Wednesday, April 23, 2014

AVETRA day 1 afternoon

After lunch, Dr. Gog Soon Joo, Executive Director of Singapore's Institute for Adult Learning presents 'continuing education and training in Singapore: skills innovation and productivity'. The Singapore experience in building research capability for their Continuing Education and Training (CET) sector is shared. Presentation centred around economic development and the role of education; journey of CET research development and capability building; and informing change in CET policy and practice - lessons learnt from 3 projects. An overview of the history of Singapore and the critical role education plays in contributing to future economic development. CET only seen to be essential since 2000 with CET training system set up in 2003. Key challenges to keep CET system in step with economic restructuring and workers' demand. From 2009, with no research taking place in CET, research strategies set up to build capability starting with mentoring of young Singaporean researchers with overseas research fellows mentoring. Also, Master of CET set up to increase pool and create pipeline of promising local researchers. Role of CET research includes developing local research capacity; create the disposition and capability of the CET community to interpret and use research; and influence CET practice and policy through research. Important to help industry and policy makers understand CET research through relevant dissemination means. Impact focused system of research requires researchers who are aware of their biases (social origin, theoretical bias, critic without practical implementation of advice) and pedagogical disposition to help others to truly learn. Three studies include skills utilisation; contingent workers in Singapore (learning and identity); and sectoral learning and performance transformation. Future plans embedded in the 2013 - 2020 CET strategy plan also shared.

I assist with the chairing of the following 2 concurrent sessions. First up a presentation by Adeline Goh on 'an authentic approach to facilitate vocational and technical education students' transition from education to work' in the context of the Brunei TVET. Presented on the literature review leading to a project to improve learning for vocational students. Provided background on Brunei VET context; and a summary of the literature on VET learning and how authentic learning contributes to better VET learning. VET learning may occur at college or workplaces. The 7 VET institutions tend to take a traditional didactic approach but need to assist students to become critical thinkers, and self-directed and lifelong learners. Need for present VET curriculum to encourage links between workplace and college learning. Authentic learning seen to be one way to help bridge theory and practice gap. Learning is based on "real-world, complex problems, their solutions, using role playing exercises, problem-based activities, case studies and participation in virtual communities of practice (Lombardi, 2007)". Need to look up Berry (2011) on planning authentic learning activities using workplace pedagogies and De Bruijn and Leeman (2011) on powerful vocational learning environments. Authentic learning in the Brunei context needs to include key content, employability skills, authentic tasks (workplace practices) and authentic assessment in industry.The challenge is to increase pedagogical capability with VET teachers and combine learning at both college and workplace is considered to provide a basis for lifelong learning.

Second presentation from Associate Professor Philip Thomas on 'co-creating innovation through shared expertise: principles underpinning the epistomology and scholarly contribution of a portfolio-based professional doctorate'. Philip provides a workshop on the programme which is run to allow for a ''custom built space' to allow for a 'workplace based' scholarship with mutually shared knowledge to occur. Candidates are supported through academic, industry and professional sectors. Sensible intersections are created to bring university, workplace and profession to share expertise. Candidate is tasked with coming up with an 'innovation' in the form of product, project, new paradigm etc. Portfolio tracks the journey from taking a idea to contributing to change in the workplace. Workplace attributes to provide project environment for a candidate needs to have vision, climate of excellence, participative safety and norms of innovation. Requirements t form the candidature include instutional mechanisms are aligned; workplace commitment; sound project; candidate expertise; and academic support. The concepts from this presentation contributes to my work with designing post-graduate qualifications at my own institute.

After afternoon tea, two more concurrent sessions. First up, Dr. Colleen Young provides an update on NZ tertiary academies with 'students perceptions of their learning experiences in the first two years' a focus of her PhD thesis. Colleen provided the background, rationale and details of the development of tertiary high schools in NZ. The study explored the ways the tertiary high school impacted on students - who were identified as likely to fail. Students responded with improved attendance; move away from school rules and culture and into 'adult' and work expectations and responsibilities; wider choices for tertiary study; applied learning; a headstart into a qualification; exposure to work based learning to inform career choice; need to set goals and take responsibility for own learning. Programme included high levels of pastoral care; monitoring if required; requirement for student to use individual learning plan. Students reported improved achievement, engagement with learning and completed qualifications they would not have otherwise.

Last concurrent session of the day with Ingrid Berglund wigith provides a Swedish perspective on 'workplace based learning in the Swedish upper secondary apprenticeship education'. Firstly ran through the Swedish context for upper secondary VET and the various reforms undertaken to make the programmes more vocation-specific. The last three years of school used to undertake a start with apprenticeship through workplace attachment and school. Decisive differences in the new systems is to assign role of apprentice as student, not employee; education contract voluntary between school and workplace; workplaces receive money to keep apprentice; equal curriculum learning objectives as in school-based VET. However, as apprentices are viewed as trainees their legitimacy in the workplace as learners is affected. The study surveyed over 300 students in 9 locations from 21 schools. Found 3 industries (construction / electrical, business and administration, health and care) had different approaches both in the workplace and in the school based structure. The enacted curriculum was difficult to achieve within workplace conditions.  Finding workplaces to participate was difficult and VET teachers became responsible for organizing the education and time was now sufficient to complete assessments. Follow up and assessment feedback was not sufficient. More study required to come up with pragmatic recommendations.

The AGM for AVETRA is held in the early evening, followed by the conference dinner. All in a long but, as always, interesting day.

AVETRA day 1 morning

At the annual Australian Vocational Education and Training Research Association (AVETRA) conference today and tomorrow. A busy programme to fit into the two days as the conference is flanked by Easter and Anzac Day.

So an early start on the official day one for the 17th AVETRA conference organised around the theme of 'Informing changes in VET policy and practice: The central role of research'. Pre-conference workshops and and evening 'welcome reception' were held yesterday.

The day opens with a welcome from the conference chairperson, Professor Stephen Billett and an official welcome to country from Yugembeh descendent, Ted Williams. Conference officially opened by John Paul Edward, who is minister of education, training and employment for Queensland.

The first keynote is with Professor Thomas Bailey from Columbia University, providing an American view on Career and Technical Education (CETE) with emphasis on 'developments and anxieties and the completion agenda in American post-secondary education system’. Tom is the director of the community college research centre. Tom has a long history of research and scholarship in the American post-secondary education system. In America, higher education includes VET. American higher ed. tends to concentrate on generic /foundational skills before final ‘rounding off’ in occupational focused skills. Therefore, trades like plumbing, follow similar education structure to professionals (law, medical etc.). A good overview of the American structure and how some parts of it may usefully inform other systems. For instance, community colleges offer the first two years towards a four year Batcherlor degree. Some professions provide all parts of a four year qualification (e.g. nursing).

After morning tea, the first of the concurrent sessions across seven streams begin. My presentation 'learning a trade: Apprentices' perspectives on workplace learning' is in this concurrent session. I presented on last years' 'learning a trade' project. Summarising the report with an overview of the literature foundations, key findings and recommendations. The session generated a good range of questions and discussion for follow up.

In the second concurrent sessions, I attend Andrew Dolphin's presentation ' when art becomes food: an application of Bourdieu's distinction to hospitality pedagogy'. Baandsed on Andrew's Phd literature review arguing that food as art is a contentious concept. Bourdieu uses social capital as the ability to 'see art' which is a learnt skill more easily acquired by people already in possession of a level of social standing. Cultural pedigree asists as access to the learning actitivies associated with 'seeing art' are important. So,there will be a variance in aspiring hospitality workers' social capital. How can the required 'seeing food as art' ability be facilitated? Suggested market identification, behaviour can illuminate scial class and capabilities required by employers.

In session three, the session on safety training 'safety beyond classroom training to workplace learning for workers in perilous work environments' by Dr. Kristine Yap seems appropriate for my work with trades tutors training workers for the Christchurch rebuilt. Context includes a shift from training to learning; emphasis is on compliance and licencing; classroom learning is authentic with workplaces seen more to be a legitimate site for learning. Study undertaken in the petrochemical industry in Singapore, a company recognised for good safety record. Comprehensive data analysis process used to unpack what assisted workers to learn and practice safely. A combination of personal and organizational approaches essential to cope with diversity of workers' language and culture.

Session four is a change of topic with Hilary Timma on 'distance-based learners navigating between remote and real-time learning contexts'. A more interactive session. Presentation based on a small study with Cert. IV students who were completing the qualification via on-line courses. Sociality of learning between work and learning improved through authentic learning and assessment; workplace others; and learning facilitation process. Workplace colleagues, supervisors, others who had completed the course were key inter mediators between workplace experiences and newly learnt concepts. Mediators assisted learners to check on their learning progress, clarify confusion and make connections.

Off to lunch and will post on the afternoon's sessions this evening.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Guitar Hero - book overview

Marcus. G. (2012). Guitar hero” The new musician and the science of learning published by Penguin Press.

Probably the least satisfying of Gary Marcus’ books. Professor Marcus uses his sabbatical year away from university teaching to learn how to play the guitar. Marcus is realistic about his poor sense of rhythm and tone deafness. However, his experience just prior to going on sabbatical through playing music via the computer game ‘guitar hero’ ignites a long wished for ambition to play the guitar.

The book tracks Marcus’ journey from neophyte to being able to play the guitar as part of a band. On the way, reflections on learning a skill are detailed. Descriptions of the deliberate practice cycle are sprinkled through the book along with Marcus’ new learning on music theory. Importantly, how he starts to make sense of how chords are constructed and how they contribute to musicians’ expertise. Identifying and learning the ‘signature discipline’ does make a difference to learning progress.

When I was a child, I learnt to play the piano and in hindsight, realise how much learning music has contributed to my toolbox of life skills. Aside from providing a lifelong love of music (both Western and Eastern – Chinese and Indian), learning the theory of music meant I practised the ability to make sense of symbolic concepts and acquiring the motor skills of piano playing provided improved hand-eye and brain coordination.

Marcus’ book provides practical advice for others intending to take a similar route as adults to learn how to play an instrument. Of note is the correct assertion that we are never too old to learn. Our brains were evolved to be plastic and flexible. Older people may bring with them life experiences which contribute to learning difficult skills and concepts better. Adults tend not to have the time to put into deliberate practice time to build up the 10,000 hours required for expertise but they may have acquired metacognitive skill sets assisting them to leverage off deliberate practice cycles better. The key is to maintain motivation, find the right teachers, put aside dedicated time to the task of learning and not be afraid to make (and learn) from mistakes.


The book has a useful glossary to explain musical and neurological terms, short notes for each chapter, 25 pages of relevant references (especially useful on skills learning) and index. 

Monday, April 07, 2014

Soul dust: the magic of consciousness - book overview

Soul dust: the magic of consciousness by Nicholas Humphrey (2012)

This book is an interesting read. It provides a counter argument to the scientific neurobiological stance of the non-existence of a soul. In this book, the presence of the soul in the form of human consciousness is presented. Humphrey puts forward the view that our consciousness puts on a show for us inside our heads to make our lives worth living. Consciousness evolved to provide us with the means to sustain a spiritual side to ourselves, so that we sense wonder and experience quality graduations.

The book is sprinkled with beautiful poetry to illustrate the ways humans try to articulate their ‘soul niche’. The argument is carefully constructed with philosophical discussions, examples and the aforementioned poetry. The writing style is conversational and accessible although some of the first few chapters (part one) introducing the philosophical background underpinning the book requires the reader to concentrate on following the main threads.

Part two is the most enjoyable part of the book. There are 5 chapters discussing the concepts of ‘soul dust’ and ‘soul niche’. The presence of consciousness is reiterated and levels of consciousness are explored in some detail. The poems of Rupert Brooke are used to provide examples of the philosophical concept of qualia.


Part three closes the book with the call to live one’s life well, to find, enjoy and extend one’s ‘soul niche’ and to be enveloped and nurtured by one’s ‘soul dust’. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Mistakes were made (but not by me): book overview

Tavris, C. & Aronson, E. (2007) Mistakes were made (but not by me): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts.

This is an interesting book for educators to read. Some of the ways we go about justifying our decisions, whether good or bad, have implications for how we could approach understanding learning. After all, learning is one way we overturn some of our core beliefs, adopt new ways to understand and perhaps better ourselves and learn how to empathise with others.

Good examples from studies in psychology are used, although many of the studies reported involve the ubiquitous research participant, the American college student.

Topics covered include cognitive dissonance and why we indulge in self-justification. The reasons why we become enmeshed in vicious and virtuous circles are introduced and discussed. The pyramid of choice is also introduced as when a moral stance is initiated, two people who originally take on similar views, move to be far apart once they start to self-justify their moral choice.

Prejudice and biases, how we form them (indeed bias is one of the first things we use to make decisions through ‘confirmation bias’ and ‘na├»ve realism’) and how to counter are discussed in chapter 2.
The way our memory is ‘selective is the topic for chapter 3. Our memory is not a video recorder but filters the information to make sense. Hence, biases and stereotypes creep in and we are prone to suggestions and selective about what we chose to remember.  The perils of ‘imagination inflation’ are revealed through examples of people who genuinely believe that they survived concentration camps as a child or were abducted by aliens.

Chapters 4 to 7 continue the main theme, using examples from science and clinical diagnosis in chapter 4, law and order (including difficulties in overturning judgements even when alleged perpetrator is found innocent) in chapter 5, marriage and love in chapter 6 and war and peace in chapter 7. Chapter 8 discusses why it is so difficult for us to own up to mistakes and to change our beliefs, switch allegiances, move to a different way of seeing the world or to use other or new points of view. However, being able to recognise and then say ‘I made a mistake’ plus correct what our preconceptions have wrought is truly the mark of being a good person.


The books is pitched at an American audience as most of the examples, especially the political ones are drawn from American politics. There are comprehensive endnotes and an index but no list of references.
Overall, the book is worth a read as it brings up topics many of us would rather not face up to. A thought provoking book which draws on neuro psychology and contemporary examples to illustrate it's message. We need to be aware of our weaknesses and challenge our biases through careful, critical thought. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

The rational animal - book overview

The rational animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think a book by D.T. Kendrick & V. Griskevicius (2013) published by Basic Books.

This book promotes an interesting concept within the discipline of evolutionary psychology. The core argument is that we have 7 personalities, driven by evolutionary ‘instinct’ sub-consciously driving the decisions we make and the ways we approach our lives.

The 7 subselves are:
Self-protection – the night watchman
Disease avoidance – the compulsive hypochondriac
Affliation – the team player
Status – the go-getter
Mate-acquisition – the swinging single
Mate-retention – the good spouse
Kin-care – the nurturing parent

The chapters than work through each subself and how our beliefs and perspectives are coloured by the way in which each subself organises the world. Each chapter has a snappy title and lays out the argument with contemporary and historical examples.

The last chapter recommends 3 lessons to cope with being a rational animal. These are:
Don’t assume other people are morons; rational self-interest is not in your self-interest; don’t leave home without consulting your other selves.


The book has notes for each chapter organised according to topics (which I really like), a comprehensive references section and index. Overall, an accessible but slightly over-hyped introduction to the concepts of evolutionary psychology. The book summarises some of the traits that have evolved through various socio-cultural and socio-material influences over the long history of humankind. Some of these traits are useful to our present lifestyles but other may impede or cause dissonance with current societal forces.

All in, an interesting read illustrating how emergent theories on evolutionary psychology is applied to explaining why and how humans react to various inputs and circumstances. There is a danger of the concepts in the book becoming enshrined in 'pop' psychology as although the authors provide compelling examples and conclusions make sense, the overall direction of the book seems to be to 'sell' the concept. So read with caution. However, the book is written in a clear, readable prose and provides a good introduction to precepts of evolutionary psychology.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The need to use findings from neuroscience with caution

Three books on why recent neuroscience discoveries need to be treated with caution.

First up, Kluge: the haphazard construction of the humanmind. An accessible 2008 book for laypeople by G. Marcus published by Houghton Mifflin Company.

Kluge promotes the idea that the development of the human brain through the process of natural evolution has produced a kluge. In engineering speak a kluge is a put together, sometimes inelegant, solution to a problem that works. So our brains have many quirks, making things like our memory system suspect (i.e. eyewitnesses cannot be relied on), our decision making systems fraught with bias and even the way we use language is filled with inconsistencies. The human body has several kluges arising from the evolutionary pathway from four legged mammal to two legged homo. So the brain is no exception.

The book is a short read of just over 150 pages. There are 8 chapters, with the first chapter providing a thought provoking overview of why the brain can be viewed as a kluge. The next 6 chapters cover a myriad of examples in support of the thesis including memory, belief systems, how we make choices, language development, our need to put pleasure before all else and the existence of ‘brain breakdowns’ in the form of mental illnesses and susceptibility to addictions.
Last chapter brings concepts together and recommends 13 ways to become better thinkers:
Whenever possible, consider alternative hypothesis; 
Reframe the question;
Remember always that correlation does not also equate to causation;
Check the size of the sample;
Anticipate own impulsiveness and precommit;
Don’t just set goals, make contingency plans;
Try not to make decisions when tired or stressed;
Weigh benefits against costs;
Imagine your decisions will be spot-checked;
Distance yourself;
Be aware of the vivid, personal and anecdotal;
Pick your spots;
Try to be rational.

Warns of the generalisation of neuroscience research, especially in politics, marketing and psychology / psychiatry (from studies of addition and brain diseases). In particular, explains how fMRI works. The images look very pretty but the colours refer to oxygen activity in a brain not actual ways in which neurones form connect or form connections. So, one needs to be very cautious about applying information from any form of brain imaging or brain activity measurement. We know too little about how the brain actually works but only have  guidelines to areas related to certain physical and cognitive activity. The role of neurotransmitters also not quantifiable through present means. As the brain works not only through neuro-activity but also through a whole host of bio-chemical triggers, dampeners etc. it is premature to use studies of the brain, to predict how someone reacts to stimuli through recording images of the brain.


The third book, The future of the brain: The promise and perils of tomorrow’s neuroscience (2006) by S. Rose. Covers the evolutionary development of the brain. Balances the emerging understandings we are deriving from recent neuroscience discoveries and cautions of how our learnings are still relatively new. This book melds some of the understandings I have gleaned from previous readings. The evolutionary development of the brain is summarised succinctly. Then aspects of neurophilosophy are discussed through chapters on becoming human, becoming a person and having a brain, being a mind. The prose is pitched at the level of a layperson with some understanding of neuroscience. The last chapters discuss the implications of current understandings are the need to be continually aware of the implications on social order and ethical and legal complications.


Monday, March 10, 2014

The problem of the soul: book overview and reflections

Owen Flanagan (2002) The problem of the soul: Two visions of the mind and how to reconcile them, published by Basic Books.

My meanders through neuroscience, neuropsychology, neurophilosophy and evolutionary psychology has led to some confusion as I wrestled with relativism, dualism, navitist, empirist etc. In short, exposure to a range of viewpoints and difficulty in weighing up the arguments from each perspective.

So, Flanagan’s book brings some relieve although no sure answers, and I accept there never will be. Life is a journey made exciting by meeting ongoing challenges. My present short term goal is to find some answers to whet my intellectual curiosity and to form a ‘to do’ list for my own learning. A bonus if some of this new learning merges with my academic work but I am not too fussed at this stage as all the new learning is challenging some of my belief systems and causing me to reassess things.

Back to Flanagan’s book, written in clear, accessible language. Some familiarity with how philosophical texts are laid out is helpful but the argument is signalled through the book and not obfuscated by dense text. The preface spells out the objective of the book and lays down foundation for understanding the two viewpoints – scientific and humanistic. Flanagan also used pertinent parts of his biography as a lapsed Catholic and academic, to illustrate important points through the book, modelling the good use of analogies to assist the reader to make their own meaning from the concepts explored in the book.

Flanagan introduces the ‘dualism’ way of understanding body and mind prevalent in Western thought and philosophy for two millennia. He argues that the scientific approach is now ascendant as the approach is starting to supply empirical explanations of how the brain works. Yet the humanistic and theological approaches also have some contributions.  The book discusses the ‘dualism’ between science with its logical, empirical study of the brain and how it works and the question of where then is the soul? If the brain is also the mind, then where is consciousness, free will and our identity? Does free will exist when we make decisions based on connections between our neural networks as triggered responses (neurotransmitters, hormones etc) and ‘conditioned’ responses? Does Ryle’s ‘ghost in the brain’ exist? Who and what are we as in ‘where is the I’ in the brain? 

Six chapters work through what makes us human covering the mind, free will, permanent persons, natural selves. The last chapter ‘ethics as human ecology’ discusses the implications of accepting the idea that science and the image of the mind in humanism and theology have common frameworks. In particular, the concept of freewill is possible regardless of whether accessibility to freewill is explained via scientific or humanistic / theological reasoning. However, the caveat is our brains are not designed to be rational due to its evolutionary development.


All in, a worthwhile read which is pitched at the right level for someone with sufficient curiosity and background to persist through the many concepts. I enjoyed the book as it provided a cogent discussion from the neuroscience and philosophical / religious points of view and provided sufficient space for the reader to weigh the evidence and come to their own conclusions. After all, that is why we have a mind :) There is a need to be open to various viewpoints and to come to some resolution in one own's mind frame. Flanagan's book provides an example of writing that expands the reader's horizons without dogmatic flogging of one perspective. The book recommends respect for each approach towards understanding what makes us who we are.