Traditionalist tendencies revealed

Thank you for the supportive comments in response to my post on January 4th about to blog or not to blog [see ‘A tiny contribution to culture?‘].  They dispelled any lingering doubts about continuing to write every week.  When I first started writing this blog, I didn’t have an editor.  Then, for a while an English literature graduate, who I know well, acted as my editor.  He didn’t run off with the butler but his enthusiasm waned and I am very grateful to my current editor, who ensures that my narrative threads are not severed or [too] tangled and my sentences are complete.

Feedback is a tricky thing because often it only comes from a small but vocal minority; so, how much notice should one take of it?  We live in a world where the ‘customer’ is always right and a response to feedback is often an expectation.  I felt some pressure to respond to last week’s comments and they were positive – it becomes almost an imperative when the comments are negative, even when expressed by a tiny minority of ‘customers’.  This might be appropriate if you are running a hotel or an automotive service department but seems inappropriate in other settings, such as education.  Engineering students need to develop creative problem-solving skills and research shows that students tend to jump into algebraic manipulation whereas experts experiment to find the best approach.  This means that engineering students need to become comfortable with the slow and uncertain process of creating representations and exploring the space of possibilities, which is achieved through extensive practice, according to Martin and Schwartz. Not surprisingly, most students find this difficult but are uncomplaining; however, for some it is not to their liking and they provide, often vocal, feedback along these lines.  This is fine and to be expected.  However, in the post-truth world of higher education, many administrators and governments appear to value the views of these vocal students more highly than the experts delivering the education – at least so it seems much of the time.

I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t evaluate the quality of educational provision but perhaps it would be more appropriate to ask our students after they have had the opportunity to experience the impact of their education on their post-university life as well as considering the impact of our students on society.  Of course, this would be much more difficult for administrators than collating a set of on-line questionnaires each term.  However, it would have a longer time constant which would be more conducive to evolutionary rather than revolutionary changes in curricula and pedagogy.  Now I sound like a traditionalist when I have been trying so hard to be a post-modernist!


Martin L & Schwartz DL, A pragmatic perspective on visual representation and creative thinking, Visual Studies, 29(1):80-93, 2014.

Martin L & Schwartz DL, Prospective adaptation in the use of external representations, Cognition and Instruction, 27(4):370-400, 2009.

2 thoughts on “Traditionalist tendencies revealed

  1. Mark Williams

    Didn’t you hear, ‘we’ve had enough of experts'(!)

    I’ve always wondered who it was that fills out those feedback forms at the end of the semester with such vitriol. I was even more annoyed when I realised how seriously the university takes it all. This seems to be particularly problematic for labs (chemistry), where the students, who now have to pay a real premium to the tune of £9k+, seem dissatisfied with anything but perfection from the often stretched demonstrator team and lab technicians.

  2. Beverly Johnson

    One blessing of retirement is that I no longer have to sit down at the end of the year with the Dean and have him or her go over those online feedback forms with me as part of my evaluation, and thus be put on the spot to offer a defense for myself or explain why a student had said something negative or critical. One Dean seemed to over privilege the negative student feedback, weighing it far to heavily in the overall evaluation. That smited a bit, to feel devalued, but this particular Dean had the the attitude that the student is a consumer who must always be pleased!


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