Ready to Learn – Taking the First Step

Oh I was just wondering have you got a moment, I just want to ask you about something‘ she had arrived at NCI reception and they suggested I might meet with her. ‘No problem at all‘ I assured her while thinking how much I had to do that afternoon.

Five minutes later she sat in my office. She was very nervous and I thought I noticed a slight trembling in her voice. Her name was Susan.

It’s like this‘ she said ‘I was thinking of doing a course here but I am not sure if I’d be able for it‘. She went on to tell me her story. She left school at sixteen without a Leaving Cert. She worked in the retail sector for the last twenty five years and now she is a manager. She is married with three kids and two of them are in college. She reads a lot and is well liked by her colleagues. Generally, she’s happy.

But there’s always been a niggle. An unease and sense of being often left out, ignored and taken-for-granted. ‘Sure what would Susan know‘ she once overheard a younger colleague remark.

Susan explained that she has been thinking about college for years but had never taken the first step. Recently she floated the idea of doing a course with her friends and family ‘Yeah go on why don’t you give it a try‘ they would encourage her. But deep down she was nervous and didn’t know where to start.

So I don’t know Leo why I’m here, perhaps it’s just a crazy idea, I mean, I don’t even have a Leaving Cert and I was crap at school, this is a terrible idea, sorry for wasting your time‘. I just listened, it was like I was the audience for her inner debate. ‘But I can do it! I’m good with words, this is for me, this is my chance!

Would you like a cup of tea?’ I asked, eventually finding something I could be useful at. ‘Yes that would be great‘.

Later we talked about adult learning and how she was not that unusual. College, especially National College of Ireland, is not like school. Adults are welcome and treasured as they bring valuable life experience to the classroom. We discussed how people like Susan make a conscious decision to learn and often thrive when they go to college. They finIMG_1799d new ideas, make new friends and find new meaning in their lives.

Years later we were standing at the conferring ceremony  in the National Convention Centre, Susan was all gowned up and proudly clutching her parchment. She introduced me to her family and there were smiles all round.

Do you remember our first meeting?‘ she asked. I nodded ‘yes’. ‘Well!  I just want to say thanks for the tea. You make a good cup of tea‘ she grinned ‘one that will last a lifetime!‘.

Skills of Teaching

When it comes to teaching we often make the simple mistake of reducing all that matters into one specific skill. For example, if someone is very good at explaining things we might say they were a good teacher. Likewise, empathy for students is often regarded as an essential quality for teachers.

I like to talk in terms of ‘skills for teaching’. In the approach two points are emphasised  – firstly, teaching is multifaceted and involves clusters of abilities rather than one single isolated skill and secondly, when I say skills of teaching I do not put ‘the’ in front, in other words, I mean to say “here are some skills of teaching and there are likely many more”.

However, the framework provided below is derived from a series of workshops developed by my colleague Dr Arlene Egan and I. We have used this framework to support improvement in college teachers and in our Post-Graduate Diploma in Learning and Teaching at NCI.

We we have devised an activity for each of the skills involved. For example, we use an activity called ‘high five’ to support development of presentation skills. student-teachers are expected to make a presentation to their peers on a topic of interest. They need to present without PowerPoint or any visual aids. The rationale is to focus on the skill of engaging others by means of your narrative. It is more difficult than you might expect. Even for experienced teachers and college lecturers the ‘scary’ part is presenting to your peers.

Another exercise we do involves honing teachers’ listening skills. We use role play to facilitate discussions about what the world looks like for students with learning difficulties or with mental health issues.

Overall, our approach is to work on a broad set of abilities that teachers need to be sucessful in today’s learning contexts. We make the point again and again that we are never ‘complete’ as teachers -we are always in formation and the new challenges of ‘design for learning’ and ‘using new technology to support learning’ are evidence that teachers will always need to engage in professional development.

Getting to Grips with Academic Writing

Yikes ! I can’t write this assignment!

Some students find it difficult to get to grips with academic writing tasks. Whereas they often understand key concepts associated with an assignment or task they find it very difficult to express these in writing.

The problem can lead to stress and frustration on all sides as written assessments may not be seen as a fair measure of student learning outcomes.

Of course every person is unique and it is not always easy to provide good advice for all situations; that said, I have noticed similarities in the challenges students face and so I hope the advice I provide below can be of help.

Technical versus Mindset

There are two types of barriers to writing ability. The first is ‘technical’, by this I mean literally the skills of grammar, vocabulary and composition – the kind of stuff you should learn in school. For a various reasons, students often miss out on these skills and need to work on their basic literacy and writing technique. Thankfully, this is not a common problem in higher education but it is important to be mindful that people can get very far in the system by avoiding situations that force them to write. In the end this lack of skill is exposed when the first assignment is posed and the student is unable to respond.

Students with serious deficiencies in the technical aspects of their writing skills will require support and supplemental classes to bring them up-to-speed. Although it takes time and effort, most students will build their skills through practice and feedback.

Another type of type of barrier – the ‘mindset’ barrier – is much more common but often overlooked. In this situation students are good writers in other contexts but struggle when it comes to academic writing.

How to overcome mindset barriers

The first step is to try to understand what’s happening. Sometimes I need to decode what people are saying in order to get to the root of the problem. So when a student reports “I’m just waiting until I’ve read everything I need to know before I start to write”. Often what they are really saying is I am putting off writing this assignment for as long as possible. When a student says “I’ve written the first paragraph but I can’t get past that point”. What they’re really saying is I have written the first paragraph again and again and again trying to make it perfect. And when a student says “I’ve written the paper but I am not happy with it and now I have to rewrite it”.  It really means My standards are such that I cannot possibly meet them in my own writing.

I’m not trying to imply that people are dishonest or deceptive about their challenges. No that is not the case, rather it seems to me that when we encounter a problem we do our best to analyse the situation and come up with a solution. Our first attempts are often hampered by a misunderstanding of the nature of the barrier and hence we come up with a faulty diagnosis.

Try this, imagine there are two aspects of the writer’s mind – one is the worker and the other is the manager. The manager says ‘get going and write this assignment as best you can, remember there are marks for this and you are going to be judged‘. The worker gets on with it and writes the first few sentences. Then the manager intervenes and reads to sentence ‘that’s not quite correct you’d better rewrite‘. You can see what’s happening – the manager never gives the worker a chance, always second guessing and interfering with the process. This is the most common barrier encountered by students.

The situation is greatly amplified by the characteristic requirements of an academic writing task. In many cases the assignment is part of a high-stakes assessment regime and this gives the ‘manager’ in you an inflated sense of importance. Add to this, technical requirements such as academic citations, formal language and highly specialized terminology. Now the ‘manager’ function is elevated to supreme importance. And, in practical terms, completely suppresses the poor worker. You can’t complete a sentence or paragraph done without persistent self-examination and critique! This leads to doubt and stagnation and undermines the self-confidence of the writer.

The irony is that it is the over active ‘drive to achieve’ that acts to impede achievement. There are many analogies in real life, you will not get a note from a wind instrument by blowing hard, a tennis player who over hits will be out of court and an aggressive opening in chess will often lead to an early demise.

The solution is to manage the ‘manager’. Tell it to be quiet, step back and let you work. Of course your first outputs will not be perfect but you will make progress as you do (rather than think about) the task. Yes there are appropriate times to take stock, re-read and improve; but you also need to have something to work with.

For my part, I always write my first paragraph once and then leave it alone until the very end. Only when I have most of my paper written do I revisit the opening paragraph. It is often the last thing I write. This has the added advantage of allowing me to state in the opening all that the reader can expect. I see a written composition as a sequence of ‘full draft – then revise’, rather than ‘write a bit- then revise’ and ‘write another bit – then revise’ and so on.

It’s very simple. Nobody is born with perfect writing skills. Writing is developed through practice. Practice involves doing. You learn to write by doing, not thinking about, writing.

So good luck with your task and tell that manager to go away and leave you alone so you can get on with it!

New Learning and Education Degrees at National College of Ireland

I am delighted to introduce two new degree programmes at NCI the BA (Honours) in Early Childhood Education and the BA (Honours) in Adult and Workforce Education. 

These are new awards developed by our team to address the growing interest in education at all stages of life and in all contexts. An important idea underpinning our approach to learning is that education is not confined to school. We learn so much in early childhood that stays with us throughout life and likewise when our school years are over we continue to learn as we progress through our career and meet the challenges of our lifespan.

It is natural to learn. This seems like an obvious statement but it is so simple we often overlook its importance. We are ‘natural born learners’ and more than any other living organism we are destined to learn all the way through life.

Early Childhood Educators are now rightfully regarded as professional practitioners who require advanced qualifications and specialist knowledge and skills. The sector is now the subject of important legislative and policy developments. It is a wonderful area to work in and requires committed educators trained to the highest level.

Adult and Workforce Educators are much in demand (try searching ‘learning and development specialist’ in the jobs websites). This is an emerging and evolving profession; ’emerging’ as there are so many new competences required in modern workforces such as collaboration, problem solving, communications, and creativity – teaching for these so-called 21st Century skills requires the most up-to-date skills and techniques – and ‘evolving’ because existing trainers have accomplished so much and there is so much research and evidence based practice that we can learn from.

Initially these programmes are aimed at those already working in the sector and wish to consolidate their experience with a recognised qualification or those in related contexts who wish to upskill to work in either of these areas. Classes take place two evenings per week and some Saturdays. There are friendly starting points for people who may be daunted by the prospect of doing a degree – in other words ‘we teach as we preach’ and take it step by step. Not everyone will want to complete the full Level 8 degree so there are also exit awards at Levels 6 and 7.

So these are exciting times for education and educators who cater for learning before and after school.

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 to human communication––they are what we do. It is perhaps because they are so essentially embedded in the way we think that we find it difficult to step back and contemplate what it means to question. When we describe learning in terms of inquiry we are clearly affirming that learning and questioning processes are somehow intertwined. From an educator’s perspective, it is therefore important to establish a conceptual framework to deal with questions and questioning.

2014-09-16 18.16.04In attempting to provide such a framework one has to begin with a clarification on the use of language. There is a source of potential confusion that arises when we discuss the nature of questions in everyday life. This occurs when we regard questions merely in terms of sentences rather than situations. If I were to ask you now to provide me with a sample set of questions, say for the purposes of illustrating the points I wish to make, you may be tempted to write a list of sentences beginning with words such as ‘who’, ‘what’ or ‘where’ and ending in question marks. Does this list constitute a list of questions? In an everyday sense it may be acceptable to argue that it does; however, for the purposes of any meaningful analysis, standalone sentences like these are insufficient to be considered as examples of questions.2014-10-02 23.27.30

Consider for instance the sentence “What was the result of the match? “ This can indicate a great variety of queries: it may arise as a text message from me to my son and he will take it that I am asking about a football result; in another context, it is plausible that the same sentence would be included in the text of a scientific paper. The meanings in each case are entirely different. When sentences are presented without a situation of context, even when they adhere to the appropriate grammatical conventions to indicate a question format, they are insufficient to warrant consideration as examples of questions. Such sentences indicate only a class of question or question types. A sentence only becomes a question when it is spoken or read and interpreted within a context. Furthermore, we need to consider what responses or feelings arise in the individual as a result of experiencing the sentence-question.

Put together the experience, the response, the consequent feelings and the manner in which each of these in turn transacts with the other and we have a broader, more useful concept, that of the ‘question situation’. Question situations comprise the full extent of a query and context. In education, this distinction between question types and question situations is important. All too often the question type is considered in lieu of the situation. When we talk about textbook and exam questions we often fail to appreciate the full context in which the student encounters the question.

Goal-oriented Questions versus Intrinsic Curiosity

This conceptual shift, to regard questions as embedded in situations rather than standalone entities, gives rise to further linguistic challenges. We often talk about a person ‘having’ a question and our immediate tendency is to fix and locate questions in the mind of individuals. This is understandable as we regularly seek information by means of a question and expect matters to be resolved by means of an answer. However, this information seeking is always undertaken within a wider context or purpose. We wish to know the time so as not to miss the train and so on. We require constant feedback as we go about the accomplishment of the goals we set in daily life. 2014-07-15 15.23.14In instances when we ask questions such as to seek directions or test the temperature to see if we need a coat or search the Internet, we are seeking information to help us progress or decide upon a course of action. These questions are functional in that they are directed at the achievement of a goal. However, this is precisely the reason why we should regard questions within their wider context. When we seek information in this way there is always pretext and subtext, an underlying purpose and setting.

However, what of question situations that appear unrelated to an external goal or purposeful activity? What happens when a strange object catches our attention or we investigate a novel experience as when a child plays with sand and so on?   Clearly such a posture arises directly from an intrinsic interest in a situation or opportunity. In the absence of external goals these impulses are usually described as curiosity. From an educational perspective, this distinction between goal-oriented questioning and questions that arise from intrinsic curiosity is significant. The notion of harnessing natural curiosity as an enabler for learning is evident in many writings on education from Plato and Confucius to Montessori, Brunner and of course Dewey. In school contexts, much pedagogic design and classroom practice is directed at stimulating curiosity.

Helpfully, in the English language we usually say that we ‘find’ a situation or object curious. This recognises the transactional nature of curiosity and that it is a characteristic of the interplay between individual and environment. Once again the notion of question situations is reinforced especially so with intrinsically oriented questions. From an instructional perspective, we need to be mindful that we are trying to bring about situations with certain qualities. We cannot manufacture curiosity the best we can do is create the conditions that will facilitate it.

Questions and Decisions

Often our inclination is to regard questions as static or fixed. We often regard decisions we make about a future course of action in terms of a single point or question. Even when we take context into account we tend to reduce the situation to a single point rather than a continuous dynamic. Consider the following story:

Three hikers were traversing the mountain range when a dense fog enveloped them. They needed to decide whether to progress further to the next town or to turn back. Going forward was a shorter journey but involved a greater risk, as there were dangerous cliffs ahead.   Going back was longer and would mean loss-of-face, as they would not achieve their stated goal. They argued for some time and eventually they split up; two went forward and one back to base.

Suppose I were to stumble upon this group as they were arguing on the mountain. I, or even they, might say they were considering the question of whether to go forward or back. However, it is easy to see that that was not the real issue at hand. They were weighing up the balance of increased personal risk in going forward against the shame and disappointment or going back. Perhaps, they were also considering future consequences such as the camaraderie of the group–whether to stick together or each to act as an individual. These were underpinning questions and the outcome for each individual was the selection of a future direction. So rather than single points we have a complex interaction: questions arise, questions are considered, some lead to other questions, some grow while others get resolved.

Locating questions in terms of a single point in time, place or person seems unsatisfactory. Questions are nebulous and difficult to pin down. It is more useful to consider questions in terms of dilemmas of disturbances that propagate outward. In the story above the fog precipitated the argument and so on. The question may be regarded as a state of affairs. Questions have trajectories.

Open and Closed Questions

We often refer to open and closed questions and intuitively we recognise that some questions may be quickly resolved while others seem to propagate outwards leading to an endless sequence of possibilities. Consider for example, the question one might ask while scanning for a particular author in a bookshop: “Does the letter P come before S on the shelf?” (q1). For most people this is easily and quickly resolved; a rapid internal recitation of the alphabet and the matter is settled.

In contrast, recently a teacher’s ICT discussion group reported the following question, as asked by a child: “Why is the alphabet always in the same order?” (q2). This question perplexed many adults and through subsequent discussions I came to hear about it. It is as if the question caused a ripple of curiosity not just on the nature of the alphabet but also as to why children frequently ask such profound and apparently obvious questions.

What’s interesting is perhaps, and I can only speculate on this, the child who asked the q2 question expected a straightforward answer. From a child’s perspective, q1 and q2 are closed questions not too far apart in their nature––matters easily resolved by means of new information. However, for others, including myself, q2 is qualitatively different in nature to q1. For q1 (the order of letters) one knows there is an answer to the question, one has a strategy to arrive at the answer and importantly, with the answer comes a form of closure to the situation. On the other hand, for q2 (why the order of letters) one can only speculate if there is an answer, there is no obvious strategy available to arrive at an answer (as many possibilities would need to be considered and investigated), and finally, one can sense that in attempting to resolve the question––far from closing off a situation––new areas of inquiry will be opened up.

Questions and Critical Thinking

Consider again the child’s question (q2) on the order of the letters of the alphabet. To this kind of question many adults might say “Oh! I never thought about that”, what they mean is that their attention has never been drawn to it. As adults we cannot possibly attend to all of the stimuli that we encounter and, as a means of dealing with such complexity, we have developed schemes to manage how, when and what we will pay attention to. In education, critical theorists promote a model of adult learning centred on awareness and transformation of previously taken-for-granted assumptions. The challenge for many adults is awareness of what would otherwise be taken for granted and this begins with attending to these assumptions.What are New Year's resolutions and why they seldom work

Children often ask questions that initiate critical thinking in adults. For example, I remember the following conversation with my father from when I was about five or six years old:

Me           “What’s that tall thing sticking up from the building?”

Father   “That’s called a crane it’s used to lift things

Me           “A crane! I see! Yes but who decided to call it a crane?”

Father   “I don’t know it’s just called that I suppose

I suggest that from the perspective of a five year old, the question may be regarded as nothing more significant than a request for more information on the situation. If my father had answered: “the government get to name things” I may well have been content with that and closed my line of questioning. Thankfully, he answered honestly by saying he didn’t know and implicit in his response “I never thought about that”.   As adults we may be impressed when we hear children ask potentially critical questions but what is really occurring is that our attention is drawn to previously uncontested assumptions.


Thus far I have argued that we consider questions as situations characterised as disturbance, disequilibrium or matters that must be attended to. In many instances such matters can be quickly closed off and resolved; however, there are also questions that open up new concerns, they develop outwards as ripples or as trajectories of inquiry. As educators we should have a special interest in these open questions as they have self-sustaining qualities and are processes that can lead to new insight and understanding–in other words they are learning processes. Consider again the question of why the letters of the alphabet are always in the same order (q2 above). When I first heard this I thought, “that’s interesting I never considered that before”. New possibilities came to mind–why don’t we order the alphabet putting the most frequently used letters first or why not organise to separate the vowels and consonants and so on. My curiosity was aroused. It is this curiosity intrinsic to the situation, which drives the subsequent questions. Curiosity may therefore be regarded as the capacity for one question to stimulate another by means of the level of intrinsic interest that arises.

This characteristic of curiosity, involving as it does a causal connection between attention and interest, is implicitly understood by many teachers. When we talk of arousing curiosity in others perhaps this process of drawing attention and thence desire is really what is involved. Note that the causal relationship is mutual: once attracted, interest arises, interest in turn sustains and enhances attraction.IMG_0587

In many circumstances educators take questioning and the nature of questions for granted; ‘I know a good question when I hear one’ is a common approach. The implication is that you wait for good question situations to arise rather than actively seeking to bring them about. Part of the challenge for teachers is the gap between theory and practice. Insights on the nature of questions and curiosity as discussed above are often difficult to connect with practice and translate to useful strategies for the classroom.

 Note: all the pictures are mine and I’ll leave it up to you to work out the connections. Curiosity and all that!

The Cycle of Life

Next Friday 28th of March I will take part in the Galway Cycle. This involves a cycle from Maynooth to Galway in one day. This will be by far and a way the longest and most challenging cycle I have done.

I have trained and prepared well but admit to being nervous and apprehensive. I am in my mid-fifties and not blessed with an athletic physique.

The journey is about 180 kilometers and I will need to keep up with the 25kph pace.

The Maynooth Galway Cycle has been running for many years and each year thousands of Euro is raised for a designated charity. This year’s charity is the Prader-Willie Syndrome Association Ireland. This is a well deserved cause and you have only to watch the associated video to appreciate how much they need support.

I am collecting so please give a little whatever you can to

My affair with the bicycle has spanned the cycle of my life. One of my early memories is accompanying my father on the crossbar of his bike as we cycled to the Garda station to collect another bike.  My bike! It was a find he handed in more than a year before and, still unclaimed, he was notified to pick it up. I still remember with admiration how he cycled home guiding the second bike and with me still on the crossbar of the first.

We lived in the Phoenix Park and with my two wheels my domain extended to all 32,000 acres. Through my youth the bike was like a part of me and I was rarely seen without it. Long before the concept of mountain bikes I was racing the trails of the Furry Glen or shooting down the Magazine Hill.

After a long absence I took up cycling again in my fifties. Its been a source of great joy and fun and each summer I tour parts of Ireland with some friends.

The wonderful thing about the Galway Cycle is the fact that it’s not easy or straightforward. There will be discomfort and strain and certainly its a bit of a stretch for someone like me. But then again it’s great to have a goal to strive for and something to achieve.

If you can please donate no matter how small to

Thanks it means a lot!

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 a particular goals are practices. Thus science and its sub-fields are practices, as are many of the activities we engage in such as medicine, engineering, academic scholarship, the arts and sports etc.. MacIntyre (1981a p30) makes clear his understanding of practice:

By a ‘practice’ I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realised in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.

To me, this conceptualising of practice, internal goods and the extension thereof resonates with work by Davidov, Engeström and other proponents of Activity Theory and Learning as Expansion. It is also consistent with the arguments I make (Casey, 2013) that the ultimate goal, purpose  and direction, or telos, of learning is toward participation in practice. MacIntyre argues that ‘internal goods’ are always shared and belong to the practice. Internal goods act for the betterment of practice. I think this is what we mean when we use phrases like ‘in the service of Science’ or for ‘contributions to Agriculture’.

In order to answer the question of what makes a good person you would need to provide a context. A good scientist would be a person who extends the practice of science through participation and the realisation of internal goods particular to science. A good person today (in a general way) participates. Through participation we share in the development of, and are in the service of, societal practices. What is virtuous today differs from what was considered virtuous in the past. Why? Because practices have evolved and extended. Our understanding of issues such as climate change, world hunger, human rights and even ‘how we learn’ are the internal goods of the present time. With that in mind I’ll leave the last word to MacIntyre on his definition of a virtue:

A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods.

MacIntyre (1981a p32)


Casey, L. (2013). Learning Beyond Competence to Participation. International Journal of Progressive Education Special issue: Educating for Democracy and the Process of Authority, 9(2), 45-61. Available from

MacIntyre, A. (1981). After Virtue: A study in moral theory (London, Duckworth).

MacIntyre, A. (1981a). The nature of the virtues. Hastings Center Report, 11(2), 27-34.

MacIntyre, A. C. (1988). Whose justice? Which rationality? : Duckworth London.