Sunday, January 24, 2021

Doing the Romans 


Apparently school in lockdown has arbitrary rules just like school in real life. I have it on good authority that one such rule is that you don't do online learning in bed. But rules are there to be broken and when there's nowhere else it's obviously the most sensible option. And, after all that's been written about the benefits of family learning we could probably be making a lot more out of a difficult situation. We could. That's if we weren't doing the Romans. Again. Parents and professionals in primary education will be familiar with that word 'doing' and what it really means. Doing is about kindling curiosity but it can also mean rehearsing a rather random collection of half-truths on a subject, and then doing it to death. At its best doing is inspirational, at worst dull. Take the Romans - well no wait, let's start a little further back - why take the Romans? Because they were brutal oppressors who robbed the English of their sovereignty? Or because they were Europeans operating a frictionless border? Or maybe it's something about their culture, their language - Latin that 'special' language of theirs we learnt in school. Ostensibly it helped us to be better at English. Laid bare it was an historical remnant of the mutually supporting edifices of church and school - lauda finem! No, I strongly suspect that we do the Romans because we've always done the Romans. We've done their fancy legionary helmets, done their flowing togas and if we're lucky we've done their mosaics in art and their numerals in maths. So how come teachers and children have no time for the Romans? How come they say that the Romans are boring? Yes, partly it's because they've been done to death, but it's also because of the enormous vacuum of relevance (vacuum, from the Latin vacuus meaning empty). It's the yawning gap that separates contemporary childhood from those imagined Romans (yawn, from Old English yonen). I have to come clean now. I love history, and I also happen to love those long straight roads, I love the monumental failure of Hadrian's Wall, doomed like so many other geopolitical follies around the world - the Great Wall, the Berlin Wall and all the rest. It's just that when you line up all the things you could do with primary children in lockdown, and all the history you could do in pandemic, the Romans aren't the first to spring to mind. I'm sure they had the odd virus to contend with but it's not in the popular stories - it's not one of their greatest hits. Why not just leave them to luxuriate in their mosaic-tiled villas, lounging around in their flouncy togas, sipping from their flagons of wine, maybe having the occasional orgy if they can rouse themselves? Come on now, I'm sure they'd prefer that to being done again.

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Thursday, January 21, 2021

Doing it differently 

I really enjoyed the Doing Data Differently project because it was a move out of my comfort zone and into the realms of educational data - an area that I'd always been extremely wary of. Cathy has written a great blogpost about the project, there are several journal publications out there and some examples of the postcards and discussions can be seen here. But just like all of the projects and initiatives that I've been involved in, there's so much more to that work that can't easily be told. I notice the same phenomenon with many doctoral students I work with - it's often as if the pulse that animates the work has grown faint, or it's essence has somehow evaporated. The skill in getting a successful outcome is rather like an alchemical process of bringing something meaningful into existence even as it threatens to disappear. Educational projects are nearly always greater than the sum of their parts. Like good teaching you can never be entirely sure about what has really happened. Of course you can have plans and objectives, you can predict some outcomes, and even measure them, but then there's always the particular atmosphere and the sense of being there. Those restless modulations and mutations of affect resist clear verbal description. The complexity and heterogeneity of entangled experience baffles us, and the unanticipated, unpredictable and sometimes unknowable effects slip through our fingers. When we try to include these in our writing what was always messy, as John Law observes, seems to become even messier - and quite a number of us have fallen into that particular trap! Despite these pitfalls I think it's still worth the effort of producing accounts that acknowledge the missing elements, of trying to capture the things that get lost, and of saying the unsayable - or at least gesturing towards it. After all it's very often those very things that should be returned to, and not necessarily the detail that gets written up (although that might be important in other ways, too).

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Thursday, November 05, 2020

Why Talk About Data (in Education)? 


An Online Colloquium
12th-19th November 2020

What does data do in education? What does it become? Why does data visualisation matter? What might teachers do with data?

This online colloquium will generate debate about the role and purpose of data in education. It brings together researchers whose work, in different ways, raises issues about data use in schools, coinciding with the launch of a virtual exhibition produced through a British Academy funded project, Doing Data Differently, which showcases teachers’ data drawings about their everyday experiences of literacy teaching.

A series of short video think pieces will be released daily between 12th and 17th November 2020 from Helen Kennedy, Neil Selwyn, Luci Pangrazio, Gemma Moss, Lyndsay Grant, Alice Bradbury, Cathy Burnett and Guy Merchant. These can be accessed via the virtual exhibition – you will find more details on the Exhibition Events page.

Issues and questions arising from the think pieces will be discussed at a live panel   on 19th November 4.30-5.30 (GMT) chaired by Marjorie Siegel from Teachers College, New York. Panel members will include Alice Bradbury, Lyndsay Grant, Cathy Burnett, Guy Merchant and Stefanie Posavec, co-author of Dear Data . Please register for the panel on Eventbrite.

Think pieces include:

Data harms and inequalities

Prof Helen Kennedy, Professor of Digital Society, University of Sheffield

Data-driven technologies, automated and algorithmic systems, machine learning and AI are transforming society. They’re having wide-ranging effects, including numerous benefits, but they’re far from straightforward, and their use can result in harms as well as benefits. So we need to question claims that datafication will simply lead to a better society. In fact, it feeds into and is fed into by inequalities. Whether we talk about harms, inequalities, discrimination, bias, injustice or unfairness, the negative effects of data-related change and data-driven systems are not experienced equally by all. This is why we need to talk about data in education.


Deconstructing data traps: Where to draw the line?

Prof Gemma Moss, Professor of Literacy, and Director of the International Literacy Centre, University College London

This think piece sets out some of the issues a team of researchers at UCL have faced in documenting how English primary schools have dealt with the stresses and strains that COVID-19 has produced in our data-driven system. I will consider how and in what ways our research project findings might be able to disrupt the dominant narratives about system gaps and the urgent need to close them that the crisis has provoked.


The surprising non-appearance of the datafied school?

Prof Neil Selwyn, Professor of Maths Science & Technology, Monash University
Dr Luci Pangrazio, Research Fellow in Digital Literacies, Deakin University

This presentation considers an unexpected finding from our ongoing research into digital data use in Australian high schools – why is it that critical concerns over the steady ‘datafication’ of education are not readily reflected in current school data practices? We first identify apparent tensions between: (i) established ‘teacherly’ logics of ‘data-driven’ schooling; and (ii) emerging ‘datafied’ practices associated with digital systems, platforms and devices. In particular, we consider how promises/threats of digital dataism appear to be largely subsumed into prevailing institutional logics of state bureaucracy and professionalism. We then consider the extent to which these ‘school data’ logics can endure amid the increased digitisation of K-12 education and commercial pushes for personalised learning. Alternately, what scope might there be to encourage more resistant appropriations of digital data by otherwise marginalised groups within school communities?


Anticipating fair futures through educational data practices

Dr Lyndsay Grant, School of Education, University of Bristol

In this talk, I will draw on ethnographic research in a secondary school to explore how data came to play a role in shaping educational practices through defining what could be known about pupils, teachers and learning, and through determining the future outcomes that were made possible. This research raised questions about the role of data practices in shaping ‘fair’ future outcomes for pupils and limiting the possibilities of more open-ended educational futures. These questions can help us explore how claims of ‘unfair’ educational algorithmic decisions might reveal contested notions of how fairness is produced through data, and the limits of transparency as a response to questions of fairness.


The Five Ps of Datafication in Schools

Dr Alice Bradbury, Associate Professor in Sociology of Education, UCL Institute of Education

In this short film, I use a schema to discuss the impact of datafication which is based on five Ps: pedagogy, practice, priorities, people and power. This draws on my forthcoming book Ability, Inequality and Post-pandemic Schools (Policy Press, 2021), which examines the relationship between data and discourses of ability. In this talk, I give examples of how we can use these five categories to broaden out how we conceptualise datafication to include teacher subjectivities and relations of power, as well as what teachers do and care about.


Destabilising data: Creative data visualisation and professional dialogue

Prof Cathy Burnett & Prof Guy Merchant, Sheffield Hallam University

In this think piece we consider what data may do – and what may be done with data- when inserted differently into professional dialogue in education. We draw on a project that set out to ‘do data differently’ by inviting primary teachers to create, visualise and share their own data on what mattered to them in everyday literacy teaching using a postcard format. We argue that shifting the focus, visualisation and sharing of data can have ‘complicating effects’ which – through foregrounding data’s instability and partiality – can produce generative spaces for teachers’ professional dialogue.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

The spread : breadth and depth 

Having a personal library could well become a thing of the past - and it's certainly a luxury, a rarefied form of consumerism and something that can function like an identity marker. I say this because I've often been more interested in the time or place that associates with a particular title than the content. And along with this there's the strange business of the scraps of paper that have been used as makeshift bookmarks before that book is abandoned and its reader moved on. I've found everything from train tickets to old computer punchcards and postcards lodged in mine. And amongst these ephemera I've also come across my own notes on paper and card.In one book I recently found half a card which said 'Wishing you a speedy recovery'. It wasn't clear who was being wished a speedy recovery and from what, but on the reverse side I'd scrawled the following: mechanistic theories of learning individual treatment that a comp. programme may not provide. I think it's the kind of compressed study note that's often served me well. It doesn't really mean anything at all to me now, but at the time it was something that I was taking from what I read. I do the same sort of thing now, and I imagine it as a helpful way of distilling the essence of what I'm reading. Essence is probably the wrong word, because I'm actually referring to the meaning that I'm taking away. A meaning which of course may be very different to the one intended by the author. But so much academic work depends on this process of narrowing down, selecting, and reducing another source. This is relatively easy in a small, focused area in which a body of literature can be read, analysed and synthesised but I think that there are always problems of scale. When the output is diverse and rapidly changing this is altogether harder to achieve. It would be a real challenge to do this across my personal library, for instance. Which brings me full circle, in fact, to the latest addition to my library which is Ben Lerner's acclaimed novel 'The Topeka School'. I enjoyed reading 'Leaving the Atocha Station' but this is altogether a more complex, more ambitious work of auto-fiction. The theme that concerns me here is what he calls 'the spread'. Briefly, in Lerner's world of high school debating 'the spread' is an important tactic. The spread, in the narrator's words, is 'to make more arguments, marshal more evidence than the other team can respond to within the allotted time'. As the novel unfolds the spread becomes an important trope and it stands in for the way in which we can feel paralysed by torrents of information, complex demands on our attention and so on. The popular idea of 'overwhelm' is something similar. And it is rather different from the personal library and the notes on scraps of paper which are attempts - and only attempts - to select, simplify and perhaps to go deeper into things. The spread is wide, overwhelming, destabilising and, in Lerner's world at least, it characterises the times we live in.

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Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Meaning Makers 

I never met Gordon Wells in person, but as a long-standing admirer of his scholarship I was deeply moved to read about his tragic death. It was one of those unfortunate coincidences - I heard the sad news just as I was agreeing changes on the draft of a piece I’d written. Mine was a piece that underscored the enduring influence of his work. As is often the case with writing, I needed to go through the process to clarify my own thinking, and that led to a fuller appreciation of his influence. Wells had a lasting effect on me as a teacher and researcher. Writing about The Meaning Makers, first published in 1986, it was necessary to return to the work, and I was pleasantly surprised to find it as fresh, engaging and relevant today as it was thirty-four years ago when I first encountered it. Subtitled ‘children learning language and using language to learn’, The Meaning Makers is nothing short of a landmark text. It is based on fifteen years of longitudinal research, all rather diminutively referred to as the Bristol Study. Fifteen years is almost unthinkable under current funding regimes, but it certainly helps in getting some depth. And the work of Wells and his team certainly had depth. The research was rigorous and carefully theorized, providing detailed evidence of how children’s language and early literacy developed at home and at school. It also strongly suggested how such development might be effectively supported. In his work Wells referred to a wide range of child language research, building on the insights of Britton, Rosen and Barnes in seeing language and learning from a Vygotskian perspective. Alongside this he repeatedly turned to the work of Bruner, developing a social constructivist view of meaning which was vividly illustrated through carefully selected extracts from his extensive fieldwork. Transcripts are chosen with care and subjected to close analysis in Wells’ writing and this provides an important model for all who follow in his footsteps. For me the simple message that children are active meaning makers remains a powerful guiding principle. That principle, and the convincing evidence used to illustrate it underscores Wells’ significant contribution to language and literacy studies.

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Friday, August 28, 2020

Drawing on something 


I took up drawing again about a year ago - I say again because I haven't really done any since my teens. Armed with a pocket-sized sketchbook and a couple of pencils we sat outside cafes in Ortigia as I sketched people passing by, photographing the Church of Santa Lucia, delving into their holiday rucksacks, chatting with their friends and on their smartphones. They weren't up to much - my sketches, that is - but I had a particular project in mind, and I wanted to find my way into drawing people. You have to start somewhere. As with my earlier attempts, half a century before, I realised that I don't have much that you might call technique. In fact I don't think I'd really want technique even if it was on offer. I just want to discover what works for me. I want to watch my drawing evolve. Of course it's not quite as simple as that. It's not all about first hand discovery. As art critics have often pointed out we are always governed by what we have seen before. What we draw or paint looks right because we have seen something like it previously. Still it emerges afresh on the page as we draw. We do it ourselves, and that's a creative act whether it's 'good' or just good enough. It's our own expression of something. Anyway, in those intervening years - those between my early drawing and my current rekindled interest, I have been preoccupied with writing. Not particularly good or even interesting writing, but writing nonetheless, and most of it professional or academic in nature. And the most important thing to emerge from all this writing is the realisation that what attracts me most is not actually its originality (although of course that helps) but the creative self-expression itself - trying to represent things in my own way, in my own voice. As with drawing, my writing doesn't have a preoccupation with technique - at least not in a self-conscious sort of way. It's just constantly refining itself. And of course it refines itself in the light of what I read. That's not quite the same as saying it's all imitation, but I think it always draws on something, even if I might not be  sure exactly what that is. The word expression seems to capture that, and if I were to write another book that would be a driving theme. Writing - technology and expression or something like that. Even in writing that it would be perfectly obvious that I'd be drawing on something.

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Saturday, July 25, 2020

Book pairing 

Continuing on the theme of books that provoke surprising connections when read together I want to recommend pairing Marilyn Strathern's work on Relations with anything by Henry James (from Daisy Miller onwards). I've always been struck by the Jamesian use of the term 'vulgar' - in part because it resonates with a family joke, (which I won't go into) - but mostly because it's one of those words that surfaces repeatedly in The Awkward Age, The Golden Bowl, The Wings of the Dove and in some ways becomes James's signature theme. Relations, people and behaviours that are below the norms of an idea of respectability all fall into his category of the vulgar. For James the vulgar is a register of social distinction at a time in which it is being tested in New and Old World sociality as well as by shifting generational impulses and family tensions. Purdy's 1968 essay 'Henry James's use of vulgar' in the journal American Speech explores some of this and is particularly good at teasing out the different connotations of the word. Strathern, however, has an entirely different project in mind as she problematises the place of relations in and beyond anthroplogy. Charting the rise of relationality as a way of looking at and ordering the world she is optimistic about new ways of thinking about relations - a re-enchantment through language.

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