Is it helpful to estimate how long it will take for someone else to read something?

A collection clocks telling different times
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
How long will it take you to read this post?

It depends of course. Two minutes? Five minutes, 15 minutes, an hour? It depends on how fast you can read generally, how carefully you read it, whether you are making notes, whether you need to read it again to understand the point being made or whether there is going to be exam on the content of this post later today. If you have certain disabilities or read English as a second (or third or fourth language) it may take you longer than someone who does not have a disability or is a native user of English. If the content is entirely new to you or uses concepts you do not yet understand then it is likely to take you longer.

Surely it takes as long it takes? However, in my job as a lecturer I am asked to specify how many hours students should spend on independent study in the module descriptor. I set pre-readings where I might advise students that this chapter will take (say) about an hour to read – however many report back that they take longer; this may make them feel they are not clever enough for this course and that ‘everyone else’ has no problem getting through the reading in the time suggested. It can dent confidence as they get to grips with new, unfamiliar material.

This issue came into focus for me recently in my capacity as a learner. I am taking an internal leadership course run by my employer. The pre-reading for the session took me a lot longer than the suggested time. While I could probably have ‘read’ the material in the suggested time, I also took notes, so I could come back to it when discussing the reading in the live session – I am not the sort of person who reads something then remembers everything I read. Does this mean I am not academically able enough to do the course? Is there something ‘wrong’ with me? Alternatively, are the tutors unrealistic in their expectations?

These are probably the wrong questions. We ask our students to read certain items because we believe them to be (at least one of) important, essential, useful, interesting, helpful or thought-provoking regarding their studies. The readings my tutors designated met all these criteria. While the question of too much or little is an important one, but is it remotely helpful to state how long it should take me to read it?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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The Eastern Townships in Quebec History


The bulk of the information in this report is taken from the concluding chapter (chapter 9) of my PhD thesis From Yankees to québécois: Nation-building and national identity in Quebec’s Eastern Townships (2002). The original thesis contains much content which satisfies academic criteria, but may not be of much interest to those whose interest lies with the Eastern Townships itself.

After briefly summarising my findings chapter by chapter, I make three major contentions from the thesis under the headings of ‘The deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation of Quebec nationalism’, ‘Building the multicultural nation’ and ‘Politics’. Finally, I conclude this report with some concluding thoughts about the future of the Eastern Townships.

John Canning

September 2002
1 Chapter by chapter summary

In chapter 1, I note that nationalism needs to be examined on both a macro and a micro scale. In other words any study of nationalism must examine, not only historical ‘national’ texts, but also must be grounded in local experience. Secondly, nationalism must be a unifying force which transcends all forms of difference. It also must appear natural and self-evident. Nationalism changes shape in order to accommodate these requirements. Thirdly, nationalism is continuously contested within a state. This can be a direct contestation through a separatist movement as in Quebec, but all nationalisms are contested, even if they appear to be benign, banal or mundane.

In the second chapter I explored the notion of multiculturalism. With reference to the work of Lefebvre (1991), I drew upon notions of social space as well upon ideas and philosophies of multiculturalism. My most important contention from this chapter was to demonstrate that multiculturalism must not be seen as the diametric opposite of nationalism. Nationalism does, and always has changed shape to accommodate multiculturalism. Moreover, multiculturalism is a phenomenon which has existed almost since the beginning of time and is not a post-World War Two concept. The examination of local spaces is very important in understanding the ways in which nationalism and multiculturalism are negotiated.

I devoted the third chapter to methodological issues and briefly outlining the sources used in my study. This chapter served not only as a discussion of methodology, but also related my situatedness to my work in Quebec. I concluded the chapter by noting that the thesis is very much a personal narrative. I did not go to Quebec as an outside observer per se, but I became an active participant in Quebec life for the period of time I was studying there.

The fourth and fifth chapters were largely historical in nature. Whilst they do serve as an historical introduction for readers not familiar with Quebec and Canada (Chapter 4) and the Eastern Townships and Knowlton (Chapter 5), this is not their primary purpose. Instead these chapters are more concerned with identifying key features of the macro-historical discourses upon which nationalisms and counter-nationalisms are constructed. These chapters conclude by noting that these macro-historical discourses along with their spatial elements continue to unfold in the present and the future. The times and spaces of these historical meta-narratives are always subject to changes in interpretation, as so are the ideological purposes for which these meta-narratives are appropriated.

Chapters 6-8 draw principally upon interviews I carried out with mostly anglophone respondents in the Eastern Townships. In Chapter 6 I examined anglophone perspectives on the PQ. This chapter was strongly bound up with legal issues and demonstrated the importance of reterritorialising Quebec as a French society where it has never been a French society, through the enforcement of French language laws upon a community that has an anglophone majority. I also identified how anglophones feel excluded from the space of Quebec politics- that is to say that Quebec politics is concerned principally with issues of French identity and there is no space for an anglophone contribution to debates about the future of Quebec. Respondents often related the policies of the PQ on issues as varied as taxation, government structure, road building and planning regulations, as being intrinsically bound up with their separatist objectives. This separatist objective was perceived as being the one single aim of the PQ.

The seventh chapter drew strongly on the notion of social space, an idea which I introduced in the second chapter. By examining social space at a local level I found that the idea of a French space and an English space was useful, but to a very limited extent. In essence, most spaces can be seen simultaneously as spaces of togetherness and spaces of separation. I examined this with reference to celebrations such as St Jean-Baptiste and Canada Day whereby there is a simultaneous discourse of community division and community unity. A strong emphasis was placed throughout on good anglophone-francophone relations and although conflicts do occasionally occur, these conflicts are usually benign. I also looked at the role of bilinguals in negotiating between these spaces and found that bilinguals were instrumental in negotiating shared spaces.

Chapter 8 examined Townshippers’ identification with their communities, the Townships, Quebec, Canada and the rest of the world. Townshippers have felt othered by other English Canadians as well as by francophones. However, there is also a strong attachment to being Quebecers and an increased acceptance of Quebec’s French fact. I have emphasised the historical importance of Quebec church and state in binding anglophone Townshippers into the identities and cultures of the Province of Quebec.

It follows that the Townships must not be seen as an appendage to, but as a fundamental part of Quebec history, culture, politics and nationalisms. My next three major contentions elucidate this.

2 The deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation of Quebec nationalism
1. Building a national history.

The macro-historical discourse or mémoire upon which nationalism is constructed is not only selective in terms of time, but also in terms of space. The ‘history’ of Quebec is, at best, only part of the history of part of the Quebec nation’s territory. Quebec’s ‘national history’ is not the history of the territory of Quebec; it is essentially a history of the eastern section of the St Lawrence River. This neglects other regions of Quebec such as the Eastern Townships. Hence, in the construction of a nation’s macro-history specific parts of the nation are rendered more important than others. The ideology of nationalism is underpinned by the notion that the history of a part of the nation is equal to the history of the whole. Any explanation of the history of the Eastern Townships verses the history of Quebec demonstrates that ‘national’ histories are constructed through a deterritorialisation and a reterritorialisation, a synecdoche in which the part is presented as the whole. The history of the Eastern Townships is counter-intuitive to the history Quebec as a whole, as it is usually constructed. Whilst the history of Quebec is presented as being Catholic and French, the history of the Eastern Townships is presented as Protestant and English with a strong ethic of local democracy. The construction of Quebec nationalism has privileged the history of the St Lawrence seigneuries and has neglected the English and Protestant heritages of other regions of Quebec such as the Eastern Townships.

On one hand a national discourse, the macro-history upon which an effective nationalism is constructed, depends upon the creation of a mass unity which disregards diversity. However, a complete denial of the concept of nationhood denies a common experience, shared through the language, religion, material experience and the institutions of the State. The role of the Church and State (both given prominence by Sack (1986) in his discourse on the ‘control’ of territory’) in Quebec is imperative in the (continuing) creation of a territorial unity of Quebec. Over the past 200 years the people of the Eastern Townships have shaped, and been shaped by the québécois Church and State, mediated mostly through the medium of French. There may be remnants of a ‘Yankee’ New England heritage, but the geographies of law, Church and State power are those of Quebec and Canada, not of the USA.

Hence, the nation building project of the PQ depends upon the deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation of Quebec nationalism, notably through the medium of the law. Legislation such as Bill 101 produces a discourse not only of preserving French in North America, but also upon making Quebec French where it is not French already. Hence policies seeking to preserve and promote French, impact upon communities like Knowlton which are majority anglophone communities.

The notion of the Eastern Townships as different from the ‘rest of Quebec’ is a contention which has important limitations. Discourses of Quebec’s Catholic, Church-led, French history verses the history of the English Protestant Eastern Townships lead to this idea, but chapters 4 and 5 of the thesis represent as much a contrast of imaginations as much as realities. I am certain that had I undertaken my fieldwork in Quebec City, in Lac St Jean, the Gaspésie, in Montreal, or even in the ‘heartland’ of the St Lawrence Valley, I could have still written Chapter 5 as an antipode to Chapter 4.
2. The Eastern Townships

The historical mémoire and geosophy of a community or a region is vitally important to the study of contemporary articulations of nationalism. I do not believe it is contrived to state that Townshippers exhibit a unique set of values that are place-influenced and different to values found elsewhere in Quebec and in Canada. Maintenance of ‘English’ and ‘Yankee’ identities combined with identities relating to Canada and the Province of Quebec make the Eastern Townships unique. The values of Townshippers when set against the Quebec’s ‘macro-history’ differ serendipitously as well as in clear ways. Townshippers display strong anti-government sentiments, which are not simply a pragmatic response to unfavourable provincial language laws of Quebec’s recent history, but also relate to a ‘tradition’ of ‘New England’ town meetings and a strong emphasis on local democracy which goes against Quebec’s ‘tradition’ of being led by elites, firstly the church and then by the state. Historically, as the mémoire (on which the notion of tradition is a part) is constructed, leadership in the Eastern Townships was locally based whereas the French-Canadians were ‘led’ from the outside. This mémoire is important inasmuch as it contributes to nationalism, rather than as a historical reality.
3. English Canada

Quebec nationalisms are not static in time and in space as Chapter 4 clearly demonstrates. Moreover, these shifting social spaces of Quebec nationalism have strongly impacted upon the identities of English Townshippers. There is an increased acceptance of the idea of Quebec being an essentially ‘French’ province and the idea that anglophones are a minority. This minority status is being exploited by organisations such as the Townshippers Association who are promoting an understanding that if English Townshippers recognise themselves as a numerical and political minority this will increase the cohesiveness of the English community. This acceptance of minority status runs alongside the creation of a particular Quebec-English identity that differs from other English Canadian identities. Perhaps the most important propaganda coup for the PQ has been in terms of convincing English Canadians outside of Quebec that nobody speaks English in Quebec. The creation of a Quebec English identity has as much to do with a feeling of rejection by other English Canadians as it does with a feeling of alienation from the cultural and linguistic policies of recent Quebec governments.
3 Building the multicultural nation
1. Unity and Diversity

Whilst the nationalism of the PQ has undoubtedly shifted increasingly towards the idea of a multicultural Quebec, the desire to unify Quebec through the French language remains. It is inaccurate to suggest that nationalism can be equated directly with the idea of ‘unity’ and multiculturalism with the idea of ‘diversity’. This leads to the misguided conclusion that nationalism and multiculturalism are two different paths leading in two distinct directions- rather these paths can be one and same. Nationalism does not seek to suppress diversity; instead nationalism seeks to create unity from diversity through the processes of deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation as well as finding new building blocks for the foundations of national identity; in the Quebec case this is the French language. Nation building is always dependent upon the unification of territories that are diverse in terms of their identities and their histories. The current nation-building project of the separatists in Quebec does not represent a unique never-seen-before process of nationalism.

In examining nationalism and multiculturalism in a local context it is possible to see that the laws, policies and directives which the Quebec government has made to promote their articulations of Quebec nationalism often have very different outcomes to those which may be expected. One may presume that Bill 22, which made French the official language of Quebec would be to the benefit of the francophone population and to the detriment of the anglophone population. However, in the Eastern Townships there is a powerful case for suggesting that the exact opposite is true. Increased French language teaching in English schools has ensured that a new generation of anglophones has grown up bilingual, whilst their francophone peers are more likely to be unilingual. This means that anglophones are more likely to get jobs which require bilinguals to mediate between the Quebec government and the francophone majority on one hand and the North American (mostly anglophone) customers on the other. Jobs that require this mediation are not only the prestigious jobs, but also include less prestigious jobs such as working in some shops.(1) Ironically, laws such as Bill 101 are most effective by making it less likely, or protecting against an increased likelihood that francophones will leave Quebec for jobs elsewhere in Canada and in the United States. There is the dilemma that ‘Individual interests’ and ‘collective interests’ appear to be at odds.

Historical ‘memory’, events and values are often presented as being the basis of conflicts between different articulations of nationalism in Canada and in Quebec. For example Canada Day is normally presented as an English-Canadian institution and St Jean-Baptiste Day as a French-Canadian celebration. However, these events are annually celebrated as a show of unity between anglophones and francophones at the local level. Whilst the notion of difference is maintained this sense of difference is appropriated for purposes of community unity. Similarly, through the mechanisms of ecumenicalism even religion can be presented as being as much about ‘Christian unity’ as about long-standing religious differences which are fundamental to understanding the history of the Eastern Townships, Quebec and Canada. Anglophone-francophone differences are celebrated at the local level; hence there is a simultaneous discourse of both difference and unity.

2. Les cultures québécoises.

However, at the same time Townshippers are, and remain Quebecers. Townshippers past and present have played an important role in the shaping of modern Quebec. The ‘English Townships’ have never been an English colony of French Quebec. Although the cultural heartland of French-Canada or the québécois has always lain elsewhere, the Townships have shaped, as well as been shaped by the spaces of Quebec nationalisms. Institutions of Quebec history such as the Catholic Church and Provincial government have always served to bond English Townshippers and other Quebecers with their francophone neighbours and with other parts of Quebec. Historically, the institutions of the state bound Townshippers with the habitant in the St Lawrence Valley, the industrial workers of Montreal and the fishermen of the Gaspésie more than with their English-speaking neighbours south of the 45th parallel. This binding still remains, most poignantly through the Quebec legal system.

Bélanger (1994, 17) invokes the concept of “les cultures québécoises.” laying emphasis on the plurality of cultures in Quebec. There is not a ‘québécois’ culture from which English Quebecers are English Townshippers are excluded, but English-Canadian identities can be viewed as a québécois culture among many. Bélanger discovered two very contrasting ‘cultures québécoises’ within just a few miles of each other in two different villages. The macro-historical discourse I present in chapter 4 of the original thesis is not a representation of past reality, but a spatially, temporally partial representation of Quebec’s past. French Quebec is highly diverse. The cultural heartland occupied by the habitant was not the universal experience of the French Quebecer before the 1960s. Montreal, Lac Saint-Jean, the Gaspésie, the Outaouais, the ‘native’ peoples of Quebec also represent ‘les cultures québécoises’. Lest the inclusion of the latter be seen as being obscure the very name of ‘Québec’ is not a French name, but a micmac word.(2)

Nationalism and multiculturalism look very different when examined in a local context. When these ideas are presented purely in the realm of ideas it appears that nationalism and multiculturalism are incompatible concepts rather than complementary forms. This is Penrose’s (1994) oversight in her analysis of the PQ and multicultural Quebec as she limits her understanding of Quebec nationalism to (a simplified interpretation) discourses of the PQ vis-à-vis the fact of multicultural (English, French, native, other) Quebec. The promotion of French Quebec on one hand and the acknowledgement of linguistic diversity on the other hand, when presented in the realm of ideas appear to be a recipe for conflict. However, when placed in a local context it is evident that the everyday life practices of French and English Quebecers produce very difference outcomes. Nationalism impacts upon life practices and it is a practice itself. These practices do not amount to major conflicts between peoples with different ideologies, but are formed in the often banal practices of everyday life. There is a gulf of difference between the outcomes expected when examining nationalisms as conflicting ideas as to examining nationalism as an everyday practice.
4 Politics

Anglophone Townshippers are conscious about being different from their francophone neighbours, but this in itself is instructive in reference to Canadian and Quebec politics. Whilst maintaining a hostile opposition to Quebec ‘separatists’ and ‘nationalists’ they do not apply these labels to their francophone friends and neighbours, even when these friends and neighbours are supporters of Quebec sovereignty. ‘Blame’ for laws such as Bill 101 is attributed to outsiders to their communities, usually politicians, but very rarely to individuals in their own community. There is the strong notion that francophones in their own community are ‘sound’ and hostility is reserved for unknown ‘others’. In remembering the referendum there was a strong discourse of hostility towards the politicians initiating it, though not towards their neighbours who support the sovereignty agenda.

The irony is that Townshippers are prepared to feel as much an affinity to strangers in British Columbia through the ideology of nationalism, as they feel a non-affinity to their friends and neighbours who they know and in most respects feel they have far more in common with. Canada is as much an idea set up in opposition to the nationalism of the PQ as it is a positive sense of belonging.

There is also a strong notion of comparative politics which pervades Townshipper’s interpretation of Quebec politics. A general underlying assumption of comparative studies appears to be that the comparison is within the remit of the researcher than the respondent. However, residents of Quebec to whom I spoke compared Quebec with a host of other ‘nationalist’ conflict situations ranging from Scotland and Catalonia through to Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia. As researchers have neglected local studies of nationalism they have failed to understand that citizens who are informed about other nationalisms through the media, undertake comparisons themselves. Although their understandings may not necessarily be thorough, comparisons between Quebec and other situations are often made. This comparative analysis is important as it illustrates that the others upon which nationalism are constructed need not be ‘in-situ’ but may be thousands of miles away. Researchers invariably make the mistake of undertaking comparisons that are based upon the examination of state structures and visible non-state actors such as terrorist groups. However an important way in which nationalism is constructed is through the analysis, albeit an often crude analysis of other situations around the world. The otherness upon which nations are formed depends upon neither spatial proximity nor even contact.
5 Township Futures

Kesteman et al (1998, chapter 15) entitle the penultimate chapter of their book on the Eastern Townships, “Une specificité culturelle menacée”. In 1978 L’Office de planification et du développement du Québec concluded that the Townships (Estrie) lacked a collective conscience and a socio-cultural ideal. They describe the Townships as a crossroads (carrefour) between Montreal, Quebec City, Maurice, Les Bois Francs and the New England States (Kesteman et al 1998, 684). I share this view of the Townships to a great extent. However, I believe that the cultural region of the Eastern Townships continues to exist in the consciousness of residents (certainly anglophone residents) and maintained through organisations such as the Townshippers Association as well as through Historical Societies and through publications such as that of Kesteman et al (1998) themselves. The Townships have long been ethnically, religiously and linguistically multicultural. These identities have been redefined over the years. The English, Scottish and Irish becoming English Canadians or anglophones and the French French-Canadians or francophones. Some anglophones married francophones and many francophones have British names and some anglophones French names. Former Quebec premier Daniel Johnson was a Townshipper- a francophone from Richmond. Even if the ‘francisation’ of Townships continues unabated, I do not believe that the English language heritage of the Townships will be destroyed. Place names like Sherbrooke, Richmond, Knowlton, North Hatley and Stanstead will always bear testimony to the English language heritage of the Townships. The oldest written evidence about the Townships will remain written in the English language.

The culture of the Townships and the identities of their residents have changed and will always continue to change. Nevertheless, the Townships will always remain in my imagination as a cultural region of Quebec. I know I still have much to learn about the history and cultures of the Townships. I cannot tell what the future holds for me, yet the Eastern Townships will always hold a special place in my life.

Inevitably, I am often asked if I think that Quebec will/ should remain part of Canada. On balance I believe that Quebec will remain in Canada, but the national question of Quebec will not disappear as everybody becomes ‘enlightened’ to this ‘anachronism’ of separatism. The spaces of nationalism and multiculturalism, both in the realm of ideas and ‘on the ground’ will continue to shift and be redefined. We may see another referendum in the near future; a Quebec government may take the Sortie de Secours (Lisée 2000) but in any case the desire, indeed the necessity to maintain the French language in Quebec will remain. As I demonstrated in the first chapter the whole idea of the ‘nation’, as we understand the term today, is a relatively new one. One respondent, Andy, told me, “There will be changes, but there will always be Canada”. For the foreseeable future I think that he is right, but I cannot tell the future. Canada itself is a young country- just 135 years old since confederation. Nations have shifted their boundaries for as long as time began. Empires and nations have been built and have fallen. Peoples have migrated from one place to another taking their language and culture with them. The historical geography of the nation is characterised not by continuity, but by change.
6 Key findings of thesis

Nationalism is constructed for a macro-historical discourse which is historically and territorially incomplete.
Examining nationalism at a local level demonstrates that outcomes are different to those which may be expected through the use of historical texts.
Regions can be neglected in the construction of a nation’s history.
“Successful” nation-building requires an ideological unification of national identity. By virtue of the of the federal system of Canadian government this may be achieved through the institutions of the Quebec provincial state. This use of the state may include the passing of laws, but may also include the institutions of the church and state education system in producing ‘banal’ forms of nationalism.


Bélanger, M (1994) L’Anse-aux-Moyacs, en Minganie de l’Ouest; Les Paspéïas du bout de la route. PhD thesis, Department of Anthropology, Université de Montréal

Canning, J (2002) From Yankees to québecois: Nation-building and national identity in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Bristol, UK

Kesteman, J-P; Southam, P; Saint-Pierre, D (1998) Histoire des Cantons de l’Est, Sainte-Foy, Les presses de l’université Laval

Lefebvre, H (1991) The Production of Space. Oxford, Blackwell.

Lisée, J-F (2000) Sortie de Secours. Comment échapper au déclin du Québec. Montreal, Boréal

Noël, M (1997) The Native Peoples of Québec. Quebec, Les Éditions Sylvain Harvey

Penrose, J (1994a) ‘’Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays’ Full Stop: the concept of nation as a challenge to the nationalist aspirations of the Parti Québécois’. Political Geography 13.2 pp.161-181

Selected historical works on the Eastern Townships

Day, C M (1863) Pioneers of the Eastern Townships: a work containing official and reliable information respecting the formation of settlements, with incidents in their early history, and details of adventures, perils and deliverances. Montreal, John Lovell.

Day, C M (1869) History of the Eastern Townships, Province of Quebec, Dominion of Canada: civil and descriptive. Montreal, John Lovell.

Kesteman, J-P; Southam, P; Saint-Pierre, D (1998) Histoire des Cantons de l’Est, Sainte-Foy, Les presses de l’université Laval

Little, J I (1989) Évolution ethnoculturelle et identité régional des Cantons de l’Est. Ottawa, Societé historique du Canada.

Little, J I (1991) Crofters and Habitants. Settler Society, Economy, and Culture in a Quebec Township 1848-1881. Montreal and Kingston, McGill-Queens University Press

Little, J I (1997) State and Society in Transition. The Politics of Institutional reform in the Eastern Townships 1838-1852. Montreal and Kingston, McGill-Queens University Press

Ross, A (1943) The Cultural effects of Population Changes in the Eastern Townships. Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 9,4 pp.447-462

Ross, A (1950) Ethnic Relations and Social Structure. A Study of the Invasion of French- Speaking Canadians into an English Canadian District. PhD thesis. Department of Sociology, University of Chicago.

Ross, A (1954) French and English Canadian Contacts and Institutional Change. Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 20,3 pp.281-295

Ross, W G (1967) A Century of Change in Selected Eastern Townships Villages: Barnston, Hatley, Huntingville, Massawippi. Centennial Project, Department of Geography, Bishop’s University.

Ross, W G (1996) Three Eastern Townships Mining Villages in Québec 1863-1972. Albert Mines, Capleton, Eustis. Sherbrooke QC, Les Productions GGC Ltée

Roy, J (1992) L’exode des jeunes du milieu rural: En quête d’un emplois ou d’un gendre de vie? Recherches sociographique 33,3 pp.429-444

Thomas, C (1866) Contributions to the History of the Eastern Townships: A work containing an account of the early settlement of St. Armard, Durham, Sutton, Brome, Potton and Bolton. With a history of the Principle events that have transpired in each of these Townships up to the present time. Montreal, John Lovell.


(1) Many stores in downtown Montreal advertise for bilingual staff.

(2) “Where the river narrows.” (Noël 1997, 40).

© John Canning 2002

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The problem with learning styles.

I wrote the text here for our PGCertificate in Academic Practice (PGCAP) participants. It can be shared and edited if you find it helpful (Creative commons licence).

The video by Dr Paul Penn (University of East London) is available from YouTube.

You may have come across the idea of learning styles, either as a student or as a teacher. You may have heard of students being described as 'visual learners' or 'kinaesthetic learners'. You may have taken a test which purports to help you identify your learning style and discovered that you are an 'auditory learner', a visual learner, a 'kinaesthetic learner', an activist or a pragmatist,. Common learning styles tests include VAK, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Kolb's Learning Styles Inventory and Honey and Mumford's Learning Styles Questionnaire (LSQ).

At first glance the idea of learning styles is attractive one --after all, it is perfectly reasonable to state that people learn in different ways. Moreover, if as teachers we can identify the learning styles of our students, then surely adapting our teaching for different learning styles will increase the chance of them being successful?

In 2004 Coffield et al were able to identify 71 (!) models of learning styles and deeply analysed 13 of these. The number of learnings style inventories alone ought to be a matter a concern for us. It is clear that they can't be all right. Moreover Coffield et al identified a lack of independent evidence for any of these.

Additionally, identifying yourself or another person as a particular sort of learner can be very self-limiting. If you take on an identity that you are a certain type of learner you start to believe that you are unable to learn in any other way. If we label ourselves and others as having a particular learning style, then we are really limiting the possibilities of what we might be able to learn.

The Coffield report runs to 182 pages, but Paul Penn's three minute video provides a short overview of the key issues (contains mild swearing).


Coffield, F. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.

Creative commons:
Creative Commons Licence
The problem with learning styles by John Canning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at

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Remote teaching: articulating the nature of the problem Part 2

The limits of technical solutions.

Technical solutions can only be part of the response to any problem, however well-articulated. For example suppose a doctor sees a patient and comes to the conclusion that they have condition X. According to all the theoretical research known to the doctor, treatment A is the best way to treat condition X. In practice things are much more complicated. The doctor knows from their patient’s history that this patient also has condition B which is being treated with Treatment Y, and condition C which is treated with Treatment Z. From a combination of research and first-hand experience the doctor knows that Condition A and Condition B often occur together. However, while Condition C is unrelated, but treatment Z prevents treatment X from working. In other words the doctor the is having to make a lot of judgements about the best way to proceed – they may not may not be able to articulate the decision making process (which may take place over a period of minutes rather than hours), but this process is taking place in the doctor’s mind before a way forward to recommended. Moreover, even after this process has occurred the process may be repeated or revised in the future, perhaps in response to changes (or lack of changes) in the patient’s condition.

So while outlining the issue or problem any proposed ‘solution’ requires further scrutiny.

For example at the University of Brighton (in common with most other institutions of higher learning) we have done the following:

  1. We are using online software such as MS Teams to teaching our classes.
  2. We have developed alternative assessments.
  3. We have expanded our range of e-learning materials and e-books
  4. We have made a wider range of software available for home use.

Are these solutions to the current challenges facing us at the present time? In some ways, yes, they are.

  • There is a problem what we can’t teach our classes – the solution is to offer MS Teams to communicate with our students and teach our classes.
  • Students can’t do the originally intended assessment – the solution is to offer an alternative.

However, these technical solutions have important limitations. Aside from the different personal challenges and circumstances facing teachers and students er, these are tools which can be used well or even misused. Are these adequate replacements for our normal practice, inadequate replacements, or better than our normal practice? If they are less than adequate are there better solutions in view of the current circumstances? If these are better than our previous practice, then clearly we need to change our current practice.

Disciplinary examples of articulating problems with remote teaching

There are some examples of teaching practice which are very firmly established as needing to take place in a face-to-face environment. For it is established practice that recent graduates in Art and Design related subjects display their work at an end of course show -- these shows will not be taking place this year, at least not in the their usual forms.  This is not my subject area, but I will offer a few thoughts.

If this is something you are thinking about or regard as the central problem you are facing, think about how you might dissect the problem. You can usefully go back to first principles about why such events take place at all. In this internet age why can’t students just upload photographs of their creative works to a website?

  1. What is the purpose of an end of year show?
    1. Displaying art works to the public.
    2. Employability?
    3. Learning from the processes of displaying work and organising a show.
  2. Is the end of course show a cultural rite of passage?
  3. How do we you articulate the importance of seeing an artefact in person as opposed to seeing a photograph of it online? What is gained by face-to-face engagement with an artefact (or what is lost online). How might these advantages be replicated in an online environment?
  4. We might also think about the embodied experience of viewing art. The appreciation of size and large and small details.

Another such environment is a science laboratory.  Along with clinical environments this a physical learning environment which is not easily replicable (with good reasons) in the home. In a recent blog post Ngumbi and Lovett reference the muscle memory, and the 3D nature of science experiments- to what extent is it possible to replicate these experiences in an online environment?

References/ further reading

Marshalsey, Lorraine. 2020. The preliminary successes and drawbacks of a turn to distance design studio learning.

Ngumbi, Esther, and Brian Lovett. 2020. "The Magic of Teaching Science Labs Isn't Lost Online." Wired.

Schön, Donald A. 1991. The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action. Aldershot: Ashgate.

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Remote teaching: articulating the nature of the problem Part 1

Due to the current COVID-19 situation I have offered an alternative assessment for participants on my Level 7 Educational Enquiry module. I thought I would share an adapted version of some of the work I have produced in providing guidance for this alternative assessment.

This first section draws on the reflective practice of Donald Schön.

Donald Schön, observes that in normal circumstances practice can be become repetitive and routine. This often means that we don’t really think about what we are doing. A disruptive experience such as COVID-19 provides a good opportunity to not only think about what we are currently having to do in these exceptional times but also what we have been doing previously and what we might be doing then things return to ‘normal’. With reference to the practice of medicine Schön states that 85% of ‘real-life’ practice is not in the ‘book’. In other words there is much we do in our professional practice as an expert in our subject (and as a teacher) that is very difficult to articulate. This is sometimes referred to as tacit knowledge. Much of this difficult to articulate knowledge comes in the form of very minor adjustments.

For example you might take a look this short You Tube video in which (now retired) rugby player Jonny Wilkinson provides some guidance on how to kick a goal in rugby. He talks about putting the ball onto the tee, the angle at which to place the ball (which is important as the ball is oval rather than a sphere like most balls) the which part of the foot you should use when kicking the ball and where exactly to strike the ball. So even in this two-minute instructional video there are multiple factors to consider.

We can watch this video and may find it very helpful. We might think we have grasped some of the theory well, but we don’t really know how well until we take our rugby ball out to park and try to put it into practice.

However, that is not the end as there are lots of further complications in practice. Some of these are fairly easy to identify for a casual fan of the sport. For example, how might the wind affect your practice of kicking? Also in rugby, you will be taking kicks a minute or so after you have been running around and getting bashed about playing rugby so you may be tired or injured. Rugby kicking also involves different angles, and then there’s the effect of the spectators who may be wanting to put you off.

However, while I as non-expert can identify further factors that need to be considered that even an expert like Jonny Wilkinson may find it difficult to articulate fully. Schön references baseball pitchers, but whatever sport we choose the sportsperson will be making a lot of very minor adjustments to respond to the complexity of the situation. Maybe there are situations where Jonny Wilkinson might use a slightly different part of his foot or strike a slightly different part of the ball. He may or not be able to articulate exactly what these minor adjustments are.

Donald A Schön (1984) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action. New York: Basic Books

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Facilitating reflection (a follow up from my previous post)

Following my post ‘COVID-19 and meaningful reflective practice’ two days ago, my colleague Pauline Ridley referred me to an interesting 2013 piece by John Cowan. Cowan notes that there are surprising few detailed accounted of how facilitators/ teachers support the and promote reflective practice. On one hand I am quite surprised by this given the widespread use of reflection in many disciplines/ professions (especially health sciences and education); however, I have been working in education long enough to know that just because a practice is common (and perhaps very good) and widely promoted does not mean that it has been researched and debated in the scholarly literature.

The role of the facilitator

Some interesting points Cowan makes about the role of the facilitator (not instructor/ tutor) of reflective practice are worth picking out.

1. “Often they may already have known me previously as an active instructor. But past relationships should be set aside when the facilitated reflection begins.” (p. 4) Therefore to be an effective facilitator Cowan needs to disregard his previous relationships and opinions of the student and his prior assessment of their abilities.

2. “… we simply grow into knowing each other” (p.4). The relationship between facilitator and student develops naturally.

3. It is useful to reflect on both ‘reflection-for-action’ (future) and ‘reflection-on-action’ (past) (p.5)

4. The person reflecting must set relevant questions to which they do not know the answer (or only know the answer in part) (p.6).

5. The facilitator and writer are frank with each other. A trusting relationship needs to be established.

6. Students should be encouraged to write about their feelings – some reflection is little more than a set of facts (though see comment below on inappropriate reflections).

7. Those reflecting should state their assumptions. Those facilitating should encourage students to state what assumptions they might be making.

Other considerations

Cowan writes of ‘inappropriate reflections’ (p.10) which go outside the boundaries of the reflection, e.g. talking about friendships or depression. This is particularly challenging at this time of lockdown where our professional practice exists alongside family life and personal circumstances in way we have not know before.

He also addresses issues of confidentiality and privacy and their relationship with professional practice. “… privacy may be valid in the case of a personal diary. But the journaling which I facilitate is explicitly and formatively concerned with the development of abilities which are professional priorities for the journal writer and intended learning outcomes for the course team”. (p.10). He firmly puts reflection into a different category of private diary.


Cowan, J. (2013) Facilitating reflective journaling – personal reflections on three decades of practice. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, Issue 5. Available at (open access).

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COVID-19 and meaningful reflective practice

I could give a lot of time to writing about the current COVID-19 pandemic, the closure of universities and the move to ‘remote’ learning. I fully expect COVID-19 to spawn its own pandemic of reflective (or not so reflective) type narratives from academics. In fact, I am actually developing an assignment along these lines as a replacement to an assignment it may not be possible for my own students to complete.

In the process of putting together a reading list I came across this article by Janet Hargreaves in Nurse Education Today (2004). She concludes that “the imperative to do well academically discourages students from engaging in honest and open reflection.”

The consequence of this, according to Hargreaves, means that there just three legitimate forms of reflective practice, none of which represent reflective practice that might meaningfully improve actual practice.

1. Valedictory narratives. I am the hero of this piece. I recognised the crisis and got on with solving the problem. Everyone was very happy about this. My students were very happy with alternative assignments and the VLE I developed during the COVID-19 crisis. I was a great inspiration to my colleagues. In the film version there would be some sort of crusty Lex Luther-like villain trying to impede my progress.

2. Condemnatory narratives. In this one I am the guilty party (along with everyone else). COVID-19 was a real opportunity to enhance online learning. It showed that everyone was able able to teach remotely. I learned a lot of new skills. But the minute it was over we all went back to our old ways as if nothing had happened. O, that we would have repented of our former ways. The film version might be a good project for Ken Loach.

3. Redemptive narrative. I am a cynic who despises the idea of teaching online. I regard anything other than unseen exams as the dumbing-down of the curriculum. Yet thanks to COVID-19 I see the light. Like Captain von Trappe in the Sound of Music or George Banks in Mary Poppins I go from a miserable reactionary to the enlightened convert –that which I once resisted I now embrace wholeheartedly.

We are starting to see various narratives emerging already and I suspect this crisis will lead to thousands of academic articles. Not all of these will be in the reflective practice genre, and I suspect that we will see a lot of valedictory pieces in the next couple of years. Perhaps I might be the author of some of these.

Hargreaves is right to have reservations about the assessment of such pieces for students and she offers further thoughts about this in her article. Pure honesty is difficult for students as it likes outside these three ‘legitimate’ narratives. It is also difficult, perhaps more so for those wishing to put their reflections into the public domain – in my private reflections I might wish to assess and evaluate the responses of those around me, my family, my colleagues, others in my professional community. My own students (who are on the PGCert in Learning and Teaching in HE) may also wish to share honestly what they think of my behaviours and I cannot guarantee they will be kind to me. Another key danger in a time of crisis or conflict is falling foul of one of Krister Stendahl’s three rules of religious understanding ‘Don’t compare your best to their worst’. If we are honest we are all to apt to do this, and it takes a truly reflective practitioner not to fall into this trap.

I will try to keep some reflection going on this blog over the coming months considering the points Hargreaves makes.


Janet Hargreaves (2004) So how do you feel about that? Assessing reflective practice. Nurse Education Today 24(3), pp. 196-201

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