The tape recorder and East-West relations among European recording amateurs in the Cold War era’. In (Eds) A. Badenoch  and A. Fickers Airy Curtains in the European Ether, pp. 99-122. Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG.

[4] The source for the first is given by Bijsterveld as Grundig Radio Handelmaatschappij J.N.J. Sieverding N.V., Amsterdam 1962. The source for the second is the Photo Archives NVG, Wassenaar Courtesy Grundig Benelux. I believe I can reproduce these photos but apoligise for any inadvertent breach of copyright. The first is an early advertisement, the second shows a sound hunter in an air field.

soundhunting1                               soundhunting2.

[5] A brief description of Radio Ballads can be accessed at the BBC site

https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/radioballads/original/ but to be honest the Wikipedia entry is fuller https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_ballad . It is not difficult to track down programmes on You Tube.

[6] The story of the theme tune is again covered by both the BBC but quite fully in  Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Who_theme_music

Book of the year

I spend so much time picking apart books and articles that it is a release to look back and think about what I had enjoyed reading this year, not necessarily something published in 2019 but just something I happened to read.

In respect to big ideas I went back again to Michael Polanyi’s ‘Personal knowledge’ [1]. Above all I like to read commentators who are trying to balance the idea of social research as something personal (i.e. we need to bring our own ideas to the research and as Polanyi would have it our passion) with something ‘objective’ (i.e. you cannot make it up, you can only say what the evidence let’s you say) and for me Polanyi (at least his earlier work) occupies this middle ground.

In the field of technology research I did not find anything quite so engaging but I did appreciate one article on city life that, in the words of the authors, provided,

‘a case study of informal learning and lifewide literacies amongst Glaswegian adults using three distinct approaches to data collection: a household survey capturing rich data on learning attitudes, behaviours, and literacies; GPS trails that track mobility around the city; and the capture of naturally occurring social media’ [2].

It was the work using GPS trails that I found interesting – volunteers used trackers as well as life-logging cameras and in this way researchers could see how their volunteers moved around the city. Thus they were able not just to understand attitudes to learning but they could access and to some extent observe what individuals were actually doing. In particular researchers saw an association between deprivation with reduced learning engagement (this was not surprising), but physical movement played a part too and could arguably assist in learning engagement as well as be an outcome of such engagement.  There is much hype about the use of digital devices in social research but in this case their use worked and I expect there will be much more on the study of movement in the years ahead.

But in looking for a book that I really enjoyed reading it would have to be something more literary. One contender was Gavron’s ‘A Woman on the Edge of Time’ [3] in which the author tries to understand why his mother committed suicide, aged 29, when she had just had her first book published and had a career as a social scientist stretching out in front of her. Gavron looks for answers by tracking down the people in his mother’s life (not easy after so many years) and considers both internal make-up (e.g. his mother’s volatility) and external environment (e.g. the difficulties of forging an academic career in 1960s male-dominated academia). Gavron is not able to reach any definitive conclusions but at least he is able to make sense of his mother’s action. Thus the book is not only about a social scientist (his mother) but it is also a piece of social research (though I doubt if Gavron would accept the label) as it is asking questions about agency, gender stereotyping and how society both provides and limits opportunities.

I liked Gavron but my book of the year is Lily King’s fictional account of Margaret Mead doing fieldwork in New Guinea [4]. Mead was steely and consistent in challenging what US society took for granted and looking again at her book Coming of Age in Samoa [5] I saw more clearly that this was a comparative study of adolescence in USA and Samoa rather than a study of Samoa itself [6]. During her career Mead drew the ire of the Right for, as they saw it, undermining social conventions but she, or perhaps the tradition of anthropology she helped develop, became critiqued by the Left (and now by decolonising methodology[7] ) for doing research on people, rather than for people or with people and indeed some of her work feels very uncomfortable today (see an earlier blog on photography). We all need to find our own stance on this but I think Mead’s argument would be that she had come in good faith to describe what she saw and to talk about how her own society could learn from cultures which were much less known and so much less accessible than they are today.

Anyway to get back to the book, Lily King’s Euphoria, is about doing field work in New Guinea in 1933. Mead is working with her second husband, Reo Fortune – names have been changed (Mead becomes Nell and Fortune, Fen). Things are not going well when they meet fellow ethnographer Gregory Bateson (Bankson) at a Christmas party during a break from their work. Fen and Nell have been unable to complete their field work and Bankson, a lone researcher in another village, is lonely and out of his depth, so much so that he had already attempted suicide. Their encounter somehow spurs them, Mead and Fen find a more congenial village to research and Bankson sparks into life when he realises he is in love with Nell.

I really liked the book as it was about the doing of research. To be clear it is about privileged people, not the indigenous people, but it turns the tables by treating the researchers themselves as objects for analysis. In this way you can see Nell, Fen and Bankson’s strengths and weaknesses very clearly. For example, Mead comes over as an obsessive documenter of data and as someone who struggled with local languages so that she may have missed realising when the wool was pulled over her eyes. I particularly liked the figure of Bankson (I have presented the book as one about Mead but Bankson/ Bateson is a really important part of the story) with his buttoned up Englishness and moral seriousness.

I had some reservations not least as ethically it straddles a difficult space; it is clearly about Mead, Bateson and Fortune but names and settings have been changes and Lily King provides a very different ending for Nell (which I won’t reveal) than there was for Mead. This fictionalisation presents a particular problem in respect to Reo Fortune whose character Fen comes over as abusive in his relationship with Mead and an egoist or worse when carrying out a disastrous raid on another village in search of an artefact which would, if he could get his hands on it, make his reputation.  I don’t know what Fortune was really like but this seems to be having it both ways, i.e. you can say things like this might well have happened but hide behind the fiction if challenged.

I also had a problem with the key passage in the book when the three ethnographers were actually doing some theorising about the cultures they were studying. The original section is too long to include here but one reviewer summarises it as follows:

‘In one frenzied night the trio put it all down on paper: an exhilarating scene of creative and intellectual gestation that captures all the excitement of discovery, and the promise that we might find a way to better understand humankind. Here is the euphoria of the title; that breakthrough in understanding – a moment of sudden and exhilarating clarity in the life of the artist or scientist. Nell, with her lyrical, near-poetic field notes, is as much artist as scientist, with an infectious capacity for liberating passion in those near her’ [8].

I have asked a lot of people about theorising and yes this captures the sense of release when it all comes together but Lily King makes it look much more like the kind of brainstorming that comes in at the start of a project, not at the end. But who knows perhaps she is being faithful to Mead’s own descriptions.

However this is to quibble. The book is well written and that rare thing edited with discipline so that you end up wanting more. The sections in which the characters express their thoughts in diary format work really well as it is natural that as researchers they would do this. The problems with classical ethnography or anthropology are there to see (the danger of exploitation, the privileged standpoint, the capacity to be hoodwinked, the loneliness and destabilisation) but this is not a simple put down, there is something admirable, at least in the case of Nell and Bankson, in their commitment to understanding other cultures and the critical distance they try to put between themselves and the societies in which they have been brought up. They come over as serious and humanist in their intentions. The point is that researchers are rooted in time and place as much as the people they research.

 

[1] Polanyi, M. (1958) Personal knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Chicago, USA, University of Chicago Press.

[2] Lido, C., Reid, K. and Osborne, M. (2019) ‘Lifewide learning in the city: novel big data approaches to exploring learning with large-scale surveys, GPS, and social media’, Oxford Review of Education, 45, 2: 279-295.

[3] Gavron, J. (2015) A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son’s Search for his Mother. Scribe Publications, London.

[4] King, L. (2014) Euphoria, London: Picador.

[5] Although I have cited Mead a lot during research methods course and had read ‘Growing up in Samoa’, I had not followed all the discussion around her work and the novel filled some gaps and pushed me to read further. There is quite a lot of video footage of Mead for example this BBC programme comes from 1976.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZDQSNkplTM

[6] Mead, M. (1928) Coming of Age in Samoa, New York: William Morrow. (This is accessible in the Internet Archive as well as via other web sites: https://archive.org/details/comingofageinsam00mead

[7] e.g. Tuhiwai Smith, L. (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, London: Zed Books.

[8] Gibb, C. (2014) Euphoria by Lily King – the colourful love life of Margaret Mead, Guardian, 24 December, 2014 [online] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/dec/24/euphoria-lily-king-review-margaret-mead-new-guinea

 

The ethics of social research

I teach research methods courses and when it comes to sessions on ethics we normally go over the classics: Milgram’s experiments with obedience; the Stanford prison experiment; poor Alfred and the white rat [1]. All very startling but on the whole students do not get as excited as I do. I think this is first because most have heard of these stories before and second they know they could never do something as off-the-wall as these researchers. So they don’t always see the point in talking about them. Well the point, as I try to make clear, is that however extreme we find these cases today they did not seem so when they were carried out. For example, Milgram’s experiment in obedience became championed in counter cultural politics of the 1960’s and 1970 but as far as I know few people at the time said, ‘Hey wait a minute you cannot ask people to believe they are inflicting electric shock treatment just because you want to find out if they will do it!’.

So I don’t want to throw out the classics, but I would like to broaden my examples and find something a little less obvious. So it was that the other day I looked up Garfinkel’s reporting of experiments ‘in trust and stable actions’ in the early 1960’s [2]. First thing to say is that Garfinkel’s work was insightful. His career long research theme was the maintenance of order in social interactions and the role that conversation played in keeping a tight hold on the roles we could play and how we played them. To illustrate this passion we had for order in our relationships he asked (and it is not clear whether he merely suggested or told) his students to act in unexpected ways in keeping with the old adage, ‘if you want to understand something then try to change it’.

One of his examples was asking students to enter a store (or shop), to select a customer and treat the customer as a clerk (shop assistant) while giving ‘no recognition that the subject was any other person that the experimenter took him to be and without giving any indication that the experimenter’s treatment was anything other than perfectly reasonable and legitimate’. In the examples he describes the ‘subjects’ (or, let us be honest, the duped customers) becoming ‘nervous and jittery’, one was ‘flushed with anger’ and another ‘stalked out of the shop’. For good measure one volunteer student had a friend ‘a professor emeritus of mathematics at the California Institute of Technology’ (so that is alright then) who ‘begged to be allowed to accompany the student’ and joined in an experiment of his own.

Garfinkel followed these relatively mild and short term experiments with a more well-known one in which students were asked to spend from fifteen minutes to an hour in their home acting as ‘if they were boarders (lodgers)’; by this he meant they should act the role of being ‘circumspect and polite’, using ‘formal address and speaking only when spoken to’. He writes that out of 49 students, five refused to do it and 4 ‘were unsuccessful’ (i.e. they were willing but the circumstances did not seem right). But four fifths of the students did try the experiment and Garfinkel reports that family members were ‘stupefied’ and ‘vigorously sought to make the strange actions intelligible and to restore the situation to normal’. He elaborates that students’ reports were ‘filled with accounts of bewilderment, shock, anxiety, embarrassment, and anger, and with charges by various family members that the student was mean, inconsiderate, selfish, nasty, or impolite.’

There were however  no cases in which the situation was not restorable after the student had explained what they were doing, but family members were angry. As for the students, they did not for the most part did not find the experiment difficult to carry out or particularly taxing.

For Garfinkel these examples worked, i.e. they showed we were made uncomfortable when what was taken for granted was disrupted. But were they ethical? No I don’t think so. They may have been comparatively mild cases but this was reckless for the families and for the students concerned and I would say that family members had it right when they complained that the students were ‘mean, inconsiderate, selfish, nasty, or impolite’.  And this actually makes me question the conclusions to be drawn from the experiments, people may have been angry, not so much because they were over-committed to the maintenance of social order, but because the student volunteers were taking the piss; as one family member said to a student ‘we are not rats’. But my overarching complaint is why would you ever want to do social science in this way? Yes, if you want to understand something then do try to change it, but why not try to change it for the better. For example, there is all manner of research into what goes disastrously wrong in families and relationships and really worthwhile attempts to explain what helps in redressing an imbalance [3]. Ethically this seems where social research should be positioned.

[1] In Milgram’s experiment volunteers were told they were assisting in a learning experiment and told to administer an electric shock every time a learner made a mistake in a test (in fact there was no shock and the ‘learner’ was playing a part). The shock generator was marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock). The study was about how far volunteers would go. See:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOUEC5YXV8U

In the Stanford prison experiment the psychology building was turned into a mock prison and 24 paid male volunteers were assigned roles of guard or prisoner in order to explore the impact of taking on a role on otherwise well adjusted men. Some got carried away in their role. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4txhN13y6A

The third example concerned Watson and classic conditioning. Little Albert was around 9 months old and exposed to different stimuli and showed no fear of any of small animals including a white rat. However the next time Albert was exposed to the rat the researcher made a loud noise and thereafter the child associated the noise with the rat and would cry on seeing it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hBfnXACsOI

[2] Garfinkel, H. (1963) ‘A conception of, and experiments with, ‘trust’ as a condition of stable concerted actions’, in O.J. Harvey (ed.) Motivation and Social Interaction: Cognitive Approaches, New York: Ronald Press.

[3] As one example, Yoshihama, M. (2002) ‘Breaking the web of abuse and silence: Voices of battered women in Japan’, Social Work, 47, 4: 389-400.

Academic writing retreats: are they worth it?

The university in which I work puts on two-day writing retreat events – these are not residential but just an opportunity to work on something in a dedicated space, in the presence of colleagues all doing their own writing. I try to go to these when I can, I find I can concentrate better in a room in which everyone else is writing too. For that matter there is nothing else to do except write, so you write.  I notice too that people tend to come back to follow-up events so something is clearly working.

In addition to these internal events I have been three or four times to a week-long residential writing retreat. This is organised independently and it attracts some academics but probably the majority are working on fiction – poetry, novels, short stories. A lot of colleagues have asked me if going away like this is worthwhile and yes I would say it is. But before saying more, the concept of writing retreat needs some clarification. Some universities put on focused, structured events – they are called retreats but they are really organised residentials – around writing for publication. It seems from reviews carried out [1] that what academics like about these events is protected time, having other people around and getting some input from mentors. There is little negative comment  in the literature but I would guess that you need to make a residential voluntary as anyone who has to go, rather than wants to go, is likely to be very grumpy. The advice given for those organising a residential is to think of it as a process, rather than a one-off. In other words: prepare; run the event; follow up with participants afterwards. This means getting participants to work something up in advance, let them discuss work in progress with mentors at the event and, crucially, go back to participants afterwards and monitor what they have done and offer more support. Little to argue against here and the kind of thing that is organised from time to time for students as well.

But what about the unstructured writing retreat, the type where people go away somewhere quiet and simply get on with it, what do people get out of them? Like the structured ones earlier I think the main attraction is protected time to work on some writing. However, there are some fairly obvious reasons why they do not appeal to many academics, in particular:

  • if you are short of time to write it may not make sense to spend any of the time you do have in travelling to a retreat.
  • some academics have very comfortable arrangements for writing at home.
  • money – if it is not organised by the university then you will need to pay for yourself, and to be honest it feels like paying for the privilege of doing your job, no matter how pleasant the surrounding are.
  • squaring it with others –  if you are away a lot for your work your family will not react kindly if you go away for another chunk of time especially if out of term time.

Added to all this, I would say that for myself a writing retreat sounded really self-indulgent and I think a surprisingly large number of colleagues would feel the same way. This raises a larger question of academic identity; being an academic is supposed to include writing but this is very hard to prioritise given all the other demands on our time.  Writing is in any case so uncertain (you don’t know for sure if it will ever be published and who will ever read it?) but teaching and administration is not (you get it done and it is there for all to see).  Certainly, I would not have gone on a retreat if I did not have some teaching award prize money I could use. It was not the money, but the legitimation I needed.

It tuned out that I enjoyed the peace and quiet of the retreat- it was a small group with masses of room in the house where we stayed – and the routine of early morning walking, breakfast, lunch, cake, dinner broke up the writing really well; instead of thinking I had a whole day in front of a screen I could work around two hour blocks. I liked the mix of writers and the thing I was most worried about (there might not be other academics, or at least no academics in my field) turned out to be the thing I most liked. I got a lot of work done, much more than I thought I would, and much more than I had succeeded in doing anywhere else. I did feel undeservedly cossetted from everyday concerns but, hey, it is surprising what you can get used to. I have been back since, I try to do so once a year in order to reinforce some of the helpful habits for writing I picked up. However I would not want to do more than that as I want it to be a bit special.

So perhaps you might want to give writing retreat some thought. If so, first work out if it is an organised or non-organised event, or perhaps something in between that you want. Sometimes organisers will suggest you share your work in progress but I don’t think that will ever happen unless expectations are clear in advance.  Plan what you want to get done. If you could really prepare thoroughly then I expect you are so well organised there might not be much point in going away to write. So realistically for most people planning will mean finding a moment to decide beforehand if you want to use the time to [a] get your head around a topic by reading around it and note taking; [b] complete a draft of something that you have already started; or [c] focus on something that has been hanging around for some time, perhaps something that is especially taxing and the retreat is a reward for getting it done.

I would also advise to ask yourself if you are really looking for a holiday rather than a writing retreat. In fact, there are many summer writing retreats on Mediterranean islands and in idyllic Nordic forests advertised on the web, these are fine as holiday destinations but if you want to go on holiday then go on holiday and if you want to write then write, both are fine but not at the same time. Finally, don’t worry about anyone else. The point of a retreat is that other people have their own things to do, they are not really interested in you or your work; you can look vacant and lost in thought but that is OK as they are similarly distracted. They won’t mind it if you talk about your work, and they might talk about theirs, but only at the right time.   I suppose good advice is finally to research places to go as far a you can – actually I did not but it turned out fine.

[1] Rowena Murray amongst others has discussed retreats over a number of years as well as issues of academic identity e.g. Murray R. (2008) Writer’s retreat: reshaping academic writing practices. Educational Developments, 9(2):14-16.

 

In praise of theorising

[This entry supports a recent talk on the subject to research students] 

Over the last couple of years I became interested in theory and theorising in social research. I have done this not because I started with a great deal of confidence, or indeed background knowledge, of theory as a concept but, quite the reverse, an awareness of a gap in my understanding. However as I got into the topic I noticed that other colleagues struggle with the concept too and this gave me the push to continue looking into this area. [1]

A logical starting point in trying to understand theory was to get an idea of the core claims made for theory and for me this comes back to language; theoretical concepts provide the language we use to organise our thinking about something. This seems quite slight a contribution but it isn’t, for once you can name a thing you can think about and act on it. For example when you visit another country and don’t understand the language  you cannot express thoughts,  share ideas, or enter into a social world. Of course the frustrating thing here is that you have the concepts but cannot express them, but imagine not being able to give name to the concepts in the first place. Language is absolutely core to what we are as human beings and theorising is a language activity.

Of course when it comes to theorising we can get by without the kind of obsession that social researchers often bring to naming and debating theories but theses obsessions comes from a desire to push boundaries.

Theories can be bigged up  but this does not need to be the case.   For example in education research Vygotsky introduced the idea of a zone of proximal development (ZPD) – the difference between what a learner understands at present and what a learner can do with the support of a more knowledgeable other [2]. This concept helps organise the work of a teacher by focusing attention on gaps in the learners’ understanding; what is the learner ready to grasp; and how can the learner be best supported.  Setting it out in this way you might say isn’t a ZPD obvious as a concept? Well yes, but it only appears obvious as someone named it in the first place.

Theories come in different forms [3] and much of the problem many of us have with theory is that the same word covers different ideas. Theory could, for example, be about introducing a new concept, but for some it could also be about modelling relationships between variables. Theoretical contributions can also cover the study of key thinkers, ideas about  how we should see the world or how we should carry out research into understanding the world [4].

One of the problems, or at least challenges, that arises in talking about theory is that people do not understand that other people might use theory in a different way to themselves. For some researchers explanatory theory is about noticing and explaining cause and effect, if X then people tend to do Y. In contrast, other researchers might want to understand why people behave as they do and, rather than say what causes such behaviour, they are interested in explaining the  consequences –  if people act like X then Y is likely to be an outcome. Thus it not surprising that we all struggle with the word theory and in vivas the question ‘what is your theoretical contribution?’  is such an unsettling question as the student is having to second guess what the examiner means [5]. [Of course the examiner can help here by clarifying what he or she has in mind, but the student can also be proactive and set out what they see as a theoretical contribution too]. Theory can end up becoming a stick to beat up other researchers (you don’t understand X, you have misapplied Y, you have not read Z) which can be quite misplaced as few theories lend themselves to easy interpretation.

In spite of its different associations I think when it comes to theory there is a common idea that theory should explain and not be ‘merely’ descriptive. Just as in natural science, the models and formulae that some social scientists put forward can offer good representations of what is happening but they are not properly theories if they don’t say how it all fits together [6]. In putting forward  an explanation theorists should have a broader idea about the way that human being behave – as sociologists put it an engagement with agency and structure. For example, Bourdieu’ s idea that there are different kinds of capital (social, cultural and economic) which shape social activity would be a model, a useful model but an underdeveloped one,  without the accompanying ideas of habitus (how our life experiences develop within us habits, skills, and dispositions) and field (implicit and explicit rules of behavior, and valuations put on that behaviour in particular sites of activity) [7]. Likewise  Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems approach (the idea that the individual exists within interlocking micro, macro, exo, meso systems, some of which are directly experiences, some are not)  would be much less without Bronfenbrenner’s view that the point of social development was to develop personal agency [8].

Another point about theories is that they are transferable. Theorists seek to abstract out what is important in a situation and so let others apply and of course reinterpret these theories in other contexts. Theories seem to integrate different findings and there is, in both natural and social science, a view that theories should often provide the least complicated explanation.  For example Einstein’s theory of relativity is so thought provoking as it is expressed so simply (E=MC^2) and more recently in economics Piketty’s (cited earlier) formula r>g  (where r is the rate of return on capital and g economic growth)  captures something about wealth and inequality so elegantly  that Piketty has an audience beyond the field of economics. Maybe we exaggerate the value of simplicity but at a pragmatic level theories which try to tell too much are difficult to apply.

If theory is complicated then so too is theorising. According to Swedberg, theorising is what you do when you make a theory.  For Swedberg theorising is speculating and theorising calls for a mix of logic, intuition and  creativity – a different way of thinking [9].  Swedberg draws on the pragmatic thinker Peirce who introduced the term abduction to capture the kind of intuitive guesswork we use when reaching for an explanation. The metaphor of the detective is irresistible here and indeed Peirce’s account of guessing draws on his experience of tracking down a watch – a very expensive watch that had been loaned to him. In his account Peirce seems to have a sixth sense as to who stole the watch and relies more on a hunch to identify the thief rather than on logic or deduction. [10]

Conan Doyle’s detective Sherlock Holmes provides another metaphor for guessing, that of detective work. Famously, on meeting Watson for the first time, Holmes says ‘ah you have come from Afghanistan’. Watson wants to know how Holmes had guessed this. Holmes explains:

Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.  [11]

Here there is a leap of imagination that brings various observations together around a broader idea. The problem  is that the account is fictional and indeed the Holmes stories are popular as they are comforting (truth will come out) when  in reality  many different hunches or guesses are possible based on the same data.  Indeed there were many other ways to account for the appearance of  Watson than he had just come from Afghanistan, but that would spoil the story. An additional source of confusion in Holmes is that his methods are described as deduction, but they read more like abduction in Peirce’ sense [12].

A further metaphor for theorising is that of the investigative journalism. For example, Stacey Dooley as a documentary film maker models the reflection needed for theorising very well. She also asks the  difficult questions which a social researcher  needs to do  without antagonising her interviewees. Once the interviews are over she steps back and questions the significance of what she has heard in a way that the qualitative researcher might understand. She often finds no easy solutions or conclusions [13].

Detective work and investigative journalism only take you so far as metaphors, social researchers may make hunches, be obsessive about their inquiries, and go round in circles but a crucial difference is that social researchers have to engage in a very self-conscious way with what has been said about a topic or an idea in the past. In discussing their methods researchers such as Wright Mills [14] and Eco [15] show how much they value past literature and take detailed notes on all that they have read. They see theorising as a kind of shuttling between the data they have collected and the theories they have explored.

The idea of comparing data to theory is helpful to describe theorising in academic contexts and Michael Polanyi sheds further light. Polanyi believed that in coming to know something we need  to switch between focal (the goal of the activity) and subsidiary awareness (the particular features of an activity).  (Focal awareness might be the message we want to convey, and subsidiary awareness the grammatical structures we use to construct the message).  Polanyi suggested that we can only really  engage with the focal once we have worked really hard on the particulars.  The paradox is that we need to background the subsidiary in order to see the focal but this can be done only by putting a great deal of effort into mastering what is subsidiary in the first place.  Once we do seem able to gain a focal attention it is very difficult to look back at the subsidiary. This is the idea of tacit knowledge, things we know but find difficult to say – for example the experienced driver who cannot tell you what he or she does when driving a car, or the native language speaker who uses but cannot explain the grammatical forms they are using when speaking. [16]

Polanyi is useful as he shows that theorising is a huge challenge as it requires a step change in the way we think. However, this step change cannot be forced as we need to know in detail what we are theorising about. Perhaps because theorising is such a challenge, and to a degree a process of forgetting, researchers often describe theoretical breakthroughs as a revelation –  they get very excited when it all falls into place. As a example a recent review of Silent Spring  [17] cites Rachel Carson reflecting on her ‘aha moment’ – this is the moment when she can see the disparate data she has on environmental destruction fits into a pattern – the over use of pesticides such as DDT. Carson, like others, uses the metaphor of the jigsaw puzzle:

Recently some of my thinking on all this has begun to fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle … a great light is breaking in my mind’

and she adds

I have a comforting feeling that  what I shall now be able to achieve  is a synthesis of widely scattered facts, that have not heretofore been considered in relation to each other. It is now possible to build up…a really  damning case against the use of these  chemicals as they are now inflicted upon us.’ [18]

I don’t think it is possible to legislate for the kind of thinking that theorising captures but I can make some suggestions. If trying to theorise it is surely a good idea to step back physically from the data, literally go outside and just think what is the central idea in all you have been looking at. Try to notice what lies behind what you have found out.  Try talking to other people about your ideas, they wont listen to you, but rehearse what is running through your head. Be kind on yourself, don’t assume what you have found is unimportant or not worth knowing, it usually is. Compare your central idea to the literature but be critical of the literature. Try to notice the gaps or things that are not being said. I hear a lot from students who say they have not really understood something they have read,   they don’t quite get it. But it could be that they don’t get it because there is something  in the literature that is missing, not ‘getting it’ might  be a really important step to some new insight.  If you want to be more organised in theorising try looking too at the same data through different perspectives, a kind of theoretical triangulation. Few people do this but it can be illuminating [19] .

Finally whatever you do, be kind to yourself, this is hard.  Try to be gently assertive, put forward your ideas and be open about how you came to reach your conclusions. Argue persuasively but with kindness. Accept there are other ways to look at the data. It is not self-indulgence to theorise if you are a social researcher, it is the job.

[1] I have written about this in Hammond, M. (2018). ‘An interesting paper but not sufficiently  theoretical’: What does theorising in social  research look like?Methodological Innovations May- August 2018: 1-10.

[2] See for example Van der Veer, R. and J. Valsiner (1994). The Vygotsky Reader. Oxford, England, Blackwell.

[3] See for example Abend, G. (2008). The meaning of ‘theory’. Sociological Theory,26(2): 173-199 and Krause, M. (2016). The meanings of theorizing. The British Journal of Sociology,67(1): 23-29.

[4] Most articles will fit into these categories, in the talk I gave we looked at Davis, F. (1989). Perceived usefulness, perceived ease of use, and user acceptance of information technology. MIS Quarterly, 13(3), 319–340 as an example of modelling;  Fuchs, C. (2015). Reading Marx in the Information Age: A media and communication studies perspective on capital. London: Routledge as an example of interrogating key thinkers; Piketty, T. (2015). About capital in the twenty-first century. American Economic Review, 105(5), 48-53 as an example of drawing attention to a relationship between variables; Rawls, J. (2009). A Theory Of Justice.MA: Harvard University Press as an example of speculating on what should happen; Reay, D. (2004). Gendering Bourdieu’s concepts of capitals? Emotional capital, women and social class. The Sociological Review, 52(2_suppl), 57-74 as an example of developing a new concept.

[5] See for example the aptly titled Kiley, M. (2015). I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about’: PhD candidates and theory. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 52(1): 52-63.

[6] Here we looked as an example at Banerjee, A. V., Cole, S., Duflo, E., & Linden, L. (2007). Remedying education: Evidence from two randomized experiments in India. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 122(3), 1235-1264. This was a study about using support teachers to support children falling behind in schools in India. It was well written and drew out data on achievement. Unlike some experimental studies it did offer an explanation for the success of an intervention but this was underdeveloped.

[7] There is a mass of work on Bourdieu but on forms of capital see for example Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital in J. Richardson (ed) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. NY, USA: Greenwood  241-258 as well as examples of applying the theory creatively in for example Reay earlier and Williams, S. (1995). Theorising class, health and lifestyles: can Bourdieu help us?,  Sociology of Health & Illness 17(5): 577-604.

[8] Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development, MA, USA: Harvard  University Press.

[9] Swedberg is insightful throughout see for example:

Swedberg, R. (2015). “Before Theory Comes Theorizing or How to Make Social Science More Interesting, British Journal of Sociology 2015 Annual Public Lecture.” [online] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34DME7lCe1I

Swedberg, R. (2016). Before theory comes theorizing or how to make social science more interesting.The British Journal of Sociology 67(1): 5-22

Swedberg, R. (2016). Can you visualize theory? On the use of visual thinking in theory pictures, theorizing diagrams, and visual sketches. Sociological Theory34(3): 250-275.

[10] Peirce’s ideas of guessing can be found in his collected works ( 1907, ca., Guessing. MS 687) and the account of the watch is in a republished article Peirce, C. (1929) Guessing, The Hound and Horn, 2, 267-282

[11] Conan Doyle (1887) see also discussion in Sebok (1981) and Walton (2015).

Conan Doyle, A. (1887). A Study in Scarlet, Project Gutenberg [online]. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/244/244-h/244-h.htm.

Sebok, T., & Umiker-Sebok, J. (1981). You Know My Method; A juxtaposition of Charles S. Peirce and Sherlock Holmes. Indiana, USA: Gaslight Publications and more analytically Walton, D. (2015). Argument Evaluation and Evidence. Cham, CH: Springer.

[12] The fashion now is to show the detective can overlook what is important, and does not get it right without a great deal of backtracking, as in Wallender, Spiral, The Bridge

Wallender:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurt_Wallander

Spiral:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiral_(TV_series)

The Bridge: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bridge_(2011_TV_series)

[13] For example The Billion Pound Party – Stacey Dooley Investigates The DUP [online] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBNY8rhng6E

[14] Mills, C. W. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

[15] Eco, U. (2015). How to Write a Thesis. MA: MIT Press.

[16] Polanyi, M. (1958). Personal knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press.

[17] Crist, M. (2019). “Rachel Carson’s Forebodings.” London Review of Books 41(11).

[18] Carson, R. (1962). Silent Spring. MA, USA, Houghton Miff.

[19]   Jackson, A. Y. and L. Mazzei (2011). Thinking with Theory in Qualitative Research: Viewing data across multiple perspectives, London: Routledge is unusual in looking at the same data from different standpoints (including Derrida; Foucault; Butler; and Delueze). Mol (2002) The Body Multiple, Duke University Press is an interesting example as the authors separate out the empirical and the theoretical in a study that looks at the day-to-day diagnosis and treatment of atherosclerosis in a Dutch hospital.

Is it few or less people?

I have to read a lot of essays and theses recently and notice that I am getting a obsessive about the ‘correct’ use of language. I don’t like myself for it as I consider myself as flexible and tolerant about the way that language is used. More specifically, I think language rules should be descriptive rather than prescriptive, i.e. they should describe how the language is used rather than how it should be used. This means that if I was a rich man is normal (rather than the subjunctive if I were), and less people is OK now that fewer is falling into disuse. There is always power bound up with language, and over zealous interpretation of language rules is an effective way for those with cultural power to discount the voices of some people – for if people cannot express themselves correctly why should we listen to them? [1].

So it is no good being too pedantic but following rules is important for it is really quite disruptive when a writer breaks the rules – for example the switching of US and English spelling such as practice / practise and program / programme or numbers written as both digits (10) and in full (ten) at different points in a text.  But it is also the breaking of the rules in the first place which distracts. For example I know academic colleagues who are quite OK about contractions in a text (isn’t, couldn’t, won’t) but I find  contractions hold me up – I suddenly notice the form of what is being said rather than the idea itself. And of course being stopped in your tracks is frustrating.  I realise, of course, that if we all stuck rigidly to  expectations around language then nothing would change. After all, it does not really matter in terms of meaning whether you contract is not or could not and, going further, would it really matter if we got rid of apostrophes completely as we could understand the meaning from context. But for the moment I want to follow the rules.

Typos are disruptive too but they a different matter. They are not about wanting to change the rules but just things you missed. They are inevitable [2]. For example with a colleague I have just finished writing a book about education research, as writers we checked each other’s work and later my partner kindly read the whole thing.  The book was then proof read formally by the publisher, yet when it came back there were still a number of typos and for that matter one ‘howler’. These have been amended but there will be others we missed even after all this combined checking. I try not to worry as most people will miss them too and will be forgiving but it is distressing how typos leap of the page when you finally read a finished text. The good thing about Blogs is that mistakes are forgiven, they can also be rectified.

[1] One of the interventions I recall reading came from Labov (1972) Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence writing about value judgements on the way that inner-city children in USA speak. This is archived in several places including  

[online] https://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/95sep/ets/labo.htm

[2] A recent blog Academic Oscura makes me feel better [online] http://www.academiaobscura.com/oops/

Hirsch and Education

In looking at intolerance in public debate  I found several people recommending that we went out and took time to engage with ideas that we know, or think we know, we will disagree with. In this spirit I wanted to look at conservatives on education and I turned first to Hirsch.

It was easy to identify Hirsch as one of the key voices in conservative thinking. His best seller ‘The Schools We Need’ [1] was a key text and was often seen as inspiring Michael Gove when he was in charge of the education in England. So what did Hirsch say?

Like most critics who want us to radically change something he felt he had to make the case that it was all going pear-shaped. Here he is writing about USA but it is the kind of thing that is repeated time and time again by anyone proposing change in any system:

Take a young boy or girl from a typical American family who goes to a typical American school, and imagine that child growing up in France or Germany, Japan or Taiwan. Few would choose to make the experiment. Most Americans believe, as do I, that this country, with its traditions of political freedom and its generous optimism, is the greatest country in the world. But the evidence is strong that that very same young child would grow up more competent in those other countries than in the United States–through having learned much, much more at school in the early grades. Although our political traditions and even our universities may be without peer, our K-12 education is among the least effective in the developed world. Its controlling theories, curricular incoherencies, and what I call its ‘naturalistic fallacies’ are positive barriers to a good education. Scholars from abroad who study American schools are astonished that our children, who score very low in international comparisons, are actually as competent as they manage to be.

What is going wrong for Hirsch is an achievement gap; USA children are falling behind children in other countries and as he later argues it is more socially disadvantaged children who are falling even more behind. Why is this? For Hirsch education in the USA is overly influenced by ‘discredited’ theories of education based on a romantic view of childhood and an anti-knowledge culture in schools.

This is playing to his conservative audience. However what makes Hirsch a powerful protagonist is that he tries to make a pragmatic case for reform. For example he calls out the knee-jerk responses that both political conservatives and liberals make about education and argues that it is possible to take arguments about education on their merits; he describes himself as socially liberal but educationally conservative. He also claims his agenda is concerned not with selection but with underachievement among the socially disadvantaged, including disproportionate numbers of black children, and wants all children to succeed. He proposes a common curriculum, rather than free market solutions such as Charter schools. Hirsch argues too that all children need to gain the ability to read write and communicate clearly, and unless they have the same kind of core knowledge of nature and culture, then they will not be able to participate fully in society and will not enjoy better economic prospects.

Core knowledge is the thing for Hirsch and teaching this core knowledge is more important than so called generic skills, or higher order skills. Hirsch argues that all advanced skills rest upon prior knowledge and without grounding in core knowledge children do not have a hook on which to hang new ideas. Not surprisingly he is critical too of the argument that technology has made memorisation and knowledge of facts redundant; there are things we do need to commit them to memory. Finally, he argues that on practical grounds that schemes of work should be specific as to content so that children have a common experiences on which to build when they move classes or, as often happens, when they move school.

Hirsch is at his most persuasive when he is pragmatic. He agues, at least at times, not for one approach instead of another but a rebalancing so that there is more direct teaching and less project work. He is open to change in the curriculum to reflect multi-cultural society but such change should not detract from rigour or undermine a common curriculum. He values memorisation but he is not basing his educational ideas on the kind of crass behaviourism beloved by some conservative thinkers and recognises that the mind is a complex thing; teaching approaches such as phonics are not an end in themselves but needed for other academic skills to develop.   He accepts that learners ‘construct’ their ideas, they subjectively interpret what they are given and actively try to make sense of it for themselves. However such constructivism does not mean there is a particular pedagogical approach that should be followed, you can be a good constructivist learner in an instructional class as easily as in a project class.  He does not like individualisation or new fangled ideas such as personalisation of the curriculum and does not like the idea of learning styles.

So what was it worthwhile to explore something I knew I would not agree with? Well, yes as I learnt not to lump conservatism in education with the specific political programmes put forward by Conservative parties, particularly in UK and USA. I discovered that conservatism is really about handing down the past to a new generation. As such it can cut across the political divide – for example Hannah Arendt [2] who was a liberal philosopher was unexpectedly conservative on education matters and had no truck with ‘progressive’ education. Her point was that she wanted teachers to be in authority and feel their authority in the classroom. What I liked in Hirsch was a passion for education and a reaffirmation of the importance of academic knowledge as something that really helped you to think and achieve in life. What I didn’t like was the idea that it was all going wrong – really everywhere and every day?.

I didn’t mind the hard-headed approach when it came to knowledge but you can see how Hirsch could be taken as advocating a diet of rote learning, which is very wrong. He needed to say how the kind of instructional teaching he likes can engage children and what kind of balance should there be between instruction and more flexible guided practice. We also need to know how all this instructional teaching can lead later to free expression of ideas. He is pretty much hands-off as regards curriculum reform, but why not move the curriculum into areas which have more relevance or hold more interest to young learners.

Hirsch is least persuasive when cherry picking evidence and making sweeping generalisation. That was just annoying. For him education professors are fighting battles of long ago: they are all of one mind, they have little intellectual rigour and standing, and  they do not tolerate dissent. I have not lived in USA but the US education academics I have met were, like most academics everywhere, geeky and obsessive about teaching and learning rather than consistently ‘progressive’.

So the exercise in this case was worthwhile. I could see much better what lay behind Hirsch’s ideas but I was not a convert.

[1] Hirsch, E. D. (2010). The Schools We Need: and Why We Don’t Have Them. NY, USA, Anchor.

[2]Arendt, H. (1961 / 1977). Between Past and Present. London: Penguin.