Saturday, November 25, 2006

BECTA on the offensive

Pindar pokes profession
Strong stuff from the new BECTA chair. In a blistering analysis on the wasted spend in schools, the new Chair of BECTA, Andrew Pinder, blamed the teaching profession as being the block on progress.

Schools a cottage industry
Every other area of human endeavour seems to have been made more efficient and effective through technology, yet education and training seem to be fossilised. Few teachers and trainers are using technology usefully, most of them hobbiests and enthusiasts. The reason? According to Pinder, education doesn't see itself as an INDUSTRY. It has lots of technology but few who know how to apply sensible business models. The system is stuck in a mode where the teacher in a classroom of 30 students is the primary delivery method. Teaching, in this sense is still a cottage industry, and as a cottage inustry, with power in the hands of individuals, progress has been impossible.

Profession is the problem

In the outside world, where technology has forced institutional reorganisation above that of the individual, we have seen massive increases in productivity. In schools, where power and budget is in the hands of the teaching 'profession' we have seen little progress. He sees the 'profession' as the problem. Professionals want control as individuals, want to do their own thing, and often refuse to be organised, or reorganised.

Schools, in his opinion, are organised in the wrong way. They need institutional reform, not management by individuals. One must separate the institution from its staff. In education the workers are in control and run the system for their benefit. They can't go out of business, are massively funded and supported by the state and have therefore have no reason to reform themselves. Reform must come from the outside.

Irrelevant research
He was also scathing about 'irrelevant research'. He has a point, as we seem to have lost our way here, with almost all useful research is now stateside.

Whiteboards - trivial
On whiteboardsm his views are clear - a minor if not marginal initiative that just reinforced the old 'teacher in front of a class' model. It is, effectively, and expensive enhancement of the Victorian blackboard (introduced around 1870!).

This looks like a good appointment. This guy has seen it from both sides, as a private and public sector manager. He's full of bold ideas and not scared to go on the offensive when he encounters 'professional' hubris.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Harvard research damns diversity training

Harvard’s Frank Dobbin has conducted the first major, systematic study of diversity programmes across 708 private sector companies, using employment data and surveys on employment practices. His research concluded that, “Practices that target managerial bias through…diversity training, show virtually no effect.” In fact, “Research to date suggests that… training often generates a backlash.”

Many other studies show that diversity training has activated, rather than reduced diversity (Kidder et al 2004, Rynes and Rosen 1995, Sidanias et al 2001, Naff and Kellough 2003, Bnedict et al 1998, Nelson et al 1996). These are all referenced in the report.

The research is a very thorough piece of work, and well worth reading, which is why it will most likely be comprehensively ignored.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Drinking champagne from shoes

A fun night at the e-learning age awards, especially as our table (LINE Communications) won the top award of the night - can't remember what it was called, but something along the lines of 'Fastest growing, leading, best e-learning company in the universe' was getting late and the cabernet was flowing like wine!

Awards nights have an odd effect on me. Held in hotels I'd never dream of staying in, stomachs popping out of tuxedos that have seen better days (as have their owners), strange dresses (taffita confections with well buttressed bosoms oozing out at the top) and food to die for (literally). There was the predictable 'terrine' easy to slice for the assembled hordes, chicken (makes a change from the salmon steak), then a surprisingly tasty lemon tart (better than the usual drum-shaped chocolate mousse with plastic-tasting chocolate shavings). Why do they give you a printed menu when there's never any choice?

There were some 'quotes' and 'anecdotes' told by the compere that were well past their retirement date. "You may be surprised (we weren't) to learn that, in 1947, the CEO of IBM predoicted that there would be a market for SIX computers" - cracked me up that did.

Led some of us to reflect on our greatest ever award ceremonies. My favourite was the ill-fated BIVA Awards (Biritsh Interactive Video Awards) held in the Brighton Metropole when Willy Rushton stood up, looked out across the room, and said "BIVA - the last person who had a view like this was Joan Collin's gynacologist". Some laughed but almost all of the women in the audience rightly booed and the night quickly descended into anarchy. The next year they changed their name to BIMA!

But my favourite tale of an awards ceremony, also held in the Brighton Metropole, was of a training manager from that sober company Alliance & Leicester, who won an award and treated her table and the production company (Convergent I think) to a bottle of brandy and a crate (yes crate) of champagne which they took to the producer's room. There they proceeded to drink the champagne from her shoes (always wanted to do this) and a night of debauchery ensued. The next morning DA (his initials) woke up to the sound of the housekeeper knocking on the door. He was still in his tuxedo, shoes on his feet, and looked around to see smashed lamps, broken bottles strewn across the floor, an overflowing bath and torn curtains. He apologised profusely to the housekeeper, who replied 'Don't worry, I've seen worse!'. Stephenie, the client, paid for the damages. Those were the days!

Internet access alone raises test scores

Up to two thirds of UK households now have internet access. But does simple internet access raise academic achievement in chldren?

HomeNetToo research by Linda Jackson, a psychology professor at Michigan State University, gave internet access to 10-16 year olds in low-income households that had no previous access. They were free to use it as they wanted and the average turned out to be around 30 minutes per day.

The findings were consistent across both genders – the more time the children spent on the web the higher their academic achievement as measured by standard test scores.

The study concluded that the increased reading and comprehension led to increased literacy, which in turn led to improvements across the board (except in maths). Literacy has long been recognised as a predictor in other subjects.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

NLP – training’s shameful, fraudulent cult

Know this guy? He was arrested for First Degree murder in 1988 and charged with the murder of his bookkeeper, who was also running a call-girl operation on the side. He had plunged headlong into cocaine addiction, and only he and his drug dealer (who was also the victim's boyfriend) were present in her house when the shooting took place. He's one of the founders of NLP - a crackpot of the first degree - Richard Bandler.

This self-fulfilling faith has propelled itself into the heart of the training world. NLP Neuro-Linguistic Programming has little to do with serious neuroscience and linguistics but it is certainly a programme. The practitioners have been ‘programmed’ to believe the ‘programme’, giving them the right to ‘programme’ others. That’s what cults do. Ever criticised NLP in front of a NLP practitioner? Like all fundamentalists they respond with the full force of the fanatic.

Science fiction
The NLP expert will tell you that it is science. Indeed, the whole brand (and it is almost nothing more than a brand) depends upon it appearing to be science. CAP, the regulatory body for UK advertising, has already slapped the wrists of those claiming that NLP is science. Yet, immune to the huge amount of scientific evidence showing that it is bogus, you will quickly hear them retreat to the idea that ‘science isn’t everything’ or that the techniques ‘cannot be verified through clinical trials’. They can’t have it both ways.

NLP is not a unified theory, it’s a hotch–potch of theories, all unverified. The founders and their disciples have been involved in incredibly bitter disputes about the so-called theory and ownership of the three letters. Gregory Bateson, a now forgotten new-age sociologist, along with his student, Richard Bandler (later drug addict and arrested for First degree murder in 88) and John Grinder produced a messy soup of new age thinking. It folded in hypnosis, psychotherapy and unconscious thinking (and to be frank any old rubbish that comes their way) into a suitably palatable omelette for the gullible. (Trainers love it as it has lots of little childish tricks for classroom courses.)

Heap of crap
The Principal Clinical Psychologist for Sheffield Health Authority, Dr Heap, looked at 70 papers on NLP, to examine its theoretical underpinning - Primary Representational System (PRS). This is the claim that we think in a specific mode: visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory or gustatory (first three being the most common). This stinks – NLP tutors would now diagnose me as olifactory, as keywords (predicates) are central to the theory, along with eye movements. The claim is that rapport can be enhanced using these techniques, therefore fooling people into doing what you want; working harder, buying your product etc.

Fine, but surely we can tell, from simple scientific trails whether this is all true or not? Heap did exactly this. He looked at the scientific literature and found that PRS is not serious science. He found that 'keywords' are not indicators in the way NLP practioners claim and ‘eye movement’ theories are, in particular, widely rejected.

OK, so what about establishing rapport? Again Heap found that there was no scientfic evidence for the claim that these techniques improve rapport. In one now famous study, Cody found that NLP therapists, using language matching, were actually rated as untrustworthy and ineffective. Heap concludes that NLP is “found to be lacking” and that “there is not, and never has been, any substance to the conjecture that people represent their world internally in a preferred mode which may be inferred from their choice of predicates and from their eye movements”.

Completely bogus
David Platt, drawing from the excellent German NLP research website ( found that the science found:

1. No bona fide evidence to support the use of representational systems and concluded that they did not appear to play any significant role in communication.

2. Use of predicates had little to no influence in building or enhancing rapport.

3. Eye-accessing cues appeared to have no significant positive or negative impact when utilised in personal interactions.

Serious linguists will have nothing to do with the theory as its linguistic components were debunked long ago.

Corballis cuts to the quick "NLP is a thoroughly fake title, designed to give the impression of scientific respectability. NLP has little to do with neurology, linguistics, or even the respectable subdiscipline of neurolinguistics".

Others, such as Beyerstein, go further accusing NLP of being a total con, new-age fakery to be classed alongside scientology and astrology and many serious management thinkers decry its presence in management theory.

Last year, Sanghera, in the FT, described NLP as ‘pop-psychology’, ‘pseudosciene’ and ‘banal’. It has been called training’s ‘astrology’. ‘Psychobabble’ is another commonly used term.

So how come a theory with no credible academic basis in psychology, linguistics and neuroscience is still being delivered as serious training? It would seem that the training world is happy peddling pseudoscience. The actual scientific basis of NLP is of no real interest to trainers who are happy doing parlour tricks in classrooms.


Heap, M. (1988). Neuro-linguistic programming, In M. Heap (Ed.) Hypnosis: Current Clinical, Experimental and Forensic Practices. London: Croom Helm, pp 268-280.

Heap, M. (1989). Neuro-linguistic programming: What is the evidence? In D Waxman D. Pederson. I.

Krugman, Kirsch, Wickless, Milling, Golicz, & Toth (1985). Neuro-linguistic programming treatment for anxiety: Magic or myth? Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology. Vol 53(4), 526-530.

Corballis, M. in Sala (ed) (1999) Mind Myths. Exploring Popular Assumptions About the Mind and Brain Author: Sergio Della Sala Publisher: Wiley, John & Sons ISBN 0-471-98303-9 p.41

Beyerstein.B.L (1990). "Brainscams: Neuromythologies of the New Age.". International Journal of Mental Health 19(3): 27-36,27.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Carl Rogers and institutionalised emotional control

Heard of Carl Rogers? Believe me, he has a lot to answer for in education and training. This is the guy who promoted 'client-centred' therapy and modern counselling. It is he who is largely responsible for the flood of therapy-oriented methods that have become widely adopted in education and training through appraisals, coaching, mentoring and the flood of emotional control training. Roger’s influence (unfortunatley) can be felt everywhere in modern learning.

This started way back in 1951 when Rogers had looked at 'student-centred teaching' in Client-Centered Therapy (1951: 384-429). There he claimed that teaching is really facilitation and that we must allow the learner to relax to learn and feel free from any form of threat. Fine, but this was to turn into a monstrously distorted idea in the later Freedom to Learn (1969:83: 93) which takes counselling principles and applies them to education in schools.

Here’s a short history of how emotional control became institutionalised:

Therapy mad - Out of an earlier psychoanalytic tradition the US became a ‘therapeutic state’ in 60s – and we imported it - big time

Pseudo-psychological language - We managed to redefine personal difficulties as a sort of pathology – so that the everyday language of managers now includes terms like; self-esteem, in-denial, codependency, stress and so on (note that these terms only began to be used in 80s and 90s – see Furedi (2004)).

Professional intervention - The formalisation of relationships between people within organisations became increasingly codified as we institutionalised therapeutic practices appraisals, counselling and so on. A whole new HR priesthood became the supposed guardians of our emotional welfare.

Institutionalised therapeutic training – Therapy culture became codified as training courses e.g. emotional intelligence, stress management and now a tsunami of compliance and regulatory courses around diversity, age etc.

We now need ‘experts’, ‘processes’ or ‘training’ to manage what was the rough and tumble of everyday relationships with other people. On top of this there’s a whole ‘trauma’ industry where sensible legislation is used to push through often fatuous claims.

Of course, in most cases in this ‘counselling game’, both sides pretend that it’s a real dialogue. What used to be called honest discussion between adults now takes place behind closed doors in appraisals and counselling sessions, or even worse, official mentoring. We must all pray at the holy altar of endless open questions and the most banal forms of gossipy soul searching.

What seems like a sensible approach to human interaction, namely facilitation through authenticity in the facilitator of learning, has turned into its opposite - a sort of conformity of emotional control, where every sphere of life has become subject to a new emotional culture with therapeutic cures. Everyone is ill until proven healthy.

Learning is not a cure to an illness
Rogers's influence on therapy, counselling and education is enormous. The general tone of learning through facilitation was set by him and continues to this day in a sort of counsellor/teacher role. This has been positive on the one side, but also has negative consequences. Facilitated learning may benefit more from the honest dissolution of misconceptions rather than an abundance of empathy. Unfortunately, the therapy-oriented techniques aimed at troubled minds do not always apply to people who simply want to learn. Not knowing something is not an illness to be cured by therapy.

Socratic method gone mad
In a previous post I had a go at the na├»ve use of the term ‘Socratic method’. The therapy culture is the ‘Socratic method’ gone mad. In counselling, the idea that the client knows more than the counsellor became the prevalent model. Unfortunately, this extreme form of the Socratic method is difficult in learning, where, by definition, the learner doesn’t have the knowledge or skill to start with.

Rogers, C. and Freiberg, H. J. (1993) Freedom to Learn (3rd edn.), New York: Merrill.

Furedi, F. (2004) Therapy Culture Routledge.

Kirschenbaum, H. (1979) On Becoming Carl Rogers, New York: Delacorte Press.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Vygotsky - the Lysenko of learning

Why have learning academics been so keen to resurrect an old Marxist theorist, dress up half-baked sociology and pretend it’s psychology? I’m talking about the oft-quoted, seldom read Vygotsky.

Not content with fossilising 50 year old theory from Bloom, Gagne and Kirkpatrick, the learning world digs even deeper into the past to bring back to life a guy who died in 1934!

Having worked my way through 'Thought and Language' and 'Mind in Society' along with several other Vygotsky texts, I'll be damned if I can see what all the fuss is about. He is to the psychology of learning what Lysenko was to genetics. Indeed the parallel with Lysenko is quite apposite. Forgoing the idea of genetics he sees interventionist, social mediation as the sole source of cognitive development. Vygotsky is a sort of ‘tabla rasa’ Lamarkian learning theorist.

Vygotsky’s psychology is clearly rooted in the dialectical historicism of Hegel and Marx. We know this because he repeatedly tell us. His focus on the role of language, and the way it shapes our learning and thought, defines his social psychology and learning theory. Behaviour is shaped by the context of a culture, and schools reflect that culture. He goes further, driving social influence right down to the level of interpersonal interactions. These interpersonal interactions, he thinks, mediate the development of children’s higher mental functions, such as thinking, reasoning, problem solving, memory, and language. He took larger dialectical themes and applied them to interpersonal communication and learning. This is in direct contradiction to almost everything we now know about the mind and its modular structure.

For him, psychology becomes sociology as all psychological phenomena are seen as social constructs. In this respect he reverses Piaget’s position that development comes first and learning second. Vygotsky puts learning before development - asort of social behaviourist. He's simply wrong.

Very specifically he prescribes a method of instruction that keeps the learner in the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This is the difference between what can be known on one’s own and what can potentially be known. To progress, one must interact with peers who are ahead of the game through social interaction, a dialectical process between learner and peer. This is not theory, it’s a trite observation.

The rarely read Vygotsky appeals to those who see teaching and instruction as a necessary condition for learning – it is NOT. It also appeals to sociologists who see culture as a the determinant factor in all learning – it is NOT . As a pre-Chomskian linguist, his theories of language are dated and still rooted in now discredited dialectical materialism.
Sorry - gone on a bit here - but soviet sociology is not psychology.