Monthly Archives: February 2012

A working class hero is something to be

Growing up on a council estate doesn’t make you better or worse than anyone else, but apparently it means you’re at a huge disadvantage in terms of education.

BBC News (2007) reported that more than half of the British population describe themselves as ‘working class’ – and yet the definition that the media usually uses to describe “working class” pupils, due to statistics using this figure being much more easily obtainable and allowing journalists to avoid the decision of how to define “working class” (e.g. NRS?), is the extremely short-sighted and unrepresentative number of pupils receiving free school meals (FSM), which is closer to 13% of the population. Headlines such as the following dominate education stories in tabloids and broadsheets alike:


Johnson, Brett & Deary (2009) argue that the relationship between class and attainment is largely cyclical, with education being the key to social mobility: “Parental social class contributed to educational attainment, which in turn contributed to participant social class attainment, suggesting that educational attainment contributed to social class stability…Education was important to social mobility and, where measured, mental ability contributed to educational attainment. Education thus appeared to play a pivotal role in the association between ability and social class attainment.

Educational inequalities associated with social class do not appear to be equally important for all students regardless of ethnic background (Gillborn, 2008, 53), so it makes sense to consider the effects of both and their interaction. Gillborn, Rollock, Vincent and Bell (2012) carried out the “biggest qualitative study of education and the Black middle class yet conducted in the UK”. They found that white students are actually the least likely to receive FSM, but the achievement of those that do is lowest. In other words, there is a large FSM gap for white students (32.5%) because of the combination of high non-FSM attainment and low FSM attainment. Gillborn et al. also argue that “a focus on White FSM students has the effect of removing wider race inequalities from view…Race and class dis/advantages are reported in the media [in a way that] serves to advance White interests…Deep and persistent patterns of overall race inequality have been erased from the policy agenda; the fact that most minoritised groups are out-performed by their White peers is entirely absent from debate.”

Sveinsson (2009, 5) appears to agree with the conclusions of Gillborn et al.: “The interests of the white working class are habitually pitched against those of minority ethnic groups and immigrants…there is a fairly consistent message that the white working class are the losers in the struggle for scarce resources, while minority ethnic groups are the winners – at the direct expense of the whiteworking class.” Sounds familiar…

Shepherd (2010): “One of the reasons why class determines how white pupils perform at school is that white workingclass parents may have lower expectations of their children than workingclass parents from other ethnic groups.”

I’ve already talked about the effect of teacher/parents expectations on student performance (Week 1) – clearly it’s an important factor. Siraj-Blatchford (2010)found that disadvantaged families often have high expectations for their children and provide a lot of educational support through ‘concerted cultivation’. (Concerted cultivation, n. The premise that children’s talents and skills will be fully realised if they are actively fostered by parents.)

Lareau (2003) found that lower socio-economic status (SES) correlates with fewer after-school activities per week. Similarly, Lareau & Weininger (2007)found that 93% of children with mothers who have a degree, took part in an out-of-school-hours learning activity, compared with 54% if the mother has no qualifications. There’s all sorts of reasons why this might be the case, the most obvious being availability and financial reasons – but there’s evidence such as the KIPP programme I talked about in Week 1 (and mentioned earlier), which replicates these kinds of behaviours regardless of SES or parents’ academic background (and regards such practices as key to their schools’ success), which would suggest that this and other similar efforts make a huge difference to children’s academic achievement.

The esteemed Prof. Steve Strand (Professor of Education among other things,University of Warwick) contends that the effects of poverty are “much less pronounced for most minority ethnic groups…Those from low socio-economic backgrounds seem to be much more resilient to the impact of disadvantage than their white British peers.”

For all their bleating about their efforts to admit more workingclass and ethnic minority students, the statistics show quite conclusively that they must try harder. This brilliant but poorly-designed visualisation (and this alternative visualisation – same data, but poorly-designed in a different way) illustrates the vast differences in workingclass student intake, by comparing statistics on numbers/percentages of workingclass first-degree entrants, as well as overall numbers, for every university (so far as I can be bothered to tell) in the UK. Take, for instance, Bangor University: 2,355 full-time first degree entrants at the time (2011), 33% of which are from “manual occupation backgrounds” (admittedly a narrow definition). A respectable score. Oxford and Cambridge: 2,875 and 2,930 respectively; 11.5% and 12.6% of which are from said background. The two lowest-scoring on the graph.

We all know that A-levels aren’t the most efficient way of discerning students’ ability – if AAB candidates are rejected as not displaying evidence of ability to learn, clearly the candidate isn’t to blame. Other forms of assessment such asPISA (p. 119) or even IB might be more appropriate, but ultimately other factors such as SES/social class and race are going to disadvantage some students from the very beginning. All the ‘affirmative action’ in the world will do no good unless we stop being so hyper-aware of social class and race, as well as eliminating institutional prejudice. Maybe realising that being a poor black kid isnot the same as being a middle-aged white guy, just with smaller and crappier stuff (#3). Why is this even an issue…? Discuss.

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Why Mark C. Taylor’s probably wrong

To put this week’s offering in context, this blog post was originally going to be a comment on Jesse’s HE blog, but it snowballed into a critique of Taylor’s NYT article among other things.

I think there is definitely some merit in the idea that universities should treat content as a vehicle with which to deliver skills rather than as an end in itself.

There’s been plenty of derision aimed towards the changes that universities have made since 1992, for example universities offering degrees in surfing – the existence of such courses has been used as evidence that the quality of tertiary education is declining (“If it is to be a degree, surely it has to be something that adds to the country’s heritage and our nation, like classics.” –P. Morris). What is overlooked in such cases, however, is that these kinds of courses are vocational, offer valuable and transferable skills along with highly specialised content, and generally serve a different purpose than reading Classics at Oxbridge (i.e. learning a trade). They’re also largely carried by former polytechnics – places of further education that were disparaged because they focused on applied education for work. There’s evidence that the role of these former polytechnics in delivering vocational education is one that should still be focused on, despite their development of offering more transferable skills since 1992 (cf. McKellar). Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that former polytechnics are better-equipped to prepare students for employment and give them a diverse and significant set of skills.

Universities largely appear to understand the importance of teaching skills rather than solely imparting knowledge, as is evidenced by various universities’ focus on, and initiatives to improve, employability. Despite this, many large businesses simply use 2:1 degrees as a cut-off mark for considering applications, simply because of the sheer number of applicants (83 for every position). But that’s a topic for another blog.

I still think, however, that there is also some value in the sentiment expressed by Mr Morris: the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, even if it’s the sole pursuit of a small collection of university lecturers’ knowledge, can be argued to be important even in this ‘age of information abundance’ – even without any obvious or particular attachment to the development of skills. But does Taylor’s example of a student’s doctoral dissertation on how Duns Scotus used citations serve any purpose? (Apparently – I know nothing about his motives for researching this – but people are clearly fascinated by the subject.) Who’s to say that it serves a purpose? – Taylor? Does it need to serve a purpose? (No.)

Duns Scotus.

Just because we have an abundance of information doesn’t mean that we have all the information we could ever want. Plenty of that information is useless, misleading, or not very well-considered  – even offensive. Access to all of it, whether good or bad, is important – but I have little sympathy for Taylor’s argument that highly-specialised subjects have no inherent worth. His argument is akin to that of people who complain that scientists are “wasting taxpayers’ money” and “have nothing better to do” when they don’t understand why something is being studied.

Taylor’s radical proposals, particularly that permanent departments should be abolished and replaced with problem-focused programs, might conceivably (and in a limited way) benefit academics focused on such “zones of inquiry”, and collaboration among institutions should undoubtedly be encouraged and developed (abolition of outdated models of publication, for example, to be replaced with open access to information, would – in my opinion – also benefit everyone but publishers, and create an academic environment less encouraging of malpractice), but for undergraduates, university is as much about developing approaches and perspectives in great depth as it is understanding the breadth of approaches/perspectives. Inter-disciplinary work is great but so is understanding a discipline in great detail. Not only that, it’s also untested. What if his proposal to abolish departments, even if implemented in only one university, didn’t benefit anyone?

David Bell, who reviewed the book Taylor published soon after the aforementioned article, criticised its “fragile” logic and “thin” evidence, describing the book as “unbelievably misguided”. In his words:

“While communication can take place in any direction along myriad pathways, the acquisition of real knowledge cannot. It demands sequence, it demands order, it demands logic. The new technologies have supplemented conventional forms of learning and argumentation in fascinating ways, but they cannot replace them.

“Academic disciplines…are complex, difficult bodies of knowledge whose theoretical underpinnings have to be mastered to some degree before one can even know which aspects of them can be usefully applied to such tasks.”

Bell’s argument is not flawless: technologies may be “evolving at breakneck speed”, but that’s precisely why we should incorporate them. Ken Robinson informed us all that we’re training a significant number of students for jobs that don’t yet exist. Everything is evolving at breakneck speed as a consequence of technology’s rapid evolution, so it makes sense to incorporate all technologies to train students in getting used to this dynamism they’ll face. He also appears to fail to consider the ways that technology can aid teaching and learning, as opposed to merely transmitting information.

To conclude, I think that Bell is right to call Taylor’s proposals “reckless” and “wrong-headed” – other than the idea to increase collaboration among institutions, his proposals seem deeply flawed – the ways we transmit information may have changed, and with that its availability and therefore opportunities to gain information, but human nature hasn’t. We still often need more than just the information itself to understand something well; traditional forms of education, despite all their flaws, still serve a valuable purpose. For example, traditional education provides face-to-face interaction, which allows for conversation and dialogue to occur – sure, we can comment on each other’s blogs, but it’s hardly instantaneous. Regardless, paradigm shifts need to, and will, occur – to quote Abrami et al. (2011), “How far would our understanding of automotive technology have progressed, for instance, if cars…were still designed as alternatives to horses?” (Abrami et al. also offer a number of principles to guide self-regulated learning, multimedia learning, motivational design, and collaborative/cooperative learning.)

Sorry about the length; well done if you’ve made it this far.


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Why you’re probably wrong

If you’re answering a multiple-choice question and you have second doubts about your answer, you should always switch. In fact, there is 70 years of research backing up this strategy: the majority of answer changes are from incorrect to correct, and most people who change their answers usually improve their test scores – regardless of test content or environment. Like the case of the Monty Hall problem, you should always switch your answer if given the chance (although in the case of the Monty Hall problem, one of the answers you didn’t choose is revealed to be incorrect before you’re allowed to switch). The only reason that we don’t think this is the case, despite it being demonstrably true, is because it’s counterintuitive.

In the case of MCQs, when we make a change our answer and then are wrong, it seems like an easily-avoidable error, causing frustration and making this type of error more available in memory, making its instances seem more frequent than times when changing your answer results in being correct – known as the first instinct fallacy. In other words, experience indicates that answer-changing is a poor strategy, but experience is misleading. This happens all the time – for example, when choosing a different checkout at a supermarket, whenever your original queue speeds up relative to your new queue, you feel frustrated at your decision and are therefore more likely to remember not to change queues in future, as this is more likely to slow you down.

Escalating commitment (also known as commitment bias) holds that when you choose a course of action, for example an answer to a multiple-choice question, prior investment in a decision (including thinking about that answer) makes us far more likely to increase investment in that decision. James Surowiecki argues that groups are far better at making decisions than individuals, as the aggregation of that group’s individual answers tend to be quite accurate. For this reason, on Who Wants to be a Millionaire,ask the audience’ produces the correct answer 91% of the time, whereas it’s 65% for ‘phone a friend’.  (N.B. this doesn’t always work.)

As an aside, when combined with a risk-reward system (such as in The Weakest Link), loss aversion is a massive problem: whenever there is a potential of ending up with less as the result of an action, even when taking the risk means potentially ending up with much, much more, our fear of having nothing overrides the logical choice (go for broke).

What this all really illustrates is that by simply telling students that they should switch their answers if they’re in doubt, we’re also saying that, just because they had one thought first and then changed their mind, doesn’t mean that those latter thoughts are more likely to be wrong – in fact it’s the opposite; in other words, you shouldn’t be afraid of changing lanes in traffic, because if it looks faster, it probably will be – despite what experience tells you.

So, to give educators a more accurate picture of what students know and don’t know, as well as to maximise learning (because realising when you should change your answer, by virtue of being aware of what you know and don’t know, is an example of metacognition, which aids learning*), it might be worth telling students, if they’re having second thoughts about an answer, to switch – or to make them really frustrated while they’re trying to revise.

*For more on the interaction between metacognition and the first instinct fallacy, see Higham & Gerrard (2005).

EDIT: fixed link.


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Tricking children into learning: …why?

In my primary school in the mid-‘90s, this was the closest we ever came to interactive learning: Hooray for Henrietta, and Henrietta’s Book of Spells.

That’s right. For about 10 minutes a week over a couple of months, each of us was allowed access to either the BBC Micro in the corner, or the stunning beige tower running Windows 3.1 – and this was what our experiences with I.T. amounted to. No internet, no programming – although I was allowed to type once – just this abomination.

The adverts say it all – “give ‘em something to laugh about and they’ll forget it’s homework,” “…could do with a bit of torturing, erm, learning,” and “HOORAY FOR HENRIETTA achieves a perfect balance of learning and having fun” – balance? Are learning and fun mutually exclusive?

That children find learning inherently boring is a strange assumption for the producers of an educational tool to make. There’s this widespread belief that we have to trick children into learning, by disguising it as entertainment – however thinly-veiled.

B. F. Skinner was one of the first psychologists to suggest ways that technology could aid education: Skinner thought that the classroom was flawed because of children’s varied learning rates and delayed reinforcement/feedback, because of the lack of individual attention. As early as 1954, Skinner carried out successful studies based on his Programmed Learning Theory involving his “Teaching Machine”, which was designed to provide personalised teaching to match the rate of the student. It being 1954, his teaching machine consisted of a program that combined teaching and testing in the simplest way, where you either fill in the blanks or complete a workbook – and on giving a correct answer, reinforcement would be given and it would move on to the next question.

As you can see, Hooray for Henrietta basically follows the same lines – there’s a maths question at the bottom, you fill in the answer, and you get rewarded by moving forward closer to saving that thing in the corner. But that’s all it does – you answer correctly and get to move forward, and if you win they’ll dance – considering that this was nearly 40 years on from Skinner’s teaching machine, you would have thought that things would have moved on a bit.

It turns out that pretty much all educational games just consist of the most unbelievably basic, get-it-right-and-maybe-they’ll-do-a-funny-dance, strategy. The graphics have improved, but you won’t find many games explicitly attempting to teach maths that are any more involving than this. We have the technology to make interactive, involving games that actually teach more than times tables – and yet the furthest anybody has gone with it is things like Brain Academy, which has been demonstrated not to improve general cognitive function, and which still relies on asking you things like addition/subtraction questions. But even the proficiency gained at the other various tasks don’t transfer – your only hope is that you get better at playing that game. So, how can we use gaming, and the motivation it gives people, to teach?

A number of blogs last week explored the idea of using technology in education, and I’ve duly nicked their references: scofedhannah talked about using perceptual learning, which is basically learning through repeated pattern recognition – this makes sense, as all the brain really does is recognise patterns in its environment – which makes it really easy to spot irregularities. The potential applications for any rule-based subject (e.g. maths) are self-evident. Massey & Kellman (2010) tested a program that asked students in the equivalent of years 4-7 different kinds of fraction problems, that emphasised transfer and generalisation, so they could use what they learned outside of this program, and found that these students consistently performed better than students a year or more above them. What’s more, they retained this advantage 5 months on. Psub1a mentioned a number of studies that point to the usefulness of using story-telling as a way of making things more memorable and entertaining, provided they correspond with the context.

Guillén-Nieto and Aleson-Carbonell (2012) found that a game designed to teach intercultural business communication between Spaniards and Brits where English is the common language, had a huge learning effect on intercultural communicative competence, as well as effects on intercultural awareness and knowledge. They concluded that, while the immersion and interactive learning environment of the game contributed to its effectiveness, it was so effective because it found a good balance between instructional content, game dimensions, game cycle, debriefing, perceived educational value, and transfer of learnt skills and intrinsic motivation.

Amory et al. (1999) found that students prefer adventure and strategy games to shoot-em-up and simulation games, and luckily things like logic, memory, and problem-solving are integral to adventure games, as well as being integral to the learning process. They then came up with a model that links these game elements to learning – so we could feasibly develop an educational game based around this model, that takes all of the parts of a game that students find interesting and stimulating, and which also happen to help learning, and give students the intrinsic motivation to solve those kinds of problems with the virtual environment the game provides.

So it looks like the best way to make use of the potential of games is to emphasise feature such as logic, memory, and problem-solving; incorporate a storyline (not just ‘save the princess’); make sure that the skills obtained are transferable; make the player feel as if they’re learning; and for God’s sake, use a bit of imagination.


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