Education/Training : Evidence and education.

10jun99a: Various drunks: Learn to spell. Forget to think.

faxfn is posting these notes from conversations overheard in a university bar.

Students get through their exams with a minimum of effort.
To think for themselves would be disastrous.
They don't study courses they don't have to.
They choose the courses to pass the exams.
60-70% of the students are like this.

This probably wouldn't have been the case 20 years ago.
But more students less staff - more like a factory.
Students all have part-time jobs.
Students can't sit down and think anymore.

As courses have been standardised (handouts,
course objectives etc.), there is less opportunity
or incentive for students to think for themselves.

Higher education in many European countries is much worse.

If they write something that is close to the textbook
they get good marks so they don't think for themselves.

Those that can do research. Those that can't do Investors in People.

Have any academics responded to the ESRC's call for submissions for research into 'evidence-based policy and practice' with some good 'evidence-based education' proposals? (see www.esrc.ac.uk/ebp1)

Could the drunks be up for some well-funded research projects? Watch this space.

24jul99a: Academic A: Undergraduates lack initiative

(This academic teaches business studies to undergraduates and also teaches on an amber accredited MBA course.)


They have no imagination, no creativity, and no enthusiasm. They are not interested in showing how they can solve problems. They want to be spoon-fed the answers. They don't like challenges. We are misserving them with undergraduate courses. They are not self seeking or self learning. They have no initiative. They couldn't run a business. It's a real shame because education really changed my life.

They may have passed exams but what are we testing? It's just regurgitation. They learn it six weeks before the exam and forget it afterwards. And they will end up doing jobs for which the course has no relevance.

What is the point of teaching "knowledge" to business students who have no real work experience? We do send them on placements but this is nowhere near long enough. Management strategy means little to 19 year olds who don't know what a corporation is and whose only experience of financial instruments is using a building society account. They should go to work for five years and then come back to do a part-time degree between the ages of 25 and 30. (We get German students with more business experience before they come to us. They are streets ahead.)

Mature undergraduates are better motivated. They want the challenges but are sometimes panicked by them.

MBA students.

People that pay for their MBAs expect good course material but they also expect to be given the answers and expect to be given their degree. ("I've paid for it.") However, there are no model answers at MBA level and the students are on the course to learn to think.

But by the time they have finished, as our course is amber accredited, they will have certainly enhanced their career prospects. Many tell us afterwards that they did not know how they managed without many of the things they learnt on the course.

31jul99a: Musician B: Mature students lacked confidence but got firsts

I agree with Academic A.

I went to Sussex University to study music. It had a high proportion mature students. They did lack confidence but they were the ones that got firsts. Many of these kept going off to work in studios in New York. The lecturers welcomed mature students and the University had the best nursery in the whole of Brighton.

All faculty staff worked as working composers. They looked for people with life experience; they had no lectures where knowledge is passed passively to students to support sit-down regurgitating exams. They had seminars and personal tutorials where students presented work to introduce a forum for discussion. We had to do all the work, all the background reading and then come up with a reasoned standpoint. We couldn't get away with regurgitation - informed analysis was necessary.

This was education - learning to think with course work and seminars rather than lectures and exams. Sad to say many universities that I know about do follow the slogan for the drunks above "Learn to Spell, Forget to Think".

04sep99a: Graduate C: "Degree results cannot be taken seriously"

I have just finished my degree (I got a 2.2 in business studies), and I have recently started a new job. I have had contacts with my new employers dating back to my year out placement as part of my degree. They are a small company that supplies bespoke computer software to the large multinational I worked for in the year's placement.

They offered me the job well before my results came out and only just recently one of them casually asked what degree I got. They tell me that they took me on because of my personal characteristics (eg. "easy to work with"), my problem solving ability which they had heard about from the multinational. They also said that my reputation with the multinational was an asset to them that paid for part of my salary, even before I did a day's work.

They have told me that they regard my rather poor degree result as a black mark against my university rather than against myself. It gives completely the wrong impression of my abilities. They say that they have had previous examples where people with better degrees have not been able to deliver the goods and vice versa. "Degree results cannot be taken seriously as predictors of job performance".

I would like to know if their attitudes are sensible or are their experiences accidental aberrations which have led them to the wrong conclusions?

Perhaps I should have got a better degree. But I did work fairly hard. However, doing the test suggested in one of your other sections, I now discover I have slow(ish) writing speed (34 secs Mary Lamb time - see A slow writer). I also did particularly badly on one part of the course. This is worth explaining.

For this particular subject, there were three lecturers. The students of the lecturer that taught me did significantly worse in the exams than those of the other two lecturers.

But, in my judgement, this was a terrific irony. Our lecturer engaged with the subject and got us to think about it. The other two lecturers taught a subject that might be called "How to pass your exam".

05sep99a: Academic D: I teach them "How to pass your exam in marketing"

I am a lecturer in marketing at a University in the North of England.

The comments of Graduate D do not surprise me. During the first term of the past academic year I gave the course I had designed to get students to understand the subject, manipulate its concepts, be creative and make connections between ideas. These are essential skills for someone working in marketing. But I had a minor student revolt!

They wanted to have a course that got them through the exam. So now I teach them "How to pass your exam in marketing". Something rather different.

There may be one aspect of the teach and examine cycle that is useful: some students have told me that courses do not really make sense until they bring it all together when they revise for the exam. Given that my students must do some written examinations I am thinking of designing them to come earlier in the course - to get them familiar with the basic material and then go on to a more investigative approach.

Students come in with enthusiasm and open minds but the pressures of modern teaching means that they loose this and by the end of the first semester they learn to play the system.

Our overseas students do work hard and are appalled by the lack of application of British students.

None of my colleagues want to teach second year students. They have lost their enthusiasm and have not yet had the broadening experience of a placement year or the imminent threat of degree classification.

16sep99a: Nicola Opton: I CAN SPELL AND THINK, THANK YOU

I'm twenty-one, so clearly I am not classified as a 'mature' student. I do, however, have one crucial advantage over my less 'mature' peers - I took a 'Gap' year.

Contrary to popular belief, a "year out" is not always a "year off". Not everybody spends eight months trekking around Thailand courtesy of daddy, mummy, and MasterCard. I worked in the UK for six months, at two vastly different jobs. That experience has propelled me through university.

Studying English may be regarded by some as 'posh' (!); I disagree. I chose York's Literature course because of the individual motivation required, the papers available, and (inevitably) its academic reputation. Studying literature certainly can be glorified baby sitting, you can float obliviously through the courses, not attending lectures, saying nothing in discussions, and writing papers which essentially 'regurgitate' critical texts (or more commonly the anathema of independent thought - Cliff notes).

For me though, the degree course has taught me how to develop my communicative and analytical skills, to increase my articulacy and confidence. I most certainly do not wish to 'regurgitate' the thoughts of others. David Moody, a recently retired York Lecturer, commented once:

"If you want information, lectures are a very inefficient way of getting it; that is what life is for."

Lectures are not there to give students ideas to put in their procedural essays. They, along with discussion, seminars and tutorials, are intended to inspire independent, original, informed thought. I often wonder how many of my colleagues realise this. Sadly, with the well documented problems of increasing school class sizes and rigid curricula, teachers have less opportunity to encourage students to think independently, and seem to end up 'spoon feeding' information through necessity. Once pushed into the routine of 'being taught' (passive) it is much more difficult to 'learn' (active).

Financial and social independence in my 'Gap' year translated into an essential opportunity to learn how to think clearly, speak with articulacy and understanding and write well.

Experiencing 'real life' is vital for getting the maximum output from any degree, because of that experience's influence on the input you are capable of. This time and experience allows fresh perspective for the jaded or uncertain, and allows a vital opportunity for self-knowledge that too few students have. Without a strong sense of 'why' and 'what for' it is easy enough to be caught in the tide of bored, lazy 'typical students' sweeping into universities across the country. For all its drawbacks, the new financial status of students - no 'free money' - may cause people to think twice before embarking on a course just for something to do. Anybody can be a graduate these days, it's not so hard to get a degree if you are not discerning about your choice of institution. However, I think that it is still challenging and worthwhile to take a degree - to learn more than 'spelling', and to remember to think.

Time out from the educational environment stimulates the ability to learn by volition, opening it up for development in an institute of learning. Having taken a 'Gap' year, in addition to giving me a fantastic year of travel and experience, has allowed me to benefit from university in a way that I doubt many of my peers will.

09oct99a: Durnks on the train: More naked emperors?

(The drunks are probably lecturers in an arts subject.)

Research students must publish more than you could possibly publish if you were doing proper research. So they have to publish pseudo- research. The conscientious ones have to persuade themselves to believe it all and learn survival techniques.

They learn some from highly paid professors who now teach a way of writing that sounds clever whatever you are actually saying. This language has a lot of "theoretical" apparatus. But this is not the testable theorising of scientific method. It is a mixture of old dead white male stuff but not in a pure and original form. It is a brew of Marx, Freud and Levi Strauss seen through the prism of French intellectuals which have been badly translated. (Some of these sound quite sensible in the original.)

So students must learn to write like a bad translation of French theoreticians of the mid twentieth century. But if the government says they must publish allot, irrespective of content, then this is a good way for them to get ahead.

Another technique is to "theorise internal experiences" which seems to mean reflecting hard about your own experiences and theorising about them. (Editor: Our reporter seems to have lost the plot here but if anyone reading this can support him with more evidence of this strange practice, or knows anyone with a PhD in self-reflecting theorising please let us know.)

Additional note:

19oct02a: Psychology Graduate: Freud - not for psychologists.

I have recently come across friends reading English and Fine Art. Unexplainably, I find them reading Freud, something I never did as an undergraduate - except perhaps to scorn. To be fair his research was no worse than anybody else's at the time.

Nobody sensible in Psychology takes him seriously. One of the decent bits of research by that troublemaker, Hans Eysenk, was a study of alcoholic vererans. He noted their spontaneous recovery rate from mental illness and found it to be better than patients of psychoanalysts.

04nov99a: Mature Research Student: Wading through the second rate

I re-entered academia a year ago after a decade's absence to find that the volume of academic material in periodicals and journals has multiplied many times. Unfortunately the useful content of this increased volume has not increased in proportion.

Anyone in a given field has now to wade through an awful lot of second rate material to locate anything useful.

This is most likely due to the Research Assessment Exercise which forces academics to produce material for publication even if they do not have anything useful to say. This is detrimental to the whole academic enterprise.

01jan03a: Lecturer in Marketing: It's like swimming in a luke warm pool.

When the first years start the course they are reserved and scared to speak. But when they find their feet they are full of ideas and creativity.

Unfortunately, "the system" conspires to close them down. They learn to "perform to win" and loose their creativity. Dispite our best efforts they will be working in a way they think will give them good grades.

We want them to get good grades too but it is very difficult to design methods of assesment that rewards creativity without taking chances that are no longer allowed.

The problem of working to targets makes us timid. The tendency to play safe inhibits innovation and the chances of spectacular success ... and spectacular failure. But anything spectacular is better than the mediocre.

It's like swimming in a luke warm pool.

15jan03a: Faxfn: Who's afraid of Alison Wolf?

In 1999, Faxfn used a considerable proportion if its tiny budget to buy copies of Ronald Dore's "The Diploma Disease: education, qualifications and development" for every member of the House of Commons Education and Employment Select Committee. We had heard that some of them had never even heard of Ronald Dore. Sad to say none of them thanked us or even replied. But there was some evidence that a few of them (or their researchers) looked up the site. ( see our Credentialism and the Diploma Disease section)

Once again, it has come to our notice that some current members of the committee may be in a similar state of ignorance. So we will try once again to correct the situation. This time we want to make sure that the committee is aware of Alisons Wolf's recent book. At that time we quoted her when she was roughing up the civil servants responsible for the NVQ reforms.

The reforms slid into something reminiscent of the 'Cargo Cults' of Polynesia. Just as worshipping replicas of planes was thought, by cult adherents, to bring the showering of gifts from the sky, so it became an article of faith that awarding enough vocational certificates would somehow transform the nature of the UK economy.

- Alison Wolf (p39 "Growth stocks and lemons: Diplomas in the English market-place", Assessment in Education: principles, policies and practice. Voume 4 Number 1 January 1997, Carfax)
We are delighted to find that she uses a similar quote in her new book ("Does education matter?", Penguin 2002, ISBN 0-14-028660-8)

At Faxfn, we are closely examining our budget to see if it will stretch to sending copies of the book to members of the current committee. In the meantime we give a few short quotes from it:

the countries which have done most to increase the education levels of their population have, on average, grown less fast than have devoted fewer resources to education.
The evidence on skills suggests that employers in the brave new 'knowledge economy' are after those traditional academic skills that schools have always tried to promote. The ability to read and comprehend, write fluently and correctly, and do mathematics ... It isn't obvious why this means pouring extra resourcesinto more years of education rather than maintaining quality in the places that already teach the skills.
The fight against university fees isn't a major campaign for equal opportunity - quite the contrary. The poor don't go to university. The children of the middle classes do.
...what is the alternative? [to give those at the bottom of the heap a slightly more equal chance at things] ... It is simply to subsidise jobs.
The most eminent and eloquent proponent of wage subsidies for the low-paid is the American economist Edmund Phelps.

Those of you that have read some of the other sections will understand why we think this is an important work. During 2003 Faxfn will do its best to make sure our politicians are aware of it. (We hope to be able to report better success than we had with Ronald Dore's work in 1999). However, this does not mean that Faxfn will be completely uncritical. For example, we have potential contributors who will probably reject her assumption that universities have good records for innovation.

20jan03a: Faxfn: Alison Wolf and university funding.

Universities need more money

Without detracting from the importance of Alison Wolf's work (see above) it is clear that she has a better opinion of universities than some of our contributors. In the current Prospect Magazine she introduces a round table on university funding. She says

In the past 20 years, Britain has stumbled into a system of mass education.
... on one hand a mass system is said to be incompatible with having world-class universities, and, on the other hand it also seems to be an obstacle to developing the vocational and technical education alot of people, including business, want. There is no disagreement that the system needs more money.
Do they?
We repeat this quote from her recent book
the countries which have done most to increase the education levels of their population have, on average, grown less fast than have devoted fewer resources to education.
and another
...we cannot conclude ... that the skills that employers are actually using and looking for are indeed the ones gained late in the day. The most valuable could have been aquired much earlier - by age fourteen, sixteen or eighteen - and we have seen strong suggestions that this may indeed be the case.
So why does the system need more money?

It's not Brown. It's Balls1

Is more money justified by the 'neoclassical endogenous growth theory' she describes. This claims that "highly educated people don't just produce more themselves but create an environment in which everyone is productive".

She points out that there is little hard evidence for or against this theory but cites this example

Of course, if you look at somewhere special like Silicon Valley, something on these lines is certainly happening: the energy, ideas and creativity created by a critical mass of very clever and skilled people are greater than if you scattered that group evenly across the United States.

If there is a "critical mass" for ideas and creativity, is a university a good place to generate this?

Watch this space.


In the meantime look at the joke for Wednesday, May 29, 2002 on wellslapmesilly.com

New Element Discovered..."Administratium"

A major research institution has recently announced the discovery of the heaviest element yet know to science. This new element has been tentatively named "Administratium".

Administratium has 1 neutron, 12 assistant neutrons, 75 deputy neutrons, and 111 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312.

These 312 particles are held together by a force called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called peons.

Since Administratium has no electrons, it is inert. However, it can be detected as it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact. A minute amount of Administratium causes one reaction to take over 4 days to complete when it would normally take less than a second.

Administratium has a normal half-life of 3 years; it does not decay however but instead undergoes a reorganization in which a portion of the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places. In fact, Administratium's mass will actually increase over time, since each reorganization casuses some morons to become neutrons, forming isodopes. This characteristic of moron-promotion leads some scientists to speculate that Administratium is formed whenever morons reach a certain quantity in concentration.

This hypothetical quantity is referred to as "Critical Morass". You will know it when you see it.

1For non UK residents: Ed Balls put the phrase "neo-classical endogenous growth theory" into a speech by Chancellor Gordon Brown. Michael Heseltine joked: "It's not Brown's, it's Balls."

25jan03a: Found on innovation.gov.uk : Education constrains innovation

Living Innovation 2002:
"you can only constrain [innovation] by education"
"I don't think [innovation] necessarily depends on your education ... But innovation needs leadership"

Living Innovation 2002, sponsored by Innovation.gov.uk, was launched at 1800 hours on June 18 with a one-hour satellite television programme from The Eden Project in Cornwall. Colin Prescot, Sue Wharton and Tim Smit spoke about what Innovation meant to them.

The main speakers are introduced here like this.

Colin Prescot. Inspiration behind the helium-filled balloon soon to travel to the very boundary of space!

Tim Smit Visionary innovator and founder of the Eden Project. Creating an outstanding visitor experience from holes in the ground!

Sue Wharton Connecting in the High Street, how the Trading and Innovation Director at WH Smith tackled innovation head on at one of Britain's oldest and best loved retailers.

Here are some excerpts from the transcript (which can be found here).

So does it matter where you went to school or where you went to college?

I don't think so, no. I think as long.. With encouragement to work in a more open way, I think everybody actually has the ability to be innovative and think of new things and develop new things.

Okay, well, we're going to go to a phone question now...

Yes, good evening from the Pop Factory. I have a question related to the last email that you answered, and this is to do with education. To what extent did your own education influence your ability to innovate, and what should we within education do to ensure that we have a higher level of interest and activity in innovation for all who pass through our educational establishments?


Well, I was privileged to have a private education, and that certainly taught me to talk proper, but other than that, I would say it didn't have much effect on it at all. I have a partner who is an engineer, he is a genius, in just the same way Tim was describing. He left school at the age of 16 with no qualifications at all, and he was the guy I was demonstrating who has just built this amazing machine. So, again, as Tim said, there's something in everybody. I don't think it necessarily depends on your education because we all have different brains. But innovation needs leadership, and I think that anybody has a chance to realise their dreams, if only somebody will give them a little bit more encouragement to do so, because we're a pretty stuffy society in Britain.

Okay, thank you, David, for your question.
Let's go to an e-mail question. Again, it's about education, we will get off this subject in a moment, but what should schools, colleges and universities do to encourage innovation? Tim perhaps you have a view on this one.

I have a view, it might not be a very popular one.

Can you teach innovation?

No. You can't teach innovation, you can only constrain it by education.


I didn't mean to actually be flippant, because of all the people on earth I revere the most they are teachers, what a gift to have, and they should be the most revered people that we have in our society. If you have children, and you are prepared to put them in the hands of these people, they must be the most valuable, mustn't they? I just think that our system is too geared to the concept that we have to have jobs, we're slaves to create jobs, and we're not encouraged to dream at school, because we need qualifications that get you jobs. And, actually, great thinking comes from being liberated from the constraints of curriculum, oddly enough. One of the great pleasures of working here is that you get people from all sorts of different backgrounds who contribute their bit, and suddenly you see that something that was almost insoluble in your mind, someone just comes from left field and you go Jesus, that's fantastic, never thought of that. And I think what we need to be doing is building an education system where people learn to enjoy their minds as opposed to constrain their minds, and I really feel that.

: (phone)



20feb03a: Postgraduate on the coach : Most undergraduates are dead wood.
Disappointed by university

I was very disappointed when I got to university. My parents had enthused about their education. The atmosphere they described was one where everybody, students and lecturers, were passionate about their subjects (Interruption from the seat behind: before the Thomas Gradgrinds got hold of it all.) And it was not just an enthusiasm for their particular subjects: They swapped ideas with students from other disciplines.

Hardly anyone interested

But hardly anyone on my course, Mathematics, was genuinely interested in maths - or at least were prepared to show that they were. Students wanted to be given a set of notes to get them through an exam with as little effort as possible. I could see how frustrating it was to the lecturers. Those that tried to teach students to think for themselves got slated in the course appraisals given by students at the end of the course.

Lecturers despair

Now I am a postgraduate I can talk to those lecturers and they seem to be in despair. They are helpless. The university is now run by form fillers aiming for mechanical targets. The idea seems to be to spoon feed the students so that the department can meet uniform but superficial standards required by the system.

No room for inspiration

Undergraduate courses have no room for inspirational mathematics. I respect the lecturers in my department who try so hard fight the system and encourage individual mathematical thought. But they are fighting the government and the hordes of students that are simply at university because society believes it's best for most people to go to university. In fact, the only people that really gain are those who wanted to go to university because they had the drive to understand.

New ideas not allowed

The dead wood of the time servers, not only held back the few inspired students but because they were exam focussed they created an atmosphere that restricts creativity and ingenuity. After all, trying a new idea is taking a risk - a risk that it may not be wise to take when there is only really time to learn by rote.

Enquiry by argument and discussion - at last

When I was doing A levels we had a small class (6 or 7 pupils). We ended nearly every lesson arguing over some mathematical point. As an undergraduate I never experienced any such heated discussions. Now I am a research student, this enquiry by argument and discussion has finally resurfaced.

An appetite for knowledge

There has been much talk of increasing the number of people attending university. But most people are not suited to attending university. This is not simply a function of academic ability as measured by the exam machine. Suitability strongly depends on a willingness to make the effort to learn and an appetite for knowledge.