Action research as liberation

"Paulo Freire" by Slobodan Dimitrov - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paulo_Freire.jpg#/media/File:Paulo_Freire.jpg

Kemmis & Mctaggert’s (1990) definition of action research is that it is about improving the lives of people through transformation. It is an emancipatory approach to the research process that does as much for the participants as for the researchers. I’m busy reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, so the idea of a research process in the educational context as being a form of emancipation for students stands out. The idea that, through trying to learn more about learning and teaching, we can improve both, sits well with me.

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

 

Writing about the software that I use to write

Note: I started writing this post more than a year ago and have regularly pushed it back in the queue. It began as a list of text editing software that I thought might be useful for people who are stuck using MS Word but has since grown beyond a simple list.

I like to think that I write a lot. I’m not nearly as prolific as I’d like to be but I think I do a decent job of getting words onto the page, either here on the blog, journal articles, research proposals, lengthy emails to students, conference presentations, or notes in workshops I attend. I thought I’d give an overview of the different places I write because I know that many of my colleagues think that Microsoft Word is the only option, which makes me sad.

Web-based editors

There is a certain appeal to the idea of writing tools that are web-based. They’re always up-to-date, you don’t have to worry about backing up or even saving, and they don’t burden you with too many features that you’ll never use. By and large, they get out of the way and let you write. Of course, the downside is that you have to be online to use them, which isn’t always possible.

The first service I tried was Draft. It has some amazing features (great for productivity, rather than power), is regularly updated and has a really nice UI that gets out of the way when it’s not needed. My only concern is that the offline access isn’t entirely intuitive and is still under development. I tend to use Draft to get the ideas out of my head and onto a “page”. It has a really minimalist interface, and with the browser in full screen mode, I can just write without any distractions. Once I’ve put as much as I can into Draft, I export the document as a plain text file and either move it into a desktop editor or something like Google Drive (if it’s something I’m going to share with others).

Draft aims to not only provide you with a writing service, but to help make your writing better.
Draft aims to not only provide you with a writing service, but to help make your writing better.

I should probably also mention the Google Drive app, which runs on Android and iOS devices, as well as through the browser. While Google has made enormous improvements in the file management features of Drive and the new Docs has done a lot for offline access, native editing of Word documents and collaborative writing, it sometimes feel like it’s trying to kill a mosquito with a cannon. However, if you need your writing editor to do heavy lifting, then Drive and Docs may be good choices for you.

I use Google Docs / Drive regularly as part of various collaborative research projects I’m involved in, as well as some classes that we team teach. While I think it’s probably best in class when it comes to collaborative writing and editing because of the range of services (Docs, Sheets, Forms and Slides), the online requirement can be problematic. The early versions of the Docs app on iOS and Android were also a bit clumsy. However, Drive is constantly getting better and it is now a service that I really can’t live without.

Google-Drive

Desktop editors

I also do a lot of more formal writing for research projects and for that I have always used a combination of LibreOffice and Dropbox to sync between machines. However, there’s a growing movement among academics who are switching from writing in Microsoft Word (or LibreOffice) and simply using markdown and plain text editors. If you’re thinking that, as an academic, Word has features that you absolutely must have, it seems that with a little bit of thought, you can avoid it completely.

I’ve also worked with Focuswriter, Gedit, and ReText on Linux, and MarkdownPad on Windows. They’re great text editors (as opposed to word processors) that I use almost solely for the initial stages of my academic writing and I’ve switched almost entirely to text-only editors for the original drafting of my work. One of the huge advantages of using text only is that I can edit any document on any device. Dropbox keeps them all in sync and every device can edit text. I do however, still use LibreOffice for the final editing of documents.

As you can see, Gedit is a very simple text editor.
As you can see, Gedit is a very simple text editor.

I should also note that I recently moved all of my note-taking to Evernote. What I really like about Evernote is that it has native desktop and mobile clients, as well as being browser-based, which means I can use it anywhere to capture almost anything.

Mobile editors

On mobile devices it’s a bit more complicated because there are literally hundreds of options. Also, the tools that are available for mobile are often not cross-platform, which means you really do have to go with text editors. I wanted something that integrated with Dropbox – which is where I keep all of my writing – and that allowed me to edit in plain text. Without going into the details of all the writing apps I’ve installed (and subsequently uninstalled), I finally settled on Plaintext on the iPad and Jotterpad X on my Nexus 7 and HTC One X. They’ve got the right balance between useful features that make writing easier and light enough that I can just write and not get distracted with features.

JotterpPad X running on an Android tablet.
JotterpPad X running on an Android tablet.

Something that has become very clear to me while writing this post is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between a desktop, web-based or mobile writing app. Services like Drive (with it’s associated Docs, Sheets and Slides) are easily accessible across all three, and with the offline access available in Chrome and on mobile, it’s hard not to think seriously about moving there altogether.

Moving between consuming and creating: Thinking about workflow

Selection_003

I use Pocket a lot. It’s not unusual for me to have more than 500 articles saved to read later, which to be honest, causes me a bit of anxiety. It’s a list of “things to do” that I know I’ll never finish. But I keep adding stuff to the list because I know that it’ll be interesting when I get around to reading it at some point. The recommendation from the guys at Pocket is not to think of the reading list as a list of things to “get through”. Rather, think of it as a queue of reading that you know you’ll never finish.

The key is to think of it like a Netflix queue. You are never overwhelmed or concerned about the number of items in your Netflix queue. You just keep putting things in there because you know that when you have the time to view something, you can guarantee you’ll have something great in there that you’ve been meaning to check out. If you view Pocket as a todo list then you better hope you have a LOT of free time.

– Nate Weiner

But this doesn’t work for me because it’s not the finishing that bothers me, it’s the cognitive space that the list represents. It’s the psychological load knowing that in that reading list are things that I’ve made a mental note to do something with. There are things in there that relate to projects I’m working on or to ideas that I want to develop. For me, Pocket isn’t just a reading list…it’s a thinking list.

That led to me start looking around for others who have had similar issues. I liked Emmanuel Quartey’s post (“Getting to Pocket Zero“), where he explores how Pocket is positioned as a reading app and how, if it were reconceptualised as a content creation app you would change how you use it.

Emmanuel Quartey's suggestion as to how Pocket could actually be used i.e. it's not just about reading great content.
Emmanuel Quartey’s suggestion as to how Pocket could actually be used i.e. it’s not just about reading content.

I’ve found this exact problem in my own use of Pocket. When I’m reading I’m often struck with a thought that I want to develop, or that links to another thought from another article (that is also probably also saved in Pocket). At the moment, I’m stuck trying to copy and paste quotes, links and my own thoughts from Pocket to Evernote. But what if I could create those links and drafts right from inside Pocket?

I’d like to be able to highlight passages within articles and then tag those passages only. Instead of thinking of the article as being a single entity (“the article”) we should understand that an article is created from words, sentences and paragraphs, and that each of those constructs are not only pieces of the whole, but can be complete ideas in themselves. By tagging these discrete items (words, sentences or paragraphs) we can add metadata (the tag name or description) to them that then allows us to perform operations on the item.

For example, “Create New Article from Tag” would take all of the tagged items at either the word, sentence, paragraph or article levels (with original URLs) and paste them into a blank editing space, with the option of rearranging, annotating, commenting and publishing into another space (maybe WordPress). What about “Share this Tag with others”? I could allow others to read the sections I’ve highlighted, and give them options to add their own thoughts comments in the same space. It’s not difficult to see how this could really make a reading app like Pocket far more powerful as an idea-curation-app.

As it is, I’ve tried to deal with the issue by moving my reading / thinking / writing process from Pocket into Evernote. I have a set of “Project” folders in Evernote that are mainly writing and research projects that I have going on at any one time. As I read something in Pocket that is linked to one of the projects I’m busy with, I share the article (the full article) to the relevant project folder in Evernote, tagging it and adding additional notes. When I have time, I go into the project folder and edit the articles I’ve saved. From there, I move the idea / note into the main note in the folder, which is where I integrate the ideas from the various posts. Evernote allows me to share project folders and with that enable collaborators to edit notes in the folder. It’s not perfect but it works for me right now.

Stop complaining about the “knowledge-practice gap”

The “knowledge-practice gap” is a well known problem in health professions education and an enormous amount of time is spent complaining about how difficult it is to narrow the gap. The truth is, the knowledge-practice gap is a problem of our own making, and the name we’ve given this problem hints at the answer.

We’ve set it up so that there is a tension between what happens in the classroom (acquire knowledge) and what is supposed to happen in practice (use knowledge). Or, to be more specific, there is a tension between how students think and behave in the classroom and how we want them to think and behave in the clinical context. This is the “gap” that we’re always talking about bridging; the difference between the knowledge that students acquire in the classroom, and the practical application of that knowledge in clinical practice.

However, instead of treating the problem as something natural to be overcome (“this is just the way it is”), we can just accept that the reason the gap exists is simply because what most of what we expect students to do in the classroom is not a practice at all. We set up a situation where we create different contexts for knowledge acquired and knowledge applied and then complain when students struggle to move between the different contexts.

The truth is that we already have good evidence to suggest alternative ways of thinking about the “different contexts” problem, and we know what to do about it. Situated cognition is a learning theory that proposes that:

“…knowledge is situated, being in part a product of the activity, context, and culture in which it is developed and used.”

In other words, knowledge must be acquired in similar contexts to the ones in which it must be used. If you think about the classroom context, what ways of thinking and being are students required to practice? Are they required to practice at all? In order to satisfy most physiotherapy educators, our students simply need to show up, sit down and listen. Even if we assume that they are able to construct knowledge in some meaningful way from this traditional approach to learning (generally speaking, they are not), how does this practice enable them to apply what they learn in classroom to the clinical context? Simply put, it doesn’t. The reality is that the knowledge-practice gap exists because of the way we teach.

In order to address the problem of the knowledge-practice gap we need to accept that students’ ways of thinking and being in the classroom must be similar to the ways of thinking and being we expect in the clinical context. We must therefore give students learning tasks in the classroom that require them to think and behave in the same way as we expect them to think and behave while on clinical rotation. The classroom practice and the clinical practice must therefore be similar. Seen from this perspective, there would be no knowledge-practice gap because there would be no difference in the contexts in which knowledge is acquired and how it is used.

So, how do we create a classroom context where students are expected to think and behave in ways that are similar to how we expect them to think and behave in the clinical context? I think that Authentic learning is a good place to start. It’s a teaching framework that operationalises situated cognition. In other words, it’s a way of thinking about learning task design that includes attributes that would cause students to think and behave in one context that would help develop those processes for other contexts. I’ve written some notes on Authentic learning before, so won’t go into detail here, other than to share the characteristics of authentic learning, which are that tasks:

  • Should have real-world relevance i.e. they match real-world tasks
  • Are ill-defined (students must define tasks and sub-tasks in order to complete the activity) i.e. there are multiple interpretations of both the problem and the solution
  • Are complex and must be explored over a sustained period of time i.e. days, weeks and months, rather than minutes or hours
  • Provide opportunities to examine the task from different perspectives, using a variety of resources i.e. there isn’t a single answer that is the “best” one. Multiple resources requires that students differentiate between relevant / irrelevant information
  • Provide opportunities to collaborate should be inherent i.e. are integral to the task
  • Provide opportunities to reflect i.e. students must be able to make choices and reflect on those choices
  • Must be integrated and applied across different subject areas and lead beyond domain-specific outcomes i.e. they encourage interdisciplinary perspectives and enable diverse roles and expertise
  • Seamlessly integrated with assessment i.e. the assessment tasks reflect real-world assessment, rather than separate assessment removed from the task
  • Result in a finished product, rather than as preparation for something else
  • Allow for competing solutions and diversity of outcome i.e. the outcomes can have multiple solutions that are original, rather than a single “correct” response

Looking at the above list it should be easy to see how tasks designed with these characteristics in mind would be similar to the ways we would think about successful clinical practice. In other words, you could see how students who could successfully solve problems designed with this framework might also be able to solve clinical problems. The tasks we give them in the classroom would require them to think and behave in ways that we expect them to think and behave in clinical practice. No more knowledge-practice gap?

References

Open Online Courses in Health Professions Education: A systematic review

This is the presentation that I gave at the recent SAAHE conference in Port Elizabeth.

How do we choose what to assess?

Assessing content (facts) for the sake of it – for the most part – is a useless activity because it tells us almost nothing about how students can use the facts to achieve meaningful objectives. On the other hand, how do you assess students’ ability to apply what they’ve learned? The first is easy (i.e. assessing content and recall), while the second is very difficult (i.e. assessing how students work with ideas). If we’re honest with ourselves, we have a tendency to assess what is easy to assess, rather than what we should assess.

You can argue that your assessment is valid i.e. that you are, in fact, assessing what you say you’re assessing. However, even if the assessment is valid, it may not be appropriate. In other words, your assessment tasks might match your learning outcomes (i.e. they are valid) but are you questioning your outcomes to make sure that they’re the right outcomes?

Are we assessing the things that matter?

SAAHE 2016 conference

I usually post my notes after a conference but this year at SAAHE I mainly used Twitter to keep track of my thoughts during the sessions, which was great because we probably saw more activity on Twitter in PE than ever before. Here is the conference feed using the #saahe2016 hashtag.

Note : While it’s great that Twitter gives you the ability to embed a conference feed in a post like this, I always wonder what will happen when Twitter goes away?


Where does the path of least resistance lead?

Human beings are psychologically predisposed to do the easiest thing because thinking is hard and energy intensive. We are geared through evolution to take short cuts in our decision making and there is little that we can do to overcome this natural predisposition to take the path of least resistance (see System 1 and System 2 thinking patterns in Kahneman, 2011). The problem with learning is that the easy choice is often the least effective. In order to get students to do the hard work – overcome the resistance – we should encourage them to strive towards a higher purpose in their learning, as opposed to simply aiming for a pass. Students – and lecturers for that matter – almost always default to the path of least resistance unless they have a higher purpose that they are working towards. If we want students to achieve at high levels, then the path of least resistance must lead to failure to complete the task. Making the easy choice must lead to poorer outcomes than doing the hard work, but so often students can pass without doing the hard work. We must therefore create tasks that are very difficult to pass without doing hard cognitive work.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking Fast and Slow.