Sunday, 11 August 2013

I'm no longer writing anything here. I have started using wordpress instead:

Saturday, 20 July 2013

In defence of PCET teacher ed

am no longer updating this blog, but have re-posted everything on ed/  

This is the text of a short opinion piece to appear in In-tuition, the PCET professional journal published by the Institute for Learning.  

The relationship between standards in education and public anxiety about those standards is perverse. When reliable data shows that one is improvingthe other still rises inexorably.  It was therefore heartening to read in the IfL's In-Tuition journal that a few further education providers have recently managed to secure an outstanding OfSTED grade for their teaching and learning. These exceptions are celebrated.

Yet, I found it hard to believe that OfSTED had not seen a single instance of outstandingteaching and learning in any of the visits they conducted between 2010 and 2012I see fewer teachers than OfSTED.During that time observed several who were outstanding. I also saw more than a few who were clearly on their way to becoming outstanding. There were less than a handful who required me to draw upon all the tact, diplomacy and sensitivity I could  muster when planning my feedback. What I didn't see were teachers who when placed in the right environment - one that is supportive, intellectually stimulating and conducive to their well being -  did not surprise and inspire me by the progress they made.

There is another uncomfortable truth about quality and standards in education. These tricky, fiddly little things present themselves as objective but are actually much more complicated. The public's anxiety about what education's errant middle child gets up to isn't helped by this complexityDespite the proliferation of good practice guidelines, frameworks,research evidence and inspection what quality is and how to achieve it remains contested. In 1956  the philosopher W. B. Gallie, addressing the Aristotelian Societycoined the term 'essentially contested concept' to define thoseundetermined but unanimously agreed as desirable goals - like art, fairness and truth. We all want them, but can't agree on how to define or achieve themGallie was interested in art, but the same difficulty applies to outstanding teaching.

I am hesitant in drawing on OfSTED to defend initial teacher education.  In their view, there is scope for the sector to improve the quality teaching and learning.  This is not the only legitimate view. But, it is a powerful one that governmentshould take seriously.

There are other authorities with a view on initial teacher educationPublished on the same day as the Lingfield Report,the BIS review into the impact of the 2007 regulations is an interesting read.  Anyone who spends time with recently qualified teachers will recognise the conclusions they draw: those who complete their PGCE or Cert Ed benefitenormously. They grow in confidence; their ability to use different teaching methods to support learners is enhanced;  their professional aspirations are raised. Regulated qualifications establish further education teaching as a worthwhilecareer and creates an environment within which professionalism may flourish.

In the five years since the revised qualification pathway was introduced, colleges have recorded year on year improvements in learner achievement. This is hardly surprising. Their OfSTED profile depends on it. Evidencing a causal(rather than correlativelink between teaching qualifications and learner outcomes – is a tricky processWhat is evident is that a regulated sector is an improving sector.  

Public anxiety about quality and standards in education - exaggerated by politicians and stoked by the press - is often misplaced.  There is good reason to believe that qualified teachers are a necessity if more further education providers are to join the select few in achieving the most desirable grades within the common inspection framework.

Dr Carol Azumah Dennis

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Improving Adult Literacy Instruction: Options for Research and Practice,

National Research Centre, Improving Adult Literacy Instruction: Options for Research and Practice,
Committee on Learning Sciences: Foundations and Applications to Adolescent and Adult Literacy
(Eds) Alan Lesgold, and Welch-Ross, Melissa
The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.; 2012
ISBN 978-0-309-21959-4;   504 pages
Paperback $65
Also accessible free pdf from:

Reviewed by Carol Dennis

Improving Adult Literacy offers what every teacher with an interest in improving the life chances of those who have benefited least from state education longs for: a definitive evidence-based guide on effective literacy teaching.  It is an ambitious text that to some extent achieves what it sets out to do, to a) synthesise research on literacy and learning and b) draw implications for the instructional practices used to teach reading in adult literacy programme and c) recommend a more systematic approach to research policy and practice.

The text covers over 400 densely packed pages (including 250 pages of citations and references) and after offering an initial brief chapter that contextualises the report, the authors trawl through and bring together an impressive range of studies that provide a credible empirical foundation to the pedagogues associated with teaching adult literacy, curricular design, barriers to learning, uses of technology, disability and language development in multi-lingual speakers. 

The book is written by US practitioners with an American audience in mind and this is reflected in (amongst other things) the language the writers use.  The linguistic style is refreshingly upbeat - what is recognisable to a British readership as a section on ‘barriers to learning’ is phrased ‘motivation, engagement and persistence'.  The chapter focuses then not on reasons why adults may not attend classes in a fashion that suits the retention rates of organisation, but rather on the social and psychological determinates of persistence in learning.  I like the concept of persistence. It spills over and beyond retention and takes the learner’s start and end point; a persistent learner may start three or four different courses before completing any one of them - their learning will continue throughout this time. This is quite unlike retention that measures an institutions’ course start and end dates and the learners who are present and correct for both.  Persistence is a more learner-centred and meaningful.  

Novice and experienced practitioners should read and re-read this book. For some, there will be the shock of recognition.  We may appreciate the text’s reminder that although reading and writing have at times been thought of as and therefore taught (most certainly tested) as separate language skills, they depend on similar knowledge and cognitive processes (p53). Insights gained in one area can lead to insights into the other.  What is particularly useful is that the text provides a series of references to explore and elaborate upon. There are prosaic reminders, ‘literacy, or cognition, cannot be understood fully apart from the contexts in which they develop (p25) is followed by detailed references to Street (1984), Heath (1983), Lave and Wenger (1981) and Scribner and Cole (1981). Anyone who follows a few of these referenced sources will find their views on literacy and how to teach it changed, challenged or deepened.

Any teacher (or teacher trainer) tentatively approaching this terrain for the first time is invited to read, try it out and then re-read. The text may well settle a few long standing arguments. The writers reassure us that specific reading and writing difficulties do not necessarily require qualitatively different teaching (p103) or decontextualised interventions that target general cognitive / sensory processing - balancing beams, coloured lenses, brain retraining (p57). Instead the writers advise approaches to teaching that adapt existing approaches to ensure that they are more explicit and systematic, that they are supportive of transfer and enable extensive practice. This is reassuring.  A range of learner needs that at first glance may appear mysterious and daunting, is firmly established as manageable.

This is a good, densely packed read that deserves to be on all our shelves. It draws in a condensed form on a similar body of knowledge to that covered by the NRDC who get a good mention (p90). And, best of all, it is available as a free download:  (above biblio notes for link)

I do have some reservations about this book. It very clearly emerges from a policy context that is quite unlike that of the UK. Understanding policy and pedagogy in the United States is made complex by the existence of multiple legislative levels - federal, state and district. Uniformity and the  monolithic 'one-size-fits-all' approach to improving practice so familiar to teachers in England, is more difficult in the states as federal policies are diluted, diffused and disrupted by state and district level legislators, only to be further adapted to suit the actualities of teaching and learning by institutions.  The text then pulls and pushes in opposite directions. For readers in the UK, it is a reminder that There Is An Alternative. The highly prescriptive centralisation of ‘outstanding, good, requires improvement’ teaching that we by now accept as normal, are not how practitioners in the USA teach.

The text provides sound theory and empirical evidence which helps establish this fluidity in approach to what good teaching requires if it is to become outstanding teaching. That is, an appreciation that effective pedagogy is thoroughly and completely contextualised. 'Literacy, and cognition, can not be understood fully apart from the contexts in which it develops', (p25).  Pedagogy is motivating when instructional practices are embedded in meaningful activities, (p34). Adult learners are heterogeneous. Pedagogues need to be varied according to learning goals, skills, interests, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, (p238).

The implications of this contingency is not taken seriously enough by the writers (in my view). They seem to yearn for the centralisation and uniformity of England's policy making.  It will be interesting to see whether their polity allows this.

Carol Dennis

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Kate, Pahl and Roswell, Jennifer (2012) Literacy and Education, Sage: London, 2nd edition - for Journal for the Education of Teachers - Jan 2013
It is refreshing to read a book about literacy - written for teachers and teacher educators - that makes little or no reference to phonics, standardised assessment tests, national curriculum and league tables. Pahl and Rowsell's 

Literacy and Education (2nd edition) has a broader more fundamental scope: how to harness children's inherent creativity to enable them to become active, engaged, critical and literate citizens in a digitalised world.   This theoretically driven pedagogic adventure offers a compelling demonstration of what it means to place learners at the centre of literacy teaching and learning.

The book consists of six chapters each of which address a series of core questions about reading and writing. The reader is allowed to stroll gently through these different notions about the meaning, nature and pedagogical implications of being and becoming literate. ‘Literacy and Education’ starts - in the 1990's with the 'New Literacy Studies' (Barton and Hamilton 1998; Street 1993; Heath 1983).  The theoretical turn that provided an empirical basis for the idea of literacy as a social practice is by now well established. Pahl and Rowsell build from this premise to offer several generative notions of literacy as material, as space, as connected to time, as multiple, multimodal and digital. 

One striking feature of the book is its layout. Starting with a glossary of key  terms, Pahl and Rowsell unfold their exposition through a series of boxed texts which feature vignettes or theoretical explorations; in greyed out boxes they identify key themes for each chapter,  points of reflection and activities (for teachers to try out with their students). The book has a good few illustrations and a reasonable scattering of bullet points. This implies something for how the book is to be read and used. Having understood its theoretical underpinning, the reader can quite easily retrace her steps to identify activities to try out and adopt with her students or trainees, or look again at what these complex ideas might mean for her practice.

If ‘Literacy and Education’ - looks or feels like a text book, it does not entirely read like one. Anyone who reads this book seeking guidance - will be challenged.  The writers themselves acknowledge this. From a compromise that combines 'an understanding of literacy as a set of skills with an understanding of how we use literacy in everyday life' (p5), Pahl and Rowsell acknowledge that many practitioners working within a New Literacy Studies framework may be compelled to conclude that in current educational climates effective literacy learning can occur only outside school settings' (p109).

None-the-less the text is filled with creative, adventurous ideas about being and becoming literate. Ideas that weave bridges between home and school, that celebrate learners’ identity, that promote agency, that are multi--modal, digital and changing. Pahl and Rowsell then explore what these signify for the materiality of our meaning making. In re-visioning literacy education, this book recreates the classroom as a site of 'epistemic and intentional inquiry' (p114). 

By the end of chapter one, the familiar ground of the New Literacy Studies is stretched, challenged, re-articulated and exemplified. Ethnographic research which once shaped academic understanding is transformed into curriculum as praxis. From chapter two onwards Pahl and Rowsell pick up the multi-modal literacies of The London School (Kress 2010; Cope and Kalantzis 2000) this section ensures that the book has a contemporary feel as the writers point out that ‘multi-modal research into aspects of English and literacy has been held back by linguistic analysis’. They continue to explore the pedagogic implications of studies that redress an over-emphasis on ‘literacy’ as the exclusive domain of the written word. It is from this point, Chapter three,  that ‘Literacy and Education’ is at its most interesting as the writers explore communication as image, gesture, movement, music, speech and sound. What does it mean for our teaching if ‘as a mode of communication’ it is possible and credible for ‘the garden’ to become a text (p90)? Their discussion of the materiality of texts which updates the challenges implied by digital literacies, neatly segues into Kress’s work on ‘meaning-as-form’ and ‘form-as-meaning’. I find Pahl’s research on artefactual literacies compelling. The ‘stuff’ of literacy is explored throughout the book, an exploration that comes into its own when weaving meaning making between home, school, identity and community.

‘Literacy and Education’ appropriately marginalises the status of reading and writing as skills. It is the messy, ephemeral and sometimes invisible aspects of home literacy re-created as ‘funds of knowledge’ that Pahl and Rowsell are interested in. They help the reader to understand books as conduits for pleasure, emotion and warmth; with literacy as an expression of identity.

This is a book for established academics, teachers, trainee teachers and teacher trainers. It is a book for parents. It is also a book for anyone who has in interest in literacy, schooling and education. It will provide a comprehensive overview of an area and suggest multiple strands of thought to explore.

It is quite possible that the texts refusal to fetishise literacy as skills is determined by the location of the writers. Pahl, based at the University of Sheffield, England and Rowsell, based in Brook University, Canada do not both work within the same tightly bound policy framework of ideas. The book then establishes that there is indeed an alternative to the impositions of rigorously policed adherence to ‘first, fast and only’ phonics that defines literacy teaching in England. It is possible for teaching to be based on a repertoire of approaches developed in response to the uniqueness of a situation as oppose to pre-packaged and pre-defined  ‘good practice’. It is the creativity of ‘Literacy and Education’ that is most appealing about this book. The creativity implied by its grounding in research, its adventurous pedagogy and its insightful appreciation of how policy might be – within a different time, place or culture.

BARTON, D. & HAMILTON, M. 1998. Local Literacies: Reading and Writing in One Community, London, Routledge.

HEATH, S. B. 1983. Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classroomsCambridge Univ Pr.

KALANTZIS, M. & COPE, B. 1997. Multiliteracies: Rethinking what we mean by literacy and what we teach as literacy the 
context of global cultural diversity and new communications technologies, Centre for Workplace Communication and 

KRESS, G. 2009. Multimodality: Exploring contemporary methods of communication, Routledge.

STREET, B. V. 1984. Literacy in theory and practice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Dr Carol Azumah Dennis
University of Hull

Metaphors for writing

In part this post is a response to a recent invitation to think about metaphors used in connection to the process of writing a thesis.

I like the idea of thinking about metaphors for writing. In using metaphor - I have not been particularly self-conscious, just allowing myself to think in a way that explains why the metaphor made sense to me.  

Writing and combing.

I often used to think about the process of writing as similar to combing and plaiting my hair.  I now have dread-locks and so thankfully don’t have to endure the experience apart from the occasional treat of going to a hairdressers to get my locks re-twisted. Each visit to the hair dresser takes about 3 - 4 hours. Before dread-lock, the daily comb, cream and plaiting  - depending on the length of my hair at the time would take about 45 minutes. As a girl child, I really had better things to do. Combing my hair was always an event - that thankfully only happened twice a day (morning and night-time), taking what seemed like a lifetime. 

The process of writing feels similar to the daily ritual of combing and plaiting my hair – in part because of the sheer agony involved. That is - natural afro hair - my natural afro hair is tightly curled and hard to get a comb through. The start of the process was always painful. There is a moment of terror when it feels like I simply won't be able to do this. But of course I realise that I have no choice. It is not an enjoyable experience.  Not at the start at least. This is not entirely fair, because I love writing. I love the idea of myself as an academic. And of course - after the initial struggle - once my hair is combed through and oiled - it begins to soften. After the initial struggle, it is softer and smoother than anything.

With the initial hair smoothed (the first complete draft if I’m writing) I can begin to section it off, to make partings and work on plaiting. The longer the hair, the quicker the process - the squares sectioned off can be bigger and fewer plaits are required. Short hair - as mine always was - takes more time.

As a child, sitting  between my mother’s knees on the floor - with her combing, oiling, parting and plaiting my hair - I would continually put my hand up to get an idea of how it was all progressing.  This is a quarter done. Then half. And now it is nearly finished.  The plaiting is painful (less painful then the initial comb); you have to pull the hair to make sure there are no nappy edges. That everything is neat and tucked in and that it will last a until the next time morning - or evening.

The point is that writing always felt similar to me - something that was entirely absorbing, that seemed to demand my complete attention. That had to be done. Once I had started my EdD - nothing and no-one was going to stop me from competing it. What initially felt like a complete mess, soon begins to soften and feel gentle, pleasant to stroke. The oils: coconut, jasmine or cocoa -  smells sweet.  And once the parting and plaiting starts - I know I can do this.  

From this point, it's enjoyable. The process of writing, involving as it does going over and over and over the same few points to make sure they are expressed, shaped how you want them - feels very close to combing each parting, and then plaiting the section of hair. A painful but necessary process that soon becomes enjoyable, that ends with something I am pleased about - but with the acceptance that I will need to do it all again. I have dread locks now. So – much easier to manage on a daily basis, and a regular treat to the hairdressers to be made more beautiful.

Reading and swimming.

Another metaphor I often use is connected to swimming. I'm sure that many people make this comparison.  That is - the most terrifying moment is just getting into the water. Getting started on something.  I completed my EdD a few years ago and now work for a University. I studied while working full time in FE. And was never completely sure that I'd be able to complete the Doctorate - all the very familiar self-doubts about capability and so on. I was always of the view that it was 'other people' who taught in universities. Other people who published there work - that sort of thing. I never felt completely sure of my thoughts until I wrote them down. So that moment of beginning - was always exciting and terrifying.

There is always the risk of getting completely lost at sea with no sense of where you are, how you got there and how to get back on dry land. Usually, once I am in the water - I quickly adapt (I love swimming at times used to swim 20 lengths every day before work). Once I get going - it's fine, as long as I have done the preparation. Then it is entirely pleasurable. It allows me to be another creature, able to survive four hours underwater. There is silence, exclusion and complete absorption.  The entire world could be erupting around me - but - I'm writing so please: do not disturb.