My son Tim on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Source: Tim Wise – To whom it may concern, For the past 4-5 years, I’ve…

This is a link to my son’s description of the effect that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has had on his recent life. He writes eloquently and I feel that posts like this shouldn’t be lost on, or restricted to, the timeline of Facebook. The post is public, which is good, because Tim and I are not “Facebook friends” – a decision that suits both of us and reflects more about our view of Facebook than it does about our own relationship, which from where I sit, is really good.

The slow-motion death of conservative politics

Waleed Aly makes some important points here – we end up so far down the slippery slope in what we don’t bother challenging in our leaders that it becomes hard to identify when it all went so horribly wrong. Each incremental step seems small until you look at how far we have collectively fallen in our acceptance of injustice, intolerance, corruption and greed. The problems in Australian academia reflect the problems in Australian society – so much is corrupted and wrong, but it is difficult to know how to make appropriate change from within.

It’s true in a sense that Trump has stolen the Republican party. But it’s also true it was there for the taking. There are many reasons Trump is succeeding – anger and disillusionment among a humiliated electorate is one of them. But there’s also the fact that the Republicans have been training their voters to indulge every reactionary prejudice for years. Trump simply does this better, louder, and with less varnish than his rivals. Can we be surprised when he vanquishes them? Can the Republican establishment really cry foul when he outdoes them?And is it so different here? Well, in a way, yes. A moderate is presently in the top job and the reactionary forces aren’t yet taking endorsements from former Ku Klux Klan wizards (they’ll have to settle for Reclaim Australia for now). But there’s an important commonality too: that the contradictions that were once holding conservative parties together, and delivering them political success, have now fallen apart. The most important of these is the contradiction between liberal economics and the politics of “values”.It’s hard to be the staunch defenders of family, culture and tradition while you’re also staunch advocates of things like high-skilled immigration and workplace “flexibility” of the kind WorkChoices offered. It’s hard to believe the market should be free to exploit and commodify whatever consumers will tolerate – sex, culture, children – and yet pretend we are bound together by inviolable, sacred values.

Source: The slow-motion death of conservative politics

Harvey Norman franchising and the demise of good service

I went to Harvey Norman’s today, against my better judgement, since the last time I shopped there, I made poor purchasing decisions under the extremely persistent and persuasive sales pressure. I wanted to buy a desk lamp (Furniture), a camera cover (Electronics), some headphones and some blank DVDs (Computer). Having carefully selected all my items and carried them around the various sections, I went to the closest cashier (Computers) to pay. She saw my camera cover which was on top of the pile and said I would need to go to Electronics. I went to Electronics and my pile of goods piled up in a different order. This cashier said to go back to Computers for my computer items, and I would also have to go to Furniture to pay for my desk lamp. When I asked why I should have to go to different places to pay for different things within a single Harvey Norman store – surely they could track purchases on their computer system, I was told that actually each division was a separate franchise. I left my computer/electronics purchases at the cashier and went to Furniture to buy my desk lamp (which was the only thing I really needed). I was not very happy at this point and asked the Furniture people if I could speak to their manager to complain (no – not here on the weekend), and if not, could they give me a contact number (no – I could look it up myself).

Why am I writing about this? There are two main reasons. One is the demise of smaller specialty stores because big mega-stores can stock a wide range of things at lower prices. The other is that I find it offensive that, despite all the mantra about customer service, I need to know the internal structure of large organisations (like Optus, Harvey Normans, Westpac etc) to be able to interface with them effectively. They appear to operate as a single entity and apparently that is why I should go to them and trust them etc – but there are all sorts of things that I can’t do, or I have to go to a different department for, or get screwed up because the single organisation is not in fact a single organisation at all, but a whole lot of loosely affiliated systems that are unable or unwilling to communicate with each other. (An aside: I get regular mail from each division of Optus about the massive savings I’d get if I swapped my Landline, TV, Broadband or Mobile service to them – they are apparently oblivious to the fact that I already have these services with them)

To elaborate on small stores versus megastores: I make a conscious effort to shop at smaller, local stores where I can form a relationship with the people with whom I do business. The places I like to shop are specialty stores who stock a range of things selected by the expertise (and whim) of the store owner. I understand that smaller places may need to charge slightly higher prices because of things like buying power, but I also know that the people in the shop have decided what stock they will have to sell. I am perfectly aware when I step into or out of someone’s store and I know who is providing me goods and services at each store. If I get good service in the greengrocers, and bad service in the butchers next door, the butcher’s service does not impact on my assessment of the greengrocer. In contrast, any bad experience at a supermarket, whether it be with respect to groceries, deli items or meat, reflects badly on the whole supermarket.

The only times I go to places like Safeway or Kmart or Bunnings are when I want to shop efficiently for mundane consumables at a reasonable price. So back to my shopping experience at Harvey Normans. The store I went to is laid out like most department stores – open plan with no walls or doors between different departments. (Note: I’m there for shopping efficiency …)  I collected my items – and there was nothing to indicate that I should plan to group my purchases according to department, and there are no indicators to alert me to the fact that I’ve taken one department’s goods into another department without paying for them. (Note: In a normal shopping mall, I go into one shop, buy my things, proceed to the next shop, buy my things and there are alerts if I attempt to take unpurchased goods from one store to another). I was not exactly thrilled at being told to go to different places to pay for different things (inefficiently retracing my steps around the store carrying all my purchases) and I asked what sense it made to have a Harvey Norman “store” rather than going to a regular shopping mall with different shops. The somewhat aggrieved Furniture guy (who could not give me a manager or a customer service number to complain to) then spouted the value of the Harvey Norman brand, number one retailer of this and that and the other thing …

As I left the store, I was thinking that the people working there in sales are just trying to make a living and probably don’t get paid enough to have to deal with the anger of frustrated customers – but I also got to thinking that Harvey Norman have gone a step beyond other “megastores” in depersonalising and cheapening the concept of brand and of service. They have taken the idea of a “megastore” (lots of stuff, good prices, efficient shopping) but implemented it as separate open-plan “shops” (inefficiency of going to different counters for different purchases). There is no sense of individuality, no sense of each section operating as a separate entity – it has all the bad points of shopping malls and none of the efficiency of supermarkets – and none of the individuality and charm of small suburban shopping strips. It was a bit sad to see that the Furniture guy had a strong brand loyalty and pride in working for Harvey Norman rather than for the individual owner of the individual franchise (who that person is I may never know … and maybe it isn’t a person – maybe it is a nameless investment entity). It was even more disturbing that he was offended by my not be impressed by the Harvey Norman name (apparently I should be honoured to be able to give HN my money …).

It seems that 20 years ago, the idea of a supermarket invoked images of uniformity of product, cheap prices and convenience but limited personal service. Now it seems that advertising is how we know what to buy (versus discussing things with a knowledgeable store owner), and good service means cheaper prices and not having to wait in line to pay rather than knowing about the goods being sold. Loyalty means getting purchasing rewards via cards (versus having the shop-owner actually know who you are and give you occasional freebies).  The model of “best practice” and uniformity in shopping experience is now seen as something good and trustworthy, so that trust and loyalty is invested in brands rather than people and it is seen as riskier to go to a small local operator (might not be here next year) rather than a large brand name store (store will be around, albeit with different people).

And all this began with the microwave oven dying – I went to the local small electrical goods outlet that I’ve been to for the past 20 years to replace it rather than to possibly cheaper Harvey Normans for all the reasons above. Unfortunately they don’t stock desk lamps … if they did, I would not have wasted half the day writing about the demise of local shopping and customer service!

Reports, recommendations, social dysfunction and education

[This post mostly relates to the “Little Children are Sacred” report on child abuse in the Northern Territory of Australia.]

I have just recently submitted my second commissioned report, both co-authored with James Quealy. I have also prepared reports and recommendations within the normal committee framework of two universities (i.e. not as an external consultant). I am still completely confounded by the fact that people commission reports, but fail to read the them. They then take individual recommendations out of context to support whatever decision they were already going to make, or dispute the basis of recommendations without reading the sections of the report from which the recommendations arise. There seems to be complicity all the way to the top to allow the mentality that senior decision-makers don’t have time to read the reports which provide the background to decisions they are making – apparently senior people only have time to read the Executive Summary, and then only if it’s less than a page …

The reports I have co-authored relate to the use of technology in education, and some of what they say relates to the education system as a whole, and therefore to the core values we have as a society. It would be nice if issues raised in the reports were widely discussed but I am sufficiently in touch with the so-called “real world” to know that such reports are ticked off on someone’s checklist of “what are we doing about X …”, and consigned to the bottom of a filing cabinet.

But what is this post really about? In reality, although I am mildly disappointed as to what happens to my own reports, I am completely dismayed by the current legislation in Australia relating to Aboriginal Welfare allegedly arising from the “Little Children are Sacred” Report: Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse.

I have been thoroughly perplexed since the government’s first response to the report as to why their response is not immediately seen in the mainstream media as the direct path to a modern-day Stolen Generation. For years, we have been ashamed that John Howard is not prepared to say “Sorry” on behalf of white Australia for the effects of past decisions … and now he is about to begin a new round of paternalistic “white man knows best” intervention allegedly to “protect little children”, but with underlying serious consequences for aboriginal land rights and welfare payments.

And what is the connection of the first two paragraphs with the rest of the post? The government is supposedly acting on the report – John Howard asks how we could fail to be moved by such a disturbing report. Indeed how could we fail to be moved? But I have heard Pat Anderson say emphatically that the government response bears no relationship to any of the recommendations in her report and that resonates deeply with my experience of writing reports and with my feeling of the deep malaise in Australian culture that allows such sloppy decision-making processes the higher we go within ‘the system’.

I have read through the report and note that its proposed solutions are not quick fixes (i.e. think of a timescale around 15 years rather than 15 months). The primary focus is on education, but significantly, on culturally-relevant, inclusive, empowering, community-based education. Child abuse, child neglect, alcoholism, violence, family dysfunction are all seen to be symptoms of a broader societal dysfunction, not isolatable individual problems that can each be addressed. The societal dysfunction is not an indigenous problem alone, but one that is amplified by societal problems in mainstream Australia. Any solutions are inextricably entwined within both cultures.

I’ve not yet finished reading the whole report, but nowhere in the Recommendations or Overview (Executive Sumary) did I see anything about bringing in the Army and a white task force of health workers to save the children.

I was appalled with the approach of the government to tackle the problem of child sexual abuse. Having read the report allegedly inspiring this approach, I am doubly appalled at the response of our government. I am also appalled at the lack of analysis by the media. I am generally appalled at the lack of compassion and the lack of recognition in mainstream Australia that child abuse, alcoholism, family dysfunction and violence are extremely complex, are not just the result of ‘bad’ people, and are not just happening in remote communities. Each instance of family dysfunction has a long and complex history and any intervention must be sensitive to complexity.

Below, I have picked out a few quotes from the report as I looked through it. I have no idea what I’m going to do other than write this small somewhat inconsequential piece – probably nothing specific. I guess I have a strong view that education is the answer, but I have a strong view that the current education system, with its lack of moral fibre, lack of intellectual rigour, lack of any value system, is as much the problem as the solution.

From the “Little Children are Sacred” report:

It’s not just in white man’s law that child abuse is considered wrong.

“The title quote In our Law children are very sacred because they carry the two spring wells of water from our country within them reflects the traditional Aboriginal law of the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, and was provided by a senior Yolngu lawman.”

Child abuse is, more often than not, a symptom of deeper, more complex societal problems.

“the incidence of child sexual abuse, whether in Aboriginal or so-called mainstream communities, is often directly related to other breakdowns in society. Put simply, the cumulative effects of poor health, alcohol, drug abuse, gambling, pornography, unemployment, poor education and housing and general disempowerment lead inexorably to family and other violence and then on to sexual abuse of men and women and, finally, of children. It will be impossible to set our communities on a strong path to recovery in terms of sexual abuse of children without dealing with all these basic services and social evils. Even then, the best that can be hoped for is improvement over a 15 year period – effectively, a generation or longer. “

There needs to be genuine consultation, not paternalistic government intervention

“It is critical that both governments [Northern Territory and Australian] commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities. “

“Our appointment and terms of reference arose out of allegations of sexual abuse of Aboriginal children. Everything we have learned since convinces us that these are just symptoms of a breakdown of Aboriginal culture and society. There is, in our view, little point in an exercise of band-aiding individual and specific problems as each one achieves an appropriate degree of media and political hype. It has not worked in the past and will not work in the future. We are all left wringing our hands. Look at all that money! Where did it go? The answer is, of course, down the plughole.”

Education is the key to the solution, but education needs to be community based and does not just relate to school. Language and cultural barriers are real.

“We are utterly convinced that education (that properly addresses the needs of the local community) provides the path to success. We have been dismayed at the miserable school attendance rates for Aboriginal children and the apparent complacency here (and elsewhere in Australia) with that situation.”

The difficulty is that because of the language and cultural barriers many people never get an opportunity to express their knowledge or their ideas. The impression is given to them that they are idiots and that people outside of their community are more qualified to deal with their problems. As a result of this general attitude people become apathetic and take no interest in dealing with the problems. “

The dominant mainstream white culture as expressed via television, movies etc does not set a high standard with respect to sexual behaviour, alcohol and drug use, and respect.

“The Inquiry was also told that many youth today have an erroneous belief that the wider Australian society is lawless. They believe that: “it is acting within “white fella” law when being abusive. A thinking that began with the systemic undermining of our own law with the colonization of Australia and the atrocities that followed. It is now reinforced by TV, movies, pornography and drugs brought into our community from wider Australia.” (Rev. Djiniyini Gondarra press release, 19 May 2006) It became clear to the Inquiry during its consultations that in many of the communities visited, the “language barrier” and the “cultural gap” was greater in the younger generation. The Inquiry was told that this problem is increasing, then intuitively it might have been assumed the gap was decreasing.”

Academic research into other cultures can be very influential – it is used as a bridge from one culture to another. When academic research is used to drive policy and policy significantly affects the lives of many people, there is a professional duty to ensure that research is supportable, and that it is used within its context of applicability. Even intellectually-rigorous academic research tends to be fairly specific and should not be disembodied from its caveats.

“My alarm bell is that sloppy and questionable academic research has the power to influence many people. Prejudice and ignorance may be reinforced. Media representations may then support such misconceptions, and hence feed into and trigger political action that has the capacity to create more problems. We do need education for early childhood; education for life; education for healing. But please not education that is fatally flawed (Atkinson 2006:22).”

If you break down existing systems whatever they are, you need to replace them with something viable and support the process of change. Better that systemic change occurs gradually towards a commonly agreeed target as inclusively as possible.

“Overall, the constant message passed to the Inquiry was that as traditional Aboriginal and missionary-imposed norms regarding sex broke down, they were being replaced with rampant promiscuity among teenagers. Teenagers no longer saw themselves as bound by the “old ways” and many viewed the modern world as “lawless”. One Yolgnu Elder told the Inquiry: ‘For young people today having sex is like fishing, and they throw that fish back when they finished.’ Such behaviour was seen as being encouraged by the dominant non-Aboriginal culture. The Inquiry was told in one community that the Elders were trying to teach the young people about staying with the “right skin” and getting “married” at the right time. At the same time, the Inquiry was told, the local health centre was distributing condoms and telling them they could have sex with anyone they want at any time as long as they wore a condom. “

As a footnote to this post, I visited the Cook Islands at Christmas and had a wonderful holiday in a beautiful location. I also had the pleasure of meeting local people and spending a lot of time with the family of my daughter’s boyfriend. One striking thing was the complexity of the local culture and family relationships, the significance of family land, the relationships between the different island groups within the Cook Islands, and the multi-layered integration of missionary and island cultures.

And at a level just below the surface were the multifaceted problems arising from lack of job opportunities, poor nutrition, alcohol abuse, and demographic distortion based on most young people leaving the island for “a better life” in New Zealand or Australia. I found it ominous to see Chinese workers being imported to build government buildings and tourist resorts – the influx of money and tourists is great for the economy, but not necessarily for the Islanders in that economy.

There are many complex problems bubbling below the surface in the Cook Islands, but there are also no obvious quick-fix solutions. The more I looked, the more complexity I saw, and the greater the depth of local customs and culture. I also noticed that local Islanders (some of whom had actively chosen to return to the Islands, others of whom had specifically chosen not to leave their home) were deeply aware of the problems and quite capable of articulating them, and were looking to instigate their own community-based solutions. I was very aware that I cannot possibly know more about their needs than they do themselves. A desire to help is one thing – the ability to be helpful is entirely a different thing. A first step is understanding the complexity of the problem. The next would be the willingness to work collaboratively and inclusively – as for any serious undertaking, that would require the time and effort to understand the island culture and be accepted into it. I realise that, although there might be many ways I could “help”, they would mostly be small gestures not lasting contributions. I hope that some of the people we met in our very brief visit (including a policeman and his family, a mountain-tour guide, a bank worker, various cricket teams, a dance group coordinator, a New Zealand ex-nurse, a diving instructor) can find a way to keep the community strong and address some of the underlying problems along the way.

I am finally understanding one of my (very wise) grandmother’s favourite sayings “Charity begins at home”. I used to think it had something to do with looking after family first, as a somewhat ironic justification of not having to give other people your money!! I thought it fitted with another of her sayings: “If you take care of the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves”, in a penny-pinching, frugal way. I now understand these sayings as they relate to values, not money (as I’m sure my grandmother meant them).

If we show respect and care (charity) for the people in our home (our family, friends and local community), we will not need to rely on the kindness of strangers. Furthermore, if we show respect and care as a habit within our home, this habit is likely to stay with us on a broader scale. And if we share our home with others, we are also beginning our charity at home. As for the second saying: if we take care of the little things (whether they be pennies and pounds, or the small things relating to respect and care), the bigger things (respect and care across the broader community) will take care of themselves. Maybe complex problems really do have simple solutions.

Watching your kids on the internet …

I was saddened to read of the deaths of two teenage girls in Melbourne, reported to be as a result of a suicide pact made online through MySpace. There has been a lot of mainstream media coverage of this tragedy, much of which is exhorting parents to monitor what their kids are doing online. There is an insidious element of implied criticism of the girls’ parents – seemingly suggesting that these parents were somehow negligent in not knowing what the kids were doing because they were doing it in secret on line rather than in the open spaces of the “real world”. There is a not-so-hidden implication that we are being irresponsible parents to allow our kids online for too long. As a mother of two adolescents (a girl and a boy) who each spend a reasonable amount of unsupervised time online, I am reading the coverage with some interest.

I am particularly bemused by the commentary by some of the supposed experts in adolescent psychology … adolescence is a tricky time, and one that we all hope our kids get through relatively unscathed … but I would have thought it is precisely the time when we should be allowing our kids room to explore the world. It is a world that has always had a dark side and has always involved kids exploring some of the things their parents told them not to do. Mostly they survive. Often, parental boundaries are set with the naive intention of avoiding their kids being exposed to the dangerous things they chose to do themselves as adolescents …

The thing about suicide is how unpredictable it can be – there is no way to predict what is the precursor to suicide, although there are many ways to see the evidence with 20/20 hindsight. Suicide leaves a devastating after-effect, including an increase of suicides among those affected. But surely drawing attention to the “likelihood” of copycat suicides is tantamount to giving permission to copycats to go ahead by normalising their action?

There is no doubt that when you are touched by someone’s death, it is a good time to hold your special people close and to remember to tell them that you love them. But it is not the right time to suffocate them and to stop trusting them because someone else has shown poor judgement.

The thing about the internet is how much opportunity it gives us to observe the things that would otherwise be transient and unobserved by anyone who wasn’t right there at the time. That is to say, in many ways we can see way more of what our kids are doing online than what they are doing offline … in our houses, we don’t monitor all the conversations our children have, and we don’t control who they interact with at school or elsewhere unless we take them everywhere … I even suspect there are quite a few grandparents whose main contact with their grandkids is online.

Which brings me back (in a somewhat rambling way) to the theme of watching your kids on the internet … my 15 yo son is an avid internet user and I drop by his website occasionally to see what he’s up to and who he’s “hanging out with”. My argument is that he is bringing these people “into my home” through the computer and I want to get a feel for who they are … I try not to hang around his site too much because, frankly, I don’t need to see the adolescent details of his life, just like I don’t need to sit with his friends in the school yard, or listen to the details of their conversations at parties, or read their “I’m bored” / “Me too” / “Me too me too” deep bonding (!!) … would I know if he was using drugs or deeply unhappy or doing evil and / or illegal things on the internet or in real life? I like to think so, but I suspect he could easily lead a double life without me knowing and vice versa if he were intent on so doing – he’s smart, and we just hope that he uses it for good not evil through the values we have offered him through our own example as family and friends.

For the past few days his Journal has had an “Emo” theme of “Going to die in 5 days” with something about it being his foray into attention-grabbing journal entries so he can say he’s tried out the genre … and his “mood” is listed as bored and, amongst other things on his profile, he watches “anything other than the news”. There were a whole string of fairly mundane comments and stuff from his friends associated with the journal entry – ie nothing other than the title to ring any alarm bells. He writes a bit of “dark” poetry occasionally along with lots of light creative things too. We talk sometimes, but not all the time, and we don’t share everything with each other although I like to think we have a healthy respect for each other.

So what is a responsible parent to do with something like that? Is it a joke? Is it a cry for help? Is it nothing? Is it something? Should I be reading his online journal (which is online and therefore presumably fair game for anyone to read including his mother (although I feel like I should knock first before entering as I would into his room if he had friends over))? And if it is something to worry about, how would confronting him be likely to help? Will it exacerbate his crisis or lead him to the sudden realisation that parental love solves everything? Should I put him on suicide watch, cancel all ground-leave, medicate him, take him to a psychiatrist, yell at him?

As it turned out (more than 5 days later … ;-)) – it was about as meaningful in terms of any imminent death as my saying “I’ll kill you if you eat my last chocolate teddy bear biscuit” … (and I leave it to the reader to ascertain the level of threat associated with eating the last chocolate biscuit in my household :-)). Since my son doesn’t watch the news or read the paper, he was completely unaware that it was an ‘insensitive’ journal entry to have made in terms of timing … It has since been edited to say “Going to HAVE A COOKIE in 5 days” … which shows just how inane the whole journal thing can be and why parents might tire of watching their children endlessly online …

So to make a long story even longer, I read the post a few days ago, raised my eyebrows, checked that my son didn’t seem too distressed or secretive and let it go at that. Then I started wondering whether I was being a bad parent, a lazy parent, too confident that I know my son, too insensitive to “see his pain” (ie see pain that is beyond what is bearable for any healthy adolescent) … and started asking myself the question of “how would I feel if I ‘missed the sign'”? … And if I be honest, I probably only asked my son about the entry because I was worried about how I would explain having “seen the sign” and ignored it … especially as a Registered Psychologist ™. But then again, maybe I should have trusted my instincts as a scientist a bit more – watching our kids too closely will also have effects, not all of which are straightforward or “good” no matter what our intent. Heisenberg or Einstein or Schroedinger or someone particularly clever with Quantum Physics said something about the nature of observations and how they relate to the longevity and well-being of cats, and I suspect, along with Kath and Kim, that it may also apply to humans …

I should now be smiling wryly and saying “better safe than sorry” but that actually misses an important point – if my son was seriously suicidal in a pre-meditated way, knew I was watching him, and did not want to talk to me about it, he would probably change his method not his mind. Sometimes we overestimate our power and influence as parents, and we misunderstand the value of our love – adolescents are not really ready to understand the nature of parental love – maybe they are completely used to it and do not actually understand its value, maybe they feel betrayed by some element of it that they don’t understand, maybe they feel smothered by it, maybe they have never experienced it … but many adolescents are betrayed or devastated or overwhelmed by relationships and experiences outside of the family which they feel they need to deal with outside of the family, and in these things we sometimes support our kids best by trusting them to be able to cope. We can not fix everything for our kids (or anyone else), bad stuff does happen, we are not responsible for other people’s happiness (although that’s not to say that we can aren’t sometimes responsible for their unhappiness …)

Suicide leaves a trail of devastation behind it, and loneliness and unhappiness can be relieved by people taking time to care for each other. But life does have ups and downs and perhaps we should embrace a broader range of life’s experience to become resilient to some of the bumps along the way. Perhaps rather than referring people to Lifeline too quickly, we can make it our own crusade to look after the people around us. I think I am understanding my grandmother’s saying “Charity begins at home” a little bit more …

Some thoughts on being a good student

I have learnt a huge amount over my lifetime, but I have rarely been a classic “good student”. I didn’t do my homework and I didn’t attend lectures regularly (unless the lecturer was particularly good or I had friends who were “conscientious” and were taking the same classes) although I always went to tutorials and prac classes because they were “hurdle requirements”. To make up for my slackness, I read the textbooks and recommended reading and constructed my own study notes around the headings in the course outline. I came from an academic family and a background where books abounded and reading was a favorite leisuretime activity – reading the texts was a “lazy way out” for me in terms of study. I paid the penalty for my slack study habits of rarely getting top marks although I usually did pretty well. Of course, in hindsight, I realise that my poor study habits were actually pretty good lifelong learning habits – finding out from the “community of experts” (my lecturers) what they thought I should know, reading up on it, and only asking them questions when I knew enough of their domain to be taken seriously (the point at which their expertise became meaningful to me). I tended to be accepting of their right to dismiss me not because they were superior or smarter, but because I knew that I had rarely paid them the courtesy of listening to their lectures so I was probably asking about things that I should already know.

This is not “confessions of a slack student” but more an understanding that the things define being a good student may not necessarily promote the best long-term learning. The things that result in the highest grades may not necessarily reflect the best long-term learning either. But it doesn’t mean the structure shouldn’t be there. We may put structures in place with a particular purpose in mind, but although the type of scaffold will determine what we are capable of supporting, we may not know ahead of time whether we will be planting climbing roses or passionfruit or ivy. Even if we take care to plant one thing, it may well be that something else ends up growing in its place.

And from the other side of the fence, I take great care in preparing lectures or presentations or articles – the time and effort that goes into preparing content is not at all commensurate with the importance of that content to the audience or to the size of audience. And more often that not the prepared content is only loosely related to what I end up saying. However the process of content preparation is critical to my role as an academic and critical to my ability to share knowledge and be part of a community. In fact it is critical to my identity as a person – for me, I am what I know about.

Theory in educational technology

I have become increasingly frustrated with the literature on educational technology and online learning, in part because so often the connection between theory and practice in applied / action research seems to be entirely absent. I am not quite satisfied with research which claims to be situated within a “framework” rather than to be testing any specific hypothesis deriving from a theory or theoretical perspective. In research on how we use technology to enhance learning, I believe we need to have a plausible model of learning, a plausible model of teaching, and a clear articulation of the desired outcomes from our teaching practice. I would actually go further, and question whether we should be focussing more on teaching than learning, since it is the teaching side of the equation that we engage in, and over which we have some level of control. It does not seem appropriate especially in a university, to answer basic questions about the nature of teaching and learning with motherhood statements about “student-centered learning” and terminology which seems to derive more from political correctness than scholarly investigation.

The choice of whether we focus on teaching or learning alone seems to me to have theoretical implications which should follow through into our practice. For example, with a focus on (social constructivist / student-centred) learning, we are implicitly favouring inductive models through which students build on what they already know and follow their interests and strengths. With a focus on teaching, we are externalising domains of knowledge, setting learning objectives, and defining the things to be learned at the end of a course of study irrespective of the student’s individual knowledge base or interests. We need to be clear about our purpose and intent, because there are strong implications for practice, depending on which position we adopt.

So here are some questions that I believe deserve due consideration. When we engage in educational / instructional design, is it appropriate to consider teaching and learning without having a position on the nature of knowledge representation and epistemology? Is it appropriate to consider the effect of “learning styles” or interface design on learning without a good understanding of cognitive processing, perceptual processing, memory and attention? In taking account of learning styles, are we aiming to build all modes of learning for each individual (work on areas of weakness as well as, or in preference to areas of strength) or are we focussed on relative fairness in terms of assessment (allowing everyone to focus on their areas of strength and hide their weaknesses)?

In designing simulations or replacing practical classes with virtual projects, can you really consider or measure learning outcomes without a fairly comprehensive understanding of the whole process of learning? Which learning outcomes are relevant indicators of good teaching? Which learning outcomes are indicators of inherent student ability / skill? Are short-term learning outcomes or long-term learning outcomes the ones to focus on? Do our educational theories speak to which outcomes are relevant? Does our rhetoric on desired graduate attributes speak to what indicators should be important?

Convenience measures do not make for good science if they do not measure things relevant to a theoretical position. The fact that something has been measured does not substitute for a theory. Quantitative analyses and statistical differences between groups do not by themselves constitute good research if they are not theoretically grounded and do not form critical tests of specific hypotheses. The fact that a data set is compatible with a theoretical position is no great contribution to science if the same data set is compatible with a range of other theoretical positions, and a different data set from the same study would not have allowed rejection of any competing theories.

In thinking about theory in this area, I am repeatedly drawn to the position that educational technology research is not a discipline area by itself, but provides a potential context for data which speak to theoretical questions from core discipline areas such as cognitive science, social psychology and computer science. It is important for us to ensure that any research questions relate back to core discipline areas rather than building an entirely self-referential data set around a single piece of technology or learning design.

Manuals and Curriculum

Hmmm – I’m getting to wonder whether I should be writing this in my taekwon-do blog or my work-related edublog but since the thought processes and content have come directly from interactions with my taekwon-do Instructor and fellow students, it really should go here.

Because my background is in academia, particularly in cognitive neuroscience and, for want of a better term, “educational design / pedagogy”, I have been encouraging my Instructor to provide more written materials for students to “study” at home to reinforce what they learn in class. Being an older student and academic by nature, I needed to see most things written down in order to understand them and practice them, and I found many interesting resources on the web. Fairly early on, I bought the Condensed Encyclopedia, and it was an excellent investment. Also, being a parent of a child learning taekwon-do, I wanted to be able to “help” my child practice and study correctly, on the assumption that my child would not be concentrating and therefore would miss half of what was said in class, and would practise the wrong things if he practised at all.

We have a pretty clearly set out grading manual, which explains what we need to know for each belt level, but it doesn’t have the intimate details of each pattern, nor does it have details on each technique. For that level of detail, we are encouraged to buy the Encyclopedia. When I think back to how I dealt with the lack of detailed written information that I felt I needed to help my son get the best out of taekwon-do classes, I had two approaches.

1) I attended the classes too so I could listen and learn and know what he had to practise.

2) Before I bought the encyclopedia, I put together my own set of notes from the web to support what I was learning in class, and to break down the higher level things into the level of detail I thought I needed.

What I am beginning to see more clearly now that I am assisting with classes for young children in a school environment, and my own child is older and self-directed in his learning and practice, is the bigger picture with respect to listening, learning and practice. These are things I know theoretically, but have not really carried through to the practical stage. (If you don’t want to read the longer version, the bottom line is that the kids need to want to learn themselves, not because their parents want them to. And if they want to learn, they need to know to listen and practice themselves, not have their parents do it by proxy. If they don’t want to learn, perhaps we need to look at what we model for them as parents, rather than what we actually tell them to do.)

1) The parents of some of the children want to have notes from the classes so they can help their kids practise at home. This is a good motive.

2) They want their kids to practise because they see their kids “falling behind” their classmates. This is where it becomes interesting … the kids don’t like other kids getting better than them, especially when some of the other kids are physically less naturally talented. Parents also don’t want their kid to “fall behind” even though they want them to learn “at their own pace”. Everyone wants to be the best at everything (good – although maybe I mean “do their best” rather than “be the best” …) without necessarily wanting to do the work that goes with it (bad).

3) If the kids do extra practice at home, they will perform better in class and they will “do better” and move up the line and then feel better about themselves. We probably all agree they will perform their movements better, but they will only feel better about themselves if they care about their taekwon-do movements (good) or if position in the line is important to them (bad if they don’t care about taekwon-do per se).

So although we agree that as a general rule practice is good, we probably also agree that the way to learn is to listen carefully to the Instructor in class. And we want them to learn to listen and concentrate. And we want them to do it at their own pace and not to feel pressure to keep up with anyone else, but to always try to better themselves. At least that’s what we say …

But when they are not ready to do it themselves, we want to take the short-cuts on their behalf and do it for them so they never have to feel the frustration of not knowing something when some of their peers do know it. We are very concerned that if our kids “fall behind” everyone else, that they will feel bad and not want to keep going. And undoubtedly, our kids are perfectly aware of our anxiety and disappointment on their behalf and it is actually us as parents that reinforce the idea that, if “their own pace” is a bit slower than that of their age-group peers in something, they are duds.

If we have notes on what the kids need to learn, there is another risk that I am only just understanding in this different domain although it is one of my major hobby horses in academia. When we list the things for assessment, or some specific things people “need to know”, they become focussed on learning those things, rather than seeing them as representative of the type of knowledge expected of someone at a particular level in a discipline. And we then fixate on specific things that “prove” our achievement rather than on being rounded martial artists.

And sometimes we focus on special tricks that will let us perform better on specific tasks but will not improve us in the discipline itself. And from outside of the discipline, we might see better ways of teaching the things that will be assessed to improve test performance, without understanding the bigger picture of how to learn the whole martial art. We become instant experts in how to do something despite only have the limited view of the children we know trying to learn something we don’t know ourselves.

So where am I going with this?

I have realised a few things.

1) I started taekwon-do to help my son make the most of it, and to make sure it was the sort of martial arts environment I was happy for him to be in.

2) I immersed myself in taekwon-do because after listening to my Instructor and reading the web and the Encyclopedia, I was hooked and *I* wanted to learn it myself.

When I practised (myself because I wanted to practise), quite often my son would practise too. When I left taekwon-do related material lying around on the coffee table, my son would read it and study it. Yet if I ever asked him to practise or to study something for a grading, he would point-blank refuse – kids don’t like being told to do stuff especially if thtey are told it is “good for them”. But they are naturally curious and competitive.

3) I advanced more quickly through the belts than my son because I listened to the Instructor and I practised a lot. My son would have stopped lessons mid way through (around blue belt) if I had let him – our deal was he would do it for three years if he started it at all, and I held him to that. Towards the end of the three years, he was starting to enjoy it again for himself, not for me.

His practice and study are now unrelated to what I do, except that he knows that if he tries, he can do anything that I can do better than I can do it. But I’ve done some things that he is yet to do … which bugs him, in a good way 🙂 The presence of a free standing punching bag means that he practises as often as he wants and the encyclopedia and internet means he can access as much info as he requires to understand what he is doing.

4) We can train together not because I am a parent who can make him study and make him want to do better and be proud of himself, but because I am a fellow taekwon-do student with him.

I have helped him most by being living proof that practice leads to improvement, and that you can learn to do things over time that you couldn’t do at the beginning, that it’s okay to learn more slowly than other people, that there are many different components to being a martial artist, etc etc

I have also demonstrated (not deliberately !!) the various phases one goes through in learning something, especially the inevitable frustration with the Instructor. At some point where you can almost do something, but not quite, you often feel like the Instructor is just not telling you something for their own amusement … and then when finally everything clicks into place, you realise they had told you all you needed and you just weren’t doing it properly … d’oh!!!

This frustration phase of wanting to murder your Instructor is probably the best phase for a parent to model to their kids (again, not intentionally – you can’t fake it, because it is the real depth emotion that matters !!). How often have we seen our kids frustrated about something, and sat in the seat of parenthood, pontificating about “phases” and “listen to your teacher / parent” and “just do as they / I say and stop thinking you know everything”

It can be good for a child to see their own parent being humbled by something they can’t do, being frustrated by the Instructor, seeing both sides of the story (but Mum, you’re not doing it properly …)

It is very important for them to see the reaction (and it’s important that the reaction eventually be constructive !!) If they see their parent working hard enough to master something difficult (at least to a certain degree) and then feel a sense of pride in their parent because they know how hard their parents worked to learn something … it’s a great lesson all round.

Where does that leave me?

As parents, we want to ensure that our kids have an opportunity to try everything. We want them to be good at everything. We want them to learn as much as possible and so long as they are happy, so are we.

But mastering new things involves an inevitable phase of frustration when new ideas or new movements are still taking shape.

I contend that that phase has to happen for true mastery of something difficult.

Being tired and frustrated and not wanting to continue is an important phase of learning and when the new thing is learnt, there is an exhilaration of achievement that matches the level of effort that went into that phase. So if you don’t struggle to learn something, you don’t appreciate achievement in that domain in the same way. And you don’t “own” the knowledge.

And if you never learn how to deal with the frustration because you never have to take responsibility for it and someone always steps in and gets you over it, you will not be well-equipped to cope with adult life.

So this is a critical part of the learning process, and a critical part of the mental discipline side of a martial art.

Does that mean there is no place for written teaching material in teaching taekwon-do? I don’t think so. I think that all it means is that I’ve begun to understand the real problem with written material aimed at allowing the parents to “help” their kids.

Parents can help their kids best by watching them in the classes and listening to what their kids have been told and shown. If they don’t have time for that, they can help their kids research what they need to know, or have their kids explain what they remember. The kids need to know that they are learning things that their parents *don’t* know (how cool is that for some kids?!), and parents need to remember that the act of explaining things is an act of building that knowledge into their own picture of the world.

This has been written in response to one of the teenage students wanting my help to put together some stuff for the parents so they can help the younger kids practise. I’ve realised that the major learning here is for the student putting together the material (learning by having to think about how to teach) rather than in producing materials for the parents themselves. And at some level it is not helpful to the kids to have their parents helping them – taekwon-do expertise does not derive from age, but from belt-level – ie from the amount of training and learning in taekwon-do itself.

Our Instructor is trying to instil into the kids the ability to think for themselves, to ask questions, to find answers within themselves as well as around them and to be self-motivated in what they do. It is one of those wonderful paradoxes of parenting and teaching that you can’t *teach* self-motivation. You can only encourage it, and I contend that you can only encourage it by being passionate about what you do, and inspiring others by your passion.

I have had the privilege to have been inspired by an excellent and passionate Instructor who understands the essence of teaching and is a master of what he teaches at a time when I am trying to understand in an academic framework what is special about teaching and learning and what constitutes “best practice” in that area.

The research suggests quality in teaching and learning is about the teacher-student interaction and communication rather than about disembodied content but of course “quality audits” focus on what is easily measured and disembodied content (the “curriculum”) is easy to examine “objectively”. For me, the introspection as a student and trainee-teacher in the context of an expert Instructor teaching all ages and abilities has been invaluable.

Plagiarism detection – is technology the solution?

I went to a lunchtime seminar by John Barrie on Turnitin, the plagiarism detection software from iParadigms. I can see the practical merits of Turnitin and I can see that it is scalable into the near future, but I wonder if we have actually identified the correct problem to solve, and whether the Turnitin approach is scalable or even sensible into the future? The idea of the entire internet being fingerprinted is reminiscent of the scenario of enough monkeys and keyboards to produce Mozart … at what level is anything truly original?

The title of the presentation was “Vetting academic work for originality: Saving the world from unoriginality” – very catchy for sure, but perhaps not particularly interesting or realistic. At an undergraduate level, the content of most submitted work is not primarily focused on originality, but on accuracy. When writing a first year psych lab report on “The Stroop Effect”, perhaps there is a real limit to the number of ways of expressing the content before the information actually becomes incorrect in pursuit of originality. Maybe instead of detecting plagiarism, we should be trying to generate assessment tasks which are not affected by plagiarism – rather than have one academic grade one thousand papers, perhaps we would do better to have one academic produce ten papers of different quality on the one topic and have 1000 students grade those 10 papers.

Alternatively, if university staff / student ratios were appropriate so that proper assessment of individual undergraduate students could take place (eg presenting a paper to a tutorial group and then submitting a written version for marking, and having shared marking across tutorials), there would be a disincentive to cheat. The thing that would alert teaching staff to plagiarism would be a mismatch between the ability to present the content orally and in written form. If end-of-semester assessment was by essay style (hand-marked) exams requiring generative capabilities, there would be more opportunity to match student voice with their written output.

At the undergraduate level, there is a serious question to be asked about whether it is more important to be able to generate an original piece of work than to recognise which piece of work most accurately reflects “the right answer” (assuming there is such a thing)? If we can string together appropriate pieces of information wherever they come from to produce a coherent article (be it a “term paper”, an essay, a lab report, a computer program), we at least are showing that we understand the content area appropriately. I believe this is a necessary but not sufficient precursor to being able to produce something original. I actually have grave doubts as to whether true originality at the undergraduate level would be recognised by the average tutor, let alone encouraged or rewarded. It requires substantial academic expertise to evaluate the quality of original work in a discipline area.

It seems that plagiarism is considered a serious issue because we like to claim that a prime objective in teriary teaching is to instill in our students the concept of academic integrity and of scholarship. However, to my mind, academic integrity (coupled with academic freedom) is associated with a whole moral philosophy regarding knowledge, sharing of knowledge and how academic work contributes to the greater good of human endeavour. Academic values and moral philosophy are taught by example (intellectual and behavioural modelling) rather than by policing. If plagiarism is rampant in the younger generation, we should be looking to the values implicit in our education system rather than to policing strategies to effect cultural change.

If you look at the highly structured curriculum favoured by our secondary education sector and the templated way much of the “knowledge” is presented, it is not surprising that plagiarism is rampant – what is the difference between plagiarising and rote-learning? What is the difference between a “fact” and an “idea” and do facts as well as ideas have citable sources?

In terms of values and behavioural modelling, if you also look at business ethics (or attitudes to speed cameras) in the past 15 years, the emergent theme is that anything that is not expressly forbidden is implicitly allowed. No matter what the written rules say, if it isn’t policed, you’re allowed to do it. And if you’ve got away with doing it for a while, it violates your rights to suddenly start policing it. Steve Vizard and Rene Rivken come to mind on the business front … what did they do that was wrong???

Intellectual property and copyright law seems not to be about integrity and moral philosophy at all, but are much more about how to protect the ability of an individual or institution to make money from creative endeavours rather than to share that creative output with the rest of the community (which in the past funded academic institutions to pursue the creation of new knowledge for the greater good of humanity).

Two other factors which have affected academic integrity in a subtle but seriously insidious way are mentioned in passing below. Both of them affect the behaviour of academics which is then modelled by those who are learning from them creating a different academic culture and set of standards.

1) Measuring research output by number of publications rather than quality of publications (counting is easier than assessing quality) so that there is a strong career incentive to make as much publication mileage as possible out of each random academic idea no matter whether it leads to institutionally-endorsed rampant self-plagiarism, a proliferation of poor-quality journals, and/or a sense of dissatisfaction with the entire peer-review and publishing system.

2) A strong push to “reusable content”, without ever clarifying the difference between acceptable / appropriate reuse and plagiarism – acknowledgement of the source is an obvious difference to a trained academic, but the fine line between paraphrasing and substituting synonyms is a tougher call to make for a layperson. Maybe, in the end, the only difference is the wider vocabulary available to most academics – an academic’s lexicon already contains the synonyms that a layperson searches for in a thesaurus, but the paraphrasing process is still the same – when does restating an idea “in your own words” become stating something original? And do I have to cite that Tom asked this question of me in the corridor tonight or can you believe that I thought of it first? And if I did, have I now “beaten Tom to press” so that he will have to cite me in the future?

Back to reuse of content, consider particularly the concept of reuse and acknowledgement of source in the teaching context (which is often the only context in which students see academics at their work). Clearly the ideas being presented in the classroom are not original because we are teaching people about the current state of agreed-upon knowledege in a field.

Lectures and visual aids associated with lectures provide a context for assigned reading and other research activities. Often, lectures provide a specific context or elaboration on material sourced from “the textbook”. If you now consider how the process of generating lecture resources for a “traditional lecture” has changed during my 20 years as an academic

– (circa 1985) I gathered together a set of slides or overheads illustrating key points, and wrote key points on the blackboard

– (circa 1990) I prepared overhead transparencies with illustrations and key points

– (circa 1995) I prepared Powerpoint presentations which were distributed via an intranet

– (circa 2000) I prepared Powerpoint presentations which were placed on the web

By the early 2000s, in common parlance, the Powerpoint presentation became “The Lecture”, and because it resided in a public place free of the context in which it was presented and the words which were uttered explaining the origin and content of each idea and image, issues of copyright and intellectual property started to arise. The overheads of annotating each idea and image became a disincentive to preparing interesting additional resources for teaching, and the idea that providing enrichment to one group of students but not to all students (where different staff taught different streams) undermined the sense of academic responsibility for teaching material as well as undermining the atmosphere of collegiality.

It seems to me that institutions have only recently become deeply interested in the issue of plagiarism detection in the context of selling curriculum, selling degrees, selling research output and gaining competitive advantage from the intellectual property of their workforce of academics. The sense of academic integrity and moral philosophy associated with being part of an international community of scholars whose combined knowledge belongs to humanity has been seriously eroded by treating academic output as a saleable commodity and applying “business models” to academia using totally inadequate analogies.

I guess one aspect of writing in a blog that is simultaneously a real strength and a serious weakness is about to be demonstrated – I want to post this now because I know I won’t come back to it properly in the next few weeks to fill out the gaping holes in the line of argument. I think I know how to fill them, but I don’t have the time right now. Is it better to put the half baked idea “out there” (even if I’m the only person who goes back to read it) or is it best to let it drown in a sea of other half baked ideas? And furthermore, is this enough to ensure that I at least mark a line in the sand to say “I thought like this on this day, even if I don’t get to rethink it and publish it properly until a lot later on …”

Blogging at work

I have had a few attempts at running a blog “for work” and each time I have hit a bit of a brick wall. There has been a lot written recently on blogging, what it is about, and whether it has an important role in a formal teaching-and-learning context. I have been stimulated to update this blog via a web-forum email asking about blogging at UniMelb …

My current thoughts re blogging as a genre of writing:

1. Blogging software provides an easy information architecture for “episodic writing” … especially of things that are loosely topic based, but become “topical” at a particular time for reasons that are not easily encapsulated, and are likely to be relevant again at a later date

2. Blogging tools are only useful for people who write prolifically, have regular access to the internet, do most of their writing at a computer rather than in a notebook and are comfortable with public scrutiny of their writing.

3. Blogging is essentially personal even when it’s work-related. I write to a blog as a convenient place to store ideas that are forming so that I can edit them from anywhere and I can refer to them easily if the ideas come up in conversation. I write to a publically-accessible blog to challenge myself to write more coherently than I would in a notebook – I operate from the premise that articulating an idea clearly is part of the process of thinking clearly, and that if I can’t express what I mean then I don’t actually know what I’m talking about yet. Feedback is always good when clarifying ideas.

4. Blogging has inherent dangers in the workplace – point 3 identifies that I am blogging ideas that are not necessarily fully formed. So a blog entry is a bit like a draft of an idea, or a “Dear Diary” type letter. There is a reason for drafting things and often it is because partially formed ideas that escape before their possible endpoints have been fully thought through can be dangerous. So I censor much of what I write to a blog. And because I do this, my blog ends up with very few entries and those that are written are not particularly interesting.

5. Blogging as a writing genre relies on students having a desire to write. Use of blogging software has some merit in a range of situations irrespective of whether the genre of writing is “true blogging ” (according to the blogging gurus in favour in any particular week …) My take on this is the most academics I have worked with are only just getting comfortable with discussion forums, and that blogging and RSS is beyond their comfort zone to use and support.

Re blogging software:

1. My first impediment to work-related blogging was lack of infrastructure and lack of server to install blogging software.

2. I tried using Bloki (http://www.bloki.com) for a while and it’s a pretty nice combination of blogs, forums and wiki-like website. I specifically used it to store information about web resources I happened to come across with annotations about what they were and why they looked interesting. My idea was that people with similar research interests would be able to follow what I was looking at on my blog, and might be inspired to make a similar resource available of their own reading so that we could share our research lives more effectively … I ended up becoming a bit wary about committing too much work-related stuff to a random server in a random location over which I have no control. I have to say, the site is still there 2 years later and there has been nothing but good service from the site.

3. I then installed MoveableType, PhpWiki and Moodle on my own personal website (http://wisebytes.net/research/blog/) to try them out and because it was the only place I had access to a shell account on a *nix server along with scritping and database services. I set up a research blog to take over from the Bloki site, but never managed to move my Bloki material to MoveableType. I used the PhpWiki quite a bit and liked it although I’ve never been game enough to leave it open to the world, and I never got around to publishing a read-only version of it either.

4. I finally got access to a server at UniMelb and installed blogging and wiki software. I used WordPress rather than MoveableType because it was just at the time where MoveableType introduced a licence fee which I didn’t want to pay. So I was again in a position of moving all my stuff from Bloki to MoveableType to WordPress. I also had great trouble with the authentication module in PhpWiki so that pages kept locking people out of editing them. I got Moodle working which good, and spent a bit of time playing with that too.

5. Having failed to inspire my academic colleagues to have any interest in starting a blog or using a wiki for drafting research papers or documentation and having spent a lot of time trying to get the infrastructure sorted to support wider spread usage of blogs, I actually ended up losing interest in writing blog content since most of it relates to a) things that none of my colleagues seem to find particularly interesting or b) things that are politically sensitive.

6. I have used BlogLines (http://www.bloglines.com/) as an RSS aggregator until I got swamped by the amount of stuff out in the world. I have ended up taking the lazy option of subscribing to Stephen Downes’ OnLineDaily newsletter as my primary source of keeping up with the world of edublogs. RSS has huge potential in teaching and learning but I’m waiting for other people to sort out the tools etc.

The biggest disincentive to maintaining a work-blog is a subtle shift in academic culture such that I am no longer confident that the university supports freedom of expression over corporate image, or substance over process, or content over style.

The biggest disincentive to supporting blogs in teaching and learning is an apparent lack of in-built passion for writing. Maybe moblogs or vlogs or Flickr will take off instead !!!

Warm-ups

Although my blog has been quiet for the past year or so, I’ve actually been thinking a lot about taekwon-do as a martial art and how it relates to exercise sciences and to my cognitive neuroscience discipline area – perhaps it’s time to start articulating these ideas a bit more formally, and blogging seems as good a way to start as any other … and warmups seems like a good topic to begin with.

We have a number of different black belts at our club who from time to time take the warmup session of our classes. It is always interesting to see the variety of approaches, and the different ideas that are expressed through these warmups. Most people work to their strengths, so the aerobically fit people tend to emphasise aerobic aspects of warming up, the flexible people emphasise stretching, the exercise scientists and physiotherapists talk at length about the biomechanics of each aspect of warmup, the powerful people emphasise different ways of building sets of muscles – it is all informative and it allows us to see the full range of what it takes to develop our bodies to their full potential while at the same time learning a bit more about the people we train with.

What also tends to happen is that each class member enjoys different aspects of a warmup, and through talking about these differences, a range of motivation and expectations with respect to taekwon-do are revealed. In considering a range of opinions and approaches, I found my own conceptual understanding of warming up and of “fitness” in general has been challenged and extended, and I have developed a renewed respect for the depth and layers within taekwon-do as a martial art.

Three things that stand out to me are the expectation from taekwon-do students 1) that taekwon-do training will build their aerobic endurance and their flexibility (true), 2) that this can happen through their twice weekly 90 min taekwondo classes (true but only to a fairly limited extent), and 3) that the purpose of the warmup is to build aerobic fitness and flexibility (not true).

Significant aerobic endurance can only be built by performing aerobic activity for a reasonable duration *every day* – for example by walking, running, swimming or cycling for at least 30 mins most days at moderate intensity with at least one day a week devoted to a longer session at lower intensity. The resulting aerobic endurance will depend on the intensity and frequency of training. This is not going to happen in two 90 min sessions per week, and certainly not via the 15 – 30 mins of aerobic warmup. It does not make any sense to expect that it is possible. In order to be aerobically fit for taekwon-do (eg to spar in tournaments), an aerobic training program (eg running including sprint work and hills) outside of classes is required.

Improved flexibility involves lengthening muscle fibres, and ensuring that muscle pairs are lengthened and strengthened in a coordinated way. For example, if you have very strong thigh muscles (quads) and they can contract powerfully to lift your leg, you will need to make sure that your hamstrings are sufficiently flexible and strong to cope with being stretched when the quads and other muscles contract during for example a front kick. If the hamstring is not strong, it can easily be torn by the more powerful antagonist muscles during a kick. When the hamstring has been appropriately conditioned, the next muscle to feel the strain is the calf muscle – hamstring injuries are probably more common than calf injuries because if both muscles are equally unconditioned, the hamstring will stretch and tear first, thereby protecting the weakness of the calf from being demonstrated.

In order to lengthen your muscles, you need to warm them and stretch them slowly beyond their current extent. There are lots of ways to do this, but the result of lengthening a muscle is to render it weaker for at least a couple of hours afterwards. So generally, you would *not* want to do a serious stretching routine for increasing flexibility before or at the beginning of your taekwon-do training session because it would be counter-productive.

The stretching that is done during a taekwon-do warmup is designed to warm your muscles and take your joints and muscles through their full current range of motion so that the work that you do during training is at your current maximum level. For example if you warm up properly so that your side kicks are being performed at the maximum height you can currently attain, you will build your strength at that level and although this will undoubtedly allow you to gradually increase your range over a period of training, it will not improve your flexibility dramatically or quickly.

So what is a warmup all about, and how does this relate to fitness? The first and most important point is that the concepts of “warmup” and “fitness” are meaningless without a context. Warmup for what? Fitness for what?

The warmup for an activity depends entirely on the activity and the context in which it is taking place. A warmup for cycling is different from a warmup for swimming which is in turn different from a warmup for sparring. A “warmup” in 35 deg heat is different from a warmup in 12 deg and serves a completely different purpose. In 35 deg heat, you want to ensure that your body temperature control systems are activated properly and your fluid regulation system is operating well rather than that your muscles have reached an appropriate warmth (which will be taken care of by the ambient temperature). In the cold, there will be more emphasis on ensuring adequate blood flow to peripheral muscles and getting the heart rate into an appropriate zone. In both situations, you want to ensure that the joints and muscles you will be using are comfortably moving through their full range of motion at their correct operating temperature.

In the taekwondo context, a warmup for patterns will be different from a warmup for sparring and different again from a warmup for jumping techniques because they use different muscles. However there will be some aspects of warming up that are consistent. We will almost always be kicking, so we will almost always want to do some front snap kicks and front rising kicks to stretch our leg muscles. We will also generally want to do side kicks and turning kicks maybe with speed, maybe with power, to get our lower backs and hips operating.

One specifically taekwon-do exercise that we do frequently involves squatting with one leg extended to the side with the toes pointing up and the foot of the other leg flat to the floor. This exercise will stretch the hamstring of the extended leg so long as flexibility of the supporting leg is sufficient to allow you to go low enough. Many people cannot squat low with their supporting foot flat on the floor and so they lift their heel to get much lower and also use their hands to support their weight. We are told to keep our heels flat to the floor and not to use our hands when swapping from side to side but most of us ignore these instructions in favour of getting much lower. In a year of doing this, I did not improve my strength or flexibility in this exercise. However since I have chosen to try to do it properly and to focus on keeping my body upright, I have actually improved my strength and power in kicking dramatically, although the height of my kicks has not increased much.

What I have actually realised is that most people do not have well-balanced muscles in their legs, thighs and groin area. Some muscles are strong and flexible, some are strong, some are flexible, but to do the exercise properly (and to kick properly) it is necessary to have balanced strength and conditioning across all the muscles involved. So by maintaining proper form and then “bouncing” (a controlled small movement not an uncontrolled bounce) at the boundaries of movement, we can strengthen the muscles in a coordinated way and move through the whole range of motion using the balanced power of the whole muscle set. This is much more valuable than extending one of the muscles (in an unbalanced way) while supporting our weight in the wrong position with our hands. It is very useful to *feel* the limiting factor in each exercise and to work on that, so that we focus on our weakness rather than working to our strengths. For me, the flexibility of my calf muscle to allow my foot flat to the ground and the strength of the muscles around my supporting knee are the first limiting factor for this exercise, not anything to do with my hamstring of the extended leg.

When I first started taekwon-do and the instructor said to “bounce”, I thought I knew better than to do this old-fashioned thing which tears musles rather than making them more flexible, but over a period of time and after listening to the instructions more carefully, I am aware that we are not bouncing to increase flexibility (an outdated and damaging approach because it causes micro-tearing which actually stiffens and shortens the muscles), but are moving in short controlled bounces to increase the strength of the muscle at its full extension, which is exactly where the full strength is needed in a martial art. When we kick, we want to contract our muscles in perfect timing at the full extent of our kick for maximal power unlike in most sports where the maximum power is in the middle of the movement.

Basically, a superficial biomechanical context-free analysis of the exercise might lead people to do it differently and in a way that does absolutely nothing to improve kicking, whereas a deeper analysis in context reveals the exercise as a perfect warmup and conditioning exercise for taekwon-do.

Furthermore, once you go context-free and start analysing exercises purely for their biomechanical outcomes, you start needing to know details of agonist and antagonist muscles and working to balance work with one muscle group against work with its opposite … to ensure a balanced approach requires quite deep level knowledge of muscle groups. However, if you remain within a context such as taekwon-do, and you do each movement slowly and quickly and in the variety of ways that occur in fundamental movements, patterns and step sparring, you will build balance across all the relevant muscle groups without ever having to know their names or think about anything other than excellent taekwon-do technique. In one fell swoop, you replace a nit-picking detailed muscle analysis and spiritless list of “do this 15 times followed by that 20 times, then drink this many mililitres of this and eat 25 gms of that” with a tapestry of techniques layered together with a depth and intricacy so that every time you look, you can see different aspects of a picture with new horizons and possibilities.

Just as the concept of warming up relates specifically to what it is that you are warming up for, the concept of fitness itself is not context free. I was unaware that definitions of fitness in exercise physiology incorporate the not only the physical aerobic, power and flexibility notions one would expect, but also incorporate skill level, such that technical and cognitive skill are important aspects of fitness and fitness can only be determined with a purpose in mind.

The technical aspect of fitness in taekwon-do deserves some consideration and is possibly worthy of an article of its own since I haven’t really thought it through completely. When I started taekwon-do, although I was about 10 kg overweight, I was pretty “fit”, riding around 150 – 250 km per week and playing indoor soccer. However I found the L-stance quite uncomfortable because it put my rear leg in a position it was not used to, with the outside of my ankle feeling sore and some little muscles on the outside of my knee and my inner thigh feeling quite stretched too. I also found it hard to move backward and forward maintaining good balance and good stances because my inner thigh muscles and various other leg muscles were not strong enough to support me strongly through the whole transition from one stance to another. So my technique was poor because the appropriate muscles to support good technique were not developed. So my fitness for taekwon-do was significantly lower than for cycling. Also once I have a deeper understanding of taekwon-do movements and their purpose, I use less extraneous energy doing things that are not relevant to taekwon-do. For example, overly extragavent movements are wasteful of energy and this bad technique will render me less “fit” than if I conserve my energy appropriately. Poor breath control will render my techniques less powerful so I will need to compensate by expending more energy and I will be less fit on two counts.

The many layers of taekwon-do come to mind when we consider that part of the discipline involved in training is that until we are told to relax, we hold the last position we were asked to take up. This is good mental discipline, but it is also an important part of strength training and of technical training – if we hold a good L-stance with guarding block (or sitting stance, or walking stance or whatever) for an extended period of time while the instructor is talking, we are training our muscles isometrically in a specifically taekwon-do stance, and we are developing “muscle memory” for that position and ensuring that it feels comfortable and natural. If we stand tall and with good posture in our stances and during our “relaxed” time in taekwon-do, we are developing our core body muscles through taekwon-do – it makes more sense to do this via taekwon-do movements than to bring pilates or context-free VicFit style training into our training since we are training for our own martial art, not for something else.

The section in the Encyclopedia on dallyon underscores the depth to which General Choi went in putting together a complete martial art which would train body and mind in a coordinated and balanced way to achieve the full human potential. This is probably as good a place as any to stop writing for the day 🙂