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 …

RoboBraille An Interesting Pedagogical Tool

  Some of my colleagues and I are participating in a European project as part of a transnational consortium looking at the uses of RoboBraille -an interesting tool/service that has emerged as an assistive technology for the blind.  www.robobraille.org As the name suggests RoboBraille began as a Braille conversion tool to enable simple text to be rendered in various forms of Braille. The technology has now been developed to provides conversion and translation between a wide range of formats: From .doc, .docx .htm, .html .xml .txt. .asc .rtf .pdf (all types) .epub, .mobi .tif, gif, .bmp .jpg, .j2k, .jp2, .jpx .pcx, .dcx .djv To: Braille, MP3, ebook (epub or mobi), Daisy, Accessible Formats Put simply, if you have a text file (say from a word processor like MS word) and you want to be able to listen to a very good synthesised voice reading this document then you simply submit your file on the web site above or by e-mail. You get back an MP3 or a Daisy (a format that allows text and speech to be played together). This is very useful for people who find reading difficult – the partially sighted, people with literacy difficulties and people with Read More …

The Disengaged Student

In the further and higher education sectors we often come across the phenomenon of the disengaged student. Typically a small number of students who register for a course seem to drift away – they are characterised by poor levels of engagement in class, infrequent attendance and lack of compliance with assignment deadlines. This is very frustrating for all concerned and inevitably it leads to trouble – failed assessments, repeats, appeals, reviews, etc.. All this seems to happen like a car crash in slow motion; we can see the inevitable outcome from a long way out and there seems nothing we can do about it. By treating students are adults we recognise that they need to take responsibility for their own learning. Higher education is not compulsory and parental influence on learning should be much less than in school. This presents a dilemma educators and parents; on the one hand we want students to succeed but we also need them to succeed ‘on their own’. Too much interference and students never learn to take control; on the other hand, too little support and they drift into dissengagement. I think part of solution could involve a new component called ‘Learning to Learn’ 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 …

Dissertation Writing

This is a busy time for many students who are working to complete their dissertations.  Having supervised and examined submissions over the years I appreciate the investment of effort that students make when completing their research dissertation. For many Master’s degree students this is their first truly self-directed learning project and the experience of carrying out primary research transforms their outlook on knowledge of the world. I would like to offer my top tips for Master’s dissertation writers, here they are: When you write a dissertation, even a scientific work you are telling a story – it’s important to unfold the plot in manner that will engage the reader. The research question is the crux of the narrative – you need to articulate this question clearly, concisely and frequently throughout the thesis and use it to connect all the parts together. A good research question has three characteristics (i) it arouses curiosity in both writer and reader (ii) it contributes significant and useful insights and (iii) it is suitable for investigation by means of an established research method. The purpose of a literature review is to establish a conceptual framework for the research question and to discuss other relevant or Read More …

The Troublesome Nature of Learning Outcomes

In higher education learning outcomes are part of the bedrock that informs assessment, qualifications and course approval processes.   They are important statements and as such we should give serious consideration as to the nature of learning outcomes and how we use them. I have a growing sense of unease that we have collectively bought into a set of assumptions about learning, teaching and the nature of knowledge that limits our understanding of the processes involved.  Most particularly, I am concerned about poorly formed and limited thinking that surrounds the conceptualisation and use of ‘learning outcomes’ in third level teaching contexts.There is an instrumental view of learning is dangerously simplistic.  It regards education in industrial terms and hence learning outcomes constitute the produce. Unfortunately this view is pervasive as it seems to fit with the current obsession with economic rationality.  In this bizarre world-view learning outcomes are given numerical value, assigned to levels, added together, divided up, stated as percentages and generally treated as though they were clearly defined, uniform and self-contained entities. Much of the prevailing dogma and practice in higher education supports this commodification model of learning outcomes.  Some of the blame rests with the quality and regulatory processes.   There seems Read More …

Plato’s Meno

Plato’s Meno One of the first accounts of the troublesome nature of learning outcomes is given in Plato’s Meno.  Plato used a series dramatically constructed dialogues as vignettes to illustrate philosophical points he wished to make. In the Meno Plato describes a conversation between Socrates, Meno (hence the title), a slave boy and Anytus. Meno puts the following problem to Socrates: “Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught? Or is it not teachable but the result of practice, or is it neither of these, but men possess it by nature or in some other way?” Socrates and Meno proceed by agreeing that whereas they would recognise instances of virtue, as actions or as a quality in a person, it is difficult to know the essence of what it means to be virtuous. So herein lies Meno’s paradox how can we recognise examples of virtuous behaviour while not knowing the entirety, or the common form, of the concept. In other words, how can look for something (a form of knowledge) when we don’t know what it is? The important point is that Meno’s initial question on how we learn virtue inevitably draws us toward a conceptual  examination of the Read More …