Teaching Tricky Topics

Teaching tricky topics developed from our JuxtaLearn research a year or so back, and this January the Open University (OU) Institute of Educational Technology (IET) had a stall at the BETT 2017 show. The first part of the JuxtaLearn process helped teachers to analyse why students didn’t understand a topic, “I don’t get what they don’t get” is the typical teacher remark as students struggle to understand a new concept.As a result of that research, the OU along with Oxford University is putting together a process for teacher development to analyse the stumbling blocks to learning a topic and to assess how well a teacher’s consequent learning intervention works. It has three steps:

  • Identify
  • Capture
  • Assess

all explained in detail at http://tricky-topics-guide.ac.uk/the-tricky-topics-guide/.

When we were researching, I used the results as we worked to reflect on my computing students’ problems with object-oriented programming – I was applying what is now the Identify step. As a consequence of that research, I came better to understand what concepts were causing my students to stumble, and anticipating those problems, to provide tutorials that helped them over the blockages.

This teaching tricky topics is a very powerful process for a teacher. It would be great to work through it with a module team designing a new module, a fitting impact of the JuxtaLearn research .





What are the best things about research?

Researching means you’re always learning and finding something new, and it’s something you’re passionate about.  You can become immersed in research; it’s your pastime, your passion. Weekend reading and writing isn’t work but something you want to do, that you relax with.  Being a researcher is not a superficial profession, but something that feeds your inquisitiveness, offering variety and something new.  You connect with the wider population when you write and publish and it’s great when you do get published because that’s affirmation of your work.  Your research answers questions and you ask new questions and get to change something.

Decades ago, a poem from DH Lawrence influenced my hopes for work.  It’s here in a blog called Ratiocinativa.

There is no point in work
unless it absorbs you
like an absorbing game.

If it doesn’t absorb you
if it’s never any fun,
don’t do it.

I’ve taught in a variety of places, programmed computers for several organisations and done voluntary work, but most of all, I enjoyed researching for my PhD – I’d almost do one again.  Now I enjoy researching with colleagues – the collaborative aspect makes the work even more enjoyable.  Lucky me.

Engaging research and team work

Post doc research means you must work with others, unlike a lonely PhD.  This morning, we spent a couple of hours on a Skype call  in a project team meeting discussing writing a joint document. I thought I had problems writing my PhD thesis, but now imagine writing documents between more than a dozen of you from six or seven academic institutions, from several countries, with different languages, getting the right version of the document, updating without overwriting your colleagues’ work. Those are just the practicalities, never mind the different styles of writing.

Team work was not what I had to do for my PhD.  That was a lonely path.  But now, I work with a team of researchers. Although I no longer have the autonomy and total responsibility for my sole project, I enjoy working with other people. l am happy to learn to adapt and improve my writing style to write with others, and I share with others the difficulties of getting access to data. And share blogs.  Hence at Storyboards and Tricky Topics, three or four of us have been writing about the JuxtaLearn research project and about engaging research.

We want to get other people (teachers, students, researchers) interested in the JuxtaLearn research, engaged enough to try JuxtaLearning in their schools, and to blog about it or comment on blogs, but what interests a researcher may not interest other people. How do you get other people interested in your research?

Efficiency learned

Researching is so hard and takes so long. I used to spend weeks preparing research.  When I applied for PhD places, in 2005 and 2006, I spent a week at a time preparing my proposals for research.  Usually the form asked for how it fitted in with existing literature but I had no idea, neither about the literature nor where to find it.  Now, some years later, I listen to experienced academics discussing prospective research, a research quest to propose and contacts to network with for access.  How sophisticated!

When I started the Masters in Research, I had no idea about academic journals, what they offered or where to find them.  Yet I’ve just completed a systematic literature search of a business topic within days!  What happened? I learned:

  • about different sources of information
  • relevant academic sources
  • how to search
  • how to keep an audit trail of my search

The technology helps.  There are now

  • academic databases
  • citation software
  • analysis software

These all help a researcher work as quickly as the ideas flow, without any hold up to visit some distant library to find a tome,  methodically write  notes and copy details.  Douglas Coupland in the FT says we’re “rebuilding our neural structures”.  When it comes to researching the literature, I’ve rebuilt mine .

Specifying a performance palette

The JuxtaLearn project requires us to specify performance factors for video-making of tricky STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) topics that students are learning. The idea is that first the teacher gives a lesson on the topic, and then the students collaboratively create a video to explain the topic themselves. So there’s this juxtaposition between the perceived dryness of STEM subjects and the creativity of performance. And the learning comes as they grapple with the concept, find the words – perhaps new words –  to explain it to each other, and to find a creative means of explaining it more widely in a performance format – i.e. a video.

So how do we set up a system to support a school or university in making such videos?  I shared initial ideas with colleagues (see the performance specification video at https://vimeo.com/82879649) and got some feedback.   After adapting slightly, I’ve uploaded  some ideas at slideshare.net at ….

Does this make sense to other readers?

Obliged to blog?

I blog without obligation, as and when I’ve something to blog about.  During my PhD, blogging started me writing, recording the process, thoughts and ideas that sometimes were worth remembering,   Now, at post-doc, it’s different.

One reason it’s different is that post-doc research isn’t lonely, not a one-man job like a PhD is, but team-work, so thoughts and ideas can be, nay, must be shared, with team members, and loneliness no longer provides that need to blog to someone, anyone in the world who might know something about your topic and be interested enough to reply.

Another reason that makes blogging different post-PhD is that being team work, it’s not for one person to make public what is the team’s effort.  For example, I’m on an EU project called JuxtaLearn, and its news and progress is recorded on its website at http://juxtalearn.org/joomla/.  The initial news as the project started was available on the various university web sites, such as the Open University’s Institute of Educational Technology at http://www.open.ac.uk/iet/main/research-innovation/research-projects/juxtalearn and http://www3.open.ac.uk/media/fullstory.aspx?id=23649. Gradually more partners are posting news about progress, such as the SME partner, Catcher Media, and the JuxtaLearn website will have news items and a blog .

I’ve got work to think through and develop for this project – I have to write guidelines to making a JuxtaLearn video performance – step 4 of the process that you can see in this diagram.  Image

I’ve started discussing these guidelines with some team members, but a team of European universities (in Spain, Portugal, Germany, Sweden & the UK) and an English SME is spread far and wide.   Now guidelines must be read by people who need guiding, and I need to know they work before giving them out as definitive, so I’m going to be blogging these guidelines.  Whether I blog here, or on the JuxtaLearn site, is not yet clear.  But now that I have something to blog about. I’ll let you know.

PhD: a waste of time, money and energy?

Two years after completing my PhD, I compare work with expectations. Several fellow PhD students went on to teach, though that stints their opportunities to research and publish. If you like teaching, carry on. But some don’t want to teach.

One of my colleagues, having taught for a couple of years did some interesting work though a voluntary position (the Olympic games), presented her findings at conferences, and has now got a research position, but as self-employed. Another sadly, was rejected for a Research Associate position and having no renewed teaching contract, right now doesn’t know what to do for a job. She assesses doing a PhD as a waste of time, money and energy so far.

I don’t think the PhD was a waste of money, time and energy for me. I had a scholarship, which was worth a lot, so I was prepared to invest my time and energy on the learning process. Mind you, the way I would have earned it, teaching ICT in a local school would have required a lot more energy and driven me to a nervous breakdown. In fact, now I have skills that I would like to go back to the school with and share with my students: public speaking, the use of technology in the classroom such as getting them to use their phones to photograph the board or record discussions, research skills such as searching on line for information. But I am not going back to a secondary school classroom. I’ll plod on with what I’m doing. You know, some people do two PhDs, and I know that if I could get the funding again, in a fun subject, then I’d seriously consider doing that!
But on the other hand, now I find I enjoy working with others in a research team and learning collaborative skills, collaboratively.