Friday, December 25, 2009

Top Ten Insights on Learning

It's the time of year for reviews.  I call it the season of the "top tens": we have the top ten songs of 2009, the top ten sporting moments, the top ten films and so on.

I have decided to step on the band wagon and am now pleased to present my Top Ten Insights on Learning.

Here we go:

  1. Learning is constructed
  2. People are curious
  3. We learn best in social settings
  4. Much adult learning is child's play
  5. We have a Learning Identity
  6. Meet the Digital World
  7. Adults learn what they want to learn
  8. Learning can be additive or transformative
  9. We learn throughout life
  10. We strive to be all that we can be

     1 Learning is constructed
     The best analogy is that of a tree with many branches.

    We learn through the integration of present and past experiences.  As we experience the world we connect new experiences with our past - in other words we construct knowledge.

    Learning has nothing to do with transmission of knowledge - it about personal construction.

    Educators who recognise this focus on process rather than output and encourage students to make their own meaning rather than reproduce the work of others.

     2 People are curious
    We can use whatever terms we wish: "learning as inquiry" "problem-solving" "achievement goals" - the plain fact of the matter is that people are curious.  

    We can be both mentally and physically curious.  We have evolved our higher order thinking skills because our curiosity has provided a competitive advantage on this planet.  
    Curiosity is at the root of learning - to make learning happen provide conditions where curiosity is aroused.

     3 We learn best in social settings
    We have created our society and culture by developing systems to share knowledge, organise tasks, transmit knowledge between generations and collaborate with others to solve problems.

    No matter how clever or knowledgeable a person is - very little can be achieved alone.

    When we learn our instinct is to share and communicate with others.  
    Students who work together through group work will learn much more than the task at hand: they will have to listen, discuss, debate, concede, collaborate, co-operate and share.  These are really usefull skills.

    4 Much adult learning is child's play
    I said above that people are curious both mentally and physically. Curiosity can be very dangerous if it is left unregulated. 

    I could be curious about what its like to walk on the central partition of the motorway, manage an international bank or pilot a 747 but I'll never do these things.  

    However, through play and imagination I can experience these actions and their consequences.  
    Many talk about "lifelong learning" I think we should call it "lifelong playing".  These day's I'm playing with the Italian language.

    Teachers should let students play - this is also important in 3rd level: role play, simulations, gaming, problem-solving, apprenticeship and peripheral participation can be regarded as adults at play.


    5 We have a Learning Identity

    We all have a Learning Identity and I have written about this in a previous blog post.   

    In my own research on how adult's go about learning digital skills late in their careers I found that Learning Identity loomed large whenever educational endeavour was considered.  I would ask "why do you want to learn computer skills?" and people would respond with "well I was no good in school..."

    Perhaps it's because society places such a high value on schooling and educational qualification that those who have had difficult experiences in school feel so inadequate when it comes to learning in later life. 
    It's as if what they learned in school was that they were not good learners.

    Educators and trainers should not underestimate learning identity.   It's not just about praising and encouraging (although we should do this all the time) it's about being aware of social comparison, fear of humiliation and genuine exam anxiety.  The big message should be - this is not like school.

    6 Meet the Digital World

    Your first thought might be that the digital world is "out there" in the places where people are using technology to make things happen.  But what I want to talk about is the Digital World that's "in here" - I mean inside your mind!   

    We all build the world in our mind and through this process we organise, ascribe our values, assumptions, unquestioned beliefs and preconceived patterns of thought about aspects of the world.

    For me its the Digital World but for other people it may be the world of the literate, of the wealthy, of the workers, of the young or of the future.  

    The important point is critical awareness.  That is the learning task: to be cognisant of our assumptions, prejudices and patterns of thought. 

    7 Adults learn what they want to learn

    This should be written on the wall of every training room and college classroom.  

    Learning decisions are often neglected.  I find this a fascinating area of inquiry: why do people choose to learn at a particular point in time?  

    We can pack our children into a classroom and somehow get away with telling them what they need to know but there is no way this will work with adults.

    Connecting usefulness and application is integral to the learning task for adults.

     8  Learning can be additive or transformative
    Of all the learning typologies this simple distinction is the most useful.  We tend to think often about adding to our bank of knowledge but we seldom describe learning in terms of reorganising our thinking about something.  

    One of the characteristics of transformative learning is that it it involves loosing something (and this can be disconcerting) and rebuilding or putting something new in its place.

    I think that transformative learning can take place at a societal level also.  Imagine the upheavals caused by Calileo's assertion that the Earth orbits the Sun or when Darwin described the Origin of the Species.  It wasn't so much that we rejected the new ideas but we also had to face the reality that to do so involved moving away from preexisting, more comfortable, beliefs.

    Transformative learning can take people outside their comfort zone and challenge 'the way we've always thought about things'.  This is not always an easy experience.

    One example of transformative learning that I frequently encounter is the process of college students moving beyond a positivist view of the world to become more comfortable with uncertainty, different perspectives and and awareness of their own subjectivity.

    Teachers who challenge students to think differently, to appreciate other perspectives and to self-reflect on practice will create conditions for transformative learning.  When students argue and critique we know we have accomplished.


     9  We learn throughout life
    We tend to compartmentalise our short existence into a series of stages each with its own tasks and challenges.  

    We are born and grow in childhood developing of motor, language, thinking and communications skills.  As teenagers, we build our identity and later we are tasked with our partner relations, parenting and success in the workplace.  Later still, we face the challenges of ageing and the fragility of our bodies and finally we face the fact that we are mortal.  

    We need to learn as we go - there is no point of arrival where we have all the we need to confront the challenges ahead.  This is why learning is often described as a journey, this journey parallels the journey of life.

    People of all ages look for meaning in their life, learning is one way to give meaning.  Senior learning is often regarded as "nice" - in fact it is much more, it is essential.  Lifelong learning is also learning for a long life!

     10  We strive to be all that we can be
    This is the so-called drive for individuation.  

    One way to think about this is in terms of a desire to be competent no matter what the field of activity.  
    This is not the same as wanting to be good at everything.  To strive to be 'all that you can be' is to take account of opportunity, capability and circumstance.  

    But what you need to be good at is: who you are - you need to be the best "put your name here" possible.  As we grow this guides our approach to learning and life.

    We learn to be all that we can be.

    My pictures are from Christmas Day in Maynooth 2009 when Maire and I took a walk by the canal. 



    Thursday, December 3, 2009

    Lord Mayor's Commission on Employment

    The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Cllr. Emer Costello, is to be commended for establishing a Commission on Employment for Dublin.

    This is an inspired and necessary goal for the City Council and tackling unemployment or, to put it more positively, creating employment is essential for the future well-being of all who live and work in our city.

    The Lord Mayor's Commission has set up working groups on a number of key areas: (1) Unemployment & Employment, (2) Business, Entrepreneurship & Finance, (3) Education, Skills and Training, and (4) Volunteering & the Social Economy. 

    The commission have invited submissions and I have copied below my own contribution on the area of Education, Skills and Training. 

    Dublin City of Learning

    Let's stop and think and about learning.  No I don't mean schooling, or formal training or the pursuit of new qualifications.  I want us to think about learning - what it means for each each of us and how it gives purpose to our lives.
    We learn throughout our lives and each time we face new challenges, we take on new information, adapt our thinking and develop new skills.  We learn how to build our identity as we emerge from teenage years, we learn relationships with our partners, to be successful parents and to face the horizon of our life.
    The workplace is a specific context of learning and for those who are employed, valuable learning is embedded in the contribution of work effort.  This is especially true for the so-called 'smart economy'.  In fact, economies of the kind envisioned in the government plan are better described by the on-going process 'learning' rather than the end-state 'smart' or 'knowledgeable'.
    This is not just a flaw in the language it is much more fundamental.  People who find themselves unemployed are often people who know how to learn but who find themselves without a meaningful context for learning.  This is the tragedy.
    Some knowledge economy rhetoric does them no service - to talk about the need to upskill people to a condition of 'smartness' is to completely miss the point of how knowledge contributes to economic growth.  If, on the other hand, we think process then we can make a much more plausible case - that learning itself can lead to innovation and contribute to economic and social well-being.
    So when we ask "what can the City of Dublin do to ensure future employment and well-being of its people?" I suggest that we create a vision of a Dublin City of Learning.
    What we mean is a city where learning is regarded as an activity rather than a commodity, and where we strive to provide contexts and meaning for everyone so that the learning process is nurtured and sustained through unemployment, retirement or other circumstances of disengagement.
    There are many ways in which this vision can be brought about, and there are many challenges to be overcome.  This submission does not provide all the answers.  But if we get our thinking right from the start, if we challenge flawed policies and if we genuinly consider what it means to learn then we will have made a good first step.  After all, it's the process that matters, this is what will get us there in the end.
    As to an action that Dublin City Council can lead and support I suggest the following:

    Dublin City of Learning Web Site
    The best of the Internet is socially constructed.  This process of construction is itself a learning process and for the millions of authors of Wikipedia, writers of blogs and contributors to Facebook, web boards and Twitter, participation in the social Internet brings meaning and purpose to their lives.
    We are a city - not just buildings and spaces but a city of people.
    With some basic infrastructure and initial support we could create a new structure for Dublin in the on-line world.  Not like the institutional web sites that abound but something akin to the social spaces that we all enjoy.
    Everyone who lives in, or has an interest in the city will be encouraged to contribute.  Some can contribute technical expertise, some as editors and lead writers, some as teachers to help those who need support with the technical and writing skills.  We will need projects to develop new areas of interest by theme or location, we will need to capture the stories of our city, install a photographic collection, display the paintings of our citizens and celebrate the achievements of all our sports people.
    If we do this we will have the best resource ever to advertise the experience of Dublin to those who wish to visit, we will create a valuable resource for future generations but above all, we will be Dublin City of Learning.

    Saturday, November 28, 2009

    On Motivation and Learning

    Much of the scholarship on adult learning can be summarised in the following statement:
    Adult's learn what they want to learn and what they find useful and applicable to their life experience.
    In contrast, young people, certainly up to teenage years, are happy to learn what is put before them.  Adults, on the other hand, will discriminate and select when it comes to learning.
    It stands to reason therefore that motivation for learning is an important topic in adult education.  Motivation theories address the question of why we learn as distinct from cognitive theories that try to explain how we learn.
    When we use the term "motivation" in everyday life it can mean several different things - we often say "the football team came out motivated by the half-time talk" or such a person is a "motivational speaker".  In these examples we see motivation as a kind of energy or mind set that can be triggered for short intervals of time.  Another meaning we have for motivation suggests a long term quality, a propensity to achieve - one who is "motivated to get to the top".  But motivation is not always directed at achievement - when a crime is committed we know that every good detective looks for opportunity and motive in suspects. 
    One drawback of everyday language is that we tend to think of motivation in the singular - we look for one reason for a particular action.  In reality, motivation is a complex matter; there is usually a mix of influences and mindset; circumstance and chance all play their part.
    What then of motivation and learning?  I suggest that we need to consider two types of factors - those that predispose a person to take on a learning project and opportunity factors connected with the circumstances and conditions of learning.
    Let's take a look at predisposition. If you ask adult returners, in a college for example, you will often hear people describe that they had been thinking about doing a course for a long time.  In my research (on adult's learning computer skills) I hear phrases such as: "I've always wanted to go back to school" or "I've been thinking about doing something about this for many years".  So it's clear that many people nurture a desire for learning.  What's interesting is that many people report that they were so inclined over a long period of time.  I think of this as a kind of priming.  It stands to reason that even when so 'primed' some people will act to learn and others will remain with an unfulfilled desire.
    So, the other set of factors come into play - these are connected with the opportunity.  "I was in the supermarket and I seen the sign for the course and the two girls at the stand were very helpful"  this is how one of my informants describes a moment of opportunity.  At this point a person may (not necessarily as a conscious process) weigh up all the factors and ask questions such as:
    What will I get from this?
    How hard will it be?
    How will other people regard my actions?
    Will I have the time, space, money, support etc.?
    This is the complex of motivation.  And here I am just describing one decision point.  Even when people start a course the questioning continues throughout.
    As I said Adult's learn what they want to learn and what they find useful and applicable to their life experience.

    Tuesday, November 24, 2009

    Problem Based Learning: The Apprentice?

    Those that know me will know that I am a fan of Problem-Based Learning, usually referred to as PBL.
    Ireland's version of "The Apprentice" is being aired on TV3 and watched by many including our household. The idea is that contestants are fighting it out to get a big job as apprentice to Bill Cullen (Ireland's best known, self-made entrepreneur).
    For each episode the contestants are asked to complete authentic tasks usually with a sales or design element.
    We get to see them work in groups, select a project manager, set goals, solve problems and think and act creatively. As television it's quite absorbing and informative and there is plenty of learning taking place, for the contestants and vicariously, for the the viewers.
    When I first watched these sequences I was impressed to see a good instructional approach transferred to television.
    However, all this is let down by the final sequences of each programme. These scenes take place in the boardroom where groups are asked to report on the process.
    Bill is naturally a good teacher and in fairness, he tries to balance his negative criticism with supportive comments.
    But the show's structure calls for an inevitable reduction by one contestant (you're fired!) each week. This leads to verbal abuse, recriminations and outright humiliation for some of the participants.
    All this makes great television but the message is too savage for genuine learning and personal development.
    Most importantly, Bill looks for "the creative spark" in the actions and thinking of the contestants.
    Genuine creative thinking arises when we relax our learned inhibitions - creativity requires a safe and secure foundation (see Bowlby, for example).
    Faced with the prospect of ridicule on national television few people are going to genuinely take a risk and truly express novel thinking.
    We need innovation in the workplace - to nurture innovation we need to provide 'safe spaces' for exploration - we also need to encourage learning from failure as well as from success.

    Wednesday, November 18, 2009

    My Philosophical Development by Bertrand Russell

    I am reading a wonderful book called My Philosophical Development by Bertrand Russell - I picked up a 1959 first edition in a wonderful second hand bookshop, Trinity Books in Carrick On Shannon.  This is like a beginners guide to Russell by himself and, in it he traces his thinking down through the years.
    There is a particularly poignant section where Russell reproduces copies of his notes from his teenage years.  He writes (p280): Just before and just after my 16th birthday, I wrote down my beliefs and unbeliefs, using Greek letters and phonetic spelling for the purposes of concealment.
    What Russell was at pains to conceal at this young age were his doubts about religion and the existence of God.   What troubled him was not necessarily the social consequences but rather, the intellectual consequences.
    Here is is entry of April 29th 1988:
    In all things I have made a vow to follow reason, not the instincts inherited partly from my ancestors and gained gradually by selection and partly due to my education.  How absurd it would be to follow these in the questions of right and wrong.  For as I observed before, the inherited part can only be principles leading to the preservation of the species, or of that particular section of the species to which I belong.  The part due to education is good or bad according to the individual education.  Yet this inner voice, this God-given conscience which made Bloody Mary burn the Protestants, this is what we reasonable beings are to follow.  I think this idea mad, and I endeavour to go by reason as far as possible.  What I take as my ideal is that which ultimately produces greatest happiness of greatest number.  Then I can apply reason to find out the course more conducive to this...

    Not bad for a sixteen year old.
    Seventy one years later, in 1959 the following occurred: Allen and Unwin published the book, Russell recorded a television interview included below and (of no relevance to Russell) I was born. 
    Fifty years after that, as a consequence of my bookshop brousing in Leitrim, I reproduce the thoughts of a teenager writing in a personal blog: I have made a vow to follow reason.  
     Yes you did Bertrand, yes indeed!

    Sunday, November 15, 2009

    Weekend in Rota d'Imagna

    Maire and I and our Caoimhe (19) and Jim (16) decided to spend a short weekend away in Italy - we had spotted cheap flights to Bergamo on Ryanair and used Tripadvisor to scour the area nearby for cheap but good hotels.

    We came accross Hotel Miramonti which is about 40 minutes from Bergamo up in the mountains.
    The town was called Rota d'Imagna and it is very pleasently located high up in the alpine foothills.

    We also spent a day in Bergamo itself - this is a wonderful town especially the old city.

    This was a great weekend - really enjoyable with just the four of us.  Maire and I were especially keen to practice our Italian.  But we had little opportunity as most people were so nice and of course, wanted to speak English to us.

    Jim was keen to practice his photography skills and indeed he took some very beautiful pictures.

    It's great just to go somewhere quiet.  Rota d'Imagna was a quiet town.
    Pictures are from the town of Bergamo.

    Sunday, October 25, 2009

    Problem Based Learning

         Students from the Post Graduate Diploma and Masters in Learning and Teaching participating in a Problem Based Learning Workshop in the Centre for Research and Innovation in Learning and Teaching at National College of Ireland
    This year we are running a new course at National College of Ireland - the Post-Graduate Diploma and MA in Learning and Teaching.  I am course director for this course and I present a module on Theories of Learning and Cognition.
    We have a core of sixteen students with some additional attendees from the PhD course and faculty development.  The students come from a wide variety of backgrounds with one thing in common - a passion and commitment for learning and education.
    We used an instructional approach know as Problem-Based Learning (PBL) as a means of integrating the three semester one modules on Theories of Learning, Research Methods and Philosophy of Education.
    PBL was structured around a series of workshops on Tuesday evenings and Saturdays.  My colleague Rachel Doherty from the School of Business organised the students in groups to complete a series of authentic tasks.
    In the first exercise the group tasks were to compose and present a series of student induction presentations - the kind that would be presented to new students starting a college course.

    Each group was given a different profile for the entry cohort.  In one case the students were adult returners with no previous formal education, another had to prepare for recent graduates continuing to a post-graduate course and still another had to present to a group of busy professionals attending a career oriented course.
    Organised in this way students had to draw on theory, research and underlying philosophy to prepare their solutions to the problems.  This is PBL in action.
    Afterwards, students were asked to write a reflection - on the whole PBL was very enthusiastically endorsed.
    From a teachers perspective there is a lot of work involved in preparing the workshops - thanks to Rachel for doing this - and we needed to work out a fairly detailed assessment matrix to make sure that individual and group participation was recognised.  Most of the marks go for the process rather than the outcome - this is characteristic PBL.

    Friday, October 23, 2009

    Seminar on the Pedagogy of Messy Play

    Each Friday during term we hold professional development seminars for faculty and staff at NCI.

    These events focus on learning, teaching and research and we always have interesting and engaging topics.

    Today, our colleague Catriona Flood from the Early Learning Initiative at NCI presented a seminar on the pedagogy of messy play.

    During the summer a number of messy play sessions were organised by the ELC and children and parents from our hinterland attended.  The kids got stuck in so to speak and often when we looked out our windows into the enclosed garden at the college we were treated to the sight of a multitude of little ones splashing, banging, playing with sand, glup, paint and 'coloured stuff'.  Yes generally making a mess!

    One might ask - is this really learning?  Yes it is and it is in its purest form.  The natural instincts for inquiry, socialising and 'messing' with the environment are fundamental for development and growth of thinking skills.  Catriona's presentation focused on the principles of early school education and the thinking behind each of the play activities.  Participants at the seminar were also treated to some messy play objects which they duly played with.

    Subsequently the discussion focused on the relationship between play and learning even in third level contexts.  Play often provides a safe space where new roles and activities can be explored.

    One further thought - the kids who participated in the messy play sessions had their first encounter with a college as 3 to 8 year-olds hopefully we'll see them again as students in the future.

    Posted by Picasa

    Monday, October 5, 2009

    Weekend in Paris to "Sea the Stars"

    Ryanair have a lot to answer for.
    A few weeks ago Eamon, a good friend of mine, rang me to say that he had spotted cheap flights to Paris for the last weekend in September - the Arc weekend. 

    Eamon and I both had busy Septembers so this was great timing for a short break.

    Our main interest was the Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe, perhaps the most prestigious race for top grade horses and this year something special was on the cards as Sea the Stairs an Irish (John Oxx) trained horse was on to complete a remarkable run of group one wins. 

    What this horse achieved in winning this race has never been completed before and without doubt makes him the most valuable horse in the world - watch and enjoy!

    Thursday, October 1, 2009

    Learning Italian Together (translated by babelfish)

    La mia moglie Maire ed io ha deciso di imparare insieme l'italiano questo termine.
    Poichè siamo entrambe l'implicato nella formazione abbiamo pensato che fosse una buona idea imparare insieme la lingua.

    Dopo che molto cercando abbiamo trovato che il nostro istituto universitario della comunità locale ha fatto funzionare un corso di sera su Wednesday' s alla volta che ci ha stato adatti.

    Ho mancato i primi due codici categoria dovuto altri impegni ed in modo da ero molto di scuse quando ho unito per la prima volta ieri il codice categoria.

    L'insegnante era fantastico - una giovane donna italiana molto amichevole che ha un regalo naturale come insegnante.

    Era grande - sono un principiante completo e con Maire (chi non aveva mancato i primi due codici categoria) abbiamo lottato con le introduzioni di base, vocabularly e la grammatica.

    Arrivederci per ora Leo

    My wife Maire and I decided to learn Italian together this term.  As we are both involved in education we thought it would be a good idea to learn the language together.

    After much searching we found that our local community college ran an evening course on Wednesday's at a time that suited us. 

    I missed the first two classes due to other committments and so was very apologetic when I joined the class for the first time yesterday. 
    The teacher was fantastic - a very friendly young Italian woman who has a natural gift as a teacher.

    It was great - I am a complete beginner and with Maire (who had not missed the first two classes) we struggled through basic introductions, vocabularly and grammar.

    Bye for now


    Tuesday, September 15, 2009

    Our Digital World invades the Bicycle!

    The Dublin bike scheme is a welcome addition to our city.  It will be great for toursists and locals alike.  Dublin is a relatively flat city and if you can brave the wind and the rain then cycling is a great way to get about.

    I had seen the new stands being constructed and looked forward to the inauguration of this new service for many months now.  How practical!  How green! How good of our city and government to, at last, offer something for ordinary people to use and to enjoy.

    So you can imagine my enthusium to read the practical details as they were published in the newspapers this weekend.  Then I saw something that made me slightly uneasy:
    Users, who must register online at, pay a €10 annual membership fee and leave a €150 security deposit through a credit card or bank draft.
    Mmm...  I've been around long enough to realise that you can't just leave bikes lying around and expect people to use and return with honour.  No - the need for a deposit did not bother me - nor the €10 annual membership.  Even the charges per hour are reasonable and it is understandable that we should be charged for such a service.  No - none of these aspects would cause me to take to a blog and have a rant - no it's this:
    Users, who must register online...
    Are you joking! Our government, our city will offer this service to some citizens - the digitally literate and broadband connected privileged majority.  Tough on you if you don't use the Internet, tough on you if you haven't a credit card or if you are reluctant to set up a new direct debit on your bank account.

    By the way, I went through this process on-line and it is one of the least user friendly experiences you could imagine - you will even need you IBAN number and an address with a compulsory post code (we don't use post codes in Ireland).  The company operating the service is JCDecaux (an advertising company) and although the front page of the website clearly displays the Dublin City Council logo when you go through the payment process you are actually dealing with a private company.

    Now I don't want to appear to whinge - for me the new service is of great value.  But whatever happened to our notions of an egalitarian society - if we offer a service to people of the city then it should be available to all.  Consider groups such as retired people (the older you are the less likely you are to be an Internet user), people who are currently having trouble with credit, perhaps unemployed, all of whom could reasonably be expected to be prime users of this service and yet even with cash in hand they cannot use the service.

    Likely the explanation centres on creating an effective service with low administration costs.  The irony should not be lost - the humble bicycle is simple and efficient but in order to use these city bikes you need the Internet and a bank account. 

    There is nothing worse than feeling left out - those who struggle with the Internet, fear it, or just havn't figured it out are the forgotten many in our society.  We are all citizens of this land and we should have a reasonable expectation to be treated equally.

    Wednesday, September 9, 2009

    Learning Identity and Learning Italian

    In previous posts I spoke about learning identity.

    I emphasised that we all carry many (often unquestioned) assumptions about who we are and who we can be as learners.  The notion of learning identity is proposed as a component of one's overall self-identity.  I argued that learning identity is often framed in one's school years and can remain fixed through life especially for non-participants in further formal learning.

    In my own research on participation in the digital world I came accross learning identity as an important influence on people's decisions to enroll on basic computer courses.  The recurrent theme is captured in the phrase "I was no good in school".

    Well, I decided to turn the spotlight inwards and direct my scrutiny at my own learning identity.  I have always believed that I am no good at language learning.  My French is dreadful despite struggeling through six years of it in school.  I can speak a bit of German because I lived in Munich for a time after college but here's the thing about German - outside of Germany no one wants to speak it!

    So I'm going to learn Italian.

    Saturday, September 5, 2009

    Wikipedia as a source in academic writing

    Have you ever heard of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi?

    Pestalozzi was a Swiss educationalist - he had interesting ideas for progressive education - at the start of the nineteenth century he was advocating an enlightened approach to schooling.  

    Perhaps in a future blog I will further discuss Pestalozzi but the topic I have set out above is Wikipedia and I have introduced Pestalozzi as an example to support a point I wish to make.

    Could I invite you the reader to open a new tab and look up Pestalozzi in Wikipedia.  

    There you will find an excellent illustrated article containing biographical details and illustrations.  It is a good place to start if you wish to find out more about this influential thinker.  

    Notice that the bottom of the entry there is a list of references and links for further reading (I have inserted these below).  Starting with these references and links you now have a means to explore the writings of Pestalozzi and commentary thereon.

    For me this is the best use of Wikipedia - I find it a great starting point and signpost to other materials.

    Is Wikipedia itself an appropriate source?   In other words, if I write an essay should I cite Wikipedia as my source?  I believe that, for academic purposes, Wikipedia is not an adequate source.  My main reason is the lack of visibility of the writers.  

    Each time I use Wikipedia I can make my own judgment as to whether the information is accurate and useful - I base this on other readings and resources.  I would be very reluctant to put forward an idea and to suggest that my source for this is a page on Wikipedia.  There is always someone somewhere who is the source and it is always better to go back to the original.  

    Still - its a fantastic resource and an excellent place to start if you need to find out about something or someone - did I mention Pestalozz - look him up in Wikipedia but don't stop there!  


    Considerably more late-twentieth-century scholarly work on Pestalozzi has been published in the German language than in English.
    • Biber, George Eduard. Henry Pestalozzi and his Plan of Education. Orig. pub. London: John Souter, School Library, 1831. Repub. ISBN 1-85506-272-0. Among the earliest and probably the most influential 19th-century account of Pestalozzi's work in English, this was widely read in America (for instance, by Bronson Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson) and in England. Contains translated excerpts from many of Pestalozzi's works.
    • Silber, Kate. Pestalozzi: The Man and his Work. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960. ISBN 0-7100-2118-6. Written by a German-speaking lifelong Pestalozzi scholar, this remains the most recent complete biography in English.
    • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

    [edit] External links

    Saturday, August 29, 2009

    NAMA - having a haircut or taking a bath!

    This week experienced a turning point in the public consciousness regarding NAMA the National Asset Management Agency.

    People are asking questions - really fundamental questions - about the wisdom of the government's strategy of using NAMA to buy up the bad loans from the banks.

    If ever we need a very public debate about what we should do - this is the time and this is the issue. The amount of money involved is staggering - decisions made in the next few months will have implications for generations to come. It is not good enough to say that we can't understand what's going on, each of us has a responsibility to get to grips with the nature of the problem and the proposed solution.

    What's noticeable is the way language is used to filter our thinking.

    We describe the loans as "toxic" thereby conveying an almost medical imagery - that of surgically removing the bad stuff so that we can cure the situation.

    This is the very gentle description for the reduction in the value of the loan book that should be considered. So one hears
    we'll take those 90 billion worth of loans and give them a haircut of say 30% so NAMA will pay about 60 billion for them.
    This is really soft language - what could be more reasonable than a haircut!

    Market Value and Long-term Economic Value (LEC)
    Poor us! We really don't appreciate the complexities of the word "value". We are told that the market value of the 90 billion loan book is only 30 billion but we should pay more we should really take account of the long-term economic value - the "lec" so to speak.

    So now we have some new maths:
    30 billion euros is really 60 billion lecs
    90 billion with a haircut gives 60.

    Any three card trickster would be proud.

    Sunday, August 16, 2009

    Knowledge Surveys

    I came across an interesting piece on Knowledge Surveys from Edward Knuhfer and Dolores Knipp (linked above).

    They advocate the use of Knowledge Surveys as a tool in support of learning and instruction.
    These surveys consist of a series of questions - similar to a set of exam questions - but the difference is that the learner is asked not to answer the question but to rate their own ability to respond.

    For example - consider the following questions:

    Q1 Describe three characteristics of an constructivist theory of learning?

    Q2 Compare constructivism with social constructivism?

    Q3 Outline practical applications of a behaviorist approach to learning?

    Now, in a traditional assessment the student would be asked to write short essays on the above.

    With a knowledge survey the student is asked to rate their level of knowledge as:

    A - I feel confident that I could answer this question

    B - I know about 50% of what may be involved and perhaps if I went away for twenty minutes I could find the missing information

    C - I am not confident that I would be able to answer this question at all

    Do you get the gist? The knowledge survey gauges a student's perception of their own ability.

    Knowledge Surveys may be very useful particularly at the beginning of new courses or topics. A word of caution though - students may not always have or report a reliable estimate of their own ability.

    Tuesday, August 11, 2009

    Slea Head

    We decided to spend some days in Dingle, County Kerry.
    Why Dingle?
    Well this is a place that I've always had a fondness for and it has been many years since I visited.

    I made a documentary in the mid-1980s called Up Sraid Eoin (John Street) - it was the story of the Dingle wren boys. We filmed it one St Stephens Day and it was broadcast on RTE the following year.

    I had been introduced to Dingle while I was working in UCD's Audio Visual Centre - we spent a whole summer recording stories and music for the Department of Irish Folklore/Irish Folklore Commission.

    The irony was that we were using television to capture the last remnants of an oral storytelling tradition that was dying out because of the pervasiveness of television.

    I learned so much through these projects and although I was responsible for sound and video I really did not have enough Irish to understand what was being said. Strange that the way it worked out I was happy to be there and to listen to the rhythm of the telling and observe the engagement of the listeners as they fell under the spell of a great story-teller.

    We traveled the length and of Ireland mainly coastal regions and Gaeltacht areas.

    All this came back when we visited Slea Head on a wonderful day last Friday. We stopped at the beehive huts - reportedly 2000 BC.

    The photo is of myself and my son Jim.

    Folklore in Irish is called bealoideas - literally translated this means education of the mouth.

    There was a time before literacy when knowledge was passed on between generations using the spoken word. When you think about it stories are a means of engagement and the best stories - the ones that are more likely to be passed through the ages - are the ones that resonate and have meaning for people.

    Karl Jung pointed this out but it has been known since ancient times.
    Great stories survive through a kind of evolutionary process. Great story-tellers were highly respected in rural communities that is until television.

    The Blaskets and Slea Head remind us of our past and the heritage we share with our ancestors - not just those who inhabited the bee-hive huts four thousand years ago but also the people who in my lifetime and in my presence recalled the wondrous tales that are perhaps as old as the stones.

    Posted by Picasa

    Friday, July 24, 2009

    On Holiday in Nerja

    I am not quite a techie - I use technology as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The most used tool that I own is my laptop, it is my companion and I take it everywhere.
    I have been using a Mac notebook for the last three years (or is it 4?) and in recent times it has shown signs of wear and tear - the power cable broke, the processor became very slow and I had to replace the battery.
    So I decided to invest in a new MacBook Pro and I took delivery of it just the day before my holidays here in Nerja.
    As I write these words I am sitting at a cafe by the side of the Balcon (literally translated as the balcony) and of course I am using the new laptop.
    Macs have a built in camera facility - the software that supports it is called Photo Booth and I have just taken the picture sequence.
    Nerja is a lovely town with just the right balance between tourism and local culture. There are restaurants everywhere and as my friend and colleague Eugene points out there are plenty of wireless hot spots.
    I really like the small Spanish eateries that seem to combine a bar and seafood restaurant. These are not the posh places they have plastic tables and chairs and you are unlikely to get air conditioning. But whow! try a plate of grilled sardines - delicious.

    Tuesday, July 7, 2009

    TED Talks Arthur Benjamin does "Mathemagic"

    Have a look at this - Arthur Benjamen calls himself a math magician but there's no magic involved just a great level of skill with numbers.

    Now have a look at what Arthur Benjamen says about teaching mathematics:

    Does he have a point?

    Saturday, July 4, 2009

    PhD Viva Voce

    For the last three and a half years I have been working on my PhD. This week - last Thursday to be specific - I completed my Viva Voce and the successful outcome was essentially the last step in the process.
    My thesis is called Pathways to Competence and Participation in the Digital World - it is a study of the learning journey of adults who take up computer skills for the first time.
    It's a nice feeling to complete research especially when the topic has always been of interest to me. It is great to have had the opportunity to learn in this way.
    No doubt there is more to be done and I am planning some publications and perhaps a few blogs in the future will feature ideas from my research.
    For now I am reflecting on why I decided to do a PhD in the first place and how I feel about that now.
    I genuinely wanted to know more about the field of education - although I have extensive experience in terms of business and media especially television production - scholarly research is another way of looking at the world.
    I have always been intrigued by learning - why and how we learn and (as a great learning theorist Knud Illeris puts it) why we sometimes don't.
    Throughout our life, learning is perhaps the most important continuous process that we engage in. I continue to enjoy the journey.

    Friday, July 3, 2009

    The Road - by Cormac Mc Carthy

    I am a slow reader by choice.
    I like to take my time with a book especially when it is well crafted and beautiful.
    McCarthy's 'The Road' took some time - although it is not a big read and the comments on the cover suggested that it may (and should) be read in one session - I did the opposite and read two or three pages each night over the last few weeks.
    Why does this book resonate?
    At one level it could be described as bleak, lacking in plot and gruesome.
    But there is something captured here that is difficult to describe and yet powerfully familiar.
    It may be that this novel somehow connects with our collective unconscious and reveals a stark truth about existence.
    Can't really work it out ... no need just let it be.

    Saturday, June 20, 2009

    What are we teaching in schools?

    Two very interesting comment pieces appeared in today's Irish Times. The editorial commented on the draft report by the National Economic and Social Forum on the connection between school literacy levels and social exclusion and inside, a piece by Breda O'Brien (link above) on creativity and second level education. It is interesting to connect the two pieces.
    As a society we have a responsibility to prepare young people for the future - this is what we expect of our education system - but we cannot possibly know what the future has in store. As the educational philosopher John Dewey put it - the best we can do is to teach children how to experience the present to its maximum extent.
    Our children are poorly served by an archaic education system where state exams focus on selective recall and pure luck. Notice that we have the State Exams Commission not the 'educational assessment' commission indicating that they are only concerned with 'exams' one form of educational assessment. This is like an orchestra that can play any music as long as it is composed by Mozart!
    Future oriented skills such as critical thinking, inquiry, creativity and collaboration are largely undervalued in the present school system. Until we reform the pedagogy of schooling and assessment we will continue to suffer the consequences of poor literacy levels. And large numbers of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds will continue to face a future on the margins of society.

    Friday, June 12, 2009

    Course Entry Requirements - Recognising Learning from Experience

    If you are thinking about taking a course, for example any of the NCI courses in the prospectus, you may see in the entry requirements that it is necessary for students to have a specific level of degree (e.g. honours degree) or a certificate or diploma to gain entry.

    These conditions are necessary so that all students are able to participate effectively and teaching staff can make certain assumptions about the level of prior knowledge people will have.

    However, there is a down side to this in that sometimes very good potential students miss out because on paper they are not deemed to meet the entry level requirements.
    We've all come across examples in our work where people with significant experience and competence in a particular field are not necessarily the most qualified in the formal academic sense.

    Not many people know this but there is a mechanism whereby anyone can obtain a formal academic credit (yes I mean a degree, diploma or certificate) by means of providing evidence that they have achieved the learning outcomes equivalent to a recognised qualification.No this is not some e-mail scam to give people cheap meaningless degrees from a little known US private college - this is the policy of our own Higher Education and Training Awards Council (HETAC) and it is enshrined in the legislation used to establish this national awarding authority.

    Here is where you apply to HETAC for this process.

    It is now accepted that there are three contexts in which learning occurs:
    formal learning - this is when you undertake a course of study usually with a view to obtaining a formal award or qualification;
    non-formal learning that takes place sometimes in the workplace (e.g. training courses) or community or voluntary sectors - although often assessed it does not normally lead to formal certification
    and informal learning - sometimes referred to as experiential learning and takes place through life and is often not recognised a s learning by the individual concerned. Experience is the key driver for new knowledge and the development of competence.

    Educators now recognise that all three of these contexts are important sites for learning. The challenge is that accreditation bodies need formal systems to measure learning outcomes and understandably they require that potential candidates produce a portfolio of evidence which is accessed and verified by an academic panel.

    To go back to the entry requirements for courses - did you know that it is possible to make a case that your extensive experience should be taken into account when apply for a course where, on paper you do not appear to meet the entry requirements.

    All colleges operate such a scheme - this is especially the case in NCI where wider access to learning is our core mission.

    The process requires that the applicant undergo some form of appraisal to demonstrate that they have achieved the equivalent learning outcomes as those with formal qualifications.

    This may involve preparing a portfolio of experience or writing an essay or assignment to demonstrate your competence - in all events it will be evidence based.

    If you really want to do the course and feel that you know more about the area through experience - you can prove your case through accreditation by prior experiential learning (APEL) - its more straightforward than you think.

    So go on! What are you waiting for.

    Thursday, June 4, 2009

    Leaving Cert English Fiasco - There Was Another Way!

    Big Problem!
    In assessment terms, the majority of our state exams may be characterised by unseen (in advance) questions and time limited tests.
    The shock news of today is the fact that through some unfortunate human error the questions for Leaving Cert English paper 2 were inadvertently distributed to a small group of students intending to sit paper 1.
    "The integrity of the exam had been compromised by the regrettable incident" said the Minister for Education Batt O'Keefe.
    The State Exams Commission considered they had no option but to cancel today's paper 2 exam and ordered that a new paper 2 should be taken by students this Saturday.
    This is no small inconvenience it is very distressing for the students concerned, it will cost a lot of money and it has discredited the operational effectiveness of those responsible for organising the exams.

    Was there any alternative?
    The simple answer is yes and it is a great shame that some lateral thinking was not applied to the problem.

    The issue had to do with the consequences of some students knowing the questions one day in advance.
    Let's suppose that we want the exam process to adhere to two principles that may have been undermined by the leaking of the questions in advance - the first is the 'unseen' nature of the test and the second is the principle of 'fairness' in that some students will have seen the questions and some may not.

    Seen and Unseen Exam Questions
    Let us deal with the consequences of students seeing the questions in advance. What if the papers were corrected with this knowledge in mind? Open book and open or seen question (i.e. the questions known in advance) exams are not at all unusual in the third level sector.
    Once the person correcting the scripts knows the conditions under which the exam was taken it is simply a matter of taking this into account.
    It's really no big deal that the students knew one day in advance which poets they will have to write about.
    The other, much more important, issue is that of fairness. A situation where some students knew the questions and others did not would violate this principle and would be unacceptable.
    The Department of Education claims that they found out about the breach of security at 4pm yesterday afternoon and had to make a decision on the resit within a very short time frame. I have some sympathy for them and someone has to answer for the fact that the error was not reported sooner.
    But was that the right or only decision available?
    I suggest that the Department should have published English paper 2 there and then and used the news media to disseminate that fact.

    In this way all students could read the paper and prepare on equal terms.

    There was no ideal solution once the security of the system broke down but publishing the exam paper would certainly have been the least worst option.

    Perhaps the whole fiasco will provide a stimulus for some much needed rethinking on how we assess learning at a national level.

    Wednesday, May 27, 2009

    Ian Paisley Comes to NCI

    Dr Ian Paisley arrived at National College of Ireland as part of the Legends in Your Lunchtime series.

    The idea is a series radio interviews with famous people recorded in front of an audience at the college. Newstalk and Metro partner with NCI for these events.

    Paisley can still attract a crowd.

    I have to say I have very mixed feelings about Paisley. Like many people who lived in the Republic throughout the troubles I regarded Paisley as the epitome of unionist intransigence. No one can say for certain but fixed and extreme views on both sides meant that a resolution came about only after many, many more years than necessary.

    Paisley must shoulder his share of responsibility for this.

    Still, as I sat near the front of the lecture theatre, I could not help but be taken in by the warm, affable manner of the 82 year old Paisley.

    George Hook as the interviewer is old enough to remember how in the bad old days Paisley used to storm out of TV studios if he did not like the question or the tone of the interviewer.

    George sat stern faced in the lead up and I wondered if he'd be up for the task.

    Paisley himself sat well back and placed his well-worn copy of the King James Bible on the table in front of him.

    And so down to business....

    George started on comfortable ground "tell us about your mother and growing up in Ballymena".

    The early exchanges were were a tame affair - even Paisley wanted to up the ante
    "If you strike an Ulster man he'll strike you back - it's as simple as that". This was how Paisley summed up the troubles.

    George decided that this was warning enough and kept the next few questions along the religious theme asking about Paisley's bible and his days in a seminary in Wales.

    Soon George got into his stride and decided to lob in a few testing questions to get the big man going - "sure you and the pope have a lot in common" he quipped. Paisley had heard that one before and quickly pointed to his book - a direct line to God.

    George realised that Paisley was not going to run and decided to ask the big question. "What if your wrong - what if you die and there is no God - I have to confess I worry about that myself" - George was honest enough about his own doubts.

    Ian has been preaching all his life and rattled off a great platter of God-affirming experiences. George looked almost convinced and I thought we were going to witness a live conversion.

    But Hookie was wiley enough and there were other questions to ask - what about the peace process? Do we really need a border?

    All the time Paisley's responses were clear and predictible.

    So now we have a new Paisley - a big teddy bear - or really a dinosaur confident in his religion and ready to meet his maker.

    It was good to witness this and it's a great example of what third level institutions should do to open minds and to engage with wider issues.

    I caution that we should never glorify the obstenate, retrenched or bigitoted behaviours of the past past but equally we should be open and receptive to those who make peace.

    After all the good book says:

    "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God" (Matthew 5:9)

    Saturday, May 23, 2009

    The Child Abuse Report - Adults now Children then

    I can't let this week go by without commenting on the publication of the report on abuses in the Irish education system by members of religious orders.

    The report was particularly scathing of the Christian Brothers.

    I went to a Christian Brothers school and indeed was walloped, slapped and beaten like many others. There was violence in my schooling but also lots of good stuff and on balance I got away lightly.

    In light of the report I wish to comment again on the phenomenon of Learning Identity - I talked about this in a previous blog.

    As you might expect my 'learning identity' is made up of two components - my view of learning and my view of myself as a learner. For many adults, including the victims of abuse in educational institutions, learning identity established in childhood remains fixed throughout life.

    The consequences of the deplorable schooling system are still being felt today - people have fragmented learning identies. For many, even to think about formal education will give rise to extreme anxiety.

    As such, these people miss out on the opportunities to progress and to participate effectively in society.

    For those of us involved in current adult education provision - we need to think first and foremost about how to deal with learning identity.

    We have a lot of work to do rebuilding the trust and confidence of adult learners - convincing them that current pedagogic practice is not like school and that they have a lot to offer as lifelong learners.

    We will never adequately compensate the victims but we should strive to limit the negative impact on their lives today.

    Everyone has the right to learn throughout life - this is especially the case for those whose childhood opportunities were so cruelly denied.

    Wednesday, May 20, 2009

    Carl Wieman Lecture

    I attended a lecture in DIT Bolton Street by Dr Carl Wieman titled
    “Science Education in the 21st Century; using the methods of science to teach science”
    This was of great interest to me as in the distant past I studied science and, like many others, I believe that we need to do more to stimulate effective practices in science eduction.

    Many science teachers at school and college level are passionate about their work and are often willing to explore new pedagogic methods to stimulate student engagement.

    Wieman focused on teaching methods and as his title suggests he uses analytical methods to assess different approaches and strategies.

    He contrasts two educational models:
    Model 1
    Teacher encounters a new problem or concept
    Teacher figures it out

    Teacher explains to students
    Students demonstrate that either (a) they know or (b) they don't know the concept or problem
    If outcome (a) - student learning is effective
    If outcome (b) - student not making sufficient effort (lazy student!)

    Model 2
    Teacher encounters a new problem or concept
    Teacher figures it out

    Teacher establishes learning goals
    Teacher guides student activities (the design of these activites is the practice of teaching and is informed by research and expeience)
    Teacher measures learning outcomes
    (a) students solve relevant problems
    (b) students cannot solve the problems
    If (a) all well and if (b) quesion either the goals or the activities (note not the student effort)

    Wieman of course advocates the second model and he maintaines that through well planned activities and frequent data gathering and analysis the 'goals and activities' approach is consistently better for student problem performance and concept attainment.

    Experts regardless of context (scientists, musicians and chess players) are characterised by three components
    (1) access to lots of factual subject-specific knowledge
    (2) an ability to recognise patters - an organisational framework
    (3) an ability to self-monitor one's thinking

    Perhaps traditional teaching has emphasised the first of these components and neglected the other two components.

    All of this makes a clear case for greater use of problem based learning.

    One thing I disagreed with was when Carl Wieman said that in thinking about his ideas on teaching we should ignore the fact that he has a Nobel prize for science - oh no - not at all. We would not all be there if he had not achieved so much and his opinion does carry significant scientific authority.

    Wieman's ideas on teaching are very much in keeping with current thinking in the scholarship of learning and teaching - what is really encouraging is that a great scientist is advocating that we think again about our approach to education.

    Perhaps more will listen to such a voice.

    Saturday, May 16, 2009


    This is Dachau - the first concentrati on campt built by the Nazis.

    Be careful not to become smug when you visit this place - we are all convinced that such a place could never exist again and that there is no way that 'normal' people would be convinced to co-operate if it was attempted.
    I spent some time in Munich when I was in my twenties (circa 1980) - I had a fantastic time and made many good friends. Although I knew about Dachau I never went to visit. My wife, Maire gave me a wonderful present of a trip back to Munich for the May weekend and this is how I came to take the picture of the square in Dachau KZ.

    Look closely and you will see that it is pelting rain.

    There was a great crack of thunder and lightening - it struck quite close and left a strong lingering smell of ozone - all of this served to magnify the sense of unease at visiting this place.

    Much has been said about these places - I feel that everyone should take time to reflect on how evil can come about and be sustained.

    Dachau is a medieval town and the guide books emphasise that it was always a nice place to visit.

    I was struck by the ordinariness of the place - including the camp.

    Look at this picture of the gatehouse - it's not very big and it is reasonably well designed - when you read about what went on here it is difficult to believe that this same building was used to subdue, torture and murder people. "In this room on the second floor was the Gestapo interrogation room".

    What unspeakable stories are locked within these walls.

    Even here - people sought to be competent and fulfilled.

    These pictures show the library at Dachau and the work of an artist interned here.

    Posted by Picasa

    Wednesday, May 6, 2009

    Plagiarism Reframed

    Mention plagiarism to any third level academic and you are likely to be greeted with groans and laments.
    This is one topic that gets into people's hearts – it leads to animated discussions and hard views. It is unwise to be regarded as soft on the issue.
    It is annoying, very annoying to be reading something presented as a student's original work when it dawns on you - this is familiar - or - this is not the same style of writing as expected.
    Plagiarism is genuinely offensive to many academics - it offends one's sense of academic integrity and is regarded as a dishonourable practice and a form of cheating.
    Many also feel that the student is trying to make a fool out of them – the tables are reversed - instead of the assignment being a test of the student it is a test of the examiner.
    Assuming the examiner will not spot the obvious is a form of insult.

    In most institutions plagiarism is treated as a disciplinary rather than learning or teaching matter - student's face expulsion, suspension and fines if they are found guilty of the charge.
    Remarkably, despite clearly stated policies and warnings to students - it seems that the incidence of plagiarism is increasing rather than decreasing. All in all it is of great concern and worry.
    There is a need for a radical rethink of how we conceptualise and deal with plagiarism.

    Most treatments of plagiarism begin with a definition and they look to dictionaries as the source (always a worrying sign) - something like – plagiarism is the act of passing off other peoples written work as your own etc..
    Much of the academic practice centres on how to spot plagiarism and how to punish it. There is a good business in the technology of plagiarism detection (most people know the Turnitin software).
    Of course, as the technology on the detection side gets better – so too there are many more Internet sources to copy and even services that will write your assignments for a fee.
    We have the plagiarism wars – each side trying to outwit the other. As with all wars there are casualties on both sides.

    “If I was you I wouldn’t start from here at all” said the wise Kerryman when asked for directions. So with plagiarism let’s leave it for a while and come at the problem from an entirely different starting point.

    A constructivist pedagogy assumes that we build new knowledge through the interaction of present and past experiences. I like to refer to this process as the act of making meaning. For example, when I read good theory the ideas resonate with me – I connect these new insights with my past experiences. An essential characteristic of the constructivist model of learning is that making meaning is a unique and personal process. There is no universal knowledge just personalised knowledge.

    Dewey contrasts the traditional and constructivist approaches to learning:
    On the one hand, learning is the sum total of what is known, as that is handed down by books and learned men. It is something external, an accumulation of cognitions as one might store material commodities in a warehouse. Truth exists ready-made somewhere. Study is then the process by which an individual draws on what is in storage.
    On the other hand, learning means something which the individual does when he studies. It is an active, personally conducted affair.
    (Dewey, 1944 p 335)

    Dewey’s own vision was in keeping with the latter active notion of learning expressed above. If you agree with a constructivist model of learning (and most theorists do) then there is no such thing as purely original work. Even these words as I write are made up of insights and ideas from many sources – true I have integrated these with my own.

    So for most of this text – which I claim as my own writing – I am making meaning from multiple sources from people, experiences and feelings in my past. Note that where I cite from Dewey above I indicate in the format that these are Dewey’s exact words – I am inviting you the reader to make your own meaning.

    When students are given written assignments they are being asked to make meaning not to reproduce knowledge.

    Plagiarism is a refusal or failure to make meaning.

    There are many reasons why people refuse or fail to make meaning. Sometimes students are confused about what is expected, some students are reluctant to express their own ideas as they feel this is not real learning. Other students worry about their ability to write and are in awe of other peoples words – how could I write it better than an expert. Some cultures are more reluctant to question great writings and individual meaning making is discouraged.

    And yes – some students are genuinely dishonest and are attempting to cheat the system.

    How can we deal with plagiarism?
    The first point is that prevention is far better than cure. Cheating is really only significant where high stakes assessment is involved. In other words when students are being ‘tested’ and the result forms part of their grade. A strategy of providing early ‘low stakes’ or formative assessment events will provide feedback to students who miss-learn what is expected of them when they write.

    Secondly, academic writing requires additional skills and specialist knowledge such as how to format, cite and prepare bibliographies. As with all skills people learn best by a mix of rule learning and practice. When used properly, citations and quotations may provide a form of scaffold for the novice academic writer while he or she is finding their own voice and meaning. But many students at this stage fail to apply the citation rules and often regard them as incidental - a question of format rather than core content. Early and frequent opportunities to practice academic writing with rapid feedback on errors and progression will counter this.

    Finally, what of the cheats – what’s really happening here? I believe cheating is also a consequence of miss-learning. It is a failure to learn values. The values of academic integrity and the collaborative quest of knowledge underpins the third level education system. This frequently gets mixed up with the economics of qualifications and the preparation and entry points for jobs. A student who cheats believes that there is a short cut to a qualification and that the assessment is too blunt an instrument to catch them.

    This may say something about the standards and practice of assessment as well as the character of the student.

    Dewey, J. (1944). Democracy and education (First Free Press Paperback ed.). New York: Macmillan.
    There was an error in this gadget