Learning. It’s Complicated.

I read and follow many educational writers, bloggers and theorists in an attempt to understand how learning works, and, by implication or association, what makes for good teaching and an effective education system. However, not everything about education is to be learned in educational texts. A good example of this is to be found in reading ‘River of Consciousness‘, a collection of essays and the last publication of the English-born neurologist and polymath Oliver Sacks. Here, in the course of a few relatively short pieces, the author of such works as ‘Awakenings‘ and ‘The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat‘ takes on evolution, botany, chemistry, medicine, neuroscience and the arts, as he searches for an understanding of the conscious mind and what it is that makes us human. In doing so, he touches on subjects which I see ‘debated’ on eduTwitter on a daily basis. On the importance of Play, for example, especially in young children, he has this to say:

‘All children indulge in play, at once repetitive and imitative and, equally, exploratory and innovative.They are drawn both to the familiar and the unusual – grounding and anchoring themselves in what is known and secure, and exploring what is new and has never been experienced. Children have an elemental hunger for knowledge and understanding, for mental food and stimulation. They do not need to be told or “motivated’ to explore or play, for play, like all creative or proto-creative activities, is deeply pleasurable in itself.’

Which begs the question, if children have an ‘elemental hunger for knowledge’, why do so many children stop engaging with school? I suspect the answer may have something to do with who determines the knowledge which is on the menu, and the extent to which the consumers have a choice. A very important element of play of course is the storytelling element, and Sacks has an observation on that which touches on one of our favourite themes here at The Literacy Adviser:

‘Both the innovative and the imitative impulses come together in pretend play, often using toys or dolls or miniature replicas of real-world objects to act out new scenarios or rehearse and replay old ones. Children are drawn to narrative, not only soliciting and enjoying stories from others, but creating them themselves. Storytelling and mythmaking are primary human activities, a fundamental way of making sense of our world.’

Put very simply, storytelling should be at the heart of any education programme, at all ages and in all subject or topic contexts. And speaking of educational contexts, here is what Sacks has to contribute on the nature of schooling, and the perennial debates about ‘skills v knowledge’ or ‘progression v tradition’ or ‘freedom v structure’:

‘Intelligence, imagination, talent, and creativity will get nowhere without a basis of knowledge and skills, and for this education must be sufficiently structured and focused. But an education too rigid, too formulaic, too lacking in narrative, may kill the once-active, inquisitive mind of a child. Education has to achieve a balance between structure and freedom, and each child’s needs may be extremely variable. Some young minds expand and blossom with good teaching. Other children (including some of the most creative) may be resistant to formal teaching ; they are essentially autodidacts, voracious to learn and explore on their own. Most children will go through many stages in this process, needing more or less structure, more or less freedom at different periods.’

So there you have it. It’s complicated! Schools and education systems have to be flexible enough to accommodate the needs of all learners, which incidentally are not fixed, even within an individual. You begin to see why there is no such thing as a perfect system or a perfect school, and why as long as we have formal schooling, everything within it is a compromise of ideas and ideals.

Next time I will be sharing what Sacks has to say about the nature of memory and conscious thought.



Week Two. MOOCs And Metaphors #edcmooc

future citiesThis week on the MOOC we are being asked to look at and consider utopian and dystopian visions of the future through a different lens – the ways in which metaphor influences and shapes our views of technology, and specifically the world wide web. The course materials take the same format as before: a selection of short films (in this case two adverts for future educational technology products and two fictional representations of a technology and communications-enhanced world in which the ‘Internet of Things‘ becomes increasingly pervasive and digital communication is ubiquitous), core reading materials and extended reading on the present and future roles of MOOCs in education. Participants, of whom there are now apparently something in the region of 8,000, are encouraged to respond to a number of reflective questions on their personal blogs, via Twitter, and on the online discussion forums.

To begin to understand how attitudes to the Internet are shaped and embedded in the collective consciousness through the metaphors we use, Rebecca Johnston, a PhD student at Texas Tech University, conducted a micro-study of newspaper and magazine editorials in the US with the term ‘Internet’ in their titles in the period September-November 2008, and concluded that those which occurred repeatedly fell into one of four categories – those of physical space, physical speed, salvation and destruction – the latter two coinciding naturally with notions of utopia and dystopia respectively. Most of them, however, related to images of destruction:

“Multiple metaphors compared the Internet to nature, usually comparing the Internet to phenomenon (sic) that caused destruction and death in nature. In these articles, Web sites were flooded, experienced a wave of hits, eroded revenue, acted like fast–flowing waters, and had comments poured on them. These metaphors all related to water, a moving, powerful, life–giving force. However, these metaphors particularly emphasised water’s ability to break elements down and cause destruction (erosion and floods)…Multiple metaphors gave the Internet negative human traits, emotions, and practices, painting the Internet as a villain or an enemy…

As these Internet and computing metaphors, such as ‘the Web’, become embedded in our society, they in turn spawn new metaphors for understanding our experiences. For example, computer and Internet metaphors now determine our very sense of selves: We describe ourselves and others as binary; we describe our brains as hard drives or storage systems; we talk about thoughts as being coded in memory (Denny and Sunderland, 2005).”

softwareThe last point is a fascinating one. The suggestion here is that not only is there a preponderance of ‘internet as extended or collective human brain’ metaphors, but that in fact the metaphor works the other way as well. Often, we will see or hear the human brain defined in computing or technological terms, with references to ‘software’, ‘hardware’, ‘hard-wired’ and so on. This kind of thinking has been around for a long time. Ray Bradbury’s dystopian story ‘There Will Come soft Rains‘, first published in 1950 and reflecting the Cold War tensions of the era, memorably features a fully-automated house which continues to function for a while after its occupants have been wiped out in a nuclear disaster, the ‘computer brain’ (appropriately located in the attic at the top of the house) finally imploding in the ultimate metaphor of destruction by technology.

It is also true that much of the metaphorical language we use to describe technology is related to the human body, bodily functions, and in many cases the breakdown of these functions. A very good example can be found in the 2009 short thriller ‘Virus‘ by Simon Hynd, a clever exploration of the relationship between the physical and the technological spaces, with a fairly obvious metaphor in the title.

Under the heading ‘Perspectives on Education’, further reading assignments this week are designed to address the potential development of MOOCs themselves, with a focus on literacy and assessment, raising two major questions about the future of this kind of learning – how are online courses changing the nature and definition of ‘literacy’ and what does effective assessment look like in this relatively unexplored context? Consider first of all this arguably utopian view of new literacies from Bonnie Stewart of the Faculty of Education at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada:

“The studies in new literacies (Barton, 1994) established the use of the plural ‘literacies’ rather than the singular ‘literacy’ in order to push beyond the binary of ‘literate’ and ‘illiterate’ that still shapes our cultural threshold-based conceptions surrounding literacy (Belshaw 2012). Lankshear and Knobel (2007) frame new literacies as follows:

The more a literacy practice privileges participation over publishing, distributed expertise over centralized expertise, collective intelligence over individual possessive intelligence, collaboration over individuated authorship, dispersion over scarcity, sharing over ownership, experimentation over ‘normalization’, innovation and evolution over stability and fixity, creative-innovative rule breaking over generic purity and policing, relationship over information broadcast, and so on, the more we should regard it as a ‘new’ literacy. This is what Gee (1996) calls ‘literacies as social practices’…

It is particularly in the shifting of teacher and student roles that I suggest MOOCs may inadvertently create conditions for the development of new, participatory literacies. First, in all MOOCs that enable voluntary, open, free registration, learners set some of their own terms for participation in a way that differs from conventional higher education offerings. The fact that a learner need not qualify nor complete a MOOC in order to be considered a legitimate student within that course creates a very different relationship to course requirements and to the instructor, and alters learners’ agency over the terms of their experiences. This decentered, fluid notion of what a course is corresponds with the participatory ethos outlined by Lankshear and Knobel (2007).”


The idea that ‘a learner need not complete a MOOC in order to be considered a legitimate student within that course’ – allied to the fact that only around 10% of learners who enrol in larger MOOCs actually complete the course (Balfour 2013), would no doubt have traditionalists working themselves into a lather, as it brings into question not only the nature of assessment in learning, but the very definition of ‘success’, a topic which excites me greatly and which I will return to in the very near future.

To Boldly Go. One Step At A Time. #edcmooc

“What is a television apparatus to man, who has only to shut his eyes to see the most inaccessible regions of the seen and the never seen, who has only to imagine in order to pierce through walls and cause all the planetary Baghdads of his dreams to rise from the dust.”

Salvador Dali



I suppose it is entirely appropriate that the first week of my MOOC coincides with a week away from home. I am currently in Girona, where the people are preparing for an ‘illegal’ referendum on independence for Catalonia. It really is a beautiful city, but it means that I am at the mercy of the hotel wi-fi to access the course materials: so far it has been impeccably-well behaved. With so many strands to the course it would be easy to be overwhelmed, or to try to cover all the bases simultaneously, but fortunately there is good advice from the course tutors:

Last time we ran the MOOC, some key strategies emerged on how to manage it as a learner:

  • Read selectively: you are not expected to engage with every single area of course content
  • Choose one or two media streams only to focus on: you can’t be everywhere at once
  • Let go of the notion of ‘being on top of things’ – this is also impossible – instead, enjoy the serendipity of the random encounter
  • Relax, select, investigate, think, write when it makes sense to write, and write in a space that you enjoy
  • Forget traditional online teaching methods: there are around 7,000 people on this course, only 5 teachers and 6 Community Teaching Assistants

Many of these strategies are of course counter-intuitive to traditional learners and teachers, where ‘being on top of things’ is essential to survival. Which again has me wondering whether, and how, these principles could be applied in a secondary school setting.

tv-future2In terms of personal learning, we are still in the early days of the course, but I do like the use of short films as media artefacts, and already I am beginning to recognise some of the main themes and concepts coming to the fore, and to relate them to much of the reading I have done quite casually in the past. For example, Dr Daniel Chandler‘s term ‘technological or media determinism’ sounds quite daunting in itself, but it isn’t too difficult to find examples when you understand the definition (see below). Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows immediately springs to mind, tending as it does towards a dystopian view of the internet and its effects on our ability to read and think effectively.

“According to technological determinists, particular technical developments, communications technologies or media, or, most broadly, technology in general are the sole or prime antecedent causes of changes in society, and technology is seen as the fundamental condition underlying the pattern of social organisation… As an interpretive bias, technological determinism is often an inexplicit, taken-for-granted assumption which is assumed to be ‘self-evident’. Persuasive writers can make it seem like ‘natural’ common sense: it is presented as an unproblematic ‘given’. The assumptions of technological determinism can usually be easily in spotted frequent references to the ‘impact’ of technological ‘revolutions’ which ‘led to’ or ‘brought about’, ‘inevitable’, ‘far-reaching’, ‘effects’, or ‘consequences’ or assertions about what ‘will be’ happening ‘sooner than we think’ ‘whether we like it or not’. This sort of language gives such writing an animated, visionary, prophetic tone which many people find inspiring and convincing.”

Daniel Chandler

You recognise any of that? It is a tone adopted by many bloggers (including in all likelihood this one!) which may suggest that it is linked to the quality of writing, where the author has a pre-conceived view of technology in the classroom and is determined to stick with it, no matter what.

Now we are asked to consider two other perspectives on the web and e-learning, alongside Chandler’s technological determinism (No.2). These are posited by Dr Lincoln Dahlberg of the University of Queensland and summarised as follows.

  • Uses determination: technology is shaped and takes meaning from how individuals and groups choose to use it. Technology itself is neutral. An example of this way of thinking can be seen in the educational mantra: ‘The pedagogy must lead the technology’.
  • Technological determination: technology ‘produces new realities’, new ways of communicating, learning and living, and its effects can be unpredictable. This is the position Chandler explores in detail in our core reading.
  • Social determination: technology is determined by the political and economic structures of society. Questions about ownership and control are key in this orientation.

future1Dahlberg argues that none of these perspectives, on its own, is enough to explain everything that needs to be explained about the internet. Each is useful, and each is overstated. Depending on the questions we need to answer, different approaches may be necessary. The same could be said about e-learning – that we need more complexity, more nuance, than any one determinist position can offer us. It’s therefore extremely useful to be able to identify these positions, and in particular to know what we are dealing with when grand narratives are told about how great, or how terrible, technology is.

I have to say that many of the blogs I read, and the educators I follow on Twitter, tend to adopt the ‘uses determination’ approach, but we are inclined to follow those who are in broad agreement with ourselves (or in fact those in direct opposition). Perhaps we are all guilty to a greater or lesser extent of technological determinism. Which of these three perspectives do you lean towards in your understanding of the relationship between technology and pedagogy?


Everything is connected. Earlier today I visited the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres. For me the most interesting part of the collection was the jewellery, which is quite exquisite and includes a pair of ‘telephone’ earrings which it would be easy to dismiss as frivolous, but about which Dali himself had this to say:

“The Dali jewels are totally serious. I am pleased if my telephone earrings bring a smile. A smile is a pleasing thing. But these earrings, as with all my jewels, are serious. The earrings express the ear, symbol of harmony and unity. They connote the speed of modern communication; the hope and danger of instantaneous exchange of thought.”

Return To The (Flipped) Classroom #edcmooc

Today sees the start of my E-Learning and Digital Cultures Mooc and I’m really looking forward to the adventure. The topic for Block One is an exploration of ‘Utopias and Dystopias’ – more of that later – but this morning I have been watching some introductory video clips about the course and about the nature of Moocs themselves, which is one of my main motivations for enrolling on the course, to explore what the future of ‘formal’ education looks like, and whether it has  a future at all! The concept of the ‘flipped classroom’ is one which I have discussed before on the blog (see Flipping Socrates), so my curiosity was aroused again by this Ted talk from Anant Agarwal of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the growth of online courses.

A few key questions remain unanswered for me in relation to blended learning, and I would like to explore these issues further in the next few weeks. They could be summarised as follows:

Most of the references i have seen to the flipped classroom appear to relate to aspects of mathematics and science. Do the principles apply equally to the arts and humanities?

Agarwal talks about ‘instant feedback’ and computer-generated assessments. Is that possible, or even desirable, in relation to non-mathematical subjects?

This kind of ‘blend’ – combination of online and face-to face interaction – seems to work well for post-compulsory education, but can it work equally well for 12-16 year-olds, or even younger?

Will e-learning ultimately sound the death knell of compulsory schooling?

An Independent Media for Scotland?

One of the interesting aspects of the – temporarily derailed – Scottish campaign for independence has been the exposure of institutionalised bias in the UK mainstream media and the consequent flourishing of citizen journalism, a trend which looks set to continue worldwide. Here, Bella Caledonia, one of the more successful online news channels, outlines the ways in which we, as citizens, can now write and broadcast the news rather than simply consume it.

Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam

Click ‘Spam’ to open tin. Contains pure classic comedy cuts

A couple of months ago fellow Scot  Alan Gillespie, an English teacher and one of my Twitter PLN, wrote a very interesting and amusing article for  The Guardian on the use of spam emails as an exercise in persuasive writing for students. It was such a compelling argument – and such an obvious context for learning and teaching an essential element of digital literacy – that the only wonder is no one had thought of it before. I urge you to read it (imperative mood, urgent tone) if you haven’t already done so.

Alan’s article caused me to reflect on the sheer volume of spam – or fake – emails and messages travelling across cyberspace, including those which appear as ‘comments’ in response to a blog post. Many of these are obvious fakes and are thankfully filtered out without the blogger having to read them. There are so many of them that I usually just press the ‘Empty Spam’ option and move on to read the genuine comments. Sometimes however, there are those which have been filtered out by WordPress’s filtering service Akismet  which may actually be genuine but simply expressed in poor English. How many of these comments which have appeared on my blog recently would you have been tempted to ‘approve’, simply on the grounds that they might inflate your ego even further?

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While you are making up your mind, I must go and reply to an urgent letter from my friend Dr Mills.

Greeting in the name of our lord and savior, my name is Dr. Cadman Atta Mills the younger brother of late Prof. John Evans Atta Millis whose untimely demise on the 24th July 2012 whilst  in office has distraught the heart of many Ghanaian both at home and in diaspora not excluding the international communities, taking into consideration the colossal condolence and glorious tributes we have thus far received from various  Head of states including the president of the United States of America Pres. Barack Obama, Prime Minster of Great Britain David Cameron, Pope Benedict,  Secretary of the United Nation Mr. Ban Ki-Moon the list goes on and on.

My brother as I affectionately call him was the third President of the fourth Republic of Ghana. He was inaugurated on the 7th of January 2009 having defeated the ruling party candidate in the 2008 election. He once served as the vice President of the Republic of Ghana from 1997 to 2001 under the presidency of Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings.  Based on my position as member of the Economic Advisory Council (EAC) chaired by Dr. Gobind Nankani I have very credible information of a contract in the total sum of US$ 6,500.000.00 (Six Million Five Hundred Thousand United States Dollars) I’m seeking for an experienced business person who can chivalrously work with me in receiving this contract sum into his designated Bank account for an appropriate investment.
It’s very vital I also bring to your notice that this transaction will be handled with absolute confidentiality, so we have to always do the needful to get it accomplished, it is very important also that you quickly provide me with the listed information as stated below to enable me commence with the official documentation of the contractual paper work with the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning and the Ministry of Energy.  Taking into consideration that we have from now till next month to finalize and officially submit all contractual paper work with the said Ministries.
Upon the receipt of your responds I will officially submit all your particulars including the contractual documents for verification and approval by the Finance Ministry. I intend to part 50% of this fund to you while 50% shall be for me. I do need to assure you that there are practically no risks involved in this.  It is going to be a bank-to bank transfer. All I need from you is to stand as the original beneficiary of this fund you are not to worry as I will provide all legal documents, Contract document, International Competitive Bidding certificates, Bank documentation and also refer you to the Ghana Procurement Board to prove that you are entitle to this fund. You do not need to worry, if you do according to instruction everything will work fast and effective without any problems at all.
I will immediately proceed with the contractual documentation and agreement with the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning and  furnish you with all documentation for your meticulous perusal.
I look forward to a very mutual and beneficial business relationship with you.
Yours Faithfully,
Dr. Cadman Atta Mills

2010 Reviewed

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

About 3 million people visit the Taj Mahal every year. This blog was viewed about 29,000 times in 2010. If it were the Taj Mahal, it would take about 4 days for that many people to see it.

In 2010, there were 32 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 107 posts. There were 158 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 981mb. That’s about 3 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was May 17th with 293 views. The most popular post that day was Sticking to the Plot.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were twitter.com, edu.blogs.com, bbc.co.uk, google.co.uk, and edte.ch.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for romeo and juliet, romeo and juliet pictures, back to the future, lord of the rings, and jaws.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Sticking to the Plot October 2009


Picture Books, Comics and Graphic Novels September 2009


Fiction 10-14 September 2009


To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns January 2009


Immortal Memory Robert Burns January 2009