Thursday, 22 June 2017

Book Review

A Teacher’s Reflection Book: Exercises, Stories, Invitations.

Jean Koh Peters and Mark Weisberg, Durham, North Carolina, Carolina Academic Press, 2011, 199 pp., US$30.00 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-59460-942-8.

This excellent book should be part of every teacher’s professional library. It is a book pitched at all teachers in higher education and, through the processes of reflection, a book that advances important principles of good teaching practice that are usually introduced all too briefly in the basic texts on teaching in higher education. It is a book that simultaneously challenges and then guides us to be better teachers through the process of reflecting where ‘... teachers remain learners, learning from their rich experience with students, with the academy and with their scholarship’ (p.26).

Several descriptive words come to mind when reading this book. It is a polite and gentle book. Politeness is revealed in the book’s sub-title – ‘Exercises, stories, invitations’. It is the idea of invitation that characterizes much of the book. It is not didactic but rather invites us to use the book and the processes described in it in ways that work best for us. It is also an accessible book. Most refreshingly, it is not burdened with unnecessary technical jargon and convoluted language that cripples too much writing in education today and makes learning inaccessible to many, particularly for those readers whose first language is not English.

The authors, Jean Koh Peters and Mark Weisberg are both Professors of Law, she from Yale and he from Queen’s University in Canada. Both have a strong, practical interest and commitment to teaching that is well demonstrated throughout the book, none the least from accounts of reflection retreats they have led for university teachers. It is in these retreats that this book is grounded and from which it has drawn its inspiration.

The six chapters are designed to help teachers construct for themselves ‘mini-retreats’ for reflection that they can work into their own lives. The book follows a clear, logical sequence that is firmly anchored in teaching and students rather than in the concept of reflection itself. I found this focus on teaching and students one of the most appealing characteristics of the book and one that leads to its very practical and relevant character.

Chapter 1 addresses the question ‘How does a teacher say hello?’ The authors point out that the many hellos we say – when we set the stage for teaching or when we meet students – send out clear signals of welcome or impatience, engagement or apathy, or of simply getting down to the business of learning. To help the reader with the importance of saying hello in teaching, the book then provides examples of hellos and helps us, through a series of questions, to reflect on the messages we send in our hellos.

Chapter 2 describes what the authors mean by reflection with suggestions for practice. Chapter 3 considers the skill of listening and draws the important distinction between the critical and often superficial listening so common in academic life with the deeper, open and less judgmental listening that is sorely needed in reflecting on good teaching and in our personal relationships.  The title of Chapter 4 asks ‘Who are our students and how and what do they learn in the classroom?’ and invites us to reflect on our own experiences as students. Chapter 4 goes some way beyond reflection into consideration of ways of facilitating better learning and it does so in ways that obliges us to reflect on our practice as teachers. Finally, Chapter 5, ‘The teacher and vocation’, reflects on some of deepest and most private fears of being a teacher, such as the fear of failure and appearing foolish.

 A teacher’s reflection book is a very practical and personal guidebook and a rich source of perspectives from which we are assisted to reflect on our teaching and on our personal lives more generally.

By way of conclusion it is important to return to the purposes of the book to assess its achievements. These purposes are to assist teachers in reflection events, either alone or with colleagues, by providing materials for prompting reflection. In my view, these purposes have been achieved very well indeed. I repeat my belief that this book deserves to be in every teacher’s library.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Acronymophilia: Another Disease of Development

Acronymophilia is a disorder suffered by technical and professional writers. It is characterised by an excess reliance on acronyms and abbreviations.

In international development work there is a huge number of acronyms of which UNICEF, UNESCO, USAID, DFAT, OECD and JICA are just a few.

In Australian education we have DUD, GRR, GREAT and NAPLAN. If you do not know what these mean, Google NSW Education Department acronyms for an explanation. 
Some acronyms seem to evolve on their own accord. 

They seem to descend on their authors with an inevitability suggesting that the hapless author has lost control and suffers from acronymophilia. Either that or some authors are stunningly naïve! 
To illustrate an extreme case of naïvety: the acronym considered here is taken from a scientific paper that begin with a consideration of carbon nanotubes, abbreviated as CNTs. 
Then someone comes along and develops copper nanotubes. 
Of course, copper nanotubes need their own acronym, don't they? 
Now, proceeding from the chemical symbol for carbon, C, in carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and then Cu for copper ... 
Yes!  There you have it, the inevitable acronym for copper nanotubes! 

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Five Diseases of Educational Development

You probably think that educational development is just some kind of theoretical idea, don’t you? 

Let me assure you it has life as it goes about its work of improving the quality of education. It experiences bouts of robust good health but also debilitating diseases like other living organisms. 

My first encounter with the idea of diseases in education was from an illuminating paper in 1996 by Stephen Abrahamson in a pioneering article titled Diseases of the Curriculum. Despite voluminous educational research since then, most diseases remain today.

What follows is a light-hearted discussion – with serious intent – of diseases in the field of educational development.

1. Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Those afflicted with Narcissistic Personality Disorder are self-centred, exaggerate their talents, set unrealistic goals and take advantage of others to achieve their goals. There is an inability to recognize or identify with the viewpoints of others – particularly those with specialist training and experience in the field of education such as teachers. Parents of the ‘amazing’, ‘deserving’ and ‘beautiful’ children found in most schools are chronic sufferers of a variation of NPD - Narcissistic Parent Disorder!

Almost everyone knows exactly how to manage education and how to teach. After all, they have attended school and know these things. Opinion pieces in the press illustrate Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the startling confidence journalists have in their own expertise in complex educational issues.

Ministers of Education suffer from this disease. It is transmitted instantly when a prime minster or premier allocates ministerial portfolios following an election. 

Astonishing, isn’t it, that no one has thought to do research into this instant acquisition of expertise? Think of the time and money to be saved on education if we could exploit the transmission of this disease. Instead of going to school and university, students could be inoculated with Narcissistic Personality Disorder to become instant experts. It adds a new dimension to the idea of the ‘inoculation theory of education’ described by Postman and Weingartner in their book Teaching as a Subversive Activity

2. Pragmatic Language Impairment 

This is a disorder where people face special challenges with the appropriate use of language. It is most commonly seen in the convoluted writing in academic journals.

Academics are often not clear in what they are communicating in their professional writing. Many are consumed by the need to use technical jargon. As my high school English teacher was fond of saying in sarcastic overtones, the word ‘jargon’ derives from late-middle English where it meant a twittering of birds or gibberish. 

Why do professional educators write such convoluted material that renders their work completely inaccessible to so many? At a time when attention is given to the idea of inclusion in education, far too much written English excludes potential audiences.

3. Blurred Vision

Sadly, Pragmatic Language Impairment coexists with Blurred Vision. This results in individuals and organisations not knowing where they are, where they are going, and completely incapable of asking for directions. 

Fifty years ago Blurred Vision was evident in the absurd idea that if only all teachers would use the overhead projector properly, the quality of education would improve. That disease appeared to have been cured with the demise of the overhead projector. Then it reappeared with vigour when PowerPoint, then personal computers, and now the Internet became powerful technological forces in education. 

A study by a team of researchers at Stanford University came out a few years ago. The investigators wanted to figure out how today’s university students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. How do they manage to do it, the researchers asked? The answer, they discovered – and this is by no means what they expected – is that they don’t. They too suffer from Blurred Vision!

In Australia today Blurred Vision is also apparent in the belief that spending more and more money on education will lead to better outcomes – despite evidence to the contrary.

4. Development Schizophrenia

Development Schizophrenia is the breakdown between thought and behaviour and withdrawal from reality.

How often do we ring our hands when league tables of children’s scores on international tests of mathematics, reading, and science are published showing Australia’s alleged decline? But we still allow curriculum time for these core subjects to be eroded by extra-curricular activities and socially ‘important’ issues of the day.

5. Development Diarrhoea

Finally, Development Diarrhoea is another disease of educational development worthy of mention. An incredible outpouring of books, articles and reports illustrates this disease. Not content to treat Development Diarrhoea, governments and educational institutions encourage it by demanding ever more reviews and reports, pouring larger amounts of money at it, and even promoting academic staff for the discharge of their efforts.

The second Gonski review on education funding is a current Australian example of this debilitating disease.


Humankind survived millennia without understanding diseases and their effective treatment. 

In today’s knowledge society it is no longer acceptable to plough on without a sound, research-based understanding of the processes of educational development. 

We seem to favour opinion over the evidence we do have and to allow education to be subject to the demands of vocal and powerful sectional interests at the expense of the longer-term interests of society as a whole. Is this another example of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

Friday, 2 June 2017

About Educational Meanderings...

Robert Cannon finds some policies and practices in education inspiring, some annoying, and some funny. There is a wealth of good practice in education that deserves to be shared among lecturers, teachers, administrators and the community.

So here he meanders among ideas, pokes fun at those developments that invite it, and  shares with those who work towards a better world through educational development.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are Robert's own and do not necessarily reflect those of  any other entity.