Sunday, 17 August 2014

Stories about the interview process - during the interview

Every participant in your research will differ in terms of their expectation of the interview process and the resources which they bring to the interview.

First, what are some of the expectations which participants have in terms of the process of the interview?

Some participants may expect that you go directly to the "heart of the matter" as soon as the interview starts. They do not want to deal with preliminary matters such as providing background information about themselves or their organisations. If you had, beforehand, indicated to them that you wanted to discuss a particular matter they come to the interview focused on only discussing that matter. If you deviate just a little bit from their expectation they begin to get a tad uncomfortable or worse, irritated.

What do you do when you are confronted with such a situation? Explain to your participant the relevance of the information which you are seeking to your understanding of the main matter under discussion but gently steer the conversation back to the direction in which the participant is comfortable navigating. Seize opportunities in the conversation later to explore issues which you believe are critical to your understanding of the issue of concern. You may realise as the conversation progresses that your participant's state of unease, initially, was because she/he was so invested in the main issue and wanted so badly to expound on it, therefore the participant did not want to be distracted. You may find that the minute you ask the question your  participant was anticipating, the atmosphere of the interview changes and the engagement of the participant  becomes almost palpable. You have now got the full attention of your participant so it is now your responsibility to manage the interview process in order to elicit the information which you are seeking.

Second, participants differ in their ability to coherently articulate their views on the issue with which you, the researcher, are concerned. This, in spite of the fact that all participants may share a common status, for example, classroom teacher or principal of a school. You the researcher may ask your participant to respond to an issue which you are exploring. Some participants may provide you with many minutes of insight while others will provide you with a few seconds.

What do you do in situations like these? You the researcher may want to allow those participants who are verbose to fully articulate their views without interruption, except for seeking clarifications. You may, at the time, think that the participant is not quite answering your question but, later, when you have made your transcript and begun your analysis of the interview, you may find that your verbose participants have provided you with answers to critical questions that you did not think to ask, answers which are pertinent to facilitating your understanding of the issue under consideration.

Or the participants who are of few words, you the researcher will have to help them to articulate the issues to which you are seeking answers. You do this by prodding and probing which will require that you ask many questions, following up on the responses that your participants give.

Third, participants differ in terms of their understanding of the issues as well as the research process. For example, you may interview a participant who is quite learned, had engaged in much research in his/her esteemed career. This participant believes in and is committed to a particular research methodology and may quite subtly try to "sell" you this methodology. You may even get a lecture about the research process, the issue in which you are interested and the "best" way to design your research to elicit the kind of information which will shed light on the issue under consideration. Or, you may have a participant who seems to be only familiar with the survey method of eliciting "legitimate" information to answer research questions and, therefore, discount your methodology which does not involve the distribution of questionnaires replete with close-ended questions. This participant may also reject your research question and suggest other areas of the organisation which she/he believes is more "worthy" of research than the one you had chosen to explore.

What do you do when these situations arise during the interview process? You listen politely to whatever the participant wishes to share. Thank the participant for sharing the information with you and tell him/her that you will consider it as you negotiate your way through the research process. Then, steer the conversation into the area in which you had originally planned. Afterwards, do consider all the contributions from this participant. You may find some pearl of wisdom embedded there, or you may not.

One of the major lessons which you will learn from the research process is that you have to have a good understanding of your research goals, be committed to them but be not wary of having your participants challenge them. It is in their challenging of these goals that you, the researcher, sometimes get insights on how to refine your research goals to capture, in a precise way, the understanding which you crave of the issue which you are exploring.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Stories about the interview process: before the interview

The interview is one method of data collection which some researcher employ in their research in an attempt to gain insight about phenomena. If we do a search of Google Scholar or any educational database with which we are familiar for information on interviewing, we will find much information. This information will cover areas such as structuring of interviews, timing of interviews, approaches which are used in the interviewing process, types of interview questions, types of interviews, qualities to be possessed by interviewers, positioning of the interviewer in the exchange with subjects/ respondents/informants/participants, purposes of interviews, among other related themes.

All of this information is useful, especially for the new researcher who has selected this method of data collection as being the ideal one, or one of a combination of methods of collecting data, to build on existing knowledge and understanding of a particular phenomenon.

However, before the actual interview takes place our knowledge and understanding of much more than the issue with which we are concerned are enhanced.

As a budding researcher, imagine that after casting your net far and wide, you eventually reel in a few persons who satisfy the criteria that you had set for selecting participants for your research and who have indicated a willingness to participate in your research. You are extremely grateful to them for having agreed to participate. You agree on a date and time for the interview, or you may have difficulty doing so with some participants. But, eventually the day arrives for you to meet with the participant who had managed to settle on a date and time for the interview.

You may experience one or the other, or elements of, or none of the scenarios outlined below. But you will definitely have a story to tell afterwards.

Scenario 1: You arrive for the interview. You are greeted cordially by the gatekeeper/s and directed to the participant who knows who you are, had read all the literature you had beforehand provided to him/her about your research and is ready to engage with the issues you had outlined as being up for discussion or, if you had not outlined any issues, is ready to participate in whatever discussion you have in store.

Scenario 2: You arrive fifteen minutes before the scheduled start of the interview. You are greeted cordially by the gatekeeper/s and directed to a seat in an area reserved for visitors. You are told that the participant is busy at the moment or is “running late” with a previous appointment. You may find yourself waiting for what will seem like hours, when in reality it is only an hour, for the appointment to be kept. The gatekeeper/s will be proffering apologies at regular intervals. Finally, the participant is ready to meet with you. The participant apologises for the delay but looks at you askance before saying, “remind me of who you are again and the nature of your visit”. You acquiesce. The participant has a “eureka” moment and the interview proceeds.

Scenario 3: You arrive for the interview. The gatekeepers ignore you until you gently demand their attention. They tell you that the participant is not available and go back to their duties. After you wait for further clarification and they sense that you have not moved on they lift their heads from the task that had captured their attention and attempt to re-direct you to someone else. You tell them you’ll wait for the participant. They go back to their duties. You find a seat. You wait. The participant who is quite pleasant arrives just in time for the interview. You proceed with the interview.

Scenario 4: You may have a participant who has agreed to the interview but cannot commit to a date and time. Finally, after many excuses from the participant you take the initiative and send him/her a copy of the interview schedule. He/she responds promptly with written responses or, he/she may not respond at all.

Scenario 5: You arrive for the scheduled interview. The participant greets you cordially after being summoned by the gatekeeper. But, the participant wants you to again outline the nature of your visit, even though you had already done that in writing as well as verbally to the participant. The participant asks if you had gone through the official channels before you had got to her/him. You respond in the affirmative and provide evidence. The participant then outlines reasons why she/he is not the best person to participate in your research then redirects you to someone else. Remember, this person had agreed to participate in your research and had agreed to an interview. You leave without having conducted an interview.

There are many lessons to be learnt from these scenarios. We learn much about the process of research, we learn much about participants in this process, we learn much about the people who work in organisations, we learn much about the organisations themselves, we learn much about ourselves as individuals and as researchers and we have amassed much data which we can add to the existing body of knowledge on interviewing as a research method.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Teachers’ performance and educational outcomes, apportioning accountability

To what extent should we teachers be held accountable for our students’ performance at school? It has been the pastime of a number of social commentators in newspaper columns over the years to vilify teachers whom they blame for the poor performance of students in the education system. And, there are those “experts” in the education Ministry who have drawn heavily on data supplied by researchers elsewhere to categorically state that if the “right” methodology is adopted, if the “right” people are allowed into teacher training institutes, all children will learn.

Teachers, on the other hand, have not been silent. A number of them have voiced the opinion that the expectations that the education Ministry and society at large have of them, where performance of students is concerned, are unrealistic. For example they say, teachers who teach the lower streams – on a numerical scale say streams four or five on a five point scale, or streams seven and eight on an eight point scale – are being given “baskets to carry water”. They say that it is grossly unreasonable for anyone to expect that these teachers will be able to “move” such students to the required level since many of their students seem to be handicapped by mental and social problems which are impacting their learning.
The social commentators whom I have mentioned above have rubbished this view expressed by teachers. At least one has suggested that once teachers have been trained to teach they are “experts” in the art of teaching and, as such, should be able to surmount any obstacle in the classroom. Ignoring the fallacy of that argument, one needs to realize that there are, indeed, students with “special needs” who are in the traditional school system who need special attention. Should the “generalist” teacher, a teacher who has been trained to teach students of “normal” ability, be also able to teach students with special needs? If this is the expectation, then the curricula at teachers' training institutes need to be radically revamped to ensure that all teachers are equipped with the knowledge and techniques to deal with all types of students in the same classroom.
Currently, there is a programme in the teacher training institutes for individuals who want to be trained as “special educators”. This is suggesting that there are some students who need special attention in order for them to acquire something from the education system. If this is so, it seems unreasonable to expect that every student, whether in the primary or secondary system, will pass examinations at each level, examinations which are based on curricula which assume that every child has the same ability to learn the same thing, at the same pace and in the same way. This is the assumption because every student whether he or she is in stream one or stream eight, or with or without special challenges is exposed to the same curricula. And we teachers are judged based on the percent of students who actually pass these examinations.
Since a significant number of students seem to be underperforming in the education system, their underperformance has been equated with the underperformance of teachers. There may be something to this correlation but, obviously, it does not express the whole truth. So, to what extent should we teachers be held accountable for the performance of our students? We should be held fully accountable, but only if we have been equipped with the intellectual, strategic and material tools to positively impact students’ learning. Otherwise, we have to share the blame with the top managers of the educational enterprise.  
Share your views in the comments section below. 


Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Theorising students’ performance

A theory may loosely be described as an idea which provides an explanation or understanding of a phenomenon. (Many more sophisticated definitions abound).
A number of scholars have expressed the view that for a “construction” to be referred to as a theory it must meet certain criteria. For example, Eva Jablonka and Christer Bergsten in their article, Theorising in mathematics education research: differences in modes and quality (2010) have presented a detailed discussion of the issue of theorising while presenting the criteria which they believe a theory should encompass. In spite of the focus of the article, the view of Jablonka and Bergsten on theorising may have some resonance with those scholars doing research in areas other than Mathematics.
My purpose in this article is not to present an exposition of theory but to invite us as teachers to do some unorthodox theorising about the performance of our students in the education setting in which we find ourselves. Later, we may want to refine these theories according to extant academic wisdom and share them with colleagues in our field in order to increase understanding of the issue of students’ performance which, in turn, will enable us to craft suitable interventions to help them to improve their performance. This theorising may be about students' performance generally or students' performance in individual subjects. 
I know that there is much information on this issue which teachers may access. And in our theorising we are encouraged to take note of previous studies of the issue with which we are concerned. But, often, in our search for previous research in the area in which we are interested we may find either, that the research was done among students in contexts dissimilar to ours or, very little or no research was done on the issue in our contexts. If we uncritically accept research done in other contexts and use it as a guide to action in our contexts, we seem to be saying that all students in whatever context they are learn in exactly the same way. I am contending that this is not the case and am suggesting that we should, as teachers, put on the “cap’ of researchers  and not be averse to exploring issues of performance or any other issue of interest in our local contexts. It should be quite interesting to do comparisons across sites with the data collected to see what nuances reveal themselves.
There is much in the environment of the school that we do not readily understand. For example, we may faithfully follow the prescribed methodology or we may be creative/innovative with the methodology that we use in the classroom. Yet, our efforts may not have produced the positive outcome which we expected, that is, learning by all students as measured by standardized tests. Why do some students seem to grasp the content and reproduce it while others do not?
We may provide an explanation of our students’ performance based on our observations of and interactions with them. Possible answers to this question may lie among the following – nutrition, methodology, interest of students, personalities of teachers and students, expectations of teachers and students, parental expectations, capabilities of teachers and students, individual and school resources, peer pressure, community culture, the culture of the school among other factors. This list is by no means exhaustive.
However, we should realise that the performance of each student is mediated by different factors. For some students, their performance may be mediated by one factor, others by two or more. In some cases, many students’ performance is mediated by multiple adverse factors (in the case of those who perform poorly) or multiple beneficial factors (in case of those students who perform well) which may retard or aid students’ performance.
The aim of theorizing the performance of our students in the specific contexts in which they are schooled is to arrive at an understanding of how to best devise interventions that would elicit from all students the learning outcomes which have been set by the curriculum/curricula. 

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Mission Statements

The school environment in many countries is continually being made business-like. One of the features of this business-like environment is the adoption by schools of mission statements. These statements are terse pronouncements as to the goal of these organisations. Even individual managers within the school seem to have seen it fit to create their own mission statements. I met one individual who was just taking up a position as canteen manager of a school. She proudly showed me her mission statement and passionately explained its importance to her and its application to her new role. So these statements seem to, or ought to, give direction to those who take them seriously.

To what extent do schools seriously take mission statements? It depends on the commitment of the leadership of each school. For the effect of these mission statements to be felt by the stakeholders of schools, the leadership of the school must be committed to them.

I perceive that many schools adopt mission statements because of a directive from government, not because of any deep-seated conviction about their efficacy one way or the other.  Take a mission statement which speaks to the provision of quality education to students in an environment which fosters respect for all, a commitment to service and an emphasis on diligence of all to ensure that students will be able to positively contribute to their society, for example. This mission statement is the broad goal of the school – the administration, all the categories of workers and students – which adopts such a mission statement.

However, one may visit or make contact with such a school and come to the realisation that the school is operating counter to its mission statement in every way. That is, there is no demonstrable respect being evinced by administration to staff, by staff to administration, by staff to each other, by students to each other, by students to staff and vice versa and by administration and staff to some external stakeholders. One may also come to the realisation, therefore, that there is very little “commitment to service” and also, based on the overall performance of the school (the school achieving its goal), that the emphasis on diligence has been de-emphasised. To what extent, then, are the administration and staff” positively contributing to society” and to what extent will students be able to “positively contribute to society”?

Mission statements are becoming a feature of the educational landscape. However to give effect to them the leadership, having drafted them, must be committed to them and there should be an attempt by this leadership, by example, to re-socialise the school community into internalising the tenets of these statements.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The mind and learning

The mind is that part of our being which allows us to perceive sense stimuli and to make sense of them. It is the centre of our intellect. It allows us to think. It allows us to learn. It is the essence of our being. It has been the subject of intellectual studies throughout the ages, yet not fully comprehended.

I am going to proffer my commonsensical notion of the mind and learning in this article. This notion has come out of my observations of human behaviour in the classroom and in other settings.

When it comes to learning I believe that there are two types of minds. There is one which is quietly receptive of whatever to which it is introduced. It is suited to the traditional conceptualisation of education. The teacher is the possessor of all knowledge relevant to a particular subject. The teacher imparts this knowledge via the traditional lecture method. The mind absorbs the knowledge and later reproduces it as given. That is, the minds which care about the information which the teacher imparts.

This uncritical mind welcomes the "banking concept of education" which was so heartily criticised by well-known Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. His view, like many who are proponents of a critical pedagogy in education, is that education should prepare one to think critically, that is, to challenge any facet of life which is deemed to be oppressive in order to bring about change. However, the mind I am talking about here does not want to challenge anything. It wants to be told what to do. It is content with the status quo.

Some students who possess this mind do very well on tests. Others who possess this mind do very poorly. They want to be told everything but they cannot be bothered to act on anything they are told.

The second kind of mind is one which thrives on curiosity. Whatever captures its interest is subject to prolonged, profound questioning. This mind wants to know. Like a dog with a bone, this mind will not stop gnawing at an idea, a procedure, a task in which it is interested until it conquers it. That is, it fully understands the object of its interest. Then it moves on to another source of interest. This mind is constantly working. This mind will welcome the critical pedagogical approach to instruction.

The uncritical mind applies itself in the same manner to every facet of life, with acceptance, feigned interest. The critical mind, on the other hand, may bring criticality to every aspect of life or it may be selective. It may bring criticality only to that aspect of life in which it has an interest.  This criticality may be on display in the classroom, if criticality is welcomed there. Those who possess this critical mind will question received wisdom and provide their own alternative, even though the knowledge base on which they draw may, sometimes, be quite limited. But, most times these persons who possess this critical mind are willing to explore further any issue by doing the necessary research and are willing to revise their position after acquiring new knowledge.

This mind may not necessarily perform well on tests because it only produces what it understands. It does not memorise facts for the sake of memorising them.

This critical mind may not be motivated by the subjects which are taught in school. Instead, it brings its critical focus to that which it is truly interested. For example, in schools, many students who are interested in sports, and may be termed sporting prodigies, do poorly at the academics.

Let us examine this critical mind in relation to the team sport, “soccer”. This mind understands the purpose of the game – winning. It has developed an understanding of strategy in this sport – strategy of passing the ball, strategy of dribbling the ball, strategy of controlling the ball, strategy of defending the goal, strategy of scoring goals, strategy of working as a team. This mind understands its role on the team and it tries to help the team to be successful.

I am sure that we know many persons who have had great success, some by orthodox means, and some by unorthodox means but had performed poorly in school, this poor performance measured in terms of success in tests, which is the standard measuring device of performance in many educational contexts. However, through their own ingenuity they have achieved success by performing well in their chosen fields.

Now, if this mind can perform well in many aspects of life, why cannot it excel in the academic realm?

Should we stream students, putting them in classes with students of like interest and infuse all subjects which they are required to take with illustrations drawn from their interests? That is, should we have classes, for example, which are peopled with only students who are interested in sports?

This may be a desirable strategy to enhance performance in school. The leaders of the education enterprise often say that to improve performance of students teachers must meet them where they are at. This usually means that teachers should provide instruction to students according to their academic level when they come to them. This idea could be extended to incorporate another idea, that of instructing students according to their interests and/or their experience when they come to them. Doing this may help to develop students' interests in the lessons, and their general performance in school as they begin to see the relevance of the lessons to their real life interests and situations.

The above is just the ramblings of a mind which is always looking for answers to the “why” questions. For example, why do some students perform satisfactorily in school and some do not? No doubt, the answer is multi-faceted. I have provided one possible facet of the answer for consideration.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Interacting with education policies

Educational policies are “blueprints” or intended plans of actions which government has devised with the aid of experts to solve perceived problems in the education sector of the society. These perceived problems may be related, for example, to improving literacy and numeracy among everyone in the society, improving the educational performance of students at the different levels of the education system, creating a link between the education system and the world of work, using the education system as a tool to develop a national identity among other such noble goals. We get a very general idea of government’s policy direction for the sectors of society by reading the manifesto which they usually unveil during their campaign for political office.

Once the policy direction for the education sector has been agreed on experts are tasked with devising programmes which will give effect to these policies. That is, the government believes that these specific programmes of action which they have devised, when implemented, will solve the identified problem/s.

Every time government rolls out a “new” policy in education much debate is generated, which should be the case. The responses of interested stakeholders to government’s policy direction in the education sector are always mixed. In responding to education policies parents, principals, teachers, students, educational experts who were not a part of the policy conceptualisation and creation process, among other interested parties, will have contrasting inputs.

Out of the policy for improving students’ performance in schools, for example, may emerge a programme which requires that the school year be extended to eleven months of the year. Teachers, principals, parents, students and other interested parties will bring their own ideas borne out of their lived experiences to their reaction to the general policy direction as well as to this programme. These may force a tweaking or reconceptualization of the programme.

Teachers, for example, may be livid. The number of vacation days which they usually look forward to will be reduced. This reduces the number of days which they have to de-stress from a physically, mentally and emotionally draining school year. They may view government as being insensitive and, therefore, may undermine the implementation of this policy.

Some principals may welcome the change. After all, they are on call every day of the school year. Others may respond like the teachers, seeing the extension of the school year as being insensitive on the part of government and may lack commitment to the implementation of the policy as government intended.

Some parents may be happy. Either they do not have to worry about the cost of day care and other protective facilities for their children or they may applaud the policy initiative as a way to ensure that their children get more time to be educated than before. Some parents, however, will be annoyed as they may be concerned about finding the extra resources to send their children to school for an extended period.  

Most students will be quite annoyed. They live for holidays. It provides, for a while, escape and fun from the drudgery of school.

The positions taken by other interested parties may run the gamut of the ones outlined above while some may totally reject the efficacy of the policy and suggest their own alternatives to solve the perceived problem.

Obviously, the situation will require some compromise, some give and take, some suspension of animosity, and some middle ground if the government expects implementation of their policy to achieve its intended goal – improved performance.

Stephen J. Ball, Meg Mcguire, and Anette Braun doing research in the context of England, in their book, How schools do policy: policy enactments in secondary schools (2012) point out what may be evident to policymakers, that the policy process is not a linear one. Government does not send down policy prescriptions to schools and they get enacted as is. The policy enactment process as done in schools is a messy one. It is a negotiated process. And this process may have both intended and unintended consequences.

How do schools do policy in the contexts in which we as teachers live and work? Who are the major actors in the educational policy process? Whose voice has authority? Who is listened to? How is policy implemented? Is there a synergy between the expectations of the government and the schools from policy prescriptions? These and other questions as regards the policy conception, policy making and policy implementation process need to be answered in every context.

The input of all the actors in the policy process should be considered from the conceptualisation stage of the policy to the implementation stage. Because, success or failure of the policy depends on these actors, especially those at the implementation stage.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Sharing information: One of the key components of organisational success

Being in a position of leadership in an organisation is being in a group, an “in-group”, that is, a group which some of those on the outside perceive as being desirable, one that they would give anything to be a part of, one whose status is elevated.

While some of those on the outside of this group, that is the “out-group” are longing to take their place in this “in-group”, many of those who have found themselves in this group keep on devising ways to maintain their position and to keep subordinates firmly in their subordinate position.

The problem with this behaviour is that the goals of the organisation will not be fully met if there is a gap in the organisation which subordinates perceive is being deliberately constructed by leadership in order to keep the two groups from developing any sort of group identity. This is a problem which is compounded by the animosity towards and distrust of leadership which usually ensue in situations like these. Since all members in the organisation are supposed to be working to achieve the objectives of the organisation in a spirit of interdependence, with the leadership leading the process, the absence of this interdependence, the absence of the necessary camaraderie and trust will make the achievement of the objectives of the organisation an uphill task.

 At the heart of this leading should be the ability and willingness on the part of the leadership to effectively communicate the organisation’s mission and goals, the strategy or strategies for achieving them, providing updates on the result of effort expended at different stages and to motivate the led towards greater effort than previously expended.

However, in the “in-group” of leadership, information becomes a most valuable resource. Information is power. It is the group’s source of authority. Therefore, this information is held very “close to the chest”. It is shared reluctantly and not in its entirety. It seems that persons in this group believe that in sharing information with subordinates they will erode their authority.

When the group underperforms, leadership apportions blame, but only to subordinates. When performance improves leadership takes most of the credit.

For persons who are committed to the organisations of which they are a part and display this commitment by carrying out their duties well, this attitude on the part of leadership is a source of frustration. And it is one of the major reasons why many persons in organisations either opt out mentally or physically from the organisation.

To get the best from members of the organisation, those in positions of leadership have to be willing to control their egos. They can enjoy the satisfaction of their elevated status without treating those whom they lead as unimportant cogs in the machinery of the organisation. Being transparent by sharing information is a good start and nothing says respect more than that.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Teachers: the major cause of poor performance of students in schools?

It is a great honour to be considered an “expert” at anything. We often see in the media where persons who have been invited to panels to talk about or (analyse?) issues are introduced as experts in their fields. Any field may have many experts as we would have discovered. In education, for example, there are experts in curriculum, experts in assessments, experts in teaching, experts in inspection and experts in education itself, all types of experts.

A number of these experts are convinced (as a result of their presumed expertise on the matter) that teachers are the major impediments to students’ optimal performance in the classroom. They seem to derive this conclusion by cursorily examining high performing schools which share similar characteristics with low performing schools. Some of these high performing schools have large classes, for example. Yet their students learn, they argue, as opposed to students in the same situation in low performing schools. Class size, therefore, is not an impediment to learning they fallaciously conclude. 

These experts discount other factors like the screening process which these high performing schools at the primary level, for example, engage in to ensure that they get the best students. The Ministry of Education does the screening for secondary schools with some schools getting the best students and the other schools getting the rest. Furthermore, they ignore the disparities in environments in which the schools operate. Moreover, these experts discount other factors which may negatively impact students’ learning such as students’ attitude to learning, students’ learning abilities, the value parents place on education, salaries, working conditions, leadership among a very long list of other such factors which may negatively impact performance of both teachers and students in schools.

These experts declare that it is the teachers’ job to effect learning in students. Environmental factors are secondary to the teachers’ primary function. Teachers must be mindful of this fact and get the job done, these experts say.

Experts seem to believe that there is a fool-proof formula which teachers must use to effect learning in students. At the end of following a step by step approach to instruction, all forty-five students (if that is the number of students in the class) would have “been reached” by the teacher.

By the way, in the past when teachers in training were introduced to the art of writing lesson plans the objectives were framed in a hopeful manner. That is, “at the end of the lesson students should be able to...” and the teacher in training would list at least three objectives. The objectives were thus framed because it was understood that there were some students by virtue of a number of factors within and outside of their control who would not achieve everything the lesson was intended to achieve.

Today, it seems that teachers are being instructed to frame objectives in a positive, concrete way which declares the knowledge that a positive outcome will be achieved at the end of the lesson, in spite of everything else which may be happening to the student at that time. For example, instead of stating that students should be able at the end of the lesson to display certain behaviours, teachers are being encouraged to state categorically that at the end of the lesson students will be able to display the desired behaviours which the lesson intended. The rationale for this change as explained by one of these experts in education is that teachers will now put in the required effort to ensure the desired outcome in students, as if they were not doing so before.

Now, I will agree that there are some teachers who do not have the will to utilise every available strategy to ensure student learning. But many do. And in spite of the best efforts of these hard working teachers, a number of students will still be on the periphery of the learning process at the end of each lesson. This must not be, according to the experts.

These experts are ignoring the fact that the teaching learning process is a collaborative one. It is also one of compromise. For the teacher to achieve her/his goal which is student learning, he/she has to be willing to, in an innovative way, give something – the content of the lesson as well as feedback. For the students to achieve their goal in this setting (it must be acknowledged that many students do not yet have any goals where education is concerned) they will have to come to class with the “right” attitude – being willing to listen, to ask questions (if this is allowed), to do the assignments.

The oft used statement that you can lead the donkey to the water but you can’t force it to drink is apt here. We should also realise that the donkey may have wanted to drink but there are impediments which are preventing it from doing so. It is the same with students. Some students actively rebel at schooling as those who have been in the classroom for even a little while will tell you. Others by virtue of whatever deficit they possess find it difficult to grasp what is being taught while others will grasp instruction with little effort exerted by the teacher.

It is quite de-motivating to teachers who are, and have always been trying every strategy to get their students to learn without achieving the success which they would like, to be told that they are not doing enough. Experts must also give equal weight to the other factors which may negatively impact students’ performance in the contexts in which the teaching/learning process takes place when they assess the teachers’ performance. In addition, since they have the “answers” to students’ performance probably they should spend at least a week in one of the “failing” schools conducting the lessons so that teachers and students may learn from them. 

Thursday, 20 February 2014

The world is changing and has always been

Proponents of a critical pedagogy to be used in the teaching/learning process from Paulo Freire in his work Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) to more recent academics such as Joe Kincheloe and Peter McLaren, among others, have put forward cogent arguments for its use. They believe that if educators employ a critical pedagogy in the classroom they will be contributing to the liberation of students from oppressive influences. This is possible because in employing this critical pedagogy, teachers will be providing students with the tools to interrogate and challenge any facet of life which they believe is oppressive. The proponents of the use of critical pedagogy in the teaching/learning process believe that doing so is necessary for students to become critical thinkers. And critical thinkers have the tools to change their world to a state which they deem to be desirable. And this desirable state is one in which democratic principles are fostered.

The oppressive conditions from which people are encouraged to free themselves seem to be acts, omissions and situations which go against a very general notion of democracy. These oppressive conditions seem to be ones in which all kinds of freedoms are restricted. Therefore, situations like race relations, gender relations, and sexual relations seem to be atop the list of priorities of oppressive situations which a critical pedagogy will prepare people to question and then change. Of course, there are a number of other situations which the literature on this critical pedagogy deems as being oppressive.

For example, the curricula taught in schools have come in for questioning. However, the extent to which proponents of a critical pedagogy encourage students to question the content of schooling is questionable. But if they do, students may begin to ask, is the content of education oppressive? They may look for answers by questioning the rules, content and methodology of education. 

Having developed the tools to interrogate the status quo and being engaged in the interrogation of it, many of those who are so involved may develop different perspectives about it. As a result, they will proffer varying explanations of and solutions for any problems they have identified. Whose perspective and whose solution is “correct”? And whose perspective or whose solution is adopted to remedy whatever malady is identified?

More often than not, it is the perspective and solution of those who possess powerful capital whether intellectual or otherwise who make the decision that their reading of the situation is the “correct” one. Therefore through the mass media and other sources they provide society with a “blueprint” which everyone is expected to follow. The law is used to give force to this “blueprint”. Those who disregard this “blueprint” in favour of their perspective which they have arrived at from their engagement in the process of critical thinking, a process which has brought them to a different place from that of the controllers of powerful capital are named and shamed. That is, the spotlight is focused on them because not accepting the “blueprint” is deemed as being a wrong and an offence.

This is social engineering at work, here. Throughout history, those who possess powerful capital have been leading the process of social engineering. These are the “critical thinkers”. They have devised ways of life that fit in with their thinking of their time. They have decided what is right and what is wrong or that right and wrong are relative concepts. They expect society to accept their dictates. Those who do not are suitably punished.

As society has progressed new thinkers have emerged who have devised new perspectives of what the world should be like. They aggressively market their perspectives. There are buyers who buy and, in turn, sell these perspectives to the rest of society. When we say the world is changing, we are saying that we have accepted new modes of being which “critical thinkers” have told us are the best for this period and are enacting them in society.

We are seeing much of this happening through the process of socialisation where powerful agents of socialisation such as the mass media and the education system are leading the charge. The concept of performativity is being played out. Performativity as explained in a previous article may be seen as a process of speaking things into being. Words are that powerful but other texts have been discovered to be as equally powerful. So through many discourses whether by word or any other texts society is being shown the image of what this new world should look like. This is the new status quo which is being created.

In the future, others will have another perspective of what their world ought to look like, what is good and what is bad. And they will begin a process of re-creating the world to suit their new sensibilities.

The goal of critical pedagogy is to create a world in which oppression is eradicated because the proponents believe that all human beings have an inalienable right to be free, an idea which was popularised by the founding fathers of the United States of America. What is interesting, though, is that many who have got and are getting relief from their sources of oppression will, inadvertently, find ways to oppress those who do not fully share their beliefs. This has been the way of the world throughout history.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Personality types, impeding or progressing performance in public sector organisations (Part 2)

The previous article mentioned the work which psychologists have done on personality and stated that their findings have been used by businesses to fit the “right” types of personalities with the “right” jobs. This article will explore the issue of whether or not personality impacts the performance in the public sector and how. It will specifically focus on the legacy of slavery and how this legacy has shaped personalities.

Slavery is a period of history characterised by lack. There was a lack of autonomy on the part of the slaves. The slaves lacked power. They lacked material things which their masters took for granted. The rulers during that period controlled all power – economic, educational, political, among the other sources of power. They were the examples which the slaves used to measure success. To achieve any measure of power the slaves perceived that education was key.

As such, this message has been passed on to subsequent generations. And there has since then been a determined effort on the part of many parents to give their children the best education because they truly believe that “education is [indeed] the key to success”. After their children have achieved this success, they can live vicariously through them.

After achieving this success/power, how is it manifested in the world of work, especially in the public sector? It is manifested through the personality traits which the persons in power display in their interaction with those whom they supervise.

First, many of those who occupy positions of leadership in the public sector are arrogant in dealing with those whom they consider to be inferior to them. This arrogance may take any of several forms. On the one hand, many in positions of leadership are quite opinionated, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but they display unwillingness to compromise because they are sure their position on any issue is the best one. The opinion of subordinates is not welcome, no matter how reasoned. After “shooting down” the opinion of subordinates, they will ask, “Are you telling me how to do my job, now?” They are in charge. They should provide all the answers.

On the other hand, many persons in positions of leadership in public sector organisations display their arrogance by not deigning to actively participate in any of the task oriented activities whether the critical operating tasks or the strategic management tasks of the organisation (borrowing the concepts from Kiggundu, M. 1995), except for signing documents. They believe in fully delegating all responsibilities to subordinates. They occupy the top position in the organisation because they have worked for it. It is now time for others to work. And they wield whips of acid tongues in controlling subordinates.

Furthermore, their arrogance is displayed in their willingness to ignore policies sent down by their superiors if they are convinced that following these policies will not yield the outcome which they believe is best for all, even though their views are contrary to the views of the majority.  

However, when these persons in positions of leadership meet those persons in higher positions of leadership than they, persons whom they perceive as being superior to them by virtue of status conferred by education, wealth or other sources of power, their arrogance dissipates. They become grovelling, obsequious beings willing to go more than the extra mile to satisfy the needs of these people. They are out of their elements. They again gain control when they are back in their sphere of influence.

Second, many persons in positions of leadership in the public sector develop a lack of empathy the farther up in the organisation they move. They remember all the little inconveniences they had suffered at the hands of unwitting colleagues. They hold grudges and they take pleasure in “paying back” all those whom they perceive have wronged them. They do this by withholding benefits and information, overlooking them for promotion, spreading propaganda about those whom they see as rivals – basically marginalising opponents, perceived or real. As a result, there is constant effort being exerted in the organisation, not necessarily to achieve the objectives of the organisation, but to maintain or improve one’s position.

Chinua Achebe in his novel, A Man of the People, through the narrator likened the actions of one of the major characters Nanga, the politician, to a person who when it is raining seeks shelter in a building. Other people try to come inside out of the rain but this person bolts the door. No matter the entreaties of those outside, this person is deaf to their cries. This anecdote sums up the actions of many persons who occupy positions of leadership in the public sector.

How is the legacy of slavery to be blamed for these personality traits which many in positions of leadership in the public sector display? The legacy of slavery has left a psychological imprint. And, it has affected people differently. Today, it is the quest for status, for power, for self worth, for respect, for material things to replace the lack which history has left many people with that is guiding the actions of those who have achieved success/power. And, having achieved success/power, they must wear their positions where all may see it so that they may get the respect which they believe they deserve.
So, does personality type impede or progress performance in public sector organisations?

Probably, researchers who are interested in the study of personalities may want to explore this issue in the context of the public sectors of developing states which are trying to emerge from under the shadow of past oppression. The findings, no doubt, will enrich the existing literature on personality.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Personality types, impeding or progressing performance in public sector organisations

A number of scholars who are affiliated with the field of Psychology have done empirical research on the concept, personality (Do a cursory online search or consult any management text to interrogate their findings). Much of this research have been applied to the world of business organisations and work as it is believed that personality type is a good predictor of performance on the job.

It has been reported in the literature on management that, as a result of the work done by scholars in the area of personality, personality tests have been developed which have been used by a number of business corporations to screen potential staff. The research has indicated that there may be a link between personality and job fit. So to achieve effectiveness and efficiency in the work place these businesses are attempting to match personality types with ideal jobs.
What are the personality types which have been isolated by these scholars? The Myers-Biggs Type Indicator (MBTI) shows us sixteen personality types. If we peruse the descriptions of these types, we may recognise ourselves in a number of them. Then there is the Five-factor model which, as the name suggests, shows us five categories of personality types. These categories are based on extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness to experience.

Other scholars, and no doubt laymen/women, have identified personality traits/characteristics which we as human beings exhibit. For example, we are described as being quiet, passive, loud, aggressive, ambitious, extroverted, highly strung, sociable, controlling, and so on. Other scholars go as far as to classify personalities according to whether they are Type A or Type B. Type A personalities according to them are characterised by an excess of competitiveness and constant hurry. Type B personalities, on the other hand, are characterised as being easy going, gregarious and accepting of change. Many of these scholars have not neglected to mention that environmental among other factors impact personality.

From reading the work of scholars in this area of study, we get the sense that personality refers to a person’s character as defined by a number of dominant traits which this person is believed to possess. We infer personality type based on the nature of the person’s interaction with others.

Does personality type impact performance in the public sector and how? A number of scholars on Caribbean Public Administration have posited that the institution of slavery which existed overtly for more than three hundred years in the English speaking Caribbean has left deep psychological scars on its people which are impacting every facet of their life today. Other scholars and non-scholars within and outside of the region have disparaged this notion saying that continuously blaming our shortcomings on slavery is counterintuitive. It’s time that we take responsibility for our issues.

The latter may be right. I have not done any empirical research on the issue to prove otherwise. However, I am willing to engage in some “arm chair” theorising about it. I am agreeing with the former view that the psychological legacy of slavery still continues unchecked in the region. It manifests itself in the personality of many a Caribbean person who has found her/himself in positions of power (in the public sector). I will show how this is evident in the next instalment of this article.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

You can’t teach old dogs new tricks?

There is a saying that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. To what extent is this saying applicable to teachers who have been in the education system for many, many years?

The educational landscape is continually changing as a result of changes in the wider environment. Let us briefly examine three changes in the educational landscape here.

First, the educational landscape is changing in terms of modes of disciplining students. This is a major change in some educational systems. There was a time when teachers, mostly in the primary schools, would punish misbehaving, inattentive students by issuing corporal punishment. Some teachers swear by the efficacy of this punishment in getting students to display the desired behaviour in the classroom.

Corporal punishment, today, is deemed by the experts to be cruel and inhumane punishment. Instead, these experts suggest that teachers use positive reinforcement to get the desired behaviour from students. However, it seems that for many students being whipped is positively correlated with performance because now that corporal punishment is removed from the classroom, many students have put down their pencils and pens.

According to one teacher, she offered incentives to students in her low performing class in an attempt to encourage them to do the work she had assigned to them. Most students rejected her effort by saying that they could buy their own treats. Taking these students to the principal and calling in their parent/s yield the same result, no change in behaviour.

Probably the advocates of using positive reinforcement in the classroom need to hold practical workshops with teachers in schools where they demonstrate to teachers in lessons they conduct with these students how to get results without the use of force. Because, many teachers have mentally given up on students who are disruptive and inattentive and who do not display any desire to learn. These teachers are still harping on the “good old days” when the strap was king in the classroom.

Second, another change in the educational landscape is the change in teaching tools. Teachers have not found it too difficult to transition from blackboards to whiteboards. However, many teachers still have a difficulty incorporating Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) into their classes.

Third, the educational landscape is changing in terms of the proliferation of knowledge(s) on issues in education which have been informing methodology in the classroom. While I take issue with a government agency sending down a prescribed teaching methodology to the schools which every teacher is expected to faithfully follow, I welcome the ever expanding knowledge base in education. This research can help teachers to gain insights into the issues with which they are grappling in the classroom.

How are teachers coping in this environment? Are “older” teachers willing to adapt to these changes, or are they allowing these changes to pass them by?

A number of teachers are, indeed, allowing these changes to pass them by. They can do this when they work in environments that have remained traditional and where there is no emphasis by the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the school leadership on continuous professional development (CPD).

The MOE has been hinting at introducing CPD into the schools. A number of teachers with whom I spoke would like to have their schools introduce regular seminars where they can upgrade their skills. Some teachers, however, are wary of the introduction of CPD in schools. Some argue that after one leaves college with a diploma and goes on to do a first degree and later a Masters degree that person has upgraded. It does not matter that these degree were done ten years ago. These teachers seem to be ignoring the word “continuous” in the name of the activity, CPD. Another concern of teachers is the cost of this CPD. Who will bear the burden of this cost? After all, teachers are not being paid much now to afford to invest anything in training, some say. Furthermore, some teachers ask, when will these sessions be held? If the idea is to have these training sessions over the summer break, these teachers will not be onboard.

The MOE has, in all its efforts to improve educational output, left CPD out of the equation. Teachers have been used to doing things their way, without much monitoring for a long time. To get them to embrace the idea of CPD, whatever programme which is developed cannot be generic, but should be specific to the issues with which teachers are currently grappling in the schools and it must be subject specific. It should also involve the sharing of “new” methodologies and information. Otherwise, the MOE will be wasting its resources.

So, can old dogs be taught new tricks? The jury is still out on this one.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

One size fits all?

Scholars and politicians in developing societies often complain that multilateral agencies have a tendency to devise “one size fits all” policies to overcome the challenges to development which these societies face. These scholars and politicians argue that the challenges which developing countries face are often unique to them. Therefore, these countries require individual prescriptions, they say.

However, the governments in relation to their responsibility to the different sectors within these countries continue to develop “broad-based”, “one size fits all” policies to correct the maladies they identify in different areas within the sectors of society.

Take the schools for example. There are different types of schools. Each type of school has students with different abilities, academic or otherwise. Each type of school or each individual school has its own problems which, oftentimes, are unique to it.

Oftentimes, the Ministry of Education (MOE) “discovers” a “problem” in a school or some schools. The MOE then goes through a process of devising a “solution” for this problem with the help of its “experts,” often excluding representatives from the schools. The MOE expects that all schools will implement its “solution” which will address the “problem”.

However, the MOE needs to rely more than they do now on the leadership of schools to create and roll out their own interventions to solve their problems.

Some principals of schools may see a role as the above as an added responsibility which they would rather do without. Many of them now look to the MOE for guidance on how to treat with the problems which their schools experience. But they are the managers on the ground. They should not be afraid to consult the policies which the MOE has devised to deal with problems in schools then modify these policies to suit their situations.

“Empowerment” is a buzz word in many circles. Are principals of schools empowered? Do they feel empowered? Do they want to be empowered? For a long time, the government has been taking action to force schools to stand on their “own feet”. This is a sort of empowerment of principals who are now forced to be innovative as they take responsibility for the management of their schools towards achieving positive outcomes for their students and the communities in which they are sited.

If principals, after being instructed on their responsibilities as principals, accept the job and fail to make a difference in the outcomes of their schools, the MOE should relieve them of their appointments and install others who relish the challenges of leadership.

A number of principals are in the education system who have found themselves responsible for schools with a myriad of problems and have, over time, managed to transform their schools. We need more principals in the system who are up to the challenge of totally running their schools. That is, maintaining the discipline in the school, presiding over improved performance on the part of their staff and students, managing the financial demands of their schools and managing school and community relations.

The MOE is not doing these principals any favours when it tries to micro manage every aspect of the schools. It should ensure that the principals who occupy such positions as principals have responsibility to fully manage their schools, but put in place measures to hold them accountable.

It is obvious from following what is happening in schools that one size does not fit all when it comes to the issues with which schools are grappling.