Monday, January 15, 2018

A day in the life of the brain - book overview

Book by Professor / Baroness Susan Greenfield, A day in the life of the brain: the neuroscience of consciousness from dawn to dusk, published in 2016.

Read this intermittenly across the summer break, and wrote this up, in snatches across last week from digital notes taken after reading each chapter. I have tidied to provide continuity and have added the book into my list of 'need to read through another time' as the book deserves another read to pick out the applicable information to teaching and learning.

For the moment, this overview is a work in progress. 

There is review of the book from the Guardian which is mostly positive. The book has 9 chapters plus notes and references – 66 pages or about one third of the book.

The main thread of the book is the identification of what actually makes up consciousness from the perspective of images taken of the brain as it is active. The various aspects of what makes up consciousness is unpacked through the various routines in a ‘typical’ day.

The first chapter is titles ‘in the dark’. This introductory chapter tries to define ‘consciousness’ by summarising the various approaches taken thus far to understand the concept. The chapter argues that although there has been much progress, we are still some way to understanding how consciousness works. There is still no distinct brain area, or network of brain cells / neurons or clusters of brain cells in which consciousness can be found. Recent advances in neuroscience has concentrated on identifying the various contributions of different brain cells, parts of the brain etc. See connectomeetc.  The book tries to come up with a model or conception of what is consciousness and how it works, to provide some grounding for further work in neuroscience to validate the idea. The model promoted in the book relies on unravelling how ‘neural assemblies’ work. Theses assemblies are posited to be ‘deposits’ from which consciousness ripples forth.

The book then works through a series of explanatory chapters, loosely tied to the ‘day in the life’ theme. Chapter two delves into states of consciousness when we sleep and undergo anaesthesia. There is discussion on what is consciousness and the variability of this state of being. The concept of neuronal assemblies is then introduced through its historical evolution and a summary of present hypothesis which come through advances in MRi. The analogy of stones thrown into a pond and the ripples that occur is then used to provide a visual anchor for neuronal assemblies.

Chapter 3 explores consciousness in non-humans and uses this to further expand on the details of neuronal assemblies. For example, the variables and effects – using the analogy of ripples on a pond – of a bigger / smaller stone and the force / angle of approach etc. when thrown in. A useful diagram is introduced, explained and discussed. This diagram tries to unpack the ‘differences’ between mind (the personalised system), the brain (consisting of neural networks) and consciousness (the subjective experiences – sensory and cognitive). A continuum of ‘scholarship’ is also designated to each – philosophy studying the mind, psychology and neuroscience concentrating on the brain and consciousness and theology with focus on consciousness. Neuronal assemblies are proposed to bring some order and holism in to how we can understand the links between brain plasticity, neurogenesis, exercise and conscious thought.

The fourth chapter explores the five senses, and the neuroanatomy challenge. Essentially the chapter argues that the brain works in an all-inclusive manner. Even though one part of the brain may be the main site of activity for an individual sense, the way organisms perceive the world, is holistic. We do not just see, but seeing also includes tactile, aural and other senses. The VAK – visual, auditory, kinaesthetic – learning styles approach – is debunked as learning requires interconnection of various parts of the brain to achieve new learning.

Chapter 5 ‘at the office’ is used to mop up the many other ‘sensings’ we need to undertake to perceive our world. Physical features like how we sense, feel, be emotionally affected by colour; our spatial sense; and subjective reactions to the environment are discussed.

Chapter 6 ‘problems at home’ looks into the way the brain develops (adolescence); mental issues (depression; demetia); how the brain deals with pain, to further develop the argument for the existence and function of neuronal assemblies.

Dreaming is the focus on chapter 7. A summary is made of the function, history, phylogeny, neuroscience foundations of dreaming. Chapter 8 brings the argument together with a discussion on whether neuronal assemblies are the rosetta stone for bringing the fields of physiology and phenomenology together. A possible mechanism for the generation of consciousness is proposed and summarised in a diagram.

The last chapter closes the book with how space and time may be traversed through understanding on how ‘assemblies’ improve our understandings of how the brain and consciousness work. As per usual, questions are posed for further investigation and study.


Overall, a readable book without too many parts which are dense and difficult to unravel. Most of the time, the argument put forward is clear. Based on reviews - whether the concept of neuronal assemblies withstand the test of time, remains to be seen. 

Monday, January 08, 2018

Plans for 2018

Looking forward to another busy and productive year. The year will require good planning on my part as there will be quite a bit to get through. We will be down 2.3 educational developers (. 0.5 and a 0.8 = 1.3 through retirement and another moving to a different role in the schools sector). One of us is also working for another part of the institution. Therefore, the shortfall will need to be shared amongst the educational developers left.

To start the year, I will need to support the programme development process for two degrees. Both are reviews of degrees with long histories at Ara. The computing degree should be off to NZQA by the end of summer. The midwifery degree to be away by Easter.
A priority through the year is to analyse the data and findings from the 7 sub-projects which make up the eassessment project. The project report is due in the middle of the year. 5 of the 7 sub-projects have now completed their participatory action research cycles and have or are writing up their reports.

In anticipation of the above curriculum development activities, I have worked on several articles near the end of last year and have already submitted two journal articles for publication in 2018. However, will also need to make a start on articles for publication in 2019. There should be 7 articles generated through the e-assessment project. I will be working on submitting 3 to 4 across 2018.


This year, NVCER ‘no-frills’ and the NZ VET research forumwill be held in August, in Sydney. My initial plan was to support several of the eassessment projects to be presented at each. Now, we will need to work on presenting a few of the sub-projects in Sydney instead. Also, the annual AVETRA conference is now ‘re-branded’ to be a practitioners research conference. It is to be held in Melbourne at the end of April. I will be putting in a paper for this conference around the outcomes of the eassessment project as well.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Overview of 2017

It has been another busy year with all aspects of my work, filled with activity. Many of these have been complex and required resolve to work through. I have learnt much across the year on how to support others in their journey as teachers. In particular, how to bring passion for teaching back into the practice for teachers, with huge teaching workloads and challenging pastoral care of students requiring care and attention.

On the programme development front, there has been three major pieces of work and several as support to other educational developers. The Bachelor of Construction required sustained work across the year. The panel approved this new degree with five recommendations – a good outcome from Ara’s point of view J Things have also been progressing well with the Bachelor of Midwifery and this reviewed degree should be on track for NZQA approval early in 2018. I am still working on the review of the Bachelor of Information and Computing Technology, which was to have been into NZQA in the fourth quarter of 2017. Now working at speed with the department to get it in by beginning of 2018.

My major staff capability and support project across 2017 has been to support Department staff moving into the new Architecture and Engineering teaching building – Kahukura. As with many construction projects, the building was behind schedule. The move into the building in the second semester had to be completed within tight timelines. The whole exercise did provide a very good reason for me to be the ‘meddler in the middle’ and I was able to build some good relationships with teams I had previously not worked intensively with.

 The Eassessment project has been a major focus as well. Each of the 7 sub-projects have made progress. Some requiring more support than others. ½ the teams have now submitted some form of written report. I will be unpacking the data and doing some initial data analysis over the summer.
Two journal articles published this year. And this month, I will submit an article, with another close to submission for early next year. All conference presentations have revolved around the eassessment project. There were two conference presentations overseas. Five eassessment team members also presented their sub-projects at three local conferences.


Overall, a very busy year. I will need to carve out some time in the first half of next year to complete the various reports required for the eassessment project and ensure the Bachelor of Information and Computing Technology makes it to NZQA in early 2018. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Google Scholar profile - using to extend own research

As a consequence of obtaining a gmail account, through the set up of this blog, I entered the Google eco-system over 15 years ago. Since then, I have gradually worked my way through the various Google tools availed.

Although I do not use Google docs etc. due to my institutions 'microsoft environment' policies, I will be starting to use the various tools on this platform as I ease my way into retirement.

At the moment, I use gmail as my personal email account. Chrome is my web browser of choice as my favourites etc. travel with me across the various devices I access. I have several albums on Picasa (now Google photos), which revolve around personal interests. In particular my continual learning on plants seen on tramps around the NZ South Island. Also maintain a list of books on Google books, use google+ to archive readings for the eassessment project, a play list on youtube of various tedtalks etc., rely on Google maps to get around, google translate and have just started using Google Keep.

The google platform I use the most at the moment, is Google Scholar. Not so much for searching for articles as the institutional databases yield relevant articles etc. but to keep an eye on publishing which is akin to my own.

Firstly, the recommended articles are always pertinent to check out. Then Google Scholar Alerts provide a range of articles 3 times a week to browse. Not all of the 100 articles or so each week will be relevant, but there will be at least a couple  which can be added to my research Endnotes database. The alerts help me to keep up with contemporary work on the topics I am interested in, including apprenticeship, workplace learning, vocational education, occupational identity and practical skills learning. The trick is to put in a key word that is not going to generate lists of 100s of articles every few days, but to narrow the search field down to provide a dozen or so articles in each of the fields each week.

The third important use is to keep track of citations to my work. This is not only a nice to have, as one is able to see the citations steadily mount up across the years, but also provides great connection to other researchers. So far, my Google scholar profile shows 38 articles, of which 28 have at least one citation. The 6 with only one citation are not through self-citation! The citations provide a good range of researchers to follow and an indication of where each topic may be heading.

My reflections on seeing the citations collected are:
- my decision to concentrate on studying apprenticeship and remain in the field of vocational education has been justified. A decade ago, I was also working in the area of mlearning, a largely emergent field. However, there are now a large number of researchers on mlearning. Plus mlearning is now mainstream with  research merging with elearning, making the field even larger. Trying to establish oneself as a researcher in a large field is always going to be challenging. So keeping to a field which is less 'popular' allows for greater visibility and the opportunity to gain a foothold in academia.
- Interest in apprenticeship as a system and as learning approach has and will increase over the next few years. Due in part to many countries grappling with high youth unemployment; the requirement to increase skills and training in specialist technical and vocational occupations; the aging workforce which includes the need to harness the 'wisdom'of an exiting workforce; the introduction of 'degree' apprenticeships in the UK and Ireland; and increase in apprenticeship systems in China and India.
- Selection of journals to publish in is important. Constructing a corpus of literature with some sort of overarching theme is also important. So mine has been a series of articles in Vocations and Learning on  'how apprentices learn'. I am now meeting other researchers at conferences, who are interested in this corpus of work and cite my articles.
- Indications for the future will be to keep working on pertinent scholarship in vocational education, but to avoid a 'scatter gun' approach to publication.
- there is still a great need for publication - not necessarily in text - of resources which will be accessible to practitioners. I will need to work on this aspect going forward.

So, some strategic thinking required over the summer to put together a plan :)


Monday, December 04, 2017

Reflection - a week of conferencing

Two conferences last week provided some time away from the usual busy work routine. Importantly, the week allowed for time to catch up with others practitioners, passionate about helping learners. Always energised after a week away by presentations on applying precepts of good learning, to various approaches and strategies to assist learners.

Things that would be helpful for my own practice as an educational developer and researcher include:

- need to understand the exigencies of teaching from the experiences of teachers and students. For teachers, is to be empathetic with time-pressured and resource lean situations. To build good relationships with teachers and to provide possible solutions which are doable. Thinking through, together (teacher and ed.developer) to agree on a goal and to work towards the objective in small achievable steps. The 'inquiry cycle' as small interventions, each informing another cycle, has been a major plus for the e-assessment project.
For students, it is important to 'make the learning visible'. Too often, students do not know WHY they are having to engage in a learning activity or assessment. Learning outcomes require iteration throughout a course, not just at the start when the course outline or equivalent is waved in from of them, or they are told that the course outline is to be found on the institution's learning management system! Students are time jealous and will only do what is required to 'pass', but many do not actually learn, let alone change behaviours, attitudes or perceptions.

- There is still limited understanding across the ITP and ITO sectors, of the implications of NZ qualifications being graduate profile based. To some, the graduate profiles just add another layer to a complex schedule of atomised and siloed assessments! Moderation, in particular post - moderation of assessments, is still seen to be the checking of content covered :( Hence 'consistency arrangements' whereby qualification deliverers have to rationalise how their graduates meet the graduate profiles, are seen to be another assessment moderation process (aargh).

- Still confusion as to WHAT are assessments FOR learning. Calling them formative may not always be correct. Requirements to have summative assessments for courses, makes it difficult, in time poor courses, which are filled with content, to 'fit in' assessments for learning. There needs to be more work done, to help teachers understand how to 'design' and develop assessments for learning which provide benefit to learners. Exemplars across various discipline areas may be helpful.

So, much work still to be done. However, above provides a tighter framework to report on the e-assessments for learning project. the project 'guidelines' will need to provide:
- connection between assessments for learning and qualification graduate profiles
- examples of assessments for learning across several discipline areas
- comparison of assessments for and of learning for these discipline areas
- approaches to learning appropriate to required knowledge, skills and attitude learning
- links the above to constructivist (intra-psychological) and socio- cultural / socio -material (inter-psychological) learning
- templates for decision making  / design of assessments for learning as connected to approaches to learning
- Learning 'activities' suited to meeting holistic attainment of graduate profiles i.e. problem/inquiry- based, projects, portfolios etc.
- how to match these with appropriate technology to enhance student learning

Above provides a way forward for thinking through over the summer :)


Friday, December 01, 2017

Assessing Learning Conference, DAY 3

Day 3 dawns fine and warm. The weather across the entire week has been very summery. Hopefully a prelude to a good summer.

Begins with supporting colleagues Maaike Jongerius, John Delany and Lyn Williams from the Academic Division at Ara Institute of Canterbury, presenting the ‘assessment health check tool’. This is a moodle resource to support Ara tutors with ensuring their assessments are constructively aligned. Rationalised the pedagogical frame for undertaking the development for the moodle resource. If assessment drives learning then improvement of assessments will be a core objective. The resource had to cover the principles of assessment but not be too basic for staff who have completed teaching qualifications recently. The integrated activities in the health check can be completed online or as part of a facilitated workshop. The moodle site was brought up and examples of various worksheets / exemplars and the reasons and background on how they are used. Evaluations of the resource, the likes and dislikes, also shared. Presented on what Ara is committed to progress work on assessment practices.

Then Dr. Salome Meyer and Nancy Groh, educational advisors in the education development centre from Eastern Institute of Technology / Napier on ‘the changing conversation about early diagnostic assessment’. Outlined background, original premise / benefits and evolution of LNAAT. The tool is one of several developed to support the NZ government strategy to raise the capability of the workforce. Rationalised the need to change the approach to using diagnostic assessments. Matched literacy and numeracy demands in various occupations – what reading or calculation is required everyday at work? Provided a guide to tutors to better integrate literacy and numeracy within situated learning off-job. Addressed the issue of international students and their distinct needs. Developed academic inquiry course(non-credit bearing) to assist international students to orientate to the NZ educational demands. Developed a revised view of literacy diagram to summarise the different concepts.

Last session is a panel with Geoff Scott, Shaima Al Ansari and Tracey Bretag on ‘What will you do on Monday?’ Panel presented their takes on – what is the single key message you will take away? What single thing will you do, or do differently? What would you tell your boss they need to do? A question and answer session followed.

All in a good opportunity to achieve several things. One was the affirmation of my own understanding and application of the principles of learning -centred assessments. The various attended, all provided some templates, exemplars, concepts and tools useful in both my educational developer and researcher roles. Thankfully, many of the sessions I selected, focused on assessment FOR learning, although there was still a thread running through on summative assessments, prevention of plagiarism etc. Many presentations were on problem / inquiry / project based learning but not many examples from the vocational education / trades learning context. Therefore, as always, there is still a need for more ‘structured’ inquiry and study to build an evidence base of how to assist trades learning.


Thursday, November 30, 2017

Assessing learning conference - DAY 2

A full day starting a 9am.

First up, Keynote panel – on the student voice facilitated by  Dr. Alistair Shaw with 4 students. As always a very valuable session. In short, students did not know about learning outcomes and how they connect to the assessment. Students preferred authentic assessments  which reflected real-world practice. Each institution has culture of practice and differen priorities. Not all have ability to provide authentic learning but assessments may be a means to bring authenticity into courses.

Andrew Kear with a team from the BCITO with ‘assessment in the workplace: principles for on-job assessment’. Gave out copies of publications relevant to NZ context. Shared the BCITO guiding principles and how they connected to Karen Vaughan and Marie Cameron’s good principles of workplace learning and assessments. A clear purpose for assessment is crucial. Provided overview of BCITO to apprentice support, workplace learning and assessment processes. Philosophy and approach is key with all BCITO understanding the distinct culture of BCITO. Belief in each learner is an individual. Group session to discuss how organisations may be able to support individualised learning programme. Assessments need to gather progressive evidence of learning and also be contextualised to be relevant to the learner. Learners should not be put through ‘hoops’ but have authentic evidence of learning recognised – maximising the use of naturally-occurring evidence. Evidence does not have to be written, could be video, aural etc. important to allow annotation of evidence. Moderation has to contribute to the validity and reliability of assessment decisions. Although time consuming and expensive, still has to take place and ‘communities of practice’ amongst ‘assessors’ and moderators, both taking part in the assessment. Moderation is a second opinion. Entire process requires appropriately recruited, trained and professionally developed people.

Followed by support of Faye Wilson-Hill and Niki Hannan from Ara Institute of Canterbury on their work with OneNote as an assessment tool. Provided background of the programme on why the assessment portfolio tool is used. Not only to be an assessment for learning resource but also to model to other teachers, a platform to support learning. Shared assessment principles – integrated into learning process, draws on learners’ experiences, encourages reflection and allows for multiple points for formative feedback. Moodle did not allow for all of these principles to be deployed. One note classroom notebook was selected as it allowed principles to use. Detailed process – how to start – shifting a word document into Onenote. Begin with familiar and work in the online environment first. Reflective practice has to be scaffolded. Showed example of how the notebooks used and structure of the notebook. Feedback is progressive as the course goes on so student have formative assessment for learning every 2 weeks.Feedback from tutors can be written or oral. Used a video capture (Panopto) for students to share portfolios if there is no collaborative space. Concluded with reflection on the process. Still learning but holds promise.

Then a choice of two plenary sessions after lunch. I select Dr. Eleanor Hawe’s on assessment for learning: A catalyst for student self-regulation. Defined assessments for learning and the second generation conceptualisations. In general, formative assessment research in school sector, formative feedback could be more dialogic; and the need to have explicit focus of pedagogy on preparing students to be independent learners. All assessment should support the advancement of student learning (Carless, 2015); assessment does not stand outside teaching and learning, but stands in dynamic interaction with it (Gipps, 1994); Students are no longer objects of their teachers’ behaviour but animators of their own effective learning (James & Pedder, 2006).
Second generation definition – assessment for learning is part of everyday practice by students, teachers and peers, that seeks, reflects upon and responds to information from dialogue, demonstration and observation in ways that enhance ongoing learning (Klenowski, 2009); Therefore, should be part of pedagogy – should be the formative use of assessment (not formative assessments). Aim to develop students as self-regulating learners who can monitor, regulate and control their thinking, behaviour and motivation while engaged in ‘academic tasks’. Sadler advocates that students need to know what is expected  (quality); sufficient evaluative knowledge and expertise to be able to compare current thinking / learning / performance; and a range of strategies to enable to effect improvement and further their thinking / learning / performance.
**Recommended five strategies. Promote student understanding about goals of learning and what constitutes expected performance; engineering effective discussion and activities including assessment tasks to promote and elicit evidence of learning; generate feedback (external and internal) that moves learning forward Use, notice, recognises, respond – Cowie & Bell, 1999); activate students as learning resources for each other; and activation of student ownership over and responsibility for their learning (Hawe & Dixon, 2017; Wiliam, 2011).
Provided an exemplar to illustrate the way in which 5 strategies are operationalised. Need to ensure contextualised to own discipline and practice. However, all 5 need to occur.

Then I present a short session on the eassessment project. The focus this time around, to connect assessments for learning and feedback opportunities to assisting students ‘learning to become’ as they strive and learn to meet graduate outcomes. Summarised the role of assessment for learning in assisting the student journey towards getting to the graduate profile. Details of the sub-projects and some interim findings. In particular, how to assist student to learn the many ‘qualities’ which are often difficult to describe and to work out where they are at and what they need to do to attain.

Followed by a session with Alastair Emerson from OPAIC on ‘developments in assessments for experiential, student centred and partially self-directed pedagogies’. Otago Polytechnic international based in Auckland’s student cohort tend to have only experienced chalk and talk, paint by numbers assessments and discouraged from forming own opinions. Flip learning has not worked, essays and exams are off limited use to assess capability, current assessments make passing the end goal, designed for a didactic knowledge transfer paradigm to constructive student co-created approach. Using formative assessments are incremental with worksheets and templates. Summative involves problem solving or project completion in a real world context involving actual company. Introduced experiential learning using guided self-directed discovery techniques, with diminished on texts, use templates and worksheets which suggest outcomes but do not necessarily have a set process. Need to make learning outcomes visible. Therefore move into project / problem / inquiry based learning. Provided example of worksheets and projects to encourage personalised learning.

Afternoon tea is followed by Plenary with Emeritus ProfessorGeoff Scott from Western Sydney University on assessing work-ready plus capabilities. Presented on the website flipcurric used to support the work. Advocates – good ideas with no ideas on how to implement them are wasted ideas and change does not happen but must be led, and deftly. Rationalised why bother about assessments. Learning impact is when learning design, aligned support and infrastructure and delivery intersect effectively. Summarised the 6 key components of a comprehensive, integrated HE assessment framework – check on flipcurric website. Focused on correct outcomes and assessments.
Learning outcomes – capabilities and competencies students are expected to demonstrate they have developed to a required standard by the end of a program or unit of study. Include personal, interpersonal and cognitive capabilities and the key knowledge and skills necessary for effective early career performance and societal participation. Shared his professional capability framework. Explained the subscales for each of the competences/capabilities. The Plus refers to future focus – sustainability, change savvy, creative and inventive, and clear where one stands on tacit assumptions driving current society. When through principles of powerful assessments and examples of types including key quality checks for assessment of prior learning and learning from experience.

Then Shaima Al Ansari reports on ‘the impact of PBL on employability skills development: The Bahrain Polytechnic industry project assessment case. Knowledge isn’t power until it is applied – Dale Carnegie. Explained rationale and context (business management studies). Project requires student to take on accountability, work with others as part of team. Assist with application of employability skills to attain professional identity. Summarised details of the industry project. A capstone project in the fourth and final year. Students set up a consultancy firm and are the associate consultants. Work with a real client on an ill structured / complex problem. Full time commitment with weekly 2 hour meeting with the academic supervisor who takes on the role of the HR specialist for the consultancy. Students have an orientation week before beginning. Project process detailed along with examples of guide sheets, assessment plans / schedules etc. Shared positive feedback from 'employers / clients' and  students. 

Networking session closes a busy day. Lots of reinforcement of principles we apply at Ara, the concepts underpinning the e-assessment project and some new ideas and resources to support educational development work and production of e-assessment guidelines.