North to St Andrews?!

It would appear that the lady cataloguer who listed St Andrews University Library’s legal deposit music, was actually English!  (I’m not about to spill the beans yet, though.) I’ve had great fun finding what she borrowed – books as well as music – and I’ve even tracked down her immediate family.  But BEST of all, this morning, was finding another brother.  I just knew there had to be one.

And another surprise this morning was finding that, far from my initial perception that students didn’t borrow music, some borrowed an absolute mountain of music.  An incredible amount!  (Which means I’ll need to check whether they went on borrowing it after 1814, ho-hum.  Just when I thought I only needed to investigate the professors and their friends…)

Eventually, I will have a very full picture of what the staff and students at St Andrews thought of their music collection, in the early 19th century.  You’re in for a surprise!


I passed my Teaching Artist module! Big relief.

However, I’m not finished yet.  Now I must think about the project.  Friends, if you know of a music library – anywhere *In The World* – where their user education is excellent and firmly grounded on good pedagogical principles – please let me know.  I need examples of good practice – not just ‘fun stuff’, but sessions where goals, methodology and outcomes are thoroughly thought through.  Preferably in the context of a music library!

Learning Overdose! I need an Intervention!

Studious SundayI’ve spent the morning looking at our PGCert Moodle pages, and viewing  DVDs of the Thursday evening online sessions that I haven’t been able to “attend” in person.  (There were actually seven sessions. I’ve reached the fifth one so far.)  And I’ve taken a closer look at the course reading-list with all the online links.  That was quite informative.  Although my absence of “click-throughs” suggests I may not have engaged with the materials provided, in actual fact I viewed quite a few of them when I did the first part of the course two years ago, and they’re listed in my bibliography as evidence of that.  But of course, the click-throughs would have registered on the 2014 Moodle rather than the 2015-16 Moodle pages.  Confused?  Please don’t be!

I had made up my mind that I’d be on the lookout for information about assessment and feedback today.  Going through our course-materials, I soon realised that the subject can be looked at in two ways because we, the students, have to undergo assessment and receive feedback, every bit as much as we have to know the best way (a) to ascertain whether our students have learned what we set out to teach them, and (b) to give them effective feedback.  Jamie Mackay talked to us about assessment modes and criteria in our second online Teaching Artist session, but obviously this is a topic that is interwoven throughout the course.  Thus, in the third session, we learned about assessment in teaching that has been designed using constructive alignment principles: the intended learning experiences should be measurable against the learning outcomes, so that the teacher can assess whether the ‘alignment’ has effectively led to the desired outcomes.

In the fourth online session (28th January 2016), Rachel reminded us that the teacher should review results in an ongoing process so that he/she can determine whether the teaching has been effective and whether modifications or adjustments are required in subsequent lesssons – this is also part of practice-based research, so we’ll need to consider it when we design our projects.  Already, I have tried to elicit feedback, whether from the course-leader, the students, or both, in training sessions that I have given, because my research project will focus on how performing arts students can best be engaged in library/information type instruction sessions. Clearly, if I can identify best practice, then it will give me the best chance of designing learning that students will benefit from.

In the same session, Jamie led a discussion about grading compared to appreciation or guidance, and participants were encouraged to consider occasions when they had received bad, or good feedback, also discussing when each form of feedback was most useful – grading against criteria, showing appreciation to give support and encouragement, or (possibly a little while later), going on to give guidance to help establish the way forward, or the next steps a student might take in their learning journey.  After giving a grading, a student might need guidance as to how they can go on to improve their performance. After a performance, a student might initially just need appreciation and a bit of praise, followed by guidance about aspects that merited further work.

It was noted that there was no point in praising if praise was not merited, if the student was showing a poor or disrespectful attitude, or if improvement was obviously needed.  The important thing is to focus on the work not the person. The work may have been poor – but the student shouldn’t be demolished in the telling.

The same evening, Mary talked about evaluating teaching using the ‘critical incident questionnaire’, and recommended Stephen Brookfield’s book, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher – again, it’s in the Whittaker Library.  Brookfield suggests that when reflecting on one’s practice, one can use four ‘lenses’ – ie, four different sources of information, to evaluate one’s teaching: one’s own observation, peer feedback, student feedback, or by reading the ‘scholarly literature’. (Mary’s Powerpoint slide 2).  It is crucial to find out if your teaching is effective, and what the students feel about your teaching – good points and bad.  For that, you need feedback.

I devised a very simple feedback form for my Scottish music sessions just before Christmas, as I had done for the postgrads when I did a bibliographic referencing session a year or two ago.  In this, I just asked what they liked; disliked; and would have liked more of.  My analysis of the Scottish music class results can be read in my Portfolio for 2015-16.  Brookfield’s critical incident questionnaire asks five questions compared to my three (Mary’s Powerpoint slide 7):-

  1. When in the session did the student feel most and/or least engaged? (a bit like my first and second questions, except that I used the word “enjoyed”)
  2. What action did anyone take that was most helpful/affirming?
  3. Similarly, what was least helpful/affirming?
  4. What was the most important information learned? (this is subtly different from my question about what was most enjoyed!)
  5. Were there any questions/suggestions about the class?  (similar to my “what would you like more of?” question)

Mary explained that an analysis of the answers would help us identify major themes felt by several students, and would help us plan future sessions.  I certainly found this to be the case in my own analysis.

The question of assessment and its purpose was continued in the fifth online session (19th February 2016), when participants were reminded that assessment is also important to learners,  so that they can see themselves making progress – this supports the learning process and lets them see where improvements or other readjustments might need to be made.  Students need to know what was good, but also where there might be gaps, or what needs to be done next or followed up. This is formative assessment, whilst a mark or grade is summative, sets standards, and might be necessary before moving on to a higher level, for example.

PGCert blog books 1I would like to look at the Brookfield book that Mary recommended, but I have also borrowed Race, Brown and Smith’s 500 Tips on Assessment, which looks an approachable book and might give me some more ideas:-


So – How do you Learn?

Back home from Dundee, and with a plugged-in laptop, I can resume my reading and blogged reflections.

Jarvis, M., The Psychology of Effective Learning and Teaching (Cheltenham: Nelson Thomas, 2005), Chapt.4, Styles of Thinking, Learning and Studying (pp.72-94)

British Library Pinterest brain
British Library Pinterest collection: Anatomical drawing of the brain.

The first thing Jarvis makes clear is that popular references to ‘learning styles’ rather blur the finer distinctions that other experts have identified.  According to Jarvis, your ‘cognitive style’ (how you think) is different from your ‘learning strategies’ (how you adapt to the learning tasks you’ve been set), and your ‘learning style’ is actually a catch-all phrase which can be interpreted in a wide range of ways.  That’s a good start!  He goes on to explain how psychometric tests can be used to assess how accurately a particular system of learning styles has been categorised, but says that actually, even using learning styles as a heuristic application (how the individual thinks it applies to them) can be worthwhile.  It can help the learner, and it can help their teacher by giving them insights into how individual pupils or students learn.

Jarvis warns us not to assume that everyone learns the same way as us.  Moreover, he informs us that there is a distinction between people whose learning is ‘field dependent’ as opposed to ‘field independent’ – and reports that even though it could be considered sexist, research has found that there is a tendency for women to be more field dependent – seeing a task in a particular context – whilst men tend to be the opposite, seeing a task in isolation.  Students who are field dependent are more people-focused, whilst the others are more task or problem-focused.  I’m not convinced by this, really.  Does he mean that a woman might, arguably, ask, “how am I going to devise the bibliography for this assignment?” (or, “how are we going to devise this bibliography?”), whilst a man is more likely to ask, “how am I, in general, going to devise a bibliography?”  Maybe I’m taking the distinction too literally, but I struggle to see how knowing about field dependency would affect the kind of teaching that I do.  Leaving aside the alleged difference between the sexes, I don’t really see how I could improve my teaching by recognising this distinction.  Indeed, when I’m asked to provide a ten-minute introduction to resources that will specifically be relevant to a particular task, then that is exactly what the students will be told.  My colleagues and I established a while ago that students were more receptive to this kind of instruction when they had been given a specific assignment.  It would be perverse to take the opportunity we had been offered and ignore the context in which we were providing training.  However, I would always start with general principles then demonstrate relevant resources of the assignment that the students had been set.

Other theorists distinguish between logical and intuitive approaches to problems; between tackling a whole task or breaking it down into bits and doing a bit at a time; between actively learning by experience or by reflecting upon a topic; or between verbalising and visualisation.

Jarvis introduces so very many different ways of looking at learning styles that it is, frankly, rather confusing to pick out particular theories that might be helpful, especially when they’re all introduced in such close proximity.  I can understand the broad distinctions that I’ve just summarised, and perhaps for me, it is enough to recognise that we do all learn in subtly different ways.  Jarvis references the theorists P. Honey and A. Mumford, who revised their Manual of Learning Styles in 1992, and their four scales make good basic sense, describing learners as activists, theorists, pragmatics and reflectors.

Learning strategies are rather different, though.  We’re introduced to deep and shallow learning, and to strategic learning, where students plan out what they need to study (and how they need to tackle it) in order to complete a task.  I think I’m probably a bit like this myself.

What I take from this chapter, however, is basically that it is good if a student has an awareness of how they best learn – and, where a teacher has responsibility for a class or cohort of students, it is self-evidently helpful if they form an idea of different students’ approach to learning and completing assignments.  For me, at the moment, parachuted into class situations to deliver one-off sessions, I cannot possibly know the majority of students well enough to recognise how they learn.  Where I have worked with a particular disabled student, or a student seeking my help with an extended project, and got to know their preferred approach, then that is a little different.  But otherwise, I take Jarvis’s theories as a reminder (a) not to assume that everyone learns in the same way as me, and (b) to ensure that – where possible – I assign varied group activities so that individual students will find something to capture their imagination, whatever their learning style.  Field-dependency or -independency is not something that I’m likely to be able to observe in the context of my own teaching.


There WILL be more Reflection. When I find a Power Socket.

20160625_222340-1If I don’t turn this laptop off, it will die.  So, I have 22 pages of Jarvis’s Chapter 4, Styles of Thinking, Learning and Studying, to read through, but I can’t reflect on it online.  Or rather, I could reflect on a phone or a tablet, but not this particular device.  To think that, twenty years ago, I could only have reflected on a piece of paper anyway, and on a train it would have been with a pen, not a keyboard.  Changed days.

IQ versus Multiple Intelligences versus Triarchic Theory

Ah, Saturday mornings! Unusually for me, I had done the ironing in Glasgow by 6.40 am, and despatched most of Jarvis’s Chapter 3 before leaving Haymarket at 9.05.  I’m on my way to Dundee for the Friends of Wighton AGM – what else would I do but take my laptop along for the ride?  (Actually, it feels quite late in the day – I get the 8.05 from Haymarket on my fortnightly trips to St Andrews!)

So, where were we? Ah yes, Jarvis.

Jarvis, M., The Psychology of Effective Learning and Teaching (Cheltenham: Nelson Thomas, 2005), Chapt.3, ‘Intelligence and Academic Ability’

Jarvis begins by outlining the general history and rationale behind IQ tests.  The problem, he asserts, is that it only measures one kind of intelligence.  Having said that, testing has become more sophisticated and trustworthy, and cannot be entirely discounted.  However, it also raises many questions – nature versus nurture, for one.  Various research projects have looked at early-start programmes devised to give very young children an assisted start to their nurture and early learning, as compensation for disadvantaged family situations.  Results do show benefits, though sometimes the benefits have not lasted as the children progress through school.

Jarvis introduces Howard Gardner’s work in researching multiple intelligences, Robert Sternberg’s triarchic theory of intelligence, and some of the subsequent research by other individuals.  This substantial body of work demonstrates that – whilst someone may rate highly or lower on an IQ scale – in fact there are many different facets to intelligence, and it also shows that one can improve ability in different spheres depending on motivation and practice.  Teachers certainly need to be aware of all these different aspects of intelligence, but Jarvis warns against deliberately setting out to address every single mode in a single lesson, which he regards as a ‘crass’ over-simplification and less than helpful.

Gardner’s identification of multiple intelligences certainly explains how individuals can have different strengths, and obviously different learning activities will suit these strengths – so to me, it does make sense at least to vary the activities so that everyone in a seminar has the opportunity to play to those strengths.  Having said that, not all these intelligences will necessarily come into play in a session on historic Scottish song collections or bibliographic referencing practices!  The following is the list of Gardner’s multiple intelligences (Jarvis, Table 3.1, p.25):-

  • Linguistic/verbal
  • Logical/mathematical
  • Visual/spatial
  • Kinaesthetic
  • Musical
  • Naturalist
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal  (understanding ‘one’s own motives, characteristics, strengths and weaknesses)

It seems to me that some of these intelligences might be stimulated in a school classroom, whereas they are clearly less relevant in higher education.  Obviously, students can be encouraged to verbalise what they observe; to look for logical patterns; and to look at the graphic display/musical presentation/bibliographical layout and compare different models. They can be encouraged to move around between displayed items in a comparison exercise, if the classroom set-up permits this.  They can perform the music (but not a bibliographic referencing tool); and can either discuss the music (or research problem, or bibliographical technique) in pairs or small groups, or each spend a few minutes individually contemplating the question before sharing with the group.  I have used all these modes of learning in sessions that I have conducted over the past couple of years.  Short of taking the group outdoors, it’s hard to see how there would be any way of ‘recognising and interacting with the natural world’!   (Having said that, a few years ago I gave a talk to gifted young traditional musicians at Plockton, and I would very much have liked to have begun the session by taking them outside and asking them to imagine what a song-collecting exercise might have felt like in 1815, with no motor transport, no electronic devices –  and clothing and footwear that would have been much less waterproof than Goretex.  I thought better of it, since I wasn’t familiar with the school or its general ethos, and was nervous of taking a dozen unknown teenagers out into a neighbouring field!

Some researchers have experimented with self-rated questionnaires to help pupils/students identify their own strengths.  These are ipsative (assessed by the individual in isolation) rather than normative (comparing individuals against norms in the population – in other words, they are subjective tests.  It’s not something I could see myself needing to do in my current practice.

Robert Sternberg’s triarchic theory of intelligence breaks down different intellectual activities in slightly different ways. He identifies three elements, which can themselves be subdivided.  (Jarvis, pp.57-58):-

  • Componentional intelligence (knowledge acquisition components; performance components – ie ‘counting, comprehension and reasoning’; and metacomponents (‘planning, problem-solving and decision-making’).
  • Experiential intelligence, ie how experience helps us master knowledge and tasks
  • Contextual intelligence, ie, how different cultures may prioritise different aspects of intelligence.

I find this a very interesting theory, but perhaps not so readily applicable to my own practice.  I don’t spend long enough with students, or conduct consecutive sessions, so I wouldn’t be able to judge how their componential or experiential intelligence developed or affected their learning over a period of time. And I certainly wouldn’t have the temerity to attempt to theorise how postgraduates from different cultures might approach bibliographic referencing or research skills, although I certainly already bear in mind that a different cultural background may affect student attitudes to study and research in general.

The remainder of the chapter considers streaming and banding in schools, the question of hot-housing children, and giftedness.  These are considerations for school-teachers, but in my practice, we’re working with young people who may already have been hot-housed, and they are certainly gifted in their disciplines irrespective of their school experiences.  I don’t dismiss these issues, but I choose not to dwell on them today.

Me, a Social Scientist? Educational Psychology on the Menu


Having decided that this weekend is to be devoted to concentrated study, I borrowed several of our reading-list books from the library with the intention of dipping into them for useful material.  Matt Jarvis, The Psychology of Effective Learning and Teaching (Cheltenham: Nelson Thomas, 2005) looks a suitable place to start!

Since I won’t manage to read every book from cover-to-cover, I thought I’d get an overview by looking at the chapter headings, then decide where to start reading!

  1. The Learner and the Teacher
  2. Cognitive Development and Learning
  3. Intelligence and Academic Ability
  4. Styles of Thinking, Learning and Studying
  5. Thinking Skills
  6. Motivation
  7. Emotional Factors in Learning
  8. ICT and Learning (Information and Communication Technology)
  9. Teacher Stress
  10. Education Research

The first chapter looks at different psychological approaches to the roles of both learner and teacher.  Rachel Drury touched on this in the second online Thursday night session for our ‘Teaching Artist’ module, when we were focusing on the Context Setting Study that was part of our course requirement.  Rachel looked at ‘Ways of viewing the learner’, whilst Mary Troup gave a presentation focusing on learning theories.  Mary reminded us that learning theories could be brought into consideration during lesson planning, and also referenced Phil Race (we have four titles by him in the Whittaker Library), who identified ‘five factors underpinning successful learning’: we learn from feedback; when we want and/or need to learn; when what we’re learning makes sense; and we learn by doing.  (Slide 4 of Mary’s Powerpoint.)  This book goes into greater theoretical depth but in a quite intensive, sharply-focused way – possibly more so than we actually need at this stage.

Jarvis introduces us to a range of different psychological theories.  Cognitive Psychology views ‘the learner as information processor’. (p.3) We use various mental processes when we learn, and although some experts think that intelligence is quantifiable, there is also the belief that (a) we can learn thinking skills and (b) different people have different learning styles. Jarvis deals with these in Chapter 4, not here.  I’ve read in the press that not everyone agrees with the idea of different learning styles (eg auditory, visual, sensory, kinetic), but I’ll visit his exposition of the concepts and see what I think.  Jarvis comments that children’s brains develop as they grow up; and also alludes to Jean  Piaget and Lev Vygotsky’s ‘cognitive development theories’, which he deals with in Chapter 2.  Since my teaching is with young adults, and I’ve also occasionally worked with mature adults (I taught English as a foreign language at a summer school for teenagers and adults, and also folk guitar evening classes at a technical college many years ago), I’ve decided to pay more attention to aspects of educational psychology that will help me in these areas, rather than spending time reading about school teaching and learning.

Jarvis next introduces the concepts of Psychodynamic psychology and the emotional learner – which acknowledges the fact that both learners and teachers can have an emotional response to ‘learning situations’, and that these might affect how they react either to the subject matter, or to the individual student or teacher working with them. Humanistic psychology, on the other hand, not only looks at relationships but also matters of motivation and the learner’s urge for self-improvement.

Jarvis next says that the socially constructed learner is a concept connected with postmodernism. Fortunately for me, he goes on to explain that,

“… psychologists influenced by postmodernism, broadly known as social constructionists, encourage us to look for the influence of social, political and historical influences on the development of popular ideas.  Such ideas can then be reframed not as facts but as ‘social constructs’…. it can instructive to think of the ways in which current political and social agendas affect our view of education.” (pp.5-6)

I think I understand this.  Certainly, I can understand how a curriculum can be influenced by political and social factors.  However, whereas Jarvis is looking at the effect of these influences on the learner, I am more familiar with this kind of idea in terms of my own musicological specialisms, in which I look at the way literary and cultural influences affect the music collections being compiled and published.  Thus, I have been applying this approach to the subject matter being taught, whilst educationalists look at the way social and political situations affect students (and, surely, their teachers, too).  Actually, I can see that if we recognise the influence of ‘current political and social agendas’, then we can draw parallels with historical political and social agendas, but I realise that this is not really in any way connected with Jarvis’s psychological theories.

From the student, Jarvis now turns our attention to different ways of viewing the teacher’s role.  Socrates viewed the teacher as a subversive, which would not make them very popular!  Neither would it go down well today.

More interesting is the classification of the teacher’s role as ‘executives, therapists and liberationists’ (p.7).  Skills, knowledge and efficiency preoccupy the former; the ‘therapist’ is more concerned with pastoral issues; whilst the ‘liberationist’ focuses on encouraging the student to become an independent learner.  Since, as I’ve mentioned before, I am usually parachuted into a teaching situation to deliver single sessions, it is hard for me to identify with any of these roles particularly strongly; I don’t have the opportunity to develop a teacher-student relationship with individual students unless they subsequently come and seek me out in the library.  However, I do occasionally go to concerts in which our students perform, or I may exchange a few words with them in passing, so I get to know them a bit better in this way.  It is always gratifying when a student ‘gets’ what you have been sharing with them, and wants to explore the musical repertoire further, or shares some aspect of their studies that they’re preoccupied with.  Jarvis concedes that the three different roles will all be present in any particular teacher’s role, so I don’t feel it’s necessary to define myself and my own approach too precisely.

(In our online session, Rachel invited us to look back at our own school days and see if we could slot any of our teachers into any of these categories.  My own school days are so long ago that I’m afraid most of my teachers were decidedly ‘old school’, telling us what to study and how to do it.  However, independent learning was very much in evidence when I was an undergraduate at Durham.)

Jarvis raises interesting questions about whether teaching can be considered ‘Craft-knowledge‘ or a professional skill, and also looks at the importance of reflective practice.  He differentiates between ‘reflection in action’, and the kind of reflection that takes place in planning a lesson, or in debriefing afterwards, also alluding to mentoring and supervision, and CPD. This blog is itself part of my own reflective practice.  I consider that I am doing precisely what he advocates, since I’m contemplating how theory/research relates to my practice; reflecting on my own personal response to what I’m reading about psychological theory/research; and reflecting ‘on personal characteristics as identified by psychological theory and/or research’. (p.11) I’m not only trying to get my head around the psychological theories, but also asking myself whether I agree with them, and whether they have anything to offer in my quest for the best ways to teach in my own unique situation.