Thursday, March 21, 2013

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 support, assessment and certification rather than content delivery in itself. This is a welcome shift - away from a view of learning in terms of transfer of knowledge and nurturing skills' development such as communication, collaboration and problem-solving.

However, it would be a mistake to belive that participation on a MOOC is all about passive watching of video lectures and very little by way of engagement. I am taking a MOOC on Aboriginal Worldviews and Education by  Jean-Paul Restoule of the University of Toronto and it is really excellent. The learning tasks are varied and interesting and there are ample fora for discussion and integration. The course acts as a portal to an interesting and alternative perspective on how we see education and culture.

MOOCs are certainly disrupting the business models in higher education and perhaps this is for the better. The idea of opening-up learning opportunities to the widest possible audience seems to me to be a very positive development. Perhaps unexpectedly, the 'free' material will build an entire new market for students who would otherwise not have considered taking college courses.

In the end a good shake-up of the sector is long overdue and with the advent of MOOCs we might finally have an opportunity to replace the industrial models of learning and education with something more appropriate for 21st Century living.

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Sunday, February 3, 2013

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...." and then go on to describe what the reader can expect. Write this paragraph first. Then leave it alone - don't keep reworking it during the writing process - wait until your assignment is near to completion and then (and only then) rewrite the opening.

4 Read and research with purpose

Once you have a plan (based on your opening paragraph) you can then attack the required background reading.  The secret is to be 'purposeful' in your approach.  Continuously ask yourself why you are reading the specific text before you and what it will contribute.  Write snippets as you go. Don't get taken in by mindless reading and avoid 'nice to know' sidetracks - if you come across something interesting but not directly helpful to your assignment put it in a folder for future reading.

5 Make three points

I want to make three points about this tip.  First it's a useful starting point for a new topic - it gives a simple structure and the reader knows what to expect.  Second it stretches your thinking so you can easily compare and contrast the ideas you wish to discuss.  Finally, you can always keep going to add more and more points later.

6 Use paragraphs to provide structure  

One of the most useful and often neglected devices for both writer and reader is the paragraph. It is often possible to write separate paragraphs from different parts of your assignment and to connect these in later drafts.  An advantage of this approach is that your notes and memos will gradually build to become paragraphs.  Each paragraph should have it's own structure - pay attention to the key sentence that usually carries the main message of the paragraph. Make backward and forward connections with linking sentences throughout your paper.

7 Remember you are the writer 

Many students fail to grasp that a term paper assignment is essentially a learning task that requires their engagement in the process of writing.  It is more important to provide your own thoughts (even if you feel they are inadequate) rather than reproducing the work of others. Keep quotations to a minimum and cite all your sources using one system of referencing such as APA, MLA of Harvard.

8 Keep it clear

Write in a clear straightforward style.  Avoid complex sentences.  Make your argument with precision and elegance and use no more words than necessary.

9 Write a little every day

Writing can be tiring especially if you are not used to it.  It's a good idea to break the task down and write something each day until the assignment is due.  Even if you are busy with other things or feeling tired try to accomplish some part of the work - such as proof reading or formatting - in every session.

10 Write a summary and conclusion 

A summary captures the main points that you have made such as "here I have provided ten tips on academic writing for students" while a conclusion provides a key message that can be inferred from your paper such as "it's over to you now good luck with your academic writing".

Sunday, January 6, 2013

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 a minimum and are strictly orchestrated - we are reduced to commodities and with each transaction the organisation becomes more powerful at our expense.

Alienation is not the same as isolation or disengagement. It is potentially more sinister - it involves a diminution of aspects of human nature.  It is not simply ignoring someone it's a more active process of regulation and imposition of externally convenient limits.

Alienation is part of the price we pay for progress and economy.  If we want cheap air travel, digital devices and convenient nourishment then we will experience alienation.  Most people can cope and are willing to accept much in exchange for greater freedom at other times. 

Similarly, all those 'small cogs in a big wheel' workers in multi-nationals, manufacturing industries and the like, certainly do experience alienation from product.  However, in contrast with the 1800's when Marx first wrote about the topic, there are many possibilities for fulfilment in other ways.  People work in teams, take pride in achieving goals and have very rich lives outside of the workplace. 

Today, we experience new and often more powerful manifestations of alienation.  One of the most prevalent is the way in which we treat people who are unemployed as economic commodities.  Certain skills are no longer regarded as useful while others are in demand.  The simplistic solution of reskilling is often proposed as a quick-fix for a more complex state of affairs.

Participation is the opposite side of alienation and I argue that 'learning to participate' is the big, on-going task of adult education.  We will continue to experience alienation throughout our lives - for some it's caused by new technology, others experience it in employment or as customers.  The antidote to alienation is participation and the path to participation is through learning.

Participation is empowering, it involves purposeful activity that enriches the person while working with others.  It can manifest as engagement in the digital world but it is also evident in conscious decisions not to follow the trend.  When we learn to participate it may involve acquisition of new skills and competence but it is also an autonomous and liberating action.

Alienation is a powerful influence on all our lives.  This is especially the case during hard times.  It is important that we establish strong foundations for our own well-being. Otherwise we become vulnerable, at risk of being overwhelmed by external forces.  We build our strength by becoming knowledgeable and making our own meaning.  This is what we do.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

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.

Doo Lough County Mayo
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 progress are all parts of your learning strategy which in turn is guided by your goals.

It is useful to be aware of your learning goals and to be prepared to question and review them regularly. 

What do I want to achieve? 

This is the most important decision you can make about your own learning.  You could decide "I want to pass the exam" or even go further "I want to get an honours grade" or further again "I want first class honours"


you could go beyond grades and shift your goals toward an intrinsic interest in the subject and strive to master the topic in itself. 

You could also consider goals that relate to your own competence such as "I want to develop a new design for...." or "I want to investigate why....." or "I wish to become very knowledgeable on.....".  These goals are stated without reference to the formal assessment process.

Karl Marx in 1861
As an adult, you can go further again.  Here I quote from Karl Marx, the last line from Thesis on Feuerbach
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
The term 'praxis' is used to denote a process whereby theory, skills or knowledge are used to realise and enact the potential therein.  Through the writings of Paulo Friere we see how literacy education results in emancipation.  Lives can be transformed and the prevailing order challenged.  Imagine that as a learning goal "I want to change the world". 

This is not some vague, idealistic notion that can be countered by the shallow challenge of "that's all very well but I need to pass my exams".  The most important goals in adult learning should be ideological critique and praxis.  Everyone who learns has a responsibility to contribute and improve our world. 

Students in our schools, colleges and universities are often well placed to use praxis as a purpose and means of learning.  For example, in National College of Ireland we have an elective module on Service Learning available to our business undergraduates.  However, many students fail to grasp the opportunity.   They see the purpose of college in narrow terms and focus on their next assessment and look for formulae to get good marks without much effort.

As educators we need to take responsibility for providing a limited view of learning.  Much of the assessment infrastructure is built around pre-defined learning outcomes and an instrumental view of what it means to achieve.  We need to question the system and challenge the underlying assumptions.  It's time to critique the ideology of our education system - in short, to shift mindsets from marks to Marx.

Strangely enough, at a personal level if you move your learning mindset beyond the next assessment and adopt critique and praxis as your ultimate learning goals you will likely achieve high marks in all that you do.

Friday, December 30, 2011

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 there was a moocow coming
down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road
met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo...
His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a
glass: he had a hairy face.
In this passage we are introduced to Stephen Dedalus as a child. The language is obviously childlike and there is a wonderful lyrical-jaunty quality about it. But who is the narrator? Is it Stephen or someone else? If it is someone else what age is the narrator?

The use of subjective narration and narrative ambiguity is to be found throughout Joyce's work. Joyce's storytellers are never neutral they add to the meaning and the memory.

The short story 'A Painful Case' from the Dubliners collection provides an apparently more straightforward example of self-narration in a description of the lonely main character of Mr Duffy:
He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense. He never gave alms to beggars, and walked firmly, carrying a stout hazel.
What's interesting here is that this 'odd autobiographical habit' seems also to be in evidence in the first quotation above. I suggest that when the narrator says 'his father told him that story' it is actually Stephan recalling his childhood. The text reproduces these are memories infused as they are with the sensual realism of childhood experience together with evidence of more complex structures over-layered through adult recall and retelling.

The take-away from this lesson is that 'we are the stories we tell' and we construct these stories through our own inner narrative.

Lesson Two Structure and Meaning

There is a wonderful Irish tune called the Mason's Apron that has about six parts and when its played well it provides a great platform for musicians to show off their skills by varying the style and tempo whilst still finding a way pack to the central theme.

In the same way Joyce's Ulysses is a structural masterpiece not because it displays one great structural device but because it has so many. One way of appreciating this entire work is to see it as an exhibition of structural virtuosity.

In addition to varieties of inner and outer narration, there is an episode written as a play complete with stage directions, there is also a section using newspaper narrative with headlines and a section (scholars call it the Ithaca episode) written as if it was meant to be learned by rote in the form of question and response. This hilarious situation involves the two characters Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus who are both quite drunk as they arrive at Bloom's home in Eccles Street:
What action did Bloom make on their arrival at their destination?
At the housesteps of the 4th of the equidifferent uneven numbers, number 7 Eccles street, he inserted his hand mechanically into the back pocket of his trousers to obtain his latchkey.

Was it there?
It was in the corresponding pocket of the trousers which he had worn on the day but one preceding.

Why was he doubly irritated?
Because he had forgotten and because he remembered that he had reminded himself twice not to forget.

What were then the alternatives before the, premeditatedly (respectively) and inadvertently, keyless couple?
To enter or not to enter. To knock or not to knock.

Bloom's decision?
A stratagem. Resting his feet on the dwarf wall, he climbed over the area railings, compressed his hat on his head, grasped two points at the lower union of rails and stiles, lowered his body gradually by its length of five feet nine inches and a half to within two feet ten inches of the area pavement, and allowed his body to move freely in space by separating himself from the railings and crouching in preparation for the impact of the fall.
This is great fun to read and the structure is often referred to as the catechism approach. Joyce was perhaps poking fun at the teaching methods he encountered for religion and theology.

The take-away from this lesson is to recognise how we embed meaning in the structures and manner in which we communicate.

Lesson Three Hypertext 
Most people involved in computer science will recognise the term 'hypertext' (it is in fact the 'h' in the familiar http string that we find in Internet addresses). However, the origins of the term predate the Net. In the 1960's Theodore H Nelson described the term as electronic text that was characterised as non sequential. By this he was referring to the reader's ability to trace a series of different paths through the same piece of text. If you want a good example of this then look up 'hypertext' on wikipedia and see where your reading takes you.

Reading hypertext is an active process as it involves choice and exploration of layers of meaning. This characteristic is also true of great works of literature (I am not the first to posit this idea and should you so wish you can hypertext off to study Derrida, Foucault and Landow).

Long before the Internet Joyce understood the power of interconnection, inference, hints and echoes in literature. Throughout Ulysses there is an obvious underlying intertextual resonance with Homer's Odyssey.  However, the hyper-textual framework extends throughout the novel and it conveys a much deeper, broader and inter-connected network of meaning. For example, one of the characters Stephen Dedalus was first encountered in an earlier novel by Joyce, while the timeframe as one day (16th of June 1904) starts twice: once with Stephen and once with Leopold.

Each episode has an underlying theme and it's almost impossible to read the main text without your thoughts spinning off in many different directions. In the extract below from Sirens we encounter a form of musical overture to Bloom's later erotic observations of waitresses in the Ormond Hotel:
Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips. Horrid! And gold flushed more.
A husky fifenote blew.
Blew. Blue bloom is on the
Gold pinnacled hair.
A jumping rose on satiny breasts of satin, rose of Castille.
Trilling, trilling: I dolores.
Peep! Who's in the... peepofgold?
Tink cried to bronze in pity.
And a call, pure, long and throbbing. Longindying call.
Decoy. Soft word. But look! The bright stars fade. O rose! Notes chirruping answer. Castille. The morn is breaking.
Jingle jingle jaunted jingling.
The take-away from this lesson is that much of our thinking is characterised as more like a hyper-textual network of associations rather than any logical, hierarchical or similarly organised system.
Lesson Four A Theory of Aesthetics 
In the Portrait there are a series of episodes involving Stephen working through some theological and philosophical arguments. The following extracts are spoken by Stephen as a college student to a fellow student called Lynch and concern the essence of beauty - I suggest that Joyce's own views that are in evidence here:
... Plato, I believe, said that beauty is the splendour of truth. I don't think that it has a meaning, but the true and the beautiful are akin. Truth is beheld by the intellect which is appeased by the most satisfying relations of the intelligible; beauty is beheld by the imagination which is appeased by the most satisfying relations of the sensible. The first step in the direction of truth is to understand the frame and scope of the intellect itself, to comprehend the act itself of intellection.
and later when they argue on the subjectivity of beauty
This hypothesis, Stephen repeated, is the other way out: that, though the same object may not seem beautiful to all people, all people who admire a beautiful object find in it certain relations which satisfy and coincide with the stages themselves of all esthetic apprehension. These relations of the sensible, visible to you through one form and to me through another, must be therefore the necessary qualities of beauty. Now, we can return to our old friend saint Thomas for another pennyworth of wisdom.
Even though these arguments are provided as the student Stephen working through his own approach to philosophy (and there is much evidence in the text of a kind of an innocent, tentative naivety in this) we are presented, as in the case of the examples above, with some very useful insights.

The take-away from this lesson is Joyce's affirmation of what Jurgan Habermas later refers to as communicative rationality - process by which societal constructs such as beauty, truth and justice are formed.

Lesson Five Stream of Consciousness
Finally, Joyce is well known for his use of a stream-of-consciousness technique to convey an impression of how people think.

The frequently cited example is perhaps the Molly Bloom soliloquy which comes at the end of Ulysses. The extract I present here is from an earlier part of the book where Stephen is walking on the beach. I have inserted a dash / to indicate the transition from narrator to stream-of-consciousness and back.
His gaze brooded on his broadtoed boots, a buck's castoffs, /nebeneinander/. He counted the creases of rucked leather wherein another's foot had nested warm. /The foot that beat the ground in tripudium, foot I dislove. But you were delighted when Esther Osvalt's shoe went on you: girl I knew in Paris. Tiens, quel petit pied! Staunch friend, a brother soul:
Wilde's love that dare not speak its name. His arm: Cranly's arm. He now will leave me. And the blame? As I am. As I am. All or not at all.
nebeneinander. He counted the creases of rucked leather wherein another's foot had nested warm. The foot that beat the ground in tripudium, foot I dislove. But you were delighted when Esther Osvalt's shoe went on you: girl I knew in Paris. Tiens, quel petit pied! Staunch friend, a brother soul: Wilde's love that dare not speak its name. His arm: Cranly's arm. He now will leave me. And the blame? As I am. As I am. All or not at all.
The take-away from this lesson is in the form of 'exhibit a' - this is what we are taking about when we think of 'thinking'. Surprisingly, we don't get grammar as we know it, there seems to be little by way of logical progression or obvious structure and yet we have to agree (I certainly do) that this exhibit rings very true. I have often argued that writing is a form of thinking and that a consequence of the writing process is the manner in which it forces us to impose progressive arguments and logical structure on our thoughts. Thankfully, stream-of-consciousness as above would seem to be the norm though.

In the preceding discussion I have presented, what I choose to call, five lessons from Joyce that provide insights on how we think and how we experience the world. These are just the tip of the iceberg and further reading of Joyce will continue to provide a powerful lens through which we can view our own minds and those of others.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

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 sessions usually in the local pubs. These sessions embrace young and old, expert and novice - what we get is one continuous, joyous expression of music - all the while people are learning new tunes and developing their skills.

There is no assessment, no barriers to 'giving it a go', no penalties for mistakes and great learning takes place.

This entire approach is completely at variance with our institutionalised version of education. We often take for granted the assumption that all learning must be assessed and we see learning as an individual and often lonely process. The Willie Clancy Summer School gives us a different perspective on this.

Thanks Muiris.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

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 - it is not a means for the student to demonstrate wide ranging knowledge or to reproduce theory or to provide a history of developments in a particular field (although it can involve each of these). It is simply a matter of 're'viewing the literature from the perspective of the research question or topic. In other words, asking and addressing questions of the form 'if such and such says or has found this then what are the implications for my research?' 
The purpose of a literature review is to guide and support you and your reader in furthering the investigation or inquiry at hand. In academic scholarship you can and should build on the works of others - provided they are properly cited. 
Here is an analogy that might be useful: If you were planning to visit Rome then you would likely consult a guidebook and some web sites for information. You would be very interested in the section dealing with the specific area were you intend to stay, and you would also focus on the sites you plan to visit. To a certain extent, you don't need to read everything in the guidebook. However, you might need to bring the guidebook with you and consult it during your visit.  Imagine if each visitor had to explore the entire city for the first time - we would have very poor experiences in Rome. It is wise therefore to find out from other sources all that you need to know to make your particular journey as successful as possible. So (please forgive me if this sounds patronising!) consider the following - the value of a guide book is always considered with respect to the place and time of your visit and similarly, literature reviews are intended to support the research inquiry at hand.

In academic scholarship you can use a literature review to address the following issues:
  • To outline a conceptual framework for your research question
  • To develop an argument as to the importance of your research question and to discuss the wider implications amd context
  • To discuss the theoretical and philosophical (epistemological) underpinnings of the problem
  • To refine, focus and improve the research question
  • To discuss relevant and related theory, models or frameworks
  • To discuss other relevant research
  • To discuss research approaches and methods (although a fuller treatment of this is normally part of a later section on methodology) 
A good literature review is never passive - the writer is constantly making connections between the work of others and the current research or inquiry. Indicators of a good review:
  • It is constructed from and connected to the research question
  • It is comprehensive in relation to the research question
  • It is connected and well structured
  • It provides a sound foundation for the other components of the dissertation
  • The writer adopts a critical stance  
The most straightforward way to organise a literature review is to structure it around the central themes that arise from the research question.
Here are 10 questions you can use to self-assess your literature review:
  1. Have I clearly stated my research question or problem at the onset?
  2. Have I provided an introduction that indicates the structure of my review and a rationale for that structure?
  3. Have I discussed each of the concepts/terms as used in my research question and provided a rationale for their inclusion?
  4. Have I conducted a comprehensive search for, and included the key relevant theoretical and research works related to my topic?
  5. Have I connected all parts of the review to my research question?
  6. Have I adopted a critical stance in my writing?
  7. Have I included discussion on other similar research?
  8. Have I argued for the importance of my research question and framed it in terms of wider issues and philosophies?
  9. Have I correctly used the Harvard Referencing System or similar?
  10. Have I proof read the review such that it is free from typos and errors?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

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 used was "do you think so?"  For sure, he too always had something to say but it was never rash or trivial, he cared deeply about justice and social issues. When Richard spoke you knew he had been thinking beforehand.

We also learned from the many small things he did. To put it succinctly, he had very good manners and was always polite. However, these were just the outward evidence of something altogether much deeper. Richard had a very real sense that we share this life, this planet, with others. So, when he smiled and shook your hand, when we wore one of his lovely shirts, when he sang his party songs and laughed and even when, at Maire's 50th party, knowing what he was facing, he roared out in glee  "It's so good to be here" again and again we learned from him. We learned to live our lives to the fullest extent but to remember always that we share the world with others. Manners are a way of recognising this.

Without doubt there were two special people who Richard shared his life with and he never missed an opportunity to remind us of this. I don't know how many times he would say how lucky he was to have met and fallen in love with Norah. He was never reserved about expressing his love for her. As for his son Dara, he readily admitted that when he was born it was the happiest day of his life. With Dara and through Dara we see the greatest evidence of what an extraordinary, natural and skilful teacher Richard was.

Think of Richard when you listen to these lines written by Confucius around 2500 years ago:

When a superior man knows the causes which make instruction successful, and those which make it of no effect, he can be a teacher of others. Thus in his teaching, he leads and does not drag; he strengthens and does not discourage; he opens the way but does not conduct to the end without the learner's own efforts. Leading and not dragging produces harmony. Strengthening and not discouraging makes attainment easy. Opening the way and not conducting to the end makes the learner thoughtful. He who produces harmony, easy attainment, and thoughtfulness may be pronounced a skillful teacher.
– Confucius, Book XVI – HSIO KI (Record on the Subject of Education) 

Richard was a skilful teacher and Dara and Norah and everyone who knew him will continue to learn. It is very appropriate that we planted an oak tree today in his memory. The oak tree was the symbol of knowledge in ancient Ireland. In Irish it is known as Daire.  It will grow here in the Phoenix Park a place that has a powerful resonance for all our family. The phoenix is also associated with the symbolism of rebirth from ashes.

The small tree grows under the shade of the older one and the cycle of life and learning continues.

Richard Hannaford RIP

Richard (with the lovely shirt), Maire, Norah and Leo

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

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.

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 dyslexia.

Go ahead and try the service it's free to non-commercial users.

If you don't mind please let me know how you get on as we are making a catalogue of good practice as part of the project outputs.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

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' that would be regarded as essential for all incoming students. The intended outcome is quite straight forward - the student will become self-directed in their approach to learning.

How can this be taught? It is surely not easy! Well it may be more straightforward than we expect. I suspect that the strategies would involve some combination of the following:

  • Start from where student's are at now. If they have just left school then they are used to being told what to do and what is expected of them. They will not find it easy to suddenly be told that 'everything is left up to you' in college. Yes self-derecteness is the desirable attribute for the college graduate but we have to recognise that incoming students have not had an opportunity to learn this skill.
  • Assess early, assess frequently and make it count. From the onset every student needs to be able to receive valuable feedback on how they are doing and most importantly, feedback needs to be accompanied by clear advice on how to improve.
  • Encourage active discussion on 'engagement' - don't develop or convey a sense of 'it's none of my business if you don't show up'. When a student misses a class ask where they have been and is everything ok.
  • Get students to do peer assessment. Yes get student's to correct each others work. This may need to be formative only (i.e. not counting for grades) but it provides an opportunity for student's to understand assessment criteria and structures.
  • Get student's to teach each other and to study together. This will not happen spontaneously so groups may need to be formed and guidelines proposed.
  • Give student's goal-oriented targets stating explicitly what they need to achieve rather than time-oriented targets such as how many hours they need to study.
  • Get student's to contribute to the design of assessments.
We will always have some percentage of students who become disengaged but using the strategies outlined above we may be able to keep that number to a minimum.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

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 of spines as a defence. Any animal, a fox for example,  confronting a hedgehog is likely to be repelled by the prospect of a prickly experience. The hedgehog can dig deep and survives on the insects and snails in a small area. The hedgehog is a specialist.

When you go to college you select 'one big thing' that you intend to be good at; be it Business, Computers, Law and so on. Similarly, some people focus on a trade or music or sport and invest a lot of time and energy to develop the specialist skills involved. We use the term 'domain specific skills' when we refer to competence associated with such disciplines or contexts.

Clearly we expect graduate accountants to be able to generate and interpret financial reports and we require technical skills from engineering and computer students and so on. But we also expect much more. There are few professions that do not require problem solving skills and there are few career paths where success can be achieved by working alone without collaboration with others.

Also, there is little merit in being "a jack of all trades and a master of none". Only by focusing on the development of a specialism or expertise can you develop certain kinds of insights. You need to experience how to set goals and achieve them.  Only through specialisms will you genuinely appreciate the nature of practice and persistence. There are ways of knowing the world that require prerequisite skills, for example mathematical competence for Physics, and therefore specialist skills will always be in demand. In fact, many argue that there is a premium on specialist skills and an over supply of generalists. Too many foxes and not enough hedgehogs!

However, in the complex world of the 21st Century, more and more we need people who are both specialist and generalist combined. This is often called a "T" profile of skills - deep knowledge in one area and broad knowledge across a wider range of contexts. This is what we look for in our graduates. A specialist who is worldly wise, one who can think creatively, work with others, cope with uncertainty and manage unpredictable events.  

In short it is not enough to be like a hedgehog and have one big skill and it is not enough to be a generalist like to fox.  You need to have the characteristics of both.


Friday, May 20, 2011

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 similar research.  Therefore the quality of a literature review is by means of its connection with the research question.  A review without reference to a question has little merit.

  • Be careful with claims!  Statements containing terms such as proved, verified, experiment, significant and so on have certain precise meanings in research contexts. 

  • Like all good stories, there needs to be a conclusion - a resolution or summing up of the events and some take-away points for the reader.

  • Storytellers are never neutral they recreate the story with each telling and through the process they add to it by contributing part of their own experience.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

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 to be a relentless quest for the normalisation of practices across the sector.  In my view doing the same thing across different teaching, learning and assessment contexts is seldom an indication of quality.  In addition there is too much emphasis on procedural rather than conceptual documentation. 

Most detrimentally they may be guilty of the same mistake as many religions, albeit unwittingly, they encourage the ‘outsourcing’ of deep thinking. Many teachers regard learning outcomes as unquestionable 'givens' within a course or subject area.  As a consequence there is no incentive to think deeply about what they are trying to achieve. 

This can lead to passive acceptance of handed down templates and and safe formulae. 

I argue that learning outcomes are troublesome concepts and we should treat them with a great deal of caution and critical scrutiny. By arguing that learning outcomes are troublesome I am suggesting that they open up questions about the nature of knowledge, the essence of a discipline or subject area and the appropriateness of the assessments.  I like this kind of trouble.

    The implicit assumptions of learning-outcome-based pedagogic design

    Generating learning outcome statements is an important task in pedagogic design.  It is often considered as the first step.

    At first glance the process may appear to be simple and straightforward "we just need to describe what the learner needs to know and what they can do" but as we shall see, this often brings up some critical questions as to the essence of subject knowledge and the nature learning.

    When we underpin pedagogic design on the basis of a series of learning outcome statements we should be aware of the implicit assumptions we are making.  I highlight in particular three fundamental questions that we need to consider:

    To what extent should we focus on the learning process rather than the learning outcome?

    To what extent is a learning outcome capable of being described, verified or assigned a particular value or quality?

    To what extent should we associate learning outcomes with individual versus group or community competence?

      Process versus outcome orientations

      One of the first muddles in which we tend to find ourselves is the degree of emphasis we place on either the process of learning versus the outcome of learning.

      I suggest that the need for accountability is at the heart of an outcome-orientation of learning.  Accountability is necessary as there is a societal value for certain skills and competence (e.g. doctors, engineers, accountants etc.) and hence the need to assess what people know and what they can do.  There is also a need for educational accountability.  People need to be assured that the course they pursue will lead to the skills and capabilities that they desire.  A third area of accountability is individual - we set goals for ourselves and therefore we need to identify milestones of achievement and learning outcomes often play this role.

      In contrast, a process-orientation emphasises the intrinsic value of learning.  The purpose is participation and engagement in directed inquiry.  Our natural resources such as curiosity, creativity and discussion help to drive and direct our learning.  Obviously the learning process is directed toward a particular task or goal but the purpose is the process not the goal.

      Here is an analogy, each day I take the dog for a walk and we either go to the park or to the river.  It is easy to see that my purpose is not to get to these destinations but to walk the dog - the destination is secondary.

      Consider another situation, suppose most days I do a cryptic crossword and I enjoy this process.  After many years I get better (slowly in my case) and people might say that I was competent at crosswords. My goal is to continue to enjoy working on each puzzle.  I develop my competence so that I can continue to engage in the process.

      These days, there is much discussion about the need to develop scientific and analytical thinking in our young people.  There are many calls to improve the effectiveness of science teaching and to increase the numbers of graduates in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

      Now ask yourself which of the two orientations discussed above - an outcome-orientation or a process-orientation - would be most likely to engender a passion for science? People often talk about a 'love' for a particular subject; I think what they really mean is their love for the practices associated with the field.  They learned to love these practices through a continuous process of participation.  

      The elusive description

      The second critical question that we need to address in relation to learning outcomes is that of description. The following definition of a learning outcome is provided by the ECTS Users Guide (ECTS stands for the European Credit Transfer System):
      Learning outcomes are statements of what a student is expected to know, understand and/or be able to demonstrate after completion of a process of learning.  
      (p 47)

      How useful is this definition?  Let's take a closer look.  The definition characterises learning outcomes (LOs) as statements of expected competence - for expediency I'm going to cluster knowledge, understanding and demonstrableness together under the broader term 'competence'.

      Suppose for a particular course, we are presented with a list of learning outcomes as 'statements of expected competence' defined above. We would need to investigate further in order to fully appreciate what we are dealing with.

      For example, we might ask does each statement capture the entirety of the competence?  Clearly this would be very difficult. It is challenging to find a single statement that encapsulates the essence of science or management. One of the first to point this out and to provide an example of good troublesome thinking in relation to learning outcomes was Plato in the Meno dialogue.

      More likely we would interpret the series of learning outcome statements as follows: we would say that the learning outcomes are a series of statements such that when taken together, they adequately describe the expected competence.  This is an important implicit assumption often overlooked in course and assessment design.

      With this in mind I propose a new (and hopefully more useful) definition:
      Learning outcomes comprise a series of statements such that when taken together, they adequately describe an expected competence.
      Notice the effect of my additional condition requiring that LO statements exist as part of a set or series such that when taken together they adequately describe the expected competence.  In other words each learning outcome is defined in relation to its membership of the set and overall the set provides an adequate description of the competence.  Two points of note; first, you cannot deal with each LO in isolation and second the term 'adequate description' needs to be referenced to some outside value or authority.

      Furthermore, we need to bear in mind the ideas of Russell and Bateson in relation to logical types.  Essentially we need to be careful about the distinction between statements and 'statements about statements'.

      Individual versus group competence

      The third critical question that I wish to discuss is individual versus group competence. The ECTS definition above clearly refers to competence as an individual (student) attribute.  This seems to be the standard approach and given our cultural emphasis on individual performance it seems inevitable that we focus on the person rather than the group.

      But are we missing something?  Surely there are numerous contexts in which collective effort is essential and abilities are valued in so far as they contribute symbiotically to a collective competence. Here I'm not talking about the weak troublesome construct of 'ability to work as a team' - ironically regarded as an individual attribute.  I am referring to competence that manifests itself through collaboration.

      I came across a good example of this recently.  I observed two men boarding a tram: one was in a wheelchair and had a serious physical disability, the other man who pushed to wheelchair was blind.  Together they negotiated the city streets, used public transport and managed their affairs.  Considered together each was mobile and visually aware, considered as individuals each was deficient on one of these abilities.

      My worry is that when we concentrate on individual competence we miss the potential that only becomes apparent in group effort.  This point and indeed all of the points I make above are not meaningless musings on the theory of knowledge.  They have practical implications for education and society.

      As teachers and academics we are challenged to inquire deeply about the learning outcomes we use.  I hope I have convinced you that we should not take this task lightly and hopefully troubled thinking will arise in the process.

      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 meaning of virtue itself.

      In the end the pair fail to resolve the mater and later in the dialogue Plato (through Socrates) goes on to provide a theory of knowledge based on pre-existing memory and the use of questioning as a means of recollecting what was there in the first place.

      Socrates uses a series of questions to elicit a mathematical proof from the slave boy as a means of illustrating his point.

      Learning Outcomes

      Where we find learning outcomes

      All learning outcomes are descriptive, they are attempts to capture in a series of statements the results and consequences of instruction or experience.
      For anyone taking on a course of study, particularly a third level course, they are likely to want access to a description of that course and the modules associated with it. 

      A key part of any such course or module description will be a series of statements that define the purpose and intent of the learning involved - these are known as the "Learning Outcomes".

      Learning outcomes can be defined at all levels of course participation:

      • Programme Level Learning Outcomes are statements that describe the range, depth and kind of knowledge and competence expected of a student on completion of an entire programme such as a degree or a diploma.
      • Module Level Learning Outcomes are statements that describe the knowledge and competence expected by the student on completion of a particular module or subject area within a programme.
      • Class Level Learning Outcomes are indications of what is expected to be achieved by the students on completion of a specific class or tutorial session.

      Friday, March 4, 2011

      Reflection and Practice

      What is reflection?

      Adult educators like to use the term "reflection".

      In class you are likely to be invited to "reflect on your own experiences" or, when tasked with an assignment, you are just as likely to be invited to reflect as discuss, debate, argue or critique.

      I admit that I also like the term and find myself encouraging others and often myself, to reflect on a particular issue or problem.

      What does it mean to reflect? And how does reflection differ from "thinking about", "recalling" or just simply "lulling over" a situation?

      Useful insight comes from the work of Donald Schön (best known for his book The Reflective Practitioner) who discusses the distinction between "reflection-in-action" and reflection-on-action".

      My picture from New Year's Day 2010

      Reflection in Action
      This is reflection on-the-run so to speak.  It is a form of self-awareness that is brought into play as we engage expert activities.  For example, a teacher may use reflection-in-action during a class to try out, monitor, evaluate and moderate various instructional strategies.  As Schön puts it:
      "The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation."
      (Schön 1983 The Reflective Practitioner  68)

      Notice here how Schön is using terms related to feelings 'surprise, puzzlement...confusion'.  As soon as we notice our feelings we become removed from them. When we ask "why am I surprised?" consider who is asking the question, perhaps some kind of observer - the self-narrator.  Joyce describes this for one of the characters in his short story A Painful Case from the Dubliners collection:
      He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense. 
      But reflection moves beyond the objective stance suggested in the story.  It is also active and, as Schön suggests, experimental and transactional. This form of reflection is also alluded to by Dewey when he talks about experience
      "We live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same in the future"
      Dewey, 1938 Education and Experience 

      So then, reflection-in-action is about self-awareness and an active, inquisitorial stance.  It is transitory and connected with the moment.


      In contrast, reflection-on-action takes place after the event.  In the case of a teacher it may involve a process of going back over a class, to be aware and concious as to the meaning of what took place.  Although this may sound fairly straight forward it is actually quite a difficult task.  I would go so far as to suggest that reflection of this kind goes against our nature.  It is a process that requires a structured approach and involves skills that must be learned.

      Just as Aristotle might have proclaimed we are the things that we do there is a counter point, concerned with how we build our identity, that suggests we are the stories we tell (see McAdams).  The process of story building is intimately connected with the way we remember events.  Some of the consequences of this distinction between the 'experiencing self' and the 'remembering self' are outlined in the video presentation by psychologist and nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman posted below. 

      The remembering self is a storyteller (actually the term 'story builder' is probably more apt).  We do not remember events as a linear reproduction of the sensations involved - there is simply not enough capacity - we do not accurately relive events through memory.  In particular, our perception of time is greatly distorted and the significance of some aspects of what took place are amplified while others are diminished.  As Kahneman outlines we are poor judges of past events even, perhaps especially, when they involve ourselves.

      This is why we find it difficult to engage in reflection-on-action. And this is why it is a really useful practice.  Through a well structured process we move from the self-generated story to an altogether more useful, evidence based, analysis. 

      Reflection involves questioning and challenging our implicit assumptions, gathering and maintaining evidence  in the form of a diary or portfolio, connecting theory with practice and making predictions.

      Friday, February 25, 2011

      The Common Good

      The Concept of the Common Good

      I have argued elsewhere that the current debate on Ireland's crisis needs to move away from economist dominated reasoning and be replaced by something more fundamental–a deeper and altogether more important consideration of the basic principles that we should use to organise our society.

      This week saw the publication of a document called From Crisis to Hope: Working to Achieve the Common Good by The Council for Justice and Peace of the Irish Episcopal Conference.  This is a welcome and much needed addition to the current discourse.  It is a thoughtful exposition of what it means to think ethically about the current situation particularly from the perspective of the common good.

      As you would expect much of the analysis is underpinned by Catholic Church doctrine and as such, it could easily be dismissed by secular thinkers.  For many, the notion of religious doctrine is synonymous with being told what to think and is therefore contrary to the justifiably high value placed today on self-determination and individual autonomy.  However, often on closer reading we find something different as is the case with this text.  Here we are challenged, encouraged to think critically and above all we are stimulated to give deeper consideration to the fundamental notion of the common good. 
      The core value at the heart of this vision is the common good, a value that
      emphasizes the essential equality of all persons irrespective of gender, race,
      colour or creed. This vision of the common good should not be confused with
      the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number. Rather it is a reminder of
      the duty of care on all of us to respect and to take account of the human dignity
      of all persons – as groups or individuals.
      (p 4)

      As the quotation suggests the common good is not a value based on the economic well-being of the majority.  It is not about wealth or income.  It is simply about human dignity and respect for others.

      Instrumental rationality alone (see Habermas' Theory of communicative Action) is incapable of dealing with ethically based values such as the common good.  This is why much of the current media focus on managing our way out of the economic crisis is missing the full extent of the problem.

      Without doubt in years to come the Irish economy will recover but the underlying cause is not being addressed.  While government policy and our financial institutions promoted a rampant individualistic, materialistic culture based on greed and self-interest, our universities and most of the academic community were either compliant or silent.  Just as we need to rebuild our economy on something more sustainable than inflated house prices we also need to reframe our political, business and education systems to allow for more rigorous and ethical questioning of decisions and policies.

      As the title of the episcopal statement suggests we need to move from 'crisis to hope'.  From crisis management to a vision for a better future.  And hope–this is not the forlorn hope that we will never again get caught out by the vagaries of international economic forces but the very real hope we find in the nature and goodness of every human being.  Let's not loose sight of this again.

      Monday, February 21, 2011

      The Election Count- A Learning Opportunity

      Why School Students Should Manage the Election and the Counting of Votes

      In Ireland voting in the general election takes place this Friday and this means a weekend of ballot boxes, exit polls, tally men and counting. We use a system of proportional representation (PR) that is very fair but very complex.  When you vote you mark candidates in order of preference on the ballot paper.  You can go through all the candidates assigning a  number to indicate 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th preferences and so on.  You can influence the outcome of who gets elected by means of your later preferences.  It is not unusual for the whole process to go through seven or more counts as the lower scoring candidates are eliminated and second and subsequent preferences from these votes are redistributed.

      Although the whole process appears complicated it's based on some straight forward rules.  It is important however that voters understand the process so that they can avail of the full extent of their democratic choice.

      Normally we use civil servants and casual employees to work in the count centres - in many cases the local school is appropriated as the ballot station and even count centre.  Legally, the returning officer is responsible for managing the count. 

      I argue that we should use 15 to 18 year old school students in all functions at the ballot stations and at the count centres. 

      There would be many benefits to this idea:
      • The students become active participants in our democratic process and through this experience they appreciate its importance.
      • The best way to understand the operations of the PR system is to be part of the counting process. In a very real way we will be educating our future voters.
      • It can be argued that young people are the biggest stakeholders in the consequences of the result and as such they see how decisions are made.
      • Participating students would be more likely to vote when they reach 18 and perhaps even to wish to stand for election themselves.
      • The important connection between schools and civic society would be reinforced.
      • Student's would learn about the operational and project management aspects of managing an election and count.
      • The whole process would be cheaper and yes more reliable.
      I can hear the murmurings now:

      "Surely you can't be serious - it will never work!  How could we rely on them.  They'd surely let us down."

      Yes, I suppose we can't blame the young people for thinking that about us!