Educational dark matter

I’ve recently been reading and reviewing more education papers than usual, and I want to try to distil rather a lot of my frustration into a simple slogan in the hope of neutralising it. The frustration arises from the way that many of these papers present educational practices, especially “traditional” practices, in a manner that excludes key elements of those practices. The slogan into which I want to distil this frustration is “educational dark matter”.

Educational dark matter consists of the learning activities that are hard (or impossible) to scrutinise directly, but that from indirect evidence we know exist. To a large extent, this means learning activities that take place outside the classroom and offline from the VLE — the homework, the textbook reading, the thrashing out of questions in the coffee shop or the pub… Because these activities are hard to scrutinise, there’s a strong tendency to overlook them in discussions of education, but when we try to formulate theories of teaching and learning without them, these theories don’t add up.

I’ll take the traditional pattern of university maths teaching as an example. This is often described as “lecture-based” teaching, though a more accurate description is a “lecture–homework–tutorial cycle”. Of these elements, lectures are the most visible, and by a dangerous process of synecdoche are often mistaken for the whole. (Even my own job title, “lecturer”, perpetuates this.) Tutorials are partly visible, though important elements — the written feedback provided when homework is returned, and the adjustments made by the tutor in response to it — are easily overlooked. I’ve done no systematic survey, but I’d bet that there are fewer published studies of maths tutorials than of maths lectures. Finally, homework and the activities that go with it are largely invisible, both to teachers and in the literature — yet these occupy much of our students’ time (about half, if HEPI are to be believed), they are meant to occupy still more of students’ time than they do, and we expect them to be the key arena where understanding is won. If we ignore this dark matter, we will end up tangled in absurdities. Let’s look at a few.

One absurdity is the belief that the traditional cycle involves no form of peer interaction or instruction, because none occurs during scheduled class time; the consequence that follows from this is that time must be set aside in class for such interaction. I’m not arguing against doing so, when appropriate, but as anyone knows who’s ever marked a batch of homework, plenty of interaction will go on even if you don’t set aside class time for it. Students have probably always talked to each other about homework, and probably always will. Maybe we can help them learn to talk about it more constructively; maybe we can persuade some students that they could benefit by talking about it more; maybe we can give better guidance about the limits of appropriate collaboration; but I’m certain that it will go on whether we encourage it or not. If your education paper starts with the claim that “Traditional mathematics teaching involves no student–student interaction” then I will commit it to the flames.

Another absurdity, though a superficially reasonable one, is the idea that lectures should be assessed according to what the students have learned by the end of them. If the theory of learning held by most maths lecturers is correct, then we may expect or hope that learning will have occurred by the end of the cycle, but certainly not before students have put in the individual study time. (You don’t plant tomatoes on Monday and complain that when you dug the plants up on Tuesday they weren’t producing fruit.) Consequently, the efficiacy of a lecture is liable to depend not on how it affects the visible parts of learning, but how it affects the dark matter: how much effective learning activity it enables (or “drives”, or “levers” — I don’t really care what word is used as long as it isn’t “leverages”). It’s certainly inconvenient for educational research — not to mention for teachers — that the important outcomes of a lecture lie among the dark matter where they’re hard to scrutinise, but that’s the real world for you.

A third absurdity is that we communicate to our students that the dark matter doesn’t matter. Of course we don’t do so explicitly — explicitly, we conscientiously remind them that they should be putting in their three or four hours outwith class for every hour in class — but implicitly we suggest it in lots of ways. To take one example, the teaching evaluation forms my department circulates at the end of each semester contain eight questions specific to lectures, three to tutorials, two to “feedback” and one to supplementary material. Where are students to conclude that our priorities lie? To take another example, we concede ground far too readily when accused of not making time for X or Y or Z in class (the ongoing agonising about contact hours is an expression of this) rather than saying frankly that the majority of anyone’s degree study should be taking place without a teacher present, and that what they should be doing is putting in spadework outside class in order to make the most of their brief hours in class. No, I don’t have the courage to say this as often as I ought to, either.

Another form of educational dark matter, though one that’s been probed a bit more by researchers, is the educational culture that develops within a class (or an institution, or a whole society). If you’ve taught, you know that different institutions have a different feel to them: the students have different expectations, often encapsulated in the unanswerable wisdom of My Mate In The Year Above Says; the didactic contracts are different; even the whole set of values (competition or collaboration? mastery or performance?) can be different. Like cosmic dark matter around a galactic cluster, this educational culture can give shape to all the visible activity, but remains frustratingly hard to identify or influence. But if we try to pretend it isn’t there or makes no difference then our initiatives and innovations will come, at best, to nothing. If you don’t believe this, try handling a class at the University of North-West Lanarkshire with the same techniques that worked for you at St Cedd’s College, and when you’re done trying that we can compare scars.

Those are two examples, and I’m sure they’re not the only ones: they’re just the pockets of dark matter to which I’ve come close enough to feel their gravity tearing my theories apart. Those two hazards I at least now know the locations of, though that’s only the first step to avoiding them. (There’s a wonderful line attributed to the indefatigable Seamus McSporran when asked whether, after thirty years of navigating the sea around Gigha, he knew where all the rocks were. “No,” he’s supposed to have said, “but I know where the rocks aren’t, and that’s always been good enough for me.” I’m still working on finding out where the rocks aren’t.) But what can we do in general about dark matter?

The first thing, I guess, is simply to remember that it’s there. Synecdoche, as I mentioned above, is our great enemy here. The use of “lecturing” as synecdoche for “university teaching” is a case in point, and has a lot to do with the bad reputation of lectures — as, for example, when Mann and Robinson’s study of boredom across a range of university activities was headlined “Boredom in the Lecture Theatre”. “Class” is another dangerous word: do we mean by it something like “course” or “module” (as my institution’s “class catalogue” does), or do we implicitly restrict it to mean what occurs “in class”, i.e. in the classroom? More plausibly, do we use it in the first sense but allow our thinking to pick up a distinct flavour of the second sense? Maybe we should all police our use of language like this far more carefully.

The second thing we need to do is to refuse to accept reductionist accounts of education that either deny or ignore the presence of dark matter. Reject attempts to isolate elements of a teaching pattern until we have some idea how the visible and invisible elements are at least supposed to interact. Reject claims that X never takes place because X never takes place in the classroom. When something works, look for the machinery lurking behind the stage. When something doesn’t work, do the same. Look for what’s implicit, what’s assumed, what’s forgotten. Speak to the veteran teachers and don’t disregard what they tell you: they may not be able to give you a coherent theory any more than a shaman can write you a tract on toxicology, but if you want to know which plant in the forest has poisoned you, the local shaman is probably the person to ask. Like Mr McSporran, they can tell you a lot about where the rocks aren’t, and probably a few things about where they are.

And as a third point, let’s remind ourselves, every so often, just how little we as teachers have power over. Most of the educational universe — most of the experience of our students — is invisible to our instruments and responds unpredictably to our actions. That’s no excuse for not trying to understand it, and it’s no excuse for not doing all we can to ensure that what goes on in the visible universe serves our students’ education. But at the end of the day it’s a big universe, and for much of what happens in it neither the credit nor the blame belongs to us.

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One Response to Educational dark matter

  1. Pingback: Pray for me, Brother Ass | New-cleckit dominie

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