Active vs. passive voice — How to tell the difference

March 19, 2014

My students have been struggling with using active voice in their writing. For some reason, they have learned along the way that passive voice sounds more “grown up” or academic.

This may have been true at one time, but in the 21st century, using active voice in academic research writing is not only appropriate, it is preferable, at least if you follow APA Style (6th edition, p. 77). 

Students who never learned grammar struggle to identify the difference between passive and active voice.

One way to figure out if it is passive or active voice is to ask “Who dunnit?” In passive voice, it is a mystery. We never know who did the action.

In active voice, there’s no mystery. The person, people, animal(s) or things that did the action are always identifiable.

For example:

Example #1: “The man was murdered.”

Question: By whom? (“Who dunnit”?)

Answer: We have no idea. (Mystery).

Voice: Passive.

Compare this to:

Example #2: “Professor Moriarty murdered the man.”

Question: Who dunnit?”

Answer: Professor Moriarty. (No mystery here. The sentence makes it clear.)

Voice: Active.

Sometimes, using the passive voice can be construed as sounding snotty or superior. An example would be, “If you would clean up your messy desk, it would be appreciated.”

Who would appreciate it, exactly?

When I hear the passive voice used in this way, it drives me up the wall. If I don’t know who’s going to appreciate the effort I would go to, what motivation do I have to invest my time and energy into cleaning up the desk?

A kinder, gentler way to say the same thing is, “I would really appreciate it if you would clean up your desk. We have company coming over and I know they’re going to want a tour of the house. Would take a few minutes to tidy up your work area, please?”

Suddenly, I feel motivated to clean the desk. I know who appreciates it and I know why I am being asked. Let the tidying begin!

An example I see frequently from students is, “It is appreciated”, or some variation thereof. An example is, “Dear Dr. Eaton, if you would read over my draft and give me some feedback, it would be greatly appreciated.”

Sounds a bit snotty, don’t you think?

I am often tempted to reply, “Who would appreciate it, exactly?”

In case you’re wondering, I have never actually replied in this way. I simply agree to review their draft. I understand that what they really mean when they use the passive voice in this way is “I appreciate it” or “I would appreciate it.” I can see they are trying to be polite and professional and that matters. But really, if you appreciate something, you can just say it!

Using the active voice makes your meaning clear. You are communicating in a more straight forward way and you sound more confident.

When you use the active voice, your reader appreciates it very much.

Reference:

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. (2010).  (Sixth ed.). Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association.

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Tutoring scam targets teachers

March 12, 2014

This morning I received an e-mail from a man calling himself “Michael”. The man claimed to want to hire me to tutor his son.

I haven’t done tutoring for about 20 years, so I was both skeptical and fascinated. As I read the e-mail, I realized that it was a new twist on an old scam.

The e-mail promises to pay me whatever rate I want for 12 tutoring sessions. It also says that I can choose the dates, time and location of the session.

Well, that raises some red flags right there. Unless things have changed a whole lot in the past 20 years, most parents want to talk about the pay rate and also want a conversation about the scheduling for the tutoring. In my experience, parents want to know as much (if not more) about me, as I do about their child. They want to know if I am trustworthy and that my home is a safe place.

In my (dated) experience, more often than not, parents want the tutor to go to their home, not the other way around. Unless there’s a really good reason why you, as the tutor, can’t go to the child’s house to offer the lesson (as in, it’s tough to schlep around your piano from house to house), many parents are willing to pay a bit more to avoid the hassle of driving. Besides, they can keep an eye on their child (and you) while they have some much-needed time to do other things at home. There’s something fishy about this e-mail…

The message then goes on to say that I should send the writer the following information:

  • My full name
  • My home address
  • My home phone number
  • My mobile phone number

By now, the metaphorical red lights should be going off in your head, along with an inside voice (using a megaphone) screaming, “Scam alert!”

Here is a copy of the e-mail:

_______

Hello,

    I’m Michael, During my search for a lesson teacher that would help in taking my son (Kenneth). During is stay in USA. I found your advert and it is very okay to me since you specialize in the area I’m seeking for him. My son would be coming to your city before the end of this month for a period of time with his friend,

  I’ll like to know if you can help in taking him for the lesson? just to keep him busy. Kenneth is 14 years old, So kindly let me know your charges cost per hour/lesson in order for me to arrange for his payment before he travels down to your side.

 He will be staying there for one months.

Please Reply back on:

 (1). Your charges per 1 hour (3 times a week for 1 Month):starting from 17th March until 17th April 2014

 (2)  Total Cost For 12 class/12 hours lessons  in 1 month

 (3). The Day and time you will be available to teach him During the week:

  Well am very happy that i see you as my Son tutor,about your years of Experience there is no problem about the lessons,my caregiver lives very close to the Area.

 So there is no problem for the lesson OK my caregiver will be bringing him to your location for the lessons and you can teach my him Anywhere around you if that is OK by you so i will like you to teach my Son the best of you when he get to the USA for the lessons.

 I will like you to email me with your schedule for the lessons, I will like you to email me with the name on the check and Full mailing address where the check will be mailed to and including your Home and Cell phone number because my attorney that want to issue out the check is leaving the State by this week okay and also Kenneth is a beginner lessons learning, Await  your response asap.

  Also the lessons will commence by 17th March until 17th April 2014  is this okay by you?

I will be awaiting to read from you.

Best Wishes,

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Teacher scam

As with many scam e-mails, the grammar is terrible and the content is generic. There’s no mention of what subject I might tutor. The writer also talks about an attorney who would manage the transaction. That always makes things sound legit, right? Oh, and the writer assumes I live in the U.S., too.

A while ago I posted a blog about the life of a contract teacher and why it is important to feel a sense of empowerment over your career, even if it does not follow a traditional path. There are hundreds of thousands of us around the globe who work in the education field, but who don’t have a full-time job with a pension or health benefits. Personally, I am more productive when I have high levels of flexibility and variety in my work and I enjoy my work as an independent education professional. But not everyone feels that way.

In general, it’s fair to say that teachers are smart people who care deeply about their students’ well-being. But they are also human beings with mortgages other bills to pay for. There are more and more trained and qualified educators who don’t work in the sector at all because they can’t find a job of any kind. So instead they work in coffee shops, run day homes or work in retail, just to pay the bills.

The chance to work in their beloved field of education by tutoring the child of a rich foreigner right in your own home sounds seductive. When you add to that the almost unbelievable terms that you set the time, location and rate of pay, it makes it seem almost irresistible.

Most would do anything to work in their chosen profession. 

Well… almost anything.

Don’t be fooled, folks. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Sadly, this is the second such financial scam I’ve seen directed towards educators in the past year. I wrote about the first one, here.

These financial scams are a sign of the times, as more qualified educators become part of the unemployed and (largely hidden) under-employed categories of workers.

Stay smart, teachers.

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How many sources do you need in a literature review?

February 19, 2014

Students often ask me how many sources they need in their literature review. The short answer is, “It depends.” It depends on your topic, the nature of your research project, your level of scholarship, and a number of other factors.

An article from Canberra University (http://www.canberra.edu.au/studyskills/writing/literature) suggests:

  • Undergraduate review: 5-20 titles depending on level
  • Honours dissertation: 20+ titles
  • Master’s thesis: 40+ titles
  • Doctoral thesis: 50+ titles

Another strategy I learned somewhere along the way that I now share with my students is this:

If your literature review is one section of a larger research paper, thesis or dissertation

 Minimum number of sources = number of pages in the body of your entire paper (exclusive of title page, abstract, appendices and references)

Example: A paper that has 10 pages of content (the body of the paper) needs at least 10 sources in its literature review. 

A thesis of 100 pages (in the body) includes at least 100 sources.

If your literature review is a stand-alone document

Minimum number of sources =  3 times the number of pages in the body of your paper (exclusive of title page, abstract, appendices and references)

Example: A stand-alone literature review that has 10 pages of content (the body of the paper) should examine at least 30 sources.

These are not hard and fast rules by any means. Also, it is worth mentioning that as students and scholars who care about the quality of our work, we want to aim to raise the bar, not simply meet a minimum suggested standard. What these guidelines are suggesting is that you don’t aim for any less. If you do, your search for relevant literature in your field may be incomplete and you need to keep digging. Of course, your sources have to be relevant to your topic, too.

Not every scholar or academic supervisor would agree with the guidelines I offer here, criticizing them as being too reductionist or simplistic. My point isn’t to offer a black and white rule or open theoretical debate for which there can be no clear solution, but rather to offer a straight forward and practical answer to a question that academics often respond to in an ambiguous way, leaving students frustrated, exasperated and anxious about how to go conduct their literature review. 

When in doubt, talk with your own instructor or supervisor, asking them what their expectations are. (Don’t be surprised though, if you get an answer that is vague, like, “It depends…”)

Remember: Aim for quality over quality… and to do a quality literature review, you need to have a substantive quantity of sources.

Here are some of my favourite resources to help you write your literature review:

University of Toronto – http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/specific-types-of-writing/literature-review

U Conn – http://classguides.lib.uconn.edu/content.php?pid=239974&sid=1980274

University of Leicester –  http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/writing/writing-resources/literature-review

Queensland Univeristy of Technology – http://www.citewrite.qut.edu.au/write/litreview.jsp

Birmingham City University – http://library.bcu.ac.uk/learner/writingguides/1.04.htm

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Related posts: Why APA formatting matters http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Hc

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A new kind of Loyalist: “Public” ESL education takes on a whole new twist in Canada

February 18, 2014

For more than a decade I have been fascinated by the links between English as a Second Language (ESL) programs and business. Public school boards, private schools and post-secondary institutions use ESL programs to generate revenue for their organizations. This topic fascinated me so much, I wrote my Ph.D. research on it.

In education, we don’t call the money generated by fee-paying ESL students “profit”. That word is pretty much a profanity in the social sectors. But essentially, that’s what it is. The revenue generated from ESL programs comes in to institutions mostly as unrestricted money. That means that the organization can direct the funds wherever they see fit. They can’t dole it out to shareholders, because there are none… but they can use it for salaries, renovations, perks or whatever they want.

I’ve never thought that was a particularly bad thing — providing that students get a quality educational experience and institutions don’t make promises they can’t keep.

Private ESL schools have often been regarded as shady or disreputable, precisely because they generate profit. They can use that profit however they want.

In Canada, it’s really getting interesting. A company called Loyalist Group Ltd. has created a public company that buys up ESL and college prep schools. They own schools in Vancouver, Toronto and Victoria. Unlike other, private schools, this business is public. That means that they trade on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX). The average joe can buy stocks in the company — and share in the profits.

A few days ago, Loyalist Group Ltd. was named to the TSX Venture 50. That’s a list of some of Canada’s strongest and most promising public companies. It’s a major coup for an educational company to be named to this list. And Loyalist has done it for the second year in a row. 

What we call “public education” is paid for through our tax dollars. We trust the government to administer those dollars in a wise and honest way.

Interestingly, one of the findings of my Ph.D. research was that when it comes to ESL programs in public education and universities — at least in Canada — there’s often a reporting loophole. Public educational institutions never have to explicitly disclose how much revenue they generate specifically from their ESL programs, what their enrolments (essentially their “sales”) are, or how well they do from one year to the next. That information is kept tightly under wraps and never disclosed publicly. I tried in vain to get revenue reporting results from numerous ESL programs during my Ph.D. research. Doors quietly closed and conversations ended. Ultimately, I had to re-design my entire study so I considered factors other than revenue. Getting my hands on financial data was impossible. Why? Because ESL programs at public institutions are under no obligation to report their financial information to anyone.  ESL programs fall through the reporting cracks, while generating millions (or even tens of millions) for public institutions…

Public education companies, on the other hand, could never get away with that. They’ll report their earnings and spread their success among their shareholders. If they’re not successful, they’ll fail. Success in education is based on outcomes and results. 

But there’s a new form of “public” education on the block and it is not to be ignored. Educational companies that are publicly traded on the stock market are drastically different from private companies. Public companies are obliged to share financial information with shareholders and investors. The accountability to the people who choose to put their dollars into the company is significant. Shareholders can ask questions — and demand answers. If their students are not happy or successful, they’ll leave. Sales will drop and they’ll close their doors. Their very existence depends on their students’ success.

Private educational companies never have to disclose details of their operations or finances. That should make us skeptical.

But public companies put it all out there for anyone to look at, scrutinize and ultimately judge. That’s a good thing. When it comes to ESL, it’s more transparent than what we see in public institutions. The very nature of accountability and reporting in education in Canada is changing… It’s strange, but true that when it comes to ESL, publicly traded companies like Loyalist Group Ltd may turn out to be more transparent, more accountable and more responsive to questioning from outsiders than some “public” institutions.

If you’re an ethical investor who values education, keep your eye on Loyalist Group Ltd. They may be the first of their kind in Canada, but they probably won’t be the only one… at least not for long.

Disclosure: Do I own shares in Loyalist Group Ltd.? Just a few. And I’ll be buying more soon.

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Why APA formatting matters

January 15, 2014

Imagine you are buying a new home. You tour around a number of properties. You see one that is messy, distasteful and uninviting. The sales agent says, “Oh, don’t worry, the foundation is strong!” The trained eye may be able to see past the bad presentation, but it takes a lot of mental energy to get past it.

Now imagine you are taken into a home that is clean, neat and perfectly staged. You immediately feel welcome. You are instantly engaged psychologically and emotionally. You want to see more.

APA formatting is to research papers what presenting a clean, neat and well presented home is to selling a property.

Your prof may be able to look past a messy presentation, but it takes more mental energy. You want to be able to say, “Oh, but the foundation of the work is just fine!”  and you want that be enough.

Well, it’s not enough. It sends a message that you don’t care about presentation. You send a message that you don’t give a flying leap that your work is less appealing to read. You may be brilliant, but if the essence of what you show to others messy and disorganized,  it’s less inviting to enter your world and spend time there. Sometimes, students insist that APA formatting inhibits their creativity or individuality. My reply to that is, fine, go be as bizarre and unique as you like in your own writing space — your blog, your journal or whatever.

There’s an element of persuasion involved in writing a research paper. I won’t say sales, because that will undoubtedly offend some of you. But let’s face it. You are trying to “pitch” your ideas. Follow standard practices for presentation and your work is likely to be accepted a whole lot faster than if you insist on doing it your own way. When you are writing a research paper you are trying to persuade someone to read it, like it and possibly judge its value (e.g. accept it for publication or award a grade for it). 

Sometimes I find that drawing comparisons between reality TV and academia helps students make sense the expectations of life in higher education. Over the past few months, I’ve been watching Income Property. I don’t own any income properties and I probably never will, but I find the show fascinating. I see patterns in how projects are completed so they consistently meet the objectives.

Host Scott McGillivray helps home owners turn unfinished or unacceptable suites into beautiful rental properties. He and his crew completely renovate the space. They focus on doing excellent quality construction, electrical and plumbing work that is up to code. The work is inspected and they get feedback from city officials and inspectors before they start working on the finishes.

To me, that’s the the content of research. It needs to be solid, high quality and done well. Getting feedback along the way is important, too.

Once they get the necessary approvals that the job has been done right, they move on to the finishes. They pay attention to the details and ensure the look of the place is consistent with sound design principles that are timeless and impressive. After watching a few episodes of Income Property I noticed that they use very similar approaches for each project.

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/670220That’s the presentation of the work. The design principles are outlined by APA, MLA or whatever style guide you use. The format is timeless and paying attention to the details makes it impressive. They follow presentation design principles systematically. Each project is unique, yet they follow standards in a consistent way. It’s almost like there’s a template and yet, every project is individual.

McGillivray consistently points out that doing the construction work properly is non-negotiable. Just like doing good quality research is non-negotiable.

But what gets people to say, “Wow, this is impressive!” are the finishes. Following accepted practices for presentation (which might be interior design for a house, or formatting for a paper) and paying attention to the details are what makes you stand out and be impressive.

For an exemplary end product you need both: quality construction and beautiful finishes. If you have only done only one or the other, you are being sloppy. To do the job right, you need solid construction and a beautiful presentation.

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If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

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“Math Wrath”: Are parents pushing for a return to tradition?

January 13, 2014

Recently, Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, published, “Math wrath: Parents and teachers demanding a return to basic skills.” The article talks about a movement by some Canadian educators and parents to put greater emphasis on developing concrete math skills such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division and less focus on discovery and creative strategies.

I find myself fascinated by this debate. I have long wondered about “creative strategies” in education. At the very beginning of my teaching career I took the Gregorc learning styles test. I came out perfectly balanced between all four quadrants: concrete, abstract, random and sequential. Apparently, that’s not particularly common. What it means though is that I can see and appreciate a variety of different learning styles.

Over the past 20 years or so (about the length of my teaching career), I have noted a distinct shift away from concrete sequential learning. Order, logic, learning to follow directions and getting facts seem to have diminished in value, while experimentation, risk taking, using intuition, problem-solving, learning to work in teams and focusing on this issues at hand all seem to fit with the creative learning strategies that have become popular in recent decades.

There has been a notable shift away from valuing sequential learning, structure, learning to follow precise directions and memorizing. In decades past, educational structures and systems may have favoured the concrete sequential learner. Today’s educational systems favour a more random or exploratory approach.

The debate has become almost vicious in some educational circles. Those who favor teaching methods that are concrete and sequential have been poo-poo’ed or dismissed by colleagues who insist vehemently on the random nouveau. I have known colleagues who have been quietly yet unapologetically exited from their teaching jobs because they continue to insist that their students follow directions, do activities in a particular order or memorize.

I worry a bit about the defiant horror expressed by some educational experts and parents at the idea of memorizing. While I agree that rote learning may not employ the highest levels of our cognition, memorization has its place. Learning to say, “Please” and “Thank you” are largely memorized behaviours. Learning to stop at a red light and drive on a green light is also a memorized response. Memorizing how to do CPR could save someone’s life.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I believe that we need to go back to the days of corporal punishment for an incorrect answer based on memorization. What has always puzzled me though, is how quickly methodological fashions change in education. When a new way of learning or teaching is introduced, old ways seem to be immediately, unequivocally and vehemently dismissed. Really good teachers whose background are more traditional than fashionable are thrown out along with their teaching methods.

Do we need to take a step back and look at models that integrate and value a variety of approaches? Would it be wise to hesitate… just a little bit… before we denounce traditional methods as being heinous and abhorrent, with only newer and more fashionable ones as being worthy?

I wonder if the obsessive focus on creativity, exploration and problem-solving might be doing some harm that we can not yet predict? Perhaps a small dose of memorization, learning to follow specific directions and learning systematically might be helpful?

Personally, I give both children and adults more credit than some educators or policy makers who insist on a singular approach to learning, regardless of whether it is systematic memorization or exploratory problem-solving. Being the utterly complex and capable creatures humans are, surely we can cope with both memorization and developing creativity simultaneously?

It’s the drastic swings of the policy pendulum that should worry us. The unflinching insistence that exploratory methods are the only legitimate or credible ways of learning should make us nervous. Polarized and uncompromising opinions on the singular “best” way to learn should be considered suspect.

There is almost always more than one “right” way to learn.

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Understanding apathy

January 9, 2014

Students stop attending classes. Staff members will do anything to avoid a departmental meeting. Voters don’t go to the polls.

Apathy and disengagement abound. For leaders and change agents, figuring out the root causes can morph into an obsession, but “why?” is the wrong question to ask. Chances are, you’ll never find out why. If you ask, you may get an answer that you know is not really true.

Why did you stop attending class? May result in a head hung low and a sheepish, “I dunno…”

Why did you stop attending meetings? May result in a superficial smile and a politically correct, “I’m so sorry… I’m just so busy right now…”

Why don’t you vote? May result in a shrug of the shoulders and a deflated counter-question, “What difference does one vote make anyway?”

Asking people why they have become disengaged or disenchanted rarely results in a useful answer. It takes too much mental energy to think through the answer. Or if the person already knows the answer, it takes too much emotional energy to share it. The probability of confrontation is high. It’s too risky.

To avoid confrontation, those who have abandoned a project, process or commitment may share a polite answer that allows them to sidestep the real issue, or they may shrug it off entirely.

If you really want to understand the reasons someone has become disenchanted, sit down with them, face-to-face, and ask a different question: How do we make it better?

Surveys and e-mails are not an effective way to ask this question. They are impersonal. Quick. Efficient. And ultimately, they send a message that you want something (information), but you’re not willing to invest anything (effort).

If you want insight, you need to be willing to invest effort. If you want depth of insight, be wiling to add a personal touch that is genuine and sincere. Book a lunch (and then pay for it). Invite the person over for coffee (without asking the invitee to bring anything).

Show that you are willing to give in order to get… and do so without expectation. The disenchanted may be guarded, unwilling to take risks or afraid of consequences if they are honest. If you want their input, you need to extend the offer first. Be generous and establish an environment of personal trust and social (or professional) safety. There should be no punishment for sharing viewpoints, opinions or feelings.

When you ask “How do we make it better?” you allow the other to share without the risk of punishment or confrontation. You may never get that person back, but you can figure out what happened so you can improve for those who follow in their footsteps.

Ask, “How do we improve?” Then, shut up and listen.

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