Posted in Learning, Schools, Studying, Teaching

What future for education

A week or so ago I decided to sign up to do a course called ‘What future for education’.

It was the title of the course that caught my eye as I am working through a period of deep ambivalence about education and thought this might provide me with some answers, or at the very least give me something else to think about. You know how I like to think!

It is an online course like many others: there are lectures (and in this instance, they are brave enough to call them lectures – I like that), there are readings, there are discussions to be had, activities to complete (an entry on a Padlet wall – some of you may remember adding to a Wall Wisher Wall in your own studies … it’s now called Padlet), and a tweet or two.

And a blog post. Hence my presence here today.

I could have started another blog and used that just for the course, but decided against that. Mostly for pragmatic reasons; I have a collection of applications that I’ve signed up for because of various studies I’ve undertaken and many of them I don’t use once the study is finished. Or once I decide to stop studying. And so I thought I’d write my blog posts here and you can be be amazed that I still haven’t learnt to read the unit outline and take any notice of deadlines. This blog post was supposed to be in yesterday, for instance.

But I’m supposed to write a 200-word blog post on: Based on your experience as a learner, what do you think you will be able to get out of this course? And what ideas do you already have about the future of education? So here goes.

What I will get out of this course … that’s an interesting way to phrase this question. Does that mean the same thing as ‘what will I learn from this course’? I’m going to say yes, and so will reword the question and write about what I expect to learn by completing this course.

I expect to learn about a range of perspectives on education – what education might look like in the future; how we might shape education; what education is for; why we educate. I want to learn what others have to say about education, others who aren’t politicians, others who know something about education and have ideas about it. I expect to learn how education can move away from the abyss of commodification and towards a focus on learning.

What ideas do I already have about education? I’m going to imagine that the term ‘education’ here is used to mean ‘formal education’ whether that’s in a school or university.

  • I see a distinct shift towards education being a commodity that is bought and sold, with as little effort made by the ‘consumer’ as that required to buy a lipstick.
  • Education has less to do with learning and more to do with a qualification or a result that allows the student access into other areas of education (from Year 6 to secondary school; from Year 12 to university), and then into the ‘real’ world.
  • Education has become enfeebled by a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy to the detriment of developing learners (people) who can engage in creative, critical, and ethical thought (and action).
  • Teachers (including university academics who teach) are increasingly stymied in their efforts to encourage learning, instead being forced to focus on assessing (there’s much more weighing than there is nourishing).
  • School teachers are little more than automatons – delivering a curriculum that is divorced from their students and developed by outsiders who have political points to make; being handed scripted lessons to deliver; having very little say in what is taught and how it’s taught.
  • The future of education is bleak.

 


 

So, for what it’s worth, that’s my less than cheery summation of the future of education.

Posted in Learning, Life, Studying, Teaching

Do unto others …

My husband, Tim, and I are different.

One of my colleagues highlighted this difference when she said, “Tim’s nice. And Sharon, you have good ideas. Together you make one decent person.”

It’s become something of a refrain for us and we joke about it at odd times in that way couples do when the truth of what’s been said hits us between the eyes.

It serves to bring our difference into sharp relief.

Tim is nice.

And I do have good ideas.

***

In our work as teacher educators, we assess a lot of student work. Tim writes nice comments on the work he marks; his language is positive and his niceness exudes through his words. When students receive their assignments, they feel reassured.

***

He loads his presentation, gathers his papers and asks me if I’m ready.

I am.

I love listening to Tim’s presentations because his thinking is so clear, he uses language beautifully, and the connections he makes are interesting ones. His voice is soothing and controlled and warm.

My mind flashes back to November 23, 1999: the first time I heard Tim speak. It was his Honours presentation and I was impressed by the clarity of his thinking and the way he communicated ideas. Even though I didn’t know him then, I was determined to introduce myself to him afterwards. Three months later we meet again, both new PhD candidates, in adjoining offices. I listen to him speak on numerous occasions over the next few years and he impresses me each time.

This presentation is different though. It’s not Tim at his best. He finishes and looks expectantly at me.

I am not nice.

***

I load my presentation, gather my papers and ask him if he’s ready.

He is.

I start and a few slides in, I stop. I had had an idea. I tell Tim I’ll be back in a moment.

A few minutes later I am back, and I start again.

Tim listens respectfully. I finish and look expectantly at him.

Tim is nice.

***

I give Tim some feedback on his presentation: “I was confused by this slide because it didn’t reflect what you were saying”, “the information you spoke about [at this point] was very complex”, “on the fourth slide the information you present is in the opposite order to what you say and that distracts me”

Tim is upset.

“Do you have anything nice to say?”

***

Tim gives me feedback on my presentation: “It’s great. Well done. You’ll be fabulous. I really like how you have organised your ideas”

I am upset.

“Don’t give me nice. Tell me how to make it better.”

***

And there’s the difference.

Tim wanted me to be nice. He needed to be reassured.

I wanted Tim to be critical. I needed to be better.

***

Tim’s feedback to students reassures them. They feel that they can do ‘this’, that they can succeed, that they can achieve their goal of getting through university and being a teacher.

My feedback is anything but reassuring. It points out how they can improve their work, how they can communicate in writing more clearly, how they might connect their ideas in more logical ways … it doesn’t reassure.

Tim placates.

I challenge and question.

I struggle to write nice things. I object to the ‘bollocks sandwich’ approach (as one student described it): the say something nice, then say something constructive about how the work could be improved, then finish with something else nice.

To me it feels like I’m writing platitudes and empty words: “Thank you for your submission. You have used a clear font and met the word count.”

It feels wrong to me, and not at all reassuring.

And it’s because I wouldn’t want to hear it. Don’t tell me stupid stuff, tell me what I can do to improve my work – don’t waste my time with things that don’t matter.

***

We are taught from a young age that we should do unto others as we would have others do unto us.

But that’s quite patently wrong.

What’s really at work here is this: do unto others as they would be done unto.

When I ‘do unto others as I would have them do unto me’, I give the kind of feedback that I want to hear.

But there are plenty of students who want something different: they want to be reassured.

***

Tim is going to have to get more critical.

And I’m going to have to learn to be nice.

It’s going to be a struggle for both of us.

Posted in Learning, Studying, Writing

Being …

This year I took on a new identity … not, I hasten to add, in a witness protection kind of way. Nothing that dramatic! … but a new identity nonetheless.

I could say that I took on a new role … but with new roles comes new identities. We can choose to define ourselves by our new roles/identities, and thus think about ourselves differently. Being an academic means particular things. Being an under-graduate student means almost the polar opposite. We may choose to act in ways that are consistent with our new role and that might lead to inconsistencies in how we portray ourselves to the world. Will I be student today, or teacher? What does it mean to be a student in an online environment where I don’t get to spend time with my teacher or my peers; when I don’t get to hear their voices or even see what they look like? It’s a disconcerting experience. On the other hand, what does it mean to be a teacher in an online environment where I don’t get to spend time with my students, when I don’t get to hear their voices or see what they look like? Experiencing that as an online student heightens my awareness of that ‘disconcerting experience’ as a teacher of online students. 

In addition to thinking about myself in a different way and considering if I will act differently to signify this new role/identity, others see me in that new role and make different kinds of connections with me, or think about me in particular ways and so have their own view of who I am (which might not bear any relation to who I am when inhabiting a different identity/role).

My university tutors do not see me as a colleague; as someone who, like them, teaches in an online environment. They see me as a student – a distant one, it has to be said: one who doesn’t appear to be very engaged, who forgets to read her unit outline, who leaves assignments till the last minute, who doesn’t follow the requirements of the task as closely as she should, who doesn’t engage in conversations online, who hasn’t made connections with other students in the online environment.

For those of you in the know, why didn’t you tell me it would be like this? 🙂 If only you’d told me to read the unit outline carefully and repeatedly, or that I’d need at least 10 hours per week per unit to do full justice to the work I needed to do, or that learning to use new software is time-consuming and requires a great deal of independent learning and commitment and energy, or that coming home from work and having to study till late is exhausting, or that trying to find information when it’s in ten different places in the online environment is one of the most frustrating parts of the whole experience (it really isn’t all that difficult to put all the information required for weekly activities in the one place), or that reading all the other students’ posts can be mind-numbing and take up all the time I’d set aside for study (and seriously, do 18 year olds really like talk in that like annoying way where they like say a lot without like saying anything at all, you know, sort of, I guess, do you get me? Despite my student status I am still a teacher and despair over the abominable use of language on public discussion boards).

Not that it’s all bad of course. In one subject (Writing Professionally – actually I don’t know if that’s the name of the subject because for some reason I haven’t looked at the unit outline properly to even know what the unit is called), the tutor gives general feedback on our ‘writing watches’ (which are assessed) and on two occasions has encouraged other students to read my work for its ‘quality and depth’ (you have no idea how embarrassed I feel writing that). We had to do three ‘writing watches’ across the course of the semester – responding in a systemically functionally linguistic way to something we’d read. I chose to respond to:

1. an article in a photography magazine

2. an essay by Richard Flanagan which appeared in The Monthly (the article was on David Walsh and MONA which I’d just been to, so it seemed fitting)

3. a blog post titled The oddest English spellings, part 20: The letter “y” from the Oxford University Press’s blog. It was interesting. Seriously!

These writing watches were practice for our exam. Yes, you heard that right – exam. I had to sit an exam.

Why didn’t someone tell me how stressful that is?! That you spend days and nights thinking about what the questions might be, what the text choices might be, what you know (or rather, don’t know) about systemic functional linguistics and how you’re going to write “pages” on it in two hours?

But I did it and wrote (typed) five pages of blather about an advertisement for Income Protection titled Confessions of a financial adviser. An interesting way to spend a day, particularly when you’re at home and the phone keeps ringing just as you think you have the modality worked out!

We also had to do weekly ‘word watches’ (which were assessed). We had to find two unfamiliar words each week and write about them: what they mean, where we’d read/heard them, their derivation, and we had to use the words in a sentence.

At first I found this difficult. I don’t want to sound like a pompous git (unlike some people I know), but in the everyday, normal, regular reading I do I don’t come across too many words which I don’t know. So I determined to try harder.

Here are my words (you, clever reader, are quite possibly aware of their meanings and already sprinkle them through your everyday conversations. I, on the other hand, did not).

  • Eupraxis (thank you David M)
  • Conation (actually, I did know what that meant because I’d written about it in a journal article published last year, but until I wrote about it I didn’t know what it meant)
  • Heuristic
  • Prevaricate (actually I wavered on this quite a bit)
  • Mendicant (it had been in the news – Tasmania is a mendicant state apparently)
  • Noetic (nothing to do with Christmas)
  • Rendering (a word from my Graphic Design unit)
  • Misandry (its opposite had been much in the news)
  • Chirographic
  • Contumacious (if my mother had known this word when I was a child I’m sure I would have heard it a lot!)
  • Whovian (my sister is a mad one of these)
  • Gonzo (I’d been to MONA and learnt this word while wandering the subterranean halls. Tim already knew it. He’d read Hunter S. Thompson apparently)
  • Metaredound (don’t ask me)
  • Analogous (I actually had heard this word, but I wanted to use it in a way I hadn’t used it before and that was in relation to colour: analogous harmony)
  • Indigent (thanks Germaine)
  • Calumniated (and again)
  • Emic
  • Etic (yes, they are related)
  • Eschatology
  • Ratiocination (I had to listen to this a number of times to get the pronunciation right. Thanks YouTube!)
  • Contingent (used in a way I didn’t understand – of all people, by my husband, in a journal article we wrote some time ago. I hadn’t told him I didn’t understand the way he used it as I didn’t want to look stupid!)
  • Hegemony (with a soft ‘j’ sound for the ‘g’)
  • Picayune
  • Ludology (nothing to do with Ludo as it turns out … although …)

So there you have it. New words to pepper through my dinner-time conversations. Feel free to use any of them, particularly in ways that are inventive and thus deeply satisfying.

I am a student and I am learning things. That’s what students do isn’t it? Isn’t that the purpose of being a student? It’s why I decided to be a student: to learn something/s. And even though I’ve said ‘the message’ countless times, it’s always different when you’re on the receiving end of it. The message is: learning can be hard. And it isn’t always fun.

But it is satisfying.

Being a student not only challenges my own identity (I have to flip between student and teacher on a regular basis and I am very conscious of not being a teacher in my student role – which is partly why I don’t engage on the discussion boards: I don’t yet have the student language down pat. I’m too caught up using teacher language and saying teacher things and I don’t want to do that as a student).

Being a student also challenges how others see me.

Some people, on first hearing that I am a university student again, thought (and said) “are you mad?” and other equally dis/en/couraging words. My new role was something they wanted to reject – it was ludicrous, or unnecessary (especially at your age), or just plain silly. I have a PhD, why would I want to be an under-grad again? That’s something young people do. I should do some serious study, not a bachelor degree in an area I potentially know a little bit about. Why, for instance, am I doing Professional Writing (that’s its official title – I thought I’d better check) when I have had a number of journal articles, book chapters and conference papers published?

I guess I feel that I can always learn more – and I did. Heaps in fact, and that’ll help my writing when next I write something for publication. 

On hearing that I am a student again, other people saw me differently. They made a different kind of connection with me. Some, because of their own identity as ‘student’ (or perhaps, student-in-the-not-too-distant past) applauded my decision – I was now one of them, a member of a community of adults who are (or were) university students. For those whom I’ve taught – who have been my own students – the connection is even closer. Their teacher/lecturer/colleague is now in the same position they recall so clearly and thus our connection is strengthened. There’s a shared understanding … and as I give advice quite freely about being a student, I also imagine there’s a little bit of mirth around my stumbling attempts at student-hood.

But I have finished the semester, completed teaching and learning surveys (and been very honest – in a professional way – as all students should be), and am eagerly awaiting my final results.

I have also determined to be a better student next semester. I have already created folders for my two new subjects (one is Production Planning; the other is Visual Storytelling), downloaded the information from the course and unit handbook, looked up information about textbooks (I don’t have to buy any), and worked out what I do when I procrastinate (I work … yes, on my study days!).

Being a student: challenging, stressful, but ultimately satisfying.

What’s your experience?

Posted in Learning, Studying, Writing

The envelope

My online students, in the days before we went online, used to talk about waiting for ‘the envelope’. Ours were yellow and students would camp at their letter boxes waiting for the big yellow envelope to arrive. Some would leave it sitting on the kitchen bench till they felt strong enough to open it; others would rip it open, eager to see their result.

My first envelope arrived in the post earlier this week and I have to say it was an odd feeling. Partly, I think because of the ways my students (now graduates) used to talk about the arrival of the envelope, and the importance it held for them. It was a validation of them as students, scholars, learners, and sometimes it was even more. It was a validation of themselves. Were they worth anything? Could they do it? Were they cut out for this thing called university? Did they have what it takes? Was university really for people like them?

Many of those students had not been on to the university campus at that stage, or had not been on to the campus often. Many of them didn’t live in the same state as the university; many hadn’t physically met their lecturers, tutors, peers. University was a disembodied experience. An experience that involved sitting at home, on their computer, by themselves, struggling to work out what the task required, having little access to anyone to seek clarification, advice, ideas. Not knowing if they were on the right track.

They did their best, not knowing if they measured up; their whole being invested in this. What if I’m not on the right track? What if I fail? Will that mean I’m a failure?

It’s high stakes.

A few days before my own envelope arrived, I had returned my own students’ assignments – though not in envelopes – and was aware of the emotions involved in receiving feedback and a grade. But I was aware of the emotions as an objective observer: as someone who knew that the students would have an emotional reaction, but not as someone who felt the emotion directly. Some of my students had not met the pass standard, and the emotions varied: some were angry, others were disappointed. Many of them spent the weekend crying. Other students had met the pass standard but had expected the same success as they’d had at college. Their emotions were similar – to them their pass (or credit) felt like a fail.

I had warned students that they might feel this range of emotions and that they might react in particular ways; I had wanted to prepare them and to let them know it is normal to feel a range of emotions … and to be quite honest, to let them know that they weren’t to email me at the height of their emotional response. The “post-assignment-blues” email is not a good one to look back on when the emotion has subsided!

All of this was raging through my head when my own envelope arrived. What if I failed … or just as bad … what if  I only passed?

So when my envelope arrived I felt part of a community – a community of those who knew the importance attached to the envelope – and for the first time I was an insider in this experience. I felt the weight of expectation and the weight of former students’ associations. It was exciting and daunting in equal measure. The assignment was to write a non-fiction piece of around 500-800 words on a topic of our choice. We had to state the purpose and the audience of our piece, and we had to submit two drafts of our writing plus the final copy. We also had to write a statement about the editing process. Suggestions for our writing included CD liner notes (I didn’t know they still existed), a review (of a book, an art work, an exhibition), a newspaper feature article.

I didn’t know how to write any of those things so I wrote a blog entry. And while I wrote about a real-life experience I wrote it a bit story-like (I used elements of narrative writing) and so was uncertain whether the tutor would accept it as non-fiction.

She did.

I enjoyed your blog immensely. It’s rare to receive an error-free assignment; you’ve obviously invested time and effort for this submission. Thank you.

A validation …

… of my capacity to correct errors.

That won’t surprise any of my own students!

I won’t be so scared when the next envelope arrives. Except I can’t remember when the next assignment is due. I really will need to read the unit outline soon!!

Posted in Learning, Studying, Writing

Postcards … an assignment

Last week was a big one for me.

I submitted my first assignment. The task was to develop a series of four promotional postcards for the town/city in which we live. We had to “photograph places or things that you find interesting”, while the postcards “are aimed to appeal to a youth/young 18-24 demographic, so please create postcards that you believe would appeal to this audience”.

Quandary #1: I’m not 18-24 – how do I know what appeals to that audience?

Solution: I asked my students. They all said “the beach”.

Quandary #2: The beach in Burnie is almost always deserted and taking a photo of an empty beach possibly wouldn’t make an appealing image for an 18-24 year old.

Solution: Go to the beach when surf lifesavers are training.

Quandary #3: Surf lifesaving championships had been held in another part of the state the weekend before, and only a small handful of people came to train on the only day I could make it to the beach.

Solution: Take a photo anyway!

Below is what I came up with. The water doesn’t look very inviting (that’s possibly my projection: I think it’s always too cold to swim in Tasmanian waters), and that could be a mark against me, but I’m willing to take that chance.

We had to include text of some sort and I wanted to keep it simple on the front and leave the explaining to the back of the postcard.

Beach Postcard

As mentioned, we not only had to design the front of the promotional postcard, we also had to design the back. Betty, our tutor, had indicated that the cards were not to be ‘touristy’ and so I decided against having a place for a stamp and a message. I wanted to use the back to contextualise the front. Here’s what I came up with:

Beach-back

Continuing with the beach and ‘come and play’ theme I also photographed the marine creatures that feature on the beach foreshore. These creatures have added extra life to the newly renovated beachfront.

Octopus

Octopus-back

While we were to take a thematic approach and ensure the four postcards were a ‘series’ I decided to have two themes. The second them is ‘make it in Burnie’. Burnie has taken on an identity as the ‘City of Makers’, and I wanted to capture this in my postcards.

Burnie is famous for making paper (although if you know Burnie you’ll be amazed at the absence of a pulp and paper mill), but it also makes other things. There’s a big Caterpillar factory (or a number of them) in the city, but also smaller companies making big machines for export to the rest of the world. Haulmax is one of those companies and while it isn’t technically in Burnie, it’s close enough to be captured within the instruction to take photographs of “your environment and/or its surroundings”. I figured that East Wynyard is a surrounding of Burnie!

Haulmax Postcard

Haulmax-back

I couldn’t discount the importance of paper to Burnie’s history and identity, so on the day before the assignment was due (I’d been in Sydney for the week before, which is why I had to leave it to the last minute!) I visited the Makers’ Workshop to see if I could find some paper.

It’s all handmade now, of course, and the papier mâché sculptures that Pam Thorne makes are amazing, but I couldn’t capture any of them in a way I liked, and, wanting to keep the images simple, I simply did this:

Postcard-paper

I thought I’d get into trouble for moving different piles of paper from their allocated shelves, but if anyone saw me they didn’t take any notice. I put them all back in their right places!

Here’s the back:

Postcard-paper-back

So, my first assignment submitted – on the day before it was due no less!

Feeling pretty happy with myself I re-read the task description.

It said “students must upload regular updates of their design/s. These regular updates are very important – they demonstrate the on-going development of your work prior to final submission. Be advised that if you simply upload work the day before it’s due (without posting any earlier entries or consulting with your lecturer) this will affect your final mark.

Whoops!

Oh well. Even if I don’t get a good mark, I still learnt a lot.