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General

Writing the Grant, Making the Sale

My mission for today – and tomorrow if it takes that long – is to incorporate feedback from three people (Peter Mahaffy, Chris Bigum and Bob Breakspere – thanks all) on the 10 page project description for the ARC Discovery grant I’m applying for and polish those 10 pages until they glow.

This is a revision of an application that was unsuccessful last year, and we’ve already addressed, in substantive terms, all the things that were criticised by the assessors last time. We’ve also successfully published a lot more of the work from our previous study, which is important to establishing that we’re productive and collaborative.

So I think the application has a good chance – in a program with a 20% overall success rate where it’s very hard to get education projects funded at all – but without a well written description of the study, it’s hard to shand out from the perhaps 100 applications each panel member will have to read.

Looking at it now, I can see the problems with how the description was written last time. In brief, it’s too much like an academic paper, when it needs to be much more like a newspaper article. The first paragraph, rather than establishing the distant background, needs to tell the whole story and convince the reader “I must recommend that this study be funded!”, and then the rest of the 10 pages is about offering evidence that supports him/her in that conclusion.

At the moment there’s way too much background, and it’s necessary to dig too deep and read too long to get to the aims and outcomes of the project. Probably too many references and too much literature review, too… need to clear that away to provide the space to explain more about the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the study.

I’m confident I can do it, but it requires being willing to hack and slash – as they say, writing is rewriting.

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General

Nobel (the prize guy) invented dynamite…

… and this ten year old may have invented a successor:

http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/thinking-tech/10-year-old-student-accidentally-discovers-explosive-new-molecule/10221

Lots of work to do to find out whether the model is even stable in molecular-world (as opposed to model-world), but kind of a cool story.

Perhaps we need to do more unleashing kids to create… with materials (digital or otherwise) that encode the constraints of the real world (e.g. the holes in the molecular model pieces that represent bonds). We might be surprised.

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General

Critical Thinking as Guitar Solo

(As promised a few days ago) I was thinking a bit about critical thinking: about what it’s good for, and why sometimes I relish it and sometimes it annoys me. I guess I’m talking about when other people do it: it’s a tool I personally tend to use either when I think it’s appropriate (and therefore am unlikely to be able to judge my use inappropriate), or for fun, ironically, just playing. The latter mode is close to what Cassie refers to ‘over-thinking things’, and she and I can riff for half an hour on some minor observation.

The analogy that occurred to me is guitar solos in songs. Some music styles are replete with them (if you dig back through the archives you can find my review of an Yngwie Malmsteen show that was a bit over-stuffed for my taste!), other styles eschew them altogether, or use other instruments, or… you know what I mean. But here I’m talking about the kinds of music in which a guitar solo might be expected to make an appearance.

Here’s the key point: solos that are about showing off the player’s technique leave me cold. Solos that serve the song, I enjoy.

I probably don’t need to belabor the analogy, but I will anyway: stating the bleeding obvious is one of the services I offer1.

Critical thinking that is about showing off the thinker’s technique leaves me cold, critical thinking in the service of {to be discussed}, I enjoy.

The service of what, though? Other values, other goals: in particular, social justice. I’m not sure that we can arrive at a position of valuing social justice – fairness, equity, a fair go, inclusion, economic justice and so on – using the tools of critical thinking. I think those tools are powerful for challenging assertions but less powerful for building them. But once we choose our commitments, critical thinking is a toolset that can enable us to carry them out more effectively2.

Of course, these judgements are not so easy to make from outside. Eric Clapton can say a lot with very few notes, but that’s technique too – it’s just a less flashy, obvious form than million-mile-an-hour-two-hand-tapping-pinch-harmonics-all-over-the-neck. On the other hand, while some find Yngwie’s technique too flashy, most of the time (at least in his own songs) it serves the song rather than existing for its own sake.

When we’re thinking critically, perhaps leaving hints about what the thinking is serving will help others make these judgements. But impressing others really isn’t the point: it’s about using the skills we have to do the things we think are worthwhile to do3.

  1. And, of course, as the ‘Thinking that way’ post below indicates, I’m not always a good judge of what’s obvious, and what’s obvious to me may well not be to others, so I’ll probably keep doing it – at least until someone tells me to stop.
  2. It’s also a toolset with the potential to paralyse us: I love the phrase ‘paralysis of analysis’ (but hate the reality). Once the critical thinking is done, conclusions (perhaps tentative and temporary) need to be reached and we need to get our hands dirty and actually do something.
  3. I wanted to end there but there’s one more thing to say: technique, skill and the ability to serve, in both soloing and critical thinking, come with practice. They’re hard-earned, hard-won skills that take a lifetime to master and constant use to keep, not something picked up for amusement on a rainy afternoon and soon discarded. And perhaps it’s what we serve that keeps us coming back to practice when our fingers or synapses are sore?

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General

How ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ gets torture badly, dangerously wrong

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/taibblog/zero-dark-thirty-is-osama-bin-ladens-last-victory-over-america-20130116

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General

Thinking that way

As those who follow me on Facebook will now, I recently returned to playing golf, after a gap of … well, about 30 years! I used to play golf – and sail – for sport at school, which makes my schooling sound much posher than it really was.

Alex’s partner, Peter, has been my faithful golf buddy, and it’s excellent to have someone to play golf with: pretty lonely pursuit playing solo.

Peter, who is definitely better than me, having played much more recently, has been helping me with my swing, and I think I’m getting better.

I said “Ah, so you want all the acceleration to happen in the beginning of the swing, and the club head to be travelling at constant velocity at the moment of impact, so the momentum of the club head is what does the work on the ball…!”

…and he just looked at me blankly and a bit quizzically. Oh, yeah, that’s right – he doesn’t really speak that language or think in those terms.

(If I’d been playing with Cassie or her partner Crank, or even Alex, they’d have totally known what I was talking about!)

It’s nothing to do with education, or intelligence: Peter has just completed a degree in International Relations, in which he was on the Dean’s List in most semesters, and is currently working on a Masters. He’s very bright, and very well read and well informed… he just doesn’t speak physics!

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General

Unboxing

One of the oddest things I’ve run across on YouTube (and yeah, that’s in a pretty odd field!) is ‘unboxing’ videos, in which the simple opening and unwrapping of the newest fetishized consumer good becomes a ritual in itself.

Here’s a recent example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2W8npY62Nhs

Maybe if I was a better person the objects themselves would upset me… but they don’t, and I’ll probably be getting an iPhone 5 myself soon (but I did skip both the 4 and 4s, so I’m well and truly safe from tr00 fanboi status).

But these little rituals…

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{Begins Scheming…}

Software developer ‘Bob’ outsources own job to China and whiles away shifts on cat videos

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Is It Just Me?

…or is there something deeply wrong and bizarre about the fact that the churches are fighting for their right to discriminate?

‘God loves everyone’… but apparently is very picky about who he employs.

The moral bankruptcy is breathtaking.

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Open Teaching

Open Teaching, Right Here, Right… … In About A Month

I’m inspired by this post from P Z Myers, in which he talks about posting his lecture materials on his blog:

One thing I’m considering doing differently…I might post summaries of lectures and discussion topics here, if time allows. Public exposure of all the stuff that usually goes on behind the doors of the classroom? I don’t know if the world is ready for that.

http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/01/13/did-you-have-to-remind-me/

I don’t start teaching for another couple of weeks, but I think I might share the experiment. I’m teaching two (or three, depending on numbers) classes this semester, but will just do it for one of them. It’s called ‘Teaching and Learning in the Middle Years’, and focuses on helping beginning teachers understand some theories and practices around education for adolescents (the ‘middle years’ tend to be about Grades 6-9, though I have seen it defined as widely as 4-10). I think an audience of smart non-specialists (and some specialists) might quite enjoy a window on the classroom.

Basically, I’ll link to the PowerPoint slideshows I use, probably on Slideshare, and talk a little bit in a post after each week’s ‘lecture’ about what we did apart from what you can gather from the slides.

I might also post a bit about what activities I plan for the tutorials, and how those go.

Just an experiment in openness, that I hope people will find interesting – and in turn, that will enable me to get feedback, questions and challenges that will help to improve my teaching.

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Younger Than Me

Kind of random – just logging in to Griffith Uni through the home page, and my eye snagged on the words ‘Established 1971’.

That’s right, I’m older than the uni I work at…

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General

#science

Fun article collecting scientists’ tweets about what it’s (sometimes) really like in the lab:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2013/jan/10/scientists-twitter-methods

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General

Small Worlds: Must Play

I often say ‘Is it or isn’t it?’ (e.g. art, science, learning, science fiction) questions are the least interesting ones.

In this case, ‘Is it or isn’t it a game?’ is a relevant question, but it’s more fun just to play this very cool, simple, free Flash-based… thing.

http://www.rathergood.com/content/small_worlds/small_worlds.swf

For best impact use the game’s music and sound. Very easy to play, even for non-gamers, though the jumping puzzles might test you a bit.

It’s all about exploration and discovery.

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General

Best and Worst Study Techniques

Good, brief article on what works and what doesn’t in terms of learning.

http://ideas.time.com/2013/01/09/highlighting-is-a-waste-of-time-the-best-and-worst-learning-techniques/

I’d add the caveat that people are different and what works best for some will be less effective for others, but there are good general guidelines here.

The underlying principles are that multiple exposures over time are better than a single exposure, and that processing information is better than simply consuming it.

Here’s a link to a page with a blurb and links to the main review article: http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/journals/pspi/learning-techniques.html

And here’s a link to the review article itself: http://psi.sagepub.com/content/14/1/4.full.pdf+html?ijkey=Z10jaVH/60XQM&keytype=ref&siteid=sppsi

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Dopamine Junkie 2: Gamification and School

This post leads on from yesterday’s, which was prompted by the idea that playing computer games (including on consoles) to some extent rewires the brains of players to function on more-frequent successes, which release dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter.

In the article I was drawing on, that was seen as a Bad Thing, and I think many in education would regard it similarly. I think there are points on both sides, but it is what it is… do we resist, or take an ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ approach?

I’d love to write a more essay-like attempt, but this is presenting itself to me as a list instead, so here goes. Using bullet points rather than numbers because there is no logical flow of argument built up: individual points may well contradict other points. Just a bunch of reflections:

  • Not everyone games, and not everyone games in the same way, to the same extent, on the same kinds of games and so on. Any approach to changing schooling would need to be much less factory-model than most ‘innovations’ we do these days. On the other hand…
  • Changing school so that there are more small successes that build up in a transparent way toward major successes would help everyone, not just gamers. As just one example, one of the reasons more affluent students do better is that they are better at delayed gratification. While delayed gratification is one of the things school can teach, it needs to be built up to and scaffolded, not just assumed. Or, as it happens now, schools turning into filtering mechanisms that systematically select in those already advantaged and select out those already disadvantaged.
  • ‘Gamification’ is not ‘trivialisation’ or ‘dumbing down’: it can teach exactly the same knowledge and skills as are taught now, but even more effectively and to even more students, if it’s done right.
  • Part of the problem with having a discussion of this kind is the first point above: not everyone games, and not everyone plays the same kinds of games. What I have in mind are role playing games (RPGs) – things like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale and Dragon Age are good examples but there are plenty. Borderlands, which I’m playing at the moment, is a shooter combined with RPG elements, and so on. These games are better models for a gamification of schooling than either straight-up action shooters (from Quake and Doom to Medal of Honour and Call of Duty) or strategy games (from Age of Empires through to DOTA and Starcraft). The example I gave yesterday gives the sense: small missions on which success can be gained, and the building up of experience points (XP) until it’s possible to ‘level up’ to the next level. Often on leveling up there are ‘skill points’ to be spent to build up particular skills, and choices to be made between, for example, creating a more hulking soldier, a spell-wielding mage, a healing cleric or a sneaky, skilled rogue… and whether to focus the rogue on lock-picking or trap detection, for example.
  • To some extent, if people have both played these games and been to school, the mapping across from one to the other can be left as an exercise for the student… and without both those experiences it’s almost impossible to explain.

So, bottom line, I guess… get on to Steam (google it if you’re not a gamer) and acquire a quality RPG! (I can recommend ‘Dragon Age: Origins’ as a very good gateway drug without high computer requirements, and it’s only $19.99 at the moment.) Without playing it, you’re not really in any position to understand future education!

I think there’s interesting work to be done, and maybe this is something I can read up on and think through, and apply for some money to do some research on later. For now, it’s just fun to think about!

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General

A Decade of Decadence

Tomorrow, January 11, is my boardday. It will be the tenth anniversary of the date I joined the William Gibson Board discussion forum/family.

I’m ‘Bravus’, my ‘nom de web’, over there.

Here’s the most populous section of the board, to give you a sense. Have a look at the post counts in some of the threads… including some I started.

http://williamgibsonboard.com/eve/forums/a/frm/f/2866012481

As of today I have made 16,174 posts…

I’ve met a number of these people in person, but that’s not at all what decides whether or not they’re friends: I have lots of friends who I’ve only ever encountered on the board, too.

It’s been something that has contributed to the development of my thinking over that decade, and I can say quite confidently that I would be a different person today without those friendships and those connections and conversations.

It’s not a mode of communication for everyone, but for me, it’s an amazing way of talking about ideas, which is, IMO, one of the things in which RealLifeTM is all too frequently lacking.

I look forward to many more years…

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General

Dopamine Junkie 1: Gamification and Academic Publishing

As I left the house this morning, Suzie said “Never seen you work so hard in your life!” She might be right: been getting in to the office between 6 and 7 most mornings and not getting out before 6 or 7 most evenings last week and this week. What she said, along with something I read recently, got me thinking about why.

What I read was one of those ‘the youth of today doom society!’ type articles – which I read only to mock. 😀 It said ‘Gaming transforms brain chemistry and makes boys into dopamine junkies with its frequent rewards’. Hmm… Sounds dodgy but with a kernel of plausibility. I’ve been playing ‘Borderlands’ lately, and loving it, and certainly the time vanishes. There are frequent missions, and rewards for finishing those – (game) cash and experience points that enable me to ‘level up’, but also just the feeling of satisfaction. So yeah, I guess I can see that.

Tomorrow’s post will be ‘Dopamine Junkie 2: Gamification and School Education’, and will look at some of the implications for schools, but I thought I’d look in the mirror a bit first.

I’m going to talk about the three universities at which I’ve been an academic, and I mean no disrespect to any of them. One was a less-perfect match for me, but it’s not them, it’s me… 😀

At the University of Alberta in Canada where I started my career1 the main currency was ‘increments’ – steps up the salary (and esteem) scale. If you did your job poorly, you wouldn’t get one at all. If you did an average job, just up to normal expectations, you would get 1.0 increment a year, at least until you reached the top of the scale for your current rank. It was also possible to get 1.5 or 2.0 increments in a year, though, for exceptional performance. That is, there were annual rewards available for achievement. I managed a 2.0 in one of the five years I was there, but never got less than a 1.5: which meant that in 5 years I got 8 years worth of pay rises. Got promoted to Associate Professor, too.

To come back to Australia, where the ranking system is a bit different, I dropped back from Associate Professor to Senior Lecturer, with the hope of making the promotion back to Associate Professor in the Australian system in a few years. At the University of Queensland, the standards for publication are high, but there are few tangible rewards: promotion comes, when it does come, in rather obscure ways, and seems to be much more in the gift of the committee than a matter of meeting particular targets. During my time there the rules changed, and a number of other things happened, which meant I published a lot less, despite working very hard. I did other things I was told would be good for promotion, but without the publications, promotion just doesn’t happen – and I’d have been better off to turn down some of the other things and focus on that. There was no real way of keeping score – the message was always ‘do more, do more!’, and then some congratulations to the school for doing well… but always linked with more demands to do more. No doubt there were rewards to be had, but as I say, they seemed to be much less directly linked to achievements. I’m sure many of my colleagues are prospering and enjoying life there, and I’m pleased I worked there, but I also have no regrets about moving on.

Oh yeah, one other UQ thing: on the annual performance review, there are only two possible outcomes. ‘Satisfactory’ and ‘not satisfactory’. In the absence of ‘Freaking awesome: high five bro!’, I would at least have liked there to be an ‘above average’, ‘excellent’ and ‘exceptional’ level, or something.

At Griffith, there is an online publications system, where publications are posted and recognised as soon as they come out, and just that little piece of recognition and score-keeping in itself works well for me: it gives me those little ‘mission complete’ shots of dopamine to add a new publication to the system. I’m currently champing at the bit for them to open it up for 2013 publications, because I already have a few bits ‘in press’ that can be uploaded now and submitted when they come out. Just this in itself works better for me than a process in which publications are only seen at the annual review…

There are also more tangible rewards. For publishing a certain number of papers, with different expectations for different ranks, the School offers cash (well, at least, money in an account that can be used for conference travel, academic books and such). There’s, at my rank, $2000 for 3 publications of certain kinds in a year, with the possibility of a second $2000 for a second 3 publications – and I got the whole $4000 in my first year at Griffith (which was actually only 5 months). That’s a very direct dopamine rush/achievement/cash/experience points result. It’s, effectively, gamification – play the game well, get rewarded.

(UQ gives automatic conference funding to academics – for a national conference and an international one in alternate years – that is not linked to performance. When I initially saw that Griffith does not give conference funding I was worried… but I don’t think it’s going to be an issue!)

There are different forms of ‘Level Up’ available, too. I’m meeting with the Head of School today to discuss my promotion application for Associate Professor, which is finally imminent – if not this year, next year.

But, beyond that, the Griffith Institute for Educational Research, of which I’m a member, has four levels of membership. Those who are not ‘research active’ in Griffith’s terms (that is, have published less than 6 articles in a 6 year period) are Associate Members of the Institute. Those who reach research active status are full Members. Already made it to that level (7 publications in 1 year will do that). There are also the Fellow (10 publications and some other stuff) and Senior Fellow (15 publications and more stuff) levels available: I’m hoping to hit both of those this year, but if not will definitely make Fellow this year and Senior Fellow next.

As I say, it’s not a matter of ‘which university’s system is better’ in absolute terms, it’s about ‘which university’s system is better for me’: and it turns out that this one seems to be working… which means I’m working hard.

  1. Well, there was a postdoc and a couple of other bits and pieces, but that was my first serious academic appointment where I was measured by the standards of an academic.

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General

Creationism… with bunnies … and (possibly) a duck

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2011/11/think-outside-the-box-the-cutest-response-to-creationism-ever.html

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General

Chess Hustlers and Life

A lovely and fascinating piece of writing, via my New York correspondent Alex Belisle:

http://www.humansofnewyork.com/post/32011671113/the-chess-hustler

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General

Science and Politics

This Pharyngula article, like the Nature article it critiques, is set in the American context, but the Australian experience is similar:

http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/01/05/science-is-partisan/

Scientists can and do reach out to all sides of politics – right up to the point where to reach further would be to deny science. The fact that one side of politics has, in the past couple of decades, embarked on a strong anti-science and anti-reality stance means that with the best will in the world, scientists will find more in common with the other party.

(As in the US, neither party is perfect.)

The call for better mutual understanding is great, and scientists can look at what they can do, but in large part it is not they who have walked away…

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Ben Kotzee on Constructivism and Teaching

I found this one because he cites me, but that’s not why you should read it. 😉 I enjoyed it a lot. It’s interesting even for those who aren’t teachers, since it talks about knowledge, truth and relativism, with some lovely imagined dialogues to illustrate the points made.

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14748460.2010.487340