Football, schools and a changing world

Every year our research students put on a conference and the theme for this year was education in a changing world. For me one of the most obvious but far reaching features of this changing world is our interconnectedness. What happens faraway can have a resonance in ways that were not envisaged in the past. This has many implications for education but, as often seems to happen these days, during the conference my thoughts ended up focused more on football than teaching and learning.

I grew up playing football, it seemed like every day, with friends in streets and parks and became attached to a local team. I got a glimpse of international footballers on when there was a World cup on television, but after these competitions were over they disappeared as far as I was concerned. Football was local – the players lived locally and modestly. Indeed, without too much difficulty my friend and I, as ten or eleven year olds, found out where one of our team’s leading strikers lived. We went round and offered to wash his car. He declined but chatted to us for a while about his international career and being a footballer. It is impossible to imagine that today. We were only vaguely aware of clubs being owned – but they were – usually by long established local families with business connections.

English football was historically slow to take part in European and World cup competitions but both clubs and the national team had some success [1]. To grow up supporting England was to carry a sense of superiority which lingered for long after its sell by date. It is only in more recent years that most of us not only rule out the possibility of England winning an international competition but we hardly expect the national side to progress beyond the first world.

Like many others I fell out of love with the game in the 1980’s. I still went when I could but at worst football became tribal and intolerant. This is touched on well by Nick Hornby [2] who describes taking a group of international students to Wembley to watch an England play Holland in 1988. He explains how he first had to negotiate a ‘determined and indiscriminate’ mounted police charge and he and his students were only reluctantly let into a stadium in which the entrance doors were ‘hanging by a thread’. Once inside they found themselves outnumbered by thuggish looking individuals who had taken their seats:

There wasn’t a steward in sight we stood and watched for half an hour during which Holland took a two one lead; the dreadlocked Gullit, the main reason why the game had sold out in the first place, provoked monkey noises every time he touched the ball. Just before half time we gave up and went home. (Hornby, 1992: 202)

For me (and for many) attachment to the game changed with 1990 World Cup in Italy. It was by some accounts one of the poorest events in terms of the football played but England for the first time in a while were great and were involved in most of the best, or at least most watchable, games in the tournament [3]. Even those not interested in football would talk about Lineker and Gascoine the morning after a game.

Since then English league football, as with other European leagues, quickly went on to become a global phenomenon. Owners, players and coaching staff came from around the world, top games were televised globally. Why did this happen? Well you don’t have to be an economist to see that those with money are chasing markets and doing so in a world with fewer borders. It becomes quite attractive to buy into the top clubs in Europe. It is not that they make a lot of trading profit but the value of the club goes up year on year as the money going into the game increases. And you don’t have to be technologist to realise that this global appeal is made possible by technology. But with what consequences?

If you want to draw up a balance sheet you will find, the game is played better, barriers of nation state seem looser, football seems to capture a cosy cosmopolitanism. The unthinking tribalism of the game has not gone away but is much reduced. We periodically take international footballers to our hearts; what matters is style, commitment and results [4].

Football’s global appeal works in good ways. Consider here the example of five-year-old Afghani Murtaza Ahmadi. His image ‘went viral’ on the Intenret when he was captured wearing a shirt made of a blue and white plastic bag with 10 coloured on on his back. Ten was the number of his hero Leionil Messi and the blue and white ‘shirt’ was the colour of the Argentinian team. According to reports Murtaza knew about Messi as the family could watch a solar panel powered televison in his village in Afghanistan. Murtaza became an Internet hit, he got to meet Messi. The end of the story is complicated but in short, and I am relying on journalist accounts, Murtaza and his family found it difficult to continue to live in Afghanistan. [5]

So what is the flip side of this globalization. First, we don’t ask enough questions about where the money is coming from and where it is going. It can leave as quickly as it came and it leaks in and out in appalling ways – even as became the case in Spain with the brilliant and saintly Messi [6]. In England we now has several clubs who have been taken over by owners who have led them close to ruin. Of course the common element here is naivety (the new owners do not get the fundamental point about football that you do not know if you are going to win), rather than international ownership, but there is no doubt that the connection with the local is being lost [7]. In the past you had supporters with a higher sense of identification with their club albeit with all the risks of insularity and conservatism that brought. Now you can have looser knit supporters and clubs with global appeal, but this has left many alienated from the clubs they have long supported [8].

I did manage to refocus my thoughts on the conference and away from football and this confirmed for me this almost universal challenge of balancing local and global attachment [9]. At the conference I was able to speak to several teachers strongly committed to their local communities but also trying to help their children think about global citizenship. As ever some of this work took your breath away in terms of imagination and commitment but I was left thinking that, once again, that we are asking a lot of our schools and our teachers.

[1] The UK is unique in world football in having recognised leagues in each of the countries of the union. For the record, Scottish clubs (Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen) all experienced success in European competitions too.

[2] Fever Pitch – this is Nick Hornby’s account of obsession with Arsenal, the book was first published in 1992.

[3] England were knocked out in the semi-final on penalties.

[4] To be fair this was always the case. Bert Trautmann a German prisoner of war who stayed on in England at the end of the war (1945) became a legend at Manchester City, as did the Argentinian Osie Ardiles at Spurs even with the interruption of war with Argentina (1982).

[5] Here is some background to Murtaza Ahmadi

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/38301293

and a follow up story at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-36192300

[6] More on Messi, who is on some accounts paid 400, 000 Euro a week, at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-36721892

[7] If you want to follow these things further here are blogs and articles on English clubs in trouble. This is Coventry (owned by hedge fund SISU):

https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2016/oct/12/coventry-city-decline-despair-league-one

and Blackburn owned by Indian entrepreneurs, the Venkys:

https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2017/feb/18/blackburn-manchester-united-venkys-fa-cup

This is a more general piece including the goings on at Blackpool (owned by the Royston family) and Charlton (owned by Belgian entrepreneur Roland Duchâtelet:

https://www.theguardian.com/football/the-agony-and-the-ecstasy/2016/oct/03/football-fans-protest-club-owners-blackburn-coventry-charlton

[8] Here are some filmed interviews around identification with a club, covering supporters of Charlton and then supporters of Leyton Orient. The latter owned by the Italian Francesco Becchetti

https://www.theguardian.com/football/video/2017/apr/26/charlton-athletic-and-the-fight-for-the-clubs-future-video

https://www.theguardian.com/football/video/2017/apr/24/its-like-a-circus-here-leyton-orient-fans-furious-with-owner-after-relegation-video

[9] I tried to think about this more in the context of social media at

http://www.inderscienceonline.com/doi/abs/10.1504/IJWBC.2017.082717

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photography and social research

I have often felt in doing research that I have missed out on using photographs, but when it comes to it I am not sure what an image tells us. Or rather my suspicion is, to borrow a phrase from Ryle [1], that an image gives you a ‘thin’ description’, it shows you what is happening but not why it is happening or the intention of the person doing it. Words offer the possibility of a thick description and I would much prefer, for example, to read George Orwell on shooting an elephant [2] rather than look at a photo or see a film of the same thing – though to be fair a photo has the particular value that it could have established whether Orwell really did shoot an elephant or not.

Two sets of photographs have recently grabbed my attention. Both from 1930’s and early 1940’s. The historical context is important as this is the period in which small, reliable and affordable hand held cameras were coming on to the market triggering a new interest in photography, just as hand held video cameras and now Smart/ I phones have led to an explosion of moving images being taken today.

The first set of photographs were taken by [3] Bateson and Mead – in fact of the two Bateson seems to have led on the photography. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson were both established social researchers and were excited about using photos in their ethnographic reporting as this might fill a gap between ‘journalistic description’ and ‘over analytical disembodied discussion’. The book they produced was a mix of text (Mead provided the written descriptions of Balinese culture, for example, covering topics including learning, integration of the body, parents and children, rites of passages and so on) Bateson’s photographs could illustrate through image what was being described in text. The book was first published in 1942 though the images were taken some time earlier when, over a period of time, they immersed themselves into Balinese life. [4]

Bateson and Mead worked with a great many photos as well as some short film clips. Interestingly they did not ask permission to take photographs and their subjects, they suggest, had lost a sense of self consciousness as they had got used to the sight of cameras being carried around the village. Very few of the compositions were in any sense ‘posed’ and this the authors see as giving their work greater authenticity.

Mead and Bateson were leading social researchers of the last century and they have been rightly celebrated; if judgments are to be made about their work then these should be framed by the times in which they lived. Mead and Bateson wanted to learn from the communities they studied and they offer some fascinating insight not least in respect to education. In a section about learning Mead describes a socialisation framework which might be seen as a community of practice. Children it is said learn virtually nothing from verbal instruction and even in story telling words must be repeated to have meaning. However some of the text really grates to the contemporary reader and many would question  the process by which western ethnographers come to enter and appraise traditional community. The photos look horribly intrusive and Mead and Bateson did not follow through on the ethical issues raised by their methods and I doubt if any of their colleagues or readers at the time would have done so either. [5]   The pictures are helpful to support the text but they are secondary. To be honest they remind me of tourist ‘snapshots’ more than anything else (nothing wrong with that of course but unsettling in the context of social research). Mead and Bateson set out to avoid presenting Balinese culture as disembodied and being over analytical, yet in tone that is what they have done.

Around the same time that Mead and Bateson were in Bali, other American photographers, some of the key names were Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein and Roy Stryker, were working on documenting the experiences of smallholders in the USA itself.  This was the work of the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration Programme (the FSA) – the FSA programme being part of the interventionist New Deal to tackle unemployment and poverty. In particular smallholders in central USA were made destitute not only by the economic depression but also by ecological catastrophe. Farm land in the plains was always susceptible to drought and erosion but the soil could be held together by grass. As the great plains were ploughed up the soil lost its binding and come the droughts the soil simply blew away in great dust clouds [7]. Faced with the destitution of farmers the government at first did very little but the New Deal offered by Roosevelt offered more, though how radical has always remained a matter of debate. The idea of a historical section seems to have been to record the lives and trials of shareholder farmers in the hope that this would generate a sense of social solidarity leading to action to address their plight. The photographers working on the project produced a very large numbers of images which can be accessed in library of Congress web site [6].

Many of the photos draw the viewer in and do what they set out to do which is to provoke an emotional response. I don’t want to overdo the contrast between these photographs and those of Bateson as the FSA ones were taken by professional photographers and were designed to persuade not just to document. However it needs to be said that the photos are engaging and humanist in ways that Bateson’s are not. Interestingly though, similar ethical issues are raised by both sets of photographs as the FSA photographers did not seek permission from their subjects either  and there has been some talk of smallholder  being unhappy at the way their lives were documented.

The FSA collection remains haunting. And particularly so as it seems to offer a direct  comparison with the images we have of, displacement and forced migration  in particular from Syria into Europe.

Photographs

The images below are available from the Library of Congress and are respectively titled:

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma (Arthur Rubinstein April 1936)

dust-storm

Children of destitute Ozark mountaineer, Arkansas (Ben Shahn, October 1935)

destitute-children

Toward Los Angeles, Calif. (Dorothea Lange March 1937).

next-time

Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California (Dorothea Lange, February or March 1936)

pea-picker

(Note the collection is available to view via the Library of Congress and I understand is copyright free but apologise in advance if this is not case.)

[1] Ryle, G. (1968) The Thinking of thoughts, What is ‘Le Penseur’ doing?, University Lectures No 18, University of Saskatchewan. Online. Available HTTP: <http://lucy.ukc.ac.uk/CSACSIA/Vol14/Papers/ryle_1.html>

[2] Orwell (1936) Shooting an Elephant is in various collections but can be accessed at the Orwell archive online at http://orwell.ru/library/articles/elephant/english/e_eleph

[3] Bateson, G.and Mead, M. (1942) Balinese Character A photographic analysis New York Academy of Sciences, New York

[4] It is a grey area but I don’t think I have permission to upload photographs to the site but you can see them on a web site publicising a ibrary of congress event at

https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/mead/field-bali.html

[5] a contrasting approach is to give cameras to participants in order that they may make their own images and discuss them together – see for a example Johnsen, S. et al (2008) Imagining ‘homeless places’ Area, 40, 2. 194-207.

[6] I became aware of these photos via an exhibition at my university: The Photography of Persuasion from 1930’s America http://www.warwickartscentre.co.uk/whats-on/2016/the-human-document/

[7] Some of the context can be seen in the film ‘The Plow that Broke the Plains’.  I found it extraordinary. The film can be easily accessed on You Tube, for example at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQCwhjWNcH8

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Language learning: a thing of the past?

Language classes started again at our university and I have re-enrolled at intermediate German. From a technology point of view why bother? Online translation programmes are free and efficient and speech recognition has improved to such an extent that there is frequent talk of mobile translation devices that can really work  [1]. In fact progress has been startling and from the programming point of view the interesting thing about speech recognition, and now translation, is that it has developed by throwing large set of data at the problem rather than rule based artificial intelligence [2]. This leaves the whole process based on probabilistic modelling – something which cannot provide the 100 per cent accuracy needed in certain situations and which we would certainly need to trouble shoot breakdowns in communication and to get over more nuanced messages. Will we ever be able to move across cultures with satisfactory translation devices?  To be honest I would like to think not but incremental progress is being made. In the meantime some of us at least will plug away at learning another language and will look towards technology to help.

Of course what goes on in the head when we try to learn remains all too familiar, it is a time consuming process, two steps forward one step back. However technology seems to have sped things up or at least provided some variety. I use online translation as a support for writing, or for getting rough idea of a text before looking at individual words in more detail. I can access several online dictionaries and online conjugations databases. There are a growing number of people producing vlogs on language learning – in part these appear to be a mix of exhibitionism, public service provision and implicit promotion of teaching and translation services. Some are very useful. After having expressed an interest I get reminders to use Babel Fish and Duolingo however I find I can no longer stand online drills and quizzes.  I can find for myself any number of films in target languages on You Tube and I can send occasional emails to friends in Germany. In the case of German there are quite imaginative online materials offered by Deutsche Welle [3] and here it is striking how far their language support work is addressing the concerns of new arrivals as well as traditional audiences of tourists and travellers.

Using available technology for language learning is not of course new and it is always interesting to see the hopes generated by its use in the past. Linguaphone was one of the first to get into technology, using wax cylinder recording of the target language, crude, but something greeted at the time with widespread enthusiasm.  Recordings were of course later captured on vinyl and now digitally.

The other day I was given a box set of German course offered by Linguaphone back in 1961. The box consisted of several vinyl records with transcripts of dialogues and back up material in books. For many years Linguaphone was the ‘go to’ provider of distance learning language courses at least for those who could afford it (or whose organisations could afford it) but not only the technology but the materials now feel very dated in this box set. Linguaphone seemed to have made an assumption that language learning was a middle class, conservative pursuit [4]. Some of the contexts must have been crackers even in 1961. Here is a model sentence at a dinner party:

Die Damen unterhalten sich über gemeinsame Freunde und die letzte Mode. Wir Männer sprechen über Politik, Geschäft un die Tagesneuigkeiten. [5]

I saw the same thing in a Spanish box set years ago and I expect Linguaphone used the same framework for each course it offered and slotted in the required language [6] as it suited. I doubt if these contexts changed much over the years either.

Other shortcomings in my Linguaphone box set are that the grammar is covered very quickly and there is no meaningful authentic material. However the key underlying problem with any old style distance learning, and indeed with language labs, is that it is, at the least, very difficult to carry out an authentic conversation when talking to a record or tape recorder – it is all a rehearsal and feels mindless.

It is easy to mock my Linguaphone box set and the view of language learning contained within it, but it is not all bad. Although we tend to see language learning in the past as dominated by a direct method (a numbing succession of listen, repeat drills) there is a lot of back up material in Linguaphone which explains how the language works. It is a much more of a mixed approach than you would realise from the way Linguaphone advertised itself. We tend further to assume that old style distance learning was based on a transmission model  – the material landed on the doormat and that was that. However designers did understand the need to interact with learners and in my box set there is a letter, which I guess was constructed by Linguaphone but sent out and personalised by a tutor. The letter is stiff but kindly [7], and invites the learner to send in responses to exercises and to raise any questions about learning the language with him.

Linguaphone exists today and has, I guess, updated its material. However it must be a struggle for anyone to attract customers for a paid-for course when there is so much available online for free. Looking back you can see how technology (including wax cylinder recordings) have consistently triggered high expectations.  I think much more is at stake in learning a language than decoding model sentences and this is a shortcoming of Linguaphone and much language teaching today. It also suggests there are limits on what online translation can do. But if the alternative is listen and repeat drills or translation devices no wonder we look towards new technology.

[1] To be honest I have not looked at the academic literature here but this blog captures some of the possible consequences for practice:

Ballantyne, N. (2015) Skype’s real-time translator – the end of language learning? at

https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/skypes-real-time-translator-end-language-learning

Though note how things have moved on. You can follow up on various commercial demonstrations of real time translation on YouTube, eg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G87pHe6mP0I

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rek3jjbYRLo

[2]  My understanding is sketchy but I enjoyed a talk on breaking down speech recognition at:

https://www2.warwick.ac.uk/newsandevents/events/distinguishedlecture/andrewblake

[3] DW Lernen is at http://www.dw.com/en/learn-german/s-2469

[4] An earlier dialogue for learners of English on buying pipe tobacco has generated a very large number of hits as it features J.R. R.Tolkein of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fame. It is bonkers:

http://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Early-spoken-word-recordings/024M-1CS0011542XX-0100V0

[5] My best guess here is:

The women chat about their mutual friends and the latest fashions. We men talk about politics, business and the news of the day.

To go back to my earlier point Google translate has this as:

The ladies talk about common friends and the last fashion. We men talk about politics, business and the day novelties.

You could not fail to get the meaning from this but that is about it.

[6]  A trick pulled off by many publishers over the years and carried off with panache by makers of Extra – a programme for learning Spanish / French / German aimed at schools.

http://www.channel4learning.com/sites/extra/

[7]  Some of the letter (minus identifying names and addresses) can be seen here excerpt

Social Science and Difficulties With Theory

It is difficult for those not following the field to get the importance given to theory in social research; researchers are continually asked to be theoretical and to align themselves with a position of some sort or another. To be theoretical is to lift your research to a ‘higher plane’; to deal with the world not just as it presents itself but to step back and offer an explanation as to how and why things happen as they do. Theory allows us to move from observations (for example we might see that young people are more likely to vote for anti-establishment parties) towards an explanation (for example we might propose a theory of behaviour that says that those with less of a stake in a system are more likely to want to change it; a theory of maturation that says part of growing up is to experience a sense of exuberance and an enhanced sense of agency; a theory of association that says young people are adept at creating counter cultural ‘spaces’ and so on). It is theory which moves social science into a wider narrative about the way the world works; for doctoral students it is always a damning put down if told ‘yes your thesis is very good but where is the theory?’.

But are we over rating ‘theory’? Here it is worth remembering that in everyday conversation someone described as ‘theoretical’ may lead of us think of someone who is obsessed by abstraction, someone who follows what the theory says and ignores what is in front of them. There is a further put down of theory: it often dresses up in complicated ways something that is quite easy to understand. Probably apocryphal, but there is a anecdote about an earnest young intellectual in the 1930’s who is excitedly explaining to an unemployed shipyard worker that Marx had written a book with a theory to explain that the capitalist system was structurally designed to impoverish the worker. The response was ‘you mean someone wrote a whole book about that?’.

At this point I should say that I like reading and writing about theories and much more than I ever did in the past. I still however feel that there is something unbearably smug about some ‘theoreticians’ as shown in the disdain expressed for the ‘merely descriptive social research’. I remember how my horizons expanded through reading the classics of participant observation (for example communities studies associated with the Chicago School [1]) and I can imagine how they would be put down by some theorists today. I remember too a tutor who had pinned up on his door a piece from Goethe along the lines that ‘description was the richest form of explanation’ [2], this I found oddly inspiring and led me into an interest in phenomenology. A descriptive account of a phenomenon (natural or social) is explanatory [3].

So why have my feeling about theory changed? In part it is the realisation that in looking at a theory you don’t have to buy into the whole package, it is tempting to do so but you do not need to. Indeed there is rarely a whole package to buy into. If you look at any of the key thinkers you can find differences of emphasis in their work depending on what they were trying to address at the time, and in any case you can only read them with a contemporary purpose in mind, very often a purpose theorists could not have envisaged when they were first putting their ideas forward. When all is said is and done a theory is ‘simply’ a lens on something, it illuminates what is happening and, in so doing, it necessarily closes off other perspectives on the problem. The pleasure of using theory is in describing the view.

My thoughts about theory were prompted recently by reading a paper by Sue Timmis on cultural historical activity theory or CHAT [4] For those interested CHAT was a theory which grew out of social constructivist theory of Vygotsky and particularly developed by Engerström, Cole and others [5]. Vygotsky (1978) can be understood as someone who helped expand our focus on learning from what was happening ‘in the head of the individual learner’ to the wider world of tools, artefacts and people that surround the learner and with which they can and do engage. This perspective was further extended into a wider Activity System covering not only subject (the person doing), the object (the purpose of what the person was doing), outcomes (what happens), tools and artefacts (which include both physical and cultural tools such as language and signs) but also the context in which the activity is taking place, the rules, community and division of labour by and within which people work and share their work. This Activity System or CHAT has often been presented as a set of triangles within triangles – these have been endlessly reproduced but see for example go to Wikipedia to see examples http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural-Historical_Activity_Theory_(CHAT)

The paper by Timmis is very good and takes you through the different ‘waves’ of CHAT. She highlights the problems of over interpreting ‘the triangles’ and argues that the point of CHAT is not simply to show that while we are all constrained by what is culturally and physical available to us we should notice the tensions and contradictions within a system and the opportunities for change.

I thoroughly enjoyed the paper but did not end up convinced by CHAT and I wondered why not? In part I cannot get out of my head all those wretched triangles – it is all very well for flexible interpreters of CHAT to point out that the triangles were only introduced to draw your attention to key issues but, once lodged in your mind, they rigidly frame the way you look at a case. This dominance is reinforced as the framework is so all encompassing it is practically impossible to think of a situation in which it could not be applied – in other words if you look for an Activity System you will find it. The second problem, a related one, is that the holistic picture that CHAT provides might not be as valuable as it appears. It seems to me that theories work best by offering distinctive perspectives on one thing or another, rather than trying to get to grips with the whole picture. The pleasure in social science is flipping between perspectives, for example switching between an account of the small scale and local to one which deals with the large scale and structural. In my, albeit limited, experience those using CHAT are trying to capture both the small and the large picture at the same time and end up not saying as much as they could either about the wider structural issues which constrain us or about our exercise of agency. Anyway make your own mind up, and particularly if interested in educational technology, I recommend the Timmis paper.

[1] I am thinking of classics such as Louis Wirth (1928) The Ghetto (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1928) and William Whyte (1943) Street Corner Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] For example see From Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature, David Seamon & Arthur Zajonc, editors. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998] – I was able to access this online.

[3] In respect to social research, see for example notes on ‘thick description’ in Geertz, C. (1972) Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight, Daedalus, 101, 1, Myth, Symbol, and Culture – again I was able to access this online.

[4] Timmis, S. (2014). The dialectical potential of Cultural Historical Activity Theory for researching sustainable CSCL practices. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 9(1), 7-32.

[5] Cole, M., & Engerström, Y. (1993). A cultural-historic approach to distributed cognition. In G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed Cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations. Cambridge: University of Cambridge.