Thursday, December 23, 2010

Betty Casey One Life Happy Birthday

My sister Betty died this year.

At the time I could not bring myself to write about it but today, the 23rd of December, is Betty Casey's birthday and I feel the need to comment.

Betty was the eldest of six children, I came in the middle, number three in line.
There was something magic about our childhood.  We were reared in the Phoenix Park a vast enclosed piece of country located in the heart of the city of Dublin.  Our father Harry was a gate keeper and we lived in a gate lodge.

While I was young the universe was packed into that small lodge and its environs.  What a universe that was!  It extended only in one direction and that was up the park–past the married quarters of the Garda, past the depo, over to the People's Gardens through the Hollow and of course, on into Dublin Zoo.  This was our turf and the six of us and the other kids, friends and neighbours, were free to play, roam, explore and experience the world.

Here was the jungle where battles were fought and monsters lurked.  Over there you could catch a whale in a pond.  That's the triangle where we played football.  This is the tree I swung from.

On a path near the zoo I learned to ride a bike.  It was a big black ugly ladies bike.  I could not sit on the saddle I was too small.  Reassured that my father had a good grasp of the back of the saddle we were encouraged to peddle away.  Betty shrieked.  The cycle wobbled and she was away  The first to ride the bike.  That was what big sisters did.  They led the way.

There were mysterious stories from the zoo.  Betty already had a job in the shops we were in awe.  I couldn't wait to get my chance and not long after my ninth birthday I was in as a pony boy.  My job was to manage a queue of children waiting to ride the ponies. Fanny, Bubbles, May Blossom, Blackberry, Old Silver, Young Silver and the stallion Commando–these were now part of my life and would remain so for more than a decade.

Weekends would never be the same.  At various times all six of us were working in the zoo.  I was charging around with two ponies on a trap.  Betty and others were in the shops or Pet's Corner.  On Sundays in the summer the zoo was packed and we were earning our keep.  On a summer's day the shops by the lake were "black".  Crowds needed to be catered for and despite the wasps, the cramped conditions and the spoilt kids we delivered a service.  We were kids and it might be tempting to suggest that we were exploited but it was the very opposite.  We loved every minute.  We loved the responsibility, the social life, the animals, the notoriety and the money.  The trailblazer of the Casey kids in the zoo was Betty.  She led the way.

Years later each one of us travelled.  Mainly to the UK but for me much shorter stints and much further away.  My drive was wanderlust but for others, especially Betty, it was survival.  In Ireland and in England Betty reared her family.  It was never straightforward, like the bike there were wobbles, but she was in control and she knew what mattered.  Betty's kids, my nieces and nephews, are testament to her spirit.  They are leaders like their mother.

In recent years Betty's life became more complicated.  She found happiness but perhaps it was too late. We are all vulnerable.  Occasionally, in those last few months there were fleeting glimpses of the Betty we knew from childhood but in truth her spirit had faded.  In the end it was sad and protracted.

It's tough having your birthday just two days before Christmas.  Presents get merged and the general festivities overshadow the specific.  Many times I forgot to call, wish her a Happy Birthday, say that I was thinking about her, after all it was Christmas and we would all get together soon.

So Betty, Happy Birthday this time.  You were a leader, a trailblazer and my big sister.  I was proud to know you.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

November 2010 Ireland in Turmoil - The Relevance of Habermas and the Theory of Communicative Action

It may seem odd to make a connection between the current upheavals – the political, economic and national identity crisis in Ireland – and the work of Jurgen Habermas, a German social philosopher and critical theorist born in 1929.  However, I believe that insights from the work of Habermas have something to offer by way of explanation for the current predicament in which we now find ourselves and more enticingly, may also provide useful pointers for our emancipation through discourse and communicative action.

Habermas is still a very active writer and he comments regularly on political and social issues of our time. You can keep up to date with his outputs via the Habarmas forum website.  Of note also is that Habermas was a recent recipient of the Ulysses Medal conferred by UCD - an interesting interview conducted by the Irish Times is also available.

The most notable work by Habermas is The Theory of Communicative Action published in German in 1981 and translated to English in 1984.  This publication is in two volumes: Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society and Volume 2: Lifeword and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason.  These works integrate and draw upon the work of other critical thinkers (Mead, Durkheim, Weber, Adorno, Marx) to unfurl Habermas' own insights on language, reason, rationality, society, discourse and communications. The works of Habermas are the subject of active scholarship and because of the (relative) recency and complexity of his theories most people have not had a chance to become acquainted with his ideas and to make meaningful connections to their own life and circumstances.

What I'd like to do is to introduce some of the core concepts from Habermas' work and to invite the reader to reflect on the implications for what is happening today.  These are my interpretations of Habermas; understandably, I  have had to summarise and reduce some quite complex theory.  What's intended here is a beginners guide, an appetiser - if you want the main course go directly to the works cited above.

Instrumental and Communicative Rationality
Let's start where Habermas starts with a re-examination of the notion of rationality. In Reason and the Rationalization of Society Habermas suggests that we distinguish between two forms of rationality; first cognitive-instrumental rationality and secondly communicative rationality.

The first of these relates to how we act instrumentally on the world – this is the realm of science, mastery of the environment and logical problem solving.  When we make predictions based on empirical evidence or use mathematics to propose new theories of physics or even apply our knowledge of forces and structures to build bridges, in all these practices, we draw on instrumental rationality.

In contrast, communicative rationality is a wider concept and
"... carries with it connotations based ultimately on the central experience of the unconstrained, unifying, consensus-bridging force of argument of speech, in which different participants overcome their merely subjective views and, owing to the mutuality of rationally motivated conviction, assure themselves of both the unity of the objective world and the intersubjectivity of their lifeworld."
(Habermas, 1984, Vol 1 p 10)

What does Habermas mean by this?  Look again at the quotation above and consider what he is suggesting.  He is proposing that communicative rationality is process oriented rather than mastery or output oriented.  What is this process?  It is the 'consensus-bridging force of argument'.

Here is my own explanation for understanding communicative rationality.  Let's say that you are a jury member in a criminal trial and on completion of the hearing you retire with others to consider a verdict.  You consider the evidence – forensic scientists have made assertions, witnesses described their perspectives – all together the case is quite compelling: the woman certainly killed her husband.  But was it murder or self-defence?  Together you discuss further aspects of the case.  Was she defending herself, or her children, did she have other options? Was her action justified?  In this scenario we see both forms of rationality at work – instrumental reasoning establishes the basic 'facts' but in this case, and many aspects of human endeavour, we need another form of thinking, we need to deal with something altogether more complex (guilt versus justification) and instrumental reasoning is of little value.  We need a process of communicative rationality to establish an acceptable truth.  In our society we see this as a collective process – that's why we have juries and even when we rely on judges for verdicts they need to cite precedence – wisdom from the collective.

The Lifeworld
Habermas also introduces the concept of lifeworld (Lebenswelt).  In deriving this concept Habermas builds on the work of the learning theorist, Jean Piaget.  Piaget is best known for his stage theory - descriptions of the phases in which children develop cognitive structures for abstract reasoning and formal thought. Piaget's basic idea is to distinguish between two forms of learning - that which adds to our existing knowledge and that which transforms the structures we use to deal with new knowledge.  It is through this second form of learning (often called development) that we develop our capacity for thinking.  As adults we have developed these structures into rather elaborate models of the world.  It's as if we have an internal working model of the universe that we constantly adjust as we gain more and more insights from the external world through experience. So, for Habermas, this internal lifeworld is of critical importance when it comes to communication.

Here is my own  explanation.  Suppose people are engaged in conversation about the "knowledge economy".  For each participant, we can regard the subjective view of what constitutes the knowledge economy as comprising part of their lifeworld.  Obviously, for a socially-construed construct such as the knowledge economy, there will be elements of common understanding among the participants.  However, it is also likely that their will be considerable differences among the participants as to what constitutes the knowledge economy.  Each participant will bring their own pre-formed assumptions into the conversation.  Lifeworld's are both personal and social, and this is why Habermas talks about 'the intersubjectivity of their lifeworld' in the quotation above.  Habermas argues that "subjects (LC people) acting communicatively always come to an understanding in the horizon of a lifeworld" (p 70). So it is through these conversations, or larger communicative processes, that we form and change the foundational assumptions upon which we build our understanding of the world.

Discourse and Communicative Action
We use the term discourse to describe the truth seeking process or quest involving communicative rationality.  In this we seek a course of action that best serves the needs of society - the common good so to speak.  Thus, the discursive process may be regarded as a universal value underpinning humanity; transcending cultural, religious  and social norms (this relates back to Kant's notion of universalism) .   What I am really saying, and what I think is the key message from Habermas,  is that quality in how we listen, discuss, argue, accept (other perspectives), reason and decide is an essential quality and is core to what it means to be human.

What constitutes the ideal argument? Or to put it another way, what are the ideals of argument?  Habermas proposes 'discourse ethics' as a means of articulating these ideals.  Simon Chambers discussion on  "Discourse and Democratic Practices" summarises Habermas:
Communicative actors are primarily interested in mutual understanding as opposed to external behavior. Therefore, they attempt to convince each other that there are inherently good reasons to pursue one course of action over another. Only the "force of the better argument" should have the power to sway participants. Discourse, as an idealization of this kind of activity, must set conditions such that only rational, that is, "argumentative convincing," is allowed to take place. It must be a structure that is immunized in a special way against repression and inequality.

The immunization is gained through a set of rules designed to guarantee discursive equality, freedom, and fair play: No one with the competency to speak and act may be excluded from discourse; everyone is allowed to question and/or introduce any assertion whatever as well as express her attitudes, desires, and needs; no one may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising these rights.

Ireland Today
Where and how can we participate in discourse to find the best way forward for the common good?  The first and most important point is that collectively we have failed so far because we have 'out-sourced' argument.  We have left it to the politicians, media commentators and academics to do our reasoning for us.  When we seek expertise to fix the problem we look to the epitome or instrumental rationalists, the economists, for guidance.  But our problem is not economic, or political or cultural or national; it is the abandonment of discourse. 

We are all responsible!


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Stream of my Blended Learning Presentation

I delivered the following presentation at the National Academy for the Integration of Teaching and Learning (NAIRTL) Conference on Flexible Learning held at the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland on the 6th of October 2010.

 Blended Not Scrambled: Pedagogic Design for the 21st Century

Would be interested in any comments

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Education Cuts Seem to be Inevitable

It seems to be on the cards that there will be cutbacks in education as Ireland struggles to put together a four year budget plan to grapple with the financial debt crisis.
I like to talk about learning rather than politics or economy in these posts but it seems that cuts will have to be made - indeed are being made - and these cuts will effect all our learning futures and therefore warrant consideration.

As an educator I believe that, after the basic needs such as safety, health and sustenance are met, the primary task of any nation is the provision of education. Education is the means whereby culture and societal practices are developed and reproduced. Once we fail to educate then we fail as a society.
Furthermore, as John Dewey pointed out, the provision of open and accessible education is essential for the proper functioning of democracy. When we suppress education we undermine the process of developing new thinking, critical awareness, communicative discourse and creativity.

However, I do not believe cutbacks in education can be avoided; particularly if spending on health and social welfare are also going to be curtailed. So here are three ideas where money can be saved with minimal negative impact on peoples lives and future potential.

  • First, we could seriously revamp the functions of the State Exams Commission. This would involve abolishing the current Junior Certificate as a compulsory requirement for those remaining in school and its replacement by an expanded Leaving Certificate with a range of levels. The State Exams Commission should be renamed as the State Assessment Commission and its principle task should be to provide assessments for all pupils, regardless of age and ability, once they exit the school system. Assessments should be spaced through the school year and e-assessment technology should be harnessed to streamline the process.
  • Second, we could redirect much of the spending that is currently provisioned for training into programmes that are more educational - instead of focusing on specific skills for the unpredictable jobs market it is better to develop generic skills such as problem solving, entrepreneurship and creativity. The third level sector, college's such as National College of Ireland, are better placed to deliver appropriate provision for adult learning rather than the troubled state training agency of FAS.
  • Thirdly, its time we looked more seriously at the potential of blended learning and the use of technology to support learning at all levels. I suggest that good pedagogically designed blended learning programmes can be more effective and engaging for learning.  At the same time there are opportunities for more cost-effective delivery models. Currently at NCI and as part of an EU project I am working on new designs for learning in the workplace at college level.  I believe this is an important area of future development for the sector. In my opinion, blended learning can structured so that student engagement is enhanced rather than diminished.
All of the ideas discussed above have the characteristic of a win win situation - such reforms would improve rather than diminish education while at the same time contribute to the financial savings that seem to be required.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Learning without Teachers

I met Sugata Mitra at On-Line Educa in Berlin two years ago and was very impressed by his research work and his thinking on how children learn.
This most recent presentation at the TED conference opens up a timely debate on the role of instruction in education.
It is easy to be sceptical about the findings from his research. One could argue that such insights are gleaned from very particular contexts and further investigation of the actual learning processes involved is necessary.
However, I am not really surprised that these effects are in evidence and they are compatible with the work of other educationalists such as Dewey, Vygotsky and Bruner.
Have a look at the video and see what you think.
I would be happy to have your comments.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

We hold steadfast to our own theories of learning

I have always maintained that each of us has our own theory of learning and that we are prepared to defend it robustly.

This tendency to hold steadfast to one's existing understanding of learning is what I call the "in my day" (IMD) phenomenon.  You will find IMD's in many conversations concerning education and school.  You just need to be on the lookout and you will be surprised at the number of times they pop up.  Parents, politicians, economists and most especially business employers are IMD specialists.

The simple premise of the IMD is that what worked for me and has made me successful must be right for everyone else.

It is understandable that insights gained from past experience are valuable but sometimes we fail to recognise the assumptions we take for granted.  IMD statements exclude differences between individuals, changes in society, developments in education and the use of technology to support it.

Generally the older are wiser and experience counts for much. However, we also need to be mindful of the basis upon which we make judgements.  This is especially the case in education.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Learning from Experience: recognition of Prior Experiential Learning

Want to gain admission to a course but your qualifications do not meet the entry requirements?

You may be able to use a Recognition of Prior Experiential Learning (RPEL) process

Many people have asked for more information on Recognition of Prior Experiential Learning (RPEL). I have prepared a presentation that explains the process and how it works in National College of Ireland. Comments are welcome.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Leaving Certificate Results

Today's top story is the issuing of results to almost fifty eight thousand (58,000) Leaving Certificate students.

This event is widely reported in national newspapers, radio and television news.  Much of the coverage deals with the failure rates for different subjects.  Of special interest is the success rates for Science, Engineering Technology and Mathematics- the so called STEM subjects.  It is reported that some 4,300 students have failed Mathematics.

The availability of a talented young workforce is often cited as part of the attraction of Ireland as a location for inward economic investment. Poor results do not help the international perception of our education system. Employers are increasingly looking for critical thinking, creativity and problem solving skills in their new recruits.  It is reasonable to ask to what extent the results of the Leaving Certificate Exam may be taken as an indication of a person's future potential as an innovative thinker and an effective contributor to the knowledge economy.

Take for example the substantial cohort of young people who have failed Mathematics.  Are we justified in writing off the potential of these people as college students, future inventors, knowledge workers, scientists, entrepreneurs and innovators?  I feel not.

Letter to Sam (a fictional character representative of the 4,300):

Dear Sam,
Today you got your results and I guess it came as no surprise that you are one of the 4,300 students who failed mathematics. It must have been very disconcerting to listen to media reports on the importance of Mathematics for our future economy.  Surely, you must be thinking that it will be very hard to get a job or go to college. What now are your career options and prospects for the future?
Sam I'm not going to say that that none of this counts and that the results of your Leaving Certificate are of no consequence - that's certainly not the case!  What I do say is that when you put things in perspective you have much more choice and more potential that you think.
Be very careful about accepting labels, especially labels that you give to yourself, at this stage in your life.  You may wish to say I'm no good at maths! - perhaps this is something you've always believed about yourself and now you feel vindicated, you were right all along and your Leaving Cert results prove it.  Well, that may be the case but it is also likely that other factors are in play.  Have you ever heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy?  Perhaps it was your own belief about being no good that caused you to apply little effort or energy to the subject.  Of course, once you fall behind with Maths its harder and harder to catch up. So you need to genuinely ask yourself is it that you fell behind and simply need time to catch up or do you have a more fundamental problem with Maths.
Sam what are you good at?  Is it that you are good at sport or do you know about cars, or fashion or music?  Think about how you became good.  How did you develop these skills?  It took time and persistence even tenacity, lots of practice and most especially, you were interested and believed you could progress.   This is how you became a skilled footballer (musician, mechanic, hairdresser and so on).You know other people who wish to be as good as you are and you might even say look its easy.  Well to you its easy but it may be very daunting for other people - just like Maths is for you.
So you might ask is there really anybody who is genuinely no good at Maths or is it all about the perceptions, teachers and opportunities? The answer is complex - I mean yes and no - Maths generally involves abstract thinking and many people have a generalised difficulty with this form of thinking.  The best way to explain abstract thinking is to compare it with its opposite - concrete thinking. 
Here's an example, a family of four are preparing to go on a motoring holiday and your task is to load the boot of the car.  As you might expect some people have brought two suitcases and what's more the car has a very small boot and the cases come in all shapes and sizes.  Now in order to complete the task do you start to load and move each case testing where it will fit best (concrete thinking) or do you work out a scheme in your head as to how the whole lot will fit (abstract thinking)?  In this example each approach has merit.  Some people are 'knackey' they are good with their hands and they can visualise how things will fit together.  This spacial ability is closely related to mathematical ability it is a really useful skill.  However, some people use it in concrete situations and never really seem to be able to apply it in abstract form.  In my opinion people who have good spacial ability have the potential to be good at Maths but they don't always fulfil this potential.
Regardless, Sam you need to know that you will be learning throughout your life and the setback today may be an opportunity in disguise. State exams are just one measure of the potential of an individual and the Maths exam is just one aspect of that measure.  To survive and thrive in this world we need to be intelligent in a multitude of different ways - we need language skills, social skills, kinaesthetic (movement) skills, awareness of nature, spacial skills and yes, mathematical and logical skills (see Howard Gardner's works on multiple intelligence).  Build on your strengths - society needs people with all these capacities and everyone has something to offer.
Best wishes for the future 


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Viktor Frankl: Man's Quest for Meaning

If ever you think your life is miserable and you start to get downhearted then I have a book I recommend you read "Man's Quest for Meaning" by Victor Frankl.

Frankl was born in Vienna in 1905 and even before the outbreak of World War 2 was an accomplished academic and psychotherapist.  He was also a Jew and, along with his entire family, was imprisoned in a concentration camp. Man's Quest for Meaning documents his personal experiences of Auschwitz and other camps.  Only he and his sister survived everyone else who mattered to him: his wife, parents, siblings and friends were killed.  A good summary of his life and work is provided by Dr. C. George Boeree here.

After the war, Frankl reestablished his career and produced this remarkable book which soon gained a substantial  readership and acclaim.

I remember my reluctance to read the book - I was afraid I would find it depressing, after all, life in a concentration camp what could be uplifting about that?  The opposite was the case, I was genuinely uplifted and this  is is precisely the point that comes through in the text.  If, even in the most forlorn circumstances, in the depths of hopelessness and the most inhumane conditions, if even there and then, people seek to bring meaning into their lives, they strive to build things, to organize, establish relationships and cling to ideas - this is surely an uplifting insight on our very existence.
Recently I found this web clip of Frankl - watch and listen to what he says here and read the book.  You'll find it difficult to moan about our own trivial challenges in the future.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

TPACK: Technological Pedagogical and Content Knowledge

What makes a great teacher?   This is a difficult but important question for education at all levels.  One way to get to the answer is to think about individual teachers that you have encountered in your life.   Somehow we all know great teachers when we meet them and of course, we certainly know poor teaching when we come across it.

I am not one of those who believes that teaching is a natural gift and some people are born to be teachers and others not.   Most great teachers that I know work constantly on their own development as educators.  A capacity for great teaching can be gained through experience and reflection and I believe that anybody who wants to be a great teacher can become a great teacher.

What then are the ingredients for successful teaching?  Well, thinking about the teachers in my life, I know that teachers need to have a very good knowledge of a content area.  I did science in college and I have some strong views on how we should teach science based on my own experiences as a student.  Previously I commented on the lecture by Carl Wieman, the Nobel laureate in Physics. Wieman argues against the over reliance of explaining in science teaching - he suggests that we start with realistic goals and facilitate individual discovery through activities "doing science" rather than listening to it.

I attended my first lecture in Physics at UCD in 1977 I remember the lecturer Rev Dr Tom Burke asking the class what constitutes a force such as gravity.  We were used to the school definitions such as the Newton's gravitational force = M1 by M2 over R squared times G (the gravitational constant) and offered this as the answer.  But Fr Burke asked further "sure that's the formula but what is the gravitational force?  What's happening for example, between the Earth and the Moon that manifests itself as gravity?" We were stumped!  When we left the lecture we were none too happy - our old world of Physics as the subject of certainty (you only needed to know the formula) was turned upside down.  We were not given the answer.  We were forced to think.  I'm thinking about it still.  Welcome to science.  Fr Burke was a great science teacher.

So, good knowledge of a content area is certainly a characteristic of an effective teacher.  However, this on its own is not sufficient.  Here is what Jean Piaget had to say about subject matter knowledge:
“Every beginning instructor discovers sooner or later that his first lectures were incomprehensible because he was talking to himself, so to say, mindful only of his point of view.  He realizes only gradually and with difficulty that it is not easy to place one’s self in the shoes of students who do not yet know about the subject matter of the course.”
(Piaget 1962 p5)
Piaget suggests that it is not easy to place one's self in the shoes of the learner.  Just because we know something doesn't mean that we can teach it.  We use the term pedagogy to refer to knowledge about learning in others.  A good teacher needs to have pedagogical as well as content knowledge.
Lee Shulman (1986) suggested Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK) as a special kind of content knowledge important for teaching.  There are two aspects of pedagogic knowledge - a kind of general or generic understanding of learning and teaching that is applicable across all subject areas and a second subject specific pedagogic knowledge.  This is knowledge as to the teach-ability of aspects of a subject.  
This may involve asking questions that encourage new thinking as occurred in my first Physics lecture.  It may also involve identifying threshold concepts (Meyer & Land 2006), aspects of a subject area that open up understanding, and presenting these in ways that are accessible to students. 

In a recent conversation a friend referred to a teacher as great with analogies and metaphors.  A stock of appropriate analogies, metaphors, examples, illustrations and models is perhaps part of the PCK of any teacher.

Often PCK is represented as the intersection of two domains of knowledge pedagogy and content.  This representation is useful for teachers and those involved in the professional development of teachers.

Lee Shulman's contribution has certainly helped researchers by providing a conceptual framework that encompasses the domains of knowledge associated with effective teaching.  However, more recently it has been suggested that this framework needs to be extended to include the domain of technological knowledge.

Mishra and Koehler (2006) have put forward the proposition that today's teachers also require knowledge in a third domain - technology.  Their representation extends Shulman's PCK to become TPCK also called TPACK.  They emphasise the value of the integration of these bodies of knowledge for teaching rather than considering each as a separate domain. 
In this model, knowledge about content (C), pedagogy (P), and technology (T) is central for developing good teaching. However, rather than treating these as separate bodies of knowledge, this model additionally emphasizes the complex interplay of these three bodies of knowledge.
Mishra and Koehler 2006 p1025

For example, it is not advocating "technology" per se be considered rather, it is what technology can do to facilitate learning.  The argument is that the technologies of today offer new possibilities that were not considered when Shulman first put forward PCK.

For me, I'm not so sure of the value of separating technology as a domain.  As I mentioned above, part of the PCK for a good teacher is a stock of analogies, anecdotes and illustrations.  All of these are tools - intellectual tools - that are used to facilitate student understanding.  

Through each generation the art and craft of teaching has evolved to accommodate the cultural and social milieu of the time.  Despite what we often think there is nothing special about today, this time and these new technologies.  Human cognition has evolved over thousands of generations and the essential mechanisms for learning are the same whether technology enhanced or not.  In the Digital Literacy in Primary Schools (DLIPS) project we found that teachers were using strategies that involved project learning and technology.   Yes of course their are some technical skills required, and of course we will need to provide additional training and professional development for teachers at all levels as technology evolves and makes new strategies and practices possible.  However, my argument is that this should always be considered as part of the pedagogical content knowledge base of the teacher rather than a new domain.

To add technology as a separate domain of competence has some advantages (as argued by Mishra and Koehler) but their are disadvantages: we may over-estimate the technology rather than the intellectual tool that the technology makes possible (film-makers tell stories - it is the story telling that has pedagogic value); we may alienate teachers who do not use technology (these may be great teachers also!) and finally, there is a danger of commercial influences driving technology into pedagogy.

Regardless, I set out to answer the question "what makes a great teacher?".   For me, knowledge (PCK), an ability to motivate, a capacity to set achievable goals, to provide students with constant feedback on performance and a learner-centered approach to instruction - these are the ingredients of a great teacher.


Casey, L., Bruce, B. C., Martin, A., Shiel, G., Brown, C., Hallissy, M., et al. (2009). Digital literacy: New approaches to participation and inquiry learning to foster literacy skills among primary school children. Report funded by the Department of Education and Science. Available from

Piaget, J. (1962). Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood. New York: Norton.

Shulman L S. (1986). Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching Educational Researcher, Vol. 15, No. 2, (Feb., 1986), pp. 4-14 American Educational Research Association

Meyer J. H. F. & Land R. 2006 (Eds.) Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge.  Routledge − Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York

Mishra P, Koehler MJ.  2006 Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge. Teachers College Record Volume 108, Number 6,  pp. 1017–1054

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

SITE Conference

I recently attended the SITE Conference in San Diego, California.  SITE stands for the Society for the Information Technology and Teacher Education and it is one of the biggest conferences in this field.  Chip Bruce and I had submitted a paper based on the Digital Literacy in Primary Schools (DLIPS) project.
I attended many other sessions and it was very useful to catch up with developments across the field.  One thing that struck me is the use (perhaps overuse) of short abbreviations to describe areas of interest.  Thus a session might be described as dealing with TPAC for SET in K-12 - decoded this means Mhisra and Koehler's (2006) Technological, Pedagogical And Content Knowledge (TPACK - worth a future blog!) for Science Engineering and Technology (SET) subjects in primary and secondary schools (K-12).
The presentation associated with our paper is posted below.  The basic idea is an exploration of the connection between learning as inquiry and new digital media.  Essentially we argue for a new approach to pedagogy based on the Inquiry Cycle and making the most of digital media capabilities to initiate,  sustain and enhance that cycle. 
It's not so much that the vision of learning as inquiry is new - it is in fact a well established idea but that the new media of today make it possible to realistically achieve in a school setting.  See my previous blogs on An Organic Approach to Teaching and How Digital Media Make it Possible and my discussion and links on the Inquiry Cycle in my Why We Blog post for further insights.

Digital literacy in primary school site presentation 2010
View more presentations from Leo Casey.

Mishra P, Koehler MJ.  2006 Teachers College Record Volume 108, Number 6,  pp. 1017–1054

Monday, April 5, 2010


Maire and I have just experienced an earthquake!  We are here in San Diego for the weekend after the SITE conference.  We had just been on a boat tour of the harbour and at some time before I was due to pick up a rental car.  We decided to go to Borders bookshop to have some coffee and relax.  Unusually I ordered frozen coffee and a cake - as they often do the server took my name and said he'd call me when it was ready.  I heard "Leon" and presumed it was for me and made my way to the counter.
Woo! Woo! Woo! the earth began to shift.  Maire got very flustered.  I was a bit calmer.  But the experience lasted maybe 30 seconds.  It's a very strange feeling.  I experienced it once before in Athens in 1980.  This was more sustained.
The intercom in the store asked us to leave.  Contrary to what we're supposed to do I made sure to collect my rucksack.  People were very orderly as we all left the building.  Outside we stood for several minutes while those with iphones checked their apps for updates.  I remembered I had a camera and took some footage posted below.  You get a sense of the nervous laughter and the very professional manner in which the Borders manager informed us of what was happening.
For the rest of the day people here were a bit on-edge.  Yes the Californians may be used to tremors but this was big enough.  We watched some of the news channels and realised that there were several quakes.  At time of writing no one seems to have been injured.

Friday, March 5, 2010

"Christ Deliver Us"

A  new play at the Abbey Theatre written by Thomas Kilroy inspired by Inspired by German dramatist Frank Wedekind’s 1891 masterpiece Spring Awakening.
There is an archetypal story that can be found in folklore, fairytales and mythology and it recurs again and again.  It is the 'coming of age' narrative whereby the young gain wisdom, overcome adversity and become adults.  Thus, each culture reproduces.  The young learn and adapt, society is newly interpreted and modified and each generation inherits and subsequently passes on the values and norms of their parents. 

This process of 'take-over' from generation to generation is fundamental to the survival of a culture.  Hence so many stories and the high value placed on the wisdom therein. We see this in The Godfather, Harry Potter and even the story of Moses - the storyline is similar in each case - an alternative life beckons for a short while but eventually one's true nature wins out and the inherited core values are embraced.

There is a particular variation of this theme which we all find disturbing and is at the root of Kilroy's new play.  What if "there's something rotten" in society?  What if it's a monster?  Who will inherit a culture of moral cowardice, oppression and miss-shapen values?  Stories such as Sophocles' Oedipus, and Shakespeare's  Hamlet deal with this variation - they are stories of doom. Tragedies.  A rotten society, a deviant culture must not be passed on - the situation for the young is hopeless.

Christ Deliver Us is not about Ireland, the 50's or religious oppression - it is a variation of an age-old story.  It is a warning.  Each person must interpret the world and carryies a responsibility to be true to their own values.  When this is not possible, as was the case for the young characters in this play, the situation is unsustainable.  A society that hands over moral authority to others - in this case the church - cannot survive.  There is no inheritance. 

In the play we find three main characters at the boundary of adulthood.  Each in their own way experiences the stifling of ambition and the suppression of  their individuality.  We find a society in crisis where even the likeable mother (Winnie's) and father figures (the Canon) are bereft of courage that they fail to assert their moral authority.  

This is a society where the voice of reason ( Fr Seamus) is quite literally stifled - incapable of being heard.  Against these odds their is no possibility of a happy ending - the young are trapped and left with just questions unanswered and wishes unfulfilled.  Here too we are reminded of the primal reality that sits immediately below the surface of any society - hence the savagery of what we see.  This is the consequence of the malfunctioning society - the ironic price of ignoring the 'real' is that it wells up uncontrollably -  the play contains scenes of rape, masturbation and physical violence.  
Christ Deliver Us resonates long after the performance.

Congratulations to Thomas Kilroy, Wyane Jordan and the Abbey for such a superb production.

Christ Deliver Us! by Thomas Kilroy from Abbey Theatre on Vimeo.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

"Grade Inflation" Getting Everything Wrong

This is a really important issue for Ireland and for everyone in the education sector.  It is vital that get a clear understanding of what the problem is and what we need to do to rectify it.

First of all, the problem we need to solve is not "Grade Inflation" and it would be a huge mistake if we were all to get in a muddle comparing the numbers of first class honours' degrees or 600 point Leaving Certs in the past few years.

Just like all measures based on our social circumstances, such as the spending power of the average weekly wage or the average life-expectancy, over time we should expect to see a gradual improvement in similar measures of quality and achievement in our education system.

Today, we are educating more people to a higher standard than ever before and I will be surprised if the emperical evidence from the soon-to-be released study will not show this to be the case.

But I do not believe we should be congratulating ourselves - there is a problem and a new challenge and we need to get to the heart of it.

Let me use one source Dr Craig Barrett, former CEO and Chairman of Intel and a frequent visitor to Ireland:
 "Your primary and secondary schools are only average," he said. "It is no longer good enough to be average. You have to be excellent at what you do ... at the end of secondary school your young people are average. Your education system is being challenged by improvements in the rest of the world. Things have changed, the educational attainment of other countries have been increasing, and that increases competition for attracting investment."Source:
Barrett is providing us with a global perspective and he, rightly in my opinion, points to the progress made by other countries.  Later in the same interview Barrett lays down the challenge:
"It is possible for Ireland to continue to be successful, but you have to worry about the capability of your workforce and what it does," he said. "Why not a race to the top? Why not have more capability and jobs where you can add value? Increased capability and education is where you increase value."
Now, let me make plea: let's not get ourselves in a flap over grade inflation or comparisons between institutions.  Let's talk about what really matters - quality of teaching and quality of assessment.

It is a not sufficient for the Department of Education and Science to look to the State Exams Commission (note "exams" not "assessment") to produce year-on-year comparisons of Leaving Cert grades - why don't we look at what the Leaving Cert is really measuring - mostly memory, recall and strategic learning.  Genuine problem-solving and creative thinking are not nurtured and not sufficiently recognised.

Similarly, in third level we are certainly guilty of over rewarding students who do not ask questions, suggest alternatives, write critically or challenge the norms of society.

This is the real threat!  In short, it's not that we are giving too many high grades in exams, it's that we are not measuring what we should be measuring.

Certain skills are more important for competitive and connected workplaces - these include inquiry, problem solving, technical and scientific skills, critical thinking, research, collaboration, presentation and good writing.
These skills need to be nurtured and measured at all levels of education.  This is the real challenge.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Help needed to set up My Learning (dot ie)

I want to make a social space for people to tell My Learning stories

I rent some server space and own a url called   - it's a leftover from my days in business.
I think this is a useful web address especially if used to discuss and promote learning.
My interest is in adult learning and in particular, people who strive to take up learning for the first time - perhaps since their school days.
It would be great to establish an on-line community of learners - a place where people can share experiences, encourage others and tell their stories.
Central to the idea is the notion of engagement and participation - what I mean is a space where people will feel part of something and wherein everyone is encouraged to participate.
The most important characteristic is that new and novice Internet users will be especially welcome.  Often people are self-conscious when making contributions as they may feel that everyone else is more experienced.
The idea is that members of the community who have had similar experiences and well be well-placed to help the new users.  
There's nothing especially new in this idea - this is, in essence, the kind of social networking approach that is typical of web 2.0.  But what is different is that this site will focus on learning and will be very open to people of all ages.
So I'm looking for ideas and offers of help - especially welcome at this stage will be people willing to participate in the following groups:
A technical group - to specify the web design and the best technologies to promote active participation.
A marketing group - to specify how to get the message out to as many people as possible.
An activity group - to specify what people can do while participating and engaging with My Learning.
You can contact me directly at or leave a comment for this blog (my comments are moderated).

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Why We Blog

Yes! With some help from the marketing department of the best college in Ireland (click here to find out)
I can proudly report that

Leo's Learning Blog has been nominated for the Irish Blog Awards in the category of Best Specialist Blog.

Well, surely this is something to blog about!

Yes! but before I get too carried away I note that there are many excellent blogs in this category including Eugene's Blog, Deryk Thormy's Blog and Jimmy Hill's Blog.

So what's going on with blogging?  
What are we all doing and more importantly why do people blog?

As you might expect I have a learning theory that might explain, in part, what may be happening.  

I refer you the work of John Dewey (1859 - 1952) the American educationalist and philosopher and the further insights of Professor Chip Bruce a "master blogger" of many years, a great scholar and a friend of mine.
Chip and others have developed the notion of an Inquiry Cycle model of learning based on 4 basic human impulses identified by John Dewey (for a fuller treatment I recommend you read Chips Bruce's work here). 
The basic idea is that we all have a tendency to learn through a cyclical process involving Ask, Investigate, Create, Discuss and Reflect - as in the diagram below (source Chip Bruce):

I contend that this is precisely what we seem to be doing when we blog.  
We start by asking some kind of question, in my case for example: 
Can we measure learning?
Top Ten Insights on Learning  
The question "ask" or inquiry begins with the writer but gets passed on to the reader.
Next we "investigate" to get new insights and often source and build on the ideas of others.  And, as a natural consequence, we seek to build on the ideas of others - this is the "create" part of the cycle.
With new insights and ideas its only natural (literally) that we seek to share, communicate and "discuss" with others - hence all this blogging.
Finally we we think back on the experience and "reflect" and this, in turn, initiates the cycle again.

We live in a complex and challenging and for me, this blog helps me to sort things out - it is part of my inquiry, my way of making meaning and my learning.

Monday, February 22, 2010

These days this is my favorite book.

I have blogged previously on one of Bateson's "Metalogues" - look here to review. Bateson's metalogues are styled as father daughter conversations.

Here's another one I would like to consider - this is a short extract from the opening:

Mealaogue: About games and being serious

Daughter: Daddy, are these conversations serious?
Father: Certainly they are.
D: They're not a sort of game you play with me?
F: God forbid ... but they are a sort of game we play together.
D: Then they're not serious!
Through this conversation Bateson goes on to introduce many ideas about how we "play" together.  The core of this idea is not new - there are always unspoken rules associated with how we communicate.

For me, the most useful question is: "What's going on here?".  Ask yourself this question when attending meetings, participating in decisions or even writing (as I am now).  Frequently, we interpret a situation at an immediate and shallow level.  Often, what's really going on can only be appreciated by interpreting what's being said along with the unspoken rules of the encounter.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Learning and Motivation

Motivation is used as a catchall term to describe how people are moved to act in a certain manner or direction.  In everyday use there is a tendency to conceptualise motivation as mono-dimensional we often seek the motive for why a person acted in a particular way.   

Single explanations for people’s actions or goals are often inadequate and misleading.  People tend to justify past-behaviour and will report a retrospective rationale.  However, models of motivation, if they are to be of use, need to provide predictions of future behaviour.

The term motivation is used in many different contexts and can mean different things in everyday language. Motivation is often used to describe a level of commitment even energy such as during half time at a football match where a manager gives a team a motivational talk to ‘lift’ the team for the second half. 

In such uses of the term motivation is likened to a psychic booster; one could imagine an internal M meter reading either high or low. This meaning of motivation is not limited to physical activity - people might say “coming up to the exam I became really motivated and studied for five hours every day”. It’s even the case that certain speakers at business conferences describe themselves as ‘motivational speakers’. However important it is to be ‘psyched up’ and however interesting it might be to study motivation as degree-of-determination or drive toward a particular goal - this is not the aspect of motivation that is of interest here. 

What I wish to focus on is the decision to set goals, the ‘why’ of action and in particular, decisions to learn.  In order to explain most human behaviours a fuller spectrum of influences needs to be appreciated.  Serious consideration of the concept of motivation leads to a realisation that motivation is both complex and multi-dimensional.  
Ryan and Deci (2000) refer to motivation in terms of the ‘energy, direction, persistence and equifinality of activation and intent’.  Equifinality, a term borrowed from systems theory, in this case meaning that the same result can be arrived at through many different paths or trajectories.   

A dictionary definition such as in Colman’s A Dictionary of Psychology (Colman, 2006), describes motivation as a driving force or forces responsible for the initiation, persistence, direction, and vigour of goal-directed behaviour.  This introduces the notion of goals and goal-directedness within an individual.  Where learning is the goal we may, within the framework of the above definition, regard motivation-for-learning as having a cuasal relationship with learning oriented behaviours.
Ahl (2006) summaries different theoretical orientations gleaned from her extensive literature review of learning motivation.   Ahl argues that the concept of motivation is itself questionable and she challenges three assumptions that are often implicit in many of the theories: first that such an entity as motivation exists; second, that it resides with the individual; and third, that motivation causes behaviour (Ahl, 2006).  Ahl argues the large variety of definitions of motivation from the literature contribute to the questionability of the motivation construct.  

Wlodkowski (1999) seems to support this:
We have invented a word to label this elusive topic –motivation-  but even its definition continues to baffle the most scholarly of minds.
  (Wlodkowski, 1999: 1)

Ahl also points out that motivation is socially and psychologically construed and that operational measures such as self-report surveys are mearly reinforcing research-generated concepts.  For example, to ask people to report on their need for achievement is to create the notion of a ‘need for achievement’.   
The importance of learning decisions cannot be over-emphasised; almost all learning theorists make a seemingly obvious point that adults learn what they choose to learn.  Time and again the capacity to make one’s own decisions and to self-initiate and self-manage learning is identified as a key characteristic of adult learning – see for example Knowles (1978), Cyr (1999) and Merriam, Cafferella and Baumgartner (2007).  

Learning decisions are therefore important sites of investigation and can provide powerful insights for educators and policy makers on the development of skills and competence in future populations.


Ahl, H. (2006). Motivation in adult education: a problem solver or a euphemism for direction and control? International Journal of Lifelong Education, 25(4), 385 - 405

Colman, A. M. (2006). A Dictionary of Psychology: Oxford University Press.

Cyr, A. V. (1999). Overview of Theories and Principles Relating to Characteristics of Adult Learners: 1970s-1999. Access ERIC: FullText (070 Information Analyses). Florida.

Knowles, M. S. (1978). The adult learner : a neglected species (2d ed.). Houston: Gulf Pub. Co., Book Division.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. (2007). Learning in adulthood : a comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being, American Psychologist (Vol. 55, pp. 68-78).

Wlodkowski, R. J. (1999). Enhancing adult motivation to learn : a comprehensive guide for teaching all adults. The Jossey-Bass higher and adult education series.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The School

The recent 3-part RTE series "The School" broke new ground in terms of education and television.
What takes place in schools is both familiar and mysterious to most adult viewers.

Our school experiences resonate throughout the entire span of our lives and, for many, learning identity forged during teenage, years remains fixed and unchallenged long after our initial schooling is complete.

Every society looks to young people to reproduce and reinvent itself for the future.  Put simply, organised societies that are good at education will survive and outlast societies that fail to do so.  Schools and education are our biggest investment apart from health systems.

Strangely, unless you are currently an active participant in the school system, there is little visibility of what's going on.  We seldom get an opportunity to compare schools today with the schools of our childhood.  This issue is more important that a simple need to satisfy our curiosity: we need to know about how much has changed, the improvements, new ways of teaching, a new understanding of learning, and new thinking on what should take place in schools.

Since we left school we have grown and developed into who we are today - few of use would say that we have not radically changed since the day we left school.  And yet, we often assume that the school system that we left so long ago has remained fixed and unchanged.  Obviously this is not the case.

And this is why "The School" as a television series did us all a great service.  It provided an opportunity to 'open our minds', to see and to experience contemporary school life.

The school principal, Eamon Gaffney is a good friend of mine.  Eamon, the staff and students of St Peters Dunboyne showed great courage and self-confidence in facilitating the making of these programmes.   I remember Eamon saying that he felt that this story needed to be told "people need to know about schools of today, the breath of learning and the holistic approach to education".

"The School" has captured something that's important to us all.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Really Useful Websites on Learning and Teaching

As a follow-up to my previous blog on the Top Ten Insights on Learning I would like to provide a list of web sources and resources that may act as good places to start with insights on learning and teaching.

I'll try to give a brief description of each and why it makes the cut for me.

Starting Points: Aggregation Sites

Theory into Practice (TIP)
Greg Kearsley has put together an excellent resource that deals with a wide variety of learning theories.  This is an excellent starting point and it will give the beginner a good appreciation of the breath of theories and their practical applications.

Emtech's  Learning Theories
This is another excellent starting point with a comprehensive list of learning theory orientations.  What I like about this list is that each section is authored by a different person and you can cite each as an individual resource.

Martyn Ryder's Instructional Design Models
Martyn Ryder's very comprehensive listing of instructional design and learning theory resources -this site is well maintained, comprehensive and deals with an wide expanse of theoretical orientations.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching Tips Index
This is another great starting point for lot's of interesting exploration.  The index is compiled by the faculty development team at Honolulu Community College.  I've looked at many of these teacher development sites and I have to say this is certainly one of the best!

Angles on Learning
James Atherton's resource for called: An introduction to ideas about learning for college, adult and professional education - brings together ideas about learning for college, adult and professional education. Great piece of work!

The ETL Project
This project sought to identify evidence-based good practice in teaching-learning environments for a range of undergraduate courses.

National Survey of Student Engagement If you are genuinely interested in what goes on in college classrooms then this site dealing with an extensive US research project is a good place to start.

Doing What Works
This is a US Government site that promotes research-based educational practices.  This resource is particularly relevant for primary and second level teachers. 

Learning Research

The Education Resources Information Center - a search-able database containing loads of journal articles and other resources on education and learning.

Education and Policy
European Commission
The Education and Training Directorate of the European Commission - a good starting point for EU and national policy documents.
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