Monday, June 30, 2014

The Research Proposal as Writing ‘Work’

resorting to paper... #research#  #proposal
Research Proposal (Photo credit: catherinecronin)
by , Patter:

A while ago I was asked to write something about research proposals. I hesitated because there is already a lot written about the topic.

I didn’t want to try to condense all of that writing in an abbreviated post. So I parked the request and the idea.

However, right now I think that maybe there is something to say about the research proposal. It’s about the work that it has to do.

I was reminded about the request when I received a cold-calling PhD research proposal. The proposal began by assuming that the research I do on writing is TESOL, Teaching English as a Second Language.

The writer didn’t actually say TESOL in the text, it’s just that all of the proposal was written using in TESOL terminology, referred to TESOL literatures and the research proposed was something that TESOL scholars would be interested in. I wasn’t. Not my field. It didn’t resonate with me at all. It jarred.

Of course I politely passed the proposal on to my colleagues who do work in this space. But the incident brought the research proposal request back into my mind …

I like the notion of writing doing work. Writing doesn’t just sit on the page. It is written for a purpose. It aims to make something happen. Texts do things - they can be said to act perhaps - in the world. And if and when they can’t make anything happen, texts literally get shelved. Anthony Pare explains this much better than I can:

… language is a technology: it can be used to do things; but it is no simple or single-purpose tool. It is the ultimate Swiss Army knife, with a different implement for every use or purpose we can dream up. 

In our daily lives we use language to ask, amuse, inform, tell, demand, propose, and on and on through an endless list of routine rhetorical goals. 

At a more sophisticated level, and in complex collaboration with others, we use this basic quality of language to shape specific results: we design and regulate language practices in law to produce justice, in governance to produce policy, in education to produce learning, in business to produce profits, and in science to produce new knowledge. 

Within the university, we shape modes and methods of disciplinary inquiry, at the heart of which are the language forms and practices that help us produce the specialized knowledge we need and value. Different rhetorics create different knowledges.

So what then might be the work that a research proposal has to do? What is its rhetorical intent?

A research proposal - regardless of whether it is written for a PhD or for a funder - is a bid to be taken in and taken up. The work of the research proposal is to demonstrate that the researcher has the capacity to produce disciplinary knowledge.

In order to do so, the proposal writer must show familiarity with the ‘right’ language, knowledge production practices, existing debates and taken for granted ‘truths’ of the relevant scholarly community. The proposal writing must signal that the writer is either a potential, or already a contributing member, of a particular discipline/ interdisciplinary field.

The cold-calling PhD proposal didn’t do this work for me. It literally didn’t work. It didn’t do the work. It might however do enough for my TESOL colleagues to take it up, and take on the proposal writer.

It’s the notion of writing as work that sits behind conventional research proposal advice; this usually suggests that proposal writers read the relevant literatures in order to talk the talk - to write in ways that are expected and recognized by the reviewer-reader(s).

It’s also why the advice to proposal writers continues by saying that the proposal writer should get to know who the reviewers of research proposals are - that they will know what to read and write if they have an idea of the research and writing of potential reviewers.

This kind of getting to know-the-community homework is not tokenistic, not about simply nodding in the direction of citations or egos. Getting familiar with the literatures and reviewers is so that the research proposal writing can do its work properly. It is so that the proposal rhetoric signals ‘belonging’ and ‘contributing’.

As Pare puts it:

Writing is social action. We don’t write writing, we write something - a proposal, an argument, a description, a judgement, a directive - something that we hope will have an effect, will have results, change minds, spur to action, create solidarity, seed doubt. … writing works in and on collectives to produce desired or required outcomes.

All of the technical advice out there about proposals aims to help writers to make the writing do this work. Writing a research proposal is not just about getting ideas down in an expected form, getting it ‘right’ is only a small piece of what counts.

The expected form/ structure is there as the accepted scholarly way to persuade, convince, engage, stimulate interest and encourage entrĂ©e and/ or approval. It’s doing this rhetorical work that matters.

It is this thought about the work that writing does, this thought above all else, that I have in mind when writing a research proposal for funding. I know that I have to write to do the work that will mean I and my project will be selected, be legitimated, be acknowledged.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Your Writing Space: For Productivity and PhD Motivation

by E. Alana James, Doctoral Net:
Do you ever have you PhD motivation lag? I can relate.

This blog is written on the first of a couple of road trips this summer as I begin to sell DoctoralNet subscription services to universities.

I started in the UK at a conference for 21st Century Global Universities - a topic I may overview and write about in the next few days.

This blog is written on a personal note because I find as I travel that I have to re-evaluate my use of work spaces to keep my motivation and productivity high.

Three times, I built an environment that proved exactly right for both motivation and productivity. I hope that anyone lagging may take some ideas from these.

1. During my PhD work I set my alarm 15-30 minutes earlier than my family. I crawled out of bed, past sleeping dogs, made coffee and snuck into the room where I kept my home computer. Every day I could see what I was doing grow and change. I also kept a research journal - not to comment on what I had done so much as to plan what I wanted to do next - to keep my eye on the ball of finishing.

2. My current office is as nice as it gets - lovely built-in cupboards that hide the clutter, an ergonomically sound chair and a window which looks out to the seaside area where we live. It is important that it is beautiful as I spend so much time there (probably 60 hours a week). My to do lists/ research journal continues but when I am at my desk it is often up on pomodairo tool which I set for 50 minutes of work and 10 minutes of break.

3. All is destroyed when I travel, so today I am celebrating my setting up something that works because it is always changing. Where do I work and how do I keep my motivation when I am staying at a somewhat funky air bnb space with no desk, and a roomate I don't really know? Moving around seems to be the answer for me when no one space works. In Liverpool, I found a coffee house with wifi - I start my day there for a couple of hours, giving the room-mate time to leave for work. Then when that chair gets too hard I move on. I also messed up my normal routine, showering in the middle of the day - eating at odd hours - each timed to perk me up when motivation was flagging. This reminds me of a man who came to our first live retreat - while everyone else closeted in their room David went to the coffee shop.
Fortunately we live in a time where we all easily travel with the music we like - choose something upbeat that you can easily ignore but that keeps your mood positive (soundtracks work for me).

What are the overarching lessons? 

- Keep at it - no matter what. Take short breaks and mess with routine but keep coming back to the work.
- Keep your eye on the next steps - those closest to you and cross them off your list at regular intervals.
- Keep your body/ mind comfortable - whether that is through movement, music, beauty or comfort.

Of course we have a lot more motivational tips and tricks on the home site: 

Let me know what you do - we can all learn from each others tricks.

ATAR Scores Only Part of the Picture for Teaching

Teacher (Photo credit: ben110)
by Linda J. Graham, Queensland University of Technology

A common debate has resurfaced over teacher quality and the quality of teacher education in Australia.

This time it was started by a leaked draft report into teacher education from the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) which the public can’t expect to see for at least another month.

Media reports have all focused on one aspect of the wide-ranging report: teaching students' ATARs. A story in The Australian claimed that teacher education providers are
… contributing to the slide in teacher training quality by accepting very low Year 12 marks.
According to the numbers reported in The Australian, 6.7% of students entering teacher education have ATARs in the bottom third (below 60).

However, we don’t have enough information to make any further claims about links between teacher education entry standards and the quality of teaching in schools more generally.

Firstly, the reporting does not separate ATARs by teaching specialisation, and that has implications for how these data are read and what they are being taken to mean. Secondly, there is an assumption that someone with a high ATAR score will make a good teacher (and that someone with a lower ATAR will not).

Behind both of these is an assumption that higher ATARs reflect innate intelligence. But they don’t.

What lies behind higher/ lower ATAR scores?

ATAR scores are weighted and some secondary school subjects are scaled higher than others. The “hard” sciences (physics/ chemistry), mathematics and extension subjects can contribute to higher ATAR scores - if one does well in them.

“Softer” practical subjects do not rate as highly and it is quite possible to do exceptionally well in drama or visual arts, for example, but still end up with a low ATAR.

Drama or visual arts may well be that student’s teaching specialisation - so should we deny them entry to the teaching profession, simply because they didn’t do so well at maths? They won’t be teaching it, so do their maths scores matter?

It is also well-known - amongst middle-class parents especially - that going to an academically high performing school (and generally one in a high socioeconomic area) will add points to an ATAR simply by being there. The increase is unlikely to be huge, but it could well mean the difference for some.

So did the students with ATARs below 60 entering teacher education in 2013 come from disadvantaged backgrounds and schools that could not add to their scores? Are they planning to specialise in subject areas that tend not to attract higher ATAR weightings? I’d be worried if these students were planning to teach maths or physics but I highly doubt they are.

Conflating ATAR with intelligence

Underpinning this debate is the assumption that higher ATARs indicate higher intelligence and that the “brightest students” will make the best teachers. These claims should not go unchallenged.

Anyone who has spent time in universities can tell you the brightest people do not necessarily make the best teachers. It can be exceptionally hard to break down a skill or concept that comes easily to you in order to teach it to somebody else. It is also extremely hard to understand difficulties in learning if you have never experienced them yourself.

So, what makes a good teacher?

Subject content knowledge is only part of what makes an effective teacher. The ability to understand what piece of the puzzle is presenting barriers to learning, how to scaffold student learning to guide students through those barriers, and how to do it in ways that preserve their self-esteem and enthusiasm are equally important.

Too often in my research I see teachers “teach to the middle” - missing the students who need them the most. Often this is accidental and, sometimes, it’s deliberate.

Students who find school work boring or academic learning difficult can be hard work. Teachers are under pressure to “get through the curriculum” more than ever before and some are not averse to expressing their frustration when some students do not learn as quickly or as easily as others.

The students in my research are not blind to this and they deeply resent it. While many switch off and silently fail, some resort to disruption - with a few of those telling the teacher to get f**ked and/ or throwing a chair across the room.

When asked what makes a good teacher, most students will acknowledge the importance of subject content knowledge but more important than that is how the teacher teaches, how the teacher treats them, whether they relate learning to their students’ background and ability, and - most of all - whether they make it fun.
The Conversation

A/Prof Linda Graham works in the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She receives funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the Financial Markets Foundation for Children. She is the Editor of The Australian Educational Researcher (AER) and is a member of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Executive Committee.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Performance-Based Research Assessment is Narrowing and Impoverishing the University in New Zealand, the UK and Denmark

A depiction of the world's oldest continually ...
A depiction of the world's oldest continually operating university, the University of Bologna, Italy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Susan Wright, Bruce Curtis, Lisa Lucas and Susan Robertson, Impact of Social Sciences:

Susan Wright, Bruce Curtis, Lisa Lucas and Susan Robertson provide a basic outline of their working paper on how performance-based research assessment frameworks in different countries operate and govern academic life. 

They find that assessment methods steer academic effort away from wider purposes of the university, enhance the powers of leaders, propagate unsubstantiated myths of meritocracy, and demand conformity. 

But the latest quest for ‘impact’ may actually in effect unmask these operations and diversify ‘what counts’ across contexts.

Our working paper Research Assessment Systems and their Impacts on Academic Work in New Zealand, the UK and Denmark arises from the EU Marie Curie project ‘Universities in the Knowledge Economy’ (URGE) and specifically from its 5th work package, which examined how reform agendas that aimed to steer university research towards the ‘needs of a knowledge economy’ affected academic research and the activities and conduct of researchers.

This working paper has focused on Performance-Based Research Assessment systems (PBRAs). PBRAs in the UK, New Zealand and Denmark now act as a quality check, a method of allocating funding competitively between and within universities, and a method for governments to steer universities to meet what politicians consider to be the needs of the economy.

Drawing on the studies reported here and the discussions that followed their presentation to the URGE symposium, four main points can be highlighted.

Narrowing of the Purpose of the University

PBRAs gained renewed purpose when governments accepted the arguments of the OECD and other international organisations that, in a fast approaching and inevitable future, countries had to compete over the production and utilisation of knowledge and in the market for students (Wright 2012).

Governments saw universities as the source of these new raw materials, and PBRAs became important mechanisms to steer universities in particular directions.

However, they are quite a blunt instrument: PBRAs’ assessment methods prioritise ‘academic’ publications, which have notoriously few readers but which are heavily weighted in global rankings of universities.

This focus is therefore appropriate where governments aim for their universities to claim ‘world class’ status in order to attract global trade in students. However, such an instrument steers academic effort away from other purposes of the university, which might also be part of government’s aims, for example transferring ideas to industry or more widely contributing to social debates and democracy.

In all cases, PBRAs capture only certain aspects of the university, with the danger of narrowing and impoverishing of the mission of the university.
assessment columns 
Image credit: Ivy Dawned (Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA)
Glorification of Leaders

Just as measures become targets, so such steering tools become the main rationale of management and are used by them to reshape the university. One of the points raised in discussion at the URGE symposium was how governments’ steering of universities through such measures relies on enhancing the powers of leaders.

Lucas (2006; 2009) has shown how the history of the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) is paralleled by the emergence of a managerial class to control the university’s performance.

Robertson’s case study records how yet another new administrative apparatus was developed to advise and quality control academics in the devising and writing of ‘impact’ case studies for the Research Excellence Framework (REF, which replaced the previous RAE).

These systems of steering universities have not only contributed to what in the U.S. is called universities’ ‘administrative bloat’ (Ginsberg 2011) but also what was referred to in the URGE symposium as the ‘glorification’ of vice chancellors.

When university managers’ Key Performance Indicators in New Zealand and the UK are based on improving their university’s status in national and global rankings, they become organisational imperatives.

A new language has emerged that speaks of the violence involved in the RAE, for example, ‘cutting off the tail’ of departments - getting rid of academics who, regardless of any other qualities and contributions, score low in RAE-able publications.

In New Zealand, the PBRA rationale has not taken over the life of the university so compulsively and other narratives about the purpose of the university are still available.

Myths of the Level Playing Field

PBRAs are accompanied by rhetoric that their standardised metrics obviate favouritism and install meritocratic advancement. It was argued at the URGE symposium that before there used to be baronial departments and only the head of department’s (usually male) cronies succeeded.

Now, the argument goes, there are clear criteria for promotion and funding, and all can strategise, individually, to succeed. Such transparent criteria should lead to both excellence and equity.

Yet, the new metric for promotion fetishises external funding and Curtis’ analysis also reveals that the PBRF systematically disadvantages women, those trained in New Zealand, and those studying New Zealand issues. In the UK, the RAE also systematically disadvantages women.

Robertson’s analysis of the shift from RAE to REF in the UK clearly shows the systematic disadvantages of different systems.

Subjects like nursing, public policy and some humanities, which had done badly under the RAE’s focus on academic publications were now good at demonstrating ‘impact’ in the REF.

For these subjects, the income from REF ‘impact’ would make a considerable difference whereas, for some other subjects, such as engineering, the cost in academic time to put together REF cases demonstrating their undoubted ‘impact’ would not yield sufficient returns, compared to their other sources of income.

Dangerous Coherence

PBRAs act as tools of governance when their definition of ‘what counts’ pervades government steering, university management and academic identity formation (Wright forthcoming).

Unambiguous definitions of what counts provide clear messages to university staff and managers who then act accordingly and perhaps not in line with other government indicators.

The recent inclusion of ‘impact’ in the REF reflected governmental concern that the previous RAE’s primary focus on each academic producing four articles in top journals had eroded the capacity for staff to provide policy advice. The inclusion of impact broadens and complicates ‘what counts’.

In this respect Curtis (2007; under review) has noted how the PBRF in New Zealand provides mixed messages to university managers. New Zealand universities also have a legal obligation to be the ‘critic and conscience of society’.

Similarly Danish universities have a legal obligation to engage with and disseminate their research to ‘surrounding society’. Both would have the potential to diversify ‘what counts’ if performance and funding measures were devised in keeping with their legal obligations.

Hopefully, the UK’s quest for ‘impact’ will have a wider impact, of unmasking the operations of PBRAs as political technologies and their role in a pervasive form of governance that is narrowing and impoverishing the public purpose of the university.

This piece is based on the findings in the 2014 working paper Research Assessment Systems and their Impacts on Academic Work in New Zealand, the UK and Denmark, Working Papers in University Reform no. 24. Copenhagen: DPU, Aarhus University, April.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Authors

Susan Wright is Professor of Educational Anthropology at the Department of Education (DPU), Aarhus University. She studies people’s participation in large scale processes of transformation - most recently, academics’, managers’ and policy makers’ engagement with Danish university reforms. Universities were one of several sites through which she studied changing forms of governance in the UK since the 1980s and informing all her work are insights gained from studies of political transformation in Iran before and after the Islamic Revolution.

Bruce Curtis lectures in Sociology at the University of Auckland. His research interests include organisations, neo-colonialism, academic life and methodologies.

Lisa Lucas is a sociologist of higher education based in the Centre for Globalisation, Education and Societies in the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. Her research involves looking at global comparisons of higher education policy, particularly research policy and global league tables. She is also interested in the nature of academic work and identity as well as issues around social justice and widening participation to higher education.

Susan L. Robertson is Professor of Sociology of Education, Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol, UK.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Writing the PhD: Reverse Outlines

writing a descriptive paragraph
Thesis Writing (Photo credit: jon madison)
by Rachael Cayley, Explorations of Style:

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. 

These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. 

In this post, I talk about reverse outlines. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: Literature Reviews and Reverse Outlines; The Perils of Local Cohesion; and Truth in Outlining. 

Reverse Outlines

Over the coming weeks, I will discuss five key strategies for improving academic writing. I have chosen these five simply because they are the ones that I most frequently turn to in my work with students.

I have ordered them roughly from global to local, starting with a strategy for overall coherence and ending with common sentence problems.

It is generally more efficient to treat broader structural issues before spending time on individual sentences; the structural edit, done right, can dramatically change a text.

You do not want to expend energy on sentence-level improvements before making some broader decisions about what will stay and what will go.

The first strategy - and definitely my favourite - is the reverse outline. Reverse outlines are outlines that we create from an existing text. Regardless of whether you create an outline before you write, creating one after you have written a first draft can be invaluable.

A reverse outline will reveal the structure - and thus the structural problems - of a text. The steps to creating a reverse outlines are simple:

1. Number your paragraphs (paragraphs are the essential unit of analysis here; next week we will look at why paragraphs are so important).
2. Identify the topic of each paragraph. At this point, you can also make note of the following:
a. Is there a recognizable topic sentence?
b. How long is the paragraph?
i. Does the topic seem sufficiently developed?
ii. Is there more than one topic in the paragraph?
3. Arrange these topics in an outline.
4. Analyze this outline, assessing the logic (where elements have been placed in relation to one another) and the proportion (how much space is being devoted to each element).
5. Use this analysis to create a revised outline.
6. Use this revised outline to reorganize your text.
7. Go back to your answers in 2a and 2b to help you create topic sentences and cohesion in your paragraphs.

This strategy is effective because it creates an objective distance between you and your text. A reverse outline acts as a way into a text that might otherwise resist our editorial efforts.

As we discussed when we looked at revision, we often find our drafts disconcerting: we know they are flawed but making changes can seem risky. A reverse outline can give us purpose and direction as we undertake the valuable process of restructuring our work.

Is the Fear of Metrics Symptomatic of a Deeper Malaise? Fiefdoms and Scapegoats of the Academic Community

Academia Imperial de Belas Artes
Academia Imperial de Belas Artes (Photo credit: Rodrigo_Soldon)
by Steve Fuller, Impact of Social Sciences:

This Monday marks the end of the open consultation for HEFCE’s Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment. Steve Fuller expands on his submission and also responds to other prominent critiques offered. 

He argues that academics, especially interdisciplinary scholars, should welcome the opportunity to approach the task of citation differently. 

Whilst many complain of the high citation rates of bad scholarship, Fuller wonders if this is a problem of research metrics or of the inability to define a coherent ideal of progressive scholarship.

There is nothing especially wrong with using citation metrics to gauge the state of academic research and the relative position of its players. However, the players need to know the rules of the game, if they are to respond intelligently.

To be sure, academics already know that citations operate as market signals by which the fate of their pieces are at least partly determined. Post-peer review citation practices routinely testify to this. So it would be a deep mistake to think that academics are allergic to metrics per se.

However, in the past, these metrics were self-organizing and locally enforced. I am not the first to observe that over the 20th century, academia has devolved into fiefdoms and warlords, whose existence tracks the proliferation of journals.

Thus, bibliometricians have revealed that the spontaneous arrangement of citations in the field of published knowledge is constructed as mildly overlapping archipelagos (‘networks’ is a bit euphemistic in this context).

But academics would need to approach the task of citation differently in light of the current HEFCE proposal - and this should be welcomed.

If academics are indeed preoccupied with turf-marking in the sense so easily revealed by bibliometrics, then it is easy to see how they might be threatened by any global, unifying perspective as suggested by HEFCE, one that would force you to think about who might take your work seriously outside its default sphere of control.

Nevertheless, truly interdisciplinary work tends to become more prominent in this global perspective, if you imagine it as gathering a few citations from many fields over a long period rather than many citations from one field over a short period.

The matter isn’t usually put this way because ‘peer review’, the procedure by which research is normally judged, is not seen as ‘quantitative’. But in fact it is: it’s just that the number of people who matter and how they’re chosen is more restricted.

To take peer review as the norm is ipso facto to mark research as the inherent property of particular fields, rather than as something of potential relevance to the entire academic community, depending on how it responds.

Notice I am not making a larger claim about opening up judgement on academic knowledge claims to the general public.

Rather, I am granting the obvious fact that any potentially interesting knowledge claims have cross-disciplinary relevance, in which case the full academic community - not simply specialists in a given field - should be allowed a free say (indeed, even now many works in a given field are prominent mainly because of what they say about things outside their nominal field).

To be sure, citations are not perfect indicators of this phenomenon. However, understood as a globally enforced metric, and with the innovations proposed by the ‘Altmetrics’ crowd, they are a step in the right direction.

And yes, academic citation should be seen as a form of marketing, in which authors attempt to couple their fate with others who not only support their knowledge claims but also enjoy an authority beyond that fact.

More specifically, academics should be trained to think about their citations as investments under conditions of scarcity - that is, exactly like a capital resource.

A step in this direction would be for journals to force authors to fractionate their citations, that is, to assume that each author casts only one vote in the overall pool of citations.

At the moment, any author effectively casts any number of votes through citation, which implies inter alia that heavy citers have a disproportionate impact on the overall citation count.

This results in an unhealthy epistemic dependency culture replete in ‘dummy cites’ to people ‘one is supposed to cite’, regardless of true relevance (I originally raised this point in 1997, in my Open University book, Science, chapter 4, as something that a Martian might recommend to correct the injustices in Earth’s knowledge system).

To be sure, in the end, we will need to admit upfront that the move to citations is a move to integrate a proper conception of markets into the internal dynamics of academic knowledge production.

Given proper regulation (which should be an outcome of the HEFCE consultation), marketization is doable in a way that is accountable not only to the academics who buy and sell knowledge claims through the medium of publication but also to those - that is, the state, the general public and (where appropriate) private funders - who routinely provide relatively stable conditions for such knowledge claims to be transacted.

In this regard, I despair at the ‘critique’ launched by the international relations scholars, Sabaratnam and Kirby, which has received the endorsement of the Campaign for Public Universities and the British Sociological Association.

The telling moment for me of ‘Why Metrics Can’t Measure Research Quality’ appears in point 7, which takes on the high citation count for Samuel Huntington, the Harvard political scientist (and former Jimmy Carter advisor) who predicted a ‘clash of civilisations’ between Islam and the West in the early 1990s.

The problem with such scholars complaining about the high citation rates accorded to Huntington is that they end up sawing off the limb of the tree on which they sit. Much of their own scholarship is precisely predicated on Huntington being so badly wrong, which the authors themselves admit is a major source of Huntington’s high citation rate.

However, if we didn’t take citation counts seriously, then it would not be clear why we would wish to pay attention to Huntington’s critics, who usually end their diatribes against Huntington, say, by identifying one ‘green shoot’ of an alternative interpretation that empirically suits a specific locale or simply gesturing for a more open-minded view of the role of culture/religion in political life - to be sure, just as long as it doesn’t veer into extreme relativism or (horribile dictu) libertarianism.

The critics seem to be incapable of either living with Huntington or without him. But this is less a problem of research metrics than of the old academic left’s inability to define a coherent ideal of progressive scholarship, beyond the identification of scapegoats.

In that case, the scapegoats deserve all the citations they receive - and the elimination of citation counts is not a solution the academic left’s problems. However, a new positive vision of the future that attracts citations would do the trick.

This is a slightly expanded version of my submission to the HEFCE consultation on the use of metrics as a basis for research evaluation.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. He tweets at @ProfSteveFuller.

Austerity and Higher Education: The Case of the United Kingdom

London School of Economics © copelaes | Flickr
London School of Economics © copelaes | Flickr
by , Public Seminar:

University reform in the UK can be understood in light of the following dilemma: the system must expand if it is to meet the demand for skill in the labour market, but the more it expands, the less it fulfills its other major function of reproducing social division.

This is crucial because the transformation of higher education being implemented under the rubric of austerity indicates that austerity is not in the first instance about cutting spending.

The evidence of past austerity projects demonstrates that cuts are a means rather than the primary objective, which is social engineering.

In the case of higher education, a coalition government has cut state funding for universities while raising fees, on the pretext of debt consolidation.

However, the major effects will be firstly to reorganise the system along market lines, re-pivoting the relationship between the student and the institution as a consumer-enterprise one, and secondly to reproduce social divisions on a new basis.

The coalition’s policies are based on a report by Lord Browne, a former chief executive of BP with no experience in higher education. The practice of hiring businessmen to reorganise the public sector runs deep in the neoliberal DNA. Since it is assumed that everything should be run like a competitive enterprise, who could know more about this than businessmen?

The immediate rationale for the policies adopted by the government was the exigent need to save money in order to consolidate the nation’s debts.

In the first Comprehensive Spending Review, the Chancellor deducted £4.2 billion from the budget for higher education. The money to expand the system would have to come from fees. However, as is generally the case with austerity, this merely built on and accelerated tendencies already in evidence.

For the Browne report was initiated under the previous New Labour administration and it extended the logic of existing practices and legislation.

Higher education in the UK has been through three epochal transformations.

The Robbins Report of 1963, recommending the immediate expansion of universities and the opening of places to all based on merit, inaugurated the era of the university as a mass, rather than elite, institution.

The Dearing Report of 1997, proposing the implementation of tuition fees, initiated the first moves toward consumer-funded, rather than tax-funded, tuition. And the Browne Report, building on existing moves toward “marketisation,” hit the accelerator.

Education protest in Melbourne © Corey Oakley | Flickr
Education protest in Melbourne © Corey Oakley | Flickr

The reforms inaugurated after the Dearing Report followed the mantra of competition and pricing.

It was assumed that competition between universities for consumers would produce better educational outcomes, while the best way of rationing access to university was a pricing system that emulated “the market.”

The immediate rationale, as expressed in the New Labour manifesto in 1997, was that the expansion of higher education could not be funded out of general taxation.

Contrary to this argument, the expansion needed at that point was priced at approximately £2 billion, hardly straining the purse strings. However, New Labour was actively seeking to re-found higher education on the North American model.

In the 1998 legislation following Dearing, fees were initially set at £1000 per annum, with the promise that they would not be increased. Legislation subsequently passed in 2004 allowed a “variable” fees system, wherein fees could increase to £3000 per annum, and later the cap was raised to £3225.

In practise, most universities charged the maximum, and university Vice Chancellors enthusiastically embraced this system. This made sense because it resolved the constant funding dilemmas that came with waiting for a reluctant central government to pay up, and also raised their salaries to a level commensurate with those of “the market.”

But those who were most enthusiastic were the managers of the most prestigious universities, notably the Russell Group, who led calls for a review to increase fees even further.

The Browne Report was the result of this pressure. Its recommendations formed the basis of the government’s policy of raising the fees cap to £9000.

It was estimated that most universities would have to increase fees to at least £8000 simply to retain their current position, and it was subsequently disclosed that 90% of universities planned to charge the maximum in at least some courses. It is difficult to believe that this will be the end of the fee increases.

The system incentivises Vice Chancellors to demand more, and the bloated managerial, PR, and advertising departments arising from “marketisation” will need sustenance. Indeed, the Vice Chancellors group, Universities UK, has already stated that the system will need more money.

Book cover of Injustice by Daniel Doring © Policy Press | Amazon
Book cover of Injustice by Daniel Doring © Policy Press | Amazon

However, as Stefan Collini argued at the time of the reforms, higher fees are a symptom rather than the disease. Far more fundamental is the transformation of higher education into a “lightly regulated market” and, above all, the hierarchies that this will generate.

A key function of the education system is to divide people into superiors and inferiors. Insofar as it doesn’t do this sufficiently well, it generates carping from employers and the Right.

It was a mainstay of Thatcherism that we ought to “let our children grow tall, and some taller than others if they have the ability to do so.” This was the “meritocratic” justification for inequality.

But what if, as Danny Dorling argues in Injustice, people are “remarkably equal in their abilities”? What if too many “children grow tall”?

In the past decade, the growing number of children receiving A-C grades in GCSEs, or progressing to further and higher education, has been taken as evidence of “declining standards.”

Capital complained that it was impossible to recruit from the best if the education system didn’t select the best. The Association of Graduate Recruiters, which represents 750 top employers on this issue, called for an end to the target of 50% university attendance for this very reason, while supporting the fees.

They concluded that the government’s measures constituted “the best way to drive up standards in higher education.” The British Chambers of Commerce and the CBI have long articulated the same position.

Far from showing an educational system fraught with “declining standards,” the evidence is that standards continually increase.

Borrowing a physical analogy, the records for 100 yard sprints and one mile runs through the last century demonstrate that the time taken to run these distances has continually decreased as technique, training, and resources improved.

The fact that intelligence is a far more complex and dynamic attribute than physical endurance means that it is far easier for knowledge and skills, given the right conditions, to improve rapidly over time. And this is exactly what has happened.

In the post-war era, smaller family sizes, better nutrition, and more secure environment raised standards. And the more standards are raised, the risk is that there will be a degree of equalisation in outcomes as more people obtain higher grades or progress to higher education.

Social divisions based on intelligence and aptitude must be constructed, which means constructing and measuring intelligence and aptitude in such a way as to produce elites.

Education protest © Patrick Imbeau | Flickr
Education protest © Patrick Imbeau | Flickr

And this is where “marketisation” comes in. The major beneficiaries of these changes will be the so-called “ivy league” institutions, which will have better resources to attract students and their funding. A multi-tiered system is an inevitable corollary of competition.

Further, since the fees increase is linked to the elimination of assistance for poor students getting through “A” Levels, the system will become more selective in favour of the rich.

And further, by treating education as the augmentation of “human capital,” the reforms encourage those working class students who do make it into the system to choose vocational degrees and STEM subjects that are more likely to generate income streams, rather than further their Bildung.

If higher education is a commodity worth incurring £40,000 of debt for, it better assure returns. Overall, richer students will have much more freedom and thrive far more readily in this new terrain.

A final outcome that can be anticipated is that as students become consumers rather than citizens, their right to participate in a democratic university life will be further abridged, and student life radically depoliticised.

The university enterprise, to succeed in this new situation, must assert the primacy of its property rights, as the University of London recently did when banning protests on its grounds.

And this is the pattern with austerity. The measures introduced under the rubric of an emergency, the supposed need to consolidate debt and appease “the market,” ultimately do little for the debt, and only consolidate the market’s tyrannical reach.

This article, based on a previously published piece entitled “No Confidence,” originally posted by the author at Lenin’s Tomb, is the first in a P.S. series on austerity and education.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Tories Plan to Run State Schools For a Profit, says Labour

English: Tristram Hunt MP
Tristram Hunt MP (Wikipedia)
by Schools Improvement Net:

The Independent is reporting that Labour will warn today that the Conservatives would allow state-funded schools to be run for profit if they retain power at next year’s election …

Tristram Hunt, the shadow Education Secretary, will claim that “privatisation” and applying “the profit motive” to schools “could easily  happen” if the Tories win another term.

In a speech to the Fabian Society, he will argue that allowing private firms to  run schools for profit would be a logical extension of  the Government’s academies and introduction of  free schools.

“Beyond 2015, whether it admits it or not, the Conservative Party intends to introduce the profit motive into English education,” he will say.

Mr Hunt will attack “the aggressively competitive,  fly-or-fail ethos that the Conservative Party aspires to bring to our school system”. He will add: “For all its administrative anarchy, the free-school programme is only the beginning.”

The Labour frontbencher will say that Sweden suffered a “catastrophic collapse in standards” after allowing for-profit schools, which had been “an unmitigated disaster”…

Some Tory ministers privately support allowing firms to run schools for profit. But Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has denied that there are any such plans, saying he does not ever expect to see tax-funded schools run for profit …

More at: Tories plan to run state schools for a profit, says Labour 

It’s easy to see why Labour might want to make this claim, but do you think there is a real intent by the Conservatives to do this? Please give us your thoughts and feedback in the comments or via Twitter …

HECS Upon You: NATSEM Models the Real Impact of Higher Uni Fees

English: University of Canberra
University of Canberra (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Ben Phillips, University of Canberra

Various organisations have modelled the likely fees and debts students are likely to face in a deregulated environment since the release of the budget last month.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), the Greens, education minister Christopher Pyne’s office and Universities Australia have all released modelling on likely outcomes.

The Conversation has asked NATSEM to look at the various modelling attempts and how they came about, and do some numbers of our own.

The true extent of university fee increases is not yet known, but we do know the increases are likely to be significant and will mean that for many students the repayments of their HELP loans will be larger and take longer to pay off.

Deregulation of fees will have different impacts on students depending on gender and the course of study. For certain degrees, such as science, there is the potential for the time taken to repay a loan doubling and the total dollars repaid to almost triple.

What have other estimates said?

Immediately following the budget, a number of groups tried to unpack the impacts of the reforms. The response of the government suggested an increase of only “$5 per week” for a graduate.

This analysis assumed no increase in fees for students and that the interest rate charged would be the current Treasury bond rate of 3.8%. The current bond rate is at near-record lows and it is not realistic to assume this low rate will remain for decades to come.

The Greens created an online calculator that tells existing, future, and past students the changes they can expect to their fees and debt. They used calculations on reform impacts to repayment costs by Andrew Norton from the Grattan Institute.

These estimates are based on a more realistic assumption of a 4.9% bond rate and assume strong fee increases relating to deregulation.

The NTEU’s analysis is a similar methodology to that of the Greens and finds significant increases in the repayment time and dollar repayment as a result of the reforms.

The main differences from the Greens analysis are the assumed graduate incomes and the extent of fee increases.

The NTEU finds the most significant “maximum” impacts for high demand degrees such as business, law, and medicine and other health-related degrees. These maximum impacts will only become a reality if universities lift their degree prices significantly beyond current levels.

NATSEM’s calculations

Under the current fee structure, a new male business student at the University of Canberra would expect to pay off a three year degree in 7.3 years; a female would take 8.6 years.

Assuming the university simply recovered costs from the government’s planned funding reduction the payoff years would increase to 8.2 and 9.7 years respectively. Total repayments increase for males from around A$36,200 to A$45,700 and slightly higher for females ($37,100 to $48,400).

However, business students already pay a larger proportion of the cost of their degrees than many other courses. The payoff times and total repayments are significantly higher for science, nursing and teaching degrees - particularly for females.

A female science graduate under a full fee scenario would pay off her degree in 13.9 years, up from 8.4 years. Her total repayments will increase by an estimated $51,500: from $44,200 to $95,700.

We took a similar approach to both the Greens and the NTEU, however we tried to use various fee scenarios, rather than trying to forecast what fees would be. The actual extent of fee increases is at this point unknowable although certainly expected to be significant.

Our modelling has shown that the impact will be felt most strongly for low-pay occupations such as nursing or education, and across the board the impacts are larger for females.

The impact may be modest for some degrees with strong post graduate incomes and fees that already match up quite closely to the cost of the degree such as business or law.

We analysed a range of typical courses for the University of Canberra and considered the impact on repayments for students.

We assumed that students will face a repayment interest rate of 5% which is around twice that of the CPI (the existing indexation) but lower than the typical 10 year Treasury bond rate (the proposed loan interest rate) of 6% over the past decade.

It is important to recognise that graduates from different fields and males and females have very different income trajectories.

For example, we estimated in 2014 a male business graduate at 30 has an average income of around $112,000 per annum compared to $74,300 at 25 years. This compares very favourably to a female nurse who, at 30, earns $57,900 which is less than when she was 25 ($62,100).

An important driver of this difference is that female income trajectories are impacted by motherhood while males enjoy strong growth in incomes through their late twenties, thirties and beyond.

Occupations that are dominated by females such as nursing and teaching are also occupations with relatively poor prospects for income growth.

What if unis raise their fees beyond just recovering lost government subsidies?

There is the possibility that universities in a deregulated market could increase fees beyond the current funding envelope. We estimated the impact of a price increase of 20% beyond current costs.

Here, the impacts are again strongest for degrees with relatively low income prospects and for females.

Female science graduates would be expected to continue paying off their student debt for 16.4 years, up from the current 8.4 years. Her repayments would nearly triple from $44,200 to $123,000 and initial debt would double from $39,700 to $79,700.

These scenarios don’t include single parents who would be in a significantly worse position. With a higher interest rate and potentially several years out of the work force or working part-time (and thus not paying off the debt) it would be highly likely that such persons, particularly for high-fee and lower income occupations could be paying off their degrees for well in excess of 20 years.

In spite of the likelihood of large fee increases and longer repayment times the payoff from university degrees should be expected to remain higher than the costs.

The AMP.NATSEM report What Price the Clever Country estimated that the average degree holder receives a dividend in lifetime earnings of around $1.5 million.

The potential wrinkle in the policy relates to degrees with lower income profiles and particularly so for parents (mostly females) who reduce their employment while looking after children. Certain degrees that are relatively high cost, such as science, will likely be impacted heavily if universities attempt to fully recover costs.
The Conversation

Ben Phillips does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Please Stop Telling Me to ‘Manage’ My Supervisor!

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 2.47.56 pm:
Like many other academic developers, I have often run workshops called ‘manage your supervisor’ where I try, in an upbeat fashion, to empower students to feel they can take charge of their own learning and responsibility for the outcomes. 
I acknowledge in this workshop that supervisors are generally busy, time poor creatures who might need a bit of managing, especially when it comes to keeping appointments, doing important paper work and providing timely feedback on drafts.
There are books, papers, articles and phamplets on the theme of students managing supervisors, so I guess it is hardly surprising that the term crept into my teaching practice too. But now I am questioning it.
As many people have pointed out, supervision / student relationships are rarely, if ever, ‘equal’ and if you had to say one person had more power than the other, it’s almost certainly the supervisor. 
Why then do we burden students with the task of  ‘managing’ when they are, often, in a position where they are powerless to do so? 
If an academic can’t read a calendar or turn around a draft, no amount of nagging is going to make a difference. In fact, the nagging might make the whole situation worse, as this week’s post highlights.
This post is really an email, sent to me be a student who was responding to a Facebook conversation I started on the theme of ‘managing’ your supervisor. 
I was surprised at the number of comments and emails this conversation provoked and the student kindly let me reproduce the letter here in full, unedited. 
Things being what they are in my life, it’s taken a LONG time to get this into print, but it’s worth it because I think it’s food for thought for all of us in this letter and will be interested in any comments you might make.
I’m pretty over being told to manage my supervisors. What I’d like to know, is what were they meant to be doing, and how do I plug the gaps?
Before I started my Phd, I’d read a lot of advice about it being my responsibility to manage my supervision, and in my first meeting, I tried to have the conversation I would have with any new member of my team about ways of working and so on.
Dismal fail
The relationship only went down hill from there. I noticed it deteriorating and tried to rescue it. I even flagged in a supervision meeting that I wasn’t sure we’d paid enough attention to the relational work, and maybe we should do coffee or lunch. My distress was obvious. I was in tears. But one supervisor (I have two) responded that she was busy, and I was getting my time.
That made it a whole lot easier, when the ‘busy one’ decided she wanted to leave my supervision team, and made transparently pathetic administrative excuses to do so.
She was replaced with someone, who the department picked, who doesn’t really share an interest in either my method or topic, although she is generally nice, so that was a step forward.
But 15 months in, I’m still not really sure what the point of supervision is. On good days, I think it doesn’t matter. I’m still fascinated by my topic, and awed by my research partners. On bad days, I’m alternatively sad or mad.
Sad days, I dwell on the lack of support and guidance I feel from my supervisors. For example, at my annual review a panel member asked if I had gone to a particular conference earlier in the year. The answer was no, but the question was a good one. 
It’s exactly the academic community my work sits within, but despite one of my supervisors participating in the conference, it apparently hadn’t occurred to them to mention it to me, or suggest I go.
Mad days, I have the energy to do something about it. I work on building my own networks to get the support and advice I feel I need. And, I take practical action to build a community on campus to support research students.
Poetically, this urge to action is what caused the original issues with the ‘busy one’, but it will in the end be what gets me and others through. A research student community sharing what we’ve learned about surviving and thriving through our PhDs.
So what do you think? What is the point of supervision? What should happen here that clearly isn’t? Looking forward to hearing your views.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bursting a Bubble: Privilege and Access to the Academic Life

Students in academic dress outside the Exam Sc...
Students in academic dress Oxford (Photo: Wikipedia)
by , University Affairs:

Yesterday, as I was taking a short break between grading assignments and exams and working on my dissertation, I found myself amazed to be reading an article from the Guardian UK wherein the author argued that in spite of what others might say, academe is not a stressful place - in fact it’s the best possible place to work.

This article, which is obnoxiously entitled  “Academia, stressful? Not for me!”, is by graduate student (postgraduate, in the UK) Katie Beswick.

Ms. Beswick writes, after a cursory nod to the legitimacy of other people’s stress, “I’m familiar with the problem. But, personally speaking, I still don’t get it.” She then proceeds to list the reasons why academe - or rather, a very idealized version of it - is the ideal work environment.

I want to make it clear that I do not see the university in a wholly negative light - of course not. There’s a reason I’m there. Indeed, I want to understand the way the university itself functions, and why, and how we can make it better.

But I know the research and reading I’ve done about higher education suggests that this post’s author has been shielded from some harsh realities. This is why, when I read about her “instinctive inner eyeroll” at the “complaints” of others, I’m afraid my own physical reaction was something more akin to gagging.

Yes, everyone experiences something different in graduate school and in the academic job market and workplace.

But what’s deeply offensive here is the imperious tone expressed, the personalization of the problem and the suggestion (assumption?) that those who criticize are merely whiners. All these are familiar means of dismissing the legitimacy of (well-documented) experiences of others.

It’s impossible to take seriously an argument that describes “an onslaught of moans” from fellow students and professors and wishes they would “stop bloody whinging!”, given the context of the comments and the vast body of research literature that contradicts these superficial statements.

So if you’re a graduate student and you’re enjoying life, then let’s talk about some of the conditions of that enjoyment.

Firstly, you made it in. That means you’re less likely to be from a low-income background, or to have suffered discrimination as part of a racialized group. You’re less likely to have been persecuted for being gay, lesbian, trans, or otherwise queer-identified.

You probably don’t come from a “second-class” nation in the global hierarchy, one without the research infrastructure to support your endeavours, or lacking the kind of education system required to propel you into university in the first place.

It’s less likely that you’ve had family troubles that distract you from getting work done. In fact, your family probably provides you support - moral and emotional, financial, and perhaps even academic (you might also have a partner who now supports you in similar ways - particularly if you’re male).

Partly because of this, you don’t work more hours at your outside job than you do on your studies - and your job is more likely to be related to your career goals.

You’re likely to be free from health problems that could prevent you from getting academic work done and from earning a living. You’re free of significant debts, or perhaps you don’t have to worry about tuition payments, rent, or costs of upkeep for any dependents. You’re not a single parent.

You don’t suffer from anxiety or from any mental heath issues that might impede your academic performance or social integration in the academic environment. You probably don’t have a disability; you’ve probably never lived on food stamps or other forms of social assistance.

In a Master’s or PhD program, to do well you need a good relationship with your supervisor, as well as appropriate mentorship and an academic environment that’s supportive and integrative, and some degree of financial stability. These supports help students finish their studies within appropriate time limits.

And if you’re not at all worried about finding an academic job, is there something you know that the rest of us don’t?

It seems more appropriate to consider what information one would have to lack, in these times, to pose the question: “what’s everyone so stressed about [in academe]?”

As one commenter responded, “I think once you finish your PhD and start looking for an actual job, you’ll be able to answer your own question quite easily.” Or perhaps a quick read-through of the comments on my article about PhDs and mental health.

Do the contextual factors described above necessarily prevent us from achieving our goals in academic careers - or from being happy? No, definitely not. But we must acknowledge that these factors contribute to people’s experiences, and that they make academe harder for some than for others.

While universities are indeed admitting more students who don’t fit the “ideal” model, there’s an underlying model that persists. The university is a changing environment, and the demands of an academic career are changing too.

This has increased the pressure on early-career academics, not the least in the UK, and it must be taken seriously as a cause of re-stratification and increased gatekeeping.

Is there a productive way to make the point Ms. Beswick is getting at? Of course there is.

How about “I’ve had a great experience in academe, and I’m thankful for that because I know it’s not that way for everyone. These are the things that made it good.” That would be a better way of “framing” the truth, and it might even lead to consideration of what makes life “better” for some of us and less enjoyable for others.

About Melonie Fullick

Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.

University Students Spend Six Hours a Day on Facebook, YouTube and Sending Texts, Even During Lectures

Youtube (Photo credit: Pomeroy Gigantic)
by Schools Improvement Net:

The Mail is reporting new research that suggests some university students are spending six hours a day or more on social networking sites, looking at YouTube or sending text messages to friends …

The findings come as academics complain they are having to expel students from their lectures for not paying attention.

The survey, by accommodation providers Unite Student, found that 75 per cent of undergraduates spend between half an hour and two hours a day on Facebook or Twitter, with one in ten poring over the sites for at least three hours.

A similar proportion look at ‘video upload’ sites such as YouTube for between half an hour and two hours. Seven per cent watch them for three hours or more. Nearly ten per cent then spend more than three hours using free text messaging services.

Dr Mark Griffiths, a psychologist and expert on social media at Nottingham Trent University, said more and more students used the sites during his lectures. ‘If I see anybody on their mobile, I stop the lecture until they put their phone away,’ he said. ‘If it happens a second time, they are out of my lecture …’.

Ok, so the headline has picked out the worse examples rather than the norm, but are you concerned by the amount of time this research suggests students are spending on social media and equivalent sites, or is it just the way things are in today’s world (and perhaps the equivalent of watching Neighbours and Home and Away or whatever you did to avoid study when you were a student!)? Please share in the comments or via Twitter…

Do Disruptive Classes Really Get Better if They Include More Girls?

A classroom conducive to learning? (B Batchelor/PA)
by Catherine Kelly, University of Manchester

Classrooms are highly complex environments.

Maintaining a positive classroom environment, especially in classrooms that include potentially disruptive children with emotional or social problems, is very difficult, and the processes that teachers can use to achieve this are poorly understood.

But a new study has concluded that in mixed gender classrooms, the presence of more girls can apparently minimise the potentially negative effects of a difficult to manage pupil on classroom culture and attainment.

Conducted by Michael Gottfried and Aletha Harven at the University of California, this study touches on two significant and sometimes emotive topics in education: differences between boys and girls and the inclusion in schools of children with social, emotional and behaviour difficulties.

Keeping the classroom happy

Despite evidence that most behaviour in schools is good, debates around the inclusion of pupils with social and emotional needs still too often centre on the affects their inclusion has on peers and staff.

In their paper, Gottfried and Harven speculate that pupils who show aggression, immaturity, hyperactivity or more internalised behaviours such as anxiety or withdrawal absorb the teacher’s attention, leaving less time for teachers to focus on other pupils’ social, emotional and academic development.

Their research is based on the premise that pupils’ poor behaviour can disrupt teaching and academic achievement. But the effect can also run the other way: poor teaching can lead to poor pupil behaviour and attainment.

Gottfried and Harven actually did find that teacher characteristics also had an influence; there were better outcomes in those classrooms with a greater proportion of girls and with more experienced teachers who had attended more special education training.

The common sense logic of the argument in either direction conceals a more intricate situation, where the amount of teacher time focused on any particular pupil is just one aspect of a complex social environment.

The research refers to girls' protective effect on classroom climate, and sees them providing their fellow pupils with models for positive behaviour, helping to form supportive classroom relationships.

However, the expectations and attitudes of teachers are also important, as are the children’s views of their peers, of the teacher, and the quality of child-teacher relationships.

Teachers’ perceptions of children’s behaviour, and teachers’ behaviour toward those children are therefore also likely to provide protective influence.

The delicate balance of these multiple components shapes the ethos of the classroom, and in turn has a major effect on academic achievement.

Interactionist thinking like this now underpins the approach to pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, which sees inclusion as effective and to the benefit all members of the school community.

Reading children’s behaviour

But gender is not as easy an explanation as it might seem for the effects Gottfried and Harven observed.

The similarities between girls and boys outweigh the differences - but how we perceive and respond to the students, and their experiences and their own and others’ expectations for them, are more different than is usually assumed.

Research conducted as long ago as the 1970s demonstrated that adults interpret and respond differently to boys' and girls' behaviour.

In one experiment, for instance, researchers dressed toddlers in unisex snow suits and observed adults responding differently to the same behaviour depending on whether the children were given male or female names.

Other research has shown how children and teachers tend to associate prosocial behaviour more with girls than boys, while studies which observe young children’s actual behaviour paint a much more mixed picture.

This means that in the complex social interactions in the classrooms Gottfried and Harven studied, the girls’ behaviour was probably more likely to be interpreted as prosocial.

The explanations we use for others' behaviour (known as “attributions”) influence our feelings about and behaviour towards that person, so more positive attributions for others’ behaviour produce more positive feelings and generate positive behavioural responses - and so a positive cycle of prosocial behaviour emerges.

So the number of girls in the classroom is not likely to be the key factor in Gottfried and Harven’s study in itself.

What next?

One suggestion Gottfried and Harven have for teachers is to vary the proportion of girls and boys in classrooms to create a protective environment for children with social and emotional difficulties, as well as for their peers.

But given the practical and ethical difficulties of putting that into practice, it’s probably much more expedient to focus on teachers as the key variable in classrooms.

We need to enable them to create positive relationships with all their pupils, and to facilitate classrooms with compassionate and accepting classmates, irrespective of gender balance.

Above all, research like this is an important contribution to our still limited understanding of how teacher-pupil and pupil-pupil interactions actually work.

These findings do not prove that classrooms whose pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties are simply in need of more female pupils; instead, they challenge us to avoid focusing excessively on the differences between boys and girls, and to pay closer attention to the nuances of the highly intricate arena of classroom dynamics.
The Conversation

Catherine Kelly does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.