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Harden's Blog

December 2020 - 'Paradox of our time'

In his latest blog Professor Harden addresses topics such as The paradox of our time, University rankings need a rethink, Where are we with the flipped classroom?, Are we making the most effective use of the time available?, Whale Done! and more!

The paradox of our time
This has been a difficult year where many of our practices and values have been challenged.

In 2008, following the death of his wife George Carlin, a well-known comedian, wrote “The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways but narrower viewpoints. We spend more but have less, we buy more but enjoy less. We have bigger houses but smaller families. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge but less judgement, more experts yet more problems, more medicine but less wellness.

We learned how to make a living, but not a life. We’ve added years to life but not life to years. We’ve been all the way to the moon and back but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbour. We’ve conquered outer space but not inner space. We’ve done larger things but not better things.”

He concluded: remember to spend more time with your loved ones, because they’re not going to be around forever.

University rankings need a rethink
Trudie Roberts passed to me an article in Nature (26th Nov 2020, p523), University Rankings Need a Rethink. Elizabeth Gadd who chairs the Research Evaluation Working Group for the International Network of Research Management Societies, argued that world league tables for higher education are flawed, poorly used, and entrench inequity. Rankings apply a combination of indicators that might not represent a university’s particular mission and often overlook societal impact and teaching quality.

A book edited by Ellen Hazelkorn as part of an International Studies in Higher Education series, describes the development of rankings and their impact in the higher education and identifies associated problems. Problems included that some universities are forced to reduce their expenditure in some areas such as teaching in order to finance their rank-optimizing activities, as noted in Global Rankings and the Geopolitics of Higher Education: Understanding the influence and impact of rankings on higher education, policy, and society.

Global Rankings and the Geopolitics of Higher Education: Understanding the influence and impact of rankings on higher education, policy and society International Studies in Higher Education: Amazon.co.uk: Hazelkorn, Ellen: Books

Benchmarking is described as a constructive response to some of the criticisms of rankings and as a means to provide better and more useful information about the performance of higher education.  In medical education the ASPIRE-to-Excellence Award (www.aspire-to-excellence.org) provides such a benchmarking.

Where are we with the flipped classroom?
It remains a matter of speculation, the extent to which we should move to the Flipped Classroom model, where what has normally been presented in a lecture would be studied by students in their own time and the time normally scheduled in the lecture used to tackle problems and issues for discussion. One criticism has been that the recordings and material provided for use by students simply perpetuates the poor experience of a lecture.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, much of learning has been transferred from face-to-face to an online experience. The flipped classroom model, however, can still be operated with group discussion and problem-solving activities, organised through the Zoom platform.

The extent to which learning has suffered as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic is still a matter of debate. The Times Higher Education carried out a survey of 200 prestigious universities worldwide in May 2020. More than 100 had moved all teaching online. 30-70% of respondents expressed the view that the quality of teaching was not as good as the previous in-person teaching.

Are we making the most effective use of the time available?
There is increased demand on the teaching programme with the pressures of greater public expectations and advancing medical knowledge with information doubling in the biomedical field every 73 days. Time available in the curriculum is a precious commodity. It has been argued that the best teachers make effective use of the time available and engage students in an authentic and relevant learning experience, conveying the message that what the student is learning is both urgent and important.

In Teach like a champion Doug Lemov suggests that in education “time is water in the desert, a teacher’s most precious resource: to be husbanded, guarded, and conserved, every minute matters”.

Whale Done!
Ken Blanchard, better known for his book The One-Minute Manager, describes in Whale Done! how killer whales are trained at SeaWorld by accentuating the positives and redirecting negative behaviour. Too often we concentrate on finding our student or trainee’s weaknesses or the gaps in their knowledge rather than building on their achievements and capabilities. I remember I had to interview a student who was consistently performing badly in examinations. Previous attempts to remediate his performance had failed. While talking with him I found that he was a talented illustrator. At that time students had as part of the respiratory course an assignment to prepare education materials for patients with asthma. When encouraged to apply his skills as an artist to the task he not only produced first class education material on the topic but also became more involved in the respiratory system teaching and later the other systems. What had worked was building on his strengths rather than highlighting his weaknesses.

Whale Done!: The Power of Positive Relationships: Amazon.co.uk: Ken, Jr. Blanchard, Thad Lacinak, Jim Ballard: 9781857883268: Books

A Merry Christmas to all readers
As this is the last blog this year and we may not have crackers and our usual Christmas party here are some of what the Irish Times describe as the best lockdown jokes this Christmas:

  • What is Dominic Cummings’ favourite Christmas song?  Driving home for Christmas!
  • Did you hear that production was down at Santa’s workshop?  Many of his workers have had to elf-isolate!
  • Why didn’t Mary and Joseph make it to Bethlehem?  All Virgin flights were cancelled!
  • Why couldn’t Mary and Joseph join their work conference call?  Because there was no Zoom at the inn!

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