We Need New Stories in Education

The Seven Basic Plots is an interesting book by Christopher Booker, the main argument is clear from the title; we have a limited number of story lines and regardless of context or medium, we like the familiar, predictable and comforting. Fairytale, folklore, epic novels and modern film scripts all use variations of basic narrative structures; resilience in the face of onslaught, heroic journeys, monsters and dragons and of course, the struggles of good and evil. The argument is not unique, many thinkers have pointed to a form of collective intellectual comfort blanket. We welcome stories that reinforce pre-existing assumptions and avoid those that challenge our biased views and require re-jigging our model of the world. The ‘basic plots’ phenomenon is much in evidence when we talk about education. Whether it is media reporting, policy discourse or public commentary, we return time and again to the familiar blandness of the comfort blanket. I’m tired of hearing about the epic journey of the Leaving Certificate, I’m done with the struggles of the science and engineering to attract and charm the young people of today, I no longer need the wisdom of employers, I’m fed up with tales of cash strapped colleges, disgruntled Read More …

Comments on the ‘Action Plan for Education 2016 -2019’

The Government’s new Action Plan for Education is a very welcome document that contains clear aspirations and detailed actions to be achieved over time. The overall vision is that we (Ireland) become the best education and training system in Europe. This is excellent news and like many others who work in education, I think it is a highly commendable goal; it is realistic and achievable and the Action Plan is an important statement of intent. In that spirit I would like to make some suggestions and identify areas of improvement. This is not to overlook all of the good stuff and positive actions contained therein. Rather, it is to contribute to our thinking so we can achieve the goals to their fullest extent. In the preamble to the document the plan sets out what it means to be the ‘best in Europe’, it means: “Harnessing Education to break down barriers for groups at risk of exclusion; delivering a learning experience to highest international standards; equipping learners of all ages and capacities to participate and succeed in a changing world; and allowing Ireland to be a leader across a broad range of fields, scientific, cultural, enterprise and public service.” (Page 1) Read More …

Questions and Inquiry

I have a recent publication in E-Learning and Digital Media and the following post is a shorter version of some of the ideas I discuss in this paper on Questions, Curiosity and Inquiry. Questions are the root of inquiry; they initiate, sustain and invigorate all aspects of deep learning. Questions direct investigation, drive creativity, stimulate discussion and are the bedrock of reflection. In order to understand inquiry we need to deal with questions. I begin by attempting to clarify potential misconceptions of what exactly questions are. I argue for precision in language and I encourage a fuller conception of questions as situations and processes rather than simple sentences. I also discuss curiosity and elaborate on Dewey’s conception of curiosity as a natural resource for use in the training of thought. These ideas on the nature of questions and curiosity help to frame our understanding of the Inquiry Cycle as a model of learning. They can also act as a bridge, closing the gap between theory and practice, contributing insights on the integration of technology in teaching and learning and suggesting new areas of application and research on learning and inquiry. Questions as Situations Questions and questioning are familiar processes ubiquitous Read More …

Learning, Participation and After Virtue

What makes a good person? This is an old and important question.  Philosophers and theologians through the years have sought an answer including Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Kierkegaard, Newman, Nietzsche and others. Alasdair MacIntyre provides a useful analysis of the history of thinking on this question and the current state of moral philosophy in his books After Virtue (1984) and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988). MacIntyre argues that a full understanding of moral philosophy today is constrained by failure to appreciate historical context. He proposes a disquieting scenario to illustrate what he deems the state of affairs today. Imagine, he suggests, through some terrible catastrophe all the scientists in the world were wiped out and with them the thinking and practice they engaged in. Some time later, when people seek to revive science they would only be partly successful; they would have to rely on clues from remnants of documentation, pieces of laboratory apparatus and a scattering of folk ideas. The practice of science would be gone. Although MacIntyre uses this vista to illustrate how, he believes, we have lost the way (and means) of moral philosophy, he is also making a point about ‘practice’. Human activities directed and sustained toward Read More …

Why We Learn

Sometimes big questions just sit under our noses and are too close and obvious to warrant attention. The matter of why we learn falls into this category. It seems obvious that we learn every day of our lives and that learning is important but why is it so? Part of the answer lies in our evolutionary past. To understand why we learn we need to appreciate the benefits of learning in terms of survival and growth of human beings. Learning is a special way in which we can gain advantage in our quest for success. Every person and indeed all animals have innate abilities developed through natural selection. Over many generations animals adapt to their environment and acquire specialist abilities for hunting, defence, reproduction and so on. When we observe animals in their environment we appreciate the usefulness of these assets. Mink have fur coats to survive the cold winter, cheetahs run very fast and hedgehogs have spines and roll in a ball when under threat. Notice it is not easy to distinguish a behavioural ability such as knowing when to run and a physical ability such as well-developed muscle and skeleton for running. If you look at anatomy and Read More …

MOOCs – Promise and Opportunity

In case you don’t know by now, MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course and they are causing an upheaval in higher education worldwide. We should be careful when describing something as a ‘game changer’ but perhaps this is one instance where it is appropriate and warranted. In essence MOOCs are online courses that are generally free of charge and delivered on a range of topics from prestigious universities and colleges. MOOCs are made available through various platforms or providers – the big providers are Coursera, EdX, Udacity and ClevrU. A clance through any of these sites will give you a sense of the range and quality of courses on offer. The numbers taking some of these courses are staggering – class sizes in the tens of thousands are not unusual. However, completion rates are modest enough with an average of about 20% – a good interactive source on completion rates is found here at Katy Jordan’s site. The big question is why a prestigious institution like Harvard, Stanford University and MIT would want to offer courses free-of-charge and risk destroying a valuable source of future revenue? The answer may lie in a new emphasis on the provision of quality Read More …

Alienation and Learning

I want to talk about alienation as I believe it to be a topic of concern to most of us and it is an important influence on how we live our lives today. Karl Marx was one of the first to highlight how the structures of modern society inevitably lead to alienation.  He describes how, in industrial settings, many workers are alienated from the products they produce.  For example, an assembly line worker is far removed from the completed product. The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him.  Marx K, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. First Manuscript p29 In contrast, many professionals such as teachers, architects, entrepreneurs and hairdressers remain closely affiliated with their productive output. There are other ways in which we experience alienation in the modern world.  Often we experience alienation as customers when organisations conceive their clientèle in purely economic terms.  We may experience this in for example, in airline, telecommunications and fast food industries – customer-provider interactions are kept to Read More …

Learning about Thinking from James Joyce

In my view one of the best ways to study learning and thinking is to look to literature and in this arena one figure stands out for the manner in which he conveys the human thought process in print. I am of course referring to James Joyce. In this short review I present some aspects of Joyce’s work from the perspective of insights on how we think and learn. My argument is that great literature resonates with our thought processes. In reading Joyce we are provided with a working model of the inner structures and mechanisms through which we experience the world. I approach this analysis from the perspective of the average reader rather than the rich practice of Joycean scholarship. As such, my remarks are confined to my own, somewhat surface, impressions and interpretations of the literature. Almost at every point in Joyce’s work there are many layers of meaning and great pleasure can be derived from reading and rereading the passages. My analysis is based around five short lessons: Lesson One The Inner Narrator Consider the opening lines from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Once upon a time and a very good time it was Read More …

Learning Without Assessment and The Willie Clancy Summer School

If you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself in Miltown Malbay, County Clare, Ireland, around the early part of July each year you will find a most wonderful musical and learning event taking place: the Willie Clancy Summer School. Sadly, one of its founders Muiris Ó Rócháin passed away this year. Many years ago I made a TV documentary called Up Sráid Eoin about the wren boys of Dingle and Muiris featured prominantly in the film. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam usual (trans: May he be honoured at the right hand of God) . Now let me tell you about this school. It uses a form of cascade to facilitate musicians of all levels (and ages) to improve their playing of traditional music. The development of Irish set dancing skills is also an integral part of the week long programme. So experts teach the proficient, the proficient teach the novices etc.. In addition, there is a very strong social aspect to playing traditional music, its fullest expression is through group playing with a mixture of fiddle, flute, tin whistle, uilleann pipes, accordion, guitars, banjo and bodhráns. Throughout the week there is a mix of structured classes and spontaneous Read More …

The Wisdom of the Fox and the Hedgehog

There is much debate about the kind skills we require for success in the 21st Century. It can be argued that what we learn in school and college often falls short of what we need in everyday life. Employers look for more than academic achievement when considering who to take on – in many cases they seek evidence of a broader set of skills encompassing problem solving, creative thinking, social skills and ethical appreciation. Consider the ancient Greek parable by Archilochus that contrasts the skills of two familiar animals: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing.”  I think this is a useful metaphor to help us appreciate the complexity of the mix of skills required for life in the 21st Century. A fox ranges over quite a wide territory and is regarded as generally clever because of its adaptability and capacity to get the most out of opportunities. The skills of the fox are driven by curiosity and a need to survive on meagre and unpredictable sources of food. The fox is a great generalist. The hedgehog has a great strategy for dealing with predators – it rolls itself in a ball and presents its large array Read More …