Archive for October, 2007

Been a bit of a hiatus in posting, because I have been so busy at work and the doctorate’s been sitting on the back burner a little. – I’ve also just had a tutorial with my supervisor about my first draft, which turned out to be quite an interesting discussion. The general drift of the conversation was about how I could perhaps look at where some of the ideas around university teaching are coming from. We discussed what’s sometimes called the “Sputnik Shock” of 1957 – essentially the West got a big wake up call when the Soviet Union successfully put a satellite into orbit. But having googled the phrase (I’m not that old!) it seems to have been as much about the realisation that a new age was dawning, as it was a feeling of being threatened. It’s tempting to make comparisons with the events of September 11, 2001, but I think the reaction to that was more about punctured complacency. After all, in the cold light of day that was little more than an extraordinary well executed terrorist plan, where all that was really new, was the scale of it.  I’m not sure it changed the world in the way that the launch of Sputnik did. Both generated fear and panic, but looking back at the reactions in 1957 there seemed to be a lot of hope as well. (Might be interesting to think about some other world changing events as well!)

But what does all this have to do with Educational Development Research? Well, Obviously there is a sense that “our” nation is getting left behind so we need more graduates, who will keep us technologically competitive. But that isn’t necessarily a sophisticated argument for more higher education.  Let’s face it, there are very few degrees (even at postgraduate level) where graduates are immediately qualified to practice in their area.  On the other hand, there is an emerging market of mid career professionals who are already practicing, but want to enhance their career. Is the pedagogical approach taken for this market likely to be the same as that for fresh faced 18 year olds straight out of school.  Arguably, the University has much to learn from them. I think I’ll have to return to this topic later though. It’s tempting to spend far too long blogging!

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Plato’s cave is, as I understand it a metaphor for our relationship with truth. While we’re in the cave we can only see shadows of the real world outside the cave, cast by the fire we have lit to keep warm. To reach the truth we must leave the warmth of the cave (or our illusions of the world) and face the cold hard truths of reality.

Except that we can’t can we? We can’t step into the same river twice. Well, arguably we can’t step into the same river once, for the water that passes as we decide to step into it is not the same water we actually do step into. And there is no practical point at which the water is still.  It seems that we still can’t be sure that we’ve not just moved into another cave where we can’t see the fire. So do we simply have to turn round and say at some point “Well, we must be satisfied with this reality”.  But surely this is a question of values. What is it about this reality that I value and you do not?  And where do values come from? Do they correspond to some external truth, or to my preferences for what I see and understand of the world.

Here’s a value story that made me think. Some weeks ago, I saw on the television an interview with a former concentration camp guard. His story (which I have no reason to doubt) was that he had not been involved in any of the murder and violence, but had mainly worked on processing the prisoners’ money and belongings. Indeed at first he had not realised what was going on and thought that this property would be returned to the prisoners in due course. When he did realise what was going on, he asked for a transfer to the front, which was refused so he continued to work in the camp, although still as a bureaucrat with no direct involvement in the mass murders that were going on. His interviewer asked him whether he felt guilty about his time in the camp, and he quite clearly said that he did not. The interviewer was shocked by this and pressed him to admit to feelings of guilt.

This raised several questions in my mind. Should the guard have felt guilty? What else could he have done? If his request for a transfer was refused should he have persisted. If he was refused again, what other options were open to him? Desertion? Suicide? What would his own death have achieved? I suppose he might have worked somehow to alleviate the lot of the prisoners, but what 19 year old is going to challenge a totalitarian state where life was quite obviously cheap? Was the interviewer right to press him to admit a guilt he claimed not to feel?  

But most of all if I or any modern person were to be sent back in time and placed in the same position, (and somehow returned to the same age as the guard was at the time) would I have behaved any differently? For myself, I  like to hope and believe that I would, but if I’m honest I can’t be absolutely sure of that. 

And that illustrates for me how hard it is to leave the cave. I’m pretty convinced that there is a reality external to us, and that it extends to intangible ideas of good and evil – which is why I used this example. Nobody would say that the guard “did good” surely. But I find it hard to condemn him as evil either (although there are clearly mitigating circumstances in this case, the interviewer had no doubt whatsoever about his guilt, and by implication, his own moral superiority. And I’m always worried by that kind of certainty. )

For me the story does illustrate how  slippery reality, especially socially constructed reality really is.  So where do we go from here.

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The nature of truth

A pretentious title if ever there was one! But, it is something I am going to have to address, if I am to write a convincing methodology chapter. Perhaps the question is “What characteristics of a proposition or phenomenon convince me that it is true”. But, then again, need I go into that? If I start with Cartesian doubt – (that I should be properly sceptical of everything except the fact that I exist – for, logically,  I must exist to think that  I am thinking) it doesn’t get me very far. Because, other than the cogito, I have no rational basis for believing that anything else is true. Empiricism would seem to be a better bet. Even if nothing is true, for all practical purposes, I can trust my senses. Hume’s remark about being free to leave by the window (from the third floor!) if I really didn’t believe in an objective reality seems to me a better guide to what course of action to take. Whether the world really exists or not, isn’t really relevant, because we all have to operate within it and we have a sufficiently shared perception of it to identify appropriate courses of action.

But there’s still a weakness. What I am interested in is other people’s interpretations of an empirical reality, because that provides a better guide to how they act than the actual reality itself. If you believe there is a mouse under the table you will act as though there is a mouse under the table, even if there is not. Human beings disagree about many things, especially in the social world. Which party has the better economic policy? What is beautiful?   I can certainly listen to their descriptions, although they may mislead me. (Especially if they are misleading themselves.)  Take the expresssion “That’s a good film, album, TV show, or whatever”. All I can conclude from that is that the speaker is saying is that they liked whatever it was, and perhaps that they would expect me to like it as well, were I to see or hear it. There’s nothing inherently “good” about it. It all depends on the extent to which I share their values, and empricism seems less helpful here.  So a good strategy for a future post will be to articulate my own values.

In the context of the research I can look at what others have done, how they organise their workspace, but here I can only use my interpretations of why they have done those things. In looking at the output of an EDU (let’s call it x) I can think “Why would I have done x?” and compare it with their answer to the question “Why did you do x“. But do these approaches help with predicting whether, and why another person (z) might do x in the future?  Maybe not, but they do help to arrive at an explanation, which informs why x was done in that spatial and temporal context.  Is that enough?

Even this little post is helpful because it is pointing me towards the case study as a research method. If I believe that my perception reality is heavily influenced by my values, then I am clearly going to have problems with a quantitative approach because I would be deciding what is worth measuring, which may not reflect objective reality. Also of course, I’d be attaching values to particular scores. (for example, a high percentage of whatever I measured, is better than a low percentage.)  

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