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 …

Ten Tips for Writing Academic Papers

Completing academic writing assignments is one of the most important skills you will need to develop as a student.  This is true regardless of your subject or discipline. Based on my own experience writing and correcting papers and discussions with students I have compiled these ten tips to help you get going.  I have used these at the Academic Writing Club we set up in National College of Ireland to support students through the challenges of this process. 1 Read the task Spend time reading and analysing the task you have been assigned.  Look for action words such as ‘discuss’, ‘compare’, ‘critique’ and so on.  Check if you need to provide examples or to analyse or deal with a particular context.   Write the task at the head of your essay and make sure you address every component of the assignment. 2 Get on with it! Start writing straight away – don’t keep putting it off.  Many students say they need to read first and write later.  It is better to read and write at the same time (see tip 4 below).   3 Use the opening paragraph as your plan Start with something like “In this assignment I will….” 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 …

From marks to Marx: Shifting your mindset for learning

We all like to achieve and when it comes to doing a course or gaining a qualification we want to achieve the best result possible. Naturally we want to get an A+ or a First Class Honour in whatever subject we study.  Striving to get a good mark – a Distinction, Merit or Commendation – is a useful approach to learning and for many people it is the driving force guiding their learning effort. We all like to achieve in learning but what should we really aim for? (My picture of Doo Lough, County Mayo) However, it is worthwhile to ask if it the ‘best’ approach?  Is there a better, more fruitful and, in the long-term more rewarding target to aim for? I argue that there is and want to make a case for moving beyond a simple focus on marks and assessment to the more expansive idea of growing your mind through ideological critique and praxis. If you are an active participant on a course you will likely have learning goals.  These are implicit and explicit statements of what you wish to achieve.  How you approach different topics and learning challenges, where you apply effort and how you measure 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 …

How to Write a Literature Review for a Dissertation

Writing a Literature Review Writing a dissertation is one of the great learning tasks of college education. However, many students find it a daunting process. One of the first challenges you face is writing a literature review and the purpose of this post is to help you get started with the process, to keep you on track as you proceed and to provide a means of self-reviewing your outputs when you (think you) have completed. Let’s start with a simple set of questions: What constitutes a literature review? What is it used for? and What distinguishes a good literature review from a poor one? As the name implies, a literature review is a review of other people’s work in a particular field of scholarship. Such a review is always directed and informed by the research question to be addressed. For example, if your research question is related to adult literacy then you will need to provide a review of other works, be they theoretical models, research reports or practice studies, that relate to adult literacy. Most importantly, a literature review cannot be of any value unless it is referenced to some form of research question or problem. It is a common mistake for students to misunderstand the purpose of a literature review – Read More …

Richard Hannaford An Extraordinary Teacher

Some people are natural teachers. I don’t mean ‘teachers’ in the everyday sense as in those who work in schools or colleges. I mean people who show us things and who we learn from in all manner of ways. Richard Hannaford was such a person. I noticed this many years ago when I first met him as my sister Norah’s partner and later husband.  Over the years I became more convinced this was the case, never more so than in the weeks leading up to his untimely death one month ago. Richard probably did not realise that we were all learning from him and I know that he would be somewhat embarrassed at the idea of being described in this way. However, I think anyone who knew him would agree that with every encounter, on each occasion involving Richard, we came away with some new insight, something extra to make us better. One thing we learned from Richard was the art of conversation. He cherished discourse and grasped the importance of listening to other voices and respecting different views. For Richard, discussion was an opportunity to see the world in a different way, as others see it. A frequent phrase he Read More …