Debunking Pseudo Theories

During my PhD research* on how lecturers rationalise their digital teaching, one of the strong themes that emerged from data of lecturers talking about their teaching was their use of folk pedagogies and pseudo theories. I extended Olson and Bruner’s (1996) definition of folk pedagogies to include, not just theory of mind about how others learn, but also how educators have experienced learning themselves and the cultural norms about teaching with which they are surrounded (e.g. disciplinary pedagogies). Intersecting with these are pseudo theories like the neuromyths (Newton 2015) of learning styles or technology truisms like ‘digital natives’. (If you need a refresher on why these ideas are problematic, you’ll find a selection of references critiquing learning styles and digital nativism at the end of this post.)

addition black and white black and white chalk

Photo by George Becker on

Now drawing the line between what constitutes a valid way for an educator to conceptualise their teaching, and what is a lazy, damaging yet persistent idea is tricky. On one hand, I trust educators as experts in what they do, even though they may not be experts at talking about what they do. However they want to present their ideas about teaching and learning, especially if they are thinking about and owning their teaching, I think is fine. And yet, if they choose to use the idea of learning styles as justification for distributing digital content in lots of different formats to their students, is that a problem? Taking into account that they may be retro-fitting a pseudo theory onto a teaching practice which was originally an experiment to ‘see what would happen if…’, what should be done when these ideas get passed around in rooms where teaching is being discussed?

I have been in such a room where one unfortunate lecturer spoke about their disconnection from their younger students because they were ‘digital natives’ and there was practically a stampede to sound the Klaxons and ‘correct’ his thinking. But just because an idea has been found to be potentially limiting to the ways of thinking about students, it doesn’t mean that this lecturer’s framing of his experience of reality is ‘wrong’. I’ve also witnessed teaching which presented learning styles as a supposedly valid learning theory, only to wait and see if the learners (themselves university lecturers) would uncover the body of literature critiquing learning styles and revise their opinions. To me, this feels a bit unethical, as they are being ‘caught out’ for assuming something is ‘valid’, when some (but not all) of the literature says it is not. It also represents knowledge in this area as a right/wrong binary.

Of course, there is a further problem that if you start splitting hairs, there are roots of valid theory in some interpretations of learning styles (which is actually a very wide area once you get into it). Cognitivism is concerned with the individual’s cognitive structure and how it accommodates new knowledge, so if we accept this, we must also accept that people have different cognitive structures so learning happens differs from person to person. So far, so understandable. This is happens during a face-to-face lecture, everyone hears and processes what is said differently. The problem arises when generalisations of ‘personalised’ learning are used to classify people, and frankly, guess what they might need. (In my data not one of the I lecturers who talked about personalised learning or learning styles also gathered information on what individual students needed or whether these interventions were successful, so was this truly ‘personalisation’?) When we talk about learning styles or personalised learning, or even digital natives, we often mean different things.

These pseudo theories are immensely powerful. They must be to be so persistent. They can be easily absorbed and used as short-cuts so that there is no need for further discussion or analysis of what is actually happening. Many educators absorb them into their own folk pedagogies. It is my belief that rather rolling our eyes and ranting on Twitter when we hear someone talking about teaching using a pseudo theory, that it is an opportunity to engage with how educators think about their teaching. Pseudo theories and folk pedagogies have tremendous meaning for individuals, so rather than confront them and try to change their conceptions, there should be scope for lecturers to shape and change the meaning of the pseudo theory for themselves. This should not be in prescribed ways i.e. changing it from ‘wrong’ to ‘right’. If pseudo theories are being used, it is because of a failure of ‘valid’ theories to be meaningful to educators about their teaching, not a failure of those educators.

Perhaps I am being naïve and even contradicting myself, but I think there must be a way to turn pseudo theories into productive conversations, where educators retain agency over their choices and conceptualisations of teaching. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has ideas or experience on how to move discussions on from pseudo theories.

* Yes, before you ask, I am trying to get work from my thesis published and you will be the first to know when I am successful.

Bulfin, S., Henderson, M. and Johnson, N. 2013. Examining the use of theory within educational technology and media research. Learning, Media and Technology, 38(3), pp.337–344.

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E. and Ecclestone, K. 2004. Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning. A systematic and critical review. London.

Cuevas, J. 2015. Is learning styles-based instruction effective? A comprehensive analysis of recent research on learning styles. Theory and Research in Education, 13(3), pp.308–333.

Kirschner, P. and van Merriënboer, J.J.G. 2013. Do learners really know best? Urban legends in education. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), pp.169–183.

Kirschner, P.A. 2016. Stop propagating the learning styles myth. Computers & Education.

Nasah, A., DaCosta, B., Kinsell, C. and Seok, S. 2010. The digital literacy debate: an investigation of digital propensity and information and communication technology. Educational Technology Research and Development, 58(5), pp.531–555.

Newton, P.M. 2015. The learning styles myth is thriving in higher education. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(1908), pp.1–5.

Olson, D.R. and Bruner, J.S. 1996. Folk Psychology and Folk Pedagogy. IN: D. R. Olson and N. Torrance (eds.) The handbook of education and human development: New models of learning teaching and schooling. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 9–27.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. and Bjork, R. 2008. Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), pp.105–119.

A seminar on roadblocks to using technology-enhanced learning

Photo of sign saying 'Road closed'

Road closed for Edinburgh playing out

I attended a really interesting presentation this morning by Joel Smith on research he conducted with Laruen Herckis on the ‘Complex Barriers to Instructional Innovation with Technology’ at Carnegie Mellon University in the US. The seminar did two things which made me very glad I attended. Firstly, the research findings aligned closely to my own research, even though their disciplinary approaches (philosophy and anthropology) are different, which is always encouraging. Secondly, it reinforced to me the importance of educators having space and support to talk about, and develop, their understandings of teaching, before conversations about specific methods or technologies are discussed. I want to facilitate these very conversations and this is the reason I did a PhD in this area, and why I want to do more teaching. It’s nice when a seminar validates your life choices.

Their final report is yet to be published, but you can read about it briefly here. They identified four ‘roadblocks’ to educators at their institution using technology for teaching and learning.

1. Collaborations often failed because of miscommunication around priorities. This can be avoided if there is someone, a ‘champion’, to co-ordinate and clarify communication.

I recognise a lot of my previous work as a learning technologist in this point; I often found myself doing the ‘chasing up’ emails with academic staff, detailing actions to be taken and expected time-frames. Without that, things often fell apart.

2. Institutional structures and processes are out of sync with individuals careers, institutional support for teaching, technology infrastructure and global changes in technology.

Yes, there is never really the time to take a step back and dig deeper into teaching. In previous roles I’ve had, there have been years when there was never a good time to take annual leave, as all non-teaching time was spent developing online teaching content or staff development. Joel spoke about how achieving tenure was a priority for educators in his institution and, until that point, they could not afford examine their own teaching. There is also a slow/fast mismatch between higher education and technology (there is a really interesting examination of this by Land and Bayne 2008), although I think anyone working at a HEI these days is most likely reconciled to the inevitability of restructuring, change, etc. The slowness of higher education can mean wide-scale adoption of technology is a deliberate act, so perhaps hasty mistakes are avoided. On the other hand, the look-and-feel of many VLEs can give the sense of being in a time-machine. I don’t really believe that universities need to be on top of all the new technologies, but I do think they have a responsibility to be ahead on the big issues like data use, ethics and ways technology and human behaviour are enmeshed and changing each other.

3. Concepts of ‘good teaching’ held by educators are extremely strong and difficult to displace, even in the face of evidence-based alternatives. 

I think it is even more than this – we can hold two contradictory ideas of ‘good teaching’ as simultaneously true. As humans we tend to compartmentalise, and I have seen educators who put teaching in their discipline in one box, and put teaching in all other disciplines in another box and never the twain pedagogies shall meet. Examples include remarks about discussion boards, MCQs, reflective writing ‘not working in my subject’. Also, changing (or really expanding) these mental models of ‘good teaching, takes time. Again, the extended support, or indeed provocations, from colleagues to help this happen need to be planned for and resourced.

4. The academics who took part in this research had strong identities as teachers and their actions were strongly influenced by student satisfaction. This led to a reluctance to change their teaching or adopt new methods for fear of alienating their students.

One subjects of this study was quote on their desire not to embarrass themselves in front of students. In my research, a number of lecturers stated similar concerns, often with technology eliciting strongly negative emotions. The point about teacher identity and perceived threats from technology were also present in my research, although some were more comfortable embracing external influences on their teacher identity.

Their recommendations for addressing these roadblocks were that polices and practices needed to facilitate conversations to uncover educators’ mental models. At the end I asked Joel a question on how to have those important conversations about conceptions of teaching at an earlier stage of the process (i.e. before decisions are being made about technology). His answer was that university administrators have understand this and put in place procedures to enable this happen. I couldn’t agree more. We are fortunate in countries like Ireland and the UK that universities provide

professional development and qualifications in teaching, particularly to new staff. However, I can see that in the 10 years since I obtained my PgCert in teaching, educational research and thinking has moved on. It would be good to see policies put in place to sustain and develop these conversations about conceptions of teaching throughout an educators’ career.

The tale of Ada Lovelace, a 7 year old boy and a Tweet

I tweeted this last week and it went proverbially viral.
At the time of writing it is heading towards 90,000 impressions on Twitter. It feels a bit odd that it’s got so much traction, but as a wise friend commented, people like a nice story. So here is a little more about it. I tweeted it because it brings together a number of things I’m think are important and I wanted to show the impact institutions, practices and tools can have on one child. I’m not an advocate for universal coding education, as I discuss here, but here’s what happened in the instance of this little boy.

When my twin sons were 6 we got them books on inventions and computers and coding. When we read through the inventions book together, I’ll admit, I editorialised a bit on why so many inventors seemed to be men. One of my sons took a lot of interest in binary code, unicode and algorithms. Underneath one of the lift-the-flaps in the computing book, was Ada Lovelace.

Later that year I attended a fantastic Ada Lovelace day at the University of Edinburgh and when I got home I showed my photos of the Lego Ada set to my children. This peaked their interest and they began to join the dots in the information they had. Meanwhile they were getting amazing support in learning to read at school and had been benefiting from the Scottish Book Trust’s Bookbug bags with free CDs and books since they were babies. Without reading skills as a foundation, none of this would have happened. To encourage my son who appeared to have interest in code, we got him a Raspberry Pi for Christmas. Our local library in Newington provided a supply of books on Scratch, drawn from libraries across Edinburgh and he worked his way through them. They have no overdue fines for children’s books, thankfully.

Then after Easter he was assigned a project at school to give a short Powerpoint presentation on someone who inspires him. He, quite logically, worked out that as he loves to code and coding exists because of Ada Lovelace, therefore she should be his person. He searched for some images and read up on her some more. He included screenshots (see image below) of Scratch, to demonstrate to his classmates how an algorithm works. scratchcode_2He practised, standing tall with a clear voice – something he would never have been able to do a few years ago. I have to credit the school with this as he has consistently been given support to develop his confidence in public, even when this was difficult for him.

Afterwards he was happy with how it went and his classmates wanted to know more about Scratch. A day later when he came out of school, he whispered to me that at school assembly he’d been made ‘star of the week’. On further probing I discovered he had been asked to get up and speak more about his presentation and to explain what Twitter is – that Tweet had been around the world a few ten-thousand times by stage. The school has asked him to participate in the school fair showing other children how to use Scratch. He is learning that what started as a solitary pursuit is something he can share and even teach. For someone who has times where he struggles with the emotional ups and downs of life, this is a massive boost. It doesn’t solve everything, but it is something that is all his.

His twin brother has different pursuits and aptitudes, equally interesting and inspiring. Just different. He might explore coding more at another time, or maybe not. Interestingly, they get on better with each other the more they carve out their own niches. They are privileged to have access to the skills, support and tools so they can pursue these interests. While are still young enough to pay attention to me, I try to point this out to them and the responsibilities that go with that privilege. Just as one demonstrated that it is perfectly normal for a boy to have a role model who happens to be female, the other insisted his piano teacher edited a piece of music thus, to “make it fair”:

They continue to surprise me.

What I learned working on an e-learning helpline for students and lecturers

Life ring

‘Help’ by Neil Turner CC BY-SA 2.0

After I completed my PhD I took a six-month contract in a large, well-resourced university doing ‘e-learning support’. The work was very similar to parts of my previous learning technologist roles elsewhere, but the scale of everything was much bigger. Additionally, it was my first time working within a department with no academic or teaching remit and the culture and language around the use of technology reflected that.

The university provides and supports an impressive array of digital products for teaching and learning: VLEs (more than one), assessment tools (including text matching and peer assessment), classroom polling, digital exams, lecture capture, video streaming, virtual classrooms, digital reading lists and eportfolios, to name a few. For each tool there was a named individual in my team with the expertise and vendor relationship to deal with unusual problems. I was impressed with the commitment my colleagues showed for providing the best possible service to the end users. Requests for support came to me through the call management software, so all my communication with people who needed help was through typed messages. It functioned as a very efficient, transparent system where the busy-ness  of the queue could be seen at a glance and calls passed between individuals as needed.

I can’t put an accurate figure on it, but would appear that the majority of lecturers were using these tools by rote. Courses were rolled over from semester to semester, assessment dropboxes set up as they were previously and, if there were discussions about why certain tools were being used, there weren’t happening within my earshot. What’s more, courses all had named secretaries who were responsible for student enrolments and administration of assessments. So, for example, a course secretary would follow a checklist of how to set-up a Turnitin dropbox. Again, a highly efficient process which frees up the time of the academic, but for every box ticked or not ticked within the set-up screen there are pedagogical implications, yet the lecturer has no input and probably little or no awareness that there are such choices available. And this is before any discussions take place about whether Turnitin is actually an appropriate tool to be using for assessment.

The increasing ease-of-use of software makes it more accessible and efficient to use if there is little or no learning curve. However, this very ease-of-use means that we don’t have to think about it much and this can be a problem. Teaching with digital technologies should be a considered and constantly re-evaluated process. Indeed, my PhD research found that the majority of lecturers were constantly balancing the costs and benefits to them and their students when they used digital tools. But if the the tools are practically friction-free to use, or someone else is there to do the legwork of setting things up or solve the problems, then the educator is at a remove from the consequences of using them, and therefore from thinking about deeper implications.

I believe that education in all disciplines should explicitly incorporate pedagogy into the curriculum. I also believe that this should include directly addressing digital citizenship, starting with educators role-modelling appropriate digital citizenship. This can be a simple as an announcement outlining why they made choices to use (or not to use) certain digital tools for teaching and learning. In doing so, they would be encouraging their learners to think about the choices that we make about technology every day. It could even be the first step to becoming an open education practitioner.

Critical debates in open education OER18 Presentation

Highly selective reference list and further reading relating to this presentation

This presentation is really just the drawing together of a few threads of criticial voices about OER and OEP and not meant as a comprehensive view by any means. In doing so I hope to catch glimpses of the distance travelled and any opportunities to revisit things that have been said which could improve debates and practice. The following is a selection of thoughts I’ve had about the subject the weeks before the conference.

There is a danger that open could start going in circles, ever re-defining what it is, claiming an re-claiming territories because as a space it is still fighting for recognition? Imagine a world where open is now invisible, so embedded in individuals’ and institutions’ practices and policies – that it no longer became something to discuss, there wasn’t this feeling of constantly rolling a big stone up a hill, but never getting to the top? (Massive work has been done and huge achievements have been made, I don’t mean to undermine that. When you consider that this work has been done without the support of validation and recognition from the wider educational community, it is all the more awe-inspiring.) That conferences like this evolved into something else, with other concerns? This conference has evolved of course, that’s what’s so interesting about it. It’s agile and responsive to world events. Open educators take on the world.

So is most of the scepticism reserved for MOOCs – the structured, institutionalised, privileging-the-already-privileged, both in terms of institutions themselves and individuals? Is there a two-tiered criticism, with the individual teacher valorised? That’s a question I’d like to explore further.

Yet we’re still working with systems, flawed systems, built by flawed people, and used by flawed people.

Back when I engaged with debates in a previous institution about resuable learning objects and specifically about where they could be stored, findable and know-that-they-are-there-able, the issue of metadata came up. Now, I assume that metadata the issue has come up elsewhere, and hasn’t gone away. And licencing. The issue of helping people understand the differences between creative commons licences – these issues are still here. Yet in spite of best intentions, people don’t do as they should, they don’t adhere to the rules, or forget and ignore rules. Additionally our best intentions also lead us to bias and perpetuation of inequality. There is a sociomaterial aspect to open education which it seems to me we are doing our best to deny. We don’t have total control, precisely because it is open. Put technology and people together and there will be unpredictable outcomes, we are shaped by technology as technology is shaped by us. Individually and as a society.

Are the rules about open too restrictive, trying to predict too much of what happens when open education is taken up by those outside this tight-knit community, those who are not initiated? It struck me reading one of the essays by Raymond bundled under the Cathedral and the Bazaar, that the invisible rules of the hacker community were borne out of a tightly connected ecosystem with multiple transactions. That’s where norms and taboos were formed, and reputations were earned. I’d wager that within this conference it would be unusual to see slides containing unattributed images, whereas in other conferences it may be the norm. There are taboos on open education. There are norms. But society at large doesn’t really care about them as much as we do. And we can’t legislate for that (well, obviously there is copyright infringement legislation, but you get my point).

Incredibly useful work exists, like the lived experiences of educators explored by Catherine Cronin (2017), which demonstrates the complexity of people’s negotiation of the open. And perhaps work like this exposes as shaky the structures and categories that have been built to protect and promote good practice in open education. And this, in many ways, makes the dangers of bias and embedded inequalities so much more urgent – and really has to be addressed on a societal level. Because we know institutions love structure and rules and hierarchies and diagrams. As Oliver (2015) says, permeability is key. Maintaining operations within and outwith systems. Being careful not to prescribe too much.

Are these crises in ownership of ‘open’ more personal, more introspective of the open education movement itself, (possibly a bit insular), reflecting global issues through a smaller prism where we examine ourselves as both heroes and villains. As is our nature, publicly flagellating ourselves for not foreseeing the problems and inequalities our very work was engendering? The self as ‘misguided’ OER? I’ll finish with a quote from Helen Crump who places our humanity in a more forgiving position:

” Subjectivity is different to identity. It’s about how individuals are ‘subjected’ to outside forces such as economics, the law, society, the circumstances of history and the physical world in general, and consequently how they’re made subjects of these forces. From this perspective it’s not so much what kind of OER you’d like to be, but rather what kind of OER you can be.”


I can code

This is a response which I wrote to a blog from last November by the inimitable Sheila MacNeill entitled Why don’t I code?

Coding engenders a binary thinking which can extend beyond the code itself; it either works or there are bugs. What you are aiming for is to be bug-free. But this can lead to not considering the bigger questions.

It’s quite a relief to exist in a bubble where problems are puzzles that require a fix. What’s more, finding that fix is a pleasure; when it goes well, coding is hugely enjoyable. I think this may contribute to coders encouraging every one to learn to code.

Non-coders are hugely important – by asking the questions that coders sometimes forget to think about. By getting coders to explain why, by demanding.

Those conversations are important. Coders are fixers – every problem is an opportunity. But just because you have the skill-set to fix, it doesn’t mean that you have the skill-set to analyse the bigger problem. Sometimes it is better that the problem is framed by someone who doesn’t have a clue what the answer could be.

I learned to code because I thought I wanted some kind of mastery over machines. Now I’ve come to realise that this is actually not possible – I am sociomaterially entangled with technology and my own agency is severely compromised by auto-playing videos of cats on YouTube.

What I do have is confidence. I can take an educated guess as to what anyone is talking about in most areas of technology. (As an aside, as a woman, somehow I felt the need to acquire a masters in computer science to exercise any authority in an area in which I’d been a hobbiest since childhood.) Learning to code trained me in systematic trouble-shooting and close reading of text. This of course is applicable to lots of areas of life, not just software development. Deciphering emails from colleagues is the first example that pops into my head.

Since I wrote this response I see that commentators on Sheila’s blog have come up with similar ideas about the dangers of losing critical thinking when the focus is on getting everyone to code. But there is a balance to be stuck. Yes, people have specialisms and everyone does not need to code, but the mysterious black box of technology needs to be made more accessible in its meaning and impact for society. This doesn’t have to occur at code level, this can happen through conversations between us all.

3 Approaches to Educational Research

I wrote this a few months ago as an introduction to my methodology. I’m not sure that I am still using all three, but I’d be interested to hear any comments on this opinion.

“It appears to me that educational research can be loosely groups into three overlapping approaches. Much educational research has been concerned with the quest for improvement or enhancement of current practices. As a result it strives to prove causality: pointing to student feedback, attainment or other quantifiable sources as proof of effectiveness of interventions. This quest for empirical research findings with practical application is also evident in qualitative educational research where interviewees are categorised by discipline or gender, for example, and generalisations extrapolated thence. It’s understandable that this should be the case; educators, and educational researchers, are creative problem-solvers seeking practical means by which to improve their teaching. Another strand of educational research is that which is informed by critical theories. Often utilising difficult philosophical texts and politicised concepts, this work shines light on previously unexplored areas and exposes privileges, neoliberalism and normative systems at work within education. The final approach, particularly apparent in the area of digital technologies, is a systems or network-based view. Borrowing from computer science, learning or knowledge is conceptualised as ‘connectiveness’ where people and objects form nodes through which information flows. While each of these approaches offer strengths and limitations to educational research, I propose to selectively re-purpose aspects of all three to build my research methodology.”