How to graduate

Four years ago I speculated on graduation from the point of view of the rising trend of graduation for young children, which to my mind confuses progression and graduation. This too makes for a good read, although from a different angle.

But a number of issues around students not able to graduate (because they have not fulfilled the requirements of the programme or because they have not turned up) lead to me look again at just what is graduation. At Brookes, for example, there exists a persistent myth embedded in the language of the ceremony about whether you are a BA (or whatever) without the ceremony – in other words, is our ceremony a conferment of degrees? This leads me to wonder about really what comes down to two themes:

What if we look at the language of the ceremony? Are we really addressing graduands who become graduates?

What about the ritual? What is conferred, what is received? Is there a quasi-sacramental element here?

In other words, is it possible to look at a graduation ceremony through the eyes of a liturgist?

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The Importance of Telling the Story

We’re back from the Gambia again. No volcanoes – at least, not of the physical kind – and the experience was on the whole extremely positive. The conversation over coffee goes something like this:

Colleague: So, how was Africa?

Me: Good: one the best, in fact.

Colleague: How come?

Me: Well, a lower number of students helped, and fewer pressures on my time meant I could be there for them when we met up at the end of the day. 

And then comes the tricky part: do I launch into more detail, praising (justifiably) Gambia-Extra for their skills at organising us a great stay,  into travellers’ tales of bush taxis or pedagogy or a nice dinner at the incredibly swanky Ngala Lodge? Do I go into what I think Eric Berne calls the “Ain’t it Awful?” game of saying how hard it was? And at heart, how do I talk about the students’ learning and achievement (mindful of Jock Coats’ timely and thoughtful piece here), or explore in just a few pencil-sketch strokes the experience of all of the week?

Cora Player

I have to wonder about why I have these conversations. They are part of the social interaction of any workplace, of course, but in some ways they are advocacy. Telling the story of encountering the crocodiles might suggest to a colleague that it would be interesting to come next year; similarly the Cora Player (right) whose music was so enchanting might attract someone. But it is also possible that the challenges of pedagogy, or the conversations I had about additional provision for children on the autistic spectrum might lead a colleague to think about how different school life is in other countries.

This isn’t to say I preach from a position of superiority or even deeper knowledge. I love to hear the stories from others: similarities, differences; ways in which East Africa faces similar challenges; the ways in which a school in the UK supports or links with a school in the Gambia. I like to hear because I realise how little I know or understand. One thing I learn every time I go the Gambia is that my own view is too narrow: Global Citizenship isn’t just something for students; it’s about me as a learner, too.

 

 

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How do we dare?

This is what I asked last year when I recorded my trepidation about marks, especially for final-semester students who were due to graduate. It seemed a huge responsibility, and still does.

This year I am ploughing through the first years’ work (“Early Years in the UK Context”) before I start on my second and third years’ assignments (“Young Children’s Spirituality” and “Becoming a Reader,” the “Independent Studies” in Early Childhood and Education), and feeling much the same. It may be a slog – a long list of students from  one module – but each has to be given attention, each has to be read with interest. This year, however, it has an added sharpness. This is the first year that these marks “count” towards their final degree using a Brookes home-grown version of Grade Point Average. It feels very different from the diagnostic stuff of Level 4 in the past, not because I am pressured into giving different marks – that’s not an issue – but because I am more conscious than ever how far these students have to go in their writing and reading skills.

Consider this part of a paragraph (from a previous essay, now anonymised but not otherwise edited):

I have decided to focus on the two aspects of the curriculum the first being when children are supposed to start school and the second being assessment as I believe that these are two of the differences that I found interesting when comparing both curriculums. In some respects the two curriculums are quite similar however one of the most interesting differences is that English children start serious education at 5 and Welsh children start at 7. Denmark, Greece and Hungary and Finland. These places that start later focus on the children into the people they become.

No amount of in text comments such as “Not a sentence” or “What does ‘serious education’ mean?” will do much to support the long journey to fluency as a writer. What is  needed is a revision of the expectations of school, and the expectations of tutors and students about the first year at University. I want to create more opportunities for this learning to take place, for assessment that genuinely supports students’ “learning journeys.” I want good writing to be a habit, when being caught out for failure of grammar is too often  an occupational hazard.

No, it’s not a moan about “schools these days,” or a plea to go down the line that says that harder exams make better learning as in the current debate around calculators, but just a thought: at what point do we really get to teach children and young people how to write?

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Early Years Post Doc


If we assume – I am not sure we can assume – that the advert for a nanny in New York at a sum that no post-Doc and no Early Years practitioner would dream of (current link here: not sure it’s stable)  is not a spoof, then what would it say about Early Years?
It might tell readers that these are people with more money than sense, certainly without a sense of what the market could offer (a similar person for half the salary for example). It might also indicate a willingness on the part of the family to prize academic qualification over professional qualification or experience.
It just might, however, suggest that parents who have the money to do so could think seriously about much they value the education and care of the youngest people in their family. What, really, is the price for bringing up baby? It is as if this advert, genuine or not, points back to George Monbiot’s argument about forests: how can we reduce some things to unit costs?

And yet, of course, we do.  How much can I afford in childcare? What help will the Government give me? How much does a childminder earn?

Until someone shows me otherwise, however, I think I will stick to the position I have reached: that this is not genuine, but a satirical way of criticising either the poor financing of postdoctoral study, or the even poorer salaries of EY workers – or both.

The question remains, however: is cost really reducible to a unit-by-unit cost benefit analysis, or do we have to acknowledge this is a threadbare way of “un-valuing” some things?

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Feral

I am as deep into George Monbiot’s Feral as he is in ling, or wrack, or any other dense vegetation he encounters as he travels through the book. His view of nature and landscape is only dwarfed by this vision of what might be or what might have been in the “re-wilding” of Europe, of Britain in particular:

The sward on the verge was an exuberance of colours as rich as the Lord Mayor’s Show. Here were dropping red spikes of sorrel, golden bird’s foot trefoil like Quaker bonnets, the delicate umbels of pignut, heath milkwort – some pink, some blue – red campion and cut-leaved cranesbill. Here were little white flowers of eyebright, with egg yolk on their tongues, dark figworts, which released a foxy smell when I ran my hand through them,, purple knapweed, pink and white yarrow, foxglove, mouse ear, male fern, deep cushions of bedstraw, wild raspberry, heath speedwell, hogweed and willowherb…

It is as lyrical a use of plant names as any poet might employ.

His wrath at the violation of his vision employs the poetics of the fire-and-brimstone preacher, and while he is at home with the humour of black cat spotting, and has an eye for the quirky detail when talking about beavers or woolly rhinos, he reserves a particular distaste for the “sepia-toned” conservationist who seeks to preserve rather than rewild. Monbiot hits out at the Nazi sympathies of Konrad Lorenz and the “strong suite of what might have been psychopathic traits” of Joy Adamson. This is a not a man to mince his words.

And it is this keen sense of how poor our vision of landscape is, how bound up in the artificialities of the pastoral that is the most intriguing thing for me. The imperialist and imperious “assemblage of species” that Monbiot attacks is at the heart of young children’s literature; the re-presentation of the desired, the nostalgic landscape that provides setting but also instructs the reader: this is where the narrative happens, but also this is how the outdoors should be.

Reader beware, therefore: if Red Grouse are a “key indicator” (a view challenged by Monbiot at one point), I worry that so are the small, mixed woodlands and rolling hills and small fields of the Each Peach Pear Plum, or the quiet country lanes of Joe’s Cafe, or the magnificent spread of scenery in Bear Hunt.

Addendum, Easter Tuesday

The latest in the Guardian from George Monbiot. I may come back to this.

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Outdoor Learning Whan That Aprille With His Shoures Soote

Two things coincide tomorrow (Tues 1st April) that I am involved in: Whan That Aprille Day, Maistre Chaucer-off-Twitter’s way of celebrating ancient languages, and the Oxford Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference. I am tweeting about one, and giving a paper (more of a napkin or even a serviette, really) on whether students need to go outside to learning about outdoor learning.  This is my punt:

While many people writing about the nature of young children’s learning underline the importance of first-hand experience (e.g. Fisher 2013; Canning 2013), little attention has yet been paid to whether teaching adults about young children outdoors is best done through practical experience. This session would aim to look at:

  • what elements of outdoors learning for young children can most effectively be translated into adult experience and why.
  • whether practical experience of being outside adds substantially to the students’ understanding of young children’s learning.
  • whether experience of being outdoors should be an integral part of the “learning journey” of a programme that does not have a required professional output such as QTS.

Canning N (2013) “‘Where’s the bear? Over there!’ – creative thinking and imagination in den making” Early Child Development and Care, Volume 183, Number 8, 1 August 2013 , pp. 1042-1053(12)

Fisher J (2013, 4th ed) Starting from the Child. Maidenhead: Open University Press

And I thought, foolishly, that translating some of my powerpoint into Latin would be a good thing to do. Maybe just the title of the module I’m talking about.

Translating Outdoor Learning in the Early Years seems a good enough project until you realise that outdoor learning is not an easily translated, and neither is Early Years. Neither concept is really around in classical Rome, although of course both education and  the joys of the locus amoenus are well documented.

What kind of learning are we talking about? Eruditio? No, that’s not it. DoctrinaEducatio? Ah, but is learning the same as education? Even if we can translate “learning” as “education,” will that fit? Disciplina? Well, that begs the question as to whether outdoor learning is a set of skills and cultural practices: maybe it is. Perhaps the verb-noun infinitive of a word like cognosco? Hmmm. Well then, disco? How’s about a gerund, signifying “something that is to be taught”? A plural form?

Tomorrow the title of Module U70124 (Cursus U70124) will be Discenda (those things which should be learned) Puerilia (in childhood) Extranea (to do with being outside). I am uncomfortably aware that cognates of another possibility, eruditio puerilis extranea, come very close to extraneous and puerile erudtion.

Absit omen.

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Black Dogs

I want to move away from “my” wolves and werewolves to their cousin, Black Shuck.

Black Shuck, the demon dog whose appearance heralds death, is a now-forgotten standard of English Folklore. He is well represented here, in what could be his homeland of East Anglia.  Linked in Wikipedia and elsewhere with Viking tales of Odin (the creature’s other name, the Grim, who makes a guest appearance along with so many other mythic animals in Harry Potter, has cognate names in various Scandinvaian legends), this is a terrifying creature that has a lot in common – in shock value at least – with the werewolf, and with the hound-like aliens of Attack the Block. Somewhere in our catalogue of things we are frightened of is the sudden, vicious attack that the canine embodies. The Black Dog also makes another appearance, for example at the heels of Winston Churchill, and I’ll be coming back to that in a minute.

Jack Zipes’ still wonderful study of Red Riding Hood that I come back to again and again suggests that Red Riding Hood changes or is changed by storytellers to meet the concerns of the audience over the years. The wolf, too, alters appearance and character, and not just in RRH: sexually predatory, or gluttonous, a wargus  and a killer like Robin Hood or Long Lankin, his defeat in most versions makes the story bearable: so too, we retell the story of the Black Dog, who becomes not a herald of death but a symbol of depression. Winston Churchill descried his depression as a black dog, and the image is taken up by the Black Dog Campaign. It is well worth a look at as a campaign in itself and its aims of reducing stigma, getting people to talk, &c., are really important.

The Black Dog has been used as a metaphor for depression from antiquity to the present day. To bring the campaign to life we have designed visually striking Black Dog statues.  The physical presence of a Black Dog will help people to define their experience of the ‘invisible’ condition, which characterises mental illness, as well as promoting more open discussion, understanding and acceptance. In order to deliver a positive message of support, the black dogs will have a ‘collar of hope’ and wear ‘coats’ designed by celebrities, artists and members of the public.

It is also worth (in a small way) reflecting on how the wolf-dog creature we fear, perambulans in tenebris, transforms as we need it, reflecting our current concerns. The “catalogue of things we are frightened of” is also, because of its place in folklore, a catalogue of things story can help us make sense of, or warn us about.

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Do they all live in the same wood?

Building on the real question posed by a four-year old reading Red Riding Hood, I would want to explore the nature of the landscape in which ‘fairy tale’ characters from Western European traditional tales have their adventures. Some of this landscape is represented in older versions by clear topographical features which root the story to particular places – the chalk pits of Tom Tit Tot , or the Blackdown fairy markets discussed by Katharine Briggs. In more recent representations of the landscape in children’s literature, authors have used intertextuality to play with the notions of place. Using insights from ecocriticism, from historical landscape studies such as those by Oliver Rackham, and the study of folk tales from writers such as Jack Zipes and Sandra Beckett, I propose exploring the landscape(s) of Janet and Allan Ahlberg (Each Peach Pear Plum; Jeremiah in the Dark Wood and the Jolly Postman), Lauren Child (Beware of the Storybook Wolves) and other works such as Nicola Smee’s Finish the Story Dad to see
• Whether there are discernible features in the ‘fairy tale’ landscape that suggest a common understanding of that environment;
• Whether an intertexual approach from modern re-authoring of traditional stories enlightens the reader or impoverishes the stories;
• What the agents in the stories do to interact with their environment.

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Pedagogy

This posting from me  is just a jumped-up tweet, but what’s behind it is worth sharing, I feel. Steve Wheeler (whose blog is always a good read) has an insightful view of pedagogy here in his latest post.

Good pedagogy is about guiding students to learning. It’s about posing challenges, asking the right questions, and presenting relevant problems for learners to explore, answer and solve. True pedagogy is where educators transport their students to a place where they will be amazed by the wonders of the world they live within.

Yes, well worth a look.

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How to ask a question

Last Friday and this Tuesday I taught very small classes – ten in each. Something of a luxury, not because the showman is put away in a class that size but really because the academic can come out.

The first class was a sort of guest spot on the outdoors in an international perspective in a module called (surprise!) “Cross-National Perspectives in Education,” and raised questions (I hope) around the validity of evidence from sources grabbed (purposefully) from YouTube, and set in the context of harder (but less immediately illuminating) data such as stats on life span.

The second was my “Becoming a Reader” class, where the ungarded students were lively and argumentative while presenting to one another on issues around reading and memory, reading schemes, motivation…

So far, so good.  What struck me was that the smaller classes gave us all time to listen, to question, to discuss. They gave me time to listen, and to raise questions – and to listen to my own questioning.

But what sort of questions do I raise? How do I challenge students? I think – I hope – I do so with some reference to the kind of progression in thinking skills I’m looking for. I’m looking less for an answer about “How many children attend the pre school in Norway that we saw?” than I am for some response to “What do you see as the drawbacks to the kind of provision we saw?” or “Why might a family education project in Kenya be presented as a women’s empowerment project?”

But do I – do we – model effectively enough the deeper questioning we seek from our students? I ask a student to “be more critical” – but can I, hand on heart, say I have shown the students the kind of questioning I want them to do?

This comes to a head with the students I’m meeting tomorrow, and to the stream of Masters students who have come to me this week to check their essay titles are “on the right lines.” What makes a good question, a good area for a short essay, a fruitful line of discussion?

I think we’re back, to a greater or lesser extent explicitly,  at Gibbs’ reflective cycle and Bloom’s taxonomy.  Watch out for that threadbare carpet, please, as I suggest

  • To what extent do you think you can rely on…
  • How valid do you think the argument is…
  • Can you use this argument in a different context/Can we explain this another way…

…are  good ways [for me] to go, rather than nervously saying “Do you understand this?” “Are you with me?” or (in some ways the most cowardly of all) “I’m assuming you’ve all read this.”

This would/could/might lead to better questions at least at M-level or L6. Armed with this – or having armed my students with it? – I can genuinely expect essay proposals that are not “How can a practitioner support role play effectively?” but “To what extent might practitioner support improve children’s experience of role play?” or “What theoretical background might a practitioner employ to understand role play in a setting?” Tentative. Exploratory.

Fruitful.

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