Saturday, July 14, 2018

Doing data differently 

Reading that 8 million horses died in the First World War or that 200,000 were slaughtered with the collapse of the equine market after the Second is extremely disturbing. More so than if it had been a 'large number' or a 'great many' - and so, in such matters, numbers count. Being a literacy scholar with a background in the humanities and qualitative research often puts me in a particular position with respect to numbers. When paradigm wars break out, as they do from time to time, I repeatedly find myself in opposition to the bean counters. But as Jackie once pointed out to me, quantitative studies can be really useful in offering a broad view of trends and patterns. I just didn't listen. But now, working on the British Academy funded project Doing Data Differently I'm beginning to learn the error of my ways. In fact I'm learning a great deal, most of which I'm still mulling over. But here's a random collection of thoughts. First - and central to the Doing Data Differently project, is the significance of what you measure and what you don't (the shadow side if you like). Second, and related to this, is the sheer power of numbers, the 8 million horses effect as I shall now call it. Third is about how you visualise data. Visualisation is representation, and as a result it can highlight, it can exaggerate or it can distort information And finally, in this whole quantitative field it's all about relations, what can be mapped on to what, who or where. This can be a highly creative act (highlighting new relationships), or a selective act (implicitly suggesting that some relationships are more important than others) and probably much more, too. I'm guessing that this sort of critical perspective is all very familiar to those working in this tradition and it's probably part of the basic mathematics that I've conveniently forgotten - but it's a useful antidote to the intoxications of post-qualitative theory and is certainly helping me to think about educational data differently and equally importantly, we're sharing this journey with a wonderful group of teachers.

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Saturday, June 23, 2018

New media in the classroom 

Over a number of years and across a variety of projects Cathy Burnett and I have been working with groups of teachers to develop authentic ways of using technology as literacy in primary school classrooms. Along the way we have developed a set of principles for 21st Century Literacies (with Julia Davies and Jennifer Rowsell and published in New Literacies around the Globe). We like to think of our work with teachers as a partnership of equals and are always mindful of how challenging classroom life can be. Yet we are continually reminded of the enthusiasm, commitment and creativity of primary practitioners - and, of course, the children they teach. Our new title New Media in the Classroom: Rethinking Primary Literacy is hot of the press. Published by Sage it describes a lot of this development work, unpacking the nine principles of 21st Century Literacies and setting them in the context of our ongoing work on sociomaterialist approaches to understanding literacy. We've tried to write it in an accessible style so that it speaks to student teachers, practitioners and literacy scholars. There's more work on the way, but in some senses this gives an overview of our recent work together. Am I trying to sell it? Yes, I am - the royalties won't make us rich, but it is a celebration of a number of collaborations and we hope it captures some of the enjoyment and some of the surprises of the journey - and of course we want it to be useful, too.

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Friday, June 01, 2018

Dwelling in error 

Creative processes can be as interesting as their final products and that's partly because they are occasions in which thinking really is live, where something different could always come into being, or fail, or just remain in potentiality. I was reminded of this listening to dramaturg Ruth Little speaking about her collaborations with award-winning dancer and choreographer Akram Khan. Part of a Radio 4 series Behind the Scenes followed the development of their project Xenos, the story of the 1.4 million Indians who fought in the Great War. It is reported to be Khan's final outing as a dancer. The process of developing the piece is all about exploring possibilities, working on a difficult theme with a challenging set design. 'It's dwelling in error that takes us forward' explains Ruth Little, working with 'things that are right on the margins of possibility, or likelihood, or logic, in order to discover where they collapse.' I'm convinced that all the experimentation somehow gives weight and texture to the final performance. In the process, though, there's a wonderful sensitivity or faith in what emerges out of uncertainty. What's more, the very idea of dwelling in error is very appealing to someone, like me, who's always making mistakes!

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

Fifty years on 

In the recent history of radical progressive politics the student unrest of the late '60s holds a very special place. The momentum for social, cultural and political change, although diffuse in its aims, spread like wildfire particularly across Europe and North America leading to sit-ins, demonstrations and student occupations, often resulting in fractious clashes with the State. This unrest was relatively short-lived but arguably it sowed the seeds of some more lasting social reform as well as a variety of struggles which continue to this day. One of the more colourful, violent and potentially revolutionary manifestations of unrest took place in Paris - culminating in civil disturbances between May 15th and May 29th, 1968 - fifty years ago this week. The dissatisfaction of a growing student population, subjected to archaic regimes and routines was vociferously expressed. Their protests were supported by many public intellectuals, artists and cultural luminaries. At the same time a simmering resentment of the economic conditions under the Gaullist government led to a General Strike and for a short while, at least, France teetered on the edge of revolution - or chaos, depending on your point of view. Les événements (the events), as they came to be called, had a profound effect on French intellectual life. Those working in the social sciences that look to contemporary European thinking - and particularly to what is sometimes dismissively referred to as 'French theory' could, and perhaps do, reflect on this. Like it or not, les événements profoundly influenced Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari and many other too. Given that we are approaching the fiftieth anniversary of these events it's hard to work out whether we should mourn the lost opportunity, celebrate their impact or draw a veil over those heady times. I half expected more media interest. The BBC's Vive La Revolution was rather disappointing being more about Joan Bakewell than anything else. An extended interview with one-time student leader Tariq Ali is a lead feature in this month's London Review of Books. Although That Was The Year That Was is both informative and analytical it again tends towards the autobiographical. Hazanavicius's movie Le Redoutable (or Godard Mon Amour) adopts a different approach by explicitly focusing on New Wave filmmaker and political activist Jean-Luc Godard, offering a humorous and rather unflattering portrait of his political activity. This has the effect of lampooning the political rhetoric that circulated around the events May '68. History is inevitably selective and what matters for one generation may not for another. However, it would be a loss if les événements ended up being the story of a few individuals. In fact it would be a grand irony.  The very least we should expect is a reprint of Julian Bourg's excellent study 'From Revolution to Ethics'.


Wednesday, April 11, 2018


One of the things I admire about Virginia Woolf's writing is her precision in describing uncertainty. The most obvious example is her first published piece, The Mark on the Wall, but I suspect it was an ungoing preoccupation or predisposition in her writing life. It's something you can't do so well in academic work where claims, warrants and certainties are only slightly softened by talking about caveats, limitations or alternative perspectives. No matter how uncertain I feel, the writing I do often sounds certain as I read it again. So here is an arena of uncertainty....when I hear about 'data as the new oil', I get that not sure sort of feeling. Of course the analogy - data as oil - has well-rehearsed shortcomings, but I think it may be in danger of missing the point (although note the same theme of exploiting natural resources is found in 'data-mining' and 'harvesting'). The Cambridge Analytica story seems to me to be more about exploiting and monetising private information than about data itself - that comes later. And this monetising is made possible by the ways in which we leave trails of personal information. The way we overtly make our private lives public on social media couples up with the surreptitious tracking of our online activity and that's how we come to produce data - which some argue is the digital labour that fuels a new sort of capitalism. All this may be the case, but where does that leave the poor knowledge worker who is now continually required to update his or her academic profile, to maintain a healthy score on Research Gate, accumulate impressive ratings on Google Scholar and use Twitter to generate impact? I suspect that sort of performativity may be beginning to eclipse the actual contribution made, although I hope not. But that's not the source of my uncertainty. No, it's more about who benefits from such activity as institutions, colleagues and publishers all encourage us to market ourselves. Does our labour just become someone else's data, and someone else's profit? Or is it genuinely a good idea, a more open gesture to draw things to people's attention? Well if that's the case, then I'm encouraging you to look at our piece on reading for pleasure in the digital age, and the paper that's had a longer gestation period - literacy as event. Which leads me on to a whole string of other uncertainties, but you'd have to be Virginia Woolf to get into all those.


Sunday, March 11, 2018

Synthetic reading 

Sometime in the mid '60s my father discovered drip-dry shirts. They were one of the many products of the modern world; a world in which science and technology seemed to know no bounds. They released my mother, at least temporarily, from the chore of ironing, because that's how the domestic economy was for them back then. The shirts were hung, rather unceremoniously, over the bath to drip and dry, and that could take rather a long time in the days before central heating. But they were something different, and they were, my father explained, man-made (not that other shirts weren't), and  they were artificial, they were synthetic. And therein lay their downfall. They were still a little creased after drying and what's more they didn't perform particularly well when it, or should I say he, heated up, which happened on regular occasions. Soon he'd had enough of what he called 'that synthetic rubbish', and as a result, synthetic, the very word, became associated in my impressionable mind with the artificial, or the inauthentic - something rather inferior that imitated the real thing but clearly wasn't. So now, when I see that word synthetic associated with reading teaching, I can't help but think that the obsession with phonics-above-all, and particularly phonics taught in a very specific way kind of way, is just that - an artificial product. To cling to that particular dogma, because I'm afraid that's what it is, seems rather like exhuming those shirts from the '60s, hanging them up to dry without central heating and somehow conning yourself into thinking that they perform better than any others. They don't.

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Friday, March 02, 2018

The future of handwriting 

It's perhaps unsurprising that in a discipline so firmly anchored to immediate and practical concerns, educational debate finds it difficult to float free of historical preoccupations. In fact, since the demise of educational philosophy - a useful, but by definition entirely unpractical sub-discipline for teasing out values, purpose, concepts and other fundamentals - there has been precious little scope for the development of rigorous, critical thinking. That seems a shame, because rigorous, critical thinking is just what we need right now. In England, hamstrung by a backward-facing curriculum, education is hobbled by an unpopular and draconian regime of accountability. Furthermore the system has been vulnerable to the capricious meddling of a succession of ill-informed politicians. Thinking clearly about what we might do, how we might respond to a wide array of changing circumstances - environmental degradation, climate change, economic uncertainty, population mobility, shifting social norms and patterns of employment (to name just a few) is important. They are fundamental, educational challenges. The gradual insinuation of new technology into different facets of social and educational practice is another, more immediate concern. And it's one that was hastily resolved into pen or keyboard skills at last week's Guardian Roundtable on the future of handwriting. It is to their credit that the participants agreed that the 'or' choice simply reinforced an unhelpful binary. But there were some old ghosts in the room: penmanship as the mark of good character, handwriting as something that novelists do, the seamless fusing of body and mind in the creative process, the significance of making letter shapes in learning to read. All are open to question. I modestly proposed that we might re-channel the debate to consider 'writing by hand' which seems to me to be inclusive of a much broader range of communication, including, as it does, nearly all of the writing we do. We might also recognise that handwriting (in the traditional sense) can become yet another obstacle to those who are already struggling to keep up with a demanding, traditional curriculum. So what should we do? Perhaps we could allow teachers a little more freedom and discretion, perhaps we should not imagine that yet another debate could be resolved by an RCT, and perhaps we might allow ourselves more time to think, discuss, and evaluate - after all these are central to the business of education - aren't they?

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