Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The scale of the universe 2

This is an updated and improved version of an app I posted a link to last September. It is awesome, and I mean that literally.  Click on the picture. 

Dickens was a blogger

This is another post in my 'Blogs in history' series, and the stimulus for it is another example of those coincidences of thought I'm experiencing a lot at the moment: moments when you read something in an unexpected place that echoes a resonant idea you had already come across in a different context.

The latest Spitalfields Life blog post is on David Pearson, the typographical designer, who has worked on the recently-published Spitalfields Life book, to be launched this Friday evening ( 

(Cover design by David Pearson, Staffordshire dogs by Rob Ryan)

David has designed much of the recent output from Penguin Books, which generally have a striking and highly effective emphasis on typographics.  Familiar examples include the covers of the 'Great Ideas' series of extracts from classic authors, and a subtle redesign of the iconic penguin itself, slightly more active than its ancestors. 

(It hardly needs to be mentioned to regular readers of Spitalfields Life that the 'gentle author' has written a beautifully-illustrated (with pictures of Penguin Books!) and poignant piece about his personal connections to the history of Penguin Books and the family of the company's founder, Allen Lane).

The 'gentle author' of the SL blog describes discussing the design of the book with David, and sending him the nearest thing he could think of as a model:

For interest’s sake I sent David a copy of a page of Dickens “Household Words” from 1851, as the closest precedent I knew for a collection of short literary pieces. Dickens published these weekly and for tuppence his forty thousand readers in London received a pamphlet of half a dozen stories every Saturday morning – a publication that today would almost certainly be a blog.

As soon as you come across the idea that Dickens might have been a blogger, it rings true.  Almost his entire output was originally published in serialised form in weekly newspapers and journals, such as 'Household Words', illustrated above.  Imagine a series of blog posts which tell a story over several, perhaps dozens, of posts; imagine the story is a mystery, about a murder perhaps, or a plot to steal an inheritance, and that it incorporates social caricatures, commentary, and a strong set of implicit and explicit moral messages reflecting the opinions of the author: here you have many of the basic ingredients of a Dickens novel.  Most of his earliest readers would have read his books in sections as they came out, having to wait for the next instalment.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Cultivating and developing intuitive decision-making in teaching

I have to admit that throughout most of my career my ideas about, and practice in, effective teaching have been relatively incoherent and intuitively arrived at, rather than the products of careful and analytical thought. According to Yvonne Hillier (1998) this is common even amongst the most experienced and well-trained of teachers.

At the same time, I don't subscribe to the view that deliberate reflective practice is at the opposite end of the spectrum from intuition: I firmly believe that valuable insights can be gained from both rational thinking and from inspiration, and that in principle it is valuable for professionals in any practice to be receptive to insights that come unexpectedly, unplanned, and from unlikely sources, as much as those that are the product of rational processes of deliberation and analysis. I posted a couple of months ago about the value of deliberately going off piste and 'seeing what happens', and this view connects closely with the idea that effective teaching is not necessarily a neat and tidy business (Derrick 2010).

The tension between these different modes of apprehension has often been polarised into antagonistic and supposedly irreconcilable approaches to the practice of teaching (and indeed practice in other domains): I believe rather that these modes of thought should be seen as complementary, and that teachers need to be able to negotiate a balanced track between the two to be really effective.

Highly relevant to this suggestion is Daniel Kahneman's brilliant survey (2011) of psychological research studies into the way we make decisions: It is as if, he argues, that there are two ways in which we make decisions, which he calls Systems 1 and 2.

System 1 is very quick, in fact more or less involuntary. It utilises what might be called ‘intuition’:

We have all heard….stories of expert intuition: the chess master who walks past a street game and announces “White mates in three” without stopping, or the physician who makes a complex diagnosis after a single glance at a patient. Expert intuition strikes us as magical, but it is not. Indeed, each of us performs feats of intuitive expertise many times each day.... Our everyday intuitive abilities are no less marvellous that the striking insights of an experienced firefighter or physician – only more common. The psychology of accurate intuition involves no magic….Valid intuitions develop when experts have learned to recognise familiar elements in a new situation and to act in a manner that is appropriate to it. (Kahneman p11)

System 2 thinking, on the other hand is slow, requires motivation and effort, and uses what we might call ‘rationality’. We use these different systems in different circumstances, confronted with different types of problem. We prefer to use System 1, which evolved as a survival mechanism, and with which we make very quick decisions based on the continually developing capacity for correct intuitive judgements which we have developed throughout the whole of our past lives. Of course these decisions may sometimes be wrong, but in familiar situations System 1 decision-making has evolved to be accurate most of the time, and as a result it takes a great deal of conscious effort to go against what it tells us.

System 2 is used for problems that clearly do not require an immediate solution, and/or which demand that we follow a procedural algorithm in order to solve them, such as a complicated long-multiplication sum. Kahneman argues that we only use System 2 reluctantly, when we have to, because it takes effort and energy, whereas System 1 thinking is effortless and easy. System 1 decision-making is more likely to be accurate the more familiar we are with the situation we are in; it can work astonishingly well in such familiar situations, even if the problems involved are very complex, indeed too complex to be easily solved by the use of System 2 heuristics and algorithms.

This research-based psychological typology of our decision-making capacity is strikingly reminiscent of Donald Schön’s well-known theoretical distinction between reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action (1983). The key issue for practitioner learning, therefore, given the need for expertise in tackling both well-defined ‘high ground’ problems and complex, ill-defined, ‘swampy’ problems, is how best to develop and improve ‘reflection-in-action’ or System 1. For a new idea to contribute to changed System 1 decision-making, according to Kahneman, and in different terminology, to Schön, the practitioner has to 'practice' using it, reflect on this practice consciously and probably collaboratively (System 2 activity), and repeat this many times over a long period. 'The accurate intuitions of experts are better explained by the effects of prolonged practice than by heuristics' (Kahneman 2011, p 11): there are no short cuts, no quick intellectual fixes or magic bullets, in shaping our intuitive capacities.

This System 2 work of developing System 1, essential to practitioner learning, is difficult, both to carry out and to reflect on: it takes a great deal of conscious effort because it involves a decision to engage in practice in a different way from that informed by our System 1 thinking. This demanding process is one way to imagine that practitioners might strive to enhance their intuitive capacity for ‘divergent thinking’, cited by Schön as an essential capacity for tackling ‘swampy’ problems. Such careful, effortful, disciplined and probably repetitive practice over time does lead to changes in patterning and routines in relation to our work, which gradually influence changes in our intuitive responses to it, and so to our intuitive judgements and actions. What is needed as part of practitioner learning, therefore, is to support a deliberate process of learning that mimics the way our intuitive decision-making capacities have unconsciously and continuously developed and evolved, since we used them to save ourselves from being eaten by lions on the plains of Africa millennia ago.

Derrick J (2010): ‘The messiness of real teaching and learning’, in J. Derrick, U. Howard, J. Field, P. Lavender, S. Meyer, E.N. von Rein, and T. Schuller (Eds), Remaking Adult Learning: Essays on adult education in honour of Alan Tuckett. London: Institute of Education.
Hillier Y (1998): Informal practitioner theory: eliciting the implicit.  Studies in the Education of Adults, 30 (1) 35-52
Kahneman D (2011): Thinking, fast and slow. London: Allen Lane
Schon D (1983): The reflective Practitioner: how professionals think in action.  Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd